International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 153 28th May 2010


I. 'The Metaphysics of Consciousness and the Purview of Science: A Response to Fahey' by Richard Grego

II. 'Vico. Joyce. Beckett. Yeats' by Tony Fahey

III. 'Alan Gewirth's PGC: An Analysis of Central Issues Associated With the Principle of Generic Consistency' by John M. Ramirez



We kick off with a response from Richard Grego, Associate Professor at Daytona State College, to Anthony Fahey's article in the last issue, 'Philosophy, Science and Consciousness'. Has Fahey been overly sanguine about the prospects for a neurophysiological theory of consciousness? After considering two varieties of mind-body dualism, Grego goes on to describe what some would regard as a more likely possibility, that conscious states supervene on, but are in principle irreducible to physical states.

Tony Fahey has meanwhile written a second article, 'Vico. Joyce. Beckett. Yeats' which looks at the influence of Giambattista Vico on these three important 20th century authors. In the section on Yeats, he offers valuable insight into Yeats' poem 'The Second Coming'. According to the Greek philosopher Empedocles, the universe goes through a double cycle, from chaos to unity under the influence of Love, and then back from unity to chaos under the influence of Strife, an idea which influenced Vico in his account of human history. The chilling thought behind the idea of a 'second coming' is that, as the first coming offered the promise of Love, so the second heralds the triumph of Strife.

John Ramirez is an online publisher and also a philosophy graduate student. His article on Alan Gewirth's moral theory, based on his MA thesis research, examines Gewirth's 'Principle of Generic Consistency' (PGC) which claims to be an important improvement on Kant's Categorical Imperative. As Ramirez explains, Kant's approach faces a chronic problem with specifying the level of generalization when formulating a moral principle, which Gewirth claims to have finally overcome with his PGC.

Geoffrey Klempner




In his recent Philosophy Pathways essay, 'Philosophy, Science and Consciousness', (April 2010) Dr. Tony Fahey cogently and persuasively discusses the dynamics of consciousness with respect to current neurobiological and evolutionary theory. He describes how conscious experience is caused by, an epiphenomenon of, or perhaps reducible to, neurobiological brain-states that are themselves the product of evolutionary development via genetic natural selection. He concludes that, since 'strong evidence' from the physical sciences indicate that 'Consciousness is a neurobiological phenomenon as a result of the evolution of mental development', then 'those who remain convinced that ideas, religious or otherwise, derive from some transcendent realm... must be prepared to eschew these beliefs in favor of science'.

However, although Fahey's argument is quite compelling in many respects, his conclusion is not warranted by his factual claims. Moreover, his factual claims are also largely unwarranted. The supposed 'strong evidence' for a neurobiological-based consciousness does not exist -- at least not to an extent that justifies his conclusion. Like so many contemporary thinkers who are deeply impressed with the prolific possibilities offered by neuroscience, Fahey seems to over-estimate its prospects for a comprehensive explanation of human consciousness.

Even more significantly, by viewing science as the paradigmatic arbiter of epistemological legitimacy ('where scientific discoveries expose weaknesses in long-held traditional beliefs, these beliefs should be abandoned and scientific discoveries should be embraced'), and by suggesting that metaphysical speculations on consciousness which do not conform to the scientific paradigm should be rejected for this reason, Fahey subjects philosophical inquiry to a kind of cultural-epistemological bias: Simply assuming that current western scientific standards of knowledge and reality automatically enjoy a privileged status -- against which all knowledge-claims must be measured in order to pass the test of legitimacy.

I conclude by suggesting that Fahey's reasoning in this connection runs contrary to his assertion in this essay and elsewhere that philosophy must remain intellectually egalitarian, open-minded, and vigilantly skeptical of all worldviews. I suggest further that in order to avoid the kind of dogmatism and mindless fundamentalism that Fahey rightly rejects, philosophers should view the scientific paradigm generally, and neuroscience specifically, as one of many equally valid possible theoretical frameworks (whether religious or otherwise) within which to appreciate the depth and richness of conscious life, rather than viewing neurobiology and evolutionary theory as the only legitimate modes for understanding the nature of and basis for consciousness.

Fahey's Discussion of Consciousness and Biology

Fahey defines consciousness as 'a particular state of subjective sentient awareness' -- the 'self-evident' kind of pure experience that is 'species-specific to homo sapiens'. It is the primordial and precognitive mental 'essence' that underwrites the possibility for self-awareness, thinking, and all other activities that are a function of conscious experience. Consciousness is also the neurobiological product of evolutionary development. As human beings evolved via natural selection, consciousness somehow emerged as a higher-order brain state via increasing neural complexity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

Fahey cites neuroscientists Crick and Koch, philosopher John Searle, and biologist Richard Dawkins, among others, in support of the view that 'consciousness is a property of the human brain' (Crick/ Koch) and a 'neurobiological phenomenon' (Searle) resulting from Darwinian natural selection. Even spiritual/ religious impulses -- like other basic features of consciousness such as 'intentionality', 'equilibrity', and 'reciprocal altruism' -- can be reduced to neurological features that developed as survival-enhancing mechanisms through natural selection. He concludes that, as a relatively temporary physiological function of evolution, consciousness may, along with humanity itself, one day lose its survival-value, become obsolete, and disappear.

Philosophers should now face-up to the fact that 'strong evidence' from science for this conception of consciousness has effectively invalidated any transcendent, extra-physical, or super-natural conception of consciousness. Open-minded philosophers should 'measure their views against the discoveries of science', 'eschew' religious-transcendent 'beliefs in favor of science', and defer to the 'discoveries that science has made in this area'.

'Strong Evidence'?

