Tuesday, October 27, 2009

i've got a new attitude!

oh my gosh, i have to do this so fast, i should not be blogging right now, but i want to write this down. it requires you to (1) read my last post, which was a short little transcript of an interview with the novelist hilary mantel, and (2) understand the basics of the philosopher peter strawson's essay 'freedom and resentment'. you go do (1), and i'll work on making (2) happen:

(skip this if you've read the strawson) in 'freedom and resentment' (probably one of the most riveting little philosophical essays i've ever read), strawson asserts that there are two general places from which we can consider one another. the first he calls 'the reactive attitutes' [RAs], and we 'inhabit' these (i think that this is the word strawson uses) pretty much all the time with other adults. from the RAs we implicitly consider one another agents, who are, with some exceptions, the cause of their own actions, and we can feel passionately about them as agents, hating them, or loving them as equals; we can feel mildly amused or annoyed at them as strangers. i did a bad job of explaining that, but it'll make more sense after i tell you about the second place-- the objective attitutes [OAs]. we tend to take up the OAs when we think about children, or people living with severe mental illnesses, or when we're acting as doctors, or social workers or whatever. when we think in this way, we are thinking about people in terms of (a) the forces that caused them and (b) how to use that information to sort of manage them in the future. blame, according to strawson, is an RA, and we can only avoid blaming others by taking up the OAs. but strawson doesn't think that we are capable of considering the other adults in our lives from the OAs for very long-- we can do it for a little, but we could never manage to maintain the OAs consistantly in our daily interactions. And, he thinks, we oughtn't do that even if we could, because while you can feel compassion, or affection, perhaps, or the love of a parent for a child, passionate adult engagement is impossible, almost definitionally. there is something clinical about the OAs, and that troubles strawson. (this paragraph sucks, but i'll fix it up later-- you get the general idea for now, and hopefully most of you have read the strawson and are skipping this part anyway.)

the point: i think that the attitude that HM takes up in thinking about these characters (thomas cromwell and robespierre) constitutes a third kind of approach or attitude. it is diognostic in a sense- she wants to know the causes, the full explanation of what happened- 'the facts'- but it is not clinical- first, because she's not trying to manage that person (their fate is set in history- the facts are in), just understand them, and second, because she is utterly concerned with the vividness of the character's inner life. she's not trying to do anything to them, she's just trying to understand them-- and not just functionally, but phenomenlogically. she wants most of all to do them justice.

i don't think that this is a version of either the RAs or the OAs. i don't think that this is a highbred. i think that this is a distinct approach, and it's a better approach. because i don't think that our respecting one another as agents or loving/hating one another passionately depends on our failing to know who a person is, including the forces that caused them (aka the forces that drive them), and if meditating on the causes of a person tend to mellow our most recriminative impulses, i don't think that they'll necessarily dull our ardour. indeed, i don't see why it couldn't give our ardour more depth and focus. oh man, i really have to go grade papers, but i want your opinion: what should these kinds of attitudes be called?

11 comments:

Brandon Hogan said...

LG, this is really good. I tend to think that Strawson is too quick to classify our attitudes towards others as either objective or reactive. There are many, many attitudes we can take towards a competent adult.
For example, we're both angered by and compassionate toward an adult with borderline personality disorder. They may say things to hurt our feelings, but we recognize also that they're not fully in control of themselves. In this case our attitudes are mixed. We don't know how to react.
I think a digging into and explicating concrete situations in which adults interact with each other would be more fruitful than what Strawson has done.
Strawson starts well, but needs to dig deeper into the particulars.

Anthony said...

One idea is "restorative attitude". The name is lifted from restorative justice, which I actually don't know much about. But part of it is replacing the retributive core of criminal law with a degree of understanding of all involved parties. Part of the attraction for importing the word here is that this is necessarily interpersonal, since the parties also cannot disengage themselves from the conflict, but they could potentially reframe the way they relate to it (and the other person) based on a deeper factual account.

Drew said...

Diagnostic...restorative attitude...hmm...

