International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 137 31st August 2008


I. 'The Case for a Neutral Metaphysical Position' by Peter Jones

II. 'Post-Modernism: What's the Difference?' by Martin Jenkins

III. Review of Alan Soble 'The Philosophy of Sex and Love' by Rachel Browne



Apologies to those who have been waiting longer than usual for this issue of Philosophy Pathways. I hope that the selection on offer today was worth the wait. I have a bulging folder of submitted articles, so a new issue of the e-journal should be out before too long!

The first article today is by Peter Jones, who is taking the Fellowship Award of the International Society for Philosophers under my supervision. His topic is one that at first sight might seem hostile to the philosopher's pursuit of truth: the case for the impossibility of a philosophical theory about the nature of the world: a metaphysic.

That philosophers have not yet found the definitive theory is generally agreed. Jones argues for the stronger view that the very idea of such a theory involves a false assumption. The only truth -- if any truth is to be had -- consists in a 'neutral' metaphysic which is neither realist or idealist, neither monist nor pluralist, and so on for every other 'ism' that you can name -- except for one. A neutral metaphysic turns out to coincide with mysticism.

The idea that there can be no 'theory of everything' is recognizable to students of contemporary philosophy as one of the expressions of post-modern thought. Pathways Mentor Martin Jenkins, in his compact but illuminating essay outlines the main structural features of post-modernism, emphasising its political importance in rectifying the 'injustice' of theory and the generalising tendency, creating a space for the recognition of multiple narratives. Postmodernists would no doubt critique the idea of a neutral metaphysic as just another attempt at 'totalising', yet there is a paradox here in that the very attempt to state what post-modernism stands for ends up doing just that.

Finally, as New Orleans empties in anticipation of the 'storm of the century', Rachel Browne reviews a book by philosopher Alan Soble who as Research Professor at the University of New Orleans directly experienced the full force of Hurricane Katrina back in 2005 when his home was destroyed. The Philosophy of Sex and Love is a revised and expanded version of a university text book first published in 1998. This is Rachel Browne's second review of Soble, following her review of Pornography, Sex and Feminism for issue 112 of Philosophy Pathways.

Geoffrey Klempner



     Reason in metaphysics, even if it tries, as it professes,
     only to gain a priori insight into those laws which are
     confirmed by our most common experience, is constantly
     being brought to a standstill, and we are obliged again and
     again to retrace our steps, as they do not lead us where we
     want to go. As to unanimity among its participants, there
     is so little of it in metaphysics that it has rather become
     an arena that would become especially suited for those who
     wish to exercise themselves in mock fights, and where no
     combatant has as yet succeeded in gaining even an inch of
     ground that he could call his permanent possession.
     Immanuel Kant
     Critique of Pure Reason

1. Introduction

One of the stranger properties of our universe is that it does not seem to conform to any clearly identifiable metaphysical position. In the 'western' or 'rational' tradition of philosophical investigation, firmly rooted in the system of philosophy, theology and teachings which was eventually to dominate medieval western Europe, we have been searching for a metaphysical position which would be consistent with reason and also account for the facts for more than two millennia and have not found one.

Yet if the universe is 'reasonable,' in the sense that we ourselves would judge a correct explanation of it reasonable if we knew and understood it -- as we must assume would be the case if we are rational philosophers -- then there is at least one metaphysical scheme which would meet this specification. But where is it? Why is it so difficult to find?

In the natural sciences we can turn a blind eye to this problem for most practical purposes. We can simply say that metaphysics has nothing to do with us. Yet by ignoring this problem we do not make it go away. Once we have buried our heads in the sand in this way we can build only sand castles. In the natural sciences we do not yet have a plausible fundamental theory of anything at all, and we will not have one until we have solved all, or at least most, of the mysterious paradoxes and riddles that arise for any speculative investigation of first principles.

Nor do we find a plausible solution for this problem in any common monotheism. Whitehead notes that Christianity may be fairly characterised as, 'a religion in search of a metaphysic,' and it is almost proudly so. On this basis we might want to dismiss certain of the Church's teachings as false, but we cannot dismiss a cosmological doctrine on the grounds that it is metaphysically flawed while we are unable to show that there is even such a thing as a logically defensible metaphysical position.

I believe that the difficulty of showing that there is such a position arises because metaphysics is in fact incapable of producing a positive result. From the study of it we learn only that all questions about the nature and properties of the universe as a whole are formally undecidable. The study of the universe as a whole is predominantly the study of undecidable questions, and if a question is not undecidable then it is unlikely to be interesting in metaphysics. All our perennial 'problems of philosophy' can be shown to have their origin in the undecidability of these questions, or the inability of metaphysics to produce a positive result. As Paul Davies makes clear in The Mind of God and The Goldilocks Enigma, many longstanding and seemingly intractable problems in physics arise from the same source.

