The futility of the humanities

by Michael Bérubé on June 24, 2009

Since I have to do one last gig before I take off on vacation, and since the gig happens to be a conference titled “Beyond Utility and Markets: Articulating the Role of the Humanities in the Twenty-First Century,” I thought it would make sense to begin this post where I end my contribution to that symposium, namely, with the closing passage from William Deresiewicz’s recent Nation review essay on the new wave of Darwinist literary criticism:

There is much talk among the literary Darwinists and their allies about not wanting to go back to the days of “old-boy humanism,” with its “impressionistic” reading and “belletristic” writing. (Only in English departments could good writing be considered a bad thing.) But no matter the age or gender of the practitioner, any really worthwhile criticism will share the expressive qualities of literature itself. It will be personal, because art is personal. It will not be definitive; it will not be universally valid. It will be a product of its times, though it will see beyond those times. It will not satisfy the dean’s desire for accumulable knowledge, the parent’s desire for a marketable skill or the Congressman’s desire for a generation of technologists. All it will do is help us understand who we are, where we came from and where we’re going. Until the literary academy is willing to stand up in public and defend that mission without apology, it will never find its way out of the maze.

OK, well, certainly Deresiewicz knows that the standard complaint about “belletristic” writing is not that it’s well written.  Traditionally, “belletrism” suggests a kind of glib, breezy dilettantism, the kind of thing for which this blogger is deservedly notorious.  So let’s get that straight.  But after that glib, breezy parenthesis, the rest of the paragraph is quite wonderful.  And I say so not only because it agrees so nicely with my conclusion in my 2003 essay, “The Utility of the Arts and Humanities,” where I write,

if we understand human history in its historicity, there will be no final answers to any of the questions we might pose about the American Civil War or the rise of the caliphate or the Edict of Nantes or the emergence of homo/hetero classifications for sexuality or any other significant historical event or process; no final interpretations in literature, anthropology, dance, philosophy, or music; no answers that cannot be challenged and answered again from fresh social and historical perspectives.  This is what we humanists do:  we try to determine what it all means, in the broadest sense of “it” and “means,” and just as important, how it all means.

No, I think Deresiewicz’s final paragraph is quite wonderful all on its own.  Its agreement with stuff I believe is just extra bonus points.

And even better, Deresiewicz’s essay contains a bunch of things I wish I’d said, like the conclusion of this piquant paragraph:

Again and again, Darwinian criticism sets out to say something specific, only to end up telling us something general. An essay that purports to explain Shakespeare’s preeminence as a playwright argues instead that drama appeals to us because it portrays the social dynamics of small human groups (as evidenced by the fact that Shakespeare’s casts range from eighteen to forty-seven characters). [Brian] Boyd devotes a hundred pages to the Odyssey without saying anything he couldn’t have said with Anna Karenina or Middlemarch or Proust. The discussion is nothing more than an illustration of Darwinian ideas, not an explication of Homeric meanings. Indeed, it’s an illustration of largely one idea, that before an artist can even worry about meanings, he needs to figure out how to hold his audience’s attention. If the point sounds banal, that is squarely within the emerging disciplinary tradition. I have read any number of Darwinian essays about Pride and Prejudice (one critic calls it their “fruit fly”), but I have yet to read one that told me anything interesting. The idea that the novel is about mate selection does not count as an original contribution.

Now, I haven’t yet read Boyd’s book (I’m slated to review it for the same place I reviewed Alan Sokal’s book last year), so I’ll reserve judgment about that, of course; I’m encouraged to see that Deresiewicz says that Boyd is “a clearer and more careful thinker than most of these other writers,” because those other writers are people like Denis Dutton, whose work has always seemed to me to be a variation on “the giraffe has a long neck, and the elephant has a long trunk, and therefore humans make abstract sculptures, just so!  Thus I have refuted Judith Butler!”  But, even with judgment reserved, I have to say I do love Deresiewicz’s final sentence, the idea that the novel is about mate selection does not count as an original contribution.  Besides, everyone knows that Pride and Prejudice is not about mate selection.  Hart Crane’s The Bridge is about mate selection, as is Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” and that’s where your literary Darwinism really comes in handy.

But I can only admire Deresiewicz’s essay so much, you know, because there are a couple of really false notes in it.  Here’s the worst of ‘em:

The humanities, meanwhile, are undergoing their own struggle for survival within the academic ecosystem. Budgets are shrinking, students are disappearing, faculty positions are being lost, institutional prestige has all but evaporated. As the Darwinists are quick to point out, a lot of this suffering is self-inflicted. In literary studies in particular, the last several decades have witnessed the baleful reign of “Theory,” a mash-up of Derridean deconstruction, Foucauldian social theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis and other assorted abstrusiosities, the overall tendency of which has been to cut the field off from society at large and from the main currents of academic thought, not to mention the common reader and common sense. Theory, which tends toward dogmatism, hermeticism, hero worship and the suppression of doctrinal deviation—not exactly the highest of mental virtues—rejects the possibility of objective knowledge and, in its commitment to the absolute nature of cultural “difference,” is dead set against the notion of human universals. Theory has led literary studies into an intellectual and institutional cul-de-sac, and now that its own energies have been exhausted (the last major developments date to the early ‘90s), it has left it there.

This is the kind of thing “Landru” was saying in a recent thread at my place, and I think it’s worth taking up at some length.  So here we go, at some length.

First: there’s a grain of truth in there about the dogmatism and hermeticism associated with Theory.  I touched lightly on that phenomenon in my opening post on the great Valve-Theory’s Empire Wars of 2005, which led my theory-besotted blog to develop the series known as “Theory Tuesdays.”  In one of the better contributions to that debate, John McGowan acknowledged,

There is evidence of group-think out there. Let me give an example that bugged me for years. For a long time (happily that time now seems over), lots of people in literary studies knew that if Habermas said it, it must be wrong. The man couldn’t get a fair hearing in certain circles. The reasons for this failure in open-mindedness are many and complex. But we certainly should not discount the bad effects of a lousy job market and of the increasing pressure to publish. Conformity will result when it is very hard to get—and to keep—a place at the Theory’s Empire table.

(The passage has disappeared from the Internets but can be found on page 22 of this fine dead-tree publication, thanks to John Holbo.)

The “if Habermas said it, it must be wrong” era isn’t quite over, as evidenced by the response of some of the Theory crowd to What’s Liberal; that response went something like, “it’s all very well and good to talk about the separation of powers and the relative autonomy of civil society as forms of ‘liberalism,’ but everyone knows that liberalism is really just a stalkinghorse for the imperialist Enlightenment project of universal reason and also cannot account for its imbrication in the system of power/knowledge.”  People can write this stuff in their sleep, and some actually do.  Anyway, the claim that Theory involves hero worship is sometimes true.  But then, not everyone who does theory worships Theory’s heroes, and there are plenty of people who hate Theory and worship anti-Theory heroes of their own.

Second: when Deresiewicz charges that Theory “rejects the possibility of objective knowledge and, in its commitment to the absolute nature of cultural ‘difference,’ is dead set against the notion of human universals,” again, there’s a grain of truth there.  Those of us in the humanities who know something about human biology—and this group would include Richard Powers, whose most recent novel Deresiewicz disdained for telling us too much about human biology—tend to agree that the Theory wing reaches for its guns when it hears the term “human universals.”  But as for “objective knowledge”—my stars!  What is this thing called “objective knowledge”?  Can you explain it for me?  Can you give me an example of it?  (And don’t give me an example of a brute fact, like “carbon is the sixth element in the periodic table.”  Give me an example of something that humans know objectively, independently of their sense impressions, beliefs, etc.)  And then, when you’ve done all that, can you give me an explanation of what this appeal to “objective knowledge” is doing in an essay that insists that criticism “will be personal, because art is personal. It will not be definitive; it will not be universally valid”?  Because I could use an objective explanation of what’s going on here.

But enough with the grains of truth already!  Let’s get to the really annoying stuff.

Budgets are shrinking, students are disappearing, faculty positions are being lost, institutional prestige has all but evaporated.

All of these things are true: our budgets are shrinking, our faculty positions are being lost, and our institutional prestige has all but evaporated.  All of these things are true, except the bit about the students.  Honest to Moloch, I’m beginning to think nobody takes me seriously when I cite the Digest of Higher Education Statistics, and that makes me sad.  But go ahead and click that link!  Discover there the shocking and surprising truth—that English enrollments plummeted between 1970 and 1980, from 63,914 degrees to 31,922, and then rebounded thereafter, reaching the 50,000 mark in 1990 and hovering in that vicinity ever since.  In other words, during the years when Theory was at its peak, when everybody knew that Habermas was wrong and that anything Gayatri Spivak told you three times was true, the English major actually drew in tens of thousands of new students, some of whom may actually have liked the fact that their literature classes were places they could read and think and talk about gender and sexuality and textuality and even some of that power/knowledge flimflammery.  (And in graduate programs, where Theory was thickest, enrollments soared:  to take one readily-available measure (.pdf), 3,299 humanities doctorates were awarded in 1987, 5,109 in 2007.)

Besides, everybody knows that the decline of the humanities, with regard to funding and prestige, has nothing to do with student enrollment.  It has to do with the Sokal Hoax, which proved once and for all that everything Sokal’s fans can’t stand is objectively wrong.  But since Janet has promised to bury me alive and cover me with quicklime if I ever mention the Sokal Hoax again, I have to offer an alternate theory of What Went Wrong with the Humanities.  And I have decided that the real reason that people no longer trust or respect humanists is that some of us write solemn essays about how their elite educations have rendered them incapable of making small talk with plumbers.  Call it the Higher David Brooksism.  (A serious aside: if your plumber is wearing a Red Sox cap and talks with a thick Boston accent, and you can’t even say a few words to him about the recent history of the Red Sox, that’s not the fault of your elite education.  It’s just you.  Sociability fail.)

More seriously, and on a less personal note: the truly false note in this lament about the baleful reign of Theory is this.

… other assorted abstrusiosities, the overall tendency of which has been to cut the field off from society at large and from the main currents of academic thought, not to mention the common reader and common sense.

To paraphrase the mighty Fafblog, “Oh no! Not common sense! That’s where all my friends live!”  Certainly, we can’t have a form of literary criticism that cuts the field off from common sense.  Literary criticism should be devoted to the elaboration of insights that pretty much anybody could come to, and that most people would agree with.

And has Theory and its assorted abstrusiosomousiosites cut the field off from “society”?  Undoubtedly, because that’s where all my friends live, too.  Back in 1970, the field of literary criticism was part of society, and was even mentioned in the society pages of the New York Times.  Then Theory came along, and M. H. Abrams never appeared on The Tonight Show—or in the pages of the Times—again.

But the claim that Theory has cut the field of literary studies off from “the main currents of academic thought” is surely the strangest claim of all.  Because if there’s one thing that Theory clearly did, for good or for ill (mainly for good, I think, but with my usual caveats), it established a kind of interdisciplinary esperanto for humanists, artists, and social scientists.  As Michèle Lamont put it in one of her guest-posts here:

The relationship between philosophy and the humanities—where is it going in substantive terms? Is philosophy truly so disciplinarily isolated? With the progressive importation of French structuralism and post-structuralism over the last thirty some years, “European theory”—which generally means French, but also German and sometimes British theory) has become lingua franca across a number of humanities disciplines and interpretive social sciences and has allowed English and comparative literature experts to converse with art historians, architects, musicologists, anthropologists, etc. In philosophy, the continental tradition remained marginal. The influence of analytical philosophy facilitated other forms of interdisciplinary exchanges with fields such as cognitive psychology, linguistics, legal theory, etc. We have many forms of interdisciplinary dialogues, which function on different kinds of shared cognitive platforms—different currencies.

