‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Morality Is A Bivalve

I've had one of those realisations that, after you have them, makes you feel slow-witted and belated and a bit dim. Surely everybody understands this! Or, rather, surely everybody realised this long ago, and it only strikes me with the force of revelation. Other will shrug their shoulders at this post. What can I tell you? I'm exceptionally slow, mentally.

It's to do with ethics. For Kant, there is both philosophical and practical merit in drawing a sharp distinction between good and bad, and insisting that we live according to the strictures of the former and eschew the latter, without regard to any of that ends-justify-the-means bollocks. Some people I have read say we should take Kant literally on this; others have suggested that, though it is the sort of strict ethos to which actual sublunary human beings are going to find hard to stick, it is nevertheless an ideal worth upholding on the grounds that a man's reach should exceed his grasp for what's a etc. etc.

Having kids has changed my view on this. Because sometimes my 5-year old is delinquent in one way or another, and we (his parents) tell him off as Kantians: that was wrong, you must never do that, we never want to catch you doing that again, and all that. But sometimes he is delinquent in other ways, where we register the delinquency with him in a manner that makes it plain we don't really mind. And he registers this distinction too, in an untutored manner: when he receives the first sort of telling-off he will look sad or abashed. During the second he will grin. The first kind of infraction is 'bad'; the second is 'cheeky' ('you cheeky monkey!'). And the distinction matters because we feel, without having to think to hard about it, that whilst we want our kid to understand the difference between right and wrong, and whilst there are certain forms of behaviour that we really do want to stamp out, at the same time we don't want our son to grow up as some kind of automaton.

So far, so obvious. My realisation, I think, has to do with the way this parental approach scales-up, socially and culturally. Because this medial category, the 'cheeky' or the 'naughty' (especially in such formulations as 'a little bit naughty', or 'naughty but nice'; see also 'guilty pleasures') is a large component of the social-ethical landscape. Example recreational drug use is 'against the law'. Rape, murder and theft are also 'against the law'. This is the same quantity, this 'law'. Yet people smoking a little weed do not consider themselves to be partaking of the same kind of thing as is encompassed in the latter three crimes. This does not mean that they have necessarily renegotiated their individual relationship to the law. Or, to be more precise: there are (of course) people who have renegotiated their individual relationship to this particular law, who smoke weed from the position of 'what I am doing is not wrong, it is the law that is wrong on this count, and the law should be changed.' But that's a Kantian position: change the law, and then the pothead can exist comfortably within it, as s/he feels to be right. I'm not interested in that sort of person. I'm interested in the larger constituency, who don't think the drug laws should be relaxed, yet who still break those laws (weed, speed, e whatever). This is not symptomatic of incoherence on their part, I think. On the contrary, it is a desire to maintain the ethical category of 'cheeky' or 'naughty' on a social scale, because such a category is a necessary part of the proper functioning of the non-robot, non-devil human being.

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