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Epiphanies 3.docx
  1 Chapter 3: Encounters with Values  A dove-house fill'd with doves and pigeons Shudders hell thro' all its regions.  A dog starv'd at his master's gate Predicts the ruin of the state.  A horse misused upon the road Calls to heaven for human blood. Each outcry of the hunted hare  A fibre from the brain does tear.  A skylark wounded in the wing,  A cherubim does cease to sing.  William Blake, “Auguries of innocence”  I believe the power of observation in numbers of very young children to be quite  wonderful for its closeness and accuracy. Indeed, I think that most grown men who are remarkable in this respect may… be said not to have lost the faculty, than to have acquired it; the rather as I generally observe such men retain a certain freshness and gentleness, and capacity of being pleased, which are also an inheritance they have preserved from their childhood. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield  , Ch.2 3.1 (1) Values are encountered  . We might almost say we bump into them. They come to us from outside; like tables and trees and tax- invoices, they are “just there” , waiting for us to notice them. As with tables, trees, and tax- invoices, we don’t construct  values, or infer them from other, more basic or immediate objects of experience. We experience the values themselves, directly. (2) We are passive relative to the values we encounter, not active. Their presence before us is none of our doing, except in the sense that what values we encounter may depend on which ways we direct our attention, just as a table’s presence before me may depend on  which way I turn and  which way I look. (3)  Values don’ t come across to us as any kind of function of our desires or preferences or overall aims, any more than trees we encounter come across to us as such a function. The values we encounter aren’t the way they are because, in any sense, we want them to be. O f course it’ s nice  when the values we encounter do match well with our wishes, our commitments and projects and life-plans. But it is perfectly possible and not at all uncommon for them not to. (4) Any particular encounter with value has the highest possible 1  degree of independence in its evidential force. Insofar as it is possible for a single encounter to have evidential force irrespective of its inferential connections (or lack thereof) to anything else, including any other encounter with  value and any system of theory, any single encounter has this force. 1   Note this qualification. I am open to the possibility that “highest possible” might not be all that high, for reasons to do with a broader epistemic holism. But what I have to say here is orthogonal to debates about holism. Consider that issue parked.  2 (5) Values are no less transculturally available for encounter than tables, trees, and tax-invoices.  They may also, as the case of tax-invoices reminds us to add, be no more transculturally available; though in fact I think it is natural to be more optimistic about transcultural availability with values than it is with tax-invoices. (Think of how we might come to understand a very different society: it is easy to imagine moments where insight into that society flashes upon us, because we come to grasp what they count as valuable. It is less easy to imagine such insights happening in which we come to grasp what they count as a tax-invoice.) Likewise encounters with value are pervasively transculturally intelligible. As I shall show by examples in 3.3, we can mostly understand as such the responses to value of otherwise exceedingly alien cultures. (  “ Mostly  ” : certainly we cannot always, but the cases where we cannot are perhaps overdramatized by philosophical scepticism.) (6) Values are not the proper object of any single sensory modality   —  but then neither are tables and trees and tax-invoices. One cannot be aware of values without being conditioned and disposed in the right sorts of way   —  but then the same is true of tables, trees, and tax-invoices. And in fact, in all four cases, the conditioning and disposing required is not especially recherché, and exceedingly widespread. (7) Encounters with values, like encounters with tables, trees, and tax-invoices, are generally, though not always, such that they can give rise to reasons to act. They are sometimes such that they must give rise to reasons to act. But then so, when other things are equal, are encounters with tables (when they’re about to fall on you), trees (when you’re abou t to cycle into them), and tax-invoices (when they say “Pay this or go to prison”). (8) Encounters with tables, trees and tax-invoices can be evidentially decisive, or as good as decisive: encounters of these sorts can be such that they leave us no serious room for doubt about the reality of what we have encountered. And they typically are, though there is