Higher Education

summer ethics institute day one

I have to say that it’s always a pleasure to meet with colleagues and have the opportunity to discuss something other than bureaucratic college matters. The ethics institute in particular offers a chance to hang out with the philosophy department, and they are interesting people. There’s a good mix of other faculty as well from across the college, most of whom I met for the first time today.

I have some underlying concerns with ethical philosophy as it is conventionally articulated. Basically, it is founded upon a humanist worldview (and a Western, masculinist one at that). Of course there are other ethics, but I’m talking about conventional ethical discourses here. These ethics presuppose individuals making free-willed, rational choices. As such, they have very little to say about ideology or the unconscious.

And for me, ideology and the unconscious are only step one: the Marx, Nietzsche, Freud effect. Then there is what has been called "the French crisis in German thought." And then there is postmodernism’s after party, which I suppose is where I find myself. Here I attend to two states.

  1. The mundane state of a kind of stripped-down Zen where ethics means practice, which fundamentally means sitting but also the eight-fold path. That’s the state to which my conscious mind and subjectivity attend. And yet, like one of my favorite lines from A thousand plateaus, right at the start, saying this is like saying "the sun rose this morning." We know it’s an inaccuracy. Even within Zen there is the anatman, the non-self.
  2. The intellectual state that investigates distributed cognition, material networks, and whatever may result from them. Here ethics describes cybernetic recognitions and practices of interdependence between sub-personal, molecular machines.

As conscious human beings it is difficult to become aware of thoughts arising, of the affective intensities that pass through a symmetry-breaking cascade and strike us with the force of "our" will. While the intellectual critique offers us a way to consciously understand this process, the mundane practice presents the opportunity to experience the virtual unfolding of thoughts.

One thing all ethical discourses might agree upon is that they are founded upon an understanding of the world, of thought, of agency, and the relations between the three. If thought and agency constitute an unfolding of the world, with consciousness and subjectivity as two of many nods that participate in the event, then this perspective impacts the way we answer the question of how to act.

The reality is that our students are quite distant from understanding these theoretical concepts. I also don’t see it as my job to teach them zazen, so that’s out. Fortunately, writing itself might offer itself as a practice to get outside the default self, to witness the composition of thought, to experience the pettiness of the mind exerting its egoistic BS.

So at leat there is always that.