Thursday, April 27, 2023

New Voices in Philosophy

guest post by Nick Riggle

Philosophy is a famously rigid and complex discipline full of daunting and difficult prose. As a sign of this, people have wondered whether philosophy is literature. Literature is creatively ambitious, figurative and fun, wildly imaginative and associative. Philosophy, in contrast, is often hyperbolically literal, formulaic, painstakingly logical, tortuous and so often unfun.

But even in a tradition as strict as analytic philosophy, fun can be had, imaginations can run wild, and style can reign. If there is anything true in the complaint that philosophy lacks the quality of literature, it is that philosophy often lacks voice.

What does it mean for a “voice” to be present in works of philosophy? Voice is a vague concept in literary theory and it is often defined in a way that is indistinguishable from the typical definition of literary style. Here is how an expert defines voice: “A writer’s voice is the way his or her personality comes through on the page, via everything from word choice and sentence structure to tone and punctuation.” And here is philosopher Jenefer Robinson’s influential definition of literary style: “I shall argue that style is essentially a way of doing something and that it is expressive of personality. …what count as the verbal elements of style are precisely those elements which contribute to the expression of personality.” If you’d rather not take a philosopher’s word for it, here is poet Frank O’Hara: “Style at its highest ebb is personality.”

But voice and style are not the same. Literary style is the expression of the ideals the writer has for their writing. The writer who values economy of expression and rhythm has a different literary style from the writer who values complexity of thought and detailed emotional insight. Writing that follows strict formulae or rules of composition (e.g. writing legal contracts or instruction manuals) has difficulty achieving style because the rules crowd out the expression of literary values. Trying to inject one of these anti-style genres with style is a recipe for literary disaster. Or worse: witness WeWork’s failed IPO filing.

Voice comes from the perspective the writer inhabits as a writer. A writer’s voice is that of a single mother in Southern California expressing the difficulties of raising two children. She might do this through a poetic economy of expression or through a complex and emotionally nuanced account. A writer’s voice is that of a Zoomer navigating romance through DMs and dating apps, or a bank executive worried about the economy. Literary voice is, in this way, personal, where literary style is artistic.

Of course voice and style are not entirely separate. They can interact and influence each other. A writer’s artistic ideals might be informed by the perspective that drives their voice, and a writer’s voice can be shaped and inflected by their style. Some aesthetic writing practices encourage the former (rap, or romantic poetry with its ‘spontaneous overflow of passionate feelings’) and others tend toward the latter (Flaubert, Proust, Ernaux, French Writing in General?).

But there is an important difference between voice and style when comes to connecting with a reader. While style can captivate and impress, voice is a locus of love. By conveying the specificity of a perspective, literary voice forges connections and grounds affection between reader and writer, where people can communicate elusive truths about the world and their experiences. In doing so, voice has the power to create literary intimacy.

Although style and voice can interact in mutually supportive ways, when it comes to philosophy, style and voice tend to conflict. Philosophers are encouraged to adopt an ideal of philosophical writing that inhabits an impartial or impersonal perspective. Philosophers abstract from all real-world roles and particular perspectives and write from the place that Thomas Nagel called “the view from nowhere”—speaking from a general ‘we’, making claims about what ‘one’ does, structuring the prose by the general strictures of logic, writing to a faceless opponent.

If literary voice comes from inhabiting in writing a particular role and perspective, then a common ideal of philosophical writing amounts to aspiring to a kind of voicelessness, where everyone tries to write (and read) from the placeless perspective of a General Philosopher. Philosophy thus tends to lack that source of writer-reader connection and affection, and so it often overlooks those elusive truths we can communicate by developing literary intimacy.

The ideal of voiceless writing is a kind of style, and since style and voice interact, the philosophical ideal of writing can be quite literally self-sabotaging—trying to bring a voiceless self forward in writing in ways that clearly present a vocal self. Often that voice is simply a product of its time—the way that Kant, for example, comes across as a very specific dude in a very specific set of circumstances—revealed in various time-stamped expressive devices, e.g. the strategies the philosopher deploys to attain voicelessness.