also a small minority of borderline cases where there is serious doubt about the reality of the things encountered. Exactly parallel remarks apply for encounters with values. (9) Encounters with values and with commonplace objects like tables, trees, and tax-invoices are, I suggest, structurally analogous in all these eight ways. But here, to close my list of comparisons, is what I take to be a dis  analogy between the two kinds of encounter. Encounters with value can be, and in central and focal cases are  , epiphanies. I mean here by “epiphany”  just what I meant in 1.1: an epiphany is an overwhelming existentially significant manifestation of value, often sudden and surprising, which feels like it “comes from outside”—  it is something given, relative to which I am a passive perceiver  —   which t eaches us something new, which “takes us out of ourselves”, and to which there is a natural and correct response. Encounters with values can be revelations to us of something that founds, or again that revolutionises, the whole way we see the world, the  whole way we think about value in general, our entire motivational and justificatory outlook; they can be moving, awesome, inspiring; they can give us a sense of the transcendent or the infinite. (Whatever this may come to ; I’m not here committed to any particular account of what it does come to.) Encounters with tables, trees, tax-invoices, et cetera cannot in this sense be epiphanies; except when they are also encounters with value. 3.2 3.1 , in case you’re wondering, is not meant as argument, but as phenomenological description. If the phenomenological description that it offers is correct, then that establishes, or helps to establish, the truth of a substantive position in philosophical ethics, one that I shall call recognitionalism. I do claim that recognitionalism is tr ue. I don’t claim that 3.1  is an argument for it; though it is a phenomenological description of it.  3  Arguments succeed when they move by valid steps from true premisses to true conclusions. Phenomenological descriptions succeed when they are sincere  —   when they are offered with a serious attempt at honesty, in good faith, and without conscious ideological bias  —   when they are accurate  —   when they capture what our experience is actually like  —  and when they are significant  —   when what they sincerely and accurately capture is existentially central. That is: a successful phenomenological description does not just capture some eccentric detail, however truthfully and honestly reported, of some one idiosyncratic psychology; it has to capture something that is an important and archetypal part of humans’ lived experience in general  .  As to the sincerity  of my reporting, all I can do is hope that my readers will give me that epistemic credit; as to its significance , judge for yourselves. As to its accuracy , there are three things I can do.  The first of these is the piece of hoping already referred to: I hope that what I say is familiar to the reader from her own experience. It had better be, given that phenomenological descriptions are meant, as I say, to be significant  —  to be importantly typical descriptions of human experience. (To put it another way, they are meant as the kind of thesis that, if advanced, everyone will agree to:  Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations I, 128.)  The second thing I can do is to produce some more examples that support and illustrate, both  what I have already said in the first two chapters about epiphany, and also 3.1 ’s  slightly more formal nine-point phenomenology of value-encounter. I do that in 3.3.  And the third is to say something about an obvious threat to 3.1 ’s  phenomenological sketch, and to the picture of an epiphany-based ethical outlook that I am beginning to build. The threat is that even if my nine-point sketch is accurate, it can’t be taken fully literally, because it conflicts in obvious ways with well-established theses in philosophy. Or there again, maybe what the sketch shows is that those theses are not so well-established after all? More about that in 3.4-3.6. After that, I consider how recognitionalism might cope with the problem of demandingness (3.7), and then address its relationship to three themes from Bernard Williams: moral luck (3.8), external reasons again (3.9), and practical necessity (3.10). 