Particularism As The Best Philosophy?

Woodcut title-page border of Simon de Colines

Simon Willis argues that it is:

“There is, in philosophy,” the American philosopher Stanley Cavell has said, “a certain drive to the inhuman, to an inhuman idea of intellectuality.” I’m looking for a philosophy which brings us back to earth.

That philosophy is particularism, a fancy word for a simple idea: that in our ethical lives, rules are useless. Instead we should pay attention to real people in real situations. You can find arguments for it in thinkers as diverse as Aristotle in the fourth century BC and Ludwig Wittgenstein nearly 2,500 years later. Aristotle thought of ethical judgment as a matter of discernment and fine distinctions, literally seeing a situation in all its complexity. Wittgenstein wrote of rules in his “Philosophical Investigations” that “only experienced people can apply them aright”. You can be up to your neck in rules, but they don’t in themselves tell you how to apportion blame, or to whom, or how much. For that, you need to look at what’s in front of you. If you don’t, you’re driving in the dark without headlights.

Placing practice above principle puts the burden of judgment back on us, and leaves us vulnerable to life’s obscurities and self-deceptions, to the tangle of our duties and commitments. We might aspire to clarity, but we could easily be blind. That said, it’s an idea which represents the difficulty of doing the right thing, and why would we want less than that?

That sounds a lot like Virtue Ethics, but without the complexity (some would say nuance). Perhaps particularism is as close as we can get to virtue ethics, but both certainly contend similar things: modern moral philosophy lacks coherence and should be jettisoned if at all possible.

(Photo by kladcat)

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