When we suppress the power of voice in philosophical writing, we tilt philosophy toward voiceless questions that ask for perspective-free answers, and in doing so we encourage philosophers to lose their voices. This is an expressive problem in itself, but the problem is exacerbated when we also care about making philosophy a more diverse practice. Simply gaining membership to an elite club does not mean you can really speak your mind. And a philosopher’s particular identity can deeply influence their philosophical concerns without shifting their writing voice an inch out of the view from nowhere. Without diversifying voice in philosophical writing, we risk losing a source of the intimacy that can communicate the important and elusive truths philosophers possess. To bring voice into philosophy, we need to be able to step out of the view from nowhere and land somewhere, in our own bodies, times, and lives.

History has shown that philosophy can inhabit a wide range of literary forms in the service of voice—novels, letters, memoirs, dialogues, confessions, plays, and poetry [as I was editing this piece Helen De Cruz posted this]—and past philosophers have effectively developed voice in their works. Unfortunately, perhaps the most famous and widely taught example is Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy, where, to me at least, he at best semi-convincingly deploys the voice of a man desperate for knowledge to encourage the reader to cultivate their own doubt. There are more effective examples in Montaigne, Emerson, de Beauvoir, Arendt, Cavell, and others. In Either/Or, Kierkegaard writes from the perspective of two radically different worldviews to get his readers to inhabit them and appreciate their differences. Sor Juana’s The Answer and Friedrich Nietzsche’s entire oeuvre scream with voice.

Some contemporary philosophers have tiptoed outside of the confines of academic writing. Most recently, Kieran Setiya’s Life is Hard adopts the voice of a man who suffers chronic pain and of a philosopher who wants to understand the place of pain in a life well lived. Chloe Cooper Jones’s Easy Beauty combines a philosopher’s discernment with deeply personal, beautiful, and humorous insights into her own disability. Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s impassioned voice in Elite Capture is blazing with his own sense of care and conviction. My recent book This Beauty develops the voice of a man who had a challenging childhood, who is becoming a father, and who sincerely wants to understand what, if anything, makes life worth living so that he has something sincere and thoughtful to say to his sons. Philosophers like John Kaag, Anthony Appiah, Agnes Callard, and Alexander Nehamas prove that philosophers can write from places of pain, oppression, loss, joy, need, and love. And in doing so they show how philosophy can handle deep and difficult issues in ways that bring to the fore the humanity they have forged by living and confronting life in the actual world as unusually reflective and intelligent people.

Let’s unleash the literary power of philosophy and let our voices sing.

[image source]

Monday, April 24, 2023

"There Are No Chairs" Says the Illusionist, Sitting in One

Recent "illusionists", such as Keith Frankish and Francois Kammerer, deny that consciousness exists.  If that sounds so obviously false that you suspect they must mean something peculiar by "consciousness", you're right!  But they say they don't mean anything peculiar by "consciousness" -- that they're just using it in the ordinary sense, or -- rather differently -- at least the sense that most 21st century philosophers mean when they use the word "consciousness".

Frankish and I have been back and forth about this quite a bit.  For a few years, I seem to have had him convinced that there's a sense of "consciousness" that is relatively neutral among philosophical theories, which he shouldn't deny the existence of.  But recently he appears to have changed his mind about this, and this past weekend, he posted a fictional dialogue illustrating his continuing disagreement.

To illustrate how illusionists tend to come across to those of us who aren't illusionists, I've constructed this fictional dialogue with an illusionist about chairs.

Eric and the Illusionist have scheduled a meeting in a large, bustling cafe with a diversity of tables, chairs, and benches, each unique.  There are big puffy armchairs, three-legged stools, hardback wooden chairs, bean bags, arty chairs that are made of single swooping pieces of wood, rolling desk chairs on posts that branch out to five wheels, and so on.  Eric is seated in a brown recliner.  The illusionist arrives.

Illusionist [sitting in a Victorian-era armchair]: As I've said many times, Eric, there are no chairs!

Eric: It seems to me that you are sitting in one.

Illusionist: Oh, this thing?  Of course it's not a chair.

Eric: Could you remind me why you think not?

Illusionist: Well, the concept of a chair, as you know, is the concept of a solid object of a certain sort.  And as current physics tells us, the world is mostly empty space.  This thing is not solid!  Therefore, it's not a chair.

Eric: I'm not so sure that's the best interpretation of particle physics, but maybe.  Let's grant that it is.  I don't think that it follows that there are no chairs.  It's not essential to the concept of a chair that it be a "solid object" in the sense you mean.

Illusionist: Well, let's ask some ordinary people.  [Turns toward Cafe Patron 1]  Excuse me, Miss, do you think that a chair is a solid object?

Cafe Patron 1: Yes, of course!

Illusionist [to Eric]: See!

