WHAT IS A PROMISE? This was a question raised on LDS-Phil that led to some interesting discussions. Nietzsche, in The Spake Zarathustra, had Zarathustra say,
I love him who casts golden words before his deeds and always does even more than he promises: for he wants to go under." (Prologue, 4)
Ken West asked the question, "can we understand Zarathustra's desire for friends, his desire to go under, as a desire to make promises? And if this reading makes sense, is there a way to read Nietzsche as a social philosopher, i.e., as a philosopher who holds that humans are necessarily social beings? Promises might be seen as a way of holding civilizations together, indeed Nietzsche may even have Hobbes in mind here. That is to say, Nietzsche's promises sound a little like Hobbes' social contract. It is promises that bind us together in the form of a contract one with another."
Several people responded by asking whether we can make a promise unless there is an other to whom we can promise. That is, is the promise essentially social? Is it possible to make a promise to myself?
John Austin is one notable philosopher in this tradition who speaks of the promise in the project of Speech Act theory. Austin said that when I say that I promise, "I have not merely announced my intention, but, by using this formula (performing the ritual), I have bound myself to others, and staked my reputation in a new way." (Austin, Philosophical Papers, 99) Searle, who took up and perhaps improved upon Speech Act theory, goes even farther, suggesting that a promise involves institutional facts and notions. (Searle, Speech Acts, 56) It is a act determined in an institutional sense. It is very much a public ritual of entering into an obligation. Put simply, promising is dependent upon a kind of collective intentionality.
Certainly we must agree that the meaning of "promising" occurs within the horizon of an institutional setting. We are given our notion of "the Promise" from within what Searle would call the corporate meaning of the term "promise." This horizon means that our promising is at least partially determined within a social sphere.
Returning to Nietzsche I suspect that the key point in our quote is the phrase "go under." What does this mean? Earlier in the prolog we find something that can illuminate our earlier quote.
"Bless the cup that wants to overflow, that the water may flow from it golden and carry everywhere the reflection of delight."Behold, this cup wants to become empty again, and Zarathustra wants to become man again."Thus Zarathustra began to go under.
Zarathustra then immediately descends the mountain. One can't miss the allusion to Christ and his condenscension to mortality. At the same time there is the is an allusion both to Plato's cave and also to the notion of a cup in neo-Platonism holding the emmanation of Being. Yet Nietzsche gives it his distinctive twist with the "revaluation of all values." The cup must become empty again. This is, I believe, to Nietzsche's notion of individuality and the overcoming of the herd mentality.
Let us return to Searle's notion of the promise through the lens of Zarathustra. If the promise is made as a social contract, as a promise within the collective intentionality, then it is the very promise that Nietzsche is trying to overcome. We thus have a hiding from the value of promise and revaluing it. In effect, it is the individual breaking from the herd and making the promise their own, and not the promise of the herd. While there may well be a bit of Hobbes' social contract in all this, at the same time I think this relation ought to be considered similar to his allusions to Christ and Plato. Clearly things are not as they first appear.
If Nietzsche constantly speaks of the "promise" of the "Ubermensche" what then is the meaning of this promise? Can it be anything but a personal promise? A promise to the self. A promise that carries with it the very notion of overcoming. It must be an intentionality not within the social but beyond the social.
In more Heideggarian language, one can promise with a mind set towards things as they are constituted for me in this realm of beings. Or I can promise with a mind set twoards what things are beyond themselves in themselves. It is the difference between an already fully constituted promise or a promise not yet made even as it is made. A promise that always exceeds itself.
Consider this in religious terms. When we join the Church we make a promise. Further we make that promise in an explicitly ritualistic context. We make many such promises. Yet at the same time the very form of the ritual in terms of symbols we do not fully understand implies that the promise is not yet fully constituted. We promise without fully understanding the promise we make. It is a promise constatly renewed, not only through the repetition of ritual (a ritual of remembering to one who truly did "go under") but in the sense that each repetition of the ritual is a re-constituting of the promise itself. At each performance of the ritual we too "go under." The promise has a meaning always announced but never yet fulfilled.
The act of promising, to be truly my promise is not an obligation within society. We must reject the notion of Searle, Hobbes and others. The promise is the cry for obligations. It is the accepting of what is yet to come, what has not yet been accepted. The very act of promising is a "going under" for it to be a promise.
What then does this say about morality? Can we constitute morality in a fashion where morality hascome, has been constituted, has a meaning whereby we can fully judge and say, "this is good, this is bad?" I think not. Sometimes we find in the scriptural narrative things accepted as moral which we have difficulty reconciling to our notions of morality. All scripture is full of this: Old Testament and New. When Paul speaks of the letter of the law and the spirit of the law it implies that the spirit transcends the letter. It is what gives life to the letter. It is what makes the letter its own and not society's.
