A Dialogue on the Concept of Obedience ~ في مسألة الخضوع والطاعة

With Marc Joseph, American Professor of Philosophy

This dialogue was conducted by Zaid N. Mahir via Zoom and email correspondence. In it, Marc Joseph examines the concept of obedience from several perspectives, drawing upon his major sources—ancient through modern. He decidedly engages with his sources as interlocutors, rather than as authorities—who may or may not provide him, as a philosopher, with the right answers to important questions such as the question of truth.

The dialogue draws attention to the communal nature of Professor Joseph’s philosophy. He is an analytic philosopher interested in the various manifestations of obedience and the different ways we, humankind, act or fail to act as we obey rules, instructions, and norms. As I was preparing for this dialogue with my guest, I shared with him some of my concerns regarding the way(s) that the concept of obedience has normalized our life as individuals but also as a human community, wondering whether we have been able to approximate obedience in ways that do not undermine our humanity while living as moderns.

Trained in modern European analytic philosophy, Marc A. Joseph is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the School of English and Philosophy at the University of Central Missouri. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied philosophy, classics, and mathematics. Professor Joseph has held appointments and fellowships at Mills College, the University of San Francisco, the University of New Hampshire, San Diego State University, and Boston University. His most recent book is a revised translation and critical edition of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Broadview, 2014). His work focuses primarily on issues in post-Kantian metaphysics about the nature of objectivity in morals and matters of fact.

The Dialogue

A Foreword for the Reader

Zaid Mahir: As a philosopher and Professor of Philosophy, you must have a project that defines your intellectual interests and philosophical concerns. What is your project, and how would you define the idea of project both epistemologically and teleologically? How does the communal nature of your philosophy shape your project? What role, if any, does ethics have in your philosophy/project?

Marc Joseph: As an academic philosopher, my project comprises research on a set of problems in post-Kantian metaphysics about the nature and structure of objectivity. I also have a project as a human being, which is my life or simply, myself. As Sartre says, a person is what they do, and I am the human being I make myself to be.

The universe sub specie aeternitatis is empty of order and meaning; it is atoms and the void, a cold dark place getting colder and darker. There is order in the cosmos – there is a kosmos in the Greek – only sub specie humanitatis: what meaning there is in the universe is meaning we create through what we do.

My project, then, is to fashion a human life and a human world by shaping my being through order, meaning, and value that I originate in the world. This conception is ethical in the classical sense of the question, How should I live my life? The answer is that I decide how I should live my life by deciding who I ought to be. Who I ought to be is not fixed by some image in the divine mind; I create who I ought to be by creating a self-conception  – this is the teleological aspect – and in each of my actions I do or do not live up to that conception, and that’s what gives my life its ethical character.

In my creative acts, I am constrained both by universe and by my being embedded in an historically given human world. This historically given human world is dense with meaning, but it is always falling apart and being engulfed, like Ozymandias in the sand, by indifference to human projects. We maintain our world and ourselves only through striving, otherwise, like Goethe’s Faust, we are lost — though to nothingness, not the Devil.

The connection with our theme, obedience, is that we originate meaning through the action of binding ourselves. Nietzsche says in the Genealogy of Morality that we are distinguished from other animals by our ability to take on obligations, to make promises. We thus disfigure ourselves (Nietzsche says) by taking on burdens; we make ourselves obedient to ideas and ideals that are ours, but which also take on a kind of independent agency. We are obedient to ourselves, but in being obedient to ourselves we also place ourselves outside ourselves, responsive to structures that make demands on us and which (to continue Nietzsche’s line) may not be healthy for us. 

This, I am my own project. It is a vain effort, since in the end we all return to atoms and the void, but it is what we do. 


Zaid Mahir: Let us, then, foreground the discussion of the concept of obedience with a discussion of your views and premises as a Philosopher. If we were to draw a picture of the universe and place the philosopher at its centre—for epistemological and teleological reasons, what kind of image or metaphor do you see for the role or activity of the philosopher? As a logician, is the philosopher an author, interpreter, a begetter of knowledge? Is he “engaged” with the world? Does he exist on a plane of his own creation?

