…nietzshean metaphysics

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Written sometime in the 1870s, after meeting the composer Richard Wagner, and before the end of his professorship of philology in Basal in 1876, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks discloses the heritage of ancient Greek philosophy with the Presocratics: Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, then abruptly leaving the book unfinished with Anaxagoras.[1] Posthumously published (in 1962?) this book offers insight into Nietzsche’s thought and the beginning of Greek philosophy—the birth of Western philosophy. This post will only cover the opening segments of the book, alongside points highlighted in Marianne Cowen’s “Introduction,” followed by the metaphysical implications of Nietzsche’s reading of the Presocratic Thales of Miletus.

If we know anything, Nietzsche was a philologist, and the discipline of philology is one of interpretation and clarification of ancient texts and languages. The philologist has the responsibility of helping living generations understand ancient texts from generations long since gone. We cannot avoid seeing this activity reflected in Nietzsche’s philosophical context. The transition from tradition to rebellion is central to Nietzsche’s iconoclasm. The philosopher fixes the ancients to the present. If the Presocratics stood in stark contrast to the myth-bound culture of ancient Greece, than a philosopher for Nietzsche, is someone who breaks with tradition while remaining “timely.” Cowen emphasizes how Nietzsche recognized the bridging from the semi-worldly boundlessness of mythology to the bounded restraint of reason by the creativity of philosophy as it is blended with philology. The world of the Greek myths is challenged, and at the same time echoed by the earthly and elemental empiricism of the first philosopher Thales. Thales held that ‘water is the origin of all things.’ Nietzsche writes, “…Thales is a creative master who began to see into the depths of nature without the help of fantastic fable.” Here we have Nietzschean philosophical creativity, willful, radical and rooted in life whilst making untimely observations that serve to challenge the ordinary, the traditional.

After Nietzsche introduces Thales’ laconic proposition that the ‘origin of everything is water,’ Nietzsche qualifies three distinctions:

  1. “First, because it [Thales’ assertion that the origin of all things is water] tells something about the primal origin of all things;”
  2. “…second, because it does so in language devoid of image or fable,”
  3. “…and finally, because contained in it, if only embryonically, is the thought, ‘all things are one.’”[2]

With this tripartite qualification, we have a ready-made metaphysical lesson. Nietzsche’s first assertion has the metaphysical characteristic of looking into the origin of things, of all things. For Aristotle, who postdates Thales by approximately 165 years, considers this to be fundamental to the study of metaphysics—otherwise known as the science of first principles, the origin of things. To seek and study the origin of something is to determine what something is. To determine what something is, is ontological and originary. Thus, to claim that everything originates with water is plainly metaphysical.

On Nietzsche’s second assertion we have the distinction that Thales is using “language devoid of image or fable,” this has the metaphysical component of looking to the nature of ultimate reality (beyond the confines of mythic tradition). At the same time, the mythic tradition begins with the same metaphysical impulse to answer what is at the heart of reality?—what does reality consist of? In the case of myths, such metaphysical questions are answered by way of Zeus, et al. In the case of Thales the metaphysical question is answered with the first hypothesis of natural science: everything originates from water.

With Nietzsche’s last assertion we find another startlingly rich metaphysical foundation, “all things are one.” Whether all things partake of the one or the many is a Presocratic theme extending from Thales and beyond. Philosophy operates in vast generality and this tendency is metaphysical. We want to know how the parts of our specific lives contribute to the whole of the rest of the world, humanity, and the universe. To arrive at the conclusion that everything arises from water, is somewhat unscientific and this is what Thales shares with the mythic answers offered before him while breaking with tradition—he has the radically mythic audacity to claim that everything is water, we still recognize a general truth: water is real and essential to life on earth. Nietzsche’s untimely lesson is metaphysical philosophy, if all things are one, then all reality ancient and contemporary is unified in a proto-scientific way, we are one with the earth enlivened by water. Philosophy bridges the gap between the mythic transitioning into the strictness of empirical science.

