The contemporary French philosopher, Luc Ferry’s book, “What is The Good Life?” (ISBN 978-0226244532), is an interesting but quite difficult read. I’m not sure I’ve really grasped the whole of his argument, but it seems to involve developing awareness of the “singularities” in life, by which he means the unique, particular events, which draw our consciousness out to farther horizons so we see the transcendent in the immanent.
I won’t rehearse the detail of his arguments here, but the final section of the book considers the idea of two “modernities” as (apparently) described by Ulrich Beck in his “Risk Society” (ISBN 978-0803983465) (another one for the reading list). I haven’t come across this before and I think it was a particularly interesting take on the progress of science and society.
Ferry describes three ages of science, with only the latter two covering “modernity”. The First age was a time where the “contemplation of the order of the world and comprehension of the structure of the cosmos” were linked. The consequence of this link was that knowledge and values were intrinsically connected, “in the sense that, in itself, the discovery of the intimate character of the universe implies an emphasis on certain practical aims for human existence.” The Second age began with the Enlightenment, and, he says, was characterised by an indifference to values – “science describes what is, it does not speak of what should be”. This age, says Ferry, has only begun to decline in the last few years of the twentieth century. I’ve certainly read a perspective like this before, but the next stage is where it gets especially interesting. If you read my post about “Metaphors we live by”, the contrasting of an “objectivist” position with a “subjectivist” one (this latter exemplified by the Romantic focus on feelings and passions) does, I think, describe these two contrasting worldviews. In fact, as Luc Ferry also points out, there is a reaction against science from people who are still more attracted to the agenda of the Romantics. The point he goes on to make is one I haven’t read anywhere else. It is that the Third age (or second “modernity”) is characterised by self-criticism or self-reflection.
His argument is this – in the Enlightenment thinking scientific rationalism -
….promised to free people from the religious obscurantism of centuries past and at the same time to provide them with the means to make themselves, in Descartes’ famous phrase, into the “masters and possessors” of a universe that they could use and exploit at will in order to realise their material well-being.
This way of thinking easily contributed to the politics of democracy and nation-states -
The chief business of the new scientifico-democratic nation-states was the production and distribution of wealth. However, we are now witnessing a significant change because -
Today it is no longer nature that engenders the major risks for humankind, but scientific investigation; thus it is no longer nature that we have to tame, but rather science. For the first time in history, science furnishes the human species with the means for its own destruction
Even if we don’t feel threatened by the potential harms of nuclear and chemical technologies, we are afraid of what might happen if they were to fall into the hands of terrorists. “Control of the uses and effects of modern science is slipping out of our hands, and its unbridled power is worrisome.”
This “process without a subject” in a globalised world of technology that no worldwide governance has yet managed to control makes the framework of the nation-state and, along with it, the traditional forms of parliamentary democracy seem strangely cramped. No republican miracle caused the clouds of Chernobyl to stop at the frontiers of France. For their part, the processes that govern economic growth and the financial markets no longer obey the dictates of the people’s representatives, who now struggle to keep the promises they have made to the electorate.
It’s interesting that he wrote this about seven years ago, before we experienced the current crisis in the world economic system.
What does he advocate, in terms of the project to spread the good life amongst human beings?
A re-integration of values and knowledge, and, especially a renewed focus on what’s special about human life as a part of nature, not apart from it. This strikes me as very true.
There’s definitely a part of me drawn to the Romantic values of the subject, to a respect for feelings and a belief that a life without passion is a life only half lived (at best!), but there’s also a part of me keenly drawn to science. (It’s just that I find the current flavour of materialistic scientism desperately empty and unsatisfying). I think that’s why I’m drawn both to the Lakoff and Johnson “experientialist” idea, and this idea in Luc Ferry’s book about the scientific method developing through self-criticism and self-reflection. Both are attempts to understand what it is to be human, fully immanent within nature, but with a constant capacity for transcendence.
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