say that travel broadens the mind. But, as the English essayist
and novelist G.K. Chesterton (1921) observed, you must
have the mind. That is, one has to be prepared to
see and appreciate what one encounters while traveling. Just
as important, one should be prepared to see what looks different upon returning home. As every
experienced traveler knows, the adventure of traveling is also
one of coming home: it is then that we realize the difference
it makes. For a short time at least, before routine takes over
once again, we may see our familiar habits and surroundings
in a new light. The familiar and obvious has become a little
less obvious. If one is open to that experience,
it offers an opportunity for appreciating accustomed ways of
thinking or acting in deeper ways than before, and thus perhaps
also for questioning and developing them.
is just what I hope that my readers will experience with the
present series of essays. It has led us into a land of ideas
that for most of us who do not happen to be scholars of Indology
has been and will remain rather unfamiliar – ancient India's tradition of Vedanta philosophy, particularly as we find
it in the Upanishads. However, one does not need to
"have the mind" of an Indologist to return home from
this excursion with open eyes. As we are about to return
to our more familiar, "Western" (and in my personal
case, Kantian) tradition of thought,
let us try and see what the excursion may add to
our understanding of the proper use of ideas in inquiry and
practice. Ideas are general, whereas practice is always situational;
how can competent practice bring together the situational and the general
in meaningful ways? This is the central question that has accompanied
us through this series of essays. The way we have framed it
has been in terms of a need for critical contextualization
of all claims to knowledge, rationality, and improvement.29)
basic themes and corresponding tools I suggest we organize the concluding two essays, beginning with
this one, around four basic
themes that have emerged with a view to supporting
this need. They relate to four essential issues in the use of general
ideas: (1) the need for unfolding the meaning of general
ideas in particular contexts of application; (2) the normative
implications of any contextualization of ideas and the consequent
for moral reflection; (3) the proper use of ideas
in argumentation; and (4) the pragmatic need for supporting the critically-contextual
use of ideas by operational forms of practical discourse.
four themes in turn will have us consider four related heuristics,
that is, conceptual tools for critically-contextualist thought,
to which I will refer as (1) the "spectrum idea,"
a basic tool of meaning clarification in Upanishadic reflection
and discourse; (2) "the moral idea
in context," a critically-contextualist extension and
pragmatization of the Kantian principle of moral
universalization that is inspired by the spectrum idea; (3) the logic of "suppositional
reasoning," a reflective practice of thinking and acting
as if; and (4), "boundary discourse,"
a discursive implementation of critical contextualization in
contexts of applied inquiry and decision-making. Table 4 gives
Table 4: Critical
contextualization of general ideas:
themes and corresponding heuristics
clarification: Unfolding the situational meaning
of general ideas
Managing the tension between "this"
A double movement of critically contextual
The normative implications of contextualized
idea in context:
Contextualizing the principle
of moral universalization
A shorthand formula for contextualized
The argumentative use of general
Towards a discursive logic of substantial
logic of "as if":
turn of suppositional reasoning
Securing critically contextual practice
A discursive operationalization
The critical turn of the rational,
the moral, and the general
2016 W. Ulrich
for critical contextualization (1):
The "spectrum idea,"
or how to practice Upanishadic discourse
reasoning, whether in the forms of applied inquiry and professional
intervention or of everyday problem solving and decision-making,
takes place in specific
contexts of application or, as I will say for the sake of brevity,
in "situations." The practical is situational. The value of general ideas, but also their
difficulty, is that they take us beyond the
immediate concerns that we associate with situations. They create
distance. This helps us to see the presuppositions
and limitations of our situational concerns and claims. Remember
that in order to see one's own standpoint, it is necessary to first take
a step back.
art of "standpoint
spotting," as we called it in Part 3, has much to
do with the skill – and discipline – of gaining and maintaining
distance to our own views and concerns. The "spectrum idea"
can guide this process of standpoint spotting. It is a tool
for shifting our standpoint systematically within a range of
divergent or complementary perspectives.
any tool, this one has its limitations, too, and I would
like to make them clear from the outset. Basically, when
it comes to applying general ideas to particular situations,
we face the two questions of their situational
meaning on the one hand and their situational validity on
the other hand. Although the two issues are closely interdependent,
face us with different methodological requirements – clarification
of meaning on the one hand, validation of claims on the other
hand. My proposed use of the spectrum idea applies mainly to the first
question. The spectrum idea is not a tool for validating claims
but at best for assessing and questioning them.
The question of meaning asks
what a general idea "means" in the specific situation
at hand: What is its intent
as applied to this particular situation; what does it tell us about proper
ways to see and handle the situation? In the methodological
terms used earlier (in Part 3), we need some
that can help us to
"approximate" the intent of a general idea, so as to understand
what difference we want the idea in question to make in
our perception and handling of the situation.
Once we are clear
about this basic task of meaning clarification, another task
poses itself, concerning the question of validity:
How valid is this understanding; or, inasmuch as people may
disagree, how can we rationally assess and justify it? Methodologically
speaking, what types of argument allow us to justify
the practical implications of general ideas in specific situations,
or at least to deal
critically with these implications?
the four themes and corresponding heuristics proposed in Table 4,
two focus on the issue of meaning clarification. They are the
topic of the present essay.
two, which will be in the center of the next and final essay
of the series, focus on the issue of argumentative validation
and will thus lead us back to the question that motivated this
series of exploratory essays, the question of what role we should
assign to the moral idea (along with other general ideas) in
assessing and arguing moral claims.
# 1: the spectrum idea We first introduced
the spectrum idea in Part 3 with reference to Prince (1970)
as a notion that can help us in pragmatizing the ideal character
of general ideas (see Ulrich, 2014b, esp. pp. 4-10 and 32-37). It is, as we said with Kant, a tool for
the situational meaning of general ideas. Meanwhile we have
come to understand both Kant's pure concepts of reason (such
as, in particular, the moral idea) and the Upanishadic ideas
of ancient Indian thought (in particular, the notions of atman
and brahman) as limiting concepts or endpoints of thought,
as we also have called them, towards which we can orient our thought, although we
can never claim to do full justice to them.30)
The spectrum idea
offers itself particularly when we face pairs of opposing reference
points for thinking through an issue, say, when a particular
perspective of the issue is challenged by the ideal intent
of a relevant general idea. For example, in the case of the moral idea, two
opposing limiting concepts might refer to a specific group of people for whom we find
ourselves responsible at one end of the spectrum, and to the notion of
a global moral community at the other end. Critical thought can
then move in-between these limiting concepts and explore
the range of options available for at least partly doing
justice to both of them.
basic spectrum graph The
spectrum idea is about opening
up and thinking through a range of options for clarifying the
situational meaning of a general idea, that is, for contextualizing the
idea in a critically reflective manner. In Part 3 (Fig. 2)
I tried to capture this notion with a simple graph that I still
find helpful and which I reproduce here for the reader's convenience.