Faced with the intransigence of this problem we might conclude that metaphysics must remain forever what it was for Whitehead, a 'series of footnotes to Plato'. If we do reach this conclusion we will be in good company. In consciousness studies, for example, David Chalmers has argued that we must settle for a nonreductive mind-matter theory, since the more deeply we explore the question, 'Is mind or matter fundamental?' the more clear it becomes that neither answer is logically defensible. In contemporary physics there is even talk of ex nihilo creation, so impotent can rationalism seem in the face of the riddles of existence.

There is, however, as we would expect, a solution to this problem: What we should do is interpret the fact that metaphysics cannot produce a positive result as the most important result that metaphysics can produce. That is to say, we would interpret the ongoing failure of metaphysics not as evidence for an ignoramibus or barrier to knowledge, as we normally do in physics and philosophy, but as an opportunity, a vital clue for our investigation into the origin and nature of the universe, an empirical fact from which we might be able to extrapolate to a logically defensible metaphysical position.

Why do we not usually do this, or try to do it? Why do we not usually take this naive approach to metaphysics rather than make the issues more complicated? One reason must be that as soon as we do so we are forced to adopt a neutral metaphysical position, having eliminated all others from our investigation. This is not obviously a viable position to take up. It appears to be paradoxical, absurd, irrational even, not so much a metaphysical position as the absence of one. How can the answer to the question 'Is Mind or Matter fundamental?' be no? To take this seemingly naive approach, therefore, is not to make the issues any less complicated.

Yet it can be argued that the cosmological scheme endorsed by all the world's principal wisdom traditions is metaphysically neutral. Indeed, a significant minority of philosophers have made arguments for this seemingly paradoxical position. Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plotinus, Spinoza, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Bradley, Schrodinger and George Spencer-Brown would be prominent examples, and Kant only narrowly avoids endorsing it in the Critique.

2. An Argument from Metaphysics

While metaphysics is a source of frustration for those who believe that metaphysical questions should be decidable, by the same token it is a source of reassurance for anybody who believes otherwise. In this latter category would be the mystics of all ages and cultures. It is because the mystics believe otherwise that a formal argument can be made for mysticism from metaphysics. It is old argument, one with which Buddhist philosophers are very familiar. At first glance it may seem to be straightforward. It can be roughly stated as a syllogism.

a) All positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible.

b) A neutral metaphysical position is not logically indefensible.

c) The universe is metaphysically neutral.

In this skeletal form the argument is less than overwhelming, but its essential structure can easily be grasped. To examine the relationship of entailment between these three propositions and to make explicit the background assumptions without which they would not form a valid argument would be impossible in a short essay, but I will say a little about the first two, defining the terms and outlining some of the arguments for their truth, in order to put this discussion of metaphysical neutralism into some sort of context.

a) All positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible.

There may be some metaphysicians who would object to this first proposition but I imagine most would not. To me it seems a safer and more philosophically useful axiom than cogito. It is certainly very difficult to refute it since if it is false then the doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism is nonsense, and nobody has ever shown this. What may be more objectionable is the idea that positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible because they are false, as they would have to be for a neutral metaphysical position.

This is an obvious inference to make, but if we extrapolate from the indefensibility of positive metaphysical positions to their falsity then our view becomes consistent with that of Lao-tsu and the Buddha. Not everyone is tempted to set out on such an adventure, even if the only alternative is to say that according to reason it is impossible to determine whether the universe conforms to any logically defensible metaphysical position, positive or otherwise; a conclusion which renders philosophy largely a waste of time.

Russell opts for this pessimistic alternative, writing forthrightly in his Problems of Philosophy, 'Knowledge concerning the world as a whole is not to be obtained in metaphysics.' But Russell's pessimism was self-inflicted. A different view of metaphysics is possible. For many philosophers, among them Russell's colleague George Spencer Brown, (for whose book on mathematics and metaphysics Russell wrote a glowing endorsement but otherwise seems to have completely ignored), the indefensibility of positive metaphysical positions is knowledge concerning the world as a whole, one of the most important truths it would be possible to establish by reason and logic.

That it is a truth can be determined within metaphysics, with no need for any appeal to mysticism. Reduced to its essentials a metaphysical question presents us with a choice between two positive metaphysical positions. The questions, 'Is Mind or Matter fundamental?' and 'Does the universe reduce to Something or Nothing?' would be typical. Such questions ask us to decide whether the universe as a whole is this as opposed to that, has this property as opposed to that property. There are dozens of such questions we might ask. Is Scepticism true or false? Is Internalism or Externalism true? Is the universe One or Many? Is space-time fundamental? Does freewill exist? Do I exist? Does anything exist?