3.3 My first example of value-encounter in this chapter does feature a tree: a plane tree, and the Persian king Xerxes. As Tom Holland tells the story in his popular history Persian Fire   (London: Little, Brown 2005), p.239: [I]f, as Xerxes had been raised to believe, the world was his to conquer, it was also his to mend. Keen horticulturalist that he was, he knew that a paradise, 2  before it could be considered completed, first had to be cleared of weeds, set in order, beautified. Significantly, even embarking on a brutal campaign of destruction, Xerxes’ love of the natural world and his eye for its glories never left him. Nearing Sardis, for instance, he had come across a plane tree of such surpassing loveliness that he had halted the entire march of his army in admiration. One of [his bodyguard] the Immortals had been detached from the company and ordered to serve as its guard. Golden jewellery brought out from the 2    The point of using this word is, of course, that it is a Persian word,  paridaeza  , “a walled garden”, transliterated into the Greek  paradeisos by Xenophon.  4 expedition’s mobile treasure trove had been festooned from it s sweeping branches. To be sure, the Great King took   —  but he also gave away. Xerxes’ reaction to seeing something exceptionally beautiful—  the plane tree  —  is to drop everything else he is doing (namely, marching an army of conquest off to invade Greece) and halt to contemplate it. It is as if, in the midst of his other preoccupations, he has become aware of the power and pull of a value that is presented to him, and changed course, temporarily at least, in response to that value. 3   To run his case by the checklist of my description in 3.1: Xerxes (1) encounters a value in encountering the tree, a value (2) whose presence before him is none of his doing, which (3) is no function of what Xerxes already  wants, and in fact stands in the way of his main current projects and life-plans. His encounter with the tree (4) is an experience of value quite independent of any other thoughts or experiences of values that Xerxes may have. If anything, indeed, the degree of this independence becomes a rational embarrassment  —  the question “Why this   beautiful tree particularly? Mustn’t he have seen lots of others equally beautiful?” is an obvious one about this story. (5) My contention is that, for all the vast cultural differences between us and him, what Xerxes does is readily intelligible to us. We know from our own experience what it is like to be suddenly struck, (9) epiphanically, by the beauty of something and respond to it; and just this seems to have been what happened to Xerxes. (6) Xerxes’ encounter with the tree , and with its value, is perceptually cross-modal and (8) epistemically well-grounded. (7) Xerxes takes the tree to give him reasons to act, and acts on them; his resulting actions may strike us as bizarre (he is almost literally gilding the lily), but they are not  —  I should have thought  —  blankly incomprehensible to us. Notice, incidentally, that I speak barely of value-  encounter, not more qualifiedly of moral or aesthetic or spiritual/ religious value-encounter. Deliberately so. As I say, what I am doing here is phenomenological description, description of the experience of encountering values of these and other sorts. While there are obviously differences between encountering a Leonardo and encountering a drowning child, I doubt that these differences make for clear-cut philosophical distinctions running right across the whole field of our experience of value. Quite simply, the beauty of the plane-tree is a reason to admire and not to destroy it. A moral reason? An aesthetic one? A religious/spiritual one? I don’t see that we increase our understanding of the value of the tree by giving an answer to this question that finds a way of categorising the tree in one of these categories and not the others.  Another reservation that I have about a standard way of talking about value of any of these sorts: it is hard to avoid talking of things like Xerxes’ plane tree as instances of value, or loci of value, or the like. Such phrases are unfortunate, insofar as they suggest that the plane tree, or what have you, is as it were a receptacle containing an amorphous stuff, the stuff value  , which like milk or dough could just as well be contained in other receptacles, and which perhaps comes in (measurable?) quantities. This is not the point at all. As we might put it, the things do not contain   the values, they are the values. …objects of enjoyment and, worse, of reverent appreciation have been misinterpreted as means to the states of mind they or their presence or possession may evoke. It is a distorted  way of speaking to call the object of an enjoyment a means to pleasure. The instrumentality 3   In that respect (at any rate) Xerxes is rather like a mediaeval character whom I have mentioned elsewhere, Villars de Honnecourt, who is brought up short, quite suddenly and unexpectedly and evidently at some cost to his mainstream projects, whatever they may have been, quite simply because he sees a beautiful window (T.H.White, The Once and Future King   p.577; also used as an epigraph to Ch.8 of Knowing What To Do  ).    