‘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.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Categorical Im-Pratchettive

[Granny Weatherwax by Karen Shannon, reproduced by kind permission]

I didn't know Pratchett personally, although I did meet him a few times at publishers' dos, bookshop events and the like; and once I was on a BBC Radio 2 bookish roundtable with Simon Mayo, China Miéville and him. And I know people who did know him, with varying degrees of intimacy. When they talk about him they do so with love, and loyalty to his memory; but one thing that comes up is how unlike the cuddly humorous old granddad popular-culture version of him he was in life. He was, I have heard more than one person say, capable of real and focused anger. Injustice and unfairness made him angry. There are many things to say about his novels (and to be clear, before I go any further, I should say I consider him clearly one of the most significant anglophone writers of his generation) but the two things that stand-out for me most are: his extraordinary command of comic prose, a very difficult idiom to master and doubly difficult to maintain at length; and the repeated and unmissable ethical dimension to his writing. He was a moral writer above all, arguably even before he was a comic one, and certainly (I think) before he was a worldbuilder, or a creator of character, or a popular metaphysician about gods or existence or death or anything like that; important though all those elements were to his writing. Nor can his moral purpose, and his anger, be separated out. As Wyrd Sisters notes of Granny Weatherwax:
Granny Weatherwax was often angry. She considered it one of her strong points. Genuine anger was one of the world's greatest creative forces. But you had to learn how to control it. That didn't mean you let it trickle away. It meant you dammed it, carefully, let it develop a working head, let it drown whole valleys of the mind and then, just when the whole structure was about to collapse, opened a tiny pipeline at the base and let the iron-hard stream of wrath power the turbines of revenge.
I chatted with Pratchett briefly after the Radio 2 thing, and told him that I'd always been struck that Granny Weatherwax's ethical philosophy, as articulated in Carpe Jugulum (1998)—“sin is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is”—was essentially the same as Immanuel Kant's ethical philosophy. Kant grounded his ethics in the idea that we must always treat other people as ends in themselves, and never as means to an end. Pratchett looked at me quizzically. ‘Can't say I've read a whole lot of Kant,’ he told me. But he did say it was interesting.

It might, I suppose, look wrongheaded to call Pratchett's ethics ‘Kantian’. Kant's most famous moral concept is his ‘categorical imperative’: act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. The belief that individual behaviour must be governed by rules that pre-exist the situation in which the individual must act, is called deontology. Not everybody is convinced by deontology (many prefer consequentialist moral theories). Indeed critiques of Kantian moral theory stretch all the way back to the man himself. Hegel famously thought the categorical imperative empty, John Stuart Mill described it as a merely formal frame, and Schopenhauer attacked it on three grounds. First, he argued, it merely restates the ancient ‘golden rule’ that you shouldn't do to others what you wouldn't want done to yourself, and is therefore redundant. Secondly, Schopenhauer considered it egoistic because its universality includes the person who both gives and obeys the command. And thirdly, he described the categorical imperative as cold and dead ‘because it is to be followed without love, feeling, or inclination, but merely out of a sense of duty.’

More broadly, we might say: there is something over-neat about Kant's systems, something fussily precise, pseudo-mathematical and absolutist, that some people just don't like. It's the kind of metaphysics of morals an intelligent computer might concoct, people say. Moral decisions (we might think) are made by real, living, breathing human beings, in real, often pressing situations. Human life is messy, unpredictable, often awkward, and human beings are not programmed like computers. This last notion—I mean, the messiness of humanity, the way it cannot be neatly fitted into any regular grid—is a profoundly Pratchettian perspective, of course. His glory as a writer is his sense of the sprawling variety and multifariousness of people. Perhaps calling him Kantian does a sort of violence to Pratchett's ethical vision.

