Intervista ad Agnes Heller: un'etica della personalità (I) di Andrea Vestrucci
Andrea Vestrucci- The subject of my doctoral thesis is your Theory of Morals: the first part concerns an analysis of the trilogy, and the second part is a comparative analysis with the philosophy of morals of Eric Weil, a French contemporary philosopher. If you agree, I may give you the main track of my thesis.
Agnes Heller- Yes please, give me briefly the main track of your thesis, I’m curious.
V- I divided the part about your Theory of Morals in three sections: the first one is about the moral subject in itself, the second one concerns the relation between the moral subject and Sittlichkeit, and the third one concerns the relation between the moral subject and the others human subjects. This third part is where I will use the most your Ethics of Personality.
H- Yes, sure, because I think that the Ethics of Personality it is written in this way. Ethics of personality is in fact shared in modernity, but on the other hand it is different for each and every person. Ethics of personality is about the relationship to the other, so you can see from the action of a person how his or her ethics of personality works; only action can show you the real value of an ethics of personality for a single individual. That’s the reason why I wrote this book the way I wrote it. The first part is very traditional: in fact, I gave a lecture series at the university about Nietzsche’s ethics, especially about Genealogy of Morals; so this part is an excerpt from my university lectures in which I interpret morality and ethics of Nietzsche with particular reference to Genealogy of Morals. The second part and the third part are written differently. In the second part I wanted to show the following: there are two persons, two young men who attended the class, and they both are committed to different philosophies: one is a Nietzscheian, and the other is a Kantian, and I wanted to figure their practical relationship to each other. A third person steps in later, who is representative for Kierkegaard’s ethics. Now, it is not the case that whatever is the ethics they profess determines their actions, because if you are a Niezscheian you can behave as if you were a Kantian, and if you are theoretically a Kantian you can behave as if you were a Nietzcheian. So, the kind of theory you profess, and you believe is the truth or the best theory on ethics, does not necessary determine your actions as a single individual in your relationship to the other. This is why there is an action, I needed an action in this look. So I invented an action, on two levels: one level is the action which in called in Greek dianoia, or perhaps you can call it agón, dianoia or agón, in which there is a clash, a clash of their opinion, of their judgements, in three different occasions: at the café, at home, at the café. In three different relationships they clash their opinions: that’s agón, that’s dianoia. So I wanted to find out how, on one hand, the Kantian answers to the Nietzscheian challenge, and on the other hand how a Nietzscheian answers to the Kantian challenge, and how they can remain very good and close friends to each other, and how they can be good friends of the woman who is in a way competing for the love for both of them, love as young men and love as theorists, in both levels. There is an action which is unresolved, because there is a theoretical agón which is unresolved; you can not resolve it: the conclusion of the second part is not a conclusion: you can not resolve the conflict between Kantianism and Nietzscheanism and Kierkegaardism, because each and every personality develops his or her behaviour, according to a kind of morality but without have been determined in toto by the practical aspect of this morality: you can defend Kant without behaving as a strict Kantian, you can defend Nietzsche without acting as a strict Nietzscheian. The situation is unresolved, and at the end basically what turns out is that both persons have their own positions, so you can not choose between the two positions: you can not say that the Kantian is right and the Nietzscheian is wrong, because they represent two fundamental attitudes of the ethics of personality in modernity. The Kantian employs Kant’s moral philosophy even if it is not exactly an ethics of personality: he uses the Kantian moral philosophy as if it works as an ethics of personality; for the Nietzscheian case, it is beyond doubt that Nietzsche develops a kind of ethics of personality, and Kierkegaard an another kind of ethics of personality; they are clashing but the conflictual issue is unresolved, because all them three represent modern ethics, all them three represent ethics of personality. What is emphasized is that the question can not be resolved because there’s a plurality of the concept of the good: the modernity is about the plurality of the concept of the good; you don’t need to chose one concept or the other, or people choose one or the other, but, in the whole, there is a plurality of the concept of the good, which are clash, but at the same time the representatives of those different concepts of the good can still live in friendship, in understanding and also in love. This is the second part of the book.