Eric: Look, whatever folk theory ordinary people may or may not have about chairs is not relevant to the point.  Clearly, there are chairs.

Illusionist: Well, philosophical theories also lead us astray.  Over there I see my friend, the Solid Object Theorist.  Let's ask him!

[Illusionist and Eric walk over to Solid Object Theorist]

Illusionist: Hey, SOT, good to see you here!  Do chairs exist?

Solid Object Theorist: Yes, of course!  I'm sitting in one now.

Illusionist: And what are they essentially?

Solid Object Theorist: They are essentially solid objects of a certain sort.  They contain little to no empty space.

Illusionist [to Eric]: See?

Eric: I'm not sure we should accept that philosophical theory about chairs.

Illusionist: But don't you see, both the ordinary person and my favorite philosophical theorist agree that chairs are solid objects, so that must be the concept in play.  So if there there are no solid objects -- as my favorite version of particle physics implies -- there are no chairs.

Solid Object Theorist: The Illusionist and I agree: If there are no solid objects, there are no chairs.  What could be more commonsensical?  The Illusionist accepts the antecedent and so accepts the consequent.  I deny the consequent and so deny the antecedent.  But we agree on the conditional.

Eric: Look, I don't think it's useful to define "chair" in such a theory-laden way.

Illusionist: Well, what do you think a chair is?

Eric: I don't have a positive theory of chairs.  They don't have a single common shape.  Most are made for sitting in, but not all.  And things can be made for sitting in that aren't chairs, so there's no simple functional definition either.

Illusionist: So you have no theory of chairs, and you deny the folk theory, and you deny the Solid Object Theorist's theory, and yet you say there are chairs?  What kind of defense of the existence of chairs is that?

Eric: Look, I think we can define "chair" by example.  Look at that thing, and that thing, and that thing [pointing at various, diverse types of chairs].  They're all chairs.  And that, and that, and that, are not [pointing at a stool, a sofa, and a table, respectively].  Can't we just use the term "chair" to capture whatever it is that the things I've just called "chairs" have in common, which the other things which aren't chairs lack?  I don't think we need to commit to some disputable theory of it.  Look, ordinary people can sort chairs from non-chairs in a consensus way (perhaps with some disputable or in-between cases).  [Turns toward Cafe Patron 2]  Sir, I noticed that you've been attending to my conversation with Illusionist.  So you've seen my examples of chairs and non-chairs.  See that cafe worker coming in with two new objects?  What would you say, is one or both of them chairs?

Cafe Patron 2: That first object [a cheap plastic deck chair] is a chair.  That second object [a yoga mat] is not.

Illusionist: But, sir, wouldn't you agree that chairs are solid objects?

Cafe Patron 2: Yes, of course!

Illusionist: See, Eric, there are no chairs.



Phenomenal Consciousness, Defined and Defended as Innocently as I Can Manage (Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2016)

Inflate and Explode (Sep 6, 2018)

[image: Dall-E 2: lots of chairs, bean bag, lawn chair, rolling desk chair, sofa, hardback chair, soft armchair, occupied by people sipping coffee and chatting]

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Power Clashing and the Structure of Practices

guest post by Nick Riggle

Some things just go together. Medjool dates and salted cashews. Hot pink and cyan. Unagi and oloroso. Sunshine and grass. Put these together and please enjoy your happiness. Other things not so much: manspreading and crowded subways, espresso and cottage cheese...

Zebra stripes and plaid?

Fashion is an aesthetic practice full of rules and restrictions: navy and brown yes, but no navy and black. No socks with sandals. No denim on denim (boooo). The long history of fashion provides a background of formalities and traditions whose dictates guide us in often unseen ways.

What, if anything, justifies these rules? In poetry, rules tend to serve other values, e.g. the value of complex and powerful prose. The strict rules of a pantoum key us into subtle changes in the meaning of a repeated and repurposed line, amplifying the power of the line and of the poem and poet in turn. The basic rules of pop song construction (~3 minutes, 4/4 time, no key changes, intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure) provide a kind of sonic public playground, an accessible template for fun and endless variation.

In the case of mixed patterns the justification seems simple: mixed patterns clash. You don’t mix zebra stripes and plaid because you don’t mix visually conflicting prints and patterns, perhaps especially when one is a South African animal print and the other is Scottish tartan. They do not look good together. It seems that the rule couldn’t be easier to justify, since fashion is a practice that cares about aesthetic value. Mixed patterns are visually confusing and displeasing. Fashion is about looking good. No mixed patterns. QED.