If philology interprets the past for us in the present moment, then Nietzsche’s words are taken to heart. Thales was radical in his proposition that ‘the origin of everything is water.’ This is a step away from answering the question, what is everything’s origin with a God, an immortal person. For our usage, metaphysics is rendered secular to become empirical. Nietzsche indicates that philosophy is creative in its endeavors beyond science. Philosophy has the task of finding new insights, new techniques of thinking borrowed from the ancients exposing the overlooked in the everyday.

Aurelio Madrid

 

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, trans. Marianne Cowan (Washington, D.C., Regnery Publishing, Inc. 1998).

[2] Nietzsche, Philosophy…, 39.

…the philosophy of grief

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Hi Brandon,

I read Rachel Vorona Cote’s article before I replied with a few initial thoughts. She is a wonderful writer. I will use this in Ф of D&D class for its relevancy & accessibility.

…yes, this has a number of philosophical points to consider—namely the similarities & differences between an online ‘life’ vs the rest of life. The virtual space of social media is not to be mistaken for a face to face meeting. Yet, our presence online has aspects of it that are likewise real and expressive. In short, we experience things online and via social-media. Experience here is qualified with a thoughtful comparison between experiencing a loved-one’s death in person as different from learning of someone’s death on Twitter. Both instances are experiential. The grieving continues to be experienced in the rich metaphysical filters of memory, time, self, relation. Yet to be experienced online, the suffering of our physical bodies must be transcended by the virtual and keyboarded mediation of grief’s relentlessly unresolved expression. No grieving is complete or completely rational. This admission delimits a full adequacy of emotion, experience, and expression, virtually or non-virtually. Online life is still a life, grieving or not grieving. Life is always incomplete.

I like that Cote avoids condemning the practice of online mourning. She makes it clear that an online expression of grief is not the same as a person to person sharing of grief, nevertheless she recognizes advantages. Her grieving blurs the lines of virtual reality ambiguously interlocked with non-virtual reality. I see her grieving has important aesthetic components of a 21st century ars moriendi, showing that her mother led a good life with her loving daughter by way of JPEGs is an emotionally reflective experience for those who had emotional contact with Cole’s mother. They likewise are touched, 100s of miles away, and by those of us now who read of her mother’s death. We too share and experience mourning with her in front of our laptops. To recognize that grief that is digitally filtered is still grief is an expansion of experience. Even today, the ancient themes of death and experience continue to be the immanent ground of philosophical contemplation. If death is a limitation of life, then in life we ironically imbue death with experience, virtually, written and spoken. It is odd that this contemplation of death has the advantage of showing us the philosophical value of our online experiences.

Conatus,

Aurelio Madrid

…what is metaphysics?

 

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Six Grasses, colored etching by J. Pass, ca., 1807

What is Metaphysics?

Metaphysics is a philosophical term that denotes a number of varying perspectives. Metaphysics is the study of how we relate to the world and how ideas, concepts, facts and objects are related to one another. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, after his death sometime in the 4th century BC, left behind a great number of philosophical books on the nature of being, existence, causation, particularity, universals, potentiality, actuality, parts, wholes, identity, &c. Of profound significance is the topic of the categories which design the way in which we predicate things into subjects for consideration. Another way of thinking about this would be to focus on what qualifies and what quantifies something to be what it ‘is’. To consider what something ‘is’ provides us with relationships to us, and to things, and how all of these things are related—to us and to each other.

The ancient scholar (Andronicus of Rhodes) who categorized Aristotle’s works, placed these books ‘after’ Aristotle’s book on Physics. The term ‘meta’ (μετὰ) meaning: after, beyond, is simply after-physics, after that which is physical (φυσικά). This gives us insight into the content of the books on being, existence, causation, &c. as just that, beyond-the-physical. For you and I, this has do with what is relational, how ideas, concepts, facts and objects are related to one another. We should note that this is not a justification for relativism, given that metaphysics accounts for objectivity in relation to what is relative. To be clear, relativism is a metaphysical issue, yet it works within the larger structures of inter-subjectivity and objectivity.

For Aristotle, form and substance are related to each other given that a substance takes on a particular form to be what something ‘is’, i.e. what is something? Whether something is made of stone is different than if it is made of paper & a statue is a form of stone as much as a stone takes the form of a brick in a building. This is a metaphysical question and it is an ontological question–ontology is the study of being.