Interesting, is it not, when you adopt a wider disciplinary perspective than that provided by Deresiewicz?  Suddenly it looks like philosophy might have been isolated from the rest of the arts, humanities and interpretive social sciences, and “theory” might have been the means by which scholars conversed across the disciplines of  English and comparative literature, art history, architecture, musicology, anthropology, etc.  For really—and I think we’re in the realm of objective human knowledge here—there’s no plausible way to claim that when literary studies started talking about Foucault, the discipline cut itself off from history and political theory and sociology and philosophy and anthropology.

Now, it’s always possible to claim that the rise of Theory and its spread across the disciplines is responsible for the decline in funding and prestige in certain sectors of the humanities and interpretive social sciences.  I think that claim would be contestable, but it is not implausible, since there might indeed be some correlation between “challenging common sense” and “losing funding and prestige.”  But you really can’t claim that the rise Theory cordoned off literary critics and left us unable to converse with people in other disciplines.  Because that would be just silly and blinkered and also wrong.

OK, I’m off to talk about these things with a bunch of people from the arts and humanities and sciences.  I’ll check in when I can.

x-posted.

{ 119 comments }

1

alex 06.24.09 at 3:06 pm

“Besides, everyone knows that Pride and Prejudice is not about mate selection. “

Sorry, can’t resist: I thought that was a truth universally acknowledged? But then I’m not a lit crit…

2

dsquared 06.24.09 at 3:10 pm

The idea that the novel is about mate selection does not count as an original contribution.

Ahhh those naive Darwinists! I am currently working on a massive book-length essay on Pride & Prejudice, analysing it for the first time from the standpoint of Freakonomics. You see, what the “humanities majors” have never really paid attention to is that Mr Darcy[1] is very rich, and this fact shapes a great deal of the other characters’ social interactions with him.

[1]I think that’s the right one; if he was in Sense & Sensibility then someone else, these books are all basically interchangeable.

3

Michael Bérubé 06.24.09 at 3:11 pm

Dang! A twofer. I am pwned with regard to Jane Austen and Darwinism, and pwned again with regard to objective knowledge. Thanks, Alex! I will go home now.

4

Chris 06.24.09 at 3:20 pm

Honest to Moloch, I’m beginning to think nobody takes me seriously when I cite the Digest of Higher Education Statistics, and that makes me sad.

Well, if it doesn’t contain any objective knowledge, why should they? It’s just a tool of the mathematical empire, or something. Their perception that the field is in decline is just as valid as the statistics that purport to prove it isn’t. Theory says so.

More seriously: I, for one, don’t consider it a grave charge that something is cut off from common sense. Quantum physics is cut off from common sense, but it has been a very productive avenue of inquiry. Common sense is grounded in the intuitive expectations of humans, but the universe doesn’t always conform to the intuitive expectations of humans, even in domains where we might expect humans to be pretty good at intuiting, like human psychology.

As far as the social effect on the prestige and funding of a discipline which attacks common sense, you may be right, but that would be unfortunate, since common sense is such an unreliable guide to truth. (Yeah, here I am circling back to objective knowledge again.) Therefore, occasionally attacking it might be more fruitful than blindly deferring to it.

5

alex 06.24.09 at 3:24 pm

It’s OK, we still love you. And you’re quite right about the absurdity of the notion that Theory cut off lit crit from the mainstream of the humanities. What isn’t sufficiently addressed, however, is whether the humanities were already cut off from the mainstream of cultural experience, or became so because of Theory, or weren’t, or aren’t, or were and are and who cares nyaah-nyaah I’ve got tenure…?

6

Michael Bérubé 06.24.09 at 3:25 pm

Good point about Darcy’s wealth, dsquared! People do tend to overlook these little things. Except for the Marxists, bless their hearts! Speaking of which, here’s another of the false notes in Deresiewicz’s essay: “If Marxist criticism is always about the rise of the bourgeoisie, literary Darwinism is always about mate selection or status competition.”

7

alex 06.24.09 at 3:26 pm

p.s., DD, P&P is the one with the wet trouser scene, S&S is the one where Emma Thompson cries and Kate Winslet falls over…

8

Michael Bérubé 06.24.09 at 3:30 pm

And now I really do have to start packing. But I want to agree with Chris @ 4, I, for one, don’t consider it a grave charge that something is cut off from common sense, and Alex @ 5: What isn’t sufficiently addressed, however, is whether the humanities were already cut off from the mainstream of cultural experience. I’ll be sure to ask people to address this sufficiently at the Duke conference.

9

alex 06.24.09 at 3:32 pm

Y’all have fun now…

10

Matt 06.24.09 at 3:39 pm

I mostly agree, but want to insist that this, Give me an example of something that humans know objectively, independently of their sense impressions, beliefs, etc. isn’t a very good objection against the idea that there is “objective knowledge”, because few, if any, people who think there is such a thing would think that these sorts of things are what makes something “objective” or not. (I think this whole way of putting the point is a bit confused, but even beyond that, very few people today take the line that only something known independently of the sense, our beliefs, etc. can be “objective knowledge”, so this is a bit of a false target, I think.)

11

AcademicLurker 06.24.09 at 3:49 pm

“In other words, during the years when Theory was at its peak, when everybody knew that Habermas was wrong and that anything Gayatri Spivak told you three times was true, the English major actually drew in tens of thousands of new students, some of whom may actually have liked the fact that their literature classes were places they could read and think and talk about gender and sexuality and textuality and even some of that power/knowledge flimflammery.”

I’m not sure it makes sense to treat the entire period of Theory’s “empire” as a single undifferentiated thing. As M. Berube noted, it reached a point when folks could (and did) “write this stuff in their sleep”.

I don’t think it’s a particular slam against Theory (not to say that I don’t enjoy slamming Theory every now and then) to say that it eventually played itself out. It’s an inevitable part of the intellectual/academic lifecycle that the moment will arrive when it’s more exciting to critique the power/knowledge construct than it is to use the power/knowledge construct to critique things.

12

The Epicurean Dealmaker 06.24.09 at 5:31 pm

Not to get all “numerist” on you, Michael, but you really do need to pay attention to more than absolute numbers when you analyze a time series of aggregate data.

You crow that English “enrollments” [micro nit--the data reflect degrees conferred] rebounded in 1990 and have remained relatively stable since. True, but this ignores the fact that total bachelors degrees granted over the same period ballooned by 39%. As a relative share of total degrees conferred, English language and literature has declined over 22%, from 4.66% of total conferred in 1990-91 to 3.62% in 2006-07. The fish may be staying the same size, but the pond has gotten much bigger. Not a ringing endorsement of the attractiveness of English studies to the undergraduate population, I have to say.

Second, you cite approvingly that humanities PhDs have grown from 3,299 in 1987 to 5,109 in 2007. This seems less compelling when you realize that these numbers represent a rather unimpressive growth as a percentage of all PhDs from 10.2% to 10.6%. It is also undermined when you look at the data and see that literature (i.e., non-History and non-”Other humanities”) PhDs only constituted 1,112 or 3.44% and 1,509 or 3.10% of all PhDs in 1987 and 2007, respectively. This is not something to write home about, either.

So, in conclusion, I would say the data you cite rather convincingly fail to show your patient to be in rude health. Not on death’s door, by any means, but not running the NY Marathon, either.

You see, we Philistines from the other side of the Great Cultural Divide do have a few useful analytical tools of our own to offer every now and then.

13

Consumatopia 06.24.09 at 5:52 pm

Quantum physics is cut off from common sense, but it has been a very productive avenue of inquiry.

Well, okay, but once you’ve cut yourself off from common intuition, and you never had mathematical rigor or falsifiable experiment, then what are you left with?

I suppose what you’re left with specialist intuition. And it’s certainly reasonable to think that in some fields this is all we’ll have. On the other hand, it’s also reasonable for outsiders to doubt whether intuitions that only a select few have access to have any meaning deeper than the prejudices and politics of that select few.

If it’s personal and not universally valid, then it’s problematic to say that it “help us understand who we are, where we came from and where we’re going.”

14

alex 06.24.09 at 6:08 pm

Stop the frackin’ presses! UK government minister actually says Arts & Humanities have value!!

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=407148&c=2

15

bigcity 06.24.09 at 6:12 pm

Yes. Theory cut off the humanities from the main currents of mainstream thought.

Theory departments tended to have a theorist that applied theory to anthropological discourse, another that applied it to literary discourse, another that applied it to scientific discourse, and etc. That is not AT ALL the same thing as connecting in any meaningful way with the anthropologists down the hall in the anthropology dept., the guys in the physics department, and etc. So it was a lingua franca that connected Theorists to one another, whatever the content of their theorizing. NOT to other disciplines.

I also blame Theory for the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. But I won’t go there.

Never listen to the French. Never, never listen to the French.

(And PS I am inclined to think that what killed Theory was less the Sokal thing than the discovery that half of them were down with the Nazis. )

16

Bloix 06.24.09 at 6:32 pm

Epicurean Dealmaker – yes, the number of BA’s has “ballooned” over the past eighteen years. But the increase is in majors that are for shit – business and communications. Today, twenty percent of bachelor’s degrees are in business. What’s going on is that the kind of people who didn’t use to get degrees, and who don’t want or need them, are now required to obtain them as a credential for entry-level sales, managerial and technical jobs in large corporations.

17

Sebastian 06.24.09 at 6:40 pm

“To paraphrase the mighty Fafblog, “Oh no! Not common sense! That’s where all my friends live!” Certainly, we can’t have a form of literary criticism that cuts the field off from common sense. Literary criticism should be devoted to the elaboration of insights that pretty much anybody could come to, and that most people would agree with.”

Well sort of. But maybe you aren’t really appreciating what common sense is good for. Us intellectuals sometimes like to take things step by step by step to their ‘logical’ conclusions. The problem is that if we are just a little bit off in our intial presuppositions, 300 steps in we can be very far off from reality. Common sense critiques can bring us back to reality.

Early in college, I remember getting sucked into some discussion about the subjectivity of ‘blue’. It was noted by some people in the conversation (I don’t remember who, it might have been me) that since we can’t get into each other’s heads, that even among the non-color-blind, one person might experience ‘blue’ the way another experiences what the first person calls ‘red’ and we would never know.

After listening a while, an exasperated physics major said something along the lines of: “If you all call the color that people see at around 475nm ‘blue’ what practical difference does it make if you see it the way I see ‘red’?”

And he had a point.

18

Jake 06.24.09 at 6:54 pm

The US population has grown by almost 20% since 1990. A constant level of English enrollment means that English is becoming less popular in the population at large.

19

michael e sullivan 06.24.09 at 7:18 pm

Thanks for the link to Deresiewicz’s lament about his inability to talk to a plumber. It gave me much amusement.

My second favorite bit was his comment that OMGWTFBBQ?! Did you know that some of those “best and brightest” smart people at the Top! Ten! Universities! aren’t actually all that smart?

Which, if he attended such a prestigious university, I would have expected him to maybe notice while he was there. That was certainly where I first learned of this important social fact. You know — by meeting them.

20

kid bitzer 06.24.09 at 7:21 pm

delong did a post on darcy’s wealth.

he was very, very rich.

21

Bloix 06.24.09 at 7:39 pm

Jake, look at the link. The number of English B.A.’s was stable from 1990 to 2000, and is up 10% since 2000.

22

marcel 06.24.09 at 7:46 pm

At the assertion, “Only in English departments could good writing be considered a bad thing.”, I realized just how provincial D. is, and had trouble focusing on anything that followed. Deresiewicz has obviously spent no (as in absolute zero) time around economics departments or economists.

