The Ethics of the Present
Nothing can make us be the past: it is only a spectacle before us which is there for us to question. As the questions come from us, the answers in principle cannot exhaust historical reality, since it does not depend on them for existence. (Merleau-Ponty 1973:10 ).
This ‘strange object which is ourselves’ is at once a scientific object – History ‘proper’ as a discourse and as a study – and also an objectification – a shifting ground lensed through ideology or even personal memory. We as present-day human beings can object to it, and in the ‘confrontation with the tradition’ this is in fact our collective duty, and yet we are, as Marx famously noted, subject to it. We do ‘make our own history’, and yet not entirely as we choose. Increasingly, so it appears, we often find ourselves unable to raise a metaphoric finger against the ‘forces of history’, since the present is, in this sense, only the sum total of the weight of effects which emanate yet from what was supposed to be ‘only’ the past. If we do not take the present to be either presence in the immanential sense of being-there and just there, just now, or as the presenting of the moment as some kind of disconnected exclamation of Being-present, then the present as the ongoingness of history does indeed carry all of this said weight around within it and about it. History is ourselves precisely for the reason that we ourselves are nothing other than our own respective histories, and History but a Gestalt of a gestalt.
To think through the veil of history is part of the confrontation with what we can know of the tradition, what has come before us and yet remains within us; the unthought aspect of selfhood and at the same time also the temporally conscious sense of thrownness. This ‘veil’ is present both by the fact that much of actual human history remains unknown, and a portion of that – just so, we also do not know which proportion – forever unknowable. And it is a justifiable shock to realize how recent this other portion reaches. Lost films are a simple case in point. Much of the cinematic archive has been destroyed, irreplaceably, mainly because of the material upon which it was first recorded. In 1917, for example, an important suffragette documentary entitled ‘Birth Control’, by Margaret Sanger, was censored and banned before general release, given its then radical contention that woman must have complete control over their reproductive rights in order for them to take their place as fully human beings, both politically and existentially. No copies of this film are known to exist today; it is categorized as a ‘lost’ film. What is also lost for us is the ability to gauge the amount of maturity we have gained with regard to such a question in the intervening century. Sometimes, it seems, not much. In many regions, even within modern states, women’s reproductive rights are questioned, limited, stigmatized, denuded or co-opted. We have already noted that bio-power is certainly a factor. But the rationalizations given forth in the effort to continue to subject women to external control, and object to women’s bodies as inherently uncontrollable, rest only in a past which has yet to be fully confronted.
Hence the great import of doing just that. We must first maintain the distinction between the ideal types analytic brought to the fore by Weber and the sense that we have living ideals, the way we would live if we could, the ‘blue sky’ of corporate forecasting, the everyday Nirvana of the ‘perfect family’ or the ‘well-adjusted child’ etc.. In Weber’s methodology, an ideal type is a non-historical model, constructed from aspects of real world cases that betray a pattern. Ideal types are not so much simulacra nor even reifications, but tend more to being expressions of the human desire to attain absolutes. Indeed, Weber’s Wertrationales Handeln – ‘rational action directed to an absolute value’ – speaks clearly of this orientation. The study of history as History also has this tendency, since, as Merleau-Ponty noted, it is we who are asking the questions of ourselves. The fact that we have progressed to the point of understanding this relation is a noteworthy first step and also a recent one, beginning with Vico in 1725. If we have kept close to our hearts the sense that we can live in an ‘ideal’ way, or even that there should be ideals at all – in James, of course, we have the ‘saint’ as a standard by which the rest of us could judge our own behaviors – it is due to the concurrent human situatedness of being perennially finite and increasingly discrete, the living equivalent of a Gaussian curve, perhaps. Beneath the center of such a distribution live the ideals of the day to day, those whose normative sensibilities and aspirations betray nothing of the larger historical apparatus around which we are encompassed, but also through which we can clamber up to the top for another point of view, a vista which would remain unknown to us if we did not first learn about the scaffolding underpinning it. The casual expression, ‘standing on the shoulders of history’, speaks not only to the sense that what is holding us up is not only not part of we ourselves, though we might mimic it in microcosm, but is also greater than ourselves. So much greater, in fact, that we must again confront the fact that much of it, perhaps most of it, will remain unknowable.
