Monday, January 7, 2013

Vogt's Essentialist Argument

Catholic blogger Brandon Vogt has written a thoughtful article opposing ten justifications for same-sex civil marriage. (h/t Mark Shea.) I begin this response by noting that very laudably, his article opens with an aside that “[a]ll people, regardless of sexual orientation, deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”

This overlong post will address only Vogt’s first argument–specifically, why it fails to be the sort of non-religious argument suitable for use in the secular public square that Vogt claims to be aiming for. Heaven help the reader, but there are ten sections in all, which I shall address when I can and insofar as they interest me. Oddly enough, this post doesn’t contain any reflections whatsoever on the prudence or desirability of same-sex civil marriage: considering the metaphysics behind Vogt’s first argument and its unreadiness for prime time in the secular public square takes me far enough afield by itself.

The first claim Vogt opposes is: “Marriage has evolved throughout history, so it can change again.” He concedes some of the various changes in the institution throughout history, and then responds:

But all these variations still embraced the fundamental, unchanging essence of marriage. They still saw it, in general, as a public, lifelong partnership between one man and one woman for the sake of generating and raising children. This understanding predates any government or religion. It’s a pre-political, pre-religious institution evident even in cultures that had no law or faith to promote it.

This is something of a Natural Law argument; in my words, it might run (confusingly) as follows: Marriage is essentially always already heterosexual because it is in the nature of marriage to secure certain human goods, which goods require marriage to be heterosexual, which is required because of the nature of the human family, which nature and its needs the family has because of the essential nature of humans, who are essentially directed toward a certain kind of good (or Good, really) for their fullest flourishing.

Taken the other way round for perspicuity:
All humans have an essential nature, which directs us to a certain kind of flourishing with a certain goodness as its end. Marriage also has an essential nature, which is to foster human flourishing in accord with human essence through the wholesome rearing of each human child under the aegis of the lifelong union of the child’s mother and father.

“[F]undamenal unchanging essence[s]”–of marriage, of family, of childhood, of womanhood and manhood and their complementarity, of the human person–are doing the heavy lifting in Vogt’s argument here. In the Platonist, Aristotelian, Stoic, Ciceronian, Senecan, or Thomist public squares of yore, reasons rooted in essentialism about the human species and each of humankind’s institutions were ecumenically secular arguments, accessible to any citizen of the cosmopolis of civilized reason. Even after Enlightenment’s new books won their battle against the old, a Jefferson, a Lincoln, or a Dr. King could still invite Americans to solemn public deliberation through an invocation of our founding charters’ promissory aspirations toward the securing of universal human rights self-evident to secular reason.

But now is a nominalist age. No reader of Rorty and Quine can imagine that essentialist arguments remain ecumenical. To paraphrase Quine’s famous fable: an anthropologist watches a member of a newly discovered tribe pointing at a passing rabbit and exclaiming, “Gavagai!” The anthropologist would like to note down something like “Gavagai = Rabbit.” Quine complicates this: our perplexed anthropologist worries the word might mean “mammal” or “quadruped” or “quale of a white field darting across a green background” or “animal good for eating but not big enough for a feast” or “totem of my clan” or whatever. The anthropologist may attempt to situate “gavagai” in a web of other words until its contextual meaning is apparent.

But this won’t do either. Rorty reminds us that we are constantly reweaving our webs of meaning, and indeed asks us to abandon our perennial Plantonic quest after essences, our hankering to cleave reality at the joints and so to join Adam in giving unto each beast its true name after its kind. Rorty counsels us instead to relax and accept that sometimes “quadruped” is the most amenable way of picking out a rabbit from its context, and sometimes it’s “pet plucked from hats.” He urges us to leave taxonomists’ nomenclature and skalds’ kennings laying safely in pragmatists’ toolboxes of merely nominal names, rather than, by essentializing, ensorceling our words to rise against us and hammer us fast to a Procrustean bed in which every human project or purpose is deformed to fit the frame of the one true vocabulary of Plato or Newton, Christ or Kant, Darwin or Marx, or whatever dreary monochrome vision of the really real next enchants and so enchains the monomaniacal mob.