The limitation of physicality only serves to enhance our understanding of the metaphysical as beyond-the-physical. This summation of the beginnings of metaphysics as a fundamental feature of philosophical discourse would be missing something if we forget the significance of the negation of being, non-existence, what is not causal, what is not particular, non-identity, &c.

What else is Metaphysics?

A quick glance at a college text book will typically offer another way to study metaphysics as the relationship between free-will & determinism. Are we completely free? Are we completely predetermined? Is real life a composite of the two? What are the effects of biology and DNA combined with past events on our expressions freedom? Does our freedom derive from the physical world? Here we can see a series of relationships. If we are to consider freedom we must also consider what contradicts it. That is what freedom is not. To know what freedom is not, is to know what freedom ‘is’.

Metaphysics Faces the Question of Nothing

The controversial 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger thought that metaphysics develops as a way for us to contend with the question: what is nothing? At first glance this appears to be a banality, yet when we stop to consider what ‘is’ is, as opposed to what ‘is not’ we get a sense of the profundity of such a question. This entails that we as living creatures have a tough time contemplating and conceptualizing nothingness. In fact, our fear of death encapsulates its philosophical weight into our basic consideration of the being we possess alongside the being that ‘is’ reality on the whole. A negation of being is nothingness—that which is not being. This elicits anxiety within us as well as our thoughts and actions. The fear of nothingness impels us to the action of living, of being alive, of authentically experiencing ourselves as a being that exists.

Metaphysics is the Study of Identity.

Another perspective of metaphysics is identity, personal and of concepts and objects, of who we are and what identifies the world around us. How does our identity uphold throughout the duration of time? How are things identified as unique or universal? Is our identity based in memory and/or the memory of others? We tend to think that immortality is only an issue for religious consideration, while overlooking the importance of the written words by which to either keep ideas alive or to ignore them, thus identifying ancient authors long since gone. This brings us back to issues of quality of life, ethical and otherwise. What is the identity of goodness? What is the identity of what is not good?

Religion is Metaphysical.

We are quickly reminded that all of religion is metaphysical. Religion is intertwined with what is physical, as much as a religious person looks beyond physical matters to take faith in what is real and practical in her life. If religious life serves its practitioners, it does so within the relationships between objectivity and subjectivity. Objectivity is all encompassing and religious life likewise has a similar scope and reach. The mistakes we make have to do with thinking that metaphysics is strictly limited to religious practice. I like to think of the reverse, that our metaphysical understanding of things gives rise to religious thought—yet I admit such conclusions cannot be strictly determined. Likewise, metaphysics leads our thought to the nature of evil as opposed to nature of goodness, and a way that pain, suffering and death can arise in the world.

We cannot leave this side of metaphysics without a sentence on a popular, common sense view of metaphysics as a way of predicting the future, and identifying character traits that accompany celestial activity, sheer chance, lucky destiny, superstition, fortune telling, &c. This is often an area of metaphysics that is not covered in philosophy textbooks. Given that such activities are not often called into question. This is unlike what we usually do in philosophy class, even if our concern is metaphysical, we still should be able to be skeptical and call into question its claims joined with the use of our critical thinking as these ideas are put into practical experience or not.

Metaphysics is Categorial.

Another area of metaphysical interest is the notion that we want to know what is the nature of ultimate reality is. What in our lives is real and what is not real? What do think of as something, and when do we think of something as not something? As mentioned earlier, In Aristotle’s Metaphysics we find the “categories” which are ways in which we predicate things. In the early 20th century, Heidegger’s teacher Edmund Husserl named this type of thinking ‘categorial intuition’. That is to indicate what something ‘is’. To predicate something, means to describe what a thing actually ‘is’. Essentially, when we predicate things we are also considering things as a subject of thought.

To name a quality of someone or something is a metaphysical activity. To count, measure, & weigh things is to quantify items to be understood metaphysically. To situate a relation of things in time and space is to think metaphysically. To determine if something can be of use or not is basically a metaphysical consideration. Indeed the need to categorize, give name to, to situate, to organize, to group, to isolate, to couple with, &c. all are metaphysical activities. Once we take these observations into consideration we suddenly recognize that metaphysics is not a useless artifact only handled within the confines of the written word. Put in the most basic terms: metaphysics is conscious thinking with, combined with, and without the physical world.