Built into each of these questions is the questioner's expectation of an unambiguous answer, an expectation which arises in each case from an assumption that the universe must conform to one of two directly opposed positive metaphysical positions.

Some questions are metaphysical in character but do not ask us to adopt a positive metaphysical position. Examples would be: Why are there laws of nature? Why does anything exist? If God is Good why is there suffering? These are not exceptions to the rule but second-order questions. They are predicated, respectively, on the assumption that there are laws of nature, that anything exists and that suffering is real, and do not directly address first principles. First-order questions would be: Are there laws of nature? Does anything exist? Is suffering real? Each of these questions asks us to adopt a positive metaphysical position.

In the language of Kant, a positive metaphysical position would be a selective conclusion about the world as a whole. For Kant we cannot reach such a conclusion in philosophy because we find that all such conclusions are logically indefensible. Consequently, all questions about the world as a whole which demand a selective answer are undecidable.

For a positive metaphysical position, then, we would have to ignore Kant and assume that not all such questions are undecidable. If all of them are undecidable then our position is logically indefensible. In the philosophical schemes of Hegel and Bradley, for which the psycho-physical universe would reduce to a pristine unity free of any hint of duality, a positive metaphysical position would be any one for which plurality is more than mere appearance. We can note that for all three philosophers the paradoxes of metaphysics would arise from a confusion of appearance with reality. In consciousness studies this view has appeared as 'relative phenomenalism.'

Examples of positive metaphysical positions would be all the common forms of materialism, idealism, theism, dualism, monism, neutral monism, anomalous monism, nihilism, realism, solipsism, scepticism and epiphenomenalism. All of these positions make an explicit or implicit positive claim about the universe as a whole. In physics and philosophy a theory for which the universe is assigned fundamental or absolute positive or negative properties will embody a positive metaphysical position, while in religion, equivalently, a cosmological doctrine will embody a positive metaphysical position if it is not rigorously apophatic.

To say that a theory is 'logically indefensible' is to say that it gives rise to contradictions, that it is logically absurd, that it can be refuted by the use of Aristotle's three laws of logic and dialectic method. In practical terms, therefore, one consequence of the truth of the first proposition of our syllogism would be that wherever a fundamental theory implies a positive metaphysical position it can be logically refuted.

We need not examine the theory closely, the details will make no difference. The theory will rest on an assumption that metaphysics can produce a positive result, that not all selective conclusions about the world are undecidable, while if we learn anything for sure from the study of metaphysics it is that it is a zero-sum game, Tic Tac Toe for two ideal reasoners, a game of chess with the Devil which can at best only end in a stalemate.

The proposition that all positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible is unfalsifiable in philosophy. At the same time its truth is undeniably plausible, for if it is true this would be the simplest explanation for why metaphysics cannot produce a positive result. If this proposition is true then it would be unnecessary to interpret a metaphysical question as a disguised form of the liar paradox or dismiss it as meaningless, two common but difficult to defend strategies for explaining away the undecidability of such questions. Metaphysical questions would be meaningful, and they would be undecidable for the same reason that the question, 'Would two plus two equal three or five?' is undecidable.

There are few formal proofs of the first proposition for our syllogism, but two are widely known. Bradley's metaphysical essay Appearance and Reality is one. Here Bradley systematically refutes all positive metaphysical positions, and challenges his readers to explore the ramifications of his result. His argument is a prose form of the proof presented much earlier in verse form by the second-century Buddhist philosopher-saint Nagarjuna, the most widely studied of all Buddhist philosophers.

In his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way Nagarjuna demonstrates by way a series of terse reductio arguments that all positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible. That is to say, what Zeno of Elea does for some positive metaphysical positions Nagarjuna does for them all. This proof sets the scene for his 'theory of emptiness,' which is the philosophical foundation or expression of Mahayana or 'Greater Vehicle' Buddhism. This is the famous 'Middle Way' doctrine, so named partly because it does not embody a positive metaphysical position. For the Middle Way doctrine we would have to approach metaphysical dilemmas as do the professors at the Colleges of Unreason encountered by the hero of Samuel Butler's Erewhon, who take the view, 'Extremes are alone logical, but they are always absurd; the mean is illogical, but an illogical mean is better than the sheer absurdity of an extreme.'