(The particular) "The
context I see" (The
2014 W. Ulrich
Fig. 2 (repeated): The spectrum idea
Conceiving of the universe of conceivable standpoints for seeing
in terms of a continuum of more or less particular
vs. universal perspectives
from Part 3, see Ulrich, 2014b, p. 32,
graph stands for the notion that our thoughts and actions – the ways people see things and search to improve them – are always an expression
of situational views for which there are
options. We can think of these options as different standpoints in the
spectrum. Accordingly, relevant standpoints and conforming contextual
assumptions may be identified
by moving both left and right in the spectrum, that is,
by iteratively emphasizing mainly particular considerations
of fact or value – selected circumstances or concerns that matter "to
us" or to some well-delimited target group (or "client
group") "here and now" – versus placing greater
emphasis on more general considerations that matter to
people other than those immediately interested or to served,
elsewhere and/or in future.
As a rule, the context assumed
in a statement of fact or value, or in a proposal for action,
will represent a mixture of the two pure types of focus that
would consist either in considering
aspects of immediate interest to those involved or served only
(a purely self-serving
or, alternatively, in trying to do justice to everyone and everything (a
altruistic stance). In-between these two "pure" options
lies a more pragmatic range of options for defining the
relevant context. For example, one might try to include in the
situation of concern not everyone but at least those people who,
although they are not involved, are likely to be affected or
concerned in some more than marginal ways. Moving from such
a middle position a bit towards the left one might try to narrow the group of
people concerned to those who can get involved within reasonable constraints
of time and resources, and/or to those whose concerns can be
identified in other feasible ways. Alternatively, moving
to the right, one might include previously unconsidered concerns
(or ways of being affected) in the definition of the group of people concerned, and/or place
more weight on impacts to
people who cannot get involved within reasonable constraints
of time and resources, including children, future generations,
and non-human life.
Further, the contexts people see
as relevant will be
shaped by varying degrees of personal "realism" and
"idealism," that is, orientations mainly towards the empirical
and "feasible" (what can be done about a situation
the light of the "facts and figures" people see) or towards the desirable and "good
and right" (what should be done in the light of people's notions of improvement and worldviews).
And so on. A number of further variations of perspective could
easily be outlined along these lines; in the final essay of
the series I'll suggest one
such variation in the form of the professional tool of "boundary critique," which focuses
on a systematic way to identify the normative implications of
interventions into situations, or related proposals and claims.
essence, the idea is to appreciate situations in the light of
varying combinations of particular
(or individual, subjective, private) and general (or universal,
objective, public) considerations of fact or value, so that
any specific definition of "the" situation of concern
may be understood as one of many conceivable positions
in the spectrum. A "spectrum" is a continuum of such
positions (or standpoints, perspectives). To
adapt the basic graph to our present discussion, we may add the "situational"
element as follows:
(The particular) "The
context I see" (The
2016 W. Ulrich
Fig. 2 (adapted): Basic situational
of the situational as a confluence of the particular and the
(adapted from Fig. 2, in Ulrich, 2014b, p. 32)
short notation At
times I find it practical to use a shorthand notation for this
kind of spectrum idea, for example, to take quick notes during
a conversation or to mark a passage in a text for
later consideration, as follows:
C <–> U
two forms are particularly useful for taking notes
in the margins of books or papers.
(C) and (U) symbolize a contextualizing and a universalizing
perspective, respectively, and the left and right arrows
us that contextual reflection always calls for an iterative change
of perspective or, as we described it in Part 3, for a
"double movement of thought."31)
to moral reasoning, we might think of "particular" (contextualizing)
and "general" (universalizing) orientations of thought as standing for a primarily
self-centered, interested versus a more altruistic,
disinterested perspective, respectively. The resulting "context
I see" will be more or less selective as to the
facts and values considered
relevant, and corresponding notions of improvement will
be more or less responsive to different concerns. A basic
situational spectrum for moral reasoning may thus be construed
as a double movement of thought between the two ideal-types
of "partial" and "impartial" judgment.
As a second example, in dealing with ecological issues we might
want to think of the two endpoints in terms of "unsustainable"
vs. "sustainable" policies, or of "local action"
and "global thought," and so on. The important thing
is that we interpret the spectrum idea so that it captures a crucial tension that,
if managed carefully, can be conducive to productive contextual reflection
Upanishadic extension of the spectrum idea In principle, the idea of a situational
spectrum lends itself to capturing any divergent perspectives
that may help us understand a context that matters. From an
Upanishadic perspective we
might, for example, explore the idea of contextual reflection in terms of
the logic of "this"
and "that" (i.e., the empirical and the
ideational worlds or domains of knowledge) or, in the more analytical
terms of Part 4, in terms of first- and second-order knowledge.
