Can the convergence of skepticism and vision provide a response to the ‘anarchy of our moral and political practice and the spiritual disunity of our culture’? (Scialabba 1982)

In his astute comparison of publications by Kolakowski (1982), MacIntyre (1981) and Rorty (1982), George Scialabba (1982) finally conceded that the two weapons of criticism and vision may provide us with some crepuscular hope in spite of the ‘fragmentation of theoretical discourse’ which is mirrored in the ‘anarchy of our moral and political practice and the spiritual disunity of our culture’. Scialabba argued that both Kolakowski and MacIntyre, distinguished academic philosophers, although beleaguered and disillusioned, “remained determined to outface the end [. . .] with a valiant, quixotic faithfulness to professorial norms of civility and rationality. Let us go reasoning into that good night (Scialabba 1982).”

Modernity may be considered the joint accomplishment of skeptics and visionaries. The skeptics can be seen as clearing a space for the utopian imagination, for prophecies of a demystified community, of a solidarity without illusions. The skeptics weed, the visionaries water. Where the seed of generous, humane sympathy comes from is as obscure as where genius comes from. “We can’t make life,” wrote Lawrence. “We can but fight for the life that grows in us (Scialabba 1982).”

Reason cannot adequately prove or disprove the notions of God, freedom or immortality (Kant 1788 [2002]). The dilemma of modern moral philosophy resides in complex, conflicting points of view. The only way we could ground norms, values, or virtues in an external authority like God would be through individual investigation and free choice. Even those most devoted believers in God admit that He is unknowable and that He has given us the faculty of free will to choose to believe in Him or not. If norms, values, and virtues were entirely man-made, how can we escape relativism? Does knowledge or a belief in a worldview (deist, humanist, atheist, etc) make us behave in a more moral way? See also Johansson (1999).

Pragmatist Richard Rorty asks instead what we should do about such conflicting intuitions as those of Buddha, Lavoisier and Derrida? “To treat his opponent properly, the pragmatist must begin by admitting that the realistic intuitions in question are as deep and compelling as the realist says they are. [. . .] Should we extirpate them, or “find a vocabulary which does justice to them”, to transcend the differences in the East and West by “an attempt at commensuration, at a common vocabulary which isolates the common human essence?” (Rorty 1982b).”

Key words: Kant, Hume, moral philosophy, cognoscendi, essendi, Rorty, pragmaticism, Derrida, Alasdair MacIntyre, virtue, Plato,


1. “It would certainly be more satisfactory to our speculative reason if it could solve these problems for itself without this circuit and preserve the solution for practical use as a thing to be referred to, but in fact our faculty of speculation is not so well provided. Those who boast of such high knowledge ought not to keep it back, but to exhibit it publicly that it may be tested and appreciated. They want to prove: very good, let them prove; and the critical philosophy lays its arms at their feet as the victors. Quid statis? Nolint. Atqui licet esse beatis. As they then do not in fact choose to do so, probably because they cannot, we must take up these arms again in order to seek in the mortal use of reason, and to base on this, the notions of God, freedom, and immortality, the possibility of which speculation cannot adequately prove (Kant 1788 [2002]).”

“[…] To avoid having anyone imagine that there is an inconsistency when I say that freedom is the condition of the moral law and later assert that the moral law is the only condition under which freedom can be known, I will only remind the reader that, though freedom is certainly the ratio essendi of the moral law, the latter is the ratio cognoscendi of freedom. For had not the moral law already been distinctly thought in our reason, we would never have been justified in assuming anything like freedom, even though it is not self-contradictory. But if there were no freedom, the moral law would never have been encountered in us (Kant 1788 [2002]).” See also Johansson (1999) and Rorty (1982b) for differing interpretations of Kant.

Webliography and Bibliography

Johansson, Ingvar. 1999. “Hume, Kant and the Search for a Modern Moral Philosophy.” >> Ingvar Johansson Philosophy Home Site.

Johansson, Ingvar. 1999. “Hume, Kant and the Search for a Modern Moral Philosophy.” Danish journal Philosophia 27:3-4:5-43.

Kant, Immanuel. 1788 [2002]. Critique of Practical Reason. Trans. Abbott, Thomas Kingsmill. The Project Gutenberg EBook.