The proofs of Bradley and Nagarjuna are made by abduction, the method recommended by Sherlock Holmes for solving cases involving multiple suspects and only circumstantial evidence. One by one the suspects are eliminated from the enquiry and when there is only one left, as there eventually is for Bradley and Nagarjuna's investigation, then the case is solved. If all positive metaphysical positions can be ruled out as logically absurd, then the only metaphysical position it would be rational to adopt is a neutral one. Or, at least, it would be the only rational position to adopt just so long as it is not also logically indefensible, and this is why the second premise of our syllogism is required.

Of course, if a metaphysical position is logically indefensible it need not follow that it is false. This is one reason why the syllogistic argument above is not valid as it stands. We usually take it for granted that if a proposition is false then it will be logically indefensible and that if it is logically indefensible then it will be false. This is because we usually assume that the universe is reasonable. We cannot take this for granted, however, or at least not when everything depends on it. For a valid argument we would have to close this loophole or add a proviso.

Aristotle spots this problem and in De Interpretatione tells us that whether we can legitimately apply his three laws of logic to the world, as we must assume for our syllogism to be of any use, is not something that be known a priori but is an empirical matter. Nagarjuna expects his readers to take it for granted that the universe is reasonable, but Bradley tries to persuade us that we must believe it is, since any attempt to logically prove that it is not would be self-defeating. This, however, is less than a proof that it is actually is reasonable, and Aristotle must be right to say that this question cannot be settled except by empirical means.

It may be possible to logically prove that the best explanation of the universe would be that it is reasonable, simply by extending our syllogism and employing the proposition 'The universe is reasonable' as both its initial premise and final conclusion. But a sceptic could still argue that what appears to be the best explanation of the universe may not be the correct one. Perhaps in philosophy the most we can hope for is a proof that it would be unreasonable to believe that the universe is unreasonable, and in philosophy, apart from a few proponents of dialethism and mysterianism, we probably all believe this already.

b) A neutral metaphysical position is not logically indefensible.

For a neutral metaphysical position we must eschew all positive metaphysical positions. There is, therefore, only one such position, for if we deviate even a fraction from neutrality we abandon it. In this negative way it is possible to define metaphysical neutralism briefly and precisely, it being quite easy to say what it is not. It is a lot more difficult to say what it is, but we need not do this quite yet. All that matters initially, for the sake of the case I am trying to make here, is that in metaphysics there are powerful reasons for investigating whether the second proposition of our syllogistic argument is true or false.

If we can show that it is false, then, as we have seen, while metaphysics may always be useful as an antidote to dogmatic superstition, as a path to positive knowledge it would be a dead end. The universe would be incomprehensible in any rational philosophy, since all possible metaphysical positions would be refutable. The most we could ever hope for as metaphysicians would be an immediate revelation or intuition of the truth about 'life the universe and everything,' and the study of metaphysics is not known to increase the likelihood of having one of these.

By contrast, if we can show that this second proposition is true, and if the first is also true, then metaphysics would be a very direct path to knowledge, for it would be a way of working out that the metaphysical scheme proposed by the Buddha and Lao-tsu is logically defensible, and that it is the only one that is. Deciding this second proposition is therefore an immediate and unavoidable challenge in metaphysics, though it is rarely taken up. We must take it up, however, once we have acknowledged the indefensibility of positive metaphysical positions.

Now a neutral position is our only hope, and there is nothing else we can do but try to show that it is logically defensible. This will be the case regardless of what a neutral metaphysical position actually is, and whatever it implies for the origin of consciousness, the background-dependence problem, the existence of God and so forth.

So, while I must end this essay before making a start on describing what 'metaphysical neutralism' actually is, it may at least show that there are good reasons for taking the idea of a neutral metaphysical position seriously in metaphysics and, if it can be shown that the doctrine of mysticism is metaphysically neutral, for taking mysticism seriously also.

Mysticism is implausible hocus-pocus to many people, a hodge-potch of incomprehensible competing doctrines, and a lengthy discussion of it would seem a waste of time. I have great respect for this view since until quite recently it was mine, and so before moving on to discuss mysticism at greater length one in particular of a number of loose ends here must be tidied up, namely the claim that there is not only such a thing as 'the doctrine of mysticism,' but that it is metaphysically neutral. If this claim cannot be justified then then the case for a neutral metaphysical position would not quite be sunk, but it would be considerably weakened.

(c) Peter Jones 2008




In an article from Rhizomes, Post-Modernism is defined as,

     suspicion of metanarratives, foundational assumptions,
     totalising theories, utopian ambitions, large
     pronouncements of any kind.[1] (My emphasis)
Although a negative definition, Post-Modernism is distinct from Modernism. Modernism is the philosophical view that holistic, reflexive, identitiarian and foundational systems of thought can and do accurately mirror or be identical with the truth of things. The systems of Plato, Aristotle, Scholastic Philosophical-Theology, German Idealism and Marxism are prime examples of the 'Western rationalist, universalist paradigm' that Post-Modernism has issues with.