That might seem easy, simple, and true. But it is a wildly superficial account of the practice.

[image source]


Aesthetic practices are full of rules that cannot be justified by such simple appeals to aesthetic value. A recent paper by Guy Rohrbaugh discusses the example of  Western classical music performance, where score compliance is strictly necessary. The rule, play all and only the notes of the score, is so forceful that it does not matter if playing a different note would have greater aesthetic value. Playing other notes might sound better, be performatively expressive, or shock the audience—none of that matters because one must play all the notes. Why is there such a rule? And why is it so forceful?

Drawing on work by Aron Edidin, Rohrbaugh argues that there are indirect aesthetic reasons for the rule. First, some works have a complexity of thematic repetition, inversion, and sonic play that cannot be realized improvisationally—for their value to be realized they have to be written down and played as written. (This of course is not to say that improvisational works cannot be extremely complex.) Second, writing the music down and playing it as written allows for repetition and dissemination—more people can hear it, and everyone can hear it again. Third, this allows people to develop and deepen their understanding and appreciation of the work. And fourth, performers can bring this understanding and appreciation to bear on their performances in ways that realize different expressive, performative, and appreciative values.

The rule cannot be justified by individual-level evaluative considerations, but it can be justified at the wider practice level. The rule helps realize the goods of collective aesthetic life—sharing complex aesthetic value, deepening our understanding and appreciation of it, and expressing that understanding in our performances, experiences, and interpretations of the work. And since these goods structure aesthetic practices in general, our individual aesthetic actions must bend to them.


There is a kind of uber-value in fashion that mirrors this, generating various individual-level rules. Fashion is an art of self-expression. As such, anything goes, as long as it works, and what works is what captures something about who one is in a way that communicates with one’s audience. In this way, fashion goes hand-in-hand with style, where style is the expression of ideals. But expressing yourself and having style through clothing are not easy. So it helps to have more and less stringent rules addressed to individuals who, by following them, can’t go too far astray—guardrails that keep people on track and the group more or less together.

To use an entirely random example, it might befit a philosophy professor to wear cargo pants, t-shirt, and unbuttoned button-down shirt every day. The rules approve. The professor can make some limited choices within that general look – a colorful or a black tee, maybe with some philosophy reference on it, or a plaid overshirt that’s a bit ‘90s Seattle/lumberjack. The look conveys a lot; people have an easy time putting the professor in the right social group, noting a thing or two about their sensibility. The professor can rest assured that they don’t look too bad, but expression trumps looks: it matters that this look is self-expressive—a beautiful and expensive Italian suit would look great but it wouldn’t work.

To see this even more clearly, enter the power clasher—my favorite example of expression trumping looks in fashion. Power clashing has been around for some time, long enough, at least, for future Jack Donaghy (“Alterna-Jack”) to brag about his mastery of it. Power clashing is about clashing boldly—wearing animal prints with tartan and throwing naval stripes in there for good measure. Clashing patterns are primally visually confusing—hence the rule against—but visual confusion can ground expressive power and expressive power always wins. The power clasher says Yeah, I’m shining a flashlight in your eyes—what are you gonna do about it? The hope of fashion is that you shine back in your own way.

The individual-level rules of fashion are not ultimately justified by appeal to visual appeal. They typically help us look good, true, but more importantly they help us meet minimal conditions of self-expression. Power clashers prove that an apparently ruly practice can be deeply unruly at its heart, because the practice’s heart is the powerful and elusive value of self-expression through dress. We should think of the rules of fashion not as strict rules—ones that obviously change all the time anyway—but as communal notes on how to realize the practice’s governing value.


This makes me wonder about philosophy, which is full of stringent norms and standards, and full of people ready to enforce them—implicit and explicit norms of logic, form, voice, argument, address, and interaction. There are so many that our vigilance in observance of them threatens to make our essays and books oppressive to write and exhausting to read, as if we always had to wear formal dress lest we be regarded as unserious at best, dumb at worst. Is it too easy to forget that philosophy can be done without adhering to such norms? Like poetry, the beauty of philosophy can shine through and because of its rules, but poetry has embraced its ‘free verse’. I sometimes wonder if we collectively lost our sense of philosophy’s potential for literary creativity.