 

Aurelio Madrid

…amending absolutism

image-placeholder-titleIn today’s class we discussed Kant’s categorical imperative and I offered Philippa Foot’s thought experiment, whereby willful suicide could be seen as universally permissible. That if a comrade were severely injured on the battlefield and we were faced with the decision to shoot him or to let him be captured by the enemy, we should, according to Foot, let the decision rest on the will of our comrade. It stands to reason that such a difficult decision, to let somebody exhibit their own free will to die by a merciful gunshot, or to be left to the enemy, must be universal. In other words, Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to the maxim by which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” is easily applicable. Letting someone decide for themselves whether they should live or die is a decision that can easily become a universal rule.

Then we add to the complication of Kant’s “perfect duties” whereby a perfect duty (a duty without exception) is a duty to not commit suicide. Now is this contradictory with Foot’s battlefield thought experiment (which by the way, is intended to illustrate virtuous behavior when considering euthanasia)? If we take Kant’s categorical imperative on his own absolutist rules, the answer is simply yes, the application of the categorical imperative in the Foot example is contradictory. For Kant, it is our “perfect duty” to not, in any circumstances, commit suicide.

Yet, we might allow for a meaningful amendment by suggesting that Kant simply could not think of every future application of the categorical imperative. It is commonly pointed out that a flaw in Kant’s categorical imperative is highlighted by the problem of dishonesty. For all intents and purposes, the absolution of the categorical imperative would indicate that we should never tell a lie. For instance, when a crazed murderer is looking for an innocent person who has taken refuge in your house, you should not lie when the murderer stops by your house asking you the whereabouts of this person. Most of us would have the conscientiousness to imagine that we’d immediately break Kant’s categorical rule and lie. In this case, it’s easy to see a slight amendment: when a crazed murderer asks you to give up the person you’re hiding, it’s clearly a universal rule that you lie to the murderer. Most people would agree that such a case of lying (as odd as it is) is universalizable.

All of this is to argue that, yes Kant was an absolutist and also it is impossible for him to have anticipated all applications of his theory. On the other hand, I think we can still safely say that both extreme cases, Foot’s virtuous behavior on the battlefield, and lying to crazed murderers are not radical misinterpretations of Kant’s categorical imperative. To be sure, we should be able to amend Kant (or any other philosopher’s ideas) in a meaningful way, provided we do not do so with gross distortions of the original claims. This is not to suggest that we simply change their ideas to meet any of our arbitrary whims, but rather that our changes are thoughtfully and rationally considered in light of evolving and expanding our ethical and philosophical wisdom.

Lastly, I hope to add power to my argument with reference Kant’s famous essay from 1784, “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?” whereby Kant proposes the idea that when religious organizations are laying down guidelines, documents, and contracts for future generations to follow, these ideas should not be written or understood in such a way as to be unalterable and unamendable (as indicated in the following quote:)

“But should not a society of clergymen, perhaps a synod or a venerable classis (as it itself names itself among the Dutch), be entitled to bind itself on oath between each other to a certain unalterable symbol, in order to carry such an unceasing guardianship over each of its members and by means of them over the people, and even to perpetuate this? I say: that is completely impossible. Such a contract, which would for always seal to hold off all further enlightenment from the human race, is absolutely null and void; and should it even be ratified by the highest power, by imperial diets and the most solemn peace accords. One age cannot form an alliance and then conspire to put the following into a condition in which it must be impossible for it to enlarge its (especially so very urgent) cognitions, to purge of errors, and in general to step further in the enlightenment. That would be a crime against human nature, whose original determination consists precisely in this progress; and the descendants are therefore perfectly entitled to it to reject those decisions as unauthorized and taken in a malicious way.”

…from myth to philosophy

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“From Myth to Philosophy: Examining the Transition by Way of Metaphysics and Epistemology”

When we look to the transition from myth to philosophy, we make use of philosophy as a guide into connections that are not readily apparent. Two primary philosophical modes of inquiry are metaphysics and epistemology. The two are defined in a number of ways and this short essay will only focus on metaphysics as the study of ultimate reality, and epistemology as an inquiry into how we rationally understand things—when connected, both disciplines disclose true knowledge. When we are doing philosophy we are not only asking questions, we work to answer the questions we ask: what is ultimate reality (as with metaphysics)? How do we know things rationally (as with epistemology)?

