Words and Worlds: Putnam and Levinas on the Meaning of Meaning.

Presented at the 2015 meeting of the North American Levinas Society at Purdue University



Mp3 audio

From Suffering, Wisdom.
Simone Weil on Aeschylus on Divine Love and Human Suffering

Presented at the 2014 Colloquy of the American Weil Society at University of Ottawa.

Podcast of Lecture (mp3)



Other ancillary materials can be found at


Diversity involves difference, but not all difference is diversity. Diversity requires a background of sameness, of a shared nature and shared values. Diversity is difference that still speaks to us, presenting possibilities we might pursue and challenges to which we might rise. Diversity is difference in which we see ourselves, in both our possibilities and our failures.

As biological specimens, humans vary in innumerable ways, small and large, but not all biological difference is the kind of diversity we celebrate. Diversity involves the differences that matter, that reveal our essences and that challenge our self concepts. We are revealed to ourselves by what we recognize as diversity and how we respond to it. Differences can matter to us in two different ways, in ways that celebrate who we are and in ways the challenge it.

We notice some differences because they demonstrate the full potentialities of a form and nature that we share, because they reveal more perfectly what we might be and the beauty of a form in which we participate, that is us. There are countless kinds of laughter, of smiles, of dancing, music, cuisine, and culture. There is a dazzling panoply of different kinds of well-formed human bodies, faces, movements, and expressions. Plato had seen long ago that a fundamental feature of form is its expansiveness, its ability to expand outward into more and more different reflections of itself. In the Timaeus, he remarks of the creator that it would have been regarded jealous, or miserly, had it held back any measure of its overflowing goodness, any possible reflection of its form. Normally we make choices and pursue one possibility, disciplining ourselves to the perfection of one possible flowering of form. But it is the essence of joy and of celebration to overflow boundaries, to seek more and more expressions of ourselves. Differences are beautiful because they are us, our human form, our nature, unconstrained by the boundaries that limit one individual and allowed to flower freely. They celebrate a fullness of human life that no one of us can hold.

Difference can also challenge us. But how it challenges us also reveals who we are, our most fundamental faults, and our most essential value. As far as I can see, differences challenge us in three related ways: (a) they challenge the integrity of the communities in which we develop most fully; (b) they reveal to us our vulnerabilities and fears; and (c) they reveal to us our moral failings. Diversity flowers from the similarity behind our differences and, in so doing, reveals our failures to remain true to our common source.

All of the various forms of our individuality require nurturing and care within a community or family. The purpose of a family or a community, of civilization itself, is to allow for the safety, security, and intimacy in which our individuality can grow and perfect itself most freely. There is in us, therefore, a deeply ingrained, perhaps even biological, tendency to resist the stranger, the different, whatever threatens our communities. There is a fundamental tension involved here: On the one hand we see the necessity of communities that nurture our individuality: we all know what it is like to belong, to be brought inside, to come home. On the other hand, it is the very preciousness of this sanctuary that leads us to exclude those who are different enough to make us feel them a challenge to its integrity. Every community that aims to be diverse must struggle with this tension: We build a community on shared values to foster the growth of the forms of individuality we have chosen, but this makes us exclude those who do not share those values. It is a mark of our status as creatures that we can express the diversity of human nature only in particular ways, as the individuals we choose to be, and that these choices exclude others.

But all this begs the question: Why do we feel difference to be a threat? What differences matter enough to place someone on the outside? What differences define our community? Who is our neighbor? The strong need not fear, and what we know with certainty can admit no doubt. This means that the differences that threaten us reveal our weak spots. Just as we only revel in the diversity that reflects back on our common nature, so we only fear the differences that still present real possibilities for us, that still have some secret hold on us, the reveal some weakness. If someone likes broccoli, while we are allergic to it, we do not feel threatened by their difference. When a difference really gets under our skin, it is always because, in some sense, it really is already within our skin. We feel the pull of that alternative in our common humanity; the spark that lights its fire feeds our flame too. But we feel it pulling us away from the space we have created for our own individuality.