The sad truth is that philosophers can be extremely dismissive of those who fall out of line with philosophy’s conservative standards of writing, painting Wittgenstein as a charlatan, Nietzsche as a madman, the novels of Iris Murdoch as irrelevant, the dialogue as a lost genre, or anything outside of the standard form professional publication as lesser. I don’t know whether we can literally power clash in philosophy but I wouldn’t mind a few more flashlights in my face.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

The Black Hole Objection to Longtermism and Consequentialism

According to consequentialism, we should act to maximize good consequences. According to longtermism, we should act to benefit the long-term future. If either is correct, then it would be morally good to destroy Earth to seed a new, life-supporting universe.

Hypothetically, it might someday become possible to generate whole new universes. Some cosmological theories, for example, hypothesize that black holes seed new universes -- universes causally disconnected from our own universe, each with its own era of Big-Bang-like inflation, resulting in vastly many new galaxies. Maybe our own universe is itself the product of a black hole in a prior universe. If we artificially generate a black hole of the right sort, we might create a whole new universe.

Now let's further suppose that black holes are catastrophically expensive or dangerous: The only way to generate a new black-hole-seeded universe requires sacrificing Earth. Maybe to do it, we need to crash Earth into something else, or maybe the black hole needs to be sufficiently large that it swallows us up rather than harmlessly dissipating.

So there you are, facing a choice: Flip a switch and you create a black hole that destroys Earth and births a whole new universe, or don't flip the switch and let things continue as they are.

Let's make it more concrete: You are one of the world's leading high-energy physicists. You are in charge of a very expensive project that will be shut down tomorrow and likely never repeated. You know that if tonight you launch a certain process, it will irreversibly create a universe-generating black hole that will quickly destroy Earth. The new universe will be at least the size of our own universe, with at least as many galaxies abiding by the same general laws of physics. If you don't launch the process tonight, it's likely that no one in the future ever will. A project with this potential may never be approved again before the extinction of humanity, or if it is, it will likely have safety protocols that prevent black holes.

[Image: Midjourney rendition of a new cosmos exploding out of the back of a black hole]

If you flip the switch, you kill yourself and everyone you know. You break every promise you ever made. You destroy not only all of humanity but every plant and animal on Earth, as well as the planet itself. You destroy the potential of any future biological species or AI that might replace or improve upon us. You become by far the worst mass murderer and genocidaire that history has ever known. But... a whole universe worth of intelligent life will exist that will not exist if you don't flip the switch.

Do you flip the switch?

From a simple consequentialist or longtermist perspective, the answer seems obvious. Flip the switch! Assume you estimate that the future value of all life on, or deriving from, Earth is X. Under even conservative projections about the prevalence of intelligent life in galaxies following laws like our own, the value of a new universe should be at least a billion times X. If we're thinking truly long term, launching the new universe seems to be by far the best choice.

Arguably, even if you think there's only a one in a million chance that a new universe will form, you ought to flip that switch. After all, here's the expected value calculation:

  • Flip switch: 0  + 0.000001*1,000,000,000X = 1000X.
  • Don't flip switch: X + 0 = X.
(In each equation, the first term reflects the expected value of Earth's future given the decision and the second term reflects the expected value generated or not generated in the seeded universe.)

Almost certainly, you would simply destroy the whole planet, with no compensating good consequences. But if there's a one in a million chance that by doing so you'd create a whole new universe of massive value, the thinking goes, it's worth it!

Now I'm inclined to think that it wouldn't be morally good to completely destroy Earth to launch a new universe, and I'm even more strongly inclined to think it wouldn't be morally good to completely destroy Earth for a mere one in a million chance of launching a new universe. I suspect many (not all) of you will share these inclinations.

If so, then either the consequentialist and longtermist thinking displayed here must be mistaken, or the consequentialist or longtermist has some means of wiggling out of the black hole conclusion. Call this the Black Hole Objection.

Could the consequentialist or longtermist wiggle out by appealing to some sort of discounting of future or spatiotemporally disconnected people? Maybe. But there would have to be a lot of discounting to shift the balance of considerations, and it's in the spirit of standard consequentialism and longtermism that we shouldn't discount distant people and the future too much. Still, a non-longtermist, highly discounting consequentialist might legitimately go this route.