23

Jeff 06.24.09 at 7:51 pm

“Bloix 06.24.09 at 7:39 pm
Jake, look at the link. The number of English B.A.’s was stable from 1990 to 2000, and is up 10% since 2000.”

If the population has grown by 20%, and the number of English BA’s was stagnant for half of that period, and only registered 10% growth for the second half, that means that the amount of English B.A.’s has still been shrinking as a proportion of the population.

24

Adam 06.24.09 at 8:02 pm

I’m inclined to agree with Sebastian @16 re: common sense. Deresiewicz’s problem is not (I submit) that theorist X arrives at counterintuitive conclusions—the good old hard scientists do that, too—but rather that the chains of reasoning which lead to such conclusions don’t have their source in “commonsensical” claims. The quantum physicist can say, “yes, this is all very weird, but here, let’s set up this double-slit apparatus and you can see what happens.” The theorist, on the other hand (on this reading of Deresiewicz), can only appeal to more Theory, which is not something easily verifiable by common sense or observation.

25

mds 06.24.09 at 8:21 pm

After listening a while, an exasperated physics major said something along the lines of: “If you all call the color that people see at around 475nm ‘blue’ what practical difference does it make if you see it the way I see ‘red’?”

Whereupon he was presented with a color wheel that mysteriously wrapped around from 750 nm to 380 nm, and disappeared in a puff of logic.

26

John Quiggin 06.24.09 at 8:25 pm

What stuns me here is the literary Darwinist stuff. Is this some sort of elaborate Bérubé hoax speaking through an invented Deresiewicz? Or are there really humanities academics recycling 1970s-style sociobiology (the quoted examples don’t even make to the dismal level of 1990s-style Ev Psych) as lit crit?

I’d lean to the first, except that everyone in comments seems to be playing it straight in this respect.

27

b9n10t 06.24.09 at 8:39 pm

Berube: “Give me an example of something that humans know objectively, independently of their sense impressions, beliefs, etc.)”

What are

-aversion and repulsion

-future, present, and past

-alive and dead

28

Bill Benzon 06.24.09 at 8:45 pm

Well, if you’re at all curious about the beast, you can go here (a blog run by the National Humanities Center) where Joseph Carroll is expounding on the adaptive value of literature. He’s the prime mover behind what he calls “literary Darwinism.” Brian Boyd and Robert Storey (literature) both put in appearances as does Ellen Dissanayake (the arts in general).

29

b9n10t 06.24.09 at 8:54 pm

Berube:

“And then, when you’ve done all that, can you give me an explanation of what this appeal to “objective knowledge” is doing in an essay that insists that criticism “will be personal, because art is personal. It will not be definitive; it will not be universally valid”? Because I could use an objective explanation of what’s going on here.

The difference between objectivity and subjectivity is itself an example of objective knowledge. As in:

-Everyone sees and hears the several claps of thunder: the thunder is objective. Only the 4 year old in the group was afraid: the reaction was subjective.

If objective knowledge doesn’t exist, then subjective knowledge is impossible to distinguish from opposite forms of knowledge. Art criticism can not be personal.

30

Chris 06.24.09 at 8:55 pm

@24: True, but because of the known unreliability of common sense, verification by common sense isn’t very verifying. Ultimately, if you want to make a really credible truth claim, you need evidence. Common sense is wrong too often to rely on.

However, it’s not clear to me that Theory, let alone lit-crit, *does* want to make truth claims, credible or otherwise. (It seems to me that Theory isn’t really supposed to be clear, to me or anyone else, which explains part of this.) This could explain its sometimes contentious relationship with history and the various disciplines studying human behavior (e.g. psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics), all of which try to maintain some connection to how actual human beings actually do behave, a factual matter susceptible to evidence.

31

Chris 06.24.09 at 9:04 pm

@29: Moreover, whether the observers are agreeing or disagreeing in their observations is usually independent of the identity of the meta-observer; in other words, whether a given observation is objective or subjective is usually itself objectively ascertainable.

One of the pitfalls of this definition, though, is the danger of false objectivity through insufficiently heterogeneous observers. This, I think, is one area where Theory has real value: it can reveal shared assumptions that the observers in question may mistake for “objective” features of the thing observed.

32

Abelard (AKA BROCK BOWDEN) 06.24.09 at 9:06 pm

“You see, we Philistines from the other side of the Great Cultural Divide do have a few useful analytical tools of our own to offer every now and then.”

time for a little joissance~~~

All those numbers you are throwing around (and, amusingly, supplementing the meaning of austere, rigorous “numbers” and “science” with the meaning of mere language to bring-into-being meaning, so that there might be some being-meaningness instead of a meanness of meaning or being-meaninglessness) are inherently nugatory since there is no such thing as “number” as such, and as an arbitrary sign it is “you” who are instilling the empty sign(s) with value, a sign or system of signs which is already caught up in a system or discourse that itself is already caught up in an arbitrary yet widely accepted, sedimented discourse, in need of an epistemic liberation or affirmative decentering.

“We” “Theory” types (heh) (or even worse those of “us” who “know” about FRENCH THEORY ITSELF AS SUCH) have power over the symbols and their interpretation, which can be employed as a devastating dissoilogoism ;p

BROCK BOWDEN (Jock’s pal holla back lets get this started lets get it poppin!!!!!!)

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b9n10t 06.24.09 at 9:55 pm

Chris @31

“Theory has real value: it can reveal shared assumptions that the observers in question may mistake for “objective” features of the thing observed.”

I would modify “reveal” to “posit”. I also assume that this is not an original or unique accomplishment of 2oth century literary criticism or philosophy. Didn’t Gramci or Marx posit that seemingly objective social relationships and norms were merely historical (and political)? Isn’t the fact that we can discuss these ideas in plain English divorce it from “Theory”?

Maybe someone with philosophical chops could explain whether classical materialist philosophers derived a deep skepticism toward the objective existence of law or political hierarchies, for existence.

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peter 06.24.09 at 10:24 pm

b9n10t 06.24.09 at 8:39 pm said:

Berube: “Give me an example of something that humans know objectively, independently of their sense impressions, beliefs, etc.)”

What are

-aversion and repulsion

-future, present, and past

-alive and dead

Aversion and repulsion are socially constructed, as most any Briton offered locusts to eat or most any black Zambian offered shrimp to eat can attest. Ditto, future, present and past: To give just one example, Aboriginal Australian cultures have very different understandings of time to those common in the contemporary western world, with powerful entities from past times acting to influence events and entities in the present and future, and vice versa.

Although all of us who live have experience of being alive, it seems strange to say that our individual experience of being alive is objective. Surely Malcolm’s deconstruction of Descartes’ Cogito Ergo Sum – arguing that this life may be just a dream for each of us from which we each one day awake – puts paid to any objective notion of being alive. And, finally, I doubt that anyone reading this blog has experience of being dead, and so none of us are able to say what an objective idea or experience of being dead could possibly be.

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b9n10t 06.24.09 at 10:38 pm

peter,

I used a specific construction to avoid unnecessary philosophical depth.

All cognitively functional human beings know, as real things (objects) wanting and not wanting. The experience of repulsion and aversion are universal, regardless of the particular objects desired or not desired.

Your aboriginal Australian example makes my point; as you relate it, their story relies on the concepts of past, present, and future.

Finally, “…all of us who live have experience of being alive” and recognize it as such, as distinct from being dead, which we know we are not (like Granpa, or tonight’s dinner).

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b9n10t 06.24.09 at 10:41 pm

The experience of wanting and aversion are universal.

Sorry.

All cognitively functional humans know what it is to want and not want, what living and dead are, and what time is.

37

Abelard (AKA BROCK BOWDEN) 06.24.09 at 10:46 pm

@Chris: “However, it’s not clear to me that Theory, let alone lit-crit, does want to make truth claims, credible or otherwise. (It seems to me that Theory isn’t really supposed to be clear, to me or anyone else, which explains part of this.)”

caution: really long, only read if you are tremendously bored

Well while I cannot speak for “Theory” I can write a few words about Derrida. But to understand or know anything about Derrida, one must go back or take a detour to Plato, specifically the texts of Theaetetus and the Cratylus. It is in the Theaetetus that Plato acknowledges in a famous passage that if one should summon all the great poets and all the great philosophers (Heraclitus, Protogoras, Homer, Epicharmus [and one other I believe, which I cant remember]) which he (or, more accurately, his English translator) names the Generals of Becoming, they would all agree on the notion that there is no (objective) truth or knowledge and that the world is in constant flux (im wildly paraphrasing here). It is in fact philosophic tradition to be aligned with such a notion, and Plato is here philosophically radical in his arguments _for_ truth and objective knowledge.

Enter Nietzsche (a wonderful blend and repositing of epistemic incredulity and classical aristocratic morality) and then Derrida, and what you have is not radical, abstruse philosophy but philosophy as it usually is.

Now after a proper detour to appease the deceased Derrida, I might write a few words about his technique.

When one compares the method of philosophers such as Descates’ “all is to be doubted” or Nietzsche’s approach (I approach problems like a cold bath: quickly in and quickly out), Derrida is one of the most careful and meticulous of the whole lot, and is likely only excelled in his care by Plato’s lacerating dialectics. (This is a scholarly virtue in my opinion, not so much a philosophical one however.) Derrida spends a great deal of effort to plainly explain his “method” most notably in Of Grammatology, but also in Margins of Philosophy. Much of the work in “differance” and in “dissemination” and grammatology deal with the issue of translating one word so that its variegated sense is not hopelessly lost in translation, or is a scholastic rumination of the problem posed by such language–so he is actually seeking a strategy to better understand or comprehend texts (for example, the word pharmakon, from dissemination, means both remedy and poison, and “supplement” from grammatology, means both replace and substitute).

Deconstruction is not some angst ridden hate of science or some esoteric philosophical tool to bring down Western Civilisation at the hands of postcolonial gender studies diversity kidz, but a highly sophisticated scholarly tool. Derrida’s deconstruction is focused on “interpretating interpretations” and _creating_ new interpretations of philosophical texts by organizing readings around a blindspot within the text; so instead of conducting a traditional english phd critique of a work, derrida will choose to examine binary oppositions that already exist within the text and conduct a critique from such a corner or crease in the text, which _produces_ an interesting interpretation of a philosophical, literary, or scholarly work. Nothing pernicious. Regarding his excessive style, I call it hyperscholarship—it is hypertechnical. But most scholarship is quite full of jargon. Truly, Plato, Dante, Petrarch, Shakespeare, Ovid etc are equally abstruse (and much more baleful than Derrida) since they simply wrap their ideas in literary honey to soften up the philosophic wine for the uninitiated. One can get confused and foolishly toil away in philosophy and poetry, ultimately ending up wasting a life and not being able to produce or grasp a single profound thought or statement, while Derrida boldly deters the wannabe-z.

Derrida certainly questions the notion and valorization of clarity (a project begun with Nietzsche, not Derrida) but if one is familiar with the texts that Derrida is reading or conducting an “affirmative interpretation” or “critical production” of, Derrida is hugely quotidian. Ironically, Derrida’s statements have the most (comic) value when he is more gnomic and esoteric than when one is familiar with not only his deconstructions, but the texts which are being deconstructed. As a scholar, Derrida is a tremendous success; as a philosopher, he is an utter failure. What Derrida is best for, is bewildering degoutant bourgeois and hidebound anglo-philosophers who are shocked by statements like “one word can mean more than one thing and can mean many different (and even infinite) things based on context” (this statement comprises AT LEAST 60% of Derrida’s work.)