Of course, this reveals the answer to the question “Who is our neighbor?” and the most fundamental way in which difference challenges us. Beneath every difference, in the face that looks out at us, we feel the common spark, the common nature that makes them feel different to us. They are us. Their individuality tries to express the same life as ours. They deserve what we deserve. And yet we feel their difference. They are on the outside, and we fear to let them in. They are our neighbors, yet we cannot bring ourselves to treat them as ourselves. One of Dostoevsky’s major insights was that we do not hate people because of what they are or what they did, but because of what we did to them or what they make us see about ourselves. Seeing difference indicts us of our inability to rise above it. It reminds us of what we would rather not see: that all men are our neighbors and that we cannot bring ourselves to love them as ourselves. Much of the hatred we feel for those different than us involves this deflection of guilt and a demonizing of their differences to escape it.

Now, diversity is not the absence of discrimination. The purpose of education is to make certain kinds of discriminations, between the true and the false, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. Valuing diversity does not mean that anything goes and that all alternatives are equal. We don’t value a diversity of answers to the question “What does 2 times 3 equal?” Debating our differences about how we make these discriminations is no threat to the real basis of our community. But some human differences are expressions of what we have in common, and the value of our humanity lies in the common spark from which our individuality flows. We may not make the same discriminations another person does, but if we find our differences worth talking about we recognize them as flowing from values we share. We may not love the actions and opinions of every person in their diverse forms, but we are called to love the spark of humanity, in all its conflicts and convolutions, that gives rise to them. They are us; they are our neighbor, and the hospitality of a community that brings them inside can only make it stronger.

There are many kinds of diversity: diversity of styles and preferences, diversity of cultures, diversity of religious belief, diversity of gender and sexual preference, diversity of races and nationalities, diversities too diverse for enumeration; yet all of them reflect our similarities as much as our differences. Diversity celebrates the flowering of the full potential of being human and challenges us to ask of those who, in their flowering, are different from us: Where can I belong, if they do not belong? What do I fear in myself if I fear them? How can I value myself, if I do not value them?

Somewhere Aristotle says something to the effect that: “The truth is like the broadside of a barn. Everybody hits it.” By this, I presume he meant that everybody grasps some part of the truth. Not necessarily the whole, not necessarily with clarity or precision, not necessarily with confidence about which part, but nobody gets it 100% wrong.

I would qualify Aristotle’s “everybody” with “everybody intelligent and thinking.” The qualifier “intelligent” is not meant to mark a hoity-toity upper limit such as only “us educated folk” or “we PhDs” or “me and my fellow professional academics” but rather a lower limit. IQs in some people plummet to such depths that some people are no longer to be counted among Aristotle’s “everybody.” Similarly, “thinking” is not meant to indicate some rarefied phenomenon but rather to exclude obvious absences of the use of intelligence such as when a person is sleeping, under hypnosis, insane, intoxicated, whacked out on drugs, and the like.

The practical takeaway from Aristotle’s remark is, I think, the following. Whenever people (people intelligent and thinking) think something is true, then the fair way of dealing with them is always to search for what part of the truth they have grasped and to give them credit for it. Even when we are sure that their beliefs or convictions are ultimately wrong, we should always attempt to determine how they too have hit the barn in some fashion. This is respecting another person as a rational being.

Here is a case in point. The other day I found Frank Keating in an essay of his expressing a sentiment that I have heard many other people express at different times. Frank Keating is clearly intelligent. He went to Georgetown as an undergrad, earned a JD, served as a U.S. Attorney and as Associate Attorney General in the DOJ, was twice elected Governor of Oklahoma, and in the early 2000’s was picked to head the investigation of U.S. Catholic priests in the child sex abuse scandal. He also was clearly thinking when he wrote “The Death Penalty: What’s All the Debate About?” In the essay, he tells the story of Roger Dale Stafford, who was the first person executed in Oklahoma on his watch as governor. He asks the reader:

“Tell me what you do with a Roger Dale Stafford who, south of Interstate 35 in Oklahoma City, waved down a car with a staff sergeant of the Air Force and his wife and their eight-year-old son inside. Stafford took the staff sergeant over the hill and shot him in the face, killing him. This was a robbery, yet he also took his wife over the same berm and shot and killed her. Then he came down to the truck, and, whimpering in the back of the cab of the truck, wrapped up in blankets trying to get away from it all, was the eight-year-old son; Stafford fired until he was out of bullets into the back of the truck to make the whimpering stop. Then he went to a steakhouse in Oklahoma City, a family restaurant. As it was closing up, he herded four fifteen-year-olds and two adults into the freezer and killed them execution-style while taking money from the cash register. Now, what do you do with someone like that?”