Could the consequentialist or longtermist wiggle out by appealing to deontological norms -- that is ethical rules that would be violated by flipping the switch? For example, maybe you promised not to flip the switch. Also, murder is morally forbidden -- especially mass murder, genocide, and the literal destruction of the entire planet. But the core idea of consequentialism is that what justifies such norms is only their consequences. Lying and murder are generally bad because they lead to bad consequences, and when the overall consequences tilt the other direction, one should lie (e.g., to save a friend's life) or murder (e.g., to stop Hitler). So it doesn't seem like the consequentialist can wiggle out in this way. A longtermist needn't be a consequentialist, but almost everyone agrees that consequences matter substantially. If the longtermist is committed to the equal weighting of long-term and short-term goods, this seems to be a case where the long-term goods would massively outweigh the short-term goods.

Could the consequentialist or longtermist wiggle out by appealing to the principle that we owe more to existing people than to future people? As Jan Narveson puts it, "We are in favor of making people happy, but neutral about making happy people" (1973, p. 80). Again, any strong application of this principle seems contrary to the general spirit of consequentialism and longtermism. The longtermist, especially, cares very much about ensuring that the future is full of happy people.

Could they wiggle out by suggesting that intelligent entities, on average, have zero or negative value, so that creating more of them is neutral or even bad? For example, maybe the normal state of things is that negative experiences outweigh positive ones, and most creatures have miserable lives not worth living. This is either a dark view on which we would be better off not have been born or a view on which somehow humanity luckily has positive value despite the miserable condition of space aliens. The first option seems too dark (though check out Schopenhauer) and the second unjustified.

Could they wiggle out by appealing to infinite expectations? Maybe our actions now have infinite long-term expected value, through their unending echoes through the future universe, so that adding a new positive source of value is as pointless as trying to sum two infinitudes into a larger infinitude. (Infinitudes come in different cardinalities, but one generally doesn't get larger infinitudes by summing two of them.) As I've argued in an earlier post, this is more of a problem for longtermism and consequentialism than a promising solution.

Could they wiggle out by appealing to risk aversion -- that is, the principle of preferring outcomes with low uncertainty? Maybe, but the principle is contentious and difficult to apply. Too strict an application of it is probably inconsistent with longtermist thinking. The long-term future is highly uncertain, and thus risk aversion seemingly justifies its sacrifice for more certain short-term goods. (As with discounting, this escape might be more available to a consequentialist than a longtermist.)

Could they wiggle out by assuming a great future for humanity? Maybe it's possible that humanity populates the universe far beyond Earth. This substantially increases the value of X. Let's generously assume that if we populate the universe far beyond Earth, the value of our descendants' lives is equal to the value of the whole universe you could create tonight by generating a black hole. Even so, given that there's substantial uncertainty that humanity will have so great a future, you should still flip the switch. Suppose you think there's a 10% chance. The expectations then become .1*X (don't flip the switch) vs. X (flip the switch). Only if you think it more likely that humanity has that great future than that the black hole generates some other species of set of species whose value is comparable to that hypothetical future, would it make sense to refrain from flipping the switch.

If we add the thought that our descendants might generate black holes, which generate new universes which generate new black holes, which generate new universes which generate new black holes, and so on, then we're back into the infinite expectations problem.

Philosophers are creative! I'm sure there are other ways the consequentialist or longtermist could try to wiggle out of the Black Hole Objection. But my inclination is to think the most natural move is for them simply to "bite the bullet": Admit that it would be morally good to destroy Earth to seed a new cosmic inflation, then tolerate the skeptical looks from those of us who would prefer you not to be so ready (hypothetically!) to kill us in an attempt to create something better.

Thursday, April 06, 2023

Sexiness and Love Island

guest post by Nick Riggle

Sexiness can seem straightforward. Everyone knows what it’s like to want and respond to it—in oneself, in others—and I’d venture that most people do indeed want it one way or another. But the ease of feeling might flow in the other direction. Rod Stewart reminds us that sexiness more than flirts with objectification: If you want my body and you think I’m sexy… The desire for sexiness seems to include the desire for bodies as such, and so its aesthetic value seems to flirt too directly with ethical disvalue. It is difficult to know how to feel: aesthetically attracted, ethically repulsed.


One response to the sexiness problem is what I call the Prince Strategy. In his song “Sexy M.F.” Prince solves the problem by transforming sexiness from sexual to mental attractiveness.

