Ahhhh.... finally some time to, well, work at my job! Being "on the market" can be fun, but not always a cakewalk. Still, my latest presentation got me thinking about the liberal educational aims of ethos and the relationship between rhetoric and phronesis. Within an ecology of language -- one that admits not just the social constructionist systems of discourse but also the physical systems of living ecologies -- one's ethos may depend less on abstract social values or principles of behavior and more on the regular maintenance of relations with both social and natural phenomena. Since the physical part of this whole thing is, ultimately, unable to represent its own interests in any social forum, the practical manifestation of that relationship must necessarily be poetic (I'm following Caruth and others here who have argued that language's inability to represent reality is a trauma with which we must all deal). So, Environmental Impact Statements can be said to be a form of poetry.
That's all well and good. But judgments about that poesis are still vexed by social systems of language and then how do we deal with naively Romantic versions of "wilderness" or utilitarian versions of animal rights? Aren't we still left holding the bag in its entirety because we are the only ones with the capacity of judgment?
Maybe... Rather than follow Kant here, we can suppose Gadamer offers us something with his concept of play and his rehabilitation of Aristotle's phronesis. While I might agree with HGG that we can choose our play, I would admit that he's right when he says in Truth & Method that
the self-presentation of human play depends on the player's conduct being tied to the make-believe goals of the game, but the "meaning" of these goals does not in fact depend on their being achieved. Rather, in spending oneself on the task of the game, one is in fact playing oneself out. The self-presentation of the game involves the player's achieving, as it were, his own self-presentation by playing -- i.e. presenting -- something (108)
Thus it is not really the absence of a fourth wall that turns the play into a show. Rather, openness toward the spectator is part of the closedness of the play. The audience only completes what the play as such is (109).
Of course, we see here an emphasis on ethos as performance -- as the performance of a relationship between other characters, props, audience, etc. This can be scripted (just look at the choice of colors and styles in children's clothes and toys - is there no more insidious marketing of binary gender relations that those aimed at the fourth wall of children?) or improvised (as when we learn a new discourse, culture, etc. and can't rely on internalized scripts). In different arenas, theaters, or situations we perform differently.
The task with human-nature relations, or more accurately with the social-physical relationship (which captures the "ideal" and abstract social semiotic systems as distinct from the always particular and potentially living physical systems which generate those ideas -- thus our physical bodies are one thing and our representations of them as gendered, raced, classed, able, etc. are something else entirely), is to not judge the physical according to the play of the ideal.
What we might be able to do, however, is see ideal playing as open to and playing for the physical. We thus establish a feedback loop or dialogic relationship between physical and social. Moreover, this feedback loop depends upon the phronesis of the performer -- one's knack at getting the physical to respond in a particular way.
Maybe this is as far as Gadamer can take us since we can see the scientific method as a kind of exploitative play or racism as a potentially worse play that exploits others. There is nothing here to guide judgment except "results" however those results are defined -- again, social and ideal. But, if we are trapped within paradigms of judgement that 1) are always social and thus 2) can never be commensurate with the physical (Caruth again), then 3) our judgments can never be "pure" but at best mere approximations or attempts at proper action. If this is the case, aren't we also involved in a play with our own capacity to judge? Given game theory's explanations of rational behavior systems, wouldn't goodwill (eunioa) and virtue (arete) be those qualities demonstrably suited for judging phronesis?