Another Note On Jesse Prinz’s “Constructive Sentimentalism”

Here’s Jesse Prinz’s page.

Prinz’s book here.

Full diavlog here.

This is the last post on Prinz I’ll put up that isn’t a more direct response to Prinz’s theory.

After David Hume and the British empiricists, William James and others, Prinz forms his theory of “constructive sentimentalism.”  Yet in Hume, all knowledge is born out of experience and perception.  I think this is likely the deepest point of Prinz’s theory.  Beyond this, he seems to rely on the cognitive sciences (psychology and neuroscience especially) to provide empirical evidence to support his ideas.


A:   Prinz may be knowingly ignoring the obvious debt the cognitive sciences owe to the hard sciences.


B: He has simply not tackled the difficulty of epistemologically grounding the cognitive sciences in the depths of the hard sciences, and thus had to confront some of the same problems that rationalist philosophers have regarding the hard sciences, mathematics, and the possibility of having knowledge beyond experience.

I think much rational (and thus much transcendental moral philosophy) was born of the attempt to explain how it is that mathematical knowledge, especially when united with close empirical observation (this is a gross oversimplification from a scientific point of view) yields the kind of knowledge that it does…

So while the I find the “Constructive Sentimental” theory deep and interesting, I’m more concerned about what it doesn’t include.

See the previous posts for a little more backgroundMore On Jesse Prinz. A Review Of “The Emotional Construction Of Morals” At Notre DameJesse Prinz Discusses “The Emotional Construction Of Morals” On Bloggingheads.

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More On Jesse Prinz. A Review Of “The Emotional Construction Of Morals” At Notre Dame

Full review here.

Here’s Jesse Prinz’s page.

On one hand, Prinz uses Hume, and the depth of Hume’s empiricism (wikipedia) and applies it to morality.  Where does morality come from? 

emotional responses, particularly approbation and disapprobation, constitute the core content of moral judgments.”

From our emotions.  But…how do our emotional responses actually tell us something about the world?  Do they contain factual content?  Prinz goes further:

“What are expressed in moral judgments are not just emotions but sentiments ”

Prinz constructs a theory of “Constructive Sentimentalism” which makes some deep arguments for his claim.  You’ll have to read the review and his book.


While moral progress is possible on Prinz’s theory, universal moral laws that transcend our experiences are not.  Christian morality and essentially all religious morality, Kantian secular morality, and any claim to knowledge that attaches itself to thoughts that don’t arise ultimately out experience… are not valid: 

“Like languages, moralities are constructed out of universal capacities, to form a great variety of mutually incompatible specific forms.”

This in interesting to think about, though do you have to throw out the baby with the bathwater? (A Nietzschean impulse, I think). 

Western liberal morality emphasises rights, fairness and the avoidance of harm, and is grounded in emotional responses to failures of reciprocity and empathy for suffering. But most non-Western cultures and indeed our own social reality involve ideas of “purity”, “sacredness” and “authority” constructed from primitive disgust and animal dominance. Since the latter can be equally intense, Prinz taxes the liberal West with “moral myopia” for downplaying the importance of such values as authority, purity, and sacredness.

Oh boy…here’s where it starts to fall apart.  If you throw out universal moral laws, you apparently also start talking about “Western values” and perhaps defend, like Prinz is doing here, moral relativism.

Still, it’s a deep theory, and I’ve not done it full justice here.

See Also: Jesse Prinz Discusses “The Emotional Construction Of Morals” On Bloggingheads.…and A Few Thoughts On Allan Bloom–The Nietzsche Connection.

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Jesse Prinz Discusses “The Emotional Construction Of Morals” On Bloggingheads.

Full diavlog here.

Prinz’s book here.

Generally, I haven’t been too friendly toward theories of morality based in feeling nor the idealism that can attend them.  However, this discussion offers some deep ideas to think about:  Jesse Prinz merges David Hume with current anthropological and psychological research.

More on Hume here (wikipedia).

After Hume, Prinz accepts the idea that our experience is primary, our knowledge comes after…or that all of our deepest thoughts have their roots in perception.  We simply have no claim to knowledge beyond this.

Prinz extends this to morality; suggesting that there is no universal basis for morality and that within morality our ability to feel is primary and that our thinking…comes after.

The emotions, then, are the seat of morality, and the only way to have moral thinking is to first have moral feelings.  He who extends his feeling (compassion?) to a person, or groups of people…is the only person who can legitimately claim to have moral thoughts about those people, or groups of people.


So how are moral judgments based in feeling? Prinz appeals to:

1.  Common sense-most people will assume that if you don’t seem to have any emotional interest in a subject, idea or pursuit, then you’re not really invested in it.