Foundational, Totalising and Utopian

Following the above quote from Rhizomes, I will give a brief overview of the identified themes of the Foundational, Totalising and the Utopian and their relation to Post-Modernist thinkers. The latter term has become pejorative lately with Post-Modernism dismissed in sections of popular culture as nonsensical verbiage. I hope to dispel this by maintaining that Post-Modernism does make a difference proffering fecund philosophical and practical insights in its role as the continuation of the Enlightenment.

Western Philosophy has traditionally constructed systems of knowledge like buildings. If the foundations are sound then what follows upon them must also be sound so that the whole built system is founded and secured by strong foundations. German Idealism exemplifies this by grounding its philosophical systems on and in a Transcendental Consciousness.[2] Structures of thought from within the mind ground and provide the basis for knowledge 'out there'; such categories and concepts provide the certainty for true and correct knowledge and how to act accordingly in ethics and politics.

Systems like these are Totalising as they seek to exhaustively and definitively explain all phenomena within one paradigm that stems from the Foundation. They are therefore self-reflexive.


If human understanding occurs through language and written text, the 'Deconstruction' of text by Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) challenges Foundationalism and its self-reflexivity.[3]

If the Foundationalist approach can be equated to the unique, singular and correct reading/ meaning of a Text or in other words, the 'presence' of correct meaning with the text (i.e. Logocentrism) then Derrida has arguably undermined this. For Derrida a heuristic analysis of the Text reveals ambiguities and openings for alternative interpretations and readings to arise from the existing one. The text is thereby deconstructed.

Following on from the insights of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, Derrida maintained that the meaning of words is not determined by denotation; words are decided by their difference to other words, signs, and signifiers.[4] Tradition or suppression claims only one network of meaning whereas Derrida's deconstruction highlights the trace of other meanings from out of the relation of difference between words etc.

The cardinal concepts of Western Philosophy -- Knowledge, Identity, Truth and Meaning -- achieve their ascendant status by repressing or downgrading the infinite possibilities of the text in the quest of Logocentrism: the Foundational, Total and Final word on things. Derrida's critique -- if accepted -- undermines this project by removing the very possibility of foundationalism. This does not entail nihilism or relativism; it entails the possibility of alternatives.


Philosophies which attempt total explanation manifested as meta-narratives are to be treated with incredulity. This was the recommendation of Jean-Francois Lyotard (1926-1998) in his The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.[5] The model of society as a holistic totality became increasingly unfeasible in the light of an absence of legitimacy for a meta-narrative. The meta-narrative hoped to account for epistemological legitimacy in all areas of society such as knowledge, politics and science which were in turn legitimised by it. However, the link between knowledges etc. and the meta-narrative is not conclusive as the former can and does differ from the latter thereby undermining a single representation of the human condition in its totality. Instead of reliance on a meta-narrative founded on epistemologically dubious grounds, Lyotard calls for mini-narratives that are contingent and provisional. Many narratives exist -- some in ascendancy others not -- and not a single, holistic one aiming at infallible total explanation or totality.

Lyotard later develops the theme of mini-narratives (or Language Games a la Wittgenstein [6]) and the links between them in The Differend: Phrases In Dispute. Phrases are organised in Phrase Regimes (Denoting, Questioning, Humour, Reasoning, Ordering and so on) and present in Genres of Discourse (Science, Literature, Philosophy, Poetry, Economics, Politics) which evoke the being of human beings.

One such Genre or Language Game may be inapplicable to be used in place of another. There may indeed be no suitable phrase existing to articulate the difference that arises between them or to articulate the emergence of something new, something different. Silencing or ignoring difference facilitates a feeling of injustice which Lyotard terms the Differend. Hence the Differend is the unstable state of language where that which must be articulated or link the phrases cannot yet be accomplished. The aim of the philosopher is to:

     find new rules for forming and linking phrases that are
     able to express the Differend disclosed by the feeling of

The new link(s) between the different phrases and genres is to be respected in the interest of Justice. Justice is also to be maintained by preventing one genre burying another and by the creation of new links and phrases when there is no existing phrase to articulate the new. This openness to the new is Political.

     Politics is the threat of the differend. It is not a genre,
     it is a multiplicity of genres, the diversity of ends and
     par excellence the question of linkage... Everything is
     political if politics is the possibility of the Differend
     on the occasion of the slightest linkage.[8]

The plurality of Genres of discourse, phrase regimens and their linkages; openness to the Differend prevents recourse to the arbitrary impositions of a totalising meta-narrative which manifests injustice in its indifference and insensitivity to what is different.