One can't help but think of Nietzsche's warning:
"O my brothers, who represents the greatest
danger for all of man's future? Is it not the good and the just? Inasmuch as
they say and feel in their hearts, 'We already know what is good and just, and
we have it too; woe unto those who still seek here!'
And whatever harm the evil may do, the harm done by the good is the most harmful harm - The good must crucify him who invents his own virtue. That is the truth! - The creator they hate the most: he breaks tablets and old values. He is a breaker, they call him lawbreaker. for the good are unable to create; they are always the beginning of the end"
William James is justly famous for his writing on religious belief. Many of us have noted a certain kinship between what we find written in the " Lectures on Faith" and the essays of James such as "The Will to Believe" or "The Varieties of Religious Experience." William James arrived at a lot of his philosophical views from the pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce and James, however, differed significantly on many matters. James adopted a more thoroughgoing psychologism that Peirce found distasteful. (Although how much this is actually present in James is of some debate) Peirce, unlike James, was definitely a realist and focused a lot on metaphysical issues. He saw that James' position begged many questions.
His realist position towards religion makes Peirce quite interesting to me for considering Mormon philosophy. Religion is not often discussed in connection with Peirce to the extent we find is some of his contemporaries such as Whitehead or James. Still it is a significant topic for him.
Allow me some interesting quotes that I came upon today that might be of interest to some.
And what is religion? In each individual it is a sort of sentiment, or obscure perception, a deep recognition of a something in the circumambient All" - and if the mind of religious people will become more and more open to science: "Such a state of mind may properly be called a religion of science. Not that it is a religion to which science or the scientific spirit has itself given birth; for religion, in the proper sense of the term, can arise from nothing but the religious sensibility. But it is a religion, so true to itself, that it becomes animated by the scientific spirit, confident that all the conquests of science will be triumphs of its own... (Peirce, "The Marriage of Religion and Science" CP 6:429)
Many have argued (to varying degrees of success) that Mormon views of religion parallel the method of scientific inquery in many ways. Certainly Alma 32 is oft quoted in defense of a "try it" sort of empiricism. Peirce's view uniting religion and science are to me quite interesting. Especailly with my background as a physicist. He has one more comment that might seem familiar to Mormons:
They swamp religion in fallacious disputations. Thus, the natural tendency is to the continual drawing tighter and tighter of the narrowing bounds of doctrine, with less and less attention to the living essence of religion, until, after some symbolum quodcumque has declared that the salvation of each individual absolutely and almost exclusively depends upon his entertaining a correct metaphysics of the godhead, the vital spark of inspiration becomes finally quite extinct. (Peirce, "The Marriage of Religion and Science" CP 6:438)
This is not to say that he simply writes from a position of faith. Rather he tries to be objective and deal with logic (as was his method). He criticizes a kind of lazy dogmatism which one can find on both extremes in matters of religion. He has patience for neither they who will not question nor those who attempt to remain above the questions.
...the greater part of thinking men in our day make it practically an assumption which must be granted before they will listen to any reasoning, that there is no God, or that we can know nothing of such a Being; while the remainder, who have undergone true religious experience [...] do not care at all about reasonings [...] I must confess then, that between these two parties, an innocent inquiry that really takes no side at all in advance must be looked on as lukewarm and weak by almost everybody. Yet that is just my position. Because I do not howl or screech on either side, nor view either Side with arrogant disdain from the outset, I am a wholly insignificant person to those who are moved only by vehemence or by assumptions of superiority. (Peirce, MS 857 p. 1)
The instinctive dislike of an undecided state of mind...makes men cling spasmodically to the views they already take. The man feels that, if he only holds to his belief without wavering, it will be entirely satisfactory... The man who adopts this method will not allow that its inconveniences are greater than its advantages... And in many cases it may very well be that the pleasure he derives from his calm faith overbalances any inconveniences resulting from its deceptive character... A similar consideration seems to have weight with many persons in religious topics, for we frequently hear it said, "Oh I could not believe so-and-so, because I should be so wretched if I did." When an ostrich buries its head in the sand...it very likely takes the happiest course... It would be an egotistical impertinence to object that his procedure is irrational, for that only amounts to saying that his method of settling belief is not ours... So let him think as he pleases (Peirce CP 5:377)
For those interested, many of
the main papers of Peirce can be found here: http://members.door.net/arisbe/menu/library/bycsp/bycspmain.htm
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