Frank Keating’s own answer to this question is that we should execute people like Roger Dale Stafford, and he, as Governor, allowed the execution of Roger Dale Stafford to continue without a stay in 1995. Thus, Frank Keating is in favor of the death penalty.

As far as I can tell, Frank Keating’s answer to his question is wrong because the death penalty is wrong. We do not get to execute people, not even people as depraved as Roger Dale Stafford. Thus, at least so far, I think Frank Keating has missed the broadside of the barn.

But the sentiment that I am interested in is Frank Keating’s explanation of why he thinks the death penalty is justified. He says:

“According to my sense of ethics, my sense of morals, my sense of right and wrong, you don’t chop off someone’s hand for bouncing a check, but somebody who kills nine human beings forfeits the right to live. That is my sense of values, my sense of ethics. I look at someone like that [Roger Dale Stafford] and I think to myself that this good earth, this wonderful land, is too good for that person. I honestly believe that.”

What, if anything, is right about this heartfelt conviction?

Perhaps many things. But I can find two things right, and I give Frank Keating credit for recognizing those two.

First, Frank Keating is right that this good earth, this wonderful land, is too good for Roger Dale Stafford. But it is also too good for me, you, and every other person that lives, has lived, or will live in this country or on this planet. I can find nothing in what I have ever done or in what anybody else has ever done that makes me or them deserving of the goodness and splendor of this life. This life, this world, is a great gift that none of us have earned. Nor can I find any evidence that this world or some God owes us this life, this world.  We puny human beings are simply undeserving. We don’t earn this life, and nobody and nothing owes it to us. This truth is piercingly clear in scoundrels like Roger Dale Stafford. But it is also obvious in the glorious, crescendos of life: when we fall in love; when our children are born; when we melt in the panorama of a high mountain just climbed; and when we finally see the light of truth. We do not deserve so much of what we enjoy. But from that fact it does not follow that we get to willfully deprive others of this life, this world.

Second, Frank Keating is right that banishment or exclusion can be a reasonable and justified response to wrongdoing. Time-out for little children, suspension from school, eviction from movie theaters, barring from Wall Street, ostracism from Athens, transportation to North America and later to Australia, removal to penal colonies like Devil’s Island, and placement in the Phantom Zone (as in Superman comics) might all be perfectly good ways to deal with wrongdoers. Banishment by death, however, is no part of the broadside of the barn.

The American philosopher William James writes that “the radical question of life” is the question whether this is “a moral or unmoral universe.” (He says this in his essay “The Sentiment of Rationality,” in his collection The Will to Believe.) Is the universe merely material, something which just happens to be, with no mind or purpose or plan for good above it or before it? Or is there some objective standard of value either built into the universe or transcending it, so that it really, ultimately, matters how things go in the world, and how I live my life?

James points out that there is an enormous practical difference between the moral objectivist and the moral skeptic or subjectivist. The skeptic will have moral feelings and make moral judgments like the rest of us, if only because social convention and human nature require him to do so, but “when his moral feelings are at war with the facts about him, [he] is always free to seek harmony by toning down the sensitiveness of the feelings.” Since his moral feelings are mere brute data, neither good nor evil in themselves, he can lull them to sleep if doing so makes his life easier. In a society run by Nazis or slave-owners or the Mafia, toning down one’s conscience will be the surest route to a pleasant life.

The moral objectivist, however, is not free to sacrifice his moral principles when they clash with the world: “Resistance…, poverty, martyrdom if need be, tragedy in a word – such are the solemn feasts of his inward faith.”

Now let’s suppose for the sake of argument that there is no conclusive argument proving that the universe is moral or unmoral. After all, the evidence of our experience is mixed. In many ways the universe seems morally indifferent, oblivious to human suffering and injustice. And yet, our experience perhaps suggests to us the ultimate importance of values like love and justice, so that we do not feel free to abandon our commitment to such values when the going gets tough.