Said another way, to Homer, Nietzsche, Plato, and Shakespeare Derrida is not shocking at all but stating the obvious; to Husserl and Analytical Philosophers (really should just be called scholars of philosophical journalists) he is RADICAL AND RUINING THE CLEAN THINKING OF “ZUUMFG IM SO DURNK RITE NOW TWITTER” college y00th.

Regarding “truth statements” please remember that Callicles told Socrates, “You dont always say when you mean, either, Socrates.” =)

Philosophy has long flirted with lies, in fact, to be a true philosopher, one must also be a sophist. This is really not all that radical though, just shocking to “scholars” holed up doing mundane journalism on some problem between Kant and Hegel or the like.

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Bloix 06.24.09 at 10:49 pm

Jeff #23 – I don’t know why this is so hard, but let’s take it slowly. Deresiewicz talks about “disappearing students” as if this is a well-known fact. Michael points out that students are not disappearing – to the contrary, the number of BA’s is stable and the number of PhD’s is up. Epicurean Dealmaker says the number of BA’s as a percentage of total grads is down (how this supports the claim that students are “disappearing” is unclear, unless “disappearing” is a synonym for “not growing.”) I point out that the growth in BA’s is in business not in liberal arts. Jake observes that stability in the number of English BA’s means that the percentage of BA’s in the total population is down. I point out that for a solid ten years the number of English BA’s has been growing – 10% over the decade. Jeff says that over twenty years 10% growth means the percentage as compared to the total population is down.

Ok, that’s true. But the point is that English majors are NOT DISAPPEARING. There are more of them now than there were ten years ago!! And the trend line has been up for a decade!! So however you want to slice and dice the statistics, you can’t escape the conclusion that Deresiewicz is wrong. Which is where we started and perhaps where we can end.

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Bloix 06.24.09 at 10:56 pm

Desire and aversion are not things that we know about an objective world. There is no agreement at all among human beings about what it means to be alive and to be dead, or even what kinds of creatures or entities can partake of those states of being. Many human beings have concluded that time is a trick of perception, and not an attribute of the objective world at all.

40

Clarka 06.24.09 at 10:57 pm

@ 24, @ 17, and most especially @ 13:

I’m sorry, did I miss it when someone established that we all share a universal and reliable “common sense” or “intuition”?

Was it, by chance, an evolutionary psychologist?

My understanding was that “common sense” was what we call the set of basic assumption an individual uses in day-to-day interactions with the world, a set of assumptions which vary widely from person to person (let alone across cultures). And this belongs in a list with mathematical rigor and falsifiable experiment?

I certainly can’t supply Theory’s Answer to Falsifiable Experiment, but it strikes me that if you take an assumption, expose it to something about the universe it can’t account for, replace with an assumption that works, rinse, and repeat, you can come up with something worth listening to, even if you can’t put it in a test tube.

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Righteous Bubba 06.24.09 at 10:58 pm

b9n10t

Beniot?

42

onymous 06.24.09 at 11:08 pm

Well, if you’re at all curious about the beast, you can go here (a blog run by the National Humanities Center) where Joseph Carroll is expounding on the adaptive value of literature.

The first word is “evolutionists”, a word that seems to be almost solely used by creationists, which disinclines me to read further. Is that unfair?

43

b9n10t 06.24.09 at 11:12 pm

Bloix:

What cognitively functional human being, do you know, lives without desire and aversion? There exist, I believe (but do no know) homologous brain structures that are uniformly implicated in differentiating afferent nervous signal as pleasurable and painful (the pons of the brain stem, if I recall, but I’d have to look it up).

I’m not saying what it “means” to be alive. Every culture distinguishes living from dead, and know that they are alive and that Grandpa is dead. As for what it means, or a “superstructure” of beliefs that envelope this objective knowledge, that’s different from what I’m saying.

Time may be a trick of perception, but it is a universal trick.

44

The obvious 06.24.09 at 11:37 pm

“When an acquaintance greets me on the street by lifting his hat, what I see from a formal point of view is nothing but the change of certain details within a configuration forming part of the general pattern of color, lines and volumes which constitutes my world of vision. When I identify, as I automatically do, this configuration as an object (gentleman), and the change of detail as an event (hatlifting), I have already overstepped the limits of purely formal perception and entered a first sphere of subject matter or meaning. The meaning thus perceived is of an elementary and easily understandable nature. and we shall call it the factual meaning; it is apprehended by simply identifying certain visible forms with certain objects known to me from practical experience and by identifying the change in their relations with certain action or events

Now the objects and events thus identified will naturally produce a certain reaction within myself. From the way my acquaintance performs his action I may be able to sense whether he is in a good or bad humor and whether his feelings towards me are indifferent, friendly or hostile. These psychological nuances will invest the gestures of my acquaintance with a further meaning which we shall call expressional. It differs from the factual one in that it is apprehended. not by simple identification, but by “empathy. To understand it, I need a certain sensitivity, but this sensitivity is still part of my practical experience that is, of my everyday familiarity with objects and events. Therefore both the factual and the expressional meaning may be classified together: they constitute the class of primary or natural meanings.
…And finally: besides constituting a natural event in space and time, naturally indicating moods or feelings, besides conveying a conventional greeting the action of my acquaintance can reveal to an experienced observer all that goes to make up his “personality.” This personality is conditioned by his being a man of the twentieth century, by his national. social and educational background by the previous history of his life and by his present surroundings but it is also distinguished by an individual manner of viewing things and reacting to the world which, if rationalized, would have to be called a philosophy. In the isolated action of a polite greeting all these factors do not manifest themselves comprehensively, but nevertheless symptomatically. We could not construct a mental portrait of the man on the bets of this single action. but only by coordinating a large number of similar observations and by interpreting them in connection with our general information as to his period. nationality, class. intellectual traditions and so forth. Yet all the qualities which this mental portrait would show explicitly are implicitly inherent in every single action; so that. conversely every single action can be interpreted in the light of those qualities.”
Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology.

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The futility of commenting 06.24.09 at 11:55 pm

There’s no hard line between the intellectual and the esthetic.

And the problem with theory, in the humanities, philosophy, linguistics, etc and economics of the sort that disdains empiricism is just that: it disdains empiricism.
The arts are empirical. They are an objective description of one’s own desires .
That’s why the best works of art are those that describe actions, responses, emotions and desires that the reader might never think to have, but that in the reading or viewing he now understands. Art is the opposite of preaching to the converted. It’s communicating to the other… if largely the other within one’s own group.

“When an acquaintance greets me on the street by lifting his hat, what I see from a formal point of view is nothing but the change of certain details within a configuration forming part of the general pattern of color, lines and volumes which constitutes my world of vision. When I identify, as I automatically do, this configuration as an object (gentleman), and the change of detail as an event (hatlifting), I have already overstepped the limits of purely formal perception and entered a first sphere of subject matter or meaning. The meaning thus perceived is of an elementary and easily understandable nature. and we shall call it the factual meaning; it is apprehended by simply identifying certain visible forms with certain objects known to me from practical experience and by identifying the change in their relations with certain action or events

Now the objects and events thus identified will naturally produce a certain reaction within myself. From the way my acquaintance performs his action I may be able to sense whether he is in a good or bad humor and whether his feelings towards me are indifferent, friendly or hostile. These psychological nuances will invest the gestures of my acquaintance with a further meaning which we shall call expressional. It differs from the factual one in that it is apprehended. not by simple identification, but by “empathy. To understand it, I need a certain sensitivity, but this sensitivity is still part of my practical experience that is, of my everyday familiarity with objects and events. Therefore both the factual and the expressional meaning may be classified together: they constitute the class of primary or natural meanings…

And finally: besides constituting a natural event in space and time, naturally indicating moods or feelings, besides conveying a conventional greeting the action of my acquaintance can reveal to an experienced observer all that goes to make up his “personality.” This personality is conditioned by his being a man of the twentieth century, by his national. social and educational background by the previous history of his life and by his present surroundings but it is also distinguished by an individual manner of viewing things and reacting to the world which, if rationalized, would have to be called a philosophy. In the isolated action of a polite greeting all these factors do not manifest themselves comprehensively, but nevertheless symptomatically. We could not construct a mental portrait of the man on the bets of this single action. but only by coordinating a large number of similar observations and by interpreting them in connection with our general information as to his period. nationality, class. intellectual traditions and so forth. Yet all the qualities which this mental portrait would show explicitly are implicitly inherent in every single action; so that. conversely every single action can be interpreted in the light of those qualities.”
Erwin Panofsky Studies in Iconology

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John 06.25.09 at 12:02 am

Interesting post. Literary studies talking about Foucault led it to interdisciplinary transactions with philosophy, history and social sciences. This does not put it any closer to common sense–in fact it may show the entire alienation of higher ed from common sense. This will only make funding, enrollment, etc. even more difficult. Higher ed has no defense for itself–except that which works for society–pragmatism and technocratism. Why are literary studies good? Why are they worthwhile?

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Michael Bérubé 06.25.09 at 12:31 am

The Epicurean Dealmaker @ 12: Not to get all “numerist” on you, Michael, but you really do need to pay attention to more than absolute numbers when you analyze a time series of aggregate data.

Indeed. Actually, even though English has declined to 3.62% of all undergraduate B.A.s, we’re still ahead of that 3.50% trough in 1980, and the point remains that enrollments went up as a percentage of all degrees earned in the 1990s, over the 4.5% mark, back when Theory was driving students away.

Longer-term standard of comparison: in 1950, English accounted for 3.99% of all B.A.s. You can call us the Four Percenters.

As for graduate enrollments, surely you realize I have two really easy replies here. One, we actually did increase the number of PhDs in relative terms for a while there — to 13 percent of all degrees in 2002. In 2007 we slipped back to our usual 10 percent. And again, if enrollments have held steady for twenty years in graduate programs even despite the fact that everyone knows how bad the job market is for humanities PhDs, then you really can’t say “students are disappearing.” Not that this stops anyone from saying just that, of course.

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Walt 06.25.09 at 12:57 am

You’re a funny man, Berube. That’s why I’m going to kill you last.

If you’re not a professional philosopher and you get into an argument about epistemology, then you’ve fucked up. Theory people let themselves get sucked into these Pilate-esque arguments about the nature of objective truth when they should respond by saying “Who do I look like, Kant? If you want to know whether water tastes like Pepsi on Earth 2, the philosophy department is down the hall and to the left.”

Whether or not there’s such a thing as objective truth in some realms of knowledge is independent of the subject matter of Theory, since Theory is about (among other things) the construction of the appearance of objective truth in those areas where such truth is hard to come by, such as literature and history. It doesn’t require any strong commitment to the impossibility of objective truth in general.

49

John Holbo 06.25.09 at 1:02 am

From the post: “But as for “objective knowledge”—my stars! What is this thing called “objective knowledge”? Can you explain it for me? Can you give me an example of it? (And don’t give me an example of a brute fact, like “carbon is the sixth element in the periodic table.” Give me an example of something that humans know objectively, independently of their sense impressions, beliefs, etc.”

OK, I’m going to ask a snarky question about this, but I’m serious, because I’ve seen the demand laid down in more or less these precise terms in several places over the years and it just seems to me odd and off. To a (realism-inclined) philosopher there are objective facts (carbon is the sixth element in the periodic table is a good candidate, but it’s a bit confusing because it’s clearly a social fact. The statement of the fact itself directly references a human construction. Maybe 2 + 2 = 4 does, too, but not as obviously. But let it pass.) And there is knowledge of objective facts. That is, justified true belief about what the facts are. There is obviously no such thing as knowledge that is independent of all belief, because knowledge just is a belief. So why would a realist ever think you could have knowledge without belief?