Accordingly we might then see the basic situational spectrum as follows
(see Fig. 7):
context I see" "That"
2016 W. Ulrich
Fig. 7: Basic this-and-that spectrum
Conceiving of a relevant context in terms of
the Upanishadic logic
(simple version, not recommended)
modified spectrum can certainly inspire meaningful reflection;
but the more important reason why I single it out here is that
it allows me to articulate a caveat. Tempting as it
may be to conceive of the tension of "this" and "that" in
such a way, as representing the two extremes of a spectrum,
it is also potentially misleading and for this
reason I do not recommend it. While
Fig. 7 adequately captures the idea that whatever view
of a situation we adopt, it will represent some combination of
"this" and "that" world (i.e., it will "realize" varying
degrees of either), it risks leading
us astray with respect to the proper place of "this"
and "that" in Upanishadic thought. Based
on our earlier account in Parts 4-6, I would argue
that a genuinely Upanishadic perspective will place the "this" (the
realm of first-order knowledge) in the middle rather than at
the left end of the spectrum, so as to associate it with "the context I see." That is,
it will associate the "this" with an individual's or group's current universe of discourse,
the universe within which people move at any specific moment. By
contrast, it will associate
the "that" (the realm of second-order knowledge) with
the two endpoints of the spectrum represented by the Upanishadic core ideas of atman and brahman
("That") ("This") ("That")
context I see" Brahman
2016 W. Ulrich
Fig. 8: Refined this-and-that spectrum,
Conceiving of a relevant context in terms of a double quest
for knowing oneself and
for considering the
total relevant universe
(recommended version of the this-and-that
represents a more genuine understanding, I would argue, since
thought, atman and brahman are the only proper embodiments
of the realm of the "that" (i.e., of "higher"
or second-order knowledge, para vidya), whereas the realm
of the "this" is represented by the phenomenal world
of our less-than-ideal, forever fragmentary and unstable knowledge
of experience, (i.e., "lower" or first-order knowledge,
apara vidya); compare the earlier discussion in Part 4
(see Ulrich, 2015a, p. 6). Accordingly, only these two embodiments
of the "that" can serve as limiting concepts properly
speaking, that is, as endpoints of thought towards which we can orient
our situational reflection but which will always remain beyond what we
can claim to achieve. By contrast, the realm of the "this"
refers to the multiple and partial contexts
people see and refer to in dealing with situations of concern
to them. It represents what Müller (1879, p. xxxii) described
as a merely "temporary reflex" of that other, full reality
that no-one can credibly claim to grasp as such. We can always do better though, by
examining our views and concerns (the "this") in the
light of general ideas (the "that") and then revising
them (both the "this" and the "that") accordingly, and so forth – the
double movement of thought that we associate with the spectrum
idea (see Part 3, Ulrich, 2014b, pp. 29-37).
is, then, a close next step to also assign its proper place
in the this-that spectrum to the third
Upanishadic key concept that we analyzed in detail, jagat (see
Parts 5 and 6, Ulrich, 2015b and c). I suggest
it embodies the middle ground of the spectrum, the realm of
the "this," from which we can and need to gain distance
by moving towards atmavidya on the one hand and brahmavidya
on the other hand. Fig. 9 depicts the resulting concept
of Upanishadic discourse.
self-authored universe "That"
Atman <--------------------------- Jagat
Self / individual) (This
world of mine/ours) (The
whole / universe)
(The particular) "Realizing"
one's universe of discourse (The
Ideal: deep subjectivity Ideal:
pragmatic excellence Ideal:
2016 W. Ulrich
Fig. 9: Upanishadic discourse:
moving between atman and brahman
A spectrum of discourse universes represented by the two limiting
concepts of atman (the
universe within) and brahman (the universe without).
Moving back and forth between them allows us to better understand
jagat, our self-authored universe of discourse, and the
way it shapes and limits our views and concerns
along the lines of Fig. 9, the concept of jagat brings
in a pragmatic twist to Upanishadic discourse. It then offers
itself as a counterbalancing force against the potential overpowerment
and paralysis of thought and action caused by the idealizing
demands of atmavidya and brahmavidya,
along with the unavailability of an operational stopping rule for second-order
discourse (i.e., it never reaches a natural and definitive end). But
what is a fitting ideal for this pragmatic twist? I am not
aware that an ideal such as jagatvidya would have been formulated
in the Upanishadic literature. If indeed such an ideal has not
it might have to be invented and would
then perhaps come close to an Upanishadic equivalent of the
of my current work, the aim of working towards a framework of critical
pragmatism for reflective practice
(e.g., Ulrich, 2006b, c, and 2016).
is worthwhile to briefly pause and envision such an ideal of
jagatvidya. I associate it with a conception of reflective pragmatism in
which Upanishadic and Kantian thought would join forces. For Kant (1787, B828; cf. the discussion
in Ulrich, 2006b, p. 58f), practical reason is "pragmatic"
when it is not "pure," that is, does not remain in
the realm a priori concepts of reason but applies
to the world of experience and action, including research and
professional practice. In corresponding Upanishadic language,
we may say that thought is pragmatic when it does not remain in the realm of
the "that" but relates its quest for atmavidya
and brahmavidya to the world of the "this,"
that is, to effective action in the jagats within which
we move and try
to improve our daily lives. This is not fundamentally different
from Kant's call upon mature agents to act according to the
ideas of pure reason (e.g., the ideas of free will and
morality) and thus to "realize" in the realm of practical
reason what theoretical reason has no power to achieve in its
domain of competence, reason's acting according to its own principles
or laws. In harmony with this call to action, Kant (1786, B109;
1787, B835f, cf. B385f; 1788, A115f) posits practical reason
as the stronger of the two expressions of reason: while theoretical
reason has to obey the laws of nature, practical reason can
autonomously establish its own principles and can thus breathe life
into general ideas of reason through the thoughtful and
responsible actions of mature agents.
and Kantian reflection thus meet in a shared concern for finding
a middle ground between the ideal and the real; a middle ground
motivated by a search for pragmatic excellence. In
Upanishadic terms, jagatvidya would call upon practical men and
women not only to question their ways of acting in the light
of a double quest for "realizing" atman and
brahman, but also to make sure that these reflective
efforts lead to effective action. Jagatvidya would in
this sense mediate Upanishadic reflection with a (some will say: Western) pragmatic orientation.
More precisely, pragmatic excellence aims at a reflecting kind of "pragmatic performance" (J. Dash, 2011) that would
be informed by critical distance to itself, as it were, thanks
to its twofold quest for atmavidya and brahmavidya
– or, speaking with Kant, for self-reflection and enlarged
though without losing sight of the imperative of effective action.