While Fahey's discussion is lucid and compelling, it nonetheless overstates the scientific case for a simple reduction of consciousness to neurobiology -- either that consciousness is identical to brain states, or that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain, or that consciousness is causally dependent upon the brain. The origin and nature of consciousness, as all philosophers and scientists agree, remains the famous (or infamous) 'hard problem' for contemporary science. Although imaginative theories exist about how empirical evidence might someday be found for a neurologically-based explanation of consciousness, no current evidence or theory has yielded anything close to such an explanation. Crick and Koch (1990, 2005) referenced by Fahey, have proposed that neural oscillation in the cerebral cortex or properties of the claustrum might be responsible for unified conscious perception. Edelman and Tononi (2000) hypothesize that clusters of integrated neurons communicate within the thalmocortical system in a way that gives rise to conscious apperception. And renowned physicists like Penrose (1993) and Stapp (1996) have respectively conjectured that quantum properties of the brain's neurons may induce conscious experience via wave-function collapse at the quantum level or via the super-position of action templates.

While space-limitations prevent more specific elucidation of these theories, all brain-based theories of consciousness share one consistent characteristic: As cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman states,

     The theories so far proposed by scientists are, at best,
     hints about where to look for a genuine scientific theory.
     None of them remotely approaches the minimal explanatory
     power, qualitative precision, or novel predictive capacity
     expected from a genuine scientific theory...In short, the
     scientific study of consciousness is in the embarrassing
     position of having no scientific theory of consciousness.
     (Hoffman, 2008, 90)
Though, as Fahey mentions, John Searle assumes a neurobiological basis of consciousness, Searle readily admits that this assumption is not based upon any empirical proof from the biological sciences, but rather upon his expectation that such proof is forth-coming. (1984, 2004). Similarly, Crick and Koch have been careful to qualify their speculations about the relation between consciousness and the brain. 'The most difficult aspect of consciousness is the so called 'hard problem',Crick writes, 'No one has produced any plausible explanation as to how the experience of the redness of red could arise from actions of the brain.' (Crick, 2003, http:---)

Psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz goes even further in undermining confidence in a bio-physical basis for consciousness. Drawing on his own research in collaboration with David Chalmers and Henry Stapp, he not only claims that the essence of consciousness is non-physical, but that it actually exerts a Cartesian-type causal influence over the bio-physical brain -- exactly the reverse of the neurobiological-based theory. 'Our conscious thoughts and volitions enter into the causal structure of nature and... override the mechanical aspects of cerebral processes'. (Schwartz, 2002, 319)

In a similar vein, Hoffman suggests that philosophers and scientists would be better-off discarding their fruitless search for a neurobiological-based consciousness in favor of a transcendent, non-physical consciousness from which physical reality -- including the physical brain itself -- emerges! (Hoffman, 2008) And physicist Paul Davies has concluded that, far from showing that consciousness is an emergent property of the physical brain, scientific discoveries indicate that a non-physical 'conscious awareness' is intrinsic to the creation and fabric of the physical universe (Davies, 2000).

Thus, the claim that the sciences have produced convincing (or even 'strong') evidence for a neurobiological based consciousness -- evidence that excludes other possibilities for the origins of consciousness -- seems overly optimistic at best. The progress made by the physical sciences and neuroscience have been remarkable, and further research on consciousness in this area promises to yield some definitive findings. However, Fahey's assertion that, 'consciousness is not some kind of mysterious entity that evades all forms of scientific analysis, but a biological phenomenon that is the result of... evolution', is not supported by current empirical evidence -- let alone definitive proof -- from science. The contention by Searle and others that science will certainly find such proof sometime in the future is testimony to their confidence in the possibilities of science, but it is not a scientific argument.

Thus Fahey's claim that evidence for consciousness as a 'neurobiological phenomenon' is now so strong that philosophers should abandon other theories, appears to be untenable. And even if we concur with Fahey that if other views on this issue conflict with those of science, then we must defer to science, we still have insufficient reason to believe the neurobiological theory, since neuroscience has been ineffectual in supplying evidence for this theory.

The Metaphysics of Consciousness and the Limits of Science

Perhaps most significantly, even if a neurobiological explanation for consciousness was definitively established (as it certainly may one day be), this would still not justify the claim (made popular by Richard Dawkins, and suggested here by Fahey) that neuroscience offers the sole or exclusive explanation on this issue and that all other explanations must therefore be false. The notion that science being true renders other systems of thought false, presents a 'false dichotomy' that stultifies free thought and open inquiry. Science being effective within its own paradigm does not invalidate other paradigms or modes of understanding (religious or otherwise) that may, in fact, be true simultaneously. Just because the assumptions and methods of science automatically rule out the very possibility of science conceiving a non-physical, transcendent or immeasurable dimension of experience -- which is precisely what conscious experience seems to be -- this does not mean (as some in the scientific community have gone so far as to say) that such experience does not exist. It only means that the scientific paradigm is incapable of understanding it sufficiently, and that other paradigms (perhaps religious or spiritual) may be better-suited to the task.

The neurobiological theory of consciousness is an important one and is understandably endorsed by contemporary science, which is perhaps the predominant paradigm shaping the culture and worldview of western civilization. Fahey provides a compelling description of this theory. As an accomplished scholar in the sociology and history of worldviews, he also advocates a profoundly liberal, egalitarian, and pluralistic approach to the task of philosophical inquiry. He insightfully writes,

     When a body claims that its philosophy has the monopoly on
     other worldviews, it cannot be placed under the rubric of
     philosophy -- it is dogma. ... philosophy is not love of 'a
     truth' or some 'particular approach to wisdom', but a love
     of truth and wisdom. However, this wisdom or truth cannot
     be pre-packaged or pre-wrapped as one 'ism' or other,
     rather it involves the courage and preparedness to engage
     with, to challenge, and to expand the boundaries of one's
     own knowledge and experience'
     (2010, http:---)
This sentiment ought to apply to all fields of thought -- religious and scientific. Fahey's insistence that philosophers must use science as a privileged standard by which to measure the relative merit of competing claims regarding the origins and nature of consciousness is not in keeping with the spirit of open-minded philosophical inquiry that he espouses. Fahey is correct to state that philosophers should not ignore the findings of science, but neither should philosophy arbitrarily privilege the worldview of science over others on this, or any, question.