Like I said: I suspect there is some story about where this ‘realism demands the separation of knowledge and belief’ story is coming from. Something in Rorty? Derrida? Fish? (I know I’ve seen this demand from Knapp and Michaels.) I suspect it is properly targeted at a specific, unusually strong brand of realism. Something more Platonic or Hegelian, according to which knowledge – to be knowledge at all – must be absolute and omni-comprehensive. You don’t know anything until you know everything and have, what’s more, pulled yourself by your own ponytail out of the muck of being an agent whose personal view is not the View From Nowhere. But it should be obvious that you can believe in the possiblity of objective knowledge without buying all THAT.

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Walt 06.25.09 at 1:20 am

The fact that John just weighed on the “objective fact” question proves me right on all points, Michael, even points you haven’t made yet. For example, the next Stanley Cup will be won by the Phoenix Coyotes after they first move to Mexico City as Gary Bettman admits he just hates the cold and anyone who lives in the cold. If you try to disagree with me, your very own argument will make it happen.

51

Michael Bérubé 06.25.09 at 1:54 am

Sigh, and double sigh. I forgot about Matt @ 10, and now I’ve got Walt @ 48 and, even more menacingly, Holbo @ 49. Walt first, because he promised to kill me last:

If you want to know whether water tastes like Pepsi on Earth 2, the philosophy department is down the hall and to the left.

That’s one of the reasons I loved Richard Rorty in debates with his fellow philosophers. He would simply say, “if you want to know whether water tastes like Pepsi on Earth 2, I don’t think it’s a very interesting question” — shrug of shoulders — “but the philosophy department I left is down the hall.”

Holbo @ 48: see, Walt knows I picked the Penguins over the Red Wings in 7, and he knows that I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist those exasperated questions of mine. All I was trying to say — honestly! — was that Deresiewicz’s invocation of “objective knowledge” is very fuzzy. Or, as Matt put it way upthread, “I think this whole way of putting the point is a bit confused.”

Now, it’s true (back to the grains of truth) that lots of people come out of Theory Camp saying, “there is no objective anything of any kind, and people who say otherwise are stalkinghorses for Enlightenment imperialism, etc.” I think that’s what Deresiewicz meant to criticize. But “objective knowledge” is just a hopeless phrase.

There’s an important question lurking here, though, and it has to do with the limits of social constructionism. But since I see Janet getting out the shovel for the quicklime, I’ll just say that disability and the medical humanities are really, really interesting interdisciplinary places to be asking questions about the limits of social constructionism. Never mind that periodic table: is Down syndrome, or autism, or asthma, a social or a biological fact? The correct answer, so far, appears to be yes.

John-not-Holbo @ 46: Why are literary studies good? Why are they worthwhile?

Because they expand our intellectual and emotional repertoire. By acquainting us with some of what the most talented writers among our fellow humans have thought and felt, they give us a richer language in which to think and feel (and in Poststructuralistland, language expresses you!). In studying literature and the humanities, people try to come to terms with some of the most imaginative and intellectually challenging texts humans have written, from the Oresteia to the Critique of Judgment to the novels of J. M. Coetzee. To the question, but is it useful to get acquainted with imaginative and intellectually challenging texts, we can probably only answer “maybe — it depends on whether you think a life that includes acquaintance with imaginative and intellectually challenging texts is better than a life that doesn’t, assuming, of course, that you have the choice of which life to lead.” Examined life, nothing human is alien to me — you know, that sort of thing.

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John Holbo 06.25.09 at 2:15 am

“But “objective knowledge” is just a hopeless phrase.” That does not sound quite the same as “I think this whole way of putting the point is a bit confused.” Where’s the confusion, exactly? And where’s the hopelessness, more specifically.

Is it hopeless because it’s so obvious that all knowledge is objective that it’s redundant, but in an irritatingly self-important way? (Yes, but MY cat is a mammal! But MY knowledge is objective knowledge.) Or is it hopeless because it’s obvious that no knowledge is objective so it’s a kind of oxymoron? (Nothing is REALLY objective, so putting the term in there is inherently misleading.) Or am I missing it and it’s something else entirely?

I’m not sure I have a use for ‘objective knowledge’ myself but I really don’t see what the special problem is. I can imagine possible uses for this term, I guess. What exactly is the problem supposed to be?

53

Walt 06.25.09 at 2:17 am

But that’s why making strong claims about “objective knowledge” is such an unfortunate argumentative strategy, since while what you have in mind is the epistemological status of autism, everyone else has in mind the epistemological status of carbon. What Theory is good for is pointing out the mechanisms by which people occlude the distinction between the two cases.

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John Holbo 06.25.09 at 2:29 am

“what you have in mind is the epistemological status of autism, everyone else has in mind the epistemological status of carbon.”

Walt, you seem to be making very strong assumptions about the very strong assumptions those who use ‘objective knowledge’ must be making. (They are so strong that I am having trouble seeing them in the distance? What are they, exactly?) And when you’ve answered that: why would Theory be particularly good at clearing up this alleged problem?

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Walt 06.25.09 at 3:01 am

I’m making a claim about how certain arguments tend to go. Someone will have in mind some specific way in which the notion of “objective truth” is used as propaganda, and say something dismissive about the whole concept. Everyone else will immediately think of some counterexample that’s either a concrete experience, or something out of science or mathematics. For example, in this thread, people have brought up examples like thunderclaps, the color blue, or the periodic table. Cracking open your copy of Discipline and Punish will do very little to illuminate the meaning of “blue”.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that I don’t understand your question. What strong assumptions am I implicitly making?

56

Gene O'Grady 06.25.09 at 3:04 am

Since my amorphous career path since leaving academia thirty years ago has in fact involved a considerable period working with plumbers, sheet metal workers, electricians, and such like very talented people, I thought I should say that contrary to what seems to be hinted above my humanities training was a big help in my interaction with plumbers, etc. In fact, I was far better able to deal with them than people with degrees in business or human resources or that sort of stuff.

57

John Holbo 06.25.09 at 3:22 am

I guess I’m just wondering why someone would mistake carbon for autism, and why we would need Theory to sort it out. But, at any rate, your point seems to be that ‘objective truth’ gets used in lots of ways. I’m willing to sign on with that much at least. I can restate my concern in these terms: ‘objective truth’ no doubt has multifarious employments, including pernicious ones. But why is Michael so sure it doesn’t have some perfectly innocuous or positive uses? (It can’t just be that there are also pernicious uses. Every remotely philosophical term has picked up lots of those along the way.)

To be quite concrete about it. The usage that strikes Michael as hopeless in the passage strikes me as perfectly fine. “Theory, which tends toward dogmatism, hermeticism, hero worship and the suppression of doctrinal deviation—not exactly the highest of mental virtues—rejects the possibility of objective knowledge.” I think it’s basically right that (a lot of) Theory tends to reject the possibility of objective knowledge, for certain plausibly central values of ‘objective knowledge’. Now we would need to spell out what that means, but let’s just say it’s sorta kinda Protagorean. ‘Man is the measure of all things’. There is something fundamental subjective (distorting, ideological, perspectival) about all beliefs, hence it is wrong to regard man as the sort of creature who ever REALLY knows anything, or knows it objectively. What we call ‘knowledge’ is really something less than realists have supposed they could attain, objectivity-wise.

Now there are three ways D. could be wrong to make this claim. 1) It isn’t true that Theory tends to take this line. 2) Theory does tend to take this line but, pace D., Theory is obviously right to do so. 3) Theory does tend to take this line but, pace D., it isn’t obviously wrong to do so. That is, D. is too quick to dismiss the whole class of anti-realist/Protagorean/subjectivist philosophical views, on behalf of the more realist views. I guess I could sign on to 3. But, in context, D. doesn’t seem to me to be being so intolerably quick about it all. And it sounds to me as though Michael wants to say 2). I don’t buy that at all, so I’m wondering whether he does.

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Bill Benzon 06.25.09 at 3:27 am

onymous@42

The first word is “evolutionists”, a word that seems to be almost solely used by creationists, which disinclines me to read further. Is that unfair?

Well, Carroll is not a creationist, nor is anyone else in that discussion (including me). But I’m not sure what you’re driving at asking whether or not you’re lack of interest is unfair. I don’t think there is much profound thinking going on there, not yet. But if and when some profound thinking happens in that arena, I doubt that Deresiewicz, for example, will be interested or could even distinguish it from the current superficial discussions.

59

John Holbo 06.25.09 at 3:39 am

Let me slightly abbreviate my concern: what D. seems to be saying is that the problem with Theory is that it finds a certain class of anti-realist/perspectivist/Protagorean philosophies to be obviously correct, to the point of not really considering alternatives. This is what he means when he complains about ‘dogmatism’ about Theory (I suspect). It sounds to me as though Michael wants to bite the bullet and say: yes, the alternatives are obviously hopeless, as emblematized by the hopelessness of ‘objective knowledge’, so we are right not to consider them. D. is just philosophically benighted on this point. But I’m not actually sure that’s Michael’s point. So I’ll wait for him to say whether it is.

60

Bill Benzon 06.25.09 at 3:46 am

Bérubé@51: This, I suppose, is a digression, but . . .

Never mind that periodic table: is Down syndrome, or autism, or asthma, a social or a biological fact? The correct answer, so far, appears to be yes.

Add ADHD & ADD to the list. Perhaps dyslexia too. Last time I checked it was one of those “spectrum” disorders – diffuse constellations of symtoms that don’t always occur together and don’t all have to be present for the diagnosis to be “yes” and that may be severe or not so severe, depending. But there does seem to be something biological in there. What I want to know is this: In a world without writing, would that something have any negative behavioral effects?

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Adam 06.25.09 at 4:00 am

Once more on common sense, @30. I don’t mean to uphold the supremacy of common sense, or pronounce on its reliability, or make any claims about its epistemological value; I’m just trying to reconstruct a complaint that Deresiewicz has against Theory, and here’s how I see it going: both scientists and Theorists sometimes make prima facie implausible claims, but the scientists can do something Theorists can’t—anchor the reasoning that leads to those claims in common sense or observation. The idea is that, given some scientific claim, the scientist can explain to the curious layperson the warrant for holding that claim true, ultimately grounding out at things like “look what happened when we fired those electrons just now.”

Simplistic picture of scientific justification, yes. But it’s a way of picturing how science is connected to observation, and commonsense claims like “observation of middle-sized objects is generally reliable.” The way I reconstruct Deresiewicz, he thinks no such connection obtains w/Theory. The claim that this lack of connection is a bad thing doesn’t depend on the epistemological sanctity of common sense; it only assumes that some connection to common sense is better than none.

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John Holbo 06.25.09 at 4:06 am

Adam, I think that’s exactly right.

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David 06.25.09 at 4:11 am

@22, Marcel: “Deresiewicz has obviously spent no (as in absolute zero) time around economics departments or economists.” Economics and economists in general is long past paying any heed to someone who could actually write like John Kenneth Galbraith. This is a discipline that is simply oblivious, among many things, to the idea of good writing. Much less the actual production of said. Deresiewicz’s point is surely that only in an English department would you see serious theorizing defending bad writing and attacking good writing (oppressive and offensive, you know).

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b9n10t 06.25.09 at 4:14 am

I would define objective knowledge as: that which every cognitively functioning human knows because:

a) the knowledge is correct: the thing known really does exist and

b) it is known for biologically predetermined reasons.

Knowing self from other, for instance. Every human being has the experience of knowing “me” and “not me”. This is true: whatever “you” are, “you” are certainly not that rock, or him . We know this because knowing anything is an act that is accomplished by a nervous system, and nervous systems do not create consciousness across organisms, only within them.