In my reading of Rorty’s deflationist account of philosophy as a kind of Deweyan pragmatist version of the early Wittgenstein’s positivist vision of philosophy as no more than analytical therapy for loose talk tasked merely to heal paradoxical talkers perplexed by their own nonsense, our anthropologist’s Quinean qualms about her inability to penetrate to the pith of “gavagai” are part not merely of a descriptive yarn about translational indeterminacy, but a normative parable in which we should stop worrying and learn to love that there is no foundational really real objectivity outside of the webs we weave when we practice to conceive thought-worlds for desired projects, and that beneath any interlocutors’ surface understandings of “gavagai” isn’t some inner hidden pillar upholding the “fundamental, unchanging essence” of the leporine part of the objective world, but rather endless sheaves of impenetrable shimmering shallow surfaces so far as subjectively chosen projects prompt us to want for words–gavagais all the way down...

This Thomist thinks Rorty wrong. More on that perhaps anon. For now it suffices to note that to disappoint Vogt’s hope of secular accessibility for his argument, Rorty need not be right, but only representative of a respectable part of contemporary opinion in the public square. Some of Vogt’s interlocutors share the pragmatists’ disdainful conviction that essentialism is an enchanter’s chain happily broken, and many more assume as a settled matter that, whether or not we might mourn the naive certitudes of philosophy’s pre-scientific, pre-postmodern youth, essentialism is bunk. True, few are yet ready to leap with Rorty all the way to the pragmatist relativism about physical reality that lies at the bottom of nominalism’s rabbit hole, but much of our society has already fallen far enough to assume that any reasonably polite interlocutor must share the urbane conviction that ethics is subjective. However, that is beside the present point: Vogt’s argument requires his listeners in the public square not to be nominalists about words like “human” and “marriage.” Earlier apologists could rely upon a universal civilized conviction that there was a certain kind of thing that it meant to be a rabbit or a rabbinate, a cabbage or a kingdom, a man or a marriage.

But this realism about essences is no longer a universally shared premise. It is a specific metaphysical belief that must be argued for in a prevailing climate of nominalism that sees words as little more–if not no more–than naked apes’ accidentally concocted always already broken tools with which to approximately encapsulate the ultimately ineffable so we apes can get on with the lewd Darwinian politics of the troop that bottoms all our cant. As a Thomist, I am of course persuaded by the arguments for realism about essences. But however lucid the deductions of the Schoolmen, the public square is peopled predominantly by those who see–whether rightly or not is irrelevant–philosophical arguments as interminably undecidable: metaphysical reasons are not, now, public reasons.

Vogt attempts to answer something that looks like the bugbear of moral relativism. He writes:

Yet, even supposing the essence of marriage could change, would that mean it should? We know from other areas of life such as medical research and nuclear physics that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you ought. After all, such action may not be ethical or serve the common good. Even if this argument had historical basis, it would not necessarily be a good reason to change the meaning of marriage.

Vogt is arguing that the essence of marriage should not change; he has thus begged the question of whether marriage has an essence to change in the first place. If marriage is just a pragmatically useful word for a pragmatically useful institution in the service of subjectively chosen projects in a democracy of subjectively chosen ends in an absurd universe in which human ends are not given, then why shouldn’t the use of this tool, the definition of this word, change on the slightest whim?

So be it. How might Vogt salvage this essentialist first of his ten arguments? Well, assuming it’s worth salvaging–more on that shortly–and further assuming that he doesn’t plan to hold his breath until the West wearies of the past centuries’ consequences of the nominalist idea, he might try something more Eastern instead–like an aikidōka, he might meet nominalism’s blow against realism by stepping aside from it into a Confucian discourse about language that, as Eric Voegelin once remarked, knew neither Platonism nor our many iconoclastic anti-Platonisms.