Once we apply these questions to the transition from myth to philosophy, we immediately are reminded of the long-lived mythologist Edith Hamilton who distinguished the ancient Greek myths as inherently rational. Hamilton also distinguishes the myths as distinctly human. The Greek myths are concerned with human problems—human reality. The Greek legends are answering the ancient need for answers about the natural and human realties that could not be explained any other way. This confrontation of nothingness reveals the myths metaphysically. Likewise the myths are answering causal problems, where does war come from?—Ares! If one cause (Ares) brings about the effect of something else (war), we are answering a way we know something, and this is rational and epistemological.

Friedrich Nietzsche hails the first Greek philosopher as Thales, a Presocratic who thought the origin of everything is water. This is an empirical claim, we can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell: water. This is another way of showing how we are perceiving the world, this is a way we gain knowledge of things using our rational faculties. Therefore Thales is, not only answering epistemological questions, where does everything come from?—he answers the question scientifically, with empirical evidence, something the myths did not do. Metaphysically, he’s offering us answers to where everything comes from, and to what (empirically) does reality consist of?—water.

Turning to Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, metaphysics and epistemology gain in philosophical complexity. With Socrates we have the famous dialectic, based in dialogue, and aimed at gaining true knowledge while exposing flaws in common and opinionated reasoning. Socrates is a champion of reason in favor of goodness and true knowledge. This is epistemology and it is curiously ethical. When considering metaphysics, we immediately recognize an answer to the question: what is ultimate reality for Plato and Socrates?—the acquisition of true knowledge.

Aristotle, another scientist philosopher, categorized the way we explain things into distinct categories and components. This tendency to organize knowledge is both scientific and metaphysical. To do philosophy is to look at the components of knowledge which constitute reality. This is metaphysical. As mentioned above, to consider causation is to examine how we come to know things and how to explain things. Aristotle’s causal tools give our knowledge explanatory power. This is epistemological.

To philosophically examine the transition from Greek myth to Greek philosophy by way of metaphysics and epistemology is to see a flowing line of inquiry into the ultimate realty and into the way we rationally know things. Such thinking is abstract and takes a readjustment of our everyday understanding, thus fulfilling a demand of Heraclitus the weeping Presocratic, to find connections in what is unapparent.

…on utilitarianism

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Then we need to be careful with our definition of utilitarianism. Recall that utilitarianism is consequential. In other words, a consequentialist pays attention to the results of the actions as the indicator of morality. If the resulting consequences on an action create the most happiness for the most amount of people, the consequences of the action are considered good by utilitarian standards (& are considered bad if the actions do not). Yes, we need to think of the consequences of our actions in advance, yet the focus is more on the end results. The action is morally useful if it produces the pleasure for most.

Utilitarianism:

Action  → consequences  → moral value (or not).

Compare with:

Moral value → action → consequences. (This is non-consequentialism)

Furthermore, let’s get clear on the differences between act & rule utilitarianism. The easiest way to think of this would be to consider the difference between a utilitarian rule and a utilitarian act.

A utilitarian rule is such that a utilitarian has a rule to be followed in all situations, e.g. our rule could be: ‘it is wrong to cheat on exams’. As a utilitarian rule this implies that cheating lowers the quality of our learning (now & into the future), and it also undermines the all others who are not cheating. In addition, cheating also has the risk of getting caught which will not increase the happiness for the most amount of people. Add to this, cheating itself does not increase happiness for most (even if we are not found out), i.e. if the cheater gets away with it, only their happiness is minimally increased (while their knowledge is explicitly compromised &/or decreased all the same).