So, knowledge of self and other is objective knowledge. By this reasoning, several things are known objectively: living from not living, desire from aversion (relatedly, pleasure from pain), food from not-food, past from present and both of these from future.

This knowledge is something akin to instinct. Whereas unconscious instinct in humans directs fight or flight responses, sexual desire, hunger and thirst, and the like, objective knowledge is simply the result of a healthy human being conscious.

To empirically invalidate this definition, one would have to produce a population of humans that did not use language to differentiate biological life from death, past from present and both from future (this would include having no concept for memory), self from other (no “I”, “you”, “him”), want from not-want.

If this is basic and tedious, pardon. I’m just doing my best to answer Berube’s question. If it is inconsistent, imperfect, or otherwise internally flawed, I’d like to know why.

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Chris Stephens 06.25.09 at 4:19 am

Need I mention that Karl Popper has a famous book called _Objective Knowledge_? Here is a definition he gives “Thus we may count among these characteristic products especially what is called ‘human knowledge’; where we take the word ‘knowledge’ in the objective or impersonal sense, in which it may be said to be contained in a book; or stored in a library; or taught in a university.”

At any rate, I agree with most of the post – literary Darwinism doesn’t look to promising, etc. An – if anything, MB’s ignorance about certain parts of philosophy suggest that it was philosophy, not Theory, that is separated from the rest of the Humanities (echoing M. Lamont, etc.).

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Ben Alpers 06.25.09 at 4:26 am

p.s., DD, P&P is the one with the wet trouser scene, S&S is the one where Emma Thompson cries and Kate Winslet falls over…

Which is the one with the zombies in it?

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john c. halasz 06.25.09 at 5:04 am

Oh, dear. I think the problem with “objective knowledge” is that it tends to generate a notion of “subjective knowledge”, as a privative deficient case. As in literature being “justified” by appeal to “subjectivity”. Shouldn’t “we” be beyond the dichotomy between subject and object by now? As if anything that couldn’t be captured in “objective” terms is thereby downgraded as merely “subjective”, as a privative condition, poor thing, which should thereby be allowed, due to dubious pity, “free” reign. Er, might it not be that the “subjective” is actually more “objectively” and substantively embedded in the socio-cultural institution of the “real” than that? And coincidentally, more subject to “objective” and estranged study than all that? Why should it be assumed that literary works would be reducible to subjective intentions, whether cognitive or expressive, which would be a controlling locus of interpretation, rather than operating trans-personally, as a socio-cultural “institution”, yielding “objective” expression, (regardless of whether that is attributed to “content” or “form”, which distinction itself misses the worldly “origin”, which would give rise to such works and their “otherness”)? But then also why would we need a form of “theory” to actually read and interpret literary works, in the first instance, rather than attending to such works themselves? Is it because such works must be adjudged cognitive “objects” or disintegrate and disappear from academic inquiry altogether? They must obviously have no other import, else the boundaries constitutive academic inquiry would disappear altogether.

As to “objective knowledge” itself, it’s not that the term is meaningless or anathema, but rather that there can be no securement of any referential claim “prior” to the framework in which such a cognitive claim can arise and be “justified”, (which, to revert to an older idiom, would render it possible “transcendentally”). It’s not as if there is no reality “out there” to be referred to, (though “reality” is itself a socio-cultural generalization of the realness of the real, which itself is not the entire dimension of what is to be sought for by inquiry or practice). It’s that, though within any cross-secting framework, then might be criteria for differentiating between the “true” and the “false” or the sheerly meaningless, or the just or the unjust, etc., there is no way of identifying any given, inherited or not, such framework with the real itself (or the true or the just, etc. ). Which does not per se disqualify any such framework, but which does raise the question, given the dependency of any such validity claim upon such a framework, of whether such a framework in which meaningful claims can be raised is itself subject to being adjudged “true or false”, “meaningful or meaningless”, and what the criteria for such extra-worldly judgments would be. If such criteria for judging frameworks as “true or false” are available, that invites an “infinite regress” objection, whereas, if there are no such appeals against such given criteria, that invites an infinite relativism objection. But in either case, “we” are dealing with a trans-personal socio-cultural “institution”, which can call into question its “own” estrangement.

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Walt 06.25.09 at 5:31 am

Theorists are professional theorists, but they are amateur epistemologists. They tend to make stronger anti-realist claims than they strictly need to make their points. So I suspect Michael would accept 2, but his professional commitments don’t require it. At the same time, the two sides of the argument don’t seem to even have the same examples in mind. You can see that in the original post where Michael dismisses an example as a “brute fact”.

As for your other question: what Theory illuminates is how what passes for true really functions to advance an agenda. I saw a good example in a sociology-versus-economics thread on another blog. Economics textbooks are fond of examples of “Robinson Crusoe economies”, an economy where a single person does all of the producing and consuming and saving. Economists are taught to think of this as a neutral illustrative example of the principles of economics, even though it contains a large amount of ideology in a small space. It reduces a complex social process to a single heroic individual. It elides all questions of distribution and of how market exchange actually occurs. But on the sociology-versus-economics thread, an economist held up Robinson Crusoe economies as an example of how economists’ capacity for clear thinking.

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John Holbo 06.25.09 at 5:34 am

“Oh, dear. I think the problem with “objective knowledge” is that it tends to generate a notion of “subjective knowledge”, as a privative deficient case.”

But suppose someone thinks there’s such a thing as objectivity and subjectivity, in some sense – quite apart from whether either is judged superior or inferior. (After all, some folks have thought the subjective stuff was better.) Are you saying the problem with the term is that it allows these thoughts to be expressed and explored. But couldn’t it be that some of these thoughts are worth thinking?

“Shouldn’t “we” be beyond the dichotomy between subject and object by now?”

Damn. Must have missed the memo. But I hope you are not going to tell me that the memo contained that thing in your second paragraph, which looks to me simply mistaken. (Not the philosophy as a whole. Yours is a familiar sort of anti-realist posture and quite possibly it has its good points.) But the idea that the use of the term ‘objective knowledge’ inherently requires some sort of dubious ‘outside the framework’ thingummy is totally unargued. (Unless you’ve got an argument.) Why does this term in particular necessarily get it’s foot stuck in some kind of infinite regress mud? More than, say, ‘cat’ or ‘electron’?

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b9n10t 06.25.09 at 5:45 am

john c halasz (#67)

“As to ‘objective knowledge’ itself, it’s not that the term is meaningless or anathema, but rather that there can be no securement of any referential claim ‘prior’ to the framework in which such a cognitive claim can arise and be ‘justified’.

But that isn’t a problem with “objective knowledge”, that’s a problem with every single concept. “Cheese” for instance. I could define cheese, and then things could or could not be cheese by that definition. Yet, why choose that definition?

So, your “oh, dear” isn’t a concern about “objective knowledge”, it’s about how we use language to imply a common understanding where, you say, one can’t exist beyond those who think it so.

So what can stop the infinite regression of priors? For language to speak truly, it must appeal to something beyond its capacity. What is true, and therefore do we consciously know to be true, without thinking it so? The best go of it is a regression to empiricism: a prediction of what we will sense in the natural world (which, of course, does exist “prior” to all this conceptualizing).

I agree with y0u, however, for all things not scientifically provable, your explanation of the problem with language is correct. We can not know what the objective meaning of a law is, or whether Ross Douthat is truly a “douchebag”. It just so happens, however, that knowledge is a natural phenomenon, not simply a conceit.

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magistra 06.25.09 at 5:47 am

I’m just trying to reconstruct a complaint that Deresiewicz has against Theory, and here’s how I see it going: both scientists and Theorists sometimes make prima facie implausible claims, but the scientists can do something Theorists can’t—-anchor the reasoning that leads to those claims in common sense or observation.

But you get a problem here of what you mean by Theory, and treating it as an undifferentiated block isn’t useful. For example, as a gender historian I work with ideas of social construction, and it’s deeply counter-intuitive that biological sex is socially constructed. And yet if you look at examples of how medical science treats intersex people, then it is the case that labelling someone with biological sex is not always consistently done, as Judith Butler among others has pointed out.

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b9n10t 06.25.09 at 6:18 am

magistra (#71)

No, no, no. As with many biological concepts that explain emergent phenomena (the sum appears different from the parts) sex is a matter of degree. Just as in water, where the difference between “wave” and “placid” breaks down because “wave” and “placid” are inexact summaries of molecular kinetics.

In this case, it is expected that language lose its ability to define the phenomena of sex when the parts that constitute the phenomena interact in a novel fashion. And yes, where the definition breaks down, the social determination of maleness or femaleness will be arbitrary but for those who do the determining.

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Adam 06.25.09 at 6:18 am

Hey, magistra, all the better. The use of ‘Theory’ to label One Undifferentiated Block in this thread is due to Deresiewicz—I’m just picking it up from him—and examples like yours show either that he’s wrong to think of Theory as one kind of thing, or that he’s wrong to think of it as a frictionless wheel.

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Adam 06.25.09 at 6:23 am

@b9n10t, 72: I took magistra to be pointing out that something reasonably within the realm of “Theory” is beholden to mundane observational data, just as empirical science is. This could be true whether or not the particular claim about biological sex (namely that it is socially constructed) is true.

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Bloix 06.25.09 at 7:08 am

“In studying literature and the humanities, people try to come to terms with some of the most imaginative and intellectually challenging texts humans have written,”

See, this is not an interesting or convincing answer. “Imaginative” and “challenging” are just words that signify approval. They don’t have any more content than “groovy” or “tight.”

Here is an answer.

We human beings experience the world through a limited sensory apparatus. And this sensory information that we receive inspires emotions in us. I see the smile on the face of my son as he wins a race and I am filled with joy, pride, and heartache.

Our sensory apparatus is pretty good at what it does, but it’s not perfect. It can easily be fooled. It has evolved to detect and distinguish between faces, and so it finds faces wherever it turns – in the moon, for example. It is able to read emotions very accurately depending on slight alterations in the muscles of those faces, and so it finds emotions in the faces of pandas and lizards.

We have learned this sensory apparatus can be fooled, and so we have become able to fool it intentionally. That is what art is – it is the manipulation of the material world in order to give rise to sensory impressions, for the purpose of inspiring emotional responses.

There are different levels of sophistication in the artifice used to create the emotional response. The Walmart happy face triggers an emotional response to a simulacrum of a smile, as does the Mona Lisa.

In literature we’ve discovered a way to stimulate sensory impressions thatpermits the creation of elaborate and extended artificial impressions, in a manner that simulates the patterns of human social life in certain ways and also has its own very different patterns and characteristics . These extended simulacrums of human experience are sought out by many people for the pleasure they give, and therefore they are worthy of study.

These are worthy of attention on many levels.

We can accept the stimulation as a given, ignore the characteristics of literature as such, and concentrate on the impressions and emotions that are created. We read Austin to understand English society in the Georgian period.

We can accept the stimulation as a given, and treat the novel as a way to extend our perceptions past the bounds of our own experience – even past the bounds of all actual experience. We read Austin to experience a fantasy of the lives of wealthy, witty people who are more interesting than we are and take more pleasure in life than we do.

We can study the methods used by the artist to create the impressions and emotions. We read Austin to understand the development of the techniques of the novel.

We can explore the patterns imposed on this method of artificial stimulation by the literary form itself, which therefore repeat in infinite variations among novelists.

We can compare the virtuousity of various authors and group and rank them according to their ability in producing convincing sensory impressions.

We can study how different readers react differently to the same stimulus – how Shakespeare is understood differently down the generations.

Etc.