Such critical distance is achieved by systematically
unfolding the tension of the "this" and the "that";
of first- and second-order discourse; of the particular and
the general; of situational (contextual) and general (universal) concerns of practical
engagement, and so on; in short:
The result is an integrated,
Upanishadic-Kantian notion of critical pragmatism. It aims to facilitate a systematic process of contextual reflection
by means of two interdependent and complementary movements of
critical thought, a process that can benefit from Upanishadic
ideas but which also lends itself to support our Kantian notion of "approximating" the content of general
ideas of reason:
The first movement, symbolized
in Upanishadic thought by the quest for realizing brahman, is a movement towards
decontextualization, that is, towards freeing our understanding
of situations from insufficiently reflected contextual
premises. Such premises often embody an "I/we" and
"here and now"
perspective that prevents people from engaging with the views
and concerns of others and seeing the big picture, that is,
from engaging in what Kant (1793, B157f, cf. Ulrich, 2007b,
p. 10) intended with "enlarged thought" or what in more
contemporary terms is also meant by "interconnected
thought" (Vester, 2007, cf. Ulrich, 2015d).32)
movement, symbolized by the
quest for realizing atman, is a movement towards (re-)
contextualization, that is, towards enhancing whatever general understanding
of an issue we may have (the big picture) with an effort
to gain a deeper understanding of the specific perceptions,
needs, and concerns
of the people involved or affected, as factors
that condition their views of it. Appropriate contemporary ideals
are "deep subjectivity" (Pole, 1972) and "mindfulness"
We thus have an iterative process of decontextualizing
and (re-) contextualizing issues as shown in Fig. 10.
Decontextualizing thrust - - - - - - - - ->
self-authored universe "That"
Idealizing orientation | Idealizing
Atmavidya <----------------- Jagatvidya
orientation >> | <<
particular "realization" of the world (Enlarged
unfolding universe of
allowing for pragmatic excellence
<- - - - - - - - -
(Re-) Contextualizing thrust
2016 W. Ulrich
Fig. 10: Three discursive orientations
discourse as a process of "realizing"
one's self-authored universe of discourse through a
double movement of thought that iteratively contextualizes and
decontextualizes an issue or claim under consideration,
so as to achieve adequate degrees of atmavidya (self-reflection),
jagatvidya (pragmatic situational performance), and brahmavidya
discourse It may be useful at this stage,
before moving on, to briefly recapitulate the emerging
concept of Upanishadic
discourse (or, more precisely, of Upanishadic-Kantian
discourse) that informs our heuristic tool # 1. The essential
idea is a discursive process of critical contextualization.
To this end, the concepts of atman, jagat, and brahman
are understood to refer to three different universes of discourse
that as a rule shape "the context I/we see" and thus
can serve as complementary sources (or reference points) of
reflection and discourse. It may help readers to think of them
as being roughly parallel not only to Kant's three key ideas
for reflecting on the human condition – the "psychological"
idea of Man (or soul), the "cosmological" idea of
the World (or universe), and the "theological" idea
of God (or the notion of an absolute totality of conditions;
see the discussion in Part 2, Ulrich, 2014a, esp. pp. 8-12, as
in Table 3 on p. 12) – but also, and even more strikingly, to the contemporary
linguistic model of "three
worlds" in terms of which different linguistic expressions
or "speech acts" (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969) can be analyzed. A prominent example
is provided by Habermas' version of speech-act theory (1979, pp. 53-68,
and 1984, pp. 309 and 329; cf. Ulrich, 2009c, pp. 9-12);
he explains the "expressive," "regulative," and "constative" functions
of speech by the way speech acts alternatively, or often also
simultaneousy, refer to "my" subjective world of inner
experience, to "our" social world of interpersonal
relations, and to "the" outer world of external nature,
respectively. From an Upanishadic perspective, the three worlds together
describe a spectrum of useful, complementary perspectives for unfolding the contextual assumptions
that inform speech acts in the form of personal intentions
and emotions (expressive function of speech acts), interpersonal
values (regulative function), and situational or external
facts taken to be relevant (constative function). Further,
Upanishadic perspective adds to this notion the three corresponding,
reflective ideals of atmavidya, jagatvidya, and brahmavidya
or, as I suggest we translate them into contemporary "Western"
language: deep subjectivity, pragmatic excellence, and enlarged
(or interconnected) thought.
important methodological point to keep in mind is that such
an Upanishadic-Kantian concept of discourse should help us understand the endpoints
of the spectrum
as limiting concepts towards which, guided by the two
ideals of atmavidya
and brahmavidya, we can orient systematic efforts of
proper contextualization and decontextualization. At the same
time, this concept of discourse is to help us pragmatize the
process of contextual reflection, in that it encourages us to
associate the concept of jagat
– or dynamically speaking, of jagatyam
jagat (i.e., jagat unfolding in a universe of forever changing
jagats) – with a pragmatic middle
ground in-between the two endpoints, that is, a set of
less-than-ideal contextual assumptions within which the quest for pragmatic excellence moves.
new ideal is jagatvidya, the art and discipline of unfolding
the contextual presuppositions at work in all human claims to
meaningful speech, valid knowledge, and rational action.
Just like atmavidya and brahmavidya entail a reflective stance
that for critical purposes abstracts from current contextual
presuppositions and at times may also bring in an idealizing
orientation, jagatvidya may be understood to entail a pragmatizing
orientation towards "pragmatic performance" (the concept
borrowed earlier from J. Dash, 2011) or, as I would translate
it using Kant's term, towards adequate "approximation"
of pragmatic excellence based on an effort of critical contextualization.
three vertical bars
in our shorthand notation for such contextual reflection thus
gain a more specific meaning, beyond simply indicating movement
of thought: they can be understood to refer to three
of discourse symbolized by atman, jagat, and brahman, and to the corresponding reflective
ideals (or critical perspectives) of deep subjectivity (atmavidya), pragmatic excellence
(jagatvidya), and enlarged thought (brahmavidya).
Their shared concern is a systematic quest for contextual
awareness or mindfulness. Motto:
pragmatic excellence, and enlarged thought:
ideas for critical contextualization"
three perspectives describe
an enhanced understanding of the
basic tension that we have identified throughout this series
of essays as a core methodological
difficulty in applying general ideas to particular situations, I
mean of course the tension between the two divergent but interdependent perspectives
of (C) and (U).33)
cycle of critical contextualization, adapted Neither
of the three reflective ideals is good enough to allow the process
of situational judgment to come to an end. As the basic imperative
of maintaining the tension reminds us, the iteration
of contextualization and decontextualization must go on:
whatever understanding of an issue or
a situation we have reached, we should take care to remain aware of its limitations,
that is, its inevitable failure to do justice to each
and all of the three ideals. Proper pragmatization must face this difficulty and
try to handle it in transparent and clear ways – the aim
of critical pragmatism. In general terms, using the shorthand
notation introduced above, we can state this requirement as
= f (C, U)
we are aware of it or not, situational judgment (J) is a function of how
we both contextualize
(C) and universalize (U) an issue. From an Upanishadic perspective,
the symbol (J) in this formula may also be read as referring
to jagat, the limited and unstable universe of thought
and action within which any quest for pragmatic performance
takes place, and the related requirement of jagatvidya,
the effort of making this universe clear to ourselves and
to all others concerned.
in Part 3 of this series of essays, I first suggested a
graphic depiction of the basic idea of a cycle of critical contextualization (see
Ulrich, 2014b, p. 37, Fig. 4); the following graph adapts it so as to make the
meaning of the above formula clear, and with it the place we
give to general
ideas in situational judgment (Fig. 11).