But here’s the rub: I have to decide how to live my life. Do I proceed on the assumption of moral objectivism (e.g. by believing in a God who is Love), or on the assumption of moral subjectivism (e.g. by believing that mindless matter is all there is)? We do not have the luxury of waiting to begin our lives after a period of indefinite reflection and investigation. Even as we reflect and investigate, we must act and choose. We are gamblers, staking our lives on an uncertain throw of the dice. Faith here is unavoidable, since “faith means belief in which something concerning which doubt is still theoretically possible,” and it will always be possible to doubt both moral objectivism and moral subjectivism.

What kind of a world do you prefer? Here are your options: (1) a world in which the appearance of moral seriousness “is but a superficial glaze upon a world of fundamentally trivial import,” or (2) a world in which every choice you make is a matter of infinite seriousness, where “the nature of things is earnest infinitely.” To believe in the former is to run the risk of anaesthetizing yourself exactly when you most need to brace yourself for moral struggle: to stop Hitler and the Nazis, to end slavery, to rescue loved ones in dire straits. James is right to assert that “skepticism in moral matters is an active ally of immorality.” Since an act of faith is unavoidable no matter what, is it not most rational to believe in a moral universe? And does this not point also towards faith in a God of Love?

There’s a famous passage from “The Grand Inquisitor” section of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan Karamazov claims that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted.  If there is no God, then there are no rules to live by, no moral law we must follow; we can do whatever we want.  Some philosophers, like Jean-Paul Sartre, have assumed that Ivan is right; without God there is no moral law that tells us what we ought to do.  But is Ivan right?  If God does not exist, then can we do what we wish?  Another way to put the question is, does ethics require God?

It is important to recognize that there are at least two distinct interpretations that could be offered for Ivan’s claim that if God does not exist, then everything is permissible.  First, it could be read to mean that without God we would have no motivation to be ethical.  Unless we had the motivation of divine judgment or divine approbation, then we would not really care about being ethical because we would not face any ultimate accounting for our actions, neither on earth nor in heaven.

So, do we need God for ethical motivation because without it we wouldn’t be ethical?  It probably depends on the person.  There may be some who would not be ethical if they were convinced that God does not exist.  However, there surely are many convinced atheists who still believe that it’s important to be moral.  Even for theists, there are many motivations to be ethical beyond fear of divine punishment or desire for divine approval.  We may want to be ethical out of a desire to fit in, a desire to avoid prison, to impress a romantic interest, or any number of other reasons.  So, if Ivan’s claim means that without God no one would have any motivation to be ethical, then the claim seems to be false, at least for some people.

However, Ivan’s claim could also be taken to mean that God serves as the source of our ethical obligation.  That is, without God, everything is permitted because there would be no ethical obligations without God.  The only reason we must follow the moral law is because someone (God) says that we must.  On its surface the claim appears to be false.  Both utilitarianism and Kant’s ethics, to mention the most prominent modern moral theories, assert that we must be moral without an explicit appeal to God.  To oversimplify, the utilitarian believes we ought to be moral because we desire happiness, whereas the Kantian thinks we ought to be moral because we are rational.  But is our own happiness or reason enough to compel us to be ethical?  That is, from the fact that “we desire happiness” or “we want to be rational,” can we claim that “we ought to desire happiness” or “we ought to be rational”?  It seems to me that both the utilitarian and the Kantian need to look elsewhere for the origin of the ought, the source of moral obligation.  This observation has led some to conclude that we cannot get an “ought,” i.e. a moral law, without some kind of divine lawgiver.  So, if Ivan means that without God we do not have a source of moral obligation, then maybe he’s right to assert that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted.

In traditional ethics, the moral absolutes tend to be negative formulations of what we should never do. Thus in Plato’s Crito, Socrates says that we should never do what we know to be wrong. Of the Ten Commandments having to do with our relations with other people, six of them are negatives: do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, etc. The natural law tradition seems to have as its main directive never intentionally to violate a basic good, such as life, truth, or friendship. And Kant’s second version of the categorical imperative stresses that we should never treat humanity, self of others, merely as a means to an end. All these negative formulations point out to us what would be wrong to do as well as what would be worthy of punishment. The positive commands, at least insofar as they have to do with our relations with other human beings, seem to be less absolute. That we should honor our mother and father, promote the basic goods, and treat people as ends are certainly obligations, but they are less strict, to use Kant’s terminology. It is worse to take a person’s life, for example, than to neglect to feed that person or provide for that person’s healthcare. Normally, we do not punish people for what they neglect to do (except if the need they refuse to meet is extremely dire); but we do think it right to punish people who kill or lie or steal.