The third part is more autobiographical than the others, because the old woman is my grandmother, I modelled it as my grandmother was, and the little girl is me when I was very young, I was a little bit like her; the third part is vivified by my relationship with my grandmother. But what is important is the following: the moral aesthetics. The second part totally neglected the aesthetical aspects of ethics. Nothing was said about aesthetics of ethics, and nothing was said about the fine tuning; basically it was about theory, theory addressing people to this or that kind of behaviour. There was not fine tuning; fine tuning is a capacity that you can find in different kind of persons; it also concerns the relationship to the other. This is a fine tuning: you listen to the other’s soul, to the other’s music, and you fine tune yourself to the music of the other. This aspect can not be expressed in strictly moral philosophical terms, because there is a lot more to do with feelings and with aesthetics, briefly with aesthetic feelings, not just moral feelings. This is what this correspondence really represents: there’s a young girl who is in love of a young man, Lawrence. The grandmother represents beautiful soul close to nature. Basically, natural inclinations play a very important role for the grandmother: how can you develop a kind of ethics or morality through your natural inclinations, how can natural inclinations develop into an harmonious being. And the grandmother is very much understanding not just about the harmonious type in general, but also and in particular about this – specific – harmonious type. She knows something about Freud, about unconscious, about the person’s hidden impulses and hidden passions, which do not necessary appear on the surface of a moral theory. She is a liberal person, who understands a lot, and who not necessary excuses a lot, because she is strict in her judgement. But even if she is strict in her judgements, she is a loving person. Basically the grandmother represents the Goethe’s thought, that the principle cannot be liberal, but that the mind, the soul needs to be liberal. The principles of Lawrence and Joachim are not liberal because they clash in agón. The grandmother is liberal in the sense that she is understanding, because she is about Gemüt, about the mind, about the attitude, and not about principles; principles do not matter much for the grandmother, for the concrete situation of the concrete person; it is judgement of the human character what really matters for her: the grandmother is a very good judge of the human character, and that means that she can be strict and at the same time extremely understanding.
So basically this is how I divided this book in three parts. I don’t think it is difficult, it is difficult only if you don’t understand the point of it, that you can not write about ethics of personality in the style of demonstrative prose, because if you write it in the style of demonstrative prose you have not written anything about the ethics of personality: you spoke about moral norms, values, principles, whatever, but you have not spoke about ethics of personality; you have to show single persons in single situations to say something about this; that’s why you said that the book is difficult.
V- I thank you for your explanation. I read many times in particular the third part, which I personally found the most difficult. For that reason, I would like to ask you about the link between the beautiful and the good of the moral person.
H- Action can be good without being beautiful. For example, there is tact. Tact is not basically a moral issue, but it is something in relation with feelings, with an aesthetic manner of acting. You can give something away but how are you giving it makes a great difference for the other. Giving can annihilate the other, can humiliate the other, and can elevate the other. This form of giving matters a lot for the other person. That is the reason why I said that it concerns the relation to the other. How do you present a present to someone? What does it mean for you reciprocating? How do you reciprocate? How do you smile at another person? It is basically not an ethical issue, the fact that you smile, that you hold a person’s hands or tap on her shoulder, encouraging a person, it is basically aesthetics as a form of ethical behaviour, and this forms are really important: it is linked to the beauty, to the elegance of the action.
V- And what about the place of the second formulation of categorical imperative? If I act to the other as an end and not as a mere means, so this action is beautiful; but it is beautiful for the person who acted, for the person who received the action, or for a third person who see this relationship, a relationship between ends and not between means?