Fig. 11: Situational judgment
judgment – understanding a jagat – brings together contextual
assumptions with one or more general ideas; it involves both a contextualizing
and a decontextualizing
momentum (adapted from Fig. 4, in Ulrich, 2014b, p. 32)
for critical contextualization (2):
"The moral idea
in context," or practicing moral universalization
follows from the preceding account that the situational meaning of the moral idea
is a function of how (and how carefully) we bound the relevant
context and, at the same time and inseparable from it, how
much (and how carefully) we look beyond the context thus
bounded. To put it a bit differently, moral judgment is a function of the balance we find between
the divergent requirements of moral contextualization and
moral universalization. This differs from Kant's (1786, B1)
implicit formula of moral reasoning, according to which the
essence of moral
judgment consists in a good will, and a conforming maxim of
action, that withstands the universalization
= f (U)
assumption leads Kant (1786, B 51-53, 62, 70f, 81) to his notion of a "categorical"
imperative, which sees in (U) the necessary and sufficient criterion
of all moral judgment:
a framework of critical pragmatism needs to extend this scheme
so as to give an equal place to the requirement of contextualization.
It needs, in other words, to contextualize the test of moral
universalization. Let us try.
tool # 2: extended formula of moral universalization
We can employ a convenient shorthand to
remind us at all times of the need for contextualizing the moral idea:
= f (C, U)
moral reasoning about the situational meaning of the moral idea,
resulting in moral judgment;
C = contextualization,
resulting in a context of concern considered relevant; and
universalization, resulting in enlarged thought looking beyond
the context of concern.
Accordingly, moral reasoning
is the deliberative process by which we clarify and bring
together the contextualizing and universalizing considerations
that inform a situational moral judgment. We can then explain our reasons for a
moral judgment in terms of these considerations, and can make
doubts or possible counter-arguments related to these choices. We
can also qualify a moral judgment by pointing out alternative
possible ways to contextualize
and universalize it, thus recognizing the legitimacy of other
judgments and the limitations of our own. The M = f (C, U) formula can
thus also help us keep the discourse open. There is no such
thing as a definitive moral judgment, given the choices involved
in the two fundamental processes of contextualizing and universalizing
moral issues. The former demands a systematic effort of making ourselves and everyone
concerned aware of the contextual assumptions at work (C); the
latter, an equally systematic effort of enlarging
the picture thus gained (U) – "systematic," that is,
in that care is taken to identify and consider all options for
the choices involved and to unfold their implications for all
the parties concerned.
conception of moral issues is by now so deeply ingrained
in my understanding of the "moral point of view"
that alternatively, the short notation introduced earlier for
situational judgment in general is quite sufficient to remind
me of the suggested, extended formula of moral universalization.
It provides a most convenient way of reminding me of the double
movement of critical thought required, and moreover it has the
advantage of linking this understanding of Kant's universalization
principle back to the spectrum idea:
C <–> U
my personal experience, this short formula has proven its value
for driving my thinking towards an "Upanishadic"
kind of moral reflection, the focus of which is on unfolding the interdependence
of "this" and "that" morality – the pragmatic,
situational demands of concrete action for improvement (as measured
by the consequences) and the strict, universalizing demands
of the quest for moral rightness (as measured by the generalizability
of underlying norms of action).
The point, to be sure,
is that neither quest can be properly understood without
the other; both are indispensable ingredients of reflective
a further variation, the shorthand also permits putting a temporary emphasis
on one of the two requirements. If for example an account of
a moral issue does not appear to pay sufficient attention to
the specific situation,
then one will note:
C! <–> U
is, contextualize! Conversely,
one may see a need to enlarge the picture and to invest more
effort and care in unfolding the moral implications in question
beyond the considered situation,
so one will write:
C <–> U!
is, universalize! Note that U! now has a a changed meaning as compared
to Kant's "categorical" imperative: as the
underlying, extended M = f (C, U) formula
makes clear, U! now presupposes proper contextualization. Even
if in real-world practice we may often find that increased emphasis
is required on either (C) or (U), the
two principles of course still depend on one another for meaningful application.
So neither U! nor C! is ever to be read as intending a one-sided
reliance on either principle, (U) or (C). A better idea is to
think of C! and U! as a matter of current emphasis, not
alternatives. In particular, the short notation U! should not have
us fall back on a one-sided attempt to practice (U) as a kind
of context-free moral universalization, as if moral reasoning could ever
be properly conceived in
terms of a universalizing
movement of thought only.
for moral theory and practice The point of the extended formula is indeed
the original, context-free formula is not practicable. At best it lends itself
to an abstract, if not idealizing, explication of the moral point of view for purely
theoretical purposes. This is what Kant and many contemporary
authors influenced by him (among them Mead, 1934; Baier, 1958; Rawls,
1971; Silber, 1974; Apel, 1980; Kohlberg, 1981; Wellmer, 1986; Habermas,
Benhabib and Dallmayr, 1990; and Tugendhat, 1993) have attempted to
in various and often insightful analyses. But not even the most
insightful analysis can change the fact that moral universalization
describes an ideal, not a possible achievement. It is, as I
suggested elsewhere, perhaps a diagnosis of the problem
of grounding moral practice, but certainly not a solution (cf.
Ulrich, 2006, p. 56). Accordingly
absent are examples of practical application. I have concluded
from all these studies that the universalization principle (U) cannot carry the burden they
aim to assign to it, the burden of identifying
and justifying moral practice (see the detailed analyses in Ulrich, 2006b;
2009c, d; 2010a, b; and 2013a, and the brief summary of their
implications in Part 1 of the present series of essays,
Ulrich, 2013c, p. 11-16).
a view to supporting moral practice, (U) is probably better understood as a
standard for reflective practice in dealing with moral claims
– for meaning clarification and validity critique, that is – than as
a standard for justification. From a critical point of view,
maxim or norm of action should ever be assumed to live up to the
standard of being truly universal. It is therefore imperative
to focus on identifying and unfolding the deficits of
moral claims that are due to inevitable contextual presuppositions or de-facto limitations.
