Passion in a post-postmodern society

Sondra asked:

Is it acceptable in today’s post-postmodern society to lack a passion; to not be passionate?

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

This is a deceptively simple question, which could probably lead to a semester worth of philosophical explorations. Let me give you a flavor of what I mean by focusing in turn on some of the key words in your query:

‘acceptable’: To whom? Who should we elect as the arbiter of what is or is not acceptable nowadays? We could go for society at large (consensus? majority?), but of course cultural history and anthropology tell us very clearly that what is acceptable to one society in one historical period may not be acceptable to another society in the same time frame, or even to the same society at a different time. Gay marriage was definitely not acceptable in American society until a few years ago, but it is now becoming the norm, and has consequently been legalized in a number of states.

Perhaps a better way to frame the issue is to argue that some things ought to be acceptable (or unacceptable) across human societies, and if they are not so in a particular society and time it is because members of that society have not realized it, yet. For instance, in ancient Athens it was acceptable to have slaves, and the same of course was true of the United States a mere 150 years ago. But we regard that attitude as unacceptable, without qualifications. Moreover, we think that we have good reasons for our rejection of slavery — i.e., our stand on the issue seems to be of a qualitatively distinct kind from the eventual rejection of, say, the fashion for Victorian corsets. And yet, it is famously devilishly difficult to pinpoint exactly why at the least some moral dictates should be thought of in an altogether different category than fashion or etiquette.

‘post-postmodern society’: do we really live in a post-postmodern society? Or are we still in a postmodern one? I guess it depends on what one means by ‘postmodern.’ Postmodernism is a complex set of cultural and intellectual trends that have affected literature, the arts and philosophy for decades during the 20th century, and which still, to some extent, exert influence on contemporary society. But it isn’t at all clear that there is a uniquely valid interpretation of what it means to adopt a postmodern stance, and of course even more so a post-postmodern one! At a minimum, postmodernism was a reaction to modernism, yet another complex and somewhat vaguely defined set of cultural attitudes that characterized sectors of Western society after World War I. Modernism — naturally — was itself a reaction to the horrors of that war and to the dehumanizing aspects of the Industrial Revolution. It was also, in an important sense, a rejection of the Enlightenment simplistic optimism about the power of human reason.

One might therefore infer — incorrectly, as it turns out — that postmodernism represents a return to the values of the Enlightenment. On the contrary, the term is often associated with extreme skepticism and with various forms of epistemic and moral relativism (i.e., with the ideas that there are no better or worse ways of knowing things — science is just another type of human activity, on the same level as, say, religion or mysticism; and that there is no such thing as right and wrong, there are only cultural variations on what is or is not — arbitrarily — acceptable to people).

But there is a variety of arguments against postmodernism, beginning with the obvious observation that it is self-defeating: if there is no particularly good reason to adopt any epistemic or moral perspective, why should I adopt the postmodernist one? Moreover, it has been observed that postmodernists themselves don’t really live up to the philosophy they preach. A good number of them, for instance, still go to the doctor when they are sick, or to the mechanic when their car doesn’t run, on the face of it contradicting the very idea that all knowledge is relative and that expertise is an illusion or a just a power play. If any of these or other arguments against postmodernism have succeeded (or if people just got a bit tired of the postmodern fad), then we do live in a post-postmodern society.

‘passion’: what do we mean when we say that someone may lack passion? Most human beings are passionate about something, unless they are severely mentally disturbed. As David Hume pointed out, in fact, passions (i.e., emotions) are really in charge of what we do most of the time, and we use reason largely instrumentally, to achieve the goals about which we are passionate. For instance, I am passionate about explaining philosophy (I know, go figure!), which is why I am writing these words. You could present me with an argument as for why I should care, but, honestly, if I didn’t already care such argument would be merely academic (in the worst sense of the word).

Perhaps your question is really aiming at whether it ought to be acceptable for people not to care about something above and beyond their own needs and wants. We do live in what seems to be an increasingly cynical society, at the least in the United States, where a number of people have elevated egoism itself to a virtue, so the question is perfectly appropriate. The answer depends on how you react to the fundamental moral question that the ancient Greeks posed to themselves: what sort of live ought I to live? What they proposed — the pursuit of the eudaimonic life, a life of flourishing — implies the pursuit of a number of virtues. These virtues famously include courage, temperance, magnanimity, proper ambition, good temper, modesty, friendliness, and even wittiness and appropriate righteousness. As you can see, all of these are ethical virtues, and as a consequence I’m pretty sure Aristotle would reply to you full question in the negative: no, it is not acceptable to be without passion, because it means you would not be a full human being, nor a good and moral member of your polity.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.