Moral Matters. A Philosophy of Homecoming, by Mark Dooley, Bloomsbury, 209 pp, ISBN 978-1472526151
Mark Dooley is a special voice in Irish life, and more broadly in contemporary cultural criticism. His intellectual journey is uncommon, as is the conversation between him and his various fellow-travellers which he brings to life in this book. Dooley began his career as a professional philosopher at a moment when the first revelations of clerical child sex abuse rocked the Irish Catholic Church, shattered its hitherto unquestioned authority in Irish society and threatened its future as the repository of the sacred and the source of our shared moral codes. While his first philosophical passion had been Hegel, he sought to explore new paths and devoted two books to “questioning God” and “questioning ethics”. On the path to a new understanding of the self and its relationship to the world and to transcendence, he thought, worked and formed firm friendships with postmodern thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty and John D Caputo. At the same time, his journalistic career gained momentum and soon began reconfiguring his intellectual framework – especially the interactions with his readers arising from the “Moral Matters” weekly column he writes for the Irish Daily Mail each Wednesday.
Dooley then made a decisive and profoundly influential encounter, with Roger Scruton. Here as elsewhere, he readily and touchingly acknowledges his intellectual debt towards Scruton, to whom he devoted two – soon to be three – books, and his worldview is often likened to Scruton’s. Both indeed have travelled a good deal together from an early attraction to a certain form of liberalism to a moment of disillusion and awakening to a return “home”. Although Scruton led the way, Moral Matters. A Philosophy of Homecoming shows Dooley “coming home” to a place that is not Scrutopia, being built on different cultural and spiritual foundations and furnished with different concepts by men of different generations writing in different countries. The uniqueness of Dooley’s profile as a philosopher, and what differentiates him from Scruton, is that he takes all the stages of his journey together, and in this book he offers a highly original and lively polyphony of all the very different voices of his fellow-travel;ers. As the argument of his book unfolds, a great and original continuum appears, ranging from Hegel to Kierkegaard to Derrida and back to Hegel and Burke, in which he retains the most constructive contributions of postmodern and conservative thinking to the understanding of self in order to define and address in philosophical terms the new challenges posed by the latest threats of alienations presented by the abuse of modern technology.
Technology does enhance the human experience, and the Irish are probably more avid Cyberians than most, given how precious online communication is to so many families separated by emigration. By facilitating news-taking and sharing, online communication nurtures relationships –real relationships that is, not those with passing strangers hiding behind pseudonyms who are unlikely to stay on board with you when the going gets rough, to stand up or stay up for you in times of crisis. Dooley might have conceded this as explicitly here as he does in his journalistic writings. After all, he emails and texts like the rest of us, and he even has a website. To represent him as a dinosaur miserably stranded in the modern world would be to miss a deeper point.
This book, in which he unfolds his own philosophical journey and landscape for the first time at length, is about the self. And coming home is coming home to the self – to a fuller understanding of the self. That is the main difference from the Scrutonian “home”, which is anchored in space and time, in a physical environment saturated with aesthetic, cultural and political knowledge. The point Dooley makes in this book is that in a world in which we are offered so much instant gratification and such irresistible prospects of increasing comfort by our technology – because in the end in it is only a matter of time before we all yield – in which we have become hooked to it to an unprecedented degree, the self is not augmented but depleted. And we are so distracted that we don’t even notice that happening.
The vocation of the self is to be free, Dooley writes. In this wired world, communication technology creates the illusion of freedom, putting the whole world at our fingertips in an instant. But Dooley contends, applying Hegel’s master and slave parable to our times, that it keeps human beings locked in a narcissistic mirror-phase, an eternal childish state of play. The echo of Aldous Huxley’s warning resonates loudly here: in so enthusiastically embracing the transhumanist turn, we stand to lose our core, a space of silence, freedom, self-reflection and love – our home.