According all worldviews consideration in regard to the still open and mysterious question of consciousness, and acknowledging the possibility that many views -- even seemly contradictory or paradoxical ones -- may be true simultaneously, would do justice to the complexity and depth of this question, and to the spirit of Dr. Fahey's philosophical vision.


Crick F., Koch C. (1990) 'Toward a Neurobiological Theory of Consciousness'. Seminars in the Neurosciences, 2, 263-275

________ (2005) 'What is the Function of the Claustrum? . Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 360., 1271-1279

Davies P. (1992) 'The Mind of God: the Scientific Basis for a Rational World'. New York: Simon & Schuster

Edelman G., Tononi G. (2000) 'A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination' New York: Basic Books

Fahey T. (2010) 'Philosophy, Science, and Consciousness' Philosophy Pathways Journal 152. April.

Hoffman, D. (2008) 'Conscious Realism and the Mind-Body Problem' Mind & Matter. Vol 6 87-121

Penrose R. (1994) 'Shadows of the Mind'. Oxford: University Press

Schwartz. J (2002) 'The Mind, The Brain, and the Power of Mental Force'. New York: Harper Collins

Searle J. (1984) 'Minds, Brains, and Science' Cambridge: Harvard University Press

________ (2004) 'Freedom and Neurobiology: Reflections on Free will, Language, and Political Power' New York: Columbia University Press

Stapp H. (1996) 'The Hard Problem: A Quantum Approach' Journal of Consciousness Studies. 3, 194-261

(c) Richard Grego 2010


Dr Richard Grego Associate Professor Department of Social/ Behavioral Sciences Daytona State College




Although Giambattista Vico's work made little impact during his own lifetime, decades after his death his history of philosophy has been admired and developed by, and has had a profound influence on, many subsequent writers and thinkers -- amongst whom can be counted, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and William Butler Yeats. Notwithstanding this influence Vico has remained peripheral figure to the philosophical and literary canons. The ambition of this paper is to discuss and to salute the influence of the philosophy of Giambattista Vico on the works of these Irish writers.

James Joyce

James Joyce was first taken by the corso-ricorso philosophy of Giambattista Vico whilst living in Trieste.[1] Indeed, so taken was Joyce with the Italian philosopher's work that he claimed that that his imagination grew whenever he read Vico. Richard Ellman, Joyce's biographer, reports that Joyce maintained that Vico's theory

     ... had amply demonstrated itself in his [own] life, and
     quite possibly he saw himself as having begun [with] a fear
     a of God, then basking in family and personal pride, and,
     finally, dispossessed, discovering a sufficient value in
     the ordinary and unassuming.[2]
In letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver on 21 May 1926 Joyce himself wrote,

     I do not know if Vico has been translated. I would not pay
     over much attention to these theories, beyond using them
     for all they are worth, but they have gradually forced
     themselves on me through circumstances of my own life.[3]
Samuel Beckett, in his first ever published work, 'Dante... Bruno. Vico.. Joyce'[4], also draws attention to Vico's influence on Joyce, where, following a lengthy description of Vico's New Science, he announces,

     This social and historical cyclical classification is
     clearly adapted by Mr Joyce as a structural convenience --
     or inconvenience... By structural I do not only mean a bold
     outward division, a bare skeleton for the housing of
     material. I mean the endless substantial variation on these
     three beats, and interior intertwining of these three themes
     into a decoration of arabesques -- decoration and more than
Beckett goes on to explain how Finnegans Wake follows the Vichean structure, starting with the first institution, religion -- 'a mass of dark shadow'; then 'the love game of children', which corresponds to Vico's second institution, marriage and the heroic age. The third part of Wake is passed in sleep, that is, burial and the age of men. And finally, in part four the day begins again -- ricorso. William York Tindall in his A Reader's Guide to Joyce, also reminds us that 'Joyce called up the system of Giambattista Vico... who found history cyclical'.[6] In Finnegans Wake, says Tindall, '[t]he creative father, the quarrelling sons, and the renovating mother of Earwicker's household fit this [Vico's] pattern nicely -- or, rather, Vico's pattern nicely fits Earwicker's family process'.[7] And, quoting from Finnegans Wake, Tindall draws our attention to a passage which reads: 'The Vico road goes round and round to meet where terms begin'.[8]

James Joyce, then, read New Science and discovered a paradigm that could be adapted and modified to his own historical schema. The sheer range and depth of Vico's work presented him with a ready-to-hand literary, philosophical, and historical space within which he could create his own 'monomyth'.[9] For example, in Finnegans Wake the giant, Tim Finnegan (representing the bestioni, or savage giants, of Vico's age of gods), dies after falling from a ladder (as a child a similar accident had brought Vico to the edge of death), he is succeeded by the heroic patriarch Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, or HCE (the age of heroes), who, in turn, is succeeded by his very human twin sons, Shem and Shaun in an age which inevitably turns to chaos, which is, of course, a prelude to the ricorso.

