On circumstances in which bears would be frightened

fuseli macbeth witches

Henry Fuseli, “Macbeth, Banquo, and the Witches” (1793-94), distributed by CC-BY 2.0 license.

Deep in the wilderness of his account of skepticism in The Claim of Reason (1979), Stanley Cavell plucks out two moments that, he says, might plausibly count as the beginning and end of philosophical Romanticism.  First, Cavell points to a particularly difficult scene from that particularly difficult philosopher Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages (never completed but begun in 1753), and, second, to an infuriatingly self-assured generalization from a book full of them: Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1821).  In many ways, Hegel’s generalization summarizes and domesticates the wicked problems that Rousseau’s earlier scene imagines.  But sometimes paraphrase produces its own monsters.

Before we move on I should probably note that Cavell isn’t at all interested in policing the dates of the term “romanticism”: just the opposite!  (He describes himself at this point in his carefully eccentric text as “rummaging” around in these texts rather than “possessing” them.  Possession is what happens to him after reading Austin and Wittgenstein, Shakespeare and, perhaps, Blake.)  But he is interested in charting the family resemblances between these two texts and contemporary analytic philosophy’s approach to “the problem of other minds.”  Whereas we often tend to treat our knowledge of other minds as a (relatively) universal problem for epistemology or even neuroscience, Rousseau and Hegel in their strikingly different ways both present this “problem” as thoroughly entangled in history.  Roughly, we could say that Rousseau imagines “other minds” in a detailed (if speculative) anthropological context.  Hegel, as we’ll see, puts the experience of other minds in the context of much vaster timescales, tracking historical transformations in our rational categories from the ancient to the modern world.

Cavell calls our attention to the Rousseau’s attention to the dramatic and expressive dimensions of the “first” human encounter with an “other”:

Upon meeting others, a savage man will initially be frightened.  Because of his fear he sees the others as bigger and stronger than himself.  He calls them giants.  After many experiences, he recognizes that these so-called giants are neither bigger nor stronger than he.  Their stature does not approach the idea he had initially attached to the word giant.  So he invents another name common to them and to him, such as the name man, for example, and leaves giant to the fictitious object that had impressed him during his illusion.  That is how the figurative word is born from the literal word, when our gaze is held in passionate fascination; and how it is that the first idea it conveys to us is not that of the truth. (Quoted in Cavell, CR 466)

For Rousseau, the complex somatic, emotional, and cognitive response of fright “remains the basis of the knowledge of the existence of others; only now we no longer interpret the threat as a function of the other’s bulk or body” (466).  So a kind of existential fright is part of the history and grammar of our experience with others.  We had initially seen other humans as giants, then by later intellectual operations distinguished ‘reality’ from the ‘myth’ of giants, creating what T.S. Eliot called a “dissociation of sensibility.”  Our words for giants lose their attachment to our real fears encountering others, and our words for other people lose the somatic charge and perceptual distortion that came with the contexts where we learned them.  (Does this myth apply also to children, encountering adults?)

But Rousseau’s account has a further twist.  The fear here is also, Cavell points out, a matter of being “frightened by an expression of fright” (italics in original, 467).  The reason the “savage” invents a name common to them and to him is that the “giants” express fright also, “as if he were the giant, or anyway possessed of some form of the monstrous” (467).  Rousseau’s speculative anthropology reveals a wrinkle in our experience of the strangeness of “others.”  They appear as objects of horror, fear, and anxiety, but in addition–as it were, inside these feelings–we see horror, fear, and anxiety as responses to us.  The possibility that we could dig into our own present feelings so deeply that we extract truths about our “savage” selves, that we could mine our souls for truths about the past or about humans generally, is what puts Rousseau on the map of romanticism.  Hic sunt leones. 

By 1821, post-Kantian philosophy had developed various strategies for snaring the lions and no one more systematically so than Hegel.  In section 124 of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel is tackling the infamous “emptiness” of Kantian morality: subjective satisfaction (something like ‘personal happiness’ or ‘fulfillment’) has to be found in implementing “ends which are valid in and for themselves“–but this looks like awfully thin gruel as a motivation to do the right thing (PR, ed. Wood, 151).  But it’s misleading, Hegel says, to think of “subjective” and “objective” ends as mutually exclusive.  Even more misleading is the idea–very tempting within Kantian frameworks–to assert that, because a subjective satisfaction is present, then the objective end must have been merely a means.  In other words, if you’re getting pleasure from what you’re doing, it ain’t purely moral.  It’s this kind of fanatical (or hypocritical) self-policing that Hegel is attempting to find a way out of.  Just because you feel good about finishing a task (say, writing a paragraph or building an arch), should you suspect that those good feelings and not the merits of the task itself were your real motive?

Hegel answers that “[w]hat the subject isis the series of its actions” (151).  Your “real” motive isn’t something concealed in a secret, private intention (i.e. I really, really love the frisson of a finished paragraph or the balance of the last keystone dropping into place) that vitiates your participation in a more public good end (i.e. paragraphs persuading someone to vote for justice, or an arch completing a state-sponsored university).  Rather, the whole sequence of your actions, including the pleasure you take in participating in and completing projects with others, is what constitutes your intention: “if the series of the individual’s deeds are of a substantial nature, then so also is his inner will” (151).  With the scene from Rousseau in mind, we can see how Hegel is showing us something equally uncanny about a feature of our inner lives.  We usually think of our intentions in terms of present feelings: emotional dispositions we currently feel convinced of or compelled by, or else beliefs we can call to mind–beliefs that we take to be causing what we do.  Yet the sequence of our actions may turn out to express an intention far more plausible and significant for us.

To sample the complexities involved here, we might think about the way we discount many of the things Macbeth says about his intentions, however deeply felt and passionately expressed, because of what the sequence of his actions shows.  Two worlds seem to be competing as explanations of Macbeth’s motives: the primeval otherworld of the witches and the more modern (and creatively anachronistic) world of Jacobean political intriguing.  On the one hand, Macbeth’s “subjective feelings” are tragic because they are ultimately determined by the occult force of the witch’s prophecy.  On the other, Macbeth’s hemming and horror at his own deeds may actually be extenuating, because of course the baroque layers of political machination will catch and crush even the most scrupulous “prevaricator.”  Macbeth’s final fate is set by a pun, or by the minute registrations of pointless flexing against the interminable sequence of ambitions set up by monarchical sovreignty.

At a still higher level of abstraction, Hegel notes in an addition to section 124 that “the pivotal and focal point of the difference between antiquity and the modern age” is “the right of the subject’s particularity to find satisfaction, or – to put it differently – the right of subjective freedom” (Wood, ed. 151; Cavell quotes a different translation at 467).  The “infinity” of this right to subjective satisfaction (a version of my being happy about finishing this paragraph or that arch) is Christianity, what Hegel calls “a new form of the world.”  There are some particularly tricky moves in this passage where Hegel says that this satisfaction is “just as much identical with the universal as distinct from it” (152), but Cavell pinpoints the way that Hegel is starkly historicizing the concept and the experience of subjective satisfaction.  Somehow, Christian and/or post-Christian history is a sequence of “concrete expressions, shaping, of this right” (468).

Setting aside Hegel’s here-unargued attribution of the “universalization” of this right to Christianity, Cavell uses the possibility of this kind of massive historical transformation–a mutation of human agreements about what counts as satisfying, even of our sensation of what is satisfying–to ask about the possibility of something he calls, after Wittgenstein, “soul-blindness.”

(Wittgenstein explores the possibility of “aspect-blindness” in Part II of the Philosophical Investigations: the idea that, as in the diagram of a triangle that we might see as a leaning mountain or as a three-sided hole, we might see all there is to see but still have to learn how to see it in a new way.  And the related possibility that we could forget a way of “seeing-as.”)

Can a new form of civilization really replace another?  “In particular,” Cavell asks,

is it being replaced by one in which nothing that happens any longer strikes us as the objectification of subjectivity, as the act of an answerable agent, as the expression and satisfaction of human freedom, of human intention and desire? […] They would not (any longer) be human.  They would not, for example, be frightened upon meeting others – except in the sense, or under circumstances, in which they would be frightened upon encountering bears or storms, circumstances under which bears would also be frightened.  And of course particular forms of laughter and amazement would also no longer be possible, ones which depend upon clear breaks between, say, machines and creatures. (468)

Where is Macbeth on this scale of fright?  Does he experience the frightened recognition of fright of him in the forms of the witches’ grasping hands?  Or does he simply register surprise, like the armored, almost robotic or ghostlike Banquo?