However, this emphasis on negative obligations is somewhat odd since knowledge of what is right and good must logically precede knowledge of what is wrong and bad. We only know what a bad eraser is by knowing what a good eraser ought to be. We only know what a bad apple tree is by knowing how it falls short of a good one. And we only know that killing is bad because we know that life is good, and that lying is bad because truth and friendship are good. And the really good people we can think of do not just avoid violating goods but act for the sake of those goods. Think of Socrates: he did not sit around all day trying to avoid doing what was wrong or trying to avoid mistakes. On the contrary, he strove every day to be good and to know the truth. And it seems that he succeeded in avoiding wrongdoing precisely because he was focused on doing what was right.

I suppose one reason the negatives have been stressed is to counter our tendency to justify our behavior by our general intention to do good, to the point, sometimes, of neglecting the morality of how we go about achieving that good. For a good end does not justify an evil means; and one should never do evil so that good may come. As it could be argued that all our actions are for the sake of good ends, the key place to examine their morality is in the means we take to achieve our ends. These, like the ends, should always be good and never evil. It is clearly helpful for us to know, individually and socially, some absolute limits on our behavior, and these negatives provide those limits.

Still, it does not seem true to say that avoiding doing evil implies doing good, while it does seem true to say that thoughtfully seeking to do good keeps us from doing evil. Were we to be ever after the best actions—freely and intentionally—there would be little danger of our violating fundamental human goods. In general, refusing to be rude is less the essence of a good host than making every effort to be polite. And refusing to do evil is less the essence of a good person altogether than seeking to do what is good.

Another reason why we emphasis the negative prohibitions may be that it is hard to be good; and as we become better, we become more and more aware of our failings. It is more comforting to think of how we do not violate the absolutes, for doing so puts us in a positive light. But the reality is that becoming good is a difficult and never-ending process. And so we see Socrates claiming, and I think genuinely, that the more he knows about virtue, the less he is certain that he really knows it and lives it. This helps explain his on-going quest which, even in the face of death (not our hoped-for reward for being good) continues unabated. St. Paul admits the same kind of struggle to be good. As he gets closer to Christ, the living instantiation of all good, the evil in him is more and more evident. “I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not” (Romans 7:18).


So it is that our knowledge of good is not only necessary for us to know what is evil, but it keeps us humble and persevering in our attempt to live well—to do good.

            Recently I’ve been reading a bit of ancient Hindu and early Buddhist thought.  One of the logical devices they used is the “tetralemma,” which has 4 problematic alternatives, just as a dilemma has 2.  For instance, one might ask the question whether the soul lives on after death, and the perplexing answers could be as follows: i) is the soul immortal? –No; ii) is the soul mortal? –No; iii) is the soul both immortal and mortal? –No; and iv) is the soul neither immortal nor mortal? –No.[1]


What is the value of such a ploy, other than to test our patience?


Let’s raise another sort of question, in the spirit of a recent philosophy blog:

Is agreement a sign of rationality?  –No.

Is disagreement a sign of rationality?  –No.

Are both agreement and disagreement signs of rationality?  –No.

Is neither agreement nor disagreement a sign of rationality?  –No.


This tetralemma could encourage us to realize that disagreement doesn’t fit the case when we ask for a sign of rationality.  What does fit the case is rather the ability to entertain a proposition. Agreement or disagreement with a proposition (or with another person) requires not only entertaining the proposition in question but also an act of the will, affirming or denying it.  But affirming or denying can just as easily result from non-rational impulses, such as the impulse to annoy someone, or not to.  Yet there are times when it is rational either to agree or to disagree with a given proposition, and irrational not to.  In a similar way, we might argue against Kant’s universal agreement criterion of objectivity, at least given that the above replies to our four questions are correct.


Let’s take an easier, Buddhist example of a torch that burns all night:

Does the same flame exist all night?  –No.