2.  Neuroscience:  Parts of the brain associated with emotion become active when involved in making moral judgments.

3.  Causation:  During psychological experiments in which people were put in disgusting environments, i.e. bad smells, unclean conditions, they were more likely to make harsher moral judgments, Prinz suggests this is because they are instrospecting their feelings.

4.   Pathologies:  People who kill and commit acts of brutality like serial killers demonstrate a reduction or elimination of emotion…and this leads to a corresponding reduction of moral competence.


A few brief responses:

Prinz is relying on causal arguments to support his position (no #3 especially), and Hume casts some important on the relation between cause and effect.  Hume also casts doubt onto not merely cause and effect, but also the sciences, and especially the disciplines Prinz cites here in support of his positions.

Hume is incredibly deep, but there is a Kantian dispute with Hume (which has it that if you keep following Hume’s ideas, you will come to deny the possibility of even scientific knowledge…the possibility of knowledge that doesn’t arise out of experience).   I’m most concerned with what Prinz and cognitive scientists are leaving out.

Needless to say, I find it very interesting.  More to come later.

Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Addition:  I think it’s fair to say that Hume makes the argument that all knowledge arises from experience.  Now whether or not this necessarily makes a case for sentimentalism is up to Prinz.

See Also On This Site: A Brief Review of Jesse Prinz’s ‘The Emotional Construction Of Morals’

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Jesse Larner In Dissent Magazine: Who’s Afraid Of Friedrich Hayek? The Obvious Truths And Mystical Fallacies Of A Hero Of The Right

Full essay here.

There’s what you would expect: 

“A complex economy is something no person or institution can understand.”

“To Hayek, this is what socialism, communism, and collectivism—he makes little distinction between them—mean: the dangerous illusion of perfectibility.”

But also this:

“Plainly, transparently—and in stark contrast to many modern conservative intellectuals—he (sic Hayek) is a man concerned with human freedom. One of the unexpected things in Road is that he writes with passion against class privilege.”

You don’t have to get into bed with leftist utopianism to see that all groups of people tend to serve their own interests, regardless of ideological bent…and that this can eventually pose a threat to individual freedoms.  Perhaps the American right is being a little mystic with regard to Hayek, though Larner probably has his own motivations as well.

Larner points out the limits of Hayek’s ideas (and genius).  Beyond his central insights, Hayek was also deeply influenced by romanticism, possessed a rather mystic approach to law…both encompassed by a deep commitment to individualism. 

I’d also point out that there is standard German Idealism at work here, as well as the times: A hard, unyielding right and a utopian left in an embrace that later fell apart into chaos.  It’s understandable that Hayek was desperate to create a platform upon which to save individual liberty.

It might be worthy of note that Karl Popper and the Vienna Circle may have been similarly shaped by those times. 

Anyways, food for thought.

by animalitobaby

See Also:  Friedrich Hayek Discussion On Bloggingheads.  Bruce Caldwell discusses his new book on Hayek.

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Richard Lieber In The World Affairs Journal–Falling Upwards: Declinism, The Box Set

Full essay here.

A central quote would be this, I think:

Theories of America’s obsolescence aspire to the status of science. But cycles of declinism tend to have a political subtext and, however impeccable the historical methodology that generates them seems to be, they often function as ideology by other means. “

Are Fareed Zakaria and Parag Khanna simply making cyclic declinist arguments, drawing erroneous conclusions from perhaps erroneous ideas?

Leiber offers some examples of potential “challengers:”

1.  The EU is too politically fractured to make common domestic, let alone, foreign policy (and to raise an army) and direct its will abroad. It also has a low birth rate.

2.  Russia is politically disorganized, still in internal decline, and relying too heavily on oil and natural gas. It has its many, many of its own problems.

3Japan and India, while strong, are more closely alligned than ever with American interests, largely because of China.

4.  China, to whom we owe:

“A huge trade surplus…the accumulation of $1.5 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, the bulk of it invested in U.S. government securities.”

…also has its own internal and political issues and while increasingly economically and politically infuential, it isn’t there yet.

Are you persuaded?

by no3rdw

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Sandra Tsing Loh On Feminism In The Atlantic: “I Choose My Choice, I Choose My Choice”

Full article here.

Another critique of the old feminists and some of their effects on mainstream culture.  It must be in the air.

“The triumph of feminism, Gilbert reminds us (echoing those socially conservative men of the left, George Orwell and Christopher Lasch), has served the culture of capitalism. As he sums up the whole darn tangle:”

Yes, feminists have grown up within “capitalism,” and in so doing have relied on intellectual traditions they didn’t always understand to preserve the rights and freedoms…of well…feminists.    It’s ironic that so many of them have been so ideologically hostile to the intellectual traditions they relied upon while bashing them…

Actually, this has probably come at a cost to “capitalism” too…though it might be a good trade off in the long run.