Marc Joseph: The philosopher is a critic. The best image for philosophy and the philosopher comes from Locke, who says that the eye can only with difficulty turn itself around and look at itself to investigate how it works and its fitness for vision; but that is the task of philosophy. 

The philosopher has no special perspective from which to perform her critical inquiry; she’s as much embedded in the world as her colleagues in the natural and human sciences. I wouldn’t even say that she has special tools, except for her logical acumen, patience, and an eye for exacting detail.

Zaid Mahir: In his meaning-making endeavour, the philosopher faces the challenge of imposing his vision of order on a world susceptible to chaos. How does your project, which is yourself, manage to impose order in the fight against entropy?

Marc Joseph: One way we face the challenge is by seeking fellowship. Montaigne withdrew to his tower, but even he found fellowship with the authors he surrounded himself with. Or to take a fictional protagonist, Sisyphus (in Camus’ telling) finds it in his labor, or perhaps in communion with the Earth (in the shape of his stone). There are many ways to avoid the chaos. As a philosopher, I fight against the chaos by the pursuit of wisdom; to fall back on Nietzsche again, it is my will to truth. (In Nietzsche’s telling, this is an especially unhealthy modus of life.) Aristotle says that all human beings by nature desire to know; I can’t speak for anyone else, but that covers me. In this pursuit I am sustained by my conversation partners, living and dead, philosophers and poets, saints and heretics.

Zaid Mahir: As a genre of writing philosophy goes back to Plato in the Western tradition. In your writing, which is your act of creation, what models do you draw upon from European philosophy? How do they shape your project?

Marc Joseph: As someone who was trained in the analytic tradition, my model for how to write philosophical prose is Gottlob Frege. Frege’s style is informed by his work as a logician, which trained him to focus on the detailed structure of the arguments; as I tell my students, philosophy is all about the arguments. Reaching back farther, Thomas Aquinas is another philosopher whose writing I admire; like Frege, Thomas is an exact thinker and writer, even when he’s fudging the details, as we all do at some point. And Aristotle, of course, to whom everyone who aspires to being an exact thinker stands in debt.

In a different way, Hume is a model for me of what it means to be a philosopher. These days, I side with Kant against Hume on all substantive questions, but when I first began to read philosophy seriously, Hume defined for me the problems of philosophy. More than that, I found and still find in Hume a model of what it is to feel that the problems of philosophy really matter; for Hume, as for me, philosophy is an existential concern. My favourite work of philosophical reflection is the conclusion to book one of Hume’s greatest work, A Treatise of Human Nature. In it, Hume looks back and laments his failures – to persuade his critics, to find allies and friends, and to identify and correct his own flaws. Hume’s mood is dark, and it suggests a crisis of faith. Not in any deity, because Hume is an atheist, but in the possibility of not falling into error and contradiction. Hume wrote the Treatise when he was only 23, and it is a young man’s book; it is full of passion, and it is a model of what it is to be a philosopher.

Zaid Mahir: Where do you stand in relation to knowledge, since knowledge is not a purely cognitive activity but a social activity, too? What does it mean to say that knowledge to you is a system of true propositions, of creative acts, and that you, the philosopher, are a member of a community or communities—political, epistemic, social, religious, etc. How much of Heidegger’s philosophy informs yours in this discussion?

Marc Joseph: Reading Heidegger was, for me, a turning point in my thinking about the nature of knowledge and, more generally, about what it is to be a human being. I learned from Heidegger the truth of the phenomenological axiom that the starting point has always to be in the midst of things and the corollary that the human world (which surrounds us, is suffused with emotion and meaning, and is essentially social) is fundamental reality. The order we see in the universe, thus, is real, but it is also of our own making; how these two claims can both be true is the basic problem I address in my philosophical project. Philosophy, and more generally the business of inquiry, is a creative act on the part of human beings situated in their political, social, epistemic, etc. communities, and it is also a system of truths. Now, I’m a realist, so when I speak of truths I don’t mean that you have your truths and I have my truths; truth, by its very nature and its role in inquiry, is not anyone’s subjective possession; it is the common standard by which we judge matters of theory and deliberate about matters of practice.