Like Vico's New Science, Finnegans Wake is divided into four large parts which represent the age of gods, the age of heroes, the age of men, and the period of renewal. Within these four parts are seventeen chapters, each of which corresponds to on of Vico's ages. Chapter one, 'The Fall of Man' centres on primitive and religious age. The second chapter, based on Vico's 'heroic age' deals with the conflict which arises between Tim Finnegan and Shem, otherwise known as 'The Cad'. Shem is the name of one of Noah's sons,[10] who Vico argues, after the Flood rejected his father's religion to wander in the forests of the earth. Chapter three, from Vico's 'age of men', is entitled 'Gossips and the Knocking at the Gate' and concerns the sin and fall of its central character Earwicker. In chapter four, Vico's ricorso, HCE becomes a fox and is hunted by the pack. Every fourth chapter, in turn, ends with Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP), who, as the principle of renewal, must preside over each ricorso. It is she who, after HCE's demise (dissolution), protects his grave, and she who will reawaken him.[11]

Joyce explicitly acknowledges his debt to Vico for the elaborate structure of Ulysses in the complicated schema of a 'Work in Progress' he sent to Carlo Linati in September 1920, and in another he later sent to Stuart Gilbert.[12] According to these schemata, episodes Telemachus and Calypso correspond with Vico's 'age of the gods' in that the language is theocratic and the focus is religion; the Nestor and Lotus Eaters episodes coincide with New Science's 'age of heroes' in which the language is theocratic and the protagonists aristocratic (heroic), while episodes Proteus and Hades deal with the 'age of men' in which the language is democratic, wisdom is sympathetic, and ricorso inevitable.[13]

Michael Seidel, in his Epic Geography, James Joyce's Ulysses, confirms Joyce's use of Vichean ideas when he draws attention to the bodily language of Finnegans Wake and Ulysses when he says,

     A powerful description of the bodily world of nature that
     may have influenced Joyce's vision of Molly Bloom and Anna
     Livia appears in Giambattista Vico's New Science. In his
     second book, Poetic Wisdom, Vico considers what he calls
     Poetic Cosmography. He writes of the linguistic progress
     from one visual form to another, from geographical contours
     of the earth to the curves of a woman's body. Language
     accommodates the shapes of nature.[14]
Thus, not only does Joyce follow Vico by attributing characteristics of animate substances to physical objects (as in the case of the first poets), but he also in the use expressions of physical objects as metaphors for the human body and its parts. For example, in Ulysses, Seidel explains, 'Molly Bloom, born on Gibraltar, builds her narration on the rotating rock of her own body' (ibid.), and in Finnegans Wake Anna Livia Plurabelle is not only 'body, woman, [and] wife',[15] but also a metaphor for the River Liffey.

Samuel Beckett

We have already seen how, in his essay 'Dante... Bruno.Vico.. Joyce', Samuel Beckett goes to some lengths to summarise Vico's New Science and to show this work was taken by Joyce as a structure for his 'Work in Progress'.[16] However, one can go further than to say that Beckett's interest in Vico was not simply to explain his influence on Joyce, and argue that in his own work it is also possible to see how Beckett may have borrowed from the Italian philosopher to present us with a vision of a postmodern and post-nuclear world -- a world which bears a striking resemblance to Vico's period of dissolution.

For Giambattista Vico mythical gods and heroes such as Jove or Hercules were not simply literary devices 'employed to impress in coded form the teachings of philosophers on such subjects as ethics, physics, or politics',[17] nor did he hold that they were once real men upon whom these myths were built. Rather, for Vico, these 'poetic characters' were concrete manifestations of abstract ideas.[18] That is, they represented true 'examples of a primitive, concrete, anthropomorphic mode of thought'.[19] In other words, these myths represent, in poetic form, the customs and beliefs of the primitive communities. In Endgame, we see that in the same way that Vico's theological poets used poetic characters to represent the customs, behaviour and beliefs of real people at a particular place and time in the ideal eternal history of humankind, so too does Samuel Beckett employ the same method to represent the nature, customs, and behaviour of human beings in the post-atomic age.

For Vico, the history of humankind is not lineal: it is not a process in which each phase succeeds the other in a gradual but ever improving progression from the primitive to the sophisticated, but a cyclical process which inevitably terminates in chaos before returning to its original state -- at which stage the cycle begins again. The beginning of the end, that is, the point or phase in history where regression begins, says Vico, is during the age of men. In this age, which begins with such faith in the power of reason to know and control not only the natural world, but also the self, religion is gradually replaced by secularism and communal responsibility by egotism. During this period societies become fragmented and, in time, people develop a sense of isolation, alienation, and fear. In short, the age moves inevitably towards a state of chaos and dissolution.

In his play Endgame, and in his novel Molloy, it is possible to argue that Samuel Beckett presents us with such a concept of the state of affairs of men. For example, in Endgame, which Keith Hopper tells us is Beckett's 'favourite play',[20] Beckett creates a stage set that resembles a skull-like room. In this room only one person has the ability to move, and even this ability is restricted. This set, then, can be interpreted as representative of a post-atomic world which is so empty that human beings seem 'like a monstrous intrusion'.[21] That is, Beckett presents a scene in which the protagonists, Hamm, Clov, Nag, and Nell, are not only isolated from the world, but also, for the most part, from each other. In other words, in their world they have been reduced to exist in a state of fear and alienation -- a state of chaos.

By concentrating his gaze primarily on the interplay between Clov and Hamm, an interplay in which the protagonists represent two opposing kings during the 'endgame' in the game of chess, each countering the other's moves, neither gaining sufficient advantage to make that final incisive move that would allow one to gain mastery over the other, Beckett draws attention to the sense of fear and anxiety that, for Vico, is an integral part of the human condition during this period of dissolution. The depth of feeling of anguish is reflected in Hamm's fear that, ultimately, Clov may abandon him -- an anguish which is compounded by the fact that Clov may find within himself the strength to make a life for himself outside. For even in their present state, with Nell and Nag, there remains the, albeit dying, fragments of a community. For Clov the feelings of anxiety and loneliness manifest themselves in the gnawing fear that outside the room there is nothing but a void. These feelings represent Beckett's critique of Cartesianism, for, as Keith Hopper explains,