But not unthinkable. This is the second distinction we must keep in mind, that between what cannot ever be known and that which, in spite of its mysterious or partial quality, can yet be imagined and thence thought through. What we need to avoid is the pitfall of all ideal types analysis, and that is the disconnect it makes between the pattern and the case, the model and the lived time of this or that social reality. Idealism in general is suggestive of this disconnect, and even if the superordinate benefit it brings to the analytic mindset is that of abstracted depth, leitmotif, deep structure or grammar, archiphonemic apse, or phenomenological ground, the ‘intuition of essence’, or even ‘simple’ ontology, its corresponding weakness includes a departure from lived time, and thus from Dasein itself. Abstraction in the study of history is also self-limiting in another manner: “In a word, we might say that it makes the specificity of ideological or religious organizations unthinkable. It transforms them into ‘representations’, or into ‘reflections’ of social structures. Put otherwise, it eliminates them as real factors of history: they become additions and secondary effects, precious only insofar as, through their transparency, they shed light on what instigated them.” (De Certeau 1988:119 , italics the text’s). As persons, we live in a specific manner which at once, even if it is not analyzed in any objective way – ‘common sense’ reality and that scientific are also disconnected from one another in both worldview and purpose – must remain thinkable for us, and not its opposite. Life, in another word, must be both doable and thinkable; it must be able to be lived, whatever its depths of misery or blisses of joy that happen to be contained within its pulsing embrace, and what is bracketed or put to the side as ‘secondary’ or ‘additional’ is the very opposite of what ideal types analysis dockets and transcends.
We are given to placing aside abstraction in day to day life not because we do not aspire to philosophy or because we might imagine ‘thought’, or yet the history of thought or consciousness, to be somehow beyond us, but rather because we already know what either needs to be known to do something, or we know where to look to find out. It is not the paucity of the intellect in the mundane sphere that limits human action, it is instead the list of questions that are liable to be asked. It is in the vested and invested interest of social institutions to both manufacture such lists and limit them, sometimes stringently, in order to reproduce themselves, which is ultimately the absolute value of rational organizations as Weber has discussed. If it is the case that such values and the means to attain them in principle occupy radically different spaces – the usual analogy of choosing amongst a number of closed doors and passing through this or that one – characterizing rational action directed to a finite goal, or Zweckrationales Handeln – in contrast with the metaphor of the fixed point in the heavens which can direct my action but in fact cannot itself be attained – the ‘absoluteness’ of such a value may well contain its own absolution but this as well cannot be experienced by me – then it is equally the case that historical institutions that do in fact exist or did exist are possessed of an absolute that, in a brilliant if oft disingenuous maneuver, turns the firmament of values into means.
This is not a confrontation with tradition but rather a manipulation of it, but if we consider these two alternatives, it is clear that for social institutions, if the goal is simple reproduction and not even growth – this is characteristic of bureaucracies proper in Weber more so than say, mere for-profit companies, for instance, or ideologies over against religions, in general – manipulation is the correct choice. Not so for persons. For the individual, struck with having to both choose a door or two or three over the mortal cycle of one’s ability to so choose, and yet also being aware, even sometimes blinded by, that light hung up in the sky above, manipulating the light to show what is behind the door is clearly not an option. Instead, the groundwork for attaining different perspectives on the light from below is characteristic of our historical condition. It would appear at first, that any absolute value would forever be in the same relative position to its perceiver, but this is true only of unquestioning belief. Faith is shaken by perspective, knowledge amended, wisdom acquired. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the history that can be known is that the nature of the light itself alters over time, sometimes radically so.
Even so, there is another horizon that in our contemporary world situation both attracts and repels us. It contains the questions both addressing ‘why have a light at all?’ and ‘what if the light is my reflection, what if I myself am the light?” in the same way that we have come to know ourselves as the ‘strange object’ of history. The first question is that borne on the critiques of the enlightenment, the key differences between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the history of modern thought. In a sense, these two questions are obverses of the same post-deistic coin; one side heralds the successor figure, humanity, the other is simply blank. Perhaps we are to imagine crossing over from one to the other, for as Nietzsche proverbially remarks, with the death of god the death of Man becomes imminent. Or it may be that what human light there is in the world develops itself into a model for its own action, through ethics and reflection both. If we are our own light, and if this thence becomes our absolute value, then such a being must desist in imagining that this light shines more upon the one than the many, we more than they, or yet the meek more than the magnanimous. If the light is a mere reflection or refraction of Dasein’s action in the world – perhaps this is the reason why it appears to follow us around so closely, since we are always where we are in some basic sense – then it can still serve as an inspiration as well as a check to note if we are still amongst the living, still alive and making our own history within either the confines of a tradition not confronted or oblique to the past, the present as a parallax and not as a mere reproduction. If the absolute value of modernity is individual freedom, then it befalls to each of us our own confrontation with every ounce of that historical weight which tethers us yet beneath the light of the world as it is.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of forty-five books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.