No vain attempt to universalize a specific norm of action, and
then to tie its justification to this attempt, can replace the
effort of critical contextualization. That is what we
need (U) for, no more, no less.
universalization requirement (U) will thus play its proper role
not as a standard of justification but as a critical counterpart of the contextualization requirement
(C). This is the role that the extended formula
means to capture. So when we say that (C) and (U) are complementary
movements of thought, we really mean to claim that each can
and should fulfil a critical role for
the other: (C) reminds us of the need to carefully specify
the situational meaning of the moral idea and to translate it into
actual practice, and (U) reminds us of the need to question the contextual
assumptions at work and see the big picture. There is a famous
remark in Kant's first Critique (1787, B75 and B314) about the complementary
roles of "intuition" (i.e., sense-experience) and "thought"
(i.e., concepts) in generating knowledge:
without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.
It is, therefore, just as necessary to make our concepts sensible,
that is, to add the object to them in intuition, as to make
our intuitions intelligible, that is, to bring them under concepts.
These two powers or capacities cannot exchange their functions.
The understanding can intuit nothing, the senses can think nothing.
Only through their union can knowledge arise. (Kant, 1787,
B 75, similarly B314)
this remark, we might say that
when it comes to practical reason, moral universalization without
specifying contextual assumptions remains an empty claim, just
as specifying the situational meaning of moral action without
unfolding its implications beyond the considered context remains
blind. (C) and (U) cannot exchange their functions; only together can they
help us ensure moral
do justice to Kant and Habermas, the reason why their conception
of moral questions looks so one-sided from our present perspective
is that they are dealing with a theoretical limiting case
– the ideal of complete moral justification – rather than with
the everyday issue of concern to us, of how we might systematically
approximate the intent of the moral idea in practice.
For theoretical purposes, that is, for understanding the ideal
nature of moral justification, Kant's categorical imperative
U! and the underlying universalization principle
(U) remain insightful and indeed indispensable. Similarly Habermas'
model of practical discourse and the role it gives to (U) as
a justificatory principle remain insightful as a theoretical
analysis of the conditions that in principle (i.e., under
conditions of complete rationality) would need to obtain to
secure sufficient (i.e., again, complete) moral justification
of norms of action. For such theoretical ends, (U) probably
still provides an indispensable explication of what we mean
by the moral point of view (Baier, 1958). Moreover, (U) can
be said to capture a widely held,
intercultural and everyday understanding of morality, to which
we have referred with terms such as "reciprocity"
and "fairness" and according
to which we should not treat other people in ways we would not
want them to treat us – the age-old golden rule. In simpler terms, we should
not rely on norms of action that we do not respect ourselves.
That is, we should not claim an exception for
ourselves (cf. the detailed discussion in Ulrich, 2009b,
is clear, then, that the difficulty we have with Kant's and
Habermas' focus on U! concerns not its theoretical
merits but its practicability under real-world conditions
of imperfect rationality. The idealizing role they give to (U)
is not altogether wrong but too strong, because too one-sided.
Such one-sidedness neglects that fact that moral universalization
and moral contextualization each gain their essential methodological role in
response to the other, namely, as a critical corrective
for each other's inevitable deficits. Only together can they
help us assess the moral merits and deficits of practice.
examples It is time to test the relevance
of moral contextualization, and thus the suggested, extended
formula of moral universalization, by means of two practical
cases. The first reconsiders Kant's moral analysis of lying;
the second deals with the contemporary issue of passenger planes
employed for terrorist attacks.
example: Kant's analysis of the moral unacceptability of lying
As it happens, one of Kant's
(1797) own examples for the use of U! demonstrates
that the extended formula is required. I refer to his famous
discussion of the moral problem of lying by means of what has
become known as the case of
the inquiring murderer. I have discussed this example in an
earlier account of Kant's position (see Ulrich, 2009b, pp. 32-35) in quite some detail
and thus can keep the present discussion rather short.
Kant asks us, that a murderer confronts you with a situation
in which his victim's life depends on whether you lie to him
or stick to the categorical imperative, which (as Kant thinks)
allows no exception from the moral demand of not lying:
Case of the Inquiring Murderer
Kant (1797, A302, with reference to B. Constant, 1797,
previously discussed in Ulrich (2009b,
you have allowed a person fleeing from a murderer to
hide in your home. Then the murderer knocks at your
door and asks you whether that person stays in your
house. Should you tell him the truth or lie?
Does such an extraordinary
situation permit an exception from the duty not to lie?
How should we handle the difficult alternative of either being truthful
or (preferably, it would seem) rescuing someone's life at the expense of an exception? Kant's
answer is not what one might expect. There
must be no such exception, he maintains; for any other stance would
clash with the categorical imperative, according to which the
maxim of one's action must be universalizable. Lying with a
view to helping another person cannot be a universalizable maxim.
If the exception were admitted, say, with reference to its altruistic
nature or to the duty of helping, we could never again be certain that others are
telling us the truth, unconditionally so, or whether for some altruistic
motive they might be lying. Even the act of lying would become meaningless;
Kant argues; for its effectiveness, too, depends on the universal prohibition of lying. These
implications reveal for Kant how self-defeating
any exception to the principle of not lying, or to any other principle
recognized as right, would be. U! as applied to
the prohibition of lying is thus for him indeed a "categorical"
(unconditional) imperative; so much so that even just considering
the possibility of some occasional exceptions (i.e., the option
of reserving for oneself the right to
claim an exception) is wrong. (Kant, 1797, A301-314)
must wonder whether such an employment of the universalization principle
(U) is sound. As we observed at the outset, moral issues often arise
in situations of ethical conflict in which two ethical goods
clash. This is also the case in Kant's example, where the duty
of truthfulness conflicts with the duty to help someone in acute
danger. The task of moral reasoning is then to handle such situations
in ways that protect the dignity and integrity of human beings,
and indeed (in my personal view) of all living creatures. Putting
someone's life at risk where this risk could clearly be avoided
or reduced, violates this core concern of the moral idea and
is thus hardly a unversalizable way of handling the situation
that Kant describes. His conclusion therefore suggests to me
that something is wrong with his answer. What I think is wrong
is not his strict adherence to the universalization principle
(U) as such but rather, his failure to adequately contextualize
the maxim of action that he subjects to its test. In the shorthand suggested above,
our response to Kant's account can only be: C!
diagnosis of what is wrong with Kant's example is then clear.
