Object Disoriented Axiology

15 September 2010


C. G. Jung

It took Joseph Campbell to drive me to Jung. Jung is one of those authors that I know that I should read, but when I have tried to read him I have been too bored to continue. But Jung is a consistent reference for Campbell, and Campbell is a consistent reference for my thought, so Campbell’s many citations of Jung’s last book Memories, Dreams, Reflections finally pushed me into examining this book, and in it I finally found a book by Jung that speaks to me. I don’t say that I agree with it, or with most of it, only that here is a text with which I can engage.

C. G. Jung's late autobiograpical work Memories, Dreams, Reflections

A life as fully lived as Jung’s is of course filled with interest and incident, and the telling of it in this late memoir is fascinating, but for today I will focus on a single sentence that appears in passing, with no special emphasis. First, for context, here is part of the paragraph in which the quote that interests me is embedded:

“…substituting for psychic reality an apparently secure, artificial, but merely two-dimensional conceptual world in which the reality of life is well covered up by so-called clear concepts. Experience is stripped of its substance, and instead mere names are substituted, which are henceforth put in the place of reality. No one has any obligations to a concept; that is what is so agreeable about conceptuality — it promises protection from experience. The spirit does not dwell in concepts, but in deeds and in facts. Words butter no parsnips; nevertheless, this futile procedure is repeated ad infinitum.”

Carl Gustav Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Vintage Books, New York, p. 141

This passage from Jung, with its subtle anti-intellectualism (he goes on in the next paragraph to say that intellectuals were his worst patients), puts one in mind both of the familiar Marxist critique that intellectuals create ideal utopian worlds of justice in lieu of actual justice in the real world (think Plato’s Republic) as well as Bertrand Russell’s ironic response to Bergson:

“All pure contemplation he calls ‘dreaming’, and condemns by a whole series of uncomplimentary epithets: static, Platonic, mathematical, logical, intellectual.”

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, p. 722

Bertrand Russell is almost as good a foil to Jung as Freud; both were rationalists to the core. Jung was not. Jung had a near-death experience that was important to him personally, and which he described in Memories, Dreams, Reflections in detailed terms:

It seemed to me that I was high up in space. Far below I saw the globe of the Earth, bathed in a gloriously blue light. I saw the deep blue sea and the continents… I knew that I was on the point of departing from the Earth… The sight of the Earth from this height was the most glorious thing I had ever seen.

After contemplating it for a while, I turned around. I had been standing with my back to the Indian Ocean, as it were, and my face to the north. Then it seemed to me that I made a turn to the south. Something new entered my field of vision. A short distance away I saw in space a tremendous dark block of stone, like a meteorite. It was about the size of my house, or even bigger. It was floating in space, and I myself was floating in space.

An entrance led into a small antechamber. To the right of the entrance, a black Hindu sat silently in lotus posture upon a stone bench. He wore a white gown, and I knew that he expected me. Two steps led up to this antechamber, and inside, on the left, was the gate to the temple. Innumerable tiny niches, each with a saucer-like concavity filled with coconut oil and small burning wicks, surrounded the door with a wreath of bright flames.

As I approached the steps leading up to the entrance into the rock, a strange thing happened: I had the feeling that everything was being sloughed away; everything I aimed at or wished for or thought, the whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence, fell away or was stripped from me – an extremely painful process. Nevertheless something remained; it was as if I now carried along with me everything I had ever experienced or done, everything that had happened around me. I might also say: it was with me, and I was it. I consisted of all that, so to speak. I consisted of my own history and I felt with great certainty: this is what I am. I am this bundle of what has been and what has been accomplished.

This experience gave me a feeling of extreme poverty, but at the same time of great fullness. There was no longer anything I wanted or desired. I existed in an objective form; I was what I had been and lived. At first the sense of annihilation predominated, of having been stripped or pillaged; but suddenly that became of no consequence.

Carl Gustav Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Vintage Books, New York, Chapter X, “Visions,” pp. 289-291.

This is a very short and highly edited version of Jung’s near death experience. He goes on about it for several pages, and not surprisingly. Many of those who have had near death experiences are are deeply moved by them, and feel that their life has been altered ever after.

Bertrand Russell in a hospital in Trondheim after his plane crashed in the fjord.

Bertrand Russell was on board the flying boat Bukken Bruse in 1948 when it crashed upon landing. He was among 24 survivors of the crash; 19 people perished. Russell was 76 at the time of the accident.