Zaid Mahir: I believe we are now ready to transition to the heart of the matter, so to speak, to the concept of obedience as such. There is a long history of philosophical engagement with the concept in the Western tradition, which opens the door for a myriad of different perceptions and perspectives shaping such a discussion as ours. How do the moderns “problematise” the concept of obedience, which they see as an already existing problem, as opposed to the ancients who did not see obedience as a problem?

Marc Joseph: For the ancients, obedience presents no conceptual challenge. In his notorious discussion of slavery, for example, Aristotle says that by nature some human beings are servile, and others are born to rule. In a well-run community, where relations are as they naturally ought to be, obedience follows as a matter of course. Similarly, in a healthy individual, e.g., reason governs the passions, and disobedience to reason is essentially a kind of psychic defect or illness.

Epistemologically, truths impress themselves upon the intellect through a kind of rational intuition; when we make our way up and out of the Cave, the brilliance of the Sun is such that we cannot not recognise the imperatives of reason. We believe as we ought to believe so long as our faculties are performing as they ought.

For the medievals, too, obedience is a function of nature. According to Augustine, sin is an error we make when we fall away from our nature as beings in the moral image of God; so long as we follow our nature, we are obedient to God’s laws and plan for the universe. We see this, too, in the political sphere in Shakespeare’s Richard II. To King Richard the idea that his rule might be challenged violates the order of things, since as a medieval prince he has a divine right to be obeyed; Bolingbroke, who like the poet is a modern, sees it differently.

For moderns, obedience is a problem. The classic modern solution to political obedience is the theory of the social contract, which resolves the difficulty by reassigning obedience from a kind natural necessity to a matter of calculation and will: what should I choose, based on a calculation of rational self-interest? Social contract theory rests on a superficial metaphysics, but deeper thinkers like Kant also move obedience from the category of nature to the will.

The problem of obedience for moderns, then, is that obedience is not a function of nature. Or, rather, it is a function of our “second nature” in a sense we find in the contemporary philosopher John McDowell. The possibility of being obedient – of following rules, of being subject to norms, of being governed by laws in something other than the way that projectiles are governed by Newton’s laws of motion – is a capacity we grow into as we mature into distinctively human beings. 

As I already mentioned in connection with Nietzsche, a feature of this second nature is that I am able to bind myself by a rule. To be sure, I also can be threatened into obedience, but then I’m not following a law in the distinctively human sense; I’m more like the projectile moving in accord with Newton’s laws. In the distinctively human sense, I make the law my own and thus bind myself. The problem of obedience for moderns, then, is the nature and structure of this second nature.

Zaid Mahir: As you look at the possible connection between the concept of obedience and the concept of obligation in its multiple forms—political, economic, social, intellectual, how do you assess the now-classic idea of social contract? Where does the age-old struggle between determinism and self-will reside in such a discussion?

Marc Joseph: Yes, let’s go back to the social contract. The problem that Locke and other social contract theorists look to solve is exactly the idea that obedience is not natural; we are, on this modern view, relationless atoms – Leibniz’ theory of monads takes this to the extreme — that bear no intrinsic connection to one another. There is nothing you or society can say or do that binds me to an obligation (other than through force, and then I am obliged to conform, but I am not obligated). The solution, as it were, has to come from within the atom; I have to move myself if I am to be bound by obligations.

The social contract theorists solve this in a crude way, by reducing obligation to a prudential calculation of what is in my self-interest. As a rational maximiser of utility, I am obligated, e.g., to social and political norms to the extent that obedience maximises my benefits and minimises harms. This is a false solution, though: I am not really obligated since as soon as the calculations change, I ought (according to the theory) to break the rules and seek greater utility elsewhere. But then I’m not really obligated to obey the rules.

The more sophisticated modern view recognises that obedience is not merely a matter of doing sums and then choosing; the ties that bind are constitutive of our being human, but they are a product of our agency and not handed down from on high.

Zaid Mahir: What part does interpretation of rules and laws “as signs” play in our obedience as individuals functioning within a community? What creates in us, individuals, the need for obedience? Conversely, when we decide not to obey those signs, what prompts our decision?