Does the same flame then not exist all night?  –No.

Does the same flame both exist and not exist all night?  –No.

Does the same flame neither exist nor not exist all night?  –No.


This tetralemma is intended to teach us that a flame is not the sort of thing that can be properly referred to as “the same.”  One flame rather leads to the next in a causal series of momentary flames, serially exhausting their infinitesimally different fuels.  This is the real truth of the matter; if we nevertheless say, “the flame burned all night,” what we are expressing is rather a conventional truth.

In Buddhism, the image of the flame is used to teach us something about the self or the soul.  But that is another story for another day.

[1] See for instance the Majjhima Nikaya, ed. V Trenckner (London: Pali Text Society,1948-1960), I 483-88, as quoted in Mark Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2007), p.71.

Many people think that a hallmark of rationality is agreement. They think that genuinely rational inquiries should result in one side convincing the others to agree that its position is best. When agreement cannot be achieved, the matter in question is just a matter of opinion or preference.

This view is behind a commonly heard criticism of philosophy. Philosophy is merely a bunch of opinions or preferences because the history of philosophy is a history of disagreements. Surely, so goes the criticism, if anybody indeed understood anything substantive, then he or she could lay out the reasons, evidence, and arguments that would convince other rational thinkers. Nobody can lay out what convinces. Therefore, nobody has understood anything substantive (modus tollens). This view is also behind commonly held beliefs that politics, morality, aesthetics, religious faith and practice, and much more are nothing more than matters of opinion or preference.

But is it correct? Should we expect agreement to be the norm among thinking people? One tricksy way of showing that the view of rationality as leading to agreement has problems is by pointing out that many people (like myself) do not think that agreement is a hallmark of rationality. They disagree. As a result, the view, if it follows its own rule, becomes merely a matter of opinion or preference.

A less tricksy, somewhat helpful answer distinguishes between maximal rationality and everything less. Regularly reason goes off the rails, and when it does, disagreements among people naturally arise. Feelings and interests can skew rational judgment, just as biases and prejudices can. Poor education and bad mental habits can enfeeble rational thinking. Moral turpitude routinely spills over into thought and judgment. So also if enough goes wrong, minds can simply break. When a couple of these are added to the various shapes and sizes that native intellectual capacity and ability take, they form a toxic stew that should surprise nobody in its failure to produce agreement.

But what about in their best moments when people are maximally rational? Should we not expect agreement then? Probably not. If human reason is not all-powerful and if the world is as big and complex as it seems to be, then we should not be surprised that people even at their best do not reach the same conclusions in speculative matters. Even truths as simple such as 2 + 3 = 5 become horribly convoluted when one presses harder on what exactly are numbers, what is addition, and in what sense are 2 + 3 equal to 5. The Hindu story of the blind men touching different parts of an elephant and then self-reporting wildly different accounts of what an elephant is may be a rather good image after all of the difficulty of reaching agreement in speculative matters.

Similarly, if there are a multitude of genuinely satisfying human goods as there seems to be and if they can be realized in different degrees by means of many, different, concrete projects and plans, then we should not be surprised that people even at their best do not reach the same conclusions in practical matters. Betty wants to climb all of the fourteeners in the contiguous US, whereas Ron wants to raise children, garden, and bake bread. Even if they are broad-minded enough to see the value of each other’s goals, they still disagree so much on what is worth pursuing here and now that they have little hope of joining in the collaborative efforts that is the stuff of friendship and marriages. And so it goes. Juwan wants Paramount Pictures to make more Star Trek movies, whereas Deirdre wants them to make more Mission Impossible movies. Nation R wants justice that settles old scores first, and Nation P wants justice that wipes the slate clean and begins anew. You want ObamaCare, and I do not. And on and on.

In the end, people disagree because they have good reasons to disagree. Thus, we should expect disagreement because disagreement typifies human rationality at its best.

Of course, if you disagree with the above, you prove the point. And if you agree with it, you prove the point again!

David Banach

Department of Philosophy Saint Anselm College

Dostoevsky and Levinas: The Ethics of Infinite Love

Slideshow                                            Abstract

Presented at the 2013 NALS Meetings in Pittsburgh July 2013.

Click the above link to listen, or right click to download to your computer.

Next Page »