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"The Problem of Philosophical Deflection": An Essay by Kate Warlow-Corcoran (Keywords: Embodiment; Grief; Metaphilosophy; Iris Murdoch; Cora Diamond; J.M. Coetzee)

Eslabón by Carlos Martiel

From The Philosopher, vol. 112, no. 1 ("Punishment").

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To celebrate the 100th anniversary of The Philosopher, last year saw the publication of two issues [here and here] concerning the future of philosophy, both inside academia and in the public sphere. The contributions highlighted our ongoing preoccupation with the matter of how philosophy ought to understand itself.  I am persuaded by Bernard Williams’ view that philosophy is an attempt “to make the best sense of our life, and so of our intellectual activities, in the situation in which we find ourselves”.  A significant feature of our human situation is that we are, at times, anxiously confronted by the limits of our current conceptual life to undertake this sense-making activity. Philosophy, therefore, at its best, ought to help us to make sense of such moments of anxiety – not by presenting an illusory picture of transcendent knowledge, but by adequately representing the richness, complexity and unpredictability of human experience.

In her 2003 paper, “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy”, Cora Diamond calls an experience in which the mind is incapable of fully grasping something it encounters a difficulty of reality.  She draws our attention to the overwhelming sense of incomprehensibility we can experience when faced with features of our world, such as death and dying, the horrors of how people can treat each other, awe-inspiring beauty, or the wonders of the natural world.  For Diamond, reflecting on such experiences can tell us something about the kind of beings we are: animals that can experience pain and will die, at times tormented by our separateness from others, equipped with capacities for thought and language that are often inadequate for grasping aspects of our experience, seized by a desire for general principles to guide how we ought to live, but instead “thrown into finding something [which] may at best be a kind of bitter-tasting compromise”.

Diamond applies the term ‘difficulty of reality’ to “experiences in which we take something in reality to be resistant to our thinking it, or possibly to be painful in its inexplicability, difficult in that way, or perhaps awesome and astonishing in its inexplicability”.  We cannot explain – either to ourselves or others – some facet of this experience, and this inability causes us pain or astonishment.  Such experiences are not universal – something we find impossible or agonising to fully comprehend may not pose similar difficulties for others.  Therefore, as Diamond explains, appreciating a difficulty of reality can invoke a sense of “profound isolation” as we struggle alone to grasp something that seems beyond our reach.  Diamond uses examples from literature to show us what such an experience might be like; I will look at two of these examples: Ted Hughes’ 1957 poem, “Six Young Men”, and J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Elizabeth Costello.

In “Six Young Men”, a speaker is looking at a photograph from 1914 of six men, all of whom were killed within six months of the photo being taken.  Here is the last stanza:

That man’s not more alive whom you confront

And shake by the hand, see hale, hear speak loud,

Than any of these six celluloid smiles are,

Nor prehistoric or fabulous beast more dead;

No thought so vivid as their smoking blood:

To regard this photograph might well dement,

Such contradictory permanent horrors here

Smile from the single exposure and shoulder out

One’s own body from its instant and heat.


The poem attempts to capture an experience in which the speaker’s ability to fully think through the reality of what the photo depicts breaks down.  In one sense, the language and concepts available to the speaker are perfectly adequate to explain the reality of the photo: the six young men were alive when the photo was taken, then later died.  In another sense, however, language and thought are wholly inadequate to the task of comprehending what Hughes calls the “contradictory permanent horrors” on display; attempting to do so might “dement” or drive one mad.  Diamond describes this as the speaker being “pushed beyond” what he can think; he feels his thinking “come unhinged”.

The inadequacy of thought to truly, simultaneously grasp the living and dying of the six men, is enough to “shoulder out/One’s own body from its instant and heat”.  It is an experience in which the speaker is forced to reflect on his own body, his own life and his inevitable future death; perhaps also to try to imagine what it would be like to inhabit the body of one of the six men, or to reflect on the impossibility of really knowing what that would be like.  This experience pushes the speaker to the limits of his thought.  It is also suggested that, in some way, this difficulty of reality is felt in the body; that the speaker is “shouldered out” or “pushed beyond” in some way evokes the physical sense of movement that often accompanies distress: dizziness, a churning stomach, rapid heart rate, trembling limbs, and a sense that the ground is unstable.

We can imagine an alternative speaker, one unperturbed by the photograph and confident in the adequacy of his thought, using it as an opportunity to reflect on, say, a moral question, such as whether there can be a ‘just’ war.  Diamond suggests that this would be a form of deflection, not only from the difficulty of reality the photo presents, but also from the reality that, like the young men in the photograph, the speaker, too, has a mortal body.  The experience of the speaker in the poem shows us something about what it is to be human: we know we are mortal but tend to forget or be distracted from our embodiment and our mortality.  When reminded of the vulnerability of our embodiment, we can experience intense anxiety; this anxiety can be felt in the body.  Our habitual ways of speaking and thinking can seem inadequate to the task of expressing the reality of being human. 