H- Of curse, you never treat another person only as an end in itself, but also as an end in itself, and also a mean in itself, ourselves included. If you write a book, you treat yourself also as a mean, as a vessel which produces a book, don’t you? And if you do something as a citizen, than of course you are an end for yourself, in yourself, but also a mean, because you act for the city, you are a mean for the life of your city, or country. So, you cannot act to the other (yourself included) only as an end in itself, but also as a mean. That the reason why Kant said that you cannot treat another person only as a mean does not mean that you cannot treat the other as a mean. Anyway, it is not true that if you do not treat the other only as a mean, this qualifies your act also aesthetically. What is concerned is fine tuning: you tune into your act and the way of acting to the person to who you are acting. You do not treat a young shy girl as a pure mean and a very self conscious person as a pure mean, but your action, your treatment of the other not as a mere mean is different: your fine tuning links to the personality, to desires, according to the perception of the personality to who you are acting. For example, you give a present to someone, you do it differently, you can just throw it; or you can give money to someone you know, and you do not want the other to know it, to not humiliate the other person; and you give the same amount of money to another person, and you let him know it… Your moral act is not different, what is different whatever is the other, the fine tuning to the person, to think to not shame the other person, to not humiliate the other person. This means fine tuning, and this fine tuning is important as an aesthetic aspect, even if you don’t talk about it as an aesthetic aspect. A person is a whole, a moral person is a whole, so it has also an aesthetic aspect.
V- So, if moral person is a whole, it may be said that the harmonious person can be considerate as an holistic person, like your metaphor about the quartet? In fact, the musical – the aesthetical – result of the quartet is more than the aesthetical result of each part of the quartet.
H- That’s a good expression. The quartet is a good description. For example, a quartet can be played correctly, absolutely correctly, and you can do something more, you can play with the invention of each and every person, each and every instrument, violin, cello, etc…, and play beautifully; the same with morals.
V- Ok, but normally, biologically, a being is holistic because there is a life that can not be equal to the sum of the part of the organism. Which is, in a moral person, the fundamental thing, the hypokeímenon, that can make that the sum of each action of a moral person is not a synthesis of this moral person, given that, like in the quartet, the moral person is more than the sum of his actions?
H- Of course a person is more than his actions…
V- But the totality…
H- We are talking about two different kind of totalities. There is biological totality, that’s for sure. But at the same time there is an elementary experience of all of us, that we do not do what we want to do; that we want to stop and we start continuous shouting, that you don’t want to have this but you desire it all the time… It means we are constantly torn. The tradition describe it as the conflict between reason and emotion, reason and will. The will want to do something else, and there are sort of kind of instinct, of drives… We are constantly torn. This is our life experience. Biologically, we are a totality, we are undividable, but we can feel that we are constantly torn. This is the whole conflict between body and mind, body and soul, body and soul and spirit, etc, that is expressing the self experience that we are constantly torn between different kind of options: wanting to do something and doing something are dramatically different. This is a common experience. You can express it in different philosophical ways, you can say that reason and emotions contradict each other, that the soul is in the prison of the body, as Plato said, or you can say that there is unconscious, you can say that we are totally unconscious of we are really are, about our impulses… so we can say that we whole are constantly in conflict in each other, so we are a whole person and we feel the experience as we are totally apart. And of course that there is different kind of options you can be; when the grandmother speaks about the harmonious development, she means that you can harmonise your torn personality to the effect that the different kind of aspects, the different kind of actors which live in you can develop an harmonious coexistence. But sometimes you cannot really get the harmonious coexistence: that’s the sublime character, who remains to be torn. You are not beautiful aesthetically but you can be sublime aesthetically: in great passions, great objectives, faiths…a sublime person is not a beautiful being, because he remains torn, he is not overcoming to be torn. So, to answer to your question, of course we are full person, we are total as you would say, but at the same time, in our daily experiences, we are torn, apart: there is not one person in one person, there are many persons in one person; all of us, we are one, and there are several person in this one. And what is, in what consist, what should be the coexistence of these several persons in one, this is he question which is raised by the grandmother.
V- Yes, but we choose one.
H- Not necessary, absolutely not necessary. What you do is not to choose one, but to try to harmonize the different selves, to find the balance between the different selves. You don’t choose one; even when you say that you choose, you already have one aspect of your mind in your mind. Who makes the choice, who chooses? So it is not a fact of choice, “one” it means that you harmonize the different selves, that you should not constantly query with each other: this is what a beautiful soul is all about. Not to query that much with each other, but not to choose one as against the others; in the other way, it will be very little human left in you, I mean if you choose one as against the others, as, for example, if you choose reason as against feeling, emotions, desires: I would not recommend you to do that.
