Recent scientific developments in cell research have re-opened questions of sexuality and genetics, a subject worthy of far more detailed discussion than a short Everyday Analysis article can provide. It’s another aspect of the ‘debate’ which is the issue here; the use of phrases and language which insist on the ‘age-old’ nature of these debates, their status as ‘big philosophical questions’ that we ‘we will never solve.’ This article is about the way in which we desire to construct a continuity (these questions have always been questions) out of discord (the idea that there are things we will never agree on).
(The Big Questions on BBC One)
First, the idea that there are questions we will never solve appears to be comforting rather than disconcerting. When the phrase is uttered, ‘ah, it’s that age-old debate again,’ it’s usually to dissipate or end a discussion, perhaps to prevent it becoming too passionate. Perhaps at other times it is employed to simplify matters: if you are discussing complex gender issues, and I pipe up with reference to the ‘good old nature-nurture debate,’ I impose something I can understand onto your complex conversation in order to make sense of it. Edward de Bono’s Lateral Thinking addresses this simplification when he says that ‘it is historical continuity that maintains most assumptions – not a repeated assessment of their validity;’ when we imply that things have ‘always been’ we prevent further interrogation.
What this framing-of-the-debate-as-endless does is make us think that there is a reality beyond our knowledge which we can discuss and debate about, but the truth of which (and we insist there is a truth, be it one side, the other, or a complex fusion of the two) we will endlessly be working towards. In saying that things we will never know we protect the possibility of knowing, and the idea of an objective truth outside of our subjective knowledge.
This is something Immanuel Kant knew there was a problem with. As Gillian Rose elucidated in the 1980s, his concept of objective validity, in which things themselves and our experience of them take on meaning only in relation to each other, means that ‘it makes no sense to retain ‘reality’ for something beyond our knowledge.’
In his latest book Demanding the Impossible, out this month, Slavoj Žižek uses Kant similarly, saying that he follows Kant in a preference for politics over ethics. This is not just another moment of deliberately provocative Žižekian-ness but (also) a serious point. Politics, like what we find in (a particular reading of) Kant, is purely formal and does not relate to an outside reality, whereas ethics pretends to relate to ‘age-old’ issues of a right and wrong which is found outside our knowledge. For Žižek, ‘what we define as our good is not something we just discover […] we have to take responsibility for defining what is good.’ What we need is an ethics which is political, and a politics which does not pretend to be ethical.
The language of ‘the age-old big philosophical debate’ is the opposite; it pretends that the good is just out there, whether we get there or not, and ends the discussions which are really needed to take responsibility for defining it. On the other hand, if we do away with traditions of ethical good and state that the good is only what we define it as (as Zizek says), perhaps we face another danger, that one can make good into whatever their politics wants it to be.