Not all these require English departments. We don’t need professors in order to experience Austin as fantasy or moral exemplar. But some of the other aspects of literature do require professional attention.

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magistra 06.25.09 at 8:35 am

Adam,

You’re right, my general point was to show that Theory is often originally based on empirical observations. In fact, I’d go further and say that a lot of Theory in the humanities is based on frameworks that were originally seen as entirely ‘scientific’. Psychoanalysis was originally a science, Marxism was thought of as one, evolutionary psychology is a science that’s rapidly being discredited, etc. I think a number of ‘scientific’ theories that don’t continue being part of science (because they don’t hold up as universally true), can still remain useful to the humanities as tools for thinking with (like Marxist analysis in history) or locally true (like some of Foucault’s models of social structures). If some of the tools used in literature, etc are ‘broken’ science in this way, it’s not surprising either that humanists are particularly conscious of the fragility of scientific theories and reluctant to see them as eternally true.

BTW It’s odd that Deresiewicz uses a discussion of evolutionary psychology in literature to take a swipe at Theory as denying objective truth, since EP is precisely the kind of bogus claim to objective truth (about eternal and unchanging humanity) that needs Theory critiquing it very hard.

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novakant 06.25.09 at 10:13 am

but the scientists can do something Theorists can’t—-anchor the reasoning that leads to those claims in common sense or observation.

I always find it amusing, if slightly scary, when people argue as if the Vienna Circle had succeeded with its program and most of the work in the philosophy of science and language of the past century hadn’t consisted of trying to show the futility of such claims to objectivity. Furthermore, the literary theorists are connected to common sense and observation, the anchor being the text that is discussed and the judgment of the readers of both the original text and the theory that is supposed to make some sense of it. Of course, one can use any text to anchor any theory, but, as Eco has shown, there are de facto rather stringent limits to freewheeling interpretation and most theorists and readers are keenly aware of this.

Amusing factoid: “Belletristik” is used in German as the word to categorize “fiction”.

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John Holbo 06.25.09 at 11:04 am

“‘but the scientists can do something Theorists can’t—-anchor the reasoning that leads to those claims in common sense or observation.’

I always find it amusing, if slightly scary, when people argue as if the Vienna Circle had succeeded with its program and most of the work in the philosophy of science and language of the past century hadn’t consisted of trying to show the futility of such claims to objectivity.”

novakant, why would the failure of the Vienna Circle project show that scientists can’t anchor their claims in common sense and observation?

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Bill Benzon 06.25.09 at 11:08 am

BTW It’s odd that Deresiewicz uses a discussion of evolutionary psychology in literature to take a swipe at Theory as denying objective truth, . . .

Not so odd. His basic position is “a plague on both your houses, theory and literary Darwinism.” So he’s got to stand someplace else. That someplace else seems to be a commonsense notion of objective knowledge plus literary study as it was in, say, 1950.

As far as I can tell, Deresiewicz is not much of a (lowercase) theorist.

Note that the literary Darwinists see Theory as the Great Satan of literary study and they make a big deal out of Theory as denying objective truth and biology in favor of social constructivism. Having done that, they can then offer uninteresting practical criticism as Deep Truth (on this, see my longish critique of literary Darwinism).

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Adam 06.25.09 at 11:26 am

@novakant, 77: yikes! once again, I’m only trying to put some flesh on Deresiewicz’s claim that Theory’s being cut off from common sense is a bad thing. I ask myself: what could he mean, given that common sense is notoriously epistemically shaky? And I come up with what I expressed at #61. Articulating that idea doesn’t mean that I’m committed to moribund positivist doctrine.

@magistra, 76: if humanists recognize that psychoanalysis, et al. are broken science, what do they think these theories are useful for? Or to put it another way, you claim that humanists’ use of discredited theories makes them skeptical of truth-claims. But why wouldn’t they hold on to truth, and jettison apparently false theories?

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Bill Benzon 06.25.09 at 11:56 am

novakant:

… as Eco has shown, there are de facto rather stringent limits to freewheeling interpretation and most theorists and readers are keenly aware of this.

Where does Eco argue this?

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magistra 06.25.09 at 12:17 pm

Adam@80

I’d want to make a distinction between theory as predictive and theory as model/method. The search for scientific ‘laws’ about humanity (which are supposedly always everywhere true, like the laws of physics) has repeatedly failed, like Freud’s theories about how everybody’s mind worked, Marx’s about how society had to develop in particular ways, attempts to find universal rules of social structures, etc. But this doesn’t necessarily stop these ideas being useful as tools e.g. ‘let’s consider this historical situation in terms of class struggle’, or ‘let’s look at this story motif, which fits a pattern which Freud discussed’. And the use of these theories can allow you to think about the historical event or story or whatever in a different way. Foucault’s ideas about the connection of power and knowledge may not shed insights onto eighth century secular life, but if they do on sixth century monastic life, why not use them? (This is why I stress that many theories come from initial empirical observations, so they normally fit at least some situations).

What ‘proper’ science actually tells me about humanity, however, is not on the whole very useful to my work as a historian. Most studies of human psychology are of a particular culture, and so not necessarily transferable (which is why if EP results actually held up, they would be of interest). Stuff about human physiology, demography etc is useful background information, but not helpful for my crucial questions: Why did this happen the way it did? Could things have been different? Why did someone act this way?

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novakant 06.25.09 at 12:35 pm

Articulating that idea doesn’t mean that I’m committed to moribund positivist doctrine.

I didn’t read all the comments, but if it’s not your position, take it as a criticism of Deresiewicz. This misunderstanding could also serve as a good example for the limits of interpretation, since I misinterpreted your intention.

why would the failure of the Vienna Circle project show that scientists can’t anchor their claims in common sense and observation?

Because there is no straight line between the physical world, “observation” and “language” that would guarantee objectivity or validate truth claims. That doesn’t mean that there’s no connection at all, so if by “anchoring” you mean that there is some feedback between these realms, fair enough, but then that equally applies to literary theory in most cases. Also, common sense won’t get you very far in the sciences, since scientists tend to think of the “medium sized objects” that surround us as a bunch of particles whizzing around, which is rather counter intuitive to most people’s view of the world.

To provide some anecdotal data: while I was studying philosophy, I hung out with some PhD candidates in chemistry and whenever I was exasperated by what I perceived back then as the frivolity of relativism and holism, I tried to get them to validate some claims to objective truth for me – but to no avail. The only thing I got from them was some talk about predictability under controlled conditions that makes scientific models useful for very limited purposes. They refused to entertain any claims to objectivity and thought talk about “truth” was unscientific and useless. Granted, these guys were very intelligent and open-minded and one might get different answers from other scientists.

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Michael Bérubé 06.25.09 at 12:46 pm

It’s conference time, but I thought I’d check in to see where things have gone. Interesting places, mostly. Two quick responses: I’m glad to see that this thread has generated some objective knowledge about objective knowledge. All well and good, though I don’t see how this helps when it comes to the social construction of autism, ADHD, etc. But it wasn’t until Bill Benzon @ 79 responded to magistra @ 76 (whose last paragraph I like very much) that I got any answer as to why D. would endorse literary Darwinists’ appeal to objective truth in an essay that concludes by calling for a personal criticism that will not be universally valid, etc.

As for Theory and its relation to (or lack of relation to) observable empirical phenomena: this is generally directed to Holbo, but, of course, anyone can play. Are you telling me that when queer theorists pointed us to the emergence of the homo/hetero classification in the late nineteenth century, they were just making stuff up? Likewise wrt magistra’s point about intersex people @ 71? Or, wrt to de Man’s argument about the closing lines of “Among Schoolchildren,” are we going to pretend (as did David Lehman) that there really is no problem here, and that common sense tells us that Yeats clearly meant to say there is no way to tell the dancer from the dance? Or were Williams’ historicist etymologies in Keywords not sufficiently based in empirical realities of language use? (And don’t get me started on Williams’ relation to empiricism.)

It seems to me that the only place where the “Theory can’t prove stuff the way scientists can” objection makes sense is with psychoanalysis, because psychoanalysts haven’t yet discovered the enzyme responsible for projection or the specific region and mechanism of the brain that performs the condensation and displacement in the dreamwork. (And they won’t, either!) So it makes sense to me to see psychoanalysis the way Rorty did, as inventing another kind of language (and not a science) to describe ourselves. BTW, Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker is all about competing ways of describing bizarre things the brain does every waking and sleeping moment, which is one reason Deresiewicz was wrong to dismiss it (“like Powers’s other novels, it won’t tell you much about what its laboriously accumulated information and elaborately constructed concepts have to do with what it means to be alive at a particular time and place, or what it feels like. And that, crudely put, is what novels are for. “)

Note that D.’s last sentence reads a whole bunch of novels out of the mix, especially The Third Policeman, which merely tells us what it means to be dead at a particular time and place, and what it feels like.

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novakant 06.25.09 at 12:47 pm

Where does Eco argue this?

It’s been ages since I’ve read this, but Eco claims in some of <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Limits-Interpretation-Advances-Semiotics/dp/0253208696"these essays, that while unlimited semiosis is certainly a feature of language, it’s not a good model to base a theory of interpretation on, as there are pragmatic limits to the latter.

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novakant 06.25.09 at 12:50 pm

Where does Eco argue this?

Something strange going on with the html, another try:

It’s been ages since I’ve read this, but Eco claims in some of these essays (http://www.amazon.com/Limits-Interpretation-Advances-Semiotics/dp/0253208696), that while unlimited semiosis is certainly a feature of language, it’s not a good model to base a theory of interpretation on, as there are pragmatic limits to the latter.

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novakant 06.25.09 at 12:53 pm

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John Holbo 06.25.09 at 1:23 pm

Michael writes: “Are you telling me that when queer theorists pointed us to the emergence of the homo/hetero classification in the late nineteenth century, they were just making stuff up? Likewise wrt magistra’s point about intersex people @ 71? Or, wrt to de Man’s argument about the closing lines of “Among Schoolchildren,” are we going to pretend (as did David Lehman) that there really is no problem here, and that common sense tells us that Yeats clearly meant to say there is no way to tell the dancer from the dance?”

I’m not sure what all this has to do with my questions, Michael. Which is fine: but you say it is directed mostly at me, which has me scratching my head. I didn’t think I was talking about this at all. (I admit it: I thought about saying something, which probably would have put me in the target zone – but I would have fought my way out! But I bit my tongue because I’m genuinely more interested in the thing I asked about instead.)

I reiterate my question, which is a genuine one: is the ‘hopeless’ problem with ‘objective knowledge’ supposed to be that it is obvious that all knowledge is objective, so why get all redundant about it? Or is the problem supposed to be that no knowledge is truly objective, so adding the ‘objective’ can only serve to kick at least a little sand in our own eyes? Or something else?

I thought about proposing a possible use for ‘objective knowledge’, upstream, but then figured that would just muddy the waters with the specifics of whatever off-the-cuff thing I concocted. But then the Popper “Objective Knowledge” example came up, which I had totally forgotten about. And mine was going to be kind of like that. I guess I’m most interested in knowing exactly what form of realism is supposed to be the stalking horse here. Because I’ve got a sense it’s going to turn out to be a straw horse. That is, it will turn out that, in being warned off ‘objective knowledge’, we are being warned against a very strong realist view that probably no one even holds.

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John Holbo 06.25.09 at 1:27 pm

novakant “‘why would the failure of the Vienna Circle project show that scientists can’t anchor their claims in common sense and observation?’

Because there is no straight line between the physical world, “observation” and “language” that would guarantee objectivity or validate truth claims.”

But why would you assume that someone who merely said scientists anchor their claims in common sense and observation was asserting the contrary?