V- But in the other hand the sublime person choose one, doesn’t he?
H- He chooses one overwhelming passion. Maybe “choice” is not a very good expression, it is rather abandoning himself to one overwhelming passion. It’s not just choosing – of course you can express it in choosing – but it is not as that you mean as the existential choice. In general, you choose yourself, not something. You choose yourself as such and such, but even if you choose yourself as such and such you do not choose one single self, for example you choose yourself as a decent person, that is you choose yourself such and such, you have not chosen reason against feelings, or judgement against reason, but rather you choose a kind of harmony when you choose yourself as a decent person. You can choose yourself as a philosopher, you can choose yourself as a poet, that is a overwhelming passion, but even in this choice of the self it does not mean that you compartmentalize your self: the developing of what you are is not just developing your self as an actor or your self as a philosopher, but it is the main stream to develop yourself, but, you see, other thing are going to be included. It is that difficult?
V- No, I’m sorry, I have expressed myself badly. Anyway, another thing which is not so clear to me in your book is the Vera’s suggestion to never know if one person choose him or herself under the category of the universal or under the category of the difference.
H- Because this is a conflict which is insoluble. You see, if you choose yourself as a decent person and also as a philosopher, it can come in your life to point in which you will face an either-or. That is a very painful scene. Because you have to abandon one of your existential choices. This is why you are lucky if you never get into this situation.
V- But, so, it seems that this definition of happiness is negative, because is not related to any action…
H- Maybe you are talking about the Italian translation, because I said was “lucky”. It is not happiness, it’s luck! It’s a very great luck. You should never came to this conflict.
V- Anyway, the book is not already translated in Italian…
H- So in English is happiness?
V- I guess so. Probably I remember badly…
H- Ok, but even if I used happiness, I meant luck. American happiness is not the same as Italian one, because you are happy of you get a beautiful dress, you know, every moment you are happy, “good luck” basically is what happiness means in English, is not beatitudo.
V- But the grandmother gives another formulation of happiness…
H- Yes, she does.
V- … and this formulation is positive. Because it is linked to action, action as the aesthetical expression of the moral source of an harmonious person. I would ask you an explanation about what you, or rather the grandmother said, that the good person is the utopian part in a person and a beautiful person is the non-utopian part in person. So are you maybe talking about a sort of progress, a sort of education of the beautiful person in his- or herself to go until an end, which coincides with being a good person?
H- Yes, in this book I write about upright or decent person, because the good person is transculturally good: this is a very positive formulation of utopia. But in the case if you look around, as I said also in the previous two books, there are good person in the simple understanding of rectitude or decency; there are good persons in this sense, not in the sense of transculturally goodness; you look around and you know them, they are there: the question of my book is “how they are possible?”, given that they exist. What is utopian is not good person as such, what is utopian is a person who has chosen him- or herself as good and who in all actions of life becomes what he or she is. That’s only good; that’s utopia. That’s the same kind of thing that Kant said, who never spoke about utopia: you never know about one single person who ever acted in the ground of the categorical imperative alone. You never know about the “I”, about introspection: I can not know about myself, but I have accepted only the ground of the categorical imperative. So you do not know, you can never ever know, whether you are entirely what you have chosen yourself to be: this is somehow a kind of utopia. In the other hand, you can of course know about becoming what you are, becoming good: that you know. It is very interesting what Kierkegaard said, that you can see if a person is both good and bad, but you can not see about the person that is becoming good and is becoming bad simultaneously. So the person who choose him- or herself as a decent person is becoming what he or she has chosen him- or herself to be, namely a decent person; becoming good, becoming decent: this is what it is called decent and good. We do not call this good in an utopian sense; a person who is becoming good, this is called a decent or good person, this is the shape of rectitude.