We need to talk about things, tell me what cha do
Tell me whatcha eat, I might cook for you
See it really don't matter 'cause it's all about me and you
Ain't no one else around
I'm movin' with the blindfold, gagged and bound
I don't mind, see this ain't about sex
It's all about love being in charge of this life and the next
Why all the cosmic talk?
I just want you smarter than I'll ever be
When we take that walk

You seem perplexed I haven't taken you yet
Can't you see I'm harder than a man can get
I got wet dreams comin' out of my ears
I get hard if the wind blows your cologne near me
But I can take it, 'cause I want the whole nine
This ain't about the body, it's about the mind

Prince emphasizes that true sexiness is ‘about the mind’. This conceptual engineering gives him the best of both worlds. As he sings later in the song, “I'm happy to change my state of mind for this behind.”

[Midjourney rendition of Prince cooking eggs for a sexy woman]

As many philosophers have pointed out, sexiness is bound up with patriarchy and its attendant restrictions on women’s autonomy. The Prince Strategy tries to sidestep the connections between sexiness, women’s bodies, and patriarchy by replacing sexual, bodily attractiveness with mental attractiveness. This is an appealing strategy, for under patriarchy it is not enough to agree with Martha Nussbaum’s point that objectification means many things (7 by her count) and it is not always ethically wrong. Under patriarchy it often is, and that’s one reason why the Prince Strategy can seem attractive in this extremely nonideal world.

The problem with the Prince Strategy is not that minds cannot be sexy—obviously they can, says this philosopher—it’s that it seems to deny that bodies can also be sexy. Having watched more than a few seasons of Love Island UK I can report: obviously they can. Should we simply ignore that fact? I should clarify that watching Love Island UK is not my only evidence.


Sheila Lintott and Sherri Irvin develop another response by intervening in the patriarchal culture of sexiness that encourages women to embrace a notion of sexiness that conforms to the male gaze. On their view, we should retain the link between sexiness and sexual desire but revise the concept of sexiness to construct one that is respectful of all persons: “To find a person sexy in this sense is to see their body as infused with an expression of self and animated by their own sexual identity. … Respecting sexiness involves seeing others not (only) as sex objects but necessarily as sexual subjects: human beings who are in charge of their sexual agency.” (p. 305)

Call this the Embodiment strategy: sexiness is the attractiveness of a person’s embodied sexuality. A sexy person expresses their sexuality in their look, demeanor, composure. To find someone sexy is to be attracted to their embodied sexuality.


Now consider: the Love Island Phenomenon. If you’ve watched as much Love Island UK as I have, then you have witnessed the following phenomenon many times over: You meet someone and find them very sexy. But over time you come know more about them: their personality, their values and goals (or lack thereof), their interests and style. And, like magic, their sexiness disappears.

Nothing need change about how they embody their sexuality, so what could explain the change in sexiness? And while the Embodiment strategy seems unable to capture the change, the Prince strategy can’t capture the initial attraction, for initially we know almost nothing about their minds and quite a lot about their bodies.

It seems that Love Island UK spells trouble for all.[1]

One response that Lintott and Irvin might offer is to say that the Love Island Phenomenon is best described not as a change in sexiness but as a change in attractiveness. What changes is not the person’s sexiness but your being attracted to it. Their sexiness is neutralized by your awareness of their unattractive traits. But this response makes me wonder why, if sexiness is embodied sexuality, information about the person’s non-sexual character should change how I feel about their sexiness.


Here is another proposal, call it Prince’s Synthesizer: Maybe the sexy truth lies in a synthesis of the Prince and Embodiment strategies: sexiness is more than embodied sexuality—it is embodied mind, where the features of mind that matter are any features we might find hot. Humans are extremely creative in finding hotness. Some of these features can shine as and through embodied sexuality: the embodiment of confidence, quirkiness, sexual poise, self-possession, boldness, and so on. But others shine in other ways: a person’s sexy intelligence, sincerity, drive, resilience, grit, creativity, worldliness, or…the way they eat falafel, or curl their lip, or smell a certain way.

Prince’s Synthesizer makes better sense of the idea that when (or at least often when) we find someone sexy, we are attracted to their style, or the way they embody their personal ideals—the way their dreams and aspirations manifest in their ways of living. Sexual aspiration generates style as much as intellectual or athletic aspiration. Eros wends its way through each. We might catch a glimpse of a person’s style in getting a sense of their sexuality, but that is only part of a bigger stylistic picture, which, when it comes into full view, along with the minds that bodies embody, might reveal something…not hot. Love Island UK Season 9 now streaming!


[1] Big thanks to the students in my Fall 2022 Aesthetics and Ethics class for a great discussion about this.