Dooley dwells at length on the alienating effects of addiction to communication technology: the fatigue of over-stimulation, an indifference which sets in towards creation for which we no longer “care” and towards our work which we have forgotten to “love”. And while we are absorbed in communication with distant more or less real people, we engage less with those closest to us, we take their presence and love for granted, as we do the world around us which we forget to look at. Are we freer and is our humanity enhanced by having emancipated from its environment, “cast off the chains of custom”? Hardly. To be free, Dooley shows, is to adapt with ease – a definition to ponder.
For Dooley, if we are in danger of no longer knowing how to negotiate our way in the world with ease, it is because of all the “liberal ideologies dedicated to emancipating humanity from its natural, historical, and cultural constraints”, to liberating the individual from “truth, meaning and reality”. His broad understanding of liberalism includes all the thinkers who have sought to define the self in isolation from the group and paved the way for a culture making “a virtue of estrangement”. In this book, Dooley reveals the mechanisms of the “culture of alienation and amnesia”, the “social and cultural disenchantment” this tradition has engendered. He argues that in such a culture, which puts “alienation in the place of affection and license in the place of loyalty’, the self cannot flourish. Individuals, he writes, “long to belong” and “yearn to be affirmed, recognized and endorsed as part of something more than a collection of liberated individuals”. He calls us to re-examine the foundations of our relationships to others and to the world, and to root out all everything that is fake, exhausting and alienating.
In an original and intellectually stimulating chapter, Dooley offers an alternative culture, one which unites the various definitions contributed by cultural criticism around the Derridean notion of domestication. Domestication is putting one’s mark on the world, notably by preserving the memory of past sacrifices and achievements (“dealing with the dead”), building and domesticating nature by factoring in the absent generations (“caring for creation”), and passing on inherited narratives, traditions and etiquettes (“conserving culture”). Steering clear of a reactionary stance, Dooley nonetheless makes the case that innovation in culture must be “tempered by the idea of inheritance” and the “principle of transmission”. While impressed by the Derridean notion of mourning, of the impossibility of recapturing what is no more, Dooley is also a latter-day Burke, and he looks at the world as a place imbued with memory and, as such, to be revered and cherished. He shows Derrida in a new light here, by pointing that he was not to blame for the weakening of institutions and the fragmentation of culture promoted in the Western world. His chapter on culture comprises a unique dialogue between Derrida and Benedict XVI.
To augment our selves, we had better tune in to the sacred worldview which sees the world as imbued with selfhood. And that is a way of life which is available not only to the religious. This book makes the case for “allowing the sacred to shape the manner in which we dwell”, “responding to the sacred through building, dwelling, settling, cultivating and nurturing”. Seeing the world as sacred is not to take a flight from reality, but is rather the ultimate way to surmount all alienations, including the latest, more pervasive, manifestation which is ceaseless communication without communion.
In his denunciations of the dangers of living in Cyberia, the new wired Platonic cave, Dooley is in agreement with the non-conservative, postmodern philosophers he brings into the conversation: Derrida, Caputo, Mark C Taylor. One wishes he had engaged further with the contemporary philosophical debates on the subject, but as this book seems to have been commissioned for the general readership of his newspaper column, this was surely not the place to engage in specialist discussion.
Closing this book, one reads Scruton’s stimulating endorsement of Mark Dooley as a “decidedly modern” writer. One hungers for more, and hopes that Dooley’s intellectual journey brings him to write a book on modernity in the vein of Rémi Brague, but Irish-style.
The forte of Mark Dooley’s book is that it keeps the discussion safely away from the ideological level. Doing that, it speaks to people of all persuasions; it also speaks to people of all creeds and far beyond the shores of Ireland. Asserting that “there are many roads home”, it presents a uniquely non-nostalgic, loving, sacred worldview transcending established barriers and bringing together for the first time people who would never otherwise have conversed. Dooley accomplishes this feat in his signature pellucid, lively and warmly personal style, making it possible for all readers to take part in this unique philosophical conversation.
Alexandra Slaby is an associate professor of English at the University of Caen. Her research has centred on historical and contemporary aspects of Irish cultural policy. The published version of her PhD thesis, L’État et la culture en Irlande 1922-2002, was prefaced by Michael D Higgins (Caen UP, 2010). She is currently completing a history of twentieth century Ireland which is due to be published in February 2016.