Terry Eagleton: Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics

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[Posted by CS]

Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics

Terry Eagleton’s Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics (Wiley-Blackwell 2009) may interest some readers of this blog for its wide-ranging discussion of the ways various philosophers have engaged the realm and experience of everyday life, of the ordinary. Eagleton’s own understanding of the ethical, as concerned with “the texture and quality of a whole form of life” rather than with “absolute obligations and infinite responsibilities” (306), seems indebted — probably more than Eagleton himself would admit — to the later Wittgenstein. In “The Banality of Goodness,” the chapter preceding the book’s conclusion, Eagleton compares the French and the English traditions of ethical thought from the perspective of the gaze they cast on the prose of everyday life, of their regard (or disdain) for the common, ordinary man. Although the French are credited with the “invention” of the quotidian — from Baudelaire and the surrealists, to Lefebvre, the Situationists, de Certeau and others — their relation to it is ambiguous at best, deeply critical at its worst (“from Mallarmé and Sorel to Sartre and Badiou, a succession of French thinkers have dreamt of the moment of crisis which will blast open the inauthenticity of the everyday,” p. 274). In contrast, Eagleton identifies a constant preoccupation with common life in English culture, “all the way from William Cobbett, George Eliot and John Ruskin to William Morris, Thomas Hardy, F. R. Leavis, George Orwell, Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson” (278). Whereas even in this lineage, “a necessary tension in left-wing thought [developed] between a respect for the common life and a hostility to the powers and illusions which inform it,” the later Wittgenstein was “one of the few twentieth-century maestros to combine a deep trust in the workaday with a scathing dismissal of bourgeois politics.” Here Eagleton references his earlier essay, “Wittgenstein’s Friends,” in Against the Grain: Selected Essays 1975-1985 (London, 1986), originally published in the New Left Review I/135, September-October 1982, pp. 64-90.

The publisher’s description, excerpted below, gives a sense of the broad scope and ambitions of this thought-provoking book:

In this ambitious new book, Terry Eagleton, one of the world’s greatest cultural theorists, turns his attention to the now much-discussed question of ethics. In a work full of rare insights into tragedy, politics, literature, morality and religion, Eagleton investigates ethical theories from Aristotle to Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, weighing the merits and deficiencies of each theory, and measuring them all against the ‘richer’ ethical resources of socialism and the Judaeo-Christian tradition. In a remarkably original move, he assigns each of the theories he examines to one or other of Jacques Lacan’s three psychoanalytical categories of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real, and shows how this can illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of an ethics of personal sympathy, an impersonal morality of obligation, and a morality based on death and transformation.

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