     [Beckett]... was notoriously sceptical about the claims of
     rationality as an all-governing discourse. He had himself
     after careful study rejected the account of human existence
     given by the Western philosophical tradition, especially as
     it based itself on Descartes, who had asserted cogito, ergo
     sum: I think, therefore I am.[22]
Thus, we see that, like Vico, Beckett held that the Cartesian concept of a reasoning homunculi which contemplates a priori 'clear and distinct ideas' is erroneous (Vico would say that it was a 'conceit'). The world of Endgame, then, can be interpreted as a metaphor for a world in which the ideal eternal history of humankind is reaching its nadir -- that stage just before it finally dissolves and religion is reborn from the ashes of the age reason. Describing this phase of the corso-ricorso, Vico says,

     When people suffer from a fatal civil malady... [l]ike
     beasts [they]... are accustomed to think of nothing but
     their personal advantage, and are prone to irritability, or
     rather pride, so that they are fitted with bestial rage and
     resentment at the least provocation. Although their bodies
     are densely crowded together, their intentions and desires
     are separated. Like wild beasts, no two or three of them
     agree, because each pursues his own pleasure or caprice.[23]
In Endgame, Beckett, echoing Vico, presents us with such a scenario: an age in which the aged and infirm (Nag and Nell) have become little more than living corpses whose continuing existence is both an irritation and an inconvenience to others. An age too when human beings succumb to a Hamm and Clov mentality and engage in petty, whimsical, and self-gratifying mind games in which each attempts to gain control over the other. And an age in which the acts of violence and injustice perpetrated by 'men of reason' surpass even those of the giants of antiquity. As Vico explains, in such an age '[t]his barbarism of calculation turns such people into beasts even more savage than did the primitive barbarism of the senses'.[24] Thus, like the 'poetical characters' created by Vico's theological poets, Beckett's protagonists do not express coded philosophical or pedagogical messages, nor do they attempt to represent people as mythical heroes, rather they are 'empirical illustrations' of 'philosophical abstractions',[25] that is, they are concrete modes of thought which represent the consensus (what Vico calls the sensus communis) of particular people, in a particular place, and at a particular time, in the ever evolving and revolving history of humankind.

In the first part of his novel, Molloy, Beckett presents us a protagonist -- a 'poetical character' -- whose life can be interpreted as representative of a pattern which follows the Vichean corso-ricorso. From the very outset we see how Beckett, mirroring the Vichean theological poet struggling to emerge from the age of bestioni, portrays his protagonist, Molloy, as a person whose movements are not only constrained by the fact that he has a stiff leg, but also by the threatening and primitive nature of those within whom he comes contact: by the police who harry him for resting his bicycle in a public place; by the mob who try to kill him when he accidentally runs over and kills a dog with his bicycle, and by the dog's lady owner, who rescues him from the mob but smothers him with claustrophobic concern. Molloy, who has been driven by some silent force (Vico calls this force 'divine providence') to give up the slothful comfort of his rock in order to search for his mother continues to follow the Vichean pattern when, after some time spent in a cave (he has not yet managed to fully emerge from the primitive state), he moves to a forest where he slays an innocent woodcutter. Here we become aware of Beckett's use of the seasons as metaphors for Vico's different ages when Molloy, whose early phase must have taken place in winter, emerges from the forest just as spring, the age of heroes, begins.

In the second part of the novel Molloy moves to the next phase in the Vichean historical cycle when the protagonist enters into a slave-master relationship with the tyrant Moran. The third age, the age of democracy, is represented by the more equitable balance of power that arises between lord and slave when Moran loses the use of his legs. The fourth stage, the dissolution into chaos, is represented by Moran's entry into the woods where he too assaults a stranger before, eventually, reaching home, which by now is in disarray or chaos.

In Molloy, then, we see that Vico's argument that mythical heroes are credible concrete images created by theological poets is also made by Beckett who creates his own poetic characters in his protagonists, Molloy and Moran. In this novel Beckett shows that, while his focus is confined to the experiences of individual men, the writer/ poet is privileged to gather the experiences of many people, and select from them those elements or characteristics which he/ she best judges represent the poetic character most appealing to his/ her audience. In Vichean terms this means that the poet takes those characteristics which represent the spontaneous or unreflected judgements of the sensus communis of the people and embodies them in a single hero/ character. Thus, the poet/ writer is a conduit, or a prism, through which the consensus of the majority is refracted, refined and reflected back to the people. In this way, we see that, for Beckett, as it is for Vico, the poet/ writer is the true chronicler of history. That is, through poetic characterisation the poet/ writer follows the birth, rise, and demise that, inevitably, all human life must follow. Molloy, like Homer, says Beckett, is not a historical individual but an idea: a poetic image created from characteristics which are common to all men. In short, for Beckett, as it is for Vico, the poetic hero is everyone, and no one.

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats came to Vico by way of a series of lectures given by Douglas Ainslie on Benedetto Croce's Aesthetic. In 1924 he read and annotated R.G. Collingwood's translation of Croce's Philosophy of Giambattista Vico, and in 1930 as an introduction to his Swift play 'The Words upon the Window Pane', he wrote an essay drawing on the parallel and contrast between Vico's New Science and Swift's Discourse of the Contents and Dissensions between the Nobles and the Commons in Athens and Rome; and in 1938 he wrote in his On the boiler: 'Vico was the first modern philosopher to discover in his own mind, and in the European past, all human destiny'.[26] Since Yeats went to such lengths to extol the virtues of Vico's storia ideale eterna, it is not surprising that much of the influence of Vico's cyclical theory can be identified in his work. For example in 'The Second Coming' he writes,

     Turning and turning in the widening gyre
     The falcon cannot hear the falconer
     Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.[27]

Here we see that, for Yeats, the falcon (humankind) has become so removed from the falconer (God) that everything is in chaos. In 'The Gyres' Yeats writes, 'Empedocles has thrown all things about'.[28] Empedocles was a Geek philosopher and poet (c. 493 BCE) who rejected the notion of a single basic substance. According to the Greek philosopher, Love (Philotes) and Strife (Neikos) are rival cosmic powers, each in constant conflict with the other and each dominating at one time or another as the balance of power constantly shifts. Empedocles (like Vico) also held that the nature of man was primarily weak and that the only way to salvation was knowledge, or science. In his A Vision, first published in 1926 and revised in 1937, Yeats describes his historical process as a pair of expanding gyres. The two cones are contraries, or antinomies, (Empedocles' 'Love and Strife') which interact simultaneously, at any one time there is a tendency towards the primary or antithetical, but as this tendency increases its opposite is also apparent. Each phase represents a 2000 year cycle, the end of which ends in chaos, and during which humankind awaits the 'second coming' of Christ. Like Vico, Yeats sees social and political chaos as a transitional period in the endless cycle of world history; that is, as a phase in the eternal ideal history of humankind.