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novakant 06.25.09 at 1:58 pm

But why would you assume that someone who merely said scientists anchor their claims in common sense and observation was asserting the contrary?

Hmm, because otherwise the metaphor of “anchoring” something in something else doesn’t make much sense and is useless for contrasting science with “theory”.

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Bill Benzon 06.25.09 at 2:10 pm

novakant: Thanks.

Michael: Continuing on. To a first approximation, literary Darwinism (LitD) is literary studies c. 1950 (lit1950) PLUS evolutionary psychology (EP).* And as I’ve suggested, Deresiewicz (Dewz) seems to be advocating lit1950 PLUS commonsense objectivity (obj). So we’ve got:

LitD = lit1950 + EP

Dewz = lit1950 + obj

In an effort to further differentiate his position from litD Deresiewicz adds in a term for belletristic good writing (gudwrit), to give us:

LitD = lit1950 + EP – gudwrit

Dewz = lit1950 + obj + gudwrit

*The best way to see this is to look to their practical criticism (e.g. Joseph Carroll on Pride and Prejudice (downloadable PDF)), which reads like fairly traditional humanist criticism where the terms of folk psychology have been swapped for terms from evolutionary psychology – which is more or less an observation Steven Pinker made in a review of The Literary Animal (downloadable PDF) that he published in Philosophy and Literature (the house organ of literary Darwinism). Pinker’s review is well worth reading as it is a very diplomatic exercise; roughly speaking, he says it’s a good first effort but there are problems.

So, when you romp through Brian Boyd, Michael, pay close attention to what he does with the Odyssey and with Horton Hears a Who, which make up the second half of the book. How much does his practical criticism criticism owe to the (often interesting) psychology in the first half of the book and how much of it is standard-issue lit crit before Hopkins 1966?

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Walt 06.25.09 at 2:19 pm

John, Michael’s examples illustrate my point much better than my example does. Theorists think of something like “homosexuality” as the paradigmatic example of what passes for “objective truth”. Since homosexuality is socially constructed, that shows that the whole idea of objective truth is problematic. The other side of the argument has in mind questions like “What did I have for lunch?” as the paradigmatic example of “objective truth”, which is much harder to argue as problematic.

What Theory is good for is the analysis of how ideas that are not objective get turned into “objective truths” in the minds of people. What it’s not good for is as a way of producing a general theory of truth.

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Matt 06.25.09 at 2:29 pm

Since homosexuality is socially constructed, that shows that the whole idea of objective truth is problematic.

Why would the fact that people were wrong about the nature of homosexuality (assuming they were), show that “the whole idea of objective truth is problematic”? That certainly doesn’t follow. (In most cases being able to get something wrong implies that there’s something to get right, too, after all.) Like John, I think that any action here is going to depend attributing to one side a set of views about realism and foundationalism that, at best, are minority views today. (There also seems to be a pretty fair amount of mixing epistemology and ontology here- always a dangerous business.)

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mds 06.25.09 at 2:36 pm

but the scientists can do something Theorists can’t—-anchor the reasoning that leads to those claims in common sense or observation.

But many scientific theorists don’t, at least in a completely distinctive way. Given the realms in which modern science works, common sense is not often an acceptable criterion, except in a trivial way (Occam’s Razor and the like). And observation has become a trickier proposition, either because the theories have moved into virtually inaccessible scales of energy and / or size, or because the systems in question are messy and complicated. Plus, in many disciplines observation is left up to the experimentalists, leaving theorists with their beautiful minds untroubled. It’s sometimes reassuring for us to think that we’re simply rigorously testing hypotheses to converge on ironclad conclusions, but this doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, the theories must impinge in some way upon the “real world,” and offer explanations for observed phenomena, but honestly, Theory seems to do that a little bit too. And I say that as someone who as a callow youth laughed along with Sokal.

The only thing I got from them was some talk about predictability under controlled conditions that makes scientific models useful for very limited purposes. They refused to entertain any claims to objectivity and thought talk about “truth” was unscientific and useless.

This was not a unique occurrence. My old biophysics department would hold “brown bag lunches” with various invited speakers and a great deal of discussion. One speaker was from the philosophy department, and was the only person in the room asserting the existence of unquestionably true things. All the physicists in the room insisted on taking the tack you describe. I don’t know if it’s a backlash from grandiose reductionist claims of an earlier era, or just an awareness of the limitations of science from long-time practicioners, but I still find it funny how the battle lines were drawn that day.

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John Holbo 06.25.09 at 2:52 pm

“Hmm, because otherwise the metaphor of “anchoring” something in something else doesn’t make much sense and is useless for contrasting science with “theory”.”

Sorry, I just don’t see the problem here. I guess I’m thinking like J.L. Austin when he said that, should the correspondence theory of truth come to terrible grief and destruction, ‘this statement corresponds to the facts’ would go on being ok English, not some sort of metaphysical error. (Do you disagree?) Likewise, ‘science anchors us to the world’ isn’t a theory, let alone a bad theory. It’s at best a placeholder awaiting an account of whatever it is that science does. It is hardly likely that science will turn out NOT to be connected up with the world in some sense.

There is a larger question here – which is getting a bit heated up – about whether Theorists are empirically-minded. I guess I take it to be fairly obvious that the things that Theorists say, that matter most to them, couldn’t be empirically proven. They are allegedly conceptual truths about the nature of thought and concepts, or philosophical insights. Foucault and Butler and co. have empirical stuff they are talking about, and it’s important to them. But I don’t really think it would be right to say that the empirical stuff is the (sufficient, or even close to sufficient) evidence for what they say. Mostly. (I find this fairly evident but I don’t ask you to take it from me.)

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Salient 06.25.09 at 2:59 pm

I’m glad to see that this thread has generated some objective knowledge about objective knowledge. All well and good, though I don’t see how this helps when it comes to the social construction of autism, ADHD, etc.

As someone who plans to spend my professional life trafficking in objective knowledge, let me add: If all we did was traffic in objective knowledge, (1) we wouldn’t know how to determine what objective knowledge is worth our trafficking in, and (2) we wouldn’t know who “we” are.

The word ‘we’ couldn’t even mean ‘all humans past, present, and future,’ because the definition of what constitutes a human being is not objective knowledge. Go go gadget Darwin: if-when our species evolves to the point where their sperm/eggs couldn’t produce viable offspring with current day sperm/eggs, are they no longer we?

Probably an obvious point. I think it’s harmonious with what John H. has been implying upthread. I suppose it also deflates the general “stick to what’s objective” argument that nobody’s been making (see also Terry Eagleton’s point about allegedly objective knowledge reflecting value-judgments, e.g. feeling it’s valuable to know the origin dates of buildings).

Speaking of which, it’s been fun, in a pleasant nonsnarky way, to see Michael “Theory’s apology” Bérubé agreeing in the main with old Terry “Theory’s obituary” Eagleton. (I’d say the former book was a perfect sequel to the latter, but that might sound like a backhanded statement instead of the sincere compliment I mean it to be)

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b9n10t 06.25.09 at 3:50 pm

Walt @92: Perfect.

mds @94:

“Yes, the theories must impinge in some way upon the “real world,” and offer explanations for observed phenomena, but honestly, Theory seems to do that a little bit too.”

Wait a second. But the entire difference between scientific truth claims and others is that the scientific explanations must be observationally or experimentally verifiable. The untested explanation is never an end in itself in science.

magistra @ 76:

“my general point was to show that Theory is often originally based on empirical observations”

I’m skeptical that this is true : the “based” and the “often” part, likewise “beholden” -Adam’s phrase @ 74). “Based” and “beholden” would mean, for me, that the Theory in question attempts to say something about the empirical finding (such as creating a theory of how the brain labels), not the social construction of meaning about the finding.

Mainly, my point was that think you need to use a different term than “biological sex”. That is exactly what isn’t socially constructed, nor If you had just said “sex” or “gender”, I agree 100%.

Novokant @ 83

“Because there is no straight line between the physical world, “observation” and “language” that would guarantee objectivity or validate truth claims.”

Yes, but there is a straight line between the physical world and language (no quotes). This allows us to communicate.

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Tim Wilkinson 06.25.09 at 5:02 pm

Objective knowledge.

A germane but uninteresting question:

Question: can you give me an explanation of what this appeal to “objective knowledge” is doing in an essay that insists that criticism “will be personal, because art is personal. It will not be definitive; it will not be universally valid”?

Answer: Yes

Proof: D very clearly mentions it because he is contrasting the total outright rejection of the possibility of objectivity he sees in ‘theory’ (I just can’t shrug off those scare-quotes), with a misguided attempt to achieve science-like, indeed scientific and specifically biological, objectivity in lit crit, and suggesting that the later is an overreaction to the former.
… … … …

A largely irrelevant but also misconceived criticism:

Question:Can you give me an example of it?

Answer: Though the issue was supposedly the denial of the possibility of it rather than whether I can identify some chunks of it to show you, nonetheless: arguably, yes.

Proviso: (And don’t give me an example of a brute fact, like “carbon is the sixth element in the periodic table.”

Response: Ah, maybe not then. What sort of thing did you have in mind?

Clarification: Give me an example of something that humans know objectively, independently of their sense impressions, beliefs, etc.)

Retort: Oh for fuck’s sake, if we’re playing games, how about ‘objective knowledge is impossible?’
… … … …

Misc (file under: Other)

I’m inclined to be sympathetic to a denial of the possibility (attainability) of objective knowledge given enough charity in intepreting what is meant by it. First, as a denial of Popper’s notion of epistemology without a knowing subject, and second as a denial of the strong conception of knowedge as entailing not only a certain and clear understanding which guarantees truth, but an indefinite number of meta-knowledge claims – if I know p, I know that i know p…

However, there’s no reason I have found to think that theorists have either of these clearly in mind, and if they do, they certainly don’t seem to feel the need to explain the philosophy behind them. The aforementioned linkage-at some-point to common sense is absent, and replaced with smug cliquism – you have to ‘get it’, like an Imperial fashion correspondent. Or possibly like a ‘hazed’ recruit.

What is more plausibly the case is that there is a terrible confusion (objective, not subjective) about that philosophical issues involved in descriptive epistemology (and metaphysics more generally) going on. Examples: MB’s stipulation that acknowledged ‘brute facts’ can’t be used as examples of ‘objective knowledge, and all the stuff about how people or the received views have been wrong at various times – as if no-one else had noticed. There’s almost certainly a good deal of unclarity about whether we are talking about objetcivism/realism about truth or the objects of knowledge or what exactly in any case – as if Lit Theary gives you any sort of grounding for spouting off on such subjects.

It really is quite annoying all this stuff, becuase I am generally sympathetic to scepticism about received opinion, orthodoxy as propaganda, tendencies to assume that various phenomena are natural realities rather than invented categories etc etc. But instead of doing the tedious work of criticising these phenomena in a detailed and cogent way, everything has to be a grand (and utterly bollocky) theory.

Example: biological sex is really a natural reality, with (possibly) some complicatiosn arising from (very sparsely populated) third and subsequent categories on top of mlae and female. What s socially constructed is not the biology (chromosomes, winkies and front bottoms and some rare ambiguities or third ways, all that), it’s the (duh) social constructs that surround it.

I actually take this as a kind of cowardice. You can be all radical, without ever having to mount a coherent challenge against anything, and without saying anything that those hegemonic powermongers (who really are there, I quite agree) might be in the slightest bit concerned about. And all those students who were probably attracted by the promise of some real radical upshot have been misled into exachnging a load of old verbiage – so it’s a betrayal of them, too.

Microfoundations (mechanisms! – the actual grounding in something recognisable as ordinