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Alice Crary is known for her work on ethics and feminism, and on the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. In her new book she shows how these diverse interests come together. Her target is the widespread view that ethics is about making judgments and the assumptions about language that she sees as underlying this view. As she sees it, ethics is a dimension of all discourse, not a particular area of discourse in itself. This has been argued before by philosophers such as Stanley Cavell, Cora Diamond, and Iris Murdoch, but Crary sees herself as offering something new because she attacks the assumptions behind the alternative view explicitly and systematically. The real value of Crary's work, then, lies not so much in the conclusions that she reaches but in how she reaches these conclusions, and from what she manages to break free in the process. It is, in part, the very undeniability of her conclusions that shows she has gone the right way and done the right thing in rejecting views that would have made it harder for her to reach them.
The book comes in three parts. The first three chapters, grouped into a section called "Argument," focus on work done by Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin, primarily in the philosophy of language. This is not easy going, and is not really suitable for undergraduates or general readers. Crary's interest here is in what it means to be objective and rational. Against the standard, "narrower" conception, Crary argues that rationality is inseparable from affect. Any rational or objective assessment of facts requires the use of linguistic concepts, and these are learned in the context of lives in which certain kinds of attention and importance are given to some things and not to others. When one learns to speak, one adopts a certain practical orientation to the world. This orientation is inevitably both individual (speaking is not parroting or being programmed) and evaluative (involving some view on what matters or what is best in life). Thus everything that a person says, writes, or thinks (in some language) can express a moral outlook. This is not to deny that objectivity and rationality are possible. It simply denies the value of a certain picture of what objectivity and reason consist in. Sensitivity to use and context is important in understanding the meanings of words and actions. We cannot hope to achieve objectivity by abstracting from our human sensitivity, as some philosophers think we must.
This is to make a point about ethics and what it means to think ethically by starting with philosophical considerations about language. It is also possible to go the other way. Examples of ethical thinking can teach us something about language. There are such things as moral blindness and deafness. Indeed there is considerable evidence that a great many people have been blind to at least some of the sufferings of women, for instance. It is not simply that these people have not noticed certain neutrally-available facts. Rather, their perspective on life has made them incapable of understanding women's unhappiness (except, perhaps, as something irrational). A rational understanding of the position of women in society requires the adoption of a certain kind of perspective, one that women might be better situated to achieve. The indifferently unjust are less likely, after all, to see their injustice than are their victims. Understanding then--real, objective, rational understanding--requires a certain perspective, a certain affective response to a state of affairs. This is the kind of point that Crary makes in chapter 5, part of the section called "Illustrations."
The remaining part of the book consists in chapters 4 and 6. Here Crary discusses the moral lessons taught by works of fiction by Jane Austen, E. M. Forster, and Leo Tolstoy (in chapter 4), and Henry James and Theodor Fontane (in chapter 6). Her readings are subtle and insightful, and show that dominant philosophical ideas about what moral thinking means are incompatible with an adequate response to sophisticated examples of moral thought. Bad moral thinking is not simply a matter, for instance, of making bad judgments. It involves also blindness, lack of imagination, insensitivity, deafness to irony, and so on. Avoiding such failures is not simply having certain emotions tacked on to an already-functioning intellect. They are themselves intellectual failures. Chapter 6 argues that focusing too much on moral judgment, as philosophers overwhelmingly tend to do, is moralistic, and thus a moral failing as well as a philosophical one.
No philosophical work is beyond criticism, but it is not easy to think of significant flaws in Crary's book. Her numerous references to "conversations" about philosophy can be misleading (she means discussions in the scholarly literature, not personal chats she has had, as one might think at first), but that is hardly a big problem. Some will wonder how Wittgenstein, who claimed to advance no theses and who saw little point in moral philosophy, can be used to support a controversial thesis in moral philosophy. But the conclusions that Crary reaches about ethics are only barely debatable. George Eliot was no fool and feminists are not making a big fuss about nothing. What is controversial is the judgment she passes on various philosophical theories, and Wittgenstein would have had no truck with these either. If the book has a flaw it is probably that it is so ambitious, although this is not really a bad thing either. Crary takes on whole schools of thought at a time, sometimes in only a few pages. Her arguments are powerful, but there is plenty of room for debate about how adequately she has presented or dealt with any particular contrary position. Indeed there is bound to be considerable debate about the arguments in the first part of the book, especially. Such conversations are to be welcomed, and the prospect of them only adds to the excitement of this important new examination of moral thinking.
© 2007 Duncan Richter
Duncan Richter, Ph.D., Virginia Military Institute
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