Meta-Narratives maintain a view of history wherein, following a significant event -- Armageddon, the Second Coming, World Communist Revolution, the End of History -- the ideal becomes the actual. This Teleology or Eschatology has created how Western thought thinks: thinking of History, thinking of Time and thinking of the human being as Subject. Michel Foucault (1926-1984) built on the genealogical and ontological insights of Friedrich Nietzsche to offer a radical theory of knowledge, of power and their role in the formation of social identities and resistance to them in the interests of Freedom.[9]

Human beings are immersed into and inscribed with structures of 'knowledge'. There is no Subject above of and independent of these, only the sites of inscription from and resistance to discursive regimes of knowledge. Discursive because they are transmissions of Power. They create the identities and corresponding normalised practices and prohibitions inscribed into 'subjects'. The emancipatory project of the Enlightenment is continued in the critical analyses and challenging of the criteria of truth underpinning discursive regimes and practices. This is achieved by means of genealogical enquiry about the events that have led us to constitute ourselves in being what we do, say and think. It also highlights the possibility of transcending such boundaries and norms.

With the emphasis on identities, Foucault introduces a new conception of Power. Power is everywhere; it does not descend from the top down -- as does what he terms Juridical Power. Change the state regime and existing configurations of local discursive regimes continue to operate and change at that level. Moreover, analyses based on Juridical Power fail to be sensitive in the accounting of the myriad influences and polyvalent activities of micro power. Power is multifarious and not mono-causal in its operation. Consequently, 'specific transformations' in the areas such as the relation between the sexes, perceptions of insanity, criminality and sexuality are preferred; 'global' or total political programmes for the emancipation of the 'new man' are eschewed. These have led to the worst and most dangerous political systems. The specific issues themselves set up the problems to be addressed, they are not prescribed before hand with reference to utopian global theories. Again, the responses to events, to issues are not foreclosed but open.

Critical Ontology -- as Foucault terms his activity -- asks: How are we constituted as subjects of our knowledge? How are we constituted as subjects who exercise or submit to power relations? How are we constituted as moral subjects of our own actions? It asks so as to enable action. As Foucault writes:

     The Critical Ontology [is] to be concerned as an attitude,
     an ethos, a philosophical ethos, a philosophical life in
     which the critique of what we are is, at one at one and the
     same time, the historical analyses of the limits that are
     imposed upon us and an experiment with the possibility of
     going beyond them. [10]


The relevance of Post-Modernism's insights to Foundational, Totalising and Utopian philosophies is that they prevent the latter's pretensions to Closure. By means of this short overview of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault, I hope to have highlighted the theme of the prevention of closure and the openness to the new. The difference of Post-Modernism is that it prevents Closure.

Closure is Finality and Finality is (assumed) infallibility. Ontologically and epistemologically, Post-Modernism prevents the doorkeeper of assumed Finality slamming the door shut in the name of monopoly Truth, whether the door be that of the University or the Internment camp.


1. Ellen E. Berry and Carol Siegal Rhizomes, Newness and the Condition of our Postmodernity: Editorial and Dialogue Number 1. Spring 2000


2. For more on this see both:

J.G. Fichte The Science of Knowledge Cambridge University Press 1982

Frederick Copleston A History of Western Philosophy: 7 German Philosophy Continuum. 2003

3. Texts by Jacques Derrida are many. See for instance:

Writing and Difference Routledge 2001

Of Grammatology John Hopkins University Press 1998

4. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) maintained that language is composed of differential elements or signifiers. Meaning is not denotative of an independent world 'out there'; meaning is derived from the difference between signifiers. See:

Ferdinand de Saussure General Course In Linguistics Fontana 1977

Johnathan Culler Saussure Fontana 1985

5. Jean Francois Lyotard The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge Manchester University Press 1995

---- The Differend: Phrases In Dispute University of Minnesota Press 1989

6. The later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) moves away from locating meaning in logical atomism to that of use. The former located meaning in a world that is a totality of facts and not things. What is the case is the existence of states of affairs. States of affairs are combinations of objects, objects are simple. Facts relate to objects and propositions make 'pictures' about them. Picture articulated in language must possess the same logical structure as a fact.