Because of the predominance of Cartesianism during Vico's lifetime his New Science sank, almost without a trace, until, nearly a century after his death, it was salvaged by the French thinkers, Jules Michelet and Auguste Comte. Amongst others whose work owes much to Vico are: Benedetto Croce, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Karl Marx, R. G. Collingwood, and, more recently, Salman Rushdie and A.S. Byatt. When one adds to this impressive list the names of those upon whom this paper is based, it seems puzzling that one who has contributed so much to so many remains such a peripheral figure in the Western philosophical and literary canon.


1. Ellman, Richard: Ulysses on the Liffey. (London: Faber and Faber Limited. 1972) p. 52

2. ibid.

3. Gilbert, Gilbert: Letters of James Joyce. (London: Faber and Faber, 1957)

4. the dots between the names signify the number of centuries between the different authors

5. Beckett, Samuel: Disjecta. Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (London: John Calder Publishers Ltd. 1983)

6. Tindall, William York: A Reader's Guide to James Joyce (London: Thames and Hudson. 1959) p.244

7. ibid.

8. ibid., p. 452

9. Joyce, James: Finnegans Wake (London: The Viking Press. 1939) p. 581

10. Vico, Giambattista: New Science trans. by David Marsh with introduction by Anthony Grafton (London: Penguin Books, 1999), paras, 139-143

11. see Tindall Op.cit. (ibid., pp, 269-272)

12. see Ellman. Op.cit. (ibid., pp 58/ 59 and 178-183)-

13. ibid.

14. Seidal, Michael: Epic Geography. James Joyce's Ulysses (Princeton, New Jersey: University Press, 1976) p. 41

15. ibid.

16. see Beckett. Op.cit. (ibid., p. 19)

17. Burke, Peter: Vico (Oxford, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1985) p, 19

18. see ibid.

19. ibid.

20. Hopper, Keith: 'Samuel Beckett: Working Through the Media' (Dublin, Dublin City University, 1998), 11-10.

21. Alvarez, Al: Beckett. Second Edition (London, Fontana, 1992) p, 15.

22. Hopper. Op.cit. (ibid., 10-9)

23. Vico. Op.cit. (ibid., para, 1106)

24. ibid.

25. see Beckett. Op.cit. (ibid.)

26. see Fisch, M.H in The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico, trans. by M.H.Fisch & T. Goddard Bergin (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 98/ 9/ ,.

27. Yeats, William Butler: W.B.Yeats. Selected Poetry, ed. Timothy Webb (London: Penguin Books, 1991), p124.

28. Yeats. Op.cit.(ibid., p. 124)

(c) Anthony Fahey 2010


Web site: http:---

[For more on Giambattista Vico see Anthony Fahey's book Vico's Road to Postmodernism (2009). Publication details can be found on the Pathways Features Page https:---]




In the world of philosophy (in particular the discipline of ethics or morality), there are two schools of thought. The first is comprised of members who believe that all things in the universe can be laid out as a series of theories capable of being proven by the scientific method. For this paper's purpose, this position will be referred to as the 'Rationalist' school of thought. The second school of thought is made of members who believe that only a certain number of issues or phenomena in nature can be explained by the scientific method with 100% certainty, school of 'Skepticism.' The Rationalist and Skeptical schools of thought both have varied 'philosophical genres' that prescribe to either thought.

Alan Gewirth's Principle of Generic Consistency (PGC) is what philosophers would call a Rationalist theory. Gewirth's claim is that his principle is an axiom that can be used to derive all moral concepts. According to Gewirth the PGC, like all other axioms, can be proven to be 'true' (true meaning absolute and real in the metaphysical and physical senses).

The purpose of this paper is to examine central issues associated with the PGC. The paper will look at the theory and its proof as well as alternative theories.


To understand basic concepts of the thesis, I have laid this foundation for this essay's arguments. First a look at the Principle of Generic Consistency (PGC) itself:

The PGC is a moral theory developed by Dr. Alan Gewirth, the importance of which is Gewirth's claim that his theory is a universal axiom from which all other moral principles are derived. The PGC is not only the 'birthplace' of all other moral principles, but itself cannot be derived from any other theory or principle. The PGC's authority comes from a logical proof which W.D. Hudson outlines in his essay 'The 'Is/Ought' Problem Resolved?' (Regis 1984, 108-127) According to Hudson, the PGC's logical argument takes the form of:

     1. I do x for purpose E.
     2. E is good.
     3. My freedom and well-being are good as good is the
     necessary conditions of all my actions.
     4. I have a right to freedom and well-being.
     5. All other agents ought to refrain from interfering with
     my freedom and well-being.
     6. All prospective, purposive agents have the right to
     freedom and well-being.
     7. I ought to refrain from interfering with the freedom and
     well-being of all prospective, purposive agents.
According to Gewirth, the PGC's logical proof is a demonstration of the rational set of 'events' that take place when a person faces a moral dilemma. Gewirth concludes that all sane and rational people, on the 'pain' of self contradiction, must adhere to the logical conclusion demonstrated in the proof. There are two exceptions -- children and the mentally ill.