I'm curious what motivates Hilary to try to take up this perspective. She says it's "to do them justice." I'm just not sure what means. My initial reaction is that it means that she's trying to uncover facts--facts about what Oliver Cromwell's feelings were--because this revealing of truth is an action in which one "does justice". But I think there is something missing from this explanation. How do we make the leap from 'uncovering new facts' to 'doing justice'? See my notes on the previous post.

But yeah, I like "restorative". It has a positive connotation, and it fits well with other buzz words in the literature, like "resistability," "retributive," "reliabilist," and "reflective." It also is an apt adjective for what I think you and Hilary are getting at.

laura.g said...

yes- so it's not only a distinctive approach to interpersonal understanding, but a corrective to the other two-- the misguided retributivism of the RAs, and the disconcerting sense that information gathering of the OAs is aimed at somehow managing the person we're trying to understand in a paternalistic way. in both cases, the person taking up the attitude in question (whether RA or OA) takes for granted the move from the bare fact to something beyond the bare facts-- in one case from the bare facts to a retributivist judgment, and in the other, from the bare facts to the manipulation of those facts to produce some desired outcome. what we ought instead to inhabit are the restrorative attitude, from which we try to correct for the worst excesses of the RAs and the OAs by focussing fully on the facts, and not what we're going to DO with the facts, or what the facts JUSTIFY.

the only think i don't like is that "restorative attitudes" would also be RAs.

Anthony said...

That is true in a weak sense: that both RAs and restorative attitudes are brought about by some prior wrong. In the case of Hilary and Cromwell, of course, there's no wrong to her; the drive towards a reactive attitude comes from the widespread negative appraisal of Cromwell. And that's precisely what Hilary sought to avoid by looking more closely at the facts.

My point is that in this weak sense, any kind of diagnostic or understanding-oriented of the kind you're describing is going to be "called for" in some sense by the agent's prior actions. So I don't think the choice of "restorative" over some other term is bringing on board a reactive aspect that wasn't there before. But maybe I'm misunderstanding your worry.

laura.g said...

ha! no, my worry is purely practical-- i just meant that they would both have the same abbreviation. it would be less confusing if my alternative to RAs and OAs, were, like, BAs or CAs or DAs.

Anthony said...

this is true! but on my latter point,
http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/DARSEC.html
darwall argues in a quasi-kantian vein that all morality is second-personal in nature - demands that i can make of you, but that requires that you can also make similar demands of me. he specifically invokes strawson's RAs. not much (from what i've seen) on other sorts of attitudes, but it is a somewhat different take on the kind of engagement with others morality consists in.

laura.g said...

dennett thinks that the mantel's stance is clearly a kind of RA. i couldnt figure out why he thought that exactly, except that she's concerned to understand the person in question as a person, concerned to know "how it felt". but i think that as a novelist you may approach that project more in the spirit of an engineer trying to understand the story of how a bridge came to fall, only the relevant facts are facts about a different kind of thing.

Anthony said...

let me take a stab at this, drawing on how darwall deals with this. he cites strawson for the basic point that the reactive attitudes themselves presume a different kind of engagement with a person than a merely maximizing approach. darwall illustrates this by noting that desirability wouldn't be enough as a standard. maybe i fail to act in a way that would be desirable, but that alone might not justify blaming them or holding them responsible.

what i take darwall to want to say is that these attitudes are part of second-person engagement, and as such presuppose taking the person as a valid source of claims on you. someone who could respond when you make (moral) demands, and could also make such demands of you. this is broader than just RAs, but they're a part of it. so one way of reading a reaction like dennett's to mandel is that treating someone as a person, thinking that their actions must be understood (phenomenologically) rather than just explained (objectively) is itself a form of this second-person engagement. probably dennett's not signing on to darwall's project, but i do take the book to be trying to get at something like this point: all these personal engagement practices are of a piece together.

laura.g said...

ok, but then what is 'explained' other than a weak or course sense of 'understood'? or do we just define the words so that 'understand' has to do with phenomenology and 'explained' has to do with some other kinds of facts? do all non-phenomenological facts count? i'm confused about the distinction between the two words.

laura.g said...

also, the one thing i don't like about 'restorative' is that i'm imaging these attitudes as something which, while it is in this case used to restore a reputation, could be taken up as an approach to engaging with and understanding each other in real time, from the get go.