Kolakowski, Leszek. 1982. Religion: If there is No God. Oxford.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1981. After Virtue: A study in Moral Theory. Notre Dame.

Rorty, Richard. 1982. Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays, 1972-1980. University of Minnesota Press.

Rorty, Richard. 1982b. “Introduction: Platonists, Positivists, and Pragmatists.” Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays, 1972-1980. University of Minnesota Press.

Scialabba, George. 1982. Review of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A study in Moral Theory. Village Voice. March 19. >> GeorgeScialabba.Net

©© Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Convergence of skepticism and vision.” >> Speechless. June 12.

©© Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Convergence of skepticism and vision.” >> Google docs. June 12. http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=ddp3qxmz_278dbr99r

The Examined Life

June 12, 2007

Socrates claimed that he never knew any one who knew what virtue was (Plato Meno). The virtues could be named: justice, temperance, courage, magnanimity, holiness, honesty, but the concept of virtue could not be known. Socrates distinguishes between things that profit us such as health and strength, and beauty and wealth and the goods of the soul: temperance, justice, courage, quickness of apprehension, memory, magnanimity. In Plato’s Dialogue between Meno, Socrates, Meno’s slave and Anytus, Menos asks Socrates, “whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor by practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way? (Plato Meno)”

Meno responded that he indeed did know what virtue was.

There will be no difficulty, Socrates, in answering your question. Let us take first the virtue of a man–he should know how to administer the state, and in the administration of it to benefit his friends and harm his enemies; and he must also be careful not to suffer harm himself. A woman’s virtue, if you wish to know about that, may also be easily described: her duty is to order her house, and keep what is indoors, and obey her husband. Every age, every condition of life, young or old, male or female, bond or free, has a different virtue: there are virtues numberless, and no lack of definitions of them; for virtue is relative to the actions and ages of each of us in all that we do. And the same may be said of vice, Socrates. (Plato Meno)

Further on Meno described virtue as “the desire of things honourable and the power of attaining them.’ To which Socrates responded, “And does he who desires the honourable also desire the good?”

But Socrates finally confronts Meno with the impossibility of his definition,

What of that! Why, did not I ask you to tell me the nature of virtue as a whole? And you are very far from telling me this; but declare every action to be virtue which is done with a part of virtue; as though you had told me and I must already know the whole of virtue, and this too when frittered away into little pieces. And, therefore, my dear Meno, I fear that I must begin again and repeat the same question: What is virtue? for otherwise, I can only say, that every action done with a part of virtue is virtue; what else is the meaning of saying that every action done with justice is virtue? Ought I not to ask the question over again; for can any one who does not know virtue know a part of virtue?

And again,

And we too, as we know not the nature and qualities of virtue, must ask, whether virtue is or is not taught, under a hypothesis: as thus, if virtue is of such a class of mental goods, will it be taught or not? Let the first hypothesis be that virtue is or is not knowledge,–in that case will it be taught or not? or, as we were just now saying, ‘remembered’? For there is
no use in disputing about the name. But is virtue taught or not? or rather, does not every one see that knowledge alone is taught?


1. Most of the list refers to virtues compiled by the ©1993, 1997 The Virtues Project

2. List of virtues1: acceptance, assertiveness, beauty, caring, cleanliness, commitment, compassion, confidence, consideration, contentment, courage, courtesy, creativity, detachment, determination, devotion, diligence, discernment, enthusiasm, excellence, faith, faithfulness, flexibility, forgiveness, friendliness, generosity, gentleness, grace, gratitude, helpfulness, honesty, honor, humility, idealism, integrity, joyfulness, justice, kindness, love, loyalty, mercy, moderation, modesty, obedience, orderliness, patience, peacefulness, perseverance, purity, purposefulness, reliability, respect, responsibility, reverence, righteousness, sacrifice, self-discipline, service, steadfastness, tact, thankfulness, tolerance, trust, trustworthiness, truthfulness, unity, wisdom, wonder

3. The free plain vanilla electronic texts of Plato’s Meno is hosted by Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=38866&pageno=1


Kavelin-Popov, Linda; Popov, Dan; Kavelin, John. 1991. The Virtues Project. http://www.virtuesproject.com/overview.html

Plato. Meno . Trans. Jowett, Benjamin. http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=38866&pageno=6

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. >> Speechless.