Kant overemphasizes the role of (U) as compared to that of (C).
Doing so leads to inadequate results of the universalization
test. To put it more bluntly: it makes little sense to try
norms that have not been properly contextualized in the first
place. The maxim that Kant subjects to the test of (U),
and then rejects on this basis, is something
is permissible for altruistic reasons."
maxim fails the universalization test, rightly so, as it formulates
the condition for exemption from the prohibition of lying far
too openly. The question
is whether this way of specifying the maxim captures the situation
adequately. I don't think so. Applied to the situation in question,
the result is that a human life is sacrificed without absolute
necessity. Kant tacitly accepts this consequence without commenting
on it, as his focus is on not violating the universalization principle.
By implication, the norm of action
that for Kant does not fail the test, and according to
which he therefore wants us to act, reads:
to save another person's life if doing so requires you to lie."
result would have been different if Kant had reformulated the
maxim to be tested so as to better capture the ethical conflict
with which the situation confronts us. For example, he might
have submitted to (U) the following, more carefully contextualized
a matter of principle, do not lie; but if the situation is such
that you cannot save a person's life except by lying, choose
to save that life."
a core concern of moral action is to protect the integrity and
dignity of others, as Kant never tires to emphasize, a thus
specified maxim would indeed have passed the test. Counter to
what Kant suggests, then, I would argue that his example demonstrates
not so much the "categorical" (i.e., unconditional
and universal) character of the moral prohibition of lying but
rather, how important it is for sound moral reasoning to carefully
consider the specific situation. The example in fact illustrates
what our extended formula is all about: universalization can be an unconditional moral requirement
only inasmuch as we properly contextualize the maxims to which
we apply it. Hardly any practical norm of action is indiscriminately
meaningful and valid for each and all situations, except perhaps
the moral principle (U) itself, which for exactly this reason
is not a practical norm of action but merely a standard for
examining such norms.
Second example: hijacked passenger planes My
second example relates
to a serious contemporary issue, the threat of terrorist attacks
using passenger planes. We all have in mind the
incredible pictures of the terrorist attacks in the United States
of 11 September 2001, an event now often referred to as 9/11
or Nine-Eleven, when four passenger planes were hijacked in a coordinated
action and used to attack the twin towers of the World Trade
Center in New York along with other targets. At that time, such
a use of passenger planes was unprecedented and there were no
adequate preparations for the situation. Today many countries
have plans for their air force to shoot down such planes before
they reach possible targets. However, difficult moral questions
are involved, which can be summed up as follows:
Case of a Hijacked Passenger Plane Used as a Weapon
TV version of the theater play "Terror"
by Ferdinand von Schirach (2015/16), a German defense
lawyer who is also a writer, broadcast simultaneously
and voting by the audience in three German speaking
countries (Germany, Austria, and Switzerland)
on 17 Oct 2016.
a terrorist has hijacked a plane with 164 passengers
and crew flying from Berlin to Munich and intends
to let the plane crash into a football stadium in
Munich, where 70,000 spectators are following
a match between England and Germany. Two fighter
planes rise to the passenger plane but receive no order from their
superiors to shoot the plane down, nor any other
specific instructions. As the planes
approach Munich, the fighter pilot in charge has to take
a decision. He decides to shoot down the plane,
that is, to sacrifce its passengers and crew, so
as to save the 70,000. Later he finds himself in court,
accused to have murdered 164 people on board of
the plane. As a member of the court, should you pronounce
him guilty or innocent? And how would you have decided
in the pilot's place?
the tribunal unfolds, it becomes clear that the pilot had a
difficult decision to take and was left alone with it. His
superiors on the ground hesitated to act against a previous
decision by the Supreme Court, according to which shooting down
such planes violated the Constitution's fundamental principle
of the protection of human dignity. It equally becomes clear
that the pilot, who like his superiors was aware of this court
decision, was caught in a dramatic ethical conflict between
sacrificing the people on board of the plane or risking the
lives of the 70,000 in the stadium. His conscience told him
to opt for the lesser of the two evils, even if it was against
the Superior Court's earlier decision and thus meant he would
be tried and might be found guilty of murder.
the court hearing, many contextual elements – some of them rather
surprising – come to the fore that were not known or clear to
the parties from
the outset but which are clearly relevant
for judging the situation in which the pilot found himself,
both from a moral and a legal point of view. Our focus, like
that of the stage play and the TV broadcast, is on the moral
Here are some of the contextual considerations that
the court takes up, although with varying degrees of attention
and elaboration; I have ordered them approximately in a left-right
order within the (C) <–> (U)
spectrum (Box 1):
We are dealing with a situation of extreme urgency
in which the agent – the pilot in charge of the
mission – was left alone. Under enormous time pressure
and with no adequate support by his superiors on
the ground, he had to choose between two moral evils:
either he pushed the button or he didn't, in both
cases people would die, there
was no third option.
In the situation in which the pilot found himself,
he had to rely on his personal conscience. He knew
there had been a Superior Court ruling against shooting
down hijacked planes, so that shooting down the plane might mean going to prison
for him. He could be said to have assumed a responsibility that strictly
speaking was not his, but which from his view he
had no way to avoid. It became his responsibility,
as he saw it, due to a lack of adequate instruction
and support from the ground staff.
There can be no doubt of the pilot's good will to
act as morally as possible. He certainly cannot
be accused of having risked the lives of people
out of selfish motives; quite the contrary, he consciously
risked a prison sentence. His motivation can thus
be called altruistic. Had he thought of his
own interest first, he would have opted for inaction
(i.e., not shooting down the plane), thereby risking
the lives of 70,000 innocent people on the ground
and thus (as his conscience told him) causing even
His moral conscience told the pilot that
it was worse to risk the lives of 70,000 people
in the stadium than those of 164 passengers and
crew on board of a plane. The court
ruling in question was therefore, as he saw it, wrong or not properly applicable to the
situation. He also found the court ruling wrong for a second reason: it meant that terrorists could in future
be sure that on board of a hijacked place they would
The pilot's motives can also be
said to have been impartial, as he had no information about who was in the
passenger plane and who in the stadium.