Our habitual ways of speaking and thinking can seem inadequate to the task of expressing the reality of being human. 

The second text is a set of lectures delivered by J.M. Coetzee, later published as chapters in his novel Elizabeth Costello (2004), in which the protagonist, a novelist named Elizabeth Costello, is invited to give a guest lecture at a renowned university.  Elizabeth’s lecture concerns the treatment of animals; she expresses her horror at both what we do to animals (e.g., the meat industry) and the seeming indifference of most people toward these actions.  This horror affects her physically, she feels wounded and in pain.  She repeatedly expresses concern about reason’s role in rationalising this horror and is reluctant to engage in traditional forms of argument.  Instead, she emphasises the role of poetry and prose as providing a way of “inhabiting another body”, stating that “there is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another.  There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination”.

Yet, the other characters repeatedly fail to even think themselves into the position of Elizabeth herself.  She feels isolated because of this inability to share in or understand her horror; this is played out in the story through the bemused and sometimes hostile responses to her lecture and the strained relationship she has with her son and his family.  Her daughter-in-law describes her opinions as “jejeune and sentimental”; her son describes her lecture as pro-animal “propaganda” that is “ill-gauged and ill-argued”.  Elizabeth makes numerous powerful assertions yet is simultaneously portrayed in a way that encourages the reader to question her soundness of mind and highlights her inability to respond satisfactorily to her critics. Elizabeth’s experience highlights a significant feature of what it is to be human, the overwhelming isolation that accompanies the inability to make oneself understood.  Coetzee emphasises the bodily dimension of Elizabeth’s situation: she experiences physical pain and weakness that brings to consciousness the insurmountable separateness between herself and others.       




We can expand our understanding of difficulties of reality by turning to a different source: phenomenological survey data gathered as part of the project, “Grief: A Study of Human Experience” (full details of which can be found at   Reflecting on their experiences of grief following the death of a loved one, survey respondents describe the following:

An utterly physical process of pain.  Even the mental pain was somehow located – in the head and chest.

The physical aching and yearning for his company is indescribable.

At one point I thought of her and winded myself.  I had no idea you could be winded (properly bent suddenly double winded) by a thought.  My throat tightened up and has never properly loosened.

It’s a hotchpotch of feelings and experiences and physical manifestations that are bewildering and terrifying.

As with Diamond’s literary examples, we are confronted by the bodily nature of such experiences, and the seeming impossibility of making such experiences intelligible to both ourselves and others. Further survey responses demonstrate the experience of facing something that cannot be assimilated into one’s current conception of what the world is like:

I know he is gone, but I am sometimes flabbergasted by this possibility- how can it be true that I will never see him again?

…my brain still looks towards the front door waiting for him to come home.

It’s hard to put into words how devastating it feels and how alone and empty. Words don’t explain the feeling. You’re torn apart totally.

I feel like everything about the world that I have known is completely foreign now.  The world seems like a different place.

After his death it was obvious that “he” wasn’t in his body yet to an extent it was still him as were his ashes so eventually I just said he and him etc even though on one level I would make distinctions, and I will say he’s on the piano because his ashes are and I now have no trouble with that.

Matthew Ratcliffe, who co-led the project at the University of York, writes in his 2022 book Grief Worlds: A Study of Emotional Experience, that some of these examples could be explained as expressing “a kind of forgetting”: the bereaved assumes a habitual pattern of behaviour, such as waiting for their loved one to return home, momentarily forgetting that this is no longer possible. This is similar to Hughes’ poem: the speaker’s habitual ‘forgetting’ of his mortal embodiment is disrupted by his confrontation with the photograph.  In the last example, however, we see a clear breakdown in language: as Ratcliffe explains, “he” (the deceased) exists as something that resides on the piano, yet this “existence” draws attention to his non-existence and absence.   

Ratcliffe distinguishes between two different aspects of the problem with language in such cases: (1) The difficulty of using language to describe complex features of our reality; (2) How the meaning we ascribe to certain words can alter during such an experience.  To understand the second aspect, Ratcliffe says we must appreciate how difficulties of reality can disrupt both our practical identity and our understanding of our pre-established experiential world. Practical identity here is understood according to Christine Korsgaard’s account: “a description under which you value yourself, a description under which you find your life to be worth living and your actions to be worth undertaking”. We live well if we can reflectively endorse our actions in light of an identity to which we are committed.  As Ratcliffe explains, this is not limited to alignment with socially defined roles; it can include one’s projects, beliefs and habits. 

We may not be consciously aware of all features of our practical identities or experiential world, as they may not all be conceptually formed.

