Friday, November 11, 2011

The City and the Cosmos

I've been writing quite a lot about the tragic outlook, and I've noted a number of points still in need of clarification. I'll start today by raising two more questions, though I think I'll only really start to consider one of them in this post. First, what has the tragic outlook to do with ethics in the built environment? Second, what do I mean by 'outlook'?

The quick answer to both of these is to say that I propose to consider the city in its cosmological context.

I take an outlook to be a basic orientation to the cosmos, a basic set of beliefs about how and to what degree the world is ordered, how and to what degree it can be expected to make sense.

To consider the city - which I here use as shorthand for the built environment - in that context is, in part, to consider how and to what degree the forms and patterns of what we build and how we live jibe with the broader order of things. It also informs our basic expectations and our hopes for the lives we live within the city and within the broader cosmos.

I note, in passing, that Plato's Republic sets a very high standard for coherence between the city and the cosmos: The ideal city is a microcosm, a smaller reflection of cosmic harmony and proportion, and the just human soul is a microcosm of a microcosm.

(Promissory note: Martha Nussbaum characterizes Plato's motivation here as an effort to avoid tragedy, even though, she insists, it exacts a terrible cost. I'll need to follow up on that. I also note, in passing, the possible relevance of Augustine's City of God.)

The source I'd like to consider more directly, if briefly, is Kant's Critique of Judgment, widely referred to as the Third Critique.

(Promissory note: by appealing to Kant here, I create another connection to my earlier work, including the third section of Skeptical Environmentalism. I'll need to follow up on that, too.)

Kant posited three basic questions for philosophy: What can I know? What ought I to do? and, For what may I hope? The Third Critique is aimed at answering this third question.

The First and Second Critiques leave us with two standpoints that are, Kant himself insists, irreconcilable: the view that everything in nature is causally determined, and the view that human beings are autonomous moral agents, capable of unconditioned choice regarding ends. We can hold both of these views because they arise from different faculties of human cognition; neither of them concerns things as they are in themselves, only things as they are for us.

In the Third Critique, Kant seeks to harmonize these two standpoints, not by adding in a claim about how things really are, but by noting a third faculty of human cognition that does not intrude on either of the other two: judgment. In particular, we may judge the particulars of our experience (in the realm of nature) as subordinate to a universal principle of reason (from the realm of freedom, and hence of morality), and so may make judgments of purposiveness (see Kant 1987, Ak. 180).

In short, we cannot know the cosmos is an orderly system that aims at some good end, but we are entitled to make the reflective judgment that things are arranged as if they were ordered to such an end.

On this act of judgment, according to Kant, rest all our hopes. Here's my own gloss on this point, from a paper published a few years ago:
When we judge that the diverse laws of nature are unified, that living things are self-organizing, that nature as a whole is a system, and that the system is unified by a moral God, according to Kant, all we are doing is making the myriad clockwork mechanisms known to the understanding subordinate to a single end: supporting us in our vocation as moral beings. It is not that nature is arranged so as to guarantee happiness to those who do their duty, but that nature is arranged to make human culture possible (Kirkman 2009, p. 222).
I might just as easily have written that nature is arranged so that everything tends toward and supports the emergence and sustenance of civilization.

So, here is the cosmological question: Do we really have grounds to think the cosmos is set up this way, that there is a moral God - or, at least, a moral order - at the heart of it, that will tend to make things work out in favor of civilization? And how much confidence can this give us that our particular way of going about civilized life will work out? Can we take this hope as a guarantee of our success, or simply as a general tendency of things that may or may not help us out of any particular bind we might get ourselves into?

I suspect there are myriad variations on the hope that things will work out, mixed with the usual varying degrees of myopia and simple denial. Faith in technological progress, or economic efficiency, or human self-liberation (as per my recent post on the three "fixes") all seem to fall into this pattern.

For his part, Kant taps into a broadly Christian version of this hope:
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 KJV)
Or, as Wendell Berry put it, being contrary:
Spare us, O Lord, the logical consequences of our folly. (Berry 1988, p. 95)
As I read it, then, Kunstler's take on tragedy is rooted in a rejection of any form of this cosmological hope. Recall the key passage:
History doesn't believe anybody's advertising. History doesn't care whether nations rise or fall. History is merciless and life is tragic.(Kunstler 1996, p.21)
This also brings Nietzsche to mind, as he confronted the implications of the death of God: How do we live meaningfully in the world when faith in the basic orderliness of things has gone by the boards?

My own inclination in this is to avoid strong cosmological commitments, one way or the other. I am, at heart, a skeptic. When considering the city and the cosmos, I am aware of the possibility that things may go very badly wrong, and that there is little reason to believe there are any built-in safeguards against the logical consequences of our folly.

That, for me, gets to the heart of what I mean by a tragic outlook.

(There's another connection with Nussbaum, here, and the way she associates the tragic with the recognition that our happiness may be contingent on forces that are beyond our control, that we may end up unhappy - or even dead - in spite of the very best of intentions and the very best of efforts. That's precisely the recognition Plato worked so hard to avoid.)

Wendell Berry. 1988. Remembering. San Francisco: North Point Press.

Immanuel Kant. 1987. Critique of Judgment. Trans. W.S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Robert Kirkman. 2009. "Darwinian Humanism and the End of Nature." Environmental Values 18: 217-236.

James Howard Kunstler. 1996. Home From Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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