The PGC states, 'Act in accord with the generic rights of your recipients as well as of yourself' (Gewirth 1978, 135). Many of Gewirth's peers have pointed to the similarity between the PGC and the Golden Rule. Gewirth has conceded the similarities between the Golden Rule and his PGC but maintains that the PGC is an independent principle, one which he describes as Egalitarian Universalist (Gewirth 1978, 140) and the supreme principle of morality (Gewirth 1978, 145).

Even though the PGC has gained a wide acceptance from certain members of the law community and from libertarians, there have been several detractors in the academic community. The majority of the issues brought up against the PGC revolve around Gewirth's claim that the PGC is the supreme principle, while others cite the principle's incompleteness it lack of necessity.

In the following section we will look at the historical foundation of the PGC and the basis for research into discovering a unifying theory or supreme principle of morality.

Basis for the PGC

Gewirth, in Reason and Morality, presented three reasons or 'justifications' for the PGC. These justifications (Gewirth 1978, 135) are the 'Authoritative Question,' the 'Distributive Question' and the 'Substantive Question.' Gewirth further proposes in Reason and Morality that the confusion that exists in the field of morality comes from not tackling these justifications. Gewirth put forth that his theory (PGC) will satisfy all three central questions of moral philosophy and, in so doing, put to rest the authoritative, distributive and substantive issues surrounding all of the PGC's predecessors. What, exactly, are the three central questions though? For clarity, let's define each one:

The Question of Authority asks why anyone should be moral, especially when the moral act conflicts with one's own interest. The Authority Question brings to light the need for some rational explanation for moral obligation or, as in Gewirth's proposal, a Supreme Moral Principle based on pure reason with a logical demonstration.

The Distributive Question asks whose responsibility is it to bear the moral obligation. The Distributive Question brings to light the various philosophical answers to the question of who should receive the benefit of moral acts, the individual or institution. Gewirth's answer to that question was the PGC.

The Substantive Question presents the need for a defined system that decides which 'interests' have more weight: Do political obligations have more weight the military ones; does your neighbor's moral interest have priority over yours? All substantive questions, according to Gewirth, could be answered with a unifying principle which would define the criteria for moral obligation; Gewirth proposed his PGC to be this unifying principle (Gewirth 1978, 140).

Gewirth's motives went beyond answering the three central questions in morality. Gewirth borrowed extensively from various philosophers; in the second part of this section we will look at one of Gewirth's moral theories, for which he owes a great deal to Immanuel Kant's 'Categorical Imperatives.'

Categorical Imperatives

Gewirth's reasoning behind his research into a single universal principle of morality was to satisfy the three central questions of morality, but his research was based on earlier philosophical works, primarily Immanuel Kant.

The parallels between Kant's moral system and Gewirth's PGC have been noted by Gewirth and others. Edward Regis, Jr., wrote in his introduction to Gewirth's 'Ethical Rationalism Critical Essays' (Regis 1984, 4) that the centerpiece of Gewirth's system is the Principle of Generic Consistency. The PGC states, 'Act in accord with the generic rights of your recipients as well as yourself.' This principle, as stated before, has obvious affinities to the Golden Rule, Kant's one supreme categorical imperative.

One of the obstacles Gewirth's critics have presented is the PGC's lack of need since it had all been said and done when Kant first introduced the Golden Rule. Gewirth, in his introduction of the PGC to the philosophic community, dedicated two sections to proving the PGC's necessity as one both formal and material (Gewirth 1978, 150-170). Gewirth contends in his material section that the PGC differs from the Golden Rule on several points. Gewirth's calls the Golden Rule the 'principle of appetitive-reciprocal consistency' (Gewirth 1978, 169), the main difference between the PGC and PARC (the Golden Rule) being that the PARC does not specify what sorts of 'rights or duties' are owed to the moral agent.

Gewirth writes in Reason and Morality that, as already noted, an important difference from the Golden Rule is, whereas the PGC focuses on what the agent necessarily values or wants with regard to how he is to be treated, the Golden Rule leaves it open to the agent to describe his actions at differing levels of generality. Gewirth goes on to describe how these 'generalities' could take shape. 'He (the moral agent) would want other persons to ply him with gin; he would want other persons to give him a certain drink... hence he ought to give them the same.' Gewirth concludes the thought with adding, '... but which level of generality is the right one? Different answers may yield extremely unpalatable results, as where a sadomasochist holds that he ought to inflict pain and suffering on other persons because he would want them to inflict pain and suffering on him' (Gewirth 1978, 169). Gewirth's solution to the logical loophole in Kant's supreme categorical imperative is to specify what duties or rights are owed to and expected from the moral agent, specifically generic rights, which Gewirth defined as, '...rights to the necessary conditions of agency, freedom and well-being' (Gewirth 1978, 69).

In summary, Gewirth's reasoning behind developing the PGC was to put to rest the three nagging central questions in moral philosophy while simultaneously producing a new criterion in moral philosophy. How successful Gewirth was in his desire to evolve moral philosophy is up to speculation. In the next section we will look further at obstacles facing the PGC, specifically two rival theories -- Moral Relativism and Utilitarianism.

The PGC and Alternate Moralities

This section will introduce two alternate moral theories representing opposing views to those in found in Gewirth's PGC. Gewirth, in his thesis Reason and Morality, also dedicated a great deal of attention to the alternate theories discussed in this section. Utilitarianism and Relativism are two moral theories which Gewirth 'takes on' in Reason and Morality. The reasoning behind the 'attacks' is not solely because of the two theories' popularity but also because both offer a sharp contrast from Gewirth's own PGC.


Utilitarianism is mentioned throughout Gewirth's introduction to the PGC; it was one of the alternate moral theories Gewirth used for comparison purposes. Utilitarianism is a 'Consequentialist' moral theory based on the Principle of Utility. In philosophical terms, Utility refers to the amount of 'happiness' or level of 'satisfaction' a person or group has. Utilitarianism of the John Stuart Mill variety (the classic form of Utilitarianism Gewirth referred to in Reason and Morality) calls for the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people; Utilitarianism can be viewed as a quantitative solution to the distribution issue in morality. Utilitarianism in the classic form can be either Act or Rule Utilitarianism.