He clearly did not act so as to protect (i.e.,
privilege) people he knew, whether in the passenger
plane or on the ground.
The decision authorities on the ground
could have changed the situation decisively if they
had decided early on to evacuate the stadium and
all other potential targets of the terrorist, rather
than relying solely on the pilot's decision. In
this respect they appear to be jointly responsible
for what happened. So as soon as we include the
air force staff in the relevant context, a major
share of the responsibility for the loss of lives
is no longer the pilot's only.
The pilot further considered, as he told the court,
that if he
opted not to
take any action,
the terrorist would hardly see this as a reason to
abandon his plan and instead to allow the passenger
plane to land safely. The fighter pilot's decision
would thus not affect the
passenger plane's likely destiny in a significant
way. The decision he had to take was not whether to sacrifice
a smaller or a larger group of people but rather,
the smaller or both groups. To the extent
this reflection is accurate, the decision would
amount to a truly universable maxim of action. But
of course, there can be no certainty as to how the
terrorist might have acted.
instrumentalizing the people on board of the hijacked
plane for the sake of other people was morally wrong,
whatever situational considerations supported the
The value of human lives cannot be measured quantitatively.
Trading in the lives of the 164 passengers and
the crew against the 70,000 lives at risk in the stadium
might be considered utilitarian rather than moral
reasoning, as it fails to do justice to the dignity
of the people on board of the plane.
9. Although the principle of shooting down hijacked
passenger planes used as weapons is not morally
universalizable, the contrary principle of allowing
their use as weapons is not universalizable either.
Inaction does not protect from responsibility
in such a case, both legally and morally speaking.
Just imagine the pilot would have remained inactive
rather than facing the decision he had to take;
could he then not have been rightly accused of failing
to protect the lives of the 70,000 in the stadium?
contextual considerations, even if tentative, are apt to illustrate
that the principle of moral universalization
is indeed a general idea that as such tells us little about a moral issue.
There is no way round identifying and weighing the ethical conflicts
involved. The process of deliberation required may vary in terms
of complexity, as our two examples show; but in any case it
acts of personal conscience along with rigorous thought about
a course of action's implications beyond the situation at hand. It
should be clear, then, that reference to personal conscience in weighing
situational aspects does not make universalizing (or decontextualizing)
reflection redundant, just as the latter will not yield a valid
result unless we carefully contextualize the maxim to be tested. The extended
= f (C, U)
remind us of this double requirement. By implication, the value of the
universalization test depends crucially on how well a tested
maxim of action captures
the specific situation.
In the present case, a
simple, general rule that hijacked planes have to be shot down
to prevent such
terrorist attacks would not do justice to the specifics of the
in fact it fails to consider it altogether. The crux of the
situation is that by the time the pilot finds himself obliged
to take a lonely decision, the situation has evolved so that
whatever he decides,
some lives are in peril. Due to a lack of timely action
by the ground staff, the question no longer is whether people
are getting instrumentalized but only who and according to what criterion.
The maxim to be tested must somehow try to capture this situation.
Perhaps a specific maxim such as the
following might come closer to capturing the situation:
you find yourself in a situation in which you cannot avoid the instrumentalization of
some people's lives, act so as to minimize the number of people
underlying, more general norm of action would then be:
you find yourself in a situation in which you cannot avoid to
opt for one of two evils, neither of which can be avoided due
to lacking time or other circumstances, choose the lesser evil."
thus contextualized norms of action recognize the ethical conflict
involved, they do not free the person who faces the situation
in question from the need for taking a personal decision and
accepting responsibility for the harm it may cause. How, then,
readers may wonder, did the court decide the case?
handles the question in a sophisticated and consequent manner.
Sophisticated, in that it presents two highly engaging summations
and pleas by the public prosecutor and the defense attorney;
both argue brilliantly, though in opposite directions, thus providing the jury
and the audience
with much food for thought. Consequent, in that
the jury then retires for its deliberation – guilty or not
guilty? – and meanwhile leaves the people in the audience with
a need for taking their personal decision. The audience has
to vote before knowing the court's judgment and the underlying
reasoning, for the continuation
of the film depends on how the audience decides. In this sense
the film's plot is interactive. Dependent on the
vote of the audience, the president of the court will declare
the jury's sentence and will explain it in terms of either the
prosecutor's or the attorney's core argument.
the audience decide that the pilot is indeed guilty, the sentence
will follow the prosecutor's core argument:
lives must never, not even in extreme situations, be weighed
against one another. That would violate the fundamental principle
of human dignity which informs our Constitution and our basic
norms of living together in an open and just society. (von Schirach,
2015/16; final scene if the audience finds the pilot guilty;
freely rendered court opinion as explained by the judge)
the audience decide that the pilot is not guilty, the sentence
will adopt the attorney's core argument:
law is not able to solve all moral problems unambiguously and
consistently. We have no legal criteria to ultimately judge
the pilot's moral decision, which therefore has to remain a
matter for his conscience to decide. The law leaves him alone.
It would therefore be wrong to condemn him. (von Schirach,
2015/16; final scene if the audience finds the pilot not
guilty; freely rendered court opinion as explained by the
arguments are strong and needed, neither is sufficient for an
adequate understanding of the issue. The first opinion is grounded
mainly in (U), the second mainly in (C). Unlike in the previous
example, there is no unequivocal answer in this case. One finding
is clear though: Kant's formulation of the moral imperative
in terms of
= f (U)
give us the answer. It's precise meaning
remains unclear in both examples, but especially in the pilot's situation, as both options he faces fail the universalization
test. It is not possible to understand the situation without
accurate contextualization, which requires a personal weighing
of considerations such as those listed above. Conversely, such contextual considerations alone cannot
provide a sufficient
basis for moral judgment either, as there clearly is a need for reference
to some general standard of human dignity and interpersonal
fairness that is independent of such considerations and can
be shared by all people of good will.
For a hyperlinked overview of all issues
of "Ulrich's Bimonthly" and the previous "Picture of the
see the site map
the role of general ideas in rational inquiry and practice continues
with some basic considerations, inspired by Upanishadic thought,
on how to practice a critical contextualization of general ideas.
essays of the series appeared in the Bimonthlies of
September-October 2013, January-February
2014, July-August 2014, September-October 2014, November-December
2014, March-April 2015, May-June 2015, and September-October
2015. There will be one more and final essay to conclude the
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