Marc Joseph: Our nature as rule-followers is of a piece with our being as homo loquens, and this is the key to seeing how obedience constitutes our existence as human beings. The legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart contrasts the external perspective an anthropologist takes on the behaviour of a group of human beings; she observes them acting in regular ways when they come in contact with a physical object of a certain sort, say, a red octagon with white markings. She recognises the necessity of their behaviour, for it is certainly not random, but she is not herself bound by that necessity.

From the perspective internal to that community, in contrast, the red octagon with white markings is not merely a physical object, it is a sign that means to stop. And members do stop – they obey the sign – not merely because otherwise they would be punished (which is what the social contract theorist would say), but because as mature members of the community, the sign is itself a reason they recognise as a reason to stop. Of course, they may disobey the sign, but then they are disobeying and not merely not stopping.

This brings us back to the idea that a person is her own project. As human beings and members of communities, we create signs, rules, norms, and laws and these, in turn, create spaces of reasons that are spaces of meaning.; we thus construct ourselves by defining and moving – i.e., by being obedience or disobedient – within these spaces.

September 2020 in Missouri, the United States of America

أدناه نبذة عن الحوار الّذي أجراه الدّكتور زيد نعمان ماهر- باللّغة الإنجليزيّة- مع الفيلسوف الأمريكيّ مارك جوزف في ولاية مزوري الأمريكيّة في شهر أيلول من عام 2020.

ضيف هذا الحوار يحمل شهادة الدّكتوراه في الفلسفة من جامعة كولومبيا الأمريكيّة ويعمل حاليّاً أستاذاً للفلسفة في جامعة سنترال مزوري ورئيساً لقسم اللّغة الإنجليزيّة والفلسفة فيها. سبق للأستاذ مارك جوزف أن عمل في جامعات أمريكيّة مرموقة منها جامعة سان فرانسسكو وجامعة نيو هامبشر وجامعة بوسطن. له عدّة بحوث ومؤلّفات أكاديميّة تتمحور حول قضايا الميتافيزيقيا في مرحلة ما بعد الفيلسوف كانط (كانْتْ) والمتعلّقة بطبيعة مبدأ الموضوعيّة في الأخلاق والحقائق.

ينظر مارك جوزف إلى مسألة الخضوع والطّاعة من جوانب عدّة مستنداً إلى مصادره المعرفيّة، قديمها وحديثها، دون أن يضفي عليها صفة المرجعيّة المألوفة في هذا النّوع من النّقاشات. فالفيلسوف -حسب قناعة جوزف- شارح مفسّر يسعى إلى الإجابة عن الأسئلة الّتي تشغلنا، ومنها سؤال الحقيقة، وقد ينجح في سعيه وقد لا ينجح.

من المفيد الإشارة هنا إلى أنّ مارك جوزف يغلّب الجانب الجماعيّ على الفرديّ في فلسفته، وهو الأكاديميّ المتمرّس في الفلسفة التّحليليّة والمعنيّ بالمظاهر المتنوّعة لمسألة الخضوع والطّاعة وبسلوكنا البشريّ ونحن نستجيب للأوامر والتّعليمات بهذا الشّكل أو ذاك. أشير كذلك إلى أنّني عند الإعداد لهذا الحوار شاركت ضيفي ببعض مما كان يجول في ذهني من أفكار تتعلّق بتطبّع البشر أفراداً وجماعات بطابع معيّن نتيجة غلبة مبدأ الطّاعة على المجتمع البشريّ، متسائلاً عمّا إذا كنّا قد تمكّنّا من مقاربة ذلك المبدأ واستيعابه دون أن يمسّ ذلك إنسانيّتنا في العصر الحديث.

إنّني إذ أقدّم للقارئ بالعربيّة مطلع حوار الفلسفة مع ضيفي الأمريكيّ ، آمل أن يجد فيه ما يثير تأمّلاته في هذه المسألة الشّائكة.