The later Wittgenstein held this as too reductive. Meaning is found in the multifarious uses of language governed by acknowledged rules just as a game of cards is governed by rules. Hence Language Games. See:

Ludwig Wittgenstein Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Routledge 1961

---- Philosophical Investigations 2nd Ed Blackwell 1958

7. P. 61 Simon Malpas Jean Francois Lyotard Routledge 2003

8. P. 138-9. The Differend. Op. cit. above

9. Friedrich Nietzsche On the Genealogy of Morality Hackett 1998

For Foucault's application and development of genealogy see:

Michel Foucault The Birth of the Clinic Routledge 2003

---- Discipline And Punish The Birth of the Prison Penguin 1991

---- Madness And Civilisation Routledge 2001

---- The History Of Sexuality Vol 1: The Will to Knowledge Penguin 1998

---- ---- Vol II. The Use of Pleasure Penguin 1992

---- ---- Vol III. The Care of the Self Penguin 1990

10. Michel Foucault 'What Is Enlightenment?' A Foucault Reader, Ed. Paul Rabinow. Penguin 1991

(c) Martin Jenkins 2009




The Philosophy of Sex and Love: An Introduction 2nd edition Alan Soble Paragon House 2008

As far as I know philosophy of sex and love is little known in the UK and the most quoted English philosopher is Roger Scruton. Apart from that one remarkable exception, however, this is a strictly American discipline -- at least so it appears to Soble, who has taught the subject widely.

So in case readers of Pathways have not as yet got interested in the philosophy of sex, I thought I would write another review (following my review of Alan Soble 'Pornography, Sex and Feminism' in Philosophy Pathways Issue 112, 21 November 2005). This time it is on Soble's introductory textbook, aimed at undergraduates in the subject, and so is accessible to all, with a comprehensive bibliography.

The first section provides some background on the historical perspective, covering ancient writings such as Plato and, briefly, the Bible, though the philosophy of sex and love starts to become more interesting in the medieval period, with Aquinas and Augustine. In this period the scholastics discussed the extremely abstract but attractive problem of whether 'if Adam and Eve hadn't fallen would they have had sexual relations?' and 'what would it have been like if there had been pre-Lapsarian sex?' (p.24).

When Soble moves on to the Modern Philosophers we learn about Descartes, Kant, Hobbes and Kierkegaard. Soble is characteristically amusing and describes as 'sinister' Hobbes' view that in having sex 'we want to please the other person because doing so confirms our own sexual prowess' (p. 32). As the book moves on to the 20th century and contemporary philosophy we, unavoidably, read about Freud, and Thomas Nagel's influential 1969 paper 'Sexual Perversion' which can be found in his book Mortal Questions (Cambridge University Press, 1979).

This textbook isn't confined to philosophy. We are informed of work of legal scholars, opinions of theologians, Popes, feminists and the work of the American Psychiatric Association.

However, most of the book covers detailed analytical arguments in contemporary philosophy of sex and love.

It was apparently Nagel's paper which provoked so many responses that it created a substantial new topic in philosophy. Many conceptual questions have emerged since then, such as, 'What is unique about sexual activity?' In 'love and sexual relationships, unlike eating out or playing tennis, we are physically and psychologically vulnerable to another's words and touches.' Why is this? (p.7) Or 'What makes an act sexual? A touch on the arm might be a friendly pat, an assault, or sexual' (p.4).

Nagel's paper does not specifically address the nature of love, but questions on this have arisen such as 'How did erotic heterosexuality, procreation, marriage and love become intertwined in social practices and our personal desires and behaviours?' (Soble's answer is that there is no such entwinement), and 'are there essential elements to love, such as exclusivity, constancy and reciprocity? (p.191) or 'is the lover irreplaceable?' (p.132).

It is not clear there are reasons for analysing love except to further understanding but conceptual analysis of the nature of sexual activity is necessary if we are to have any idea, for example, of what 'perversion' or 'adultery' are. We might just want to know if Clinton had sex with Lewinsky or not (Clinton seemed to know: 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman'), but even this depends on what sort of definition we settle for. A narrow definition of sexual activity leads to an enormous amount of sexual activity as open to being described as perverted -- but it also follows that a lot of sexual activity can be taken to be non-adulterous. So there isn't a clear answer to the Clinton question.

While discussing rigid views on this, Soble himself seems Wittgensteinian and accepts the more modern idea of fuzzy concepts. He doesn't seem to hold out much hope for definitions so we might have to accept, as with much philosophy, that this is just interesting in itself. There is an extraordinary amount of analysis on the nature of love in this book, all of the 'if X loves Y, can he love Z' variety, because so much has been written on this subject, that this seems to be shorthand. All of us will have a view on each of these analyses.

Soble doesn't express views, as this is a textbook, but he seems liberal. He even feels that we might have to accept circularity -- and why not if it is true, though historically a logical crime? The philosopher Alan Goldman is quoted as claiming that 'Sexual desire is desire for contact with another person's body and for the pleasure which such contact produces' Soble points out the circularity of 'sexual desire is desire for contact that produces sexual pleasure' (p. 54), but he doesn't criticise it. Another philosopher, Jerome Shaffer, is said to have argued that 'sexual desire is distinguished as sexual by being accompanied by sexual excitement and arousal' (p. 56). This isn't circular if it is also held that sexual arousal pertains to genital areas, but Soble points out that this fails as a definition of sexual activity as the mouth and rectum are not considered genital areas but can still cause sexual arousal.