We could, for instance, argue that the most Kantian, in the sense of the most universalising, creatures in all of Discworld are the Auditors of Reality. They first appear in Reaper Man (1991), where we're told they ‘see to it that gravity operates and that time stays separate from space’ (and where we learn they have conversations with one another without speaking: ‘They didn't need to speak. They just changed reality so that they had spoken’. Which I've always thought was a very cool notion). The Auditors hate mess and unpredictability and they particularly hate life because it is messy and unpredictable. They would much prefer a cosmos made up of lifeless balls of rock circling stars in mathematically predictable orbits. Indeed, they would like to eliminate humanity, although they can't simply do so because it is ‘against the Rules’ (the Auditors can't break the Rules because, in a certain sense, they are the Rules). They can use proxies, though, and do so to try and extirpate the messiness of life. This drives the plots in Hogfather (1996, where they try to eliminate the titular Santa-Claus-alike because he's so messy and irrational) and Thief of Time (2001, where their plan is to stop time and so deprive humanity of its necessary element). In terms of sheer dedication to this mass genocide, the Auditors are perhaps the most evil characters in the Pratchettverse; although in fact we're told that they lack the imagination to be truly evil.

But this analysis, I'd argue, misrepresents Kant, and so misses something really important about Pratchett's moral vision. It's true that for Kant morality must be derived by what he calls pure practical reason; that is, it can't be based on the selfish or partial reasons people might come up with for their actions, what he calls ‘dependent incentives’. Pure reasoning chooses actions because those actions are good in themselves; good without any ulterior justification, good because derivative of transcendental law. But if that sounds inhuman, it shouldn't. Kant argues this not because he wants to subordinate human will to some tyrannical universal necessity, but on the contrary because this seems to him the only way to ensure that individual people treat other individual people as ends in themselves, rather than as means to an end.

That's so for the following reason. To choose to act in a way incompatible with the categorical imperative, Kant thinks, is to elevate your own motivations over the needs of others. Put it this way: morality is the business of deciding which actions are permissible and which are impermissible. When you make a choice to act, you are in effect indicating you believe what you are doing to be permissible. If you steal, then in effect you're giving permission to others to steal from you. If you kill another person, then you’re giving permission to others that they can kill you. And when we put it like that, we can see (it's the first of Schopenhauer's objections, noted above) that the categorical imperative is a reciprocal rather than an absolute ethical frame. And by universalising this individual recipcrocity, Kant gives it rational and categorical force.

And the sheer rational force of acting ethically is something to which Pratchett often returns. In Maskerade (1995), Weatherwax reminisces:
‘There was a wicked ole witch once called Black Aliss. She was an unholy terror. There's never been one worse or more powerful. Until now. Because I could spit in her eye and steal her teeth, see. Because she didn't know Right from Wrong, so she got all twisted up, and that was the end of her. The trouble is, you see, that if you do know Right from Wrong, you can't choose Wrong. You just can't do it and live. So if I was a bad witch I could make Mister Salzella's muscles turn against his bones and break them where he stood ... if I was bad. I could do things inside his head, change the shape he thinks he is, and he'd be down on what had been his knees and begging to be turned into a frog ... if I was bad. I could leave him with a mind like a scrambled egg, listening to colors and hearing smells...if I was bad. Oh yes.’ There was another sigh, deeper and more heartfelt.

‘But I can't do none of that stuff. That wouldn't be Right.’
Choice seems much less open-ended when you think rationally about right and wrong. Weatherwax does not claim to have all the answers; but she does understand that ‘right’ is not the same thing as ‘nice’, and that doing the right thing very rarely coincides with doing the popular thing. That's the main plot of Witches Abroad (1991), in fact. Indeed, it's the main plot of many of Pratchett's novels.