توطئة وتمهيد

بدأت الحوار منطلقاً من قناعتي أنّ لضيفي مشروعه الفلسفيّ الخاصّ الّذي يعبّر فيه عن اهتماماته الفكريّة وشؤونه الفلسفيّة. طلبتُ منه أن يعرّف ما تعنيه فكرة المشروع الفلسفيّ له بوصفه فيلسوفاً أكاديميّاً، من ناحيتَي علم المعرفة وغائيّة المعرفة. ثمّ سألته عن طبيعة فلسفته في جانبها الجماعيّ وأثرها في مشروعه وعن دور الأخلاق فيه، فكان هذا ردّه:

يبحث مشروعي الفلسفيّ في مجموعة من المسائل المطروحة في ميتافيزيقيا مرحلة ما بعد الفيلسوف كانط والّتي تدور حول طبيعة مبدأ الموضوعيّة وبُنيتها. كما أنّ لديّ مشروعي الإنسانيّ – أي بوصفي إنساناً- وهو يتعلّق بحياتي أو بذاتي، وكما يقول بول سارتر فإنّك تعرف المرء من أفعاله. لهذا فإنّني كإنسان نتاج ما أصنعه بنفسي حيث أعيش في كونٍ خالٍ من المعنى لكنّني بأفعالي أضفي عليه معنى. الكون الّذي نعيش فيه يتشكّل من ذرّات ومن فراغ وهو كون معتم بارد. هذا الأمر ينعكس في مشروعي المتمثّل بصياغة حياة بشريّة وعالم بشريّ، والقائم على تشكيل وجودي الإنسانيّ من خلال نظام ومعنى وقيمة أؤصّل لها في هذا العالم. إنّ هذا التّصوّر يلعب دوراً مهمّاً في الإجابة عن السّؤال الأزليّ: كيف ينبغي أن أعيش حياتي؟ وهو تصوّر أخلاقيّ بالمعنى الكلاسيكيّ للسّؤال. وجواباً على ذلك أقول: إنّني أنا من يقرّر كيف ينبغي أن يعيش حياته وذلك بأن أقرّر ما أصنعه بنفسي، وإنّ ما أصنعه بنفسي ليس أمراً ثابتاً في صورة من الصّور في الذّهن الإلهيّ. أنا (أخلق) ما ينبغي أن أكون وذلك (بخلق) تصوّر لذاتي. هذا هو الجانب الغائيّ. ثمّ إنّني في كلّ فعل من أفعالي قد أحقّق تصوّري لذاتي أو لا أحقّقه، وإنّ ذلك هو ما يمنح حياتي صفتها الأخلاقيّة. أمّا في أفعالي الخلّاقة فإنّني مقيّد بالكون وبكوني موجوداً في عالم بشريّ ذي صبغة تاريخيّة. هذا العالم البشريّ كثيف المعنى لكنّه يتفكّك على الدّوام حيث تسوده اللّامبالاة بالمشروع البشريّ، مصيره في ذلك كمصير شخصيّة أوزمانديوس الأسطوريّة في الرّمال. نحن لن نحافظ على عالمنا وعلى أنفسنا إلّا بالجهاد، وبخلاف ذلك فإنّنا في ضياع، مثلنا في ذلك مثل شخصيّة الأديب الألمانيّ فاوست. الفرق بيننا هو أنّ فاوست خسر نفسه للشّيطان أمّا نحن فللعدم.

لنأتِ الآن إلى موضوعنا وهو الخضوع والطّاعة. في هذا أقول أنّنا نؤصّل للمعنى من خلال فعل محدّد وهو إلزام أنفسنا بما نلزمها به. يقول نيتشه في كتابه “جينولوجيا الأخلاق” أنّ ما يميّزنا عن سائر الحيوانات هو قدرتنا على تبنّي الالتزامات وإعطاء الوعود، وإنّنا بهذا نشوّه أنفسنا -على حد قول نيتشه- بقبول الأعباء حيث نصبح في طاعة الأفكار والمُثُل الّتي هي أفكارنا ومُثُلنا لكنّها تتّخذ بعد ذلك مايشبه الوجود المستقلّ. نحن في طاعة أنفسنا، وإنّنا إذ نطيع أنفسنا نجد أنّنا قد صرنا خارجها، حيث نستجيب لبُنى تُملي علينا مطالبها، وهذا – بحسب رأي نيتشه أيضاً- قد يضرّ بنا.

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