Russell, too, had something of a “near-death” experience (though he never called it that, and never would have called it that), when he was in a plane that crashed and went into a fjord when landing in Trondheim, Norway. Nineteen people died in the crash; Russell and several other survivors swam to a boat and were rescued. Russell’s deadpan response to a question about the experience is classic:

“Everybody plied me with questions. A question even came by telephone from Copenhagen: a voice said, ‘When you were in the water, did you not think of mysticism and logic ?’ ‘No’, I said. ‘What did you think of?’ the voice persisted. ‘I thought the water was cold’, I said and put down the receiver.”

Bertrand Russell, Autobiography, 1998, p. 512

It is not difficult to see what the unknown questioner was angling for, especially by invoking Russell’s famous essay, “Mysticism and Logic.” But the questioner didn’t get what he came for, like the priest that appeared for Voltaire during the hour of his death, who came away with no deathbed confession.

My battered paperback copy of Bertrand Russell's collection of papers titled Mysticism and Logic.

But I have traveled rather far afield now, and I want to get back to the sentence — really, only a part of a sentence — that interested me. What particularly captured my interest in the first passage quoted above was this claim: “No one has any obligations to a concept…” Is this true? Is there no one who has, or feels, an obligation to a concept (or concepts)?

I for one certainly have known what it is like to feel an obligation to a concept. Perhaps my spirit dwells in concepts. But I am not the only one that feels this obligation to things of the mind. The whole idea behind logic and rigor is that of getting concepts right for their own sake, and getting a concept right for its own sake is all about our obligations to that concept. That this never seemed to have occurred to Jung — as I have noted, the quote is merely a comment in passing to which he gives no particular emphasis (sort of like “proof by hand-waving”) — says something about the nature of Jung’s intellect. We cannot help but note here that Freud the inveterate rationalist had his perfect foil in Jung, who has gone on to become a hero to obscurantists and the mystically-inclined for whom reasoning is more about grasping intuitions than formulating an argument.

Jung has formulated his claim in the moral language of obligation — or, rather, the lack of obligation — so that we are here in the presence of an axiological claim. I was struck by the claim because I immediately recognized that it constitutes an explicit rejection of the point of view of an object-oriented axiology. In this sense, Jung’s moral claim can be considered a claim of object disoriented axiology.

In a handful of posts from earlier this year — Back to shop class!, Metaphysical Responsibility, and Metaphysical Modesty, inter alia — I attempted to sketch the first outlines of an object oriented axiology. An object oriented axiology would be an axiology that takes as its metaphysical point of departure an object oriented ontology. The latter has been given various formulations by different thinkers. But an object disoriented axiology would be another matter entirely; I take it that a turn away from an object oriented approach is an object disoriented approach.

If an object oriented ontology recognizes the metaphysical responsibility that we have toward anything that might occur in a Latourian litany, a weakly object disoriented axiology would recognize some, but not all, of the obligations of metaphysical responsibility, while a strongly object disoriented axiology would deny any and all obligations of metaphysical responsibility to any and all objects. This latter position is a form of moral nihilism, and, however frequently instantiated in fact, is of little theoretical interest. The more obvious cases, and the more interesting cases, would be those in which a particular class of objects is single out either to deny obligations of metaphysical responsibility or to uniquely confer obligations of metaphysical responsibility. For example, I would assume that Jung’s object disorientation would take the form of singling out the class of persons from the class of all objects, and conferring upon them a privileged status in regard to our obligations under metaphysical responsibility. Thus the democracy of objects gives way to an oligarchy of objects.

Another approach that could salvage a strong formulation of object disorientation (rendering it distinct from mere moral nihilism) would be to deny that, e.g., persons (or some other subclass of objects) were objects at all (objects in the strict sense, whatever that sense may be), and further holding that, while objects are rightly denied any obligations under metaphysical responsibility, certain non-objects such as persons nevertheless incur obligations following from metaphysical responsibility. Thus the scope of our axiology is tightly constrained by the scope of our metaphysics.

Now, I hope the reader will have seen by this time that the implicit Jungian object disoriented axiology further implies an object disoriented ontology, i.e., a metaphysical position that constitutes the explicit and systematic rejection of object oriented ontology. Since object oriented ontology has only recently been given an explicit formulation in the works of Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, Levi R. Bryant, and many others, we cannot look for any direct history of a reaction against it in the form an on explicitly formulated object disoriented ontology. Nevertheless, we can search for its prehistory, in implicit forms such as Jung’s implicit object disoriented axiology. But that is a task for another time.

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