Monday, December 15, 2014

Transgression in Philosophy

What is the difference between a transgressive philosophy and a philosophy of transgression? Perhaps the difference is that a transgressive philosophy breaks the rules of traditional philosophy and is conducted in an unusual and unconventional way, while a philosophy of transgression may not itself be transgressive in its attitude toward the norms of traditional philosophy and may be practiced in a very standard and conventional way.
      Transgression may be a breaking of the rules or overstepping of the limits of conventional behavior. It may be an act of noncompliance with regard to moral, institutional, or cultural norms. It may also be an unintentional act of neglect or intentional act of defiance with regard to socially expected and accepted modes of behavior.
      Transgression may also be a mode of nonconformity. It may be an assertion of personal freedom, and an affirmation of an individual’s capacity for self-determination.
      To be transgressive may be to “cross the line” between conventional and unconventional behavior. It may be to ignore, resist, defy, or refuse to comply with social, institutional, or cultural norms.
      Transgression may thus be moral, religious, social, institutional, or cultural in nature. It may take the form of disobedient, defiant, noncompliant, indecent, improper, or socially unacceptable (discouraged or prohibited) behavior.
      To be transgressive may be to assume the risk of being found guilty of imprudence, carelessness, arrogance, or ostentation for violating social norms. It may also be to violate norms of politeness, decorum, or propriety, or to allow oneself to be considered uncouth or “beyond the pale” by the rest of society.
      The transgressive may also be the sexually ambiguous or suggestive, the subversive, the disruptive, the intentionally improper, the provocative, the erotic, the perverse, or the pornographic.
      Sexual transgression is one of the most serious and harmful kinds of moral transgression. It may take the form of sexual assault, sexual coercion, nonconsensual sexual relations, personal boundary violations, professional boundary violations, relational boundary violations, use of false pretenses in order to engage in sexual relations, breaches of privacy, breaches of confidentiality, sexual victimization, sexual humiliation, sexual infidelity, and sexual indecency.
      The wide variety of kinds of sexual transgression may lead to the question of whether all transgression has a sexual aspect or is partly sexual in nature. The sexual nature of transgression may in some cases be revealed by the production of a thrill or feeling of excitement as a result of violating a conventional social boundary, or as a result of misbehaving or being “naughty," being a “bad boy” or “bad girl,” being (openly or secretively) lewd or improper, or taking stimulating and pleasurable risks.
      Transgression may be a testing of the limits of social convention in order to elicit some response from those in authority. It may also be a means of being odd, unusual, out of the ordinary, vaguely disconcerting, or even scandalous or shocking, It may also be a means of advocating nonconformity for nonconformity’s sake, and a means of expressing a personal desire to be different from others.
      Transgression, like regression and progression, has directionality. It is a crossing over or moving beyond a recognized limit or boundary. It may be designed to produce an unsettling, overturning, or disruption of conventional mores.
      To be transgressive may be to question or challenge the status quo. It may also be to (metaphorically rather than literally) become a kind of revolutionary, anarchist, or philosophical bomb-thrower.
      It should be emphasized that the term “transgressive philosophy” should not be understood as implying, justifying, or apologizing for any kind of immorality or moral transgression. The “boundary crossing” practiced by a transgressive philosopher must be distinguished from the “boundary violating” practiced by a victimizer, egoist, extremist, or nihilist. Transgressive philosophy is not a repudiation of the norms required for social harmony and well-being. It is not an evasion of moral, professional, or institutional codes of conduct. Nor is it a transgression of the principles of what is right and wrong or just and unjust.
      The transgressive philosopher does not victimize, mistreat, or take unfair advantage of others. The transgressive philosopher does not use others as means to serve his or her own ends. The transgressive philosopher does not infringe on the rights of others to life, liberty, dignity, and security.
      Transgressive philosophy may involve transgressive reading, writing, and interpretation of texts that have philosophical themes or implications. It may also involve the examination of transgressive modes of speech and language.
      To do transgressive philosophy may be to break the rules or transcend the limits of a closed or bounded system of concepts. It may also be to defy those who want to police the borders of mainstream or traditional philosophy.
      A list of transgressive philosophers might include such names as Socrates (who was sentenced to death for impiety, and for corrupting the youth of Athens), Diogenes of Sinope (who was known for his shameless disregard of conventional decencies, and who is said to have lived in a tub1), Spinoza (who was charged with heresy by religious authorities and was excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam), and Rousseau (who argued that if the sovereignty of a people is usurped by their government, then they are no longer obligated to obey that government).
      The list of transgressive philosophers might also include such names as Marx, Nietzsche, Camus, Bataille, Foucault, Derrida, Irigaray, Butler, Andrea Dworkin, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Baudrillard, and Zizek.
      Transgressive philosophers may reformulate or recontextualize traditional philosophical problems by reconsidering them from previously excluded or marginalized viewpoints. They may subvert culturally biased or hegemonic practices and thereby promote reevaluation of traditional approaches to problem solving. Thus, they may be able to open up domains of inquiry not accessible to more conventional approaches.


1Anthony Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979), p. 90.

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