Wikipedia records his first name slightly differently from T.H.White, as Villard (‘old man’? ‘townsman’?) , and describes him as an itinerant artist, architect, and inventor, in a way the Leonardo of his time, who lived roughly 1200-1250. He may have been going to Hungary on behalf of the Chapter of Cambrai Cathedral, to buy a relic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villard_de_Honnecourt  5 implied in the  procuring of the object (buying it in the marketplace, etc.) is fallaciously transferred here to the object itself. (Aurel Kolnai, ERV p.52) If it helps , compare “valuable” with “important”. To make a full switch from talking about value to talking about importance would be awkward and unhelpful for a number of reasons. But it  would at least help us to keep in mind how calling the plane tree valuable is best understood. If I said the plane tree was important, there would be no temptation to see the tree as a receptacle for a stuff called importance, or look past the tree itself to the importance that it “contains”; we would see at once that this remark is about the     plane    tree  , not about some uncountable mass that it happens to instantiate.  Applying the checklist to him shows how Xerxes fits the recognitionalist characterisation of value-experience that I gave in 3.1. At least as Tom Holland tells the story, he stands as a striking example of how different a human being can be from us, and yet be immediately intelligible to us. But does Tom Holland tell the story right? The two main ancient sources for the story are Aelian and Herodotus, and neither of them tells it as Tom Holland does. Aelian (  Variae Historiae 2.14) uses the story, in his characteristically bludgeoning manner , as an instance of Xerxes’ barbarian folly, impulsiveness, and extravagance; Herodotus (  Histories 7.31) simply reports  —  in his characteristically bald fact-collecting way   —that Xerxes saw the tree “and adorned it because of its beauty. On the next day he reached Sardis”. Some modern scholars have wondered if Xerxes’ real motive was a religious one. Maybe the history behind the story is that the Persians had a tree-cult of some sort, or maybe it was just that Lydia had finer specimens of  platanus orientalis than the Persian homeland. 4  But in fact  Aelian’s version of the story could be completely justifie d and that not matter too much for what I have to say. It isn’t crucial, for my purposes, that Tom Holland should be telling a historically correct story; which is just as well, since obviously, at this distance in time, we cannot be certain that he is. All I need is that he should be telling a story that carries conviction as a  possible historical account, in the way that well-written historical novels present characters whom we make sense of by framing their behaviour within a logical space of  possible motivations that they could have had, and of  possible narratives of action of which they could have been part. 5  For my purposes it doesn’ t even matter whether Xerxes actually had an epiphany of value in response to a beautiful plane tree, provided it is credible and intelligible to us that he might have had. And, as far as I can see, it is. Doesn’t Aelian have a point  about impulsiveness, by the way  ? Isn’t it ridiculously inconsistent for the Xerxes who is about to lead his army into Greece to slaughter children, rape women, and raze 4   For some thoughts about how to read the story see Frank Stubbings, “Xerxes and the plane tree”, Greece and Rome 15, 44 (1946), 63-67.   5    Aristotle, Poetics Ch.9: “  The true difference [between history and narrative art (   poiesis   )] is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Narrative art, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for narrative art tends to express the universal, history the particular.”  Ar istotle’s famous antithesis immediately prompts the response that, in fact, there is more in common than he allows between artistic and historical narratives. On the one side, artistic narratives too familiarly involve their surds, their brute-givens, which interpretation and performance simply have to work around; it is part of Shakespeare’s or Tolstoy’s or Dante’s verisimilitude that some of their characters’ words and deeds are, like real characters’ words and deeds, close to unaccountable. And on the other side, history too, at least if one wants to understand it, must involve something like imaginative identification  with its characters and its scenarios. The question “What were they thinking or trying to do?” quickly reconfigures itself as the question “What could they have been thinking or trying to do?”, and this, clearly, is just the question that the performer or audience of narrative art will also ask. For sure, Aristotle has made explicit  —  for the first time in the history of thought  —  the crucial distinction between understanding a narrative, and the given facts that such understanding has to accommodate. But this is not the same distinction as the distinction between history and  poiesis.  
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