Confucianism provides a vantage perpendicular from the realist-nominalist continuum from which a secular argument could be resourced without waiting for the prodigal West to return to realism. In the Analects, 13:3, Confucius admonishes a disciple regarding the need for a “rectification of names” (zheng ming) :

Tzu-lu said, 'If the Lord of Wei left the administration (zheng) of his state to you, what would you put first?' The Master said, 'If something has to be put first, it is, perhaps, the rectification (zheng) of names.' Tzu-lu said, 'Is that so? What a roundabout way you take! Why bring rectification in at all?' The Master said, 'Yu, how boorish you are. Where a gentleman is ignorant, one would expect him not to offer any opinion. When names are not correct, what is said will not sound reasonable; when what is said does not sound reasonable, affairs will not culminate in success; when affairs do not culminate in success, rites and music will not flourish; when rites and music do not flourish, punishments will not fit the crimes; when punishments do not fit the crimes, the common people will not know where to put hand and foot. Thus when the gentleman names something, the name is sure to be usable in speech, and when he says something this is sure to be practicable. The thing about the gentleman is that he is anything but casual where speech is concerned.'

(Before proceeding, I note that for Confucius, the flourishing of “rites and music” (li) is logically prior to social order: some day I mean to get around to posting on how this parallels Catholic traditionalists’ intuition that a healthy society flows from right worship which flows from a beautifully solemn liturgy. But not today.)

Anyhow, to return to our topic, Voegelin tells us that the dominant Neo-Confucian tradition following the commentator Zhu Xi has taken this passage to refer to the unbecoming behavior of Prince Ling of Wei’s entourage and especially of Ling’s wife Nanzi (who sought to control the succession): they were not conforming themselves to the duties implied by their station and office. In other words, and in contrast to the preoccupations of the Western realist tradition with finding words that adequately mirror objective physical and metaphysical reality (rabbit, quark, marriage, consubstantial), zheng ming, for Zhu Xi and his tradition, is instead about an intensive practice of bringing ourselves into interior conformity with the given social order embodied in our words. The meaning of, say, “(royal) marriage” was given for Zhu Xi’s Confucius, and it was the task of Nanzi to conform herself to that meaning and the social order of which it was part. This is a givenness rooted not in “fundamental, unchanging essence,” but in society’s collective wisdom that, e.g, “marriage” will mean precisely this and nothing else.

(I note in passing that analytically, the closest Western analogue to zheng ming is not essentialism but perhaps rather Anglo-American common law jurisprudence about the socially given meaning of legal texts and how we are to abide by them. I have a hunch that the closest Western analogue to the spiritual askesis that zheng ming became for the followers of Zhu Xi may be the Talmudic savoring of the Law by the Jewish tzaddik. I know far too little about either Confucianism or Judaism to do more than offer the suggestion.)

Indeed, if, as seems to me possible, something like Zhu Xi’s Chestertonian democracy of the dead as applied to the meaning of words like “marriage” that lie at the core of our social order is all Vogt means by “essence,” then this post has been almost entirely (if, I hope, divertingly) tangential–since such an “essence” is more nominal than real. Similarly, if all Vogt means by “essence” is “traditional (dictionary) definition,” then his warning that changing the “essence” (i.e., more precisely, “conventional definition” of marriage”) might be an imprudent use of the technology of (legal) language is just Chesterton’s warning about not demolishing the ancient gate you find blocking the road until you know by whom and for what it was built, lest you later find you miss it.

However, Chesterton’s (very salutary) small c-conservative warning about the gate is a prudential political argument–there is nothing of essentialism (in the Platonist or Aristotelian-Thomist sense) about it. Which brings us round again to the question of whether Vogt’s argument here is worth salvaging: I think not. If it is in fact really an argument about essences, it was lost to the nominalists centuries ago, and modern Neo-Thomism may never and will not soon win a rematch of that argument in the secular public square, should the public even care to bother listening. If however, Vogt is arguing that the legal institution of marriage and its accompanying dictionary definition have stood us in good stead and ought not be changed without good reason, then his other nine arguments will have to convince the reader that such good secular reason to change the merely nominal because conventional legal definition of civil marriage is lacking. Either way, this argument on its own adds nothing to Vogt’s case that will persuade a peer in the secular public square not already convinced of realism about essentials and the natural law flowing from that. And frankly, such peers aren’t likely to be the ones Vogt needs to convince.

(This post is primarily about language. I’ll address the propriety and prudence of same-sex civil marriage–God willing and time permitting–in posts on Vogt’s other arguments, and I’d ask commenters to save discussion of that topic for those posts. Thanks.)


  1. Good lord...

    I think I caught most of that. :)


  2. Grateful to have you aboard, Darren.