With act utilitarianism, we think about the value of the consequence per situation. In the case of cheating, we might indicate that the (dishonest) act cheating is wrong simply for the risks we take to compromise our learning & while we undermine the integrity of the others who are not cheating in a given situation—not necessarily as a rule. Nobody’s happiness is increased as a consequence whether our dishonesty gets exposed or not (as is also the case with the application of rule utilitarianism to not cheat). In other words, we might allow for dishonesty, white-lies in conversation, lying about our age, or exaggerating a story we’re telling our friends, or other so-called ‘harmless’ dishonesty, where these lies are not necessarily compromising our integrity. Here we do not have a general rule, we simply apply the utilitarian principle of maximizing happiness per situation. In the situation of cheating on exams, we chose to not cheat, because the consequences will not increase the happiness for most. Whereas, to be minimally dishonest in telling an anecdote of our fascinating trip to California is perhaps increasing the happiness of our friends who are interested enough to care.

…notes on Igor Primoratz’s Ethics and Sex

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Notes on Ethics and Sex, Igor Primoratz[1]

Between semesters it becomes important to field readings that I do not have the chance to read while in the thick of staying abreast of the readings for classes (notwithstanding the rigors of grading classwork & homework which demand a level of commitment. Additional readings are often a reach for the obvious possibility of adding extraneous philosophy above and beyond the requisite workload). I have yet to decide whether or not what I have read in the opening chapters of the 1999 book Ethics and Sex by Igor Primoratz are assignable as reading for upcoming classes.

“Introduction”

In Primoratz’s “Introduction” to Ethics and Sex, he immediately sets the stage for a discussion of the philosophy of sex that is indeed quite rare in the ascetic and arid confines of traditional philosophic discourse.[2] This sexual occlusion is noted by Schopenhauer in his influential book of 1819, The World as Will and Representation. The dearth of sexual content in the antecedent work of Classical and Enlightenment philosophy should have a clear connection to this type of intellectualized sexual constraint. Philosophy is usually understood as helping us attain an understanding of the life of the mind, the intellect, our reason. The life of philosophy is to know and have control over the passions. To be dominated by the passions, namely: sexual passion, is typically thought of as antithetical to an exploration of a quest for philosophical truth and a life of contemplation.

Primoratz quotes the legendary Roman slave turned Stoic, Epictetus, whereby he demonstrates Stoical virtue as a refusal in the face of sexual hunger. Epictetus reminds us that it is best to not be controlled and dominated by such passions, as inspired by Socrates’ libidinal restraint. Even Nietzsche weighs in on the “rancor” of sexual interest on the part of the world’s philosophers with the example that Heraclitus, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Schopenhauer were all single, unmarried. In short, philosophy and sexual discourse are historically strange-bedfellows.

Then of course, there is the undeniable influence of Christianity on our attitude of the body, of which is strongly reliant on an ascetic-denying of the sexualized body, while at the same time advocating the institution of marriage. Christian marriage, a concept whereby human sexuality can be relegated and managed within natural-law—a.k.a. sex is to procreate and it needs to be within the context of a monogamous relationship with the opposite sex.

Primoratz’s foregoing carefully indicates that the turning point in the philosophical interest with sexuality is marked by Schopenhauer in the early 19th century (ironically we cannot ignore his own glaring misogyny, including the not-so-well-known radical advocacy of polygamy). Along with Nietzsche’s “naturalism” and his championing of the body, away from the strictures of Christianity and tradition, Primoratz reminds us that the importance Nietzsche places on the body as the locus of will is directly attributable to Nietzsche’s early reading of Schopenhauer.[3] Also, nevermind the now dubious legend that Nietzsche’s downfall into dementia was allegedly caused by syphilis contracted from a prostitute in Leipzig.[4]

We could challenge Primoratz’s idea that Schopenhauer demarcates a discussion of sex and philosophy, to do so is to evoke D.A.F. de Sade, the Marquis de Sade’s 1795 work Philosophy in the Bedroom, less a work of philosophy and more a scathing critique of social convention in the name of sexual libertinage. The 18th century sexual libertine feeds his hunger by way of reading de Sade (‘single-handed’), fueling a fantasy quest with an aggressive search for libidinal freedom from sexual convention. Perhaps this reference distracts from the fact that de Sade has been largely considered a pornographer and not taken seriously as a ‘philosopher of sex.’