Not only does Soble find that conceptual analysis is not likely to lead to firm definitions, but he argues that there is no firm boundary between conceptual analysis and normative analysis. If we cannot clarify the sex act, our moral judgements on adultery and perversion don't have a strong foundation. Some argue that our judgements on sexual activities are culturally determined to an extent, but Soble finds it difficult to see that actual sexual activities vary culturally, but on the contrary that there seems something fundamental and universal about the act even if we can't define it.

We are told of those who think culture is a determinant and sometimes it rings true, even in the case of love. Economic, social, and psychological factors (among others) are said to constrain our ability to carry out multiples loves, although it seems psychological factors are most important in love when Soble quotes Richard Brown (p.64) as claiming that love requires an amount of interest and attention that must be concentrated rather than widely spread.

Some of the more opinionated considerations of sex, those from a non-analytical point of view, sound bizarre. At least I was surprised to find there are 'defenders of intergenerational sex'. Even more alarmingly, Soble cites Pat Califia, a 'controversial writer on sexuality', who claims that 'Children might be able to consent to sexual activity the same way they are able to consent... to what they eat, wear, or what movie they watch.' Soble raises the question whether consent to engaging in sexual activity is on a par with deciding what to wear, but is otherwise unjudgemental, even though this controversial view is not consistent with current cultural values.

Yet just as many would be challenged by the view proposed by Robin Morgan, that 'Rape exists any time sexual intercourse occurs when it has not been initiated by the woman, out of her own genuine affection and desire'. Soble dryly elucidates Morgan's premises showing (perhaps tongue in cheek) respect for such a statement.

Another feminist writer, Adrienne Rich, holds that since the woman, as mother, is the first love object for both men and women, homosexuality doesn't need explanation. Rather heterosexual women need to be explained. Why would you transfer a source of emotional caring from one gender to another?

It should not really be surprising, though it is, that Nagel's paper along with the rise of the feminism movement gave rise to this vast -- and often strange -- literature.

Soble himself is extremely down to earth on sex and love. He agrees that 'they [sex and love] can be enormously important.' 'Yet some writers exaggerate' (p.9). 'The American secular philosopher Robert Nozick opined that sex is 'metaphysical exploration, knowing the body and person of another as a map or microcosm of the very deepest reality, a clue to its nature and purpose' and that the bioethicist Timothy Murphy claims that sex 'is a rich and fertile language for discovering and articulating the meaning of human life'' (p. 9-10).

At the other end of the spectrum there is religious and conservative hostility to sex. Even so, there seems wide agreement that if we are not to treat others as objects, something more than mere consent is required, so that sex can be moral. It seems to be suggested that this is love.

Love, of course, is a difficult concept to grasp. If you are not to treat another as an object but to treat someone as an end in themself and sex is a desire to please the other rather than a manifestation of lust, then conceptual arguments bring in elements such as benevolence and concern for the other. This hardly catches what we mean by love, so stronger criteria for something's being love are brought in such as constancy, exclusivity and reciprocity. Soble presents the arguments and finds fault with all of them.

There are so many arguments in this book, considered and rejected, that readers might question the value of the philosophy of sex and love, but these are important aspects of our lives so it is nearly impossible for the reader not to get caught up in one's own thoughts about these issues.

When Soble ventures into the realm of philosophy of ordinary language, it becomes disappointing that he doesn't make more of this, especially given that analysis seems to have produced nothing positive. For instance, on philosophy of language as use, he says that on a 'strict' definition of constancy in love this means love lasts forever (or until the loved one dies) which isn't obviously true at all as it is admitted that constancy could be less than that, but Soble points out that the strict constancy definition can be employed critically:

     if a person's emotion toward another ends, it had never
     been love, despite the person's protests to the contrary...
     Something was wrong with the emotion; it did not measure up
     to genuine love... but it can also be used defensively: if
     the emotion ends, it had not been love, and this relieves
     the person of the burden' of having to what lovers do

Another example, on love, is when we say of someone 'she only married him for his money'. Soble says 'the 'only' is revealing' as if 'people never had a wide variety of purposes in marrying' (p.207).

This is an essential textbook, but philosophy of language doesn't seem to be essential in the philosophy of sex yet. Soble might remedy this.

(c) Rachel Browne 2008


© Geoffrey Klempner 2002–2020