Ratcliffe further explains that our experiential world relates to the “practically meaningful possibilities” that our life structure contains, which are connected to our current and past life experiences.  We may not be consciously aware of all features of our practical identities or experiential world, as they may not all be conceptually formed.  Such partially formed features that contribute to our inner sense of who we are and the possibilities our world contains can be revealed to us during periods of grief (and other similarly disruptive life experiences) through a sudden awareness of their absence or transformation.

To continue with an example from Ratcliffe: if the practical possibilities associated with one’s home are altered by the death of a spouse, then the word ‘home’ takes on a different meaning.  Using the word ‘home’ can cause a kind of uncanniness, a sense of the familiar as unfamiliar and strange, which is felt in the body – perhaps as a shudder or a feeling that the ground is moving beneath one’s feet.  Similar difficulties may arise with words related to our identity, such as ‘wife’ or ‘husband’.  The bodily feeling of strangeness can be what alerts us to the problem with language. This gives us another important insight into what it is to be human.  The emotions and bodily sensations that we experience with a difficulty of reality can reveal something hitherto concealed about what we value in our lives, and what we need to live well.  In this sense, as Martha Nussbaum argues, such emotions are a form of “evaluative judgment” that assign significance to people and things in light of the contribution they make to our flourishing.



If difficulties of reality can provide valuable insights into what it is to be human, and if our aim as philosophers is, following Bernard Williams, to make the best sense of the situations in which we find ourselves as human beings, then ignoring such experiences undermines our endeavours.  As we have seen, however, Cora Diamond argues that when faced with a difficulty of reality, philosophers are often “deflected” away from fully appreciating this reality toward a form of rationalised problem-solving situated within a previously established area of debate.  I will refer to this as philosophical deflection.  This is a problem for philosophy as it can divert us away from our creative, sense-making task, toward an idea of philosophy as the hunt for ‘truths’ about human life that already exist ‘out there’, waiting to be discovered.

Deflection can stem from a desire to establish or maintain relations of power and privilege, or to enable us to continue engaging in habitual practices that we are reluctant to change. 

There are several plausible reasons why deflection occurs in day-to-day life.   Engagement with such difficulties can be psychologically draining, physically painful and difficult to sustain.  When faced with a complex difficulty of reality, we can seek solace in orderly activity, e.g., following a bereavement, we might take temporary respite from overwhelming grief in the busyness of mundane domestic or administrative tasks.  Our temperament or personal history might predispose us to prefer some ways of engaging with the world over others. Deflection can stem from a desire to establish or maintain relations of power and privilege, or to enable us to continue engaging in habitual practices that we are reluctant to change.  It also seems plausible that there is a bodily dimension to this deflection; a rising sense of unease that motivates us to turn away from the difficulty of reality until the uncomfortable feeling subsides, or a sense of pleasure taken in the activity to which we have been deflected which motivates us to not turn back.  We might be consciously aware of some of these motivational forces, or we might not; the bodily dimension might be what gives us an inkling that something is going on.  

Philosophical deflection may share many of these features.  As Bernard Williams states, philosophical training aims to equip us with the skills to successfully dismantle and dispute another’s argument; philosophers, therefore, expect our work to be received in this spirit and we might find ourselves anxiously trying to pre-empt counter-arguments, our writing process guided by “constant anticipations of guilt and shame”.  We might take great pleasure in a specific form of abstract theorising or have a warm appreciation of, say, the elegance of formal logic, which dissuades us from branching out into other areas.  We might desire intellectual authority and prestige and seek to emulate a more ‘scientific’ philosophical style to share the authority that science seems to possess.  Similarly, we might be holding onto some residual sense of the emotions being historically aligned with the ‘feminine’, therefore seen as lesser than ‘masculine’ reason, which leads us to valorise rational argument.  The list goes on. 

These features may influence not only the philosophical methods we choose but also what we take to be the relevant phenomena to be studied.  Again, we might be consciously aware of such forces, or they may be working in our unconscious, and our bodily sensations might play a role in bringing them to our attention. Here we have our first glimpse of what a non-deflectionary philosophical practice might look like: it would require scrupulous self-reflexivity, in a way that takes seriously the notion that our emotions and bodily sensations can be a vital source of self-knowledge.

There may be further reasons for philosophical deflection, which we can see if we return to Elizabeth Costello. In The Lives of Animals (1999), Coetzee’s lectures were published alongside commentary by thinkers such as Amy Gutmann and Peter Singer, who, according to Diamond, extract abstract moral ideas and arguments from the story and use them as a basis for philosophical debate about animal rights. Diamond argues that these commentators have failed to engage with the principal concern of Coetzee’s lectures: to present a particular feature of human experience, “a kind of woundedness, or hauntedness, a terrible rawness of nerves” exhibited by a person living through a “profound disturbance of the soul”.  In doing so, they have also failed to understand how philosophical debate may encourage a detachment from “our sense of our own bodily life and our capacity to respond to and to imagine the bodily life of others”.  In this way, the commentators have been “deflected” away from the difficulty of reality being explored and have failed to attend to what is valuable about the text.   