Those Schopenhauerian objections can come to seem, when we reconsider them from, as it were, a Pratchettian point of view, features rather than bugs. Is the categorical imperative egoistic in a ‘bad’ way, because its universality includes the person who both gives and obeys the command? Or on the contrary, mightn't it be egotistical in a ‘good’ way, because ethics must be grounded in the individual psychology of ego and super-ego (I'm being anachronistic when I put it like that, I know) if it is to have any purchase on real life? Pratchett's strongest characters, in the sense of most memorable, most loved, and most often the bellwethers for the novels' ethical dramas, are also his strongest characters in terms of ego. ‘Granny Weatherwax was not lost,’ we're told in Wyrd Sisters. ‘She wasn't the kind of person who ever became lost. It was just that, at the moment, while she knew exactly where SHE was, she didn't know the position of anywhere else.’ That's both funny, and a neat piece of characterisation, although it describes the sort of person we might find rather alarming in real life. Sam Vimes has some of this quality, too: a grounded, or centred, sense of his own grasp on right versus wrong, whatever other insecurities or insufficiencies he might admit to. And Tiffany Aching, despite her youth, likewise. The ‘ego’ here means: Pratchett's fondness for strongly rendered, pungent and memorable and positive characters. The really telling thing, I think, is how rarely he does the opposite: how undersupplied the Discworld books are with full-on moustache-twirling melodramatic villains. That's sometimes seen as a problem. Amanda Craig argues that Pratchett supplies ‘a lifelong source of pleasure and happiness,’ but, she thinks, ‘this comes at the price of not showing us “the darkness”’.
There is a bullying father here, and spite and sudden death, but none of it disturbs. Other great fantasy authors from Tolkien to Robin Hobb leave us in no doubt that the torture, rape and murder in their worlds, described in chilling detail, are real and terrible, like the lust for power and sex that inspires them: but the filth of the city of Ankh-Morpork is down to dirt and poor plumbing. We are so used to the way George RR Martin or Joe Abercrombie or even Ursula le Guin show us fantasy worlds riven with cruelty, that perhaps the kindliness of Discworld is more subversive than it seems. It is, in essence, a humanist’s creation in which laughter, as Nabokov said, is the best pesticide, and humour as potent as swords.
There might be something in this objection, I suppose; although I'd tend to see it as, again, one of the strengths of Pratchett's writing, grounded in his habit of ethically universalising the moral particular. What I mean is: rather than seeing the categorical imperative as a top-down quasi-tyrannical imposition of moral order on the universe, we could see it as exactly the opposite. After all, it takes as axiomatic that nobody is outside the moral world—that is to say, it fundamentally repudiates one of the oldest moral fix-ups in human history, the one where the world is divided into ‘us’, who deserve to be treated ethically, and ‘them’, the outgroup, the Others (the Jews, the slavs, the Blacks, the barbarians, the Muslims, the poor, the women, the gays, all those many varieties of homines sacri) who fall outside of the protection of justice, who can be treated in ways beyond the ambit of morals. Kant isn't having that, and neither is Pratchett. This manifests, for Pratchett, in a refusal to take the dramatically easy way of demonising one or other outgroup. Really, nobody is beyond the pale in Discworld. No group is demonised, actual demons least of all. This same impulse manifests for Kant in an ethical rule that obtains categorically, not only to those like us, or whom we like.

This is also why Schopenhauer's third objection to the Kantian categorical imperative, as a cold and dead matter of obedience to mere duty, misses the mark; as a criticism of Kant (I think, though it would take a lot longer than I have here to demonstrate why) and certainly as a criticism of Pratchett. Pratchett's anger was hot, and his humour was continually and wonderfully alive; and that heat and that liveliness are what power his ethical vision. And one final point occurs to me: Pratchett's strategy for communicating ethically with his readers was fundamentally story-based: he tells us stories, and we are amused, and intrigued, and moved, and in that process we are called-forth into actualised ethical situations, made to think through the business of what it means to act well and to act badly, to consider consequences and otherness and so on.  I suppose it's true that actual Kantian moral philosophers are thin on the ground nowadays, but one of the most importat and celebrated interventions into ethical thought of the last ten years or so was Barbara Herman's Moral Literacy (2008), which is not only thoroughly Kantian, but which explores how morals are a mode of existential literacy, something we learn and practice, and something for which stories are the ideal mode. Herman doesn't discuss Pratchett, but she could easily have done. Doing the right thing, Pratchett says, over and over, is not a passionless matter of obeying an inhuman universal duty; it is always particular, always passionate, and above all always funny.


  1. Great blog article. May very well be a study aid for English Grad's in future years.

  2. Pratchett has many chilling villains - apart from the Auditors, Carcer, Teatime and Reacher Gilt come immediately to mind. He does portray others as foolish or unstable, but an unstable fool with life or death power is terrifying too.