The issue Gewirth has with Utilitarianism is the need for variant methods of applying the Principle of Utility, as in either Rule or Act. Gewirth believes that since the Principle of Utility has to have more than one method of application, there must be a crack in its rigor; Gewirth states in Reason and Morality, 'The applications of the Principle of Utility, whether in act- or in rule-utilitarianism, are only aggregative: they consist simply in maximizing utility... This maximizing must be maintained with no independent concern for distributive considerations; hence, the requirements of distributive justice may be violated.'

Gewirth goes on to point to the virtues and superior results that come about when applying the PGC instead of the Principle of Utility under the same parameters. Gewirth continues in Reason and Morality, 'The applications of the PGC, on the other hand, are of several different kinds, by virtue of the complexity of the PGC itself. But they put central emphasis on distributive considerations, on equality between agent and recipient with regard to the rights of freedom and well being.' It seems that Gewirth purposes that the PGC is more ideal then the Principle of Utility based on a consistency factor; he goes on to mention, 'A further difference is that the logical basis of the Principle of Utility itself and hence of its various applications is left indeterminate... applications of the PGC, on the other hand, reflect throughout its inherently rational structure.'

There are critics to Gewirth's claim of the PGC's theoretical supremacy over the Principle of Utility. D.D. Raphael points to Gewirth's solution to the conflict of interests between agents and recipients as leaving something of a gap (Regis 1984, 95) and being no better the Utilitarian solution.

Gewirth's response to this criticism is to point to his set of three criteria that could be used to solve any conflict when applying the PGC. Those criteria, in order of importance, are: Prevention or Removal of Inconsistency, Degrees of Necessity for Action and Institutional Requirements. Gewirth contends that the three criteria he introduced would resolve all conflicts arising with the application of the PGC but not with the Principle of Utility.


If Gewirth's PGC could have an inversion it would be Moral Relativism. A meta-ethical position, Moral Relativism is divided into two forms, Individual and Cultural Relativism. Gewirth, in his introduction of the PGC, mentions and criticizes Individual Relativism's followers (and those of other naturalistic theories). Individual Relativism is a moral principle based on the idea that individual or agents have their own view of what is good based on 'objects' of their desire or need.

Gewirth contends in Reason and Morality (Gewirth 1978, 159) that 'A closely related difficulty is that of relativism. Since different agents have different and even conflicting purposes, not all their objects can be good, and such naturalistic definitions provide no way of deciding among them.' Gewirth's answer to this moral dilemma is the PGC's dialectical method or logical proof. Gewirth states, 'The use of the dialectically necessary method has enabled me to avoid these difficulties' (Gewirth 1978, 160). In general, the PGC allows for an agent to seek whatever 'objects' of his or her desire, without creating the conflict found in Relativism of any form, since the logical structure of the PGC demands that agent to recognize that the recipients and other possible agents also have the same right.

Gewirth's PGC has faced many attacks, but the members of the philosophical community who are proponents of Naturalistic (Relativist) theories and those who promote the Principle of Utility have been the most vocal. In years to come, the debate will no doubt continue with members of the Relativist and Utilitarian communities not just seeking new developments for their theories but also taking aim at the idea of a unifying moral principle.


Gewirth's PGC, which could be described as Normative and Deontological but which Gewirth describes as an Egalitarian-Universalist moral principle, is a major development in Rationalist philosophy. Gewirth's attempt to create a truly Universalist moral axiom, one complete with logical proof, is as an important discovery as any other theoretical find in the 20th century. The PGC's critics have even given credit to Gewirth's dialectical method.

The circumstances that surround moral philosophy have given Gewirth's PGC a steep hill to climb. The moral debate between 'Naturalists', Rationalists, Contemporary Skeptics and Institutionalists rages on and on. There are experts in the field of moral philosophy who question Gewirth's intentions with regard to his development of the PGC, pointing to similar principles found in earlier theories; Gewirth, in his introduction of the PGC, made attempts to satisfy any questions on the need and originality of his theory. Gewirth points to the three central questions in morality as the root cause to the confusion in moral philosophy and points to the need for a truly Rationalist litmus test for moral principles. Gewirth's response to both issues was the PGC, which not only answered the three central questions but is based on a dialectically necessary method.

Gewirth' work has gained popularity among Jurists and Rationalists in the United States, being cited in law journals including the Georgia Law Review in 1979. Gewirth's PGC, with its claim of supremacy over all other moral principles, will remain a hot and debated topic in the field of philosophy.

Works Cited

Carson, Thomas L., and Paul K. Moser. Moral Relativism: A Reader. London: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Fieser, James PhD. 'The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Ethics.' http:---. 2006.

Gewirth, Alan. Reason and Morality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Hudson, W.D. 'The 'Is-Ought' Problem Resolved?' In Gewirth's Ethical Rationalism: Critical Essays with a Reply by Alan Gewirth, edited by Edward Regis, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated and Analyzed by H.J. Paton. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1964.

Levy, Neil. Moral Relativism: A Short Introduction. London: Oneworld Publications, 2002.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1979.

Oderberg, David S. Moral Theory a Non-Consequentialist Approach. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 2000.

Raphael, D.D. 'Rights and Conflicts.' In Gewirth's Ethical Rationalism: Critical Essays with a Reply by Alan Gewirth, edited by Edward Regis, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Regis, Edward Jr. 'Introduction.' In Gewirth's Ethical Rationalism: Critical Essays with a Reply by Alan Gewirth, edited by Edward Regis, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations 5th ed. Chicago, London The University of Chicago Press Fifth edition, 1987

(c) John M. Ramirez 2010


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