For Diamond, philosophical deflection reveals an underlying desire to be able to make moral decisions in a particular way, e.g., because of some morally salient knowledge we have about human and non-human animals, we can confidently establish general principles to guide our actions.  This ideal form of moral deliberation is often unavailable to us as we cannot access the relevant knowledge that would make it possible; we are “exposed”.  Yet, we still yearn for a kind of moral certainty that lies beyond our grasp. 

Diamond develops these ideas with reference to the work of Iris Murdoch.  Murdoch makes the distinction between two conceptions of moral philosophy; the first is primarily concerned with moral action and choices and helps us to answer questions about what we ought to do.  Action and choices in this context refer to publicly observable behaviour; thoughts and intentions are only morally relevant in the sense that they are directed toward such action. This first conception risks resulting in philosophical deflection.  In her paper, “Having a Rough Story about What Moral Philosophy Is”, Diamond paraphrases Murdoch:

If we treat action as a central notion in defining the sphere of morality, this may…have as one of its sources a view of the world as in a fundamental sense comprehensible, and of the facts constituting the situations in which we act as straightforwardly describable.

But, as demonstrated by difficulties of reality, this view of the world is mistaken.  The second conception of moral philosophy takes as its target an understanding of the nature of human life and the kinds of complex situations in which we might find ourselves. As Murdoch says, it is attentive to “the inexhaustible detail of the world, the endlessness of the task of understanding, the importance of not assuming that one has got individuals and situations ‘taped’”.  In this second conception, loving attention toward particular features of reality is “the characteristic and proper mark of the active moral agent”. 

Philosophical deflection moves us away from our responsibility to carry out this endless task of developing an adequate understanding of the nature of human life, a task which, according to Murdoch, requires “moral imagination and moral effort”.  A non-deflectionary philosophical practice would therefore aim to make sense of human life, it would have an appreciation of the “necessary fallibility” of human inquiry and have a holistic view of philosophy as a way of understanding the world that can transform how we live.  This form of philosophy would embrace a wide and varied range of sources that show us, in an illuminating way, something about the richness and diversity of human experience.  It would also take seriously its responsibility to help us to make sense of human life in a way that could change how we live for the better.  It would fully accept our vulnerability and fallibility, aided by an awareness of philosophy’s history and the contingency of ideas we might otherwise take for granted. 

A non-deflectionary philosophy would require philosophers to acknowledge that our mind’s inability to encompass reality includes the inadequacy of the mind to fully understand itself. 

Crucially, a non-deflectionary philosophy would require philosophers to acknowledge that our mind’s inability to encompass reality includes the inadequacy of the mind to fully understand itself.  As John Cottingham argues, philosophy needs to accept the Freudian insight that aspects of our unconscious mind lie beyond our immediate reach.  With that acceptance comes the understanding that our reflectively endorsed beliefs about why and how we ought to do philosophy might be at odds with complex, messy and partially formed unconscious notions about who we are and what matters to us.  For our present purposes, there are two consequences of this picture: first, the philosophical project of making sense of our life and the situation in which we find ourselves requires more than rational thought alone.  Sense-making necessitates a creative, imaginative, affective and bodily engagement with ourselves, others, and the world. Second, as individual philosophers, our affective and somatic responses might provide insight into the unconscious values, assumptions and commitments that underpin how we choose to do philosophy.  Reflexivity requires the cultivation of modes of reflection that move beyond mere rational thought.

Central to non-deflectionary philosophical practice is a return to the conception of philosophy as a way of life, characterised by Nussbaum as “a practical and compassionate philosophy – a philosophy that exists for the sake of human beings, in order to address their deepest needs, confront their most urgent perplexities, and bring them from misery to some greater measure of flourishing”.  Diamond’s difficulties of reality illustrate the capacity of the human mind to be anxiously confronted by the limits of thought.  A philosophy that helps us to make sense of such experiences can make a valuable contribution to human flourishing.  If, as I argue, philosophy ought to understand itself as a generative, sense-making project, then we must resist being deflected away from this reality of human experience.  Philosophical deflection might give us the illusion of control over a world that often defies our comprehension, but in doing so, deflects us from the collective task of truly making ourselves, our experiences and our shared forms of life as intelligible to one another as possible.

Kate Warlow-Corcoran is a UK-based philosopher interested in 19th and 20th Century European philosophy (particularly the work of Theodor Adorno) and contemporary philosophy of mind.  She recently completed an MRes in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London.  Twitter: @KateWarcoran



From The Philosopher, vol. 112, no. 1 ("Punishment").

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