Historically, Primoratz nods to the once cutting-edge philosophy of phenomenological existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness from 1943, Simon de Beauvoir in her oft-cited feminist work The Second Sex from 1949, and then to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s eloquent placement of the experiential immanence of sexuality in his landmark Phenomenology of Perception from 1945. In the Anglo-analytic tradition we also have contribution of Bertrand Russell’s work from 1929 Marriage and Morals.

As we know, the 20th Century witnessed great advances in demystifying the stigma of sexual conduct. We don’t have to reach far to recall the psycho-sexual ‘pleasure principle of Sigmund Freud in his 1930 work Civilization and its Discontents, while also acknowledging the culturally destabilizing effects of Alfred Kinsey’s Kinsey Reports from 1948. The previously mentioned French phenomenologists were also becoming translated into English in the 1950s. The 1960s and 1970s as cultural decades were emblematic of realizing newfound sexual freedom and expression largely affected by Second-Wave feminism and other concomitant social issues, Gay rights et al.

Primoratz does narrow down the work form the 1960s and 1970s with three works: Thomas Nagel’s “Sexual Perversion” from 1968, Robert Solomon’s “Sexual Paradigms” from 1974, on to Alan Goldman’s “Plain Sex” from 1977. Now in the 21st Century, apart from Primoratz, we look to the plurality of gender issues philosophically anticipated with Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble from the 1990s (among countless others).

“Sex and Procreation”

This is usually where the conversation gets going in terms of a so-called conservative position concerning sexual conduct as captured within the sphere of accepted heterosexual marriage. St. Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine easily represent the two Christian Medieval views on the institution of marriage and religious life. Basically sexual intercourse is strictly aimed at bringing children into the world, and subsequently to raise and care for the children as a part of committing to the family.

We cannot forget the Biblical implications stemming from the so-called ‘Fall from Grace,’ known more simply as ‘The Fall.’ To account for sex in a Christian context is to do so negatively, it is a carnal compromise away from God’s perfection. Sexual pleasure outside of a procreative context is considered sinful, base, and selfish. As Primoratz notes for St. Augustine, perhaps the connection with human sexuality is bound to the irrational nature of sexual desire and impulse. The poignantly irrational nature of sexual desire could be an interesting point of departure for another study, given that the irrational aspects of sexual activity continue to cause problems even for those of us not immersed in a Medieval Christian view of traditional sex. Add this restrictive view on sex to the traditionally philosophic view that sex represents a preoccupation with the body, and it should go without saying that sexual activity outside of marriage and outside of the context of procreation is essentially thought of as baneful, immoral, and/or evil.

The effort is to envision all the other reasons people have sex that are not procreative—at least to call into question the notion that sex is wrong unless it is procreative. We can see that a restriction of pleasure in the name of religion is to follow an ascetic tradition that is no longer entirely practicable or sensibly realistic. Away from a few of Primoratz’s conclusions at the end of this chapter, people have sex for countless other reasons, and not all those reasons are nefarious, unethical or depraved.

I think where we struggle these days is finding a middle ground between total sexual lust (characterized and fueled by the omnipresence of online pornography) and a not-so-sexy life of moderation and restraint. It is naive to imagine that simply because one lets go of the praise and blame of religious law, does not automatically set up a life of sexual freedom and libidinal satisfaction. Nevermind Henry Sidgwick’s ‘hedonist’s paradox,’ or the ‘pleasure paradox.’ That is to say, pleasure as a goal is often (but not always) elusive. Simply seeking sexual pleasure does little to promise consistent pleasure. And the question is open as to what is experienced if the result is not pleasure—I’m tempted to surmise such sexualized pursuits can result in an increase of suffering and pain.

Meanwhile, Primortz’s books remain open.

–Aurelio Madrid

[1] Igor Primoratz, Ethics and Sex (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999).

[2] This book appears to be the result of the work responding to a much larger volume of essays on sexuality edited by Igor Primoratz from 1997, titled: Human Sexuality (Dartmouth Publishing Co., Ltd., 1997). His work Ethics and Sex seems to serve as an ethical reader’s guide to the two dozen or so essays included in Human Sexuality.

[3] See Richard Arthur Spinello’s 1981 dissertation: “Nietzsche’s Conception of the Body.”

[4] See Leonard Sax’s 2003 essay on this, “What was the Cause of Nietzsche’s Dementia?”