“The society that has emerged, in which equality between men and women supersedes equality between social classes, may therefore be seen as “the triumph of feminism over socialism.”

So has feminism grown up enough to be able to curb some of its more dangerous impulses and start to appeal to a broader group?

Some favorable signs could be the depth and breadth of thought to include reasonable men as well as banishing certain wings of itself to the hinterlands (postmodernism, socialism, the extreme equity ideologues, gender feminists etc).

Anyways, food for thought.

See AlsoA Few Thoughts:  Where Is Feminism Headed?  which suggest some possible ideas and people of interest.

Addition:  I should add that I am not a feminist, and there’s probably even something a little bit disingenuous about my tackling the subject, but it could be somewhat useful.

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A Few Thoughts: Where Is Feminism Headed?

First, it might be useful to identify a certain kind of feminism.  Here’s a quote from Karl Popper:

“…and if there could be such a thing as socialism combined with individual liberty, I would be a socialist still. For nothing could be better than living a modest, simple, and free life in an egalitarian society. It took some time before I recognized this as no more than a beautiful dream; that freedom is more important that equality; that the attempt to realize equality endangers freedom; and that, if freedom is lost, there will not even be equality among the unfree.”

Some branches of feminism are openly socialist and Marxist, while others like postmodern feminism aren’t.  All are mostly hostile to free-market capitalism…the family and its rational defense (not merely on religious grounds)…as well as the legal and philosophical traditions that provide many of the individual liberties and freedoms they possess.  Generally, I would place them out on the extreme left where I think they belong.


There are also women who identify with feminism yet find the idea of equality much more defensible when attached to classically liberal thinking, and the libertarian principles of individual liberty and personal responsibility.   J.S. Mill’s “The Subjection Of Women” is an interesting read and a good place to start.  His and Bentham’s utilitarianism also contains ideas in which we all have a stake. 

These are a few women I’ve written about in the past.

1.   Here is an interview (transcript) with Martha Nussbaum (wikipedia).  She’s a deep and largely pragmatic thinker.  Her influence will likely be felt long after her death. While I have doubts about the efficacy of some of her assumptions, (has she really moved beyond  Western thought in her economic/democratic work with Amartya Sen?) she is an important voice.

“…so that’s why I think the feminist movement couldn’t have much role for philosophy until it had already progressed a certain distance through a kind of radical evangelizing and consciousness raising. But then once that happens, it’s good to lay it out more systematically and say, “Where are we now? How can we be fully fair and inclusive and get the best out of our convictions?”

2.  Here is Camille Paglia’s recent article in Arion pointing out the Christian roots of Susan B. Anthony and the debt feminism owes to the “patriarchy” it attacks.  I’m wary of her deep Nietzschean aestheticism especially when she gets outside the realm of aesthetics.  I’m also a little wary of her sometimes lack of reasonable, clear arguments for her positions, but she has continually pushed the envelope and attempted to poke holes in feminist ideology.

3Christina Hoff Sommers (wikipedia) is trying to replacing gender feminism with equity feminism. She also wrote The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men.  As a more current thinker, sometimes I wonder if she isn’t more concerned with pursuing her ideas or attacking the totalitarian/gender feminists with those ideas in policy and education debates?

Thanks for reading, your comments are welcome.

J.S. Mill

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Steven Fuller In Project Syndicate: Who Needs The Humanities?

Full article here.

“This enabled first him and then her to command authority regardless of birth, resulting in the forging of networks and even institutions whose benefits cut deeply across bloodlines.”

Yes, the humanities are vital to a democracy, or at least in creating common experience through a mastery of language, rhetoric, and expression.  This occurs by reading, writing and discussing novels, philosophical texts, poems and ocassionally, music.   It can be a great leveller and unifier.

“The university began with the humanities at its heart, but today it is playing catch-up with the natural sciences.”

Which university was that, exactly?  Even when functioning well, the humanities aim towards philosophy, and have vaguely modelled themselves after the sciences, at least in this country.  Most importantly they focus on the contribution of artists.  We read Walt Whitman for his poems.   

“Nevertheless, to paraphrase Keynes, every time we turn on the radio or television, read a newspaper, pick up a novel, or watch a movie, we are in the thrall of one or more dead humanists who set the terms of reference through which we see the world.”

Yes, but we are also in thrall to Maxwell’s equations and thories of electromagnetism that helped invent the radio and T.V.  And to be cruder, we rely on the printing press for the newspaper and novel…the camera for the movies.

I guess Fuller means most people could benefit from reading the great artists to understand what’s right in front of them and to broaden and deepen their thinking.  I agree, but would also like to point out that thinking doesn’t begin nor end there.


Here’s a quote from George Santayana:

The young man who has not wept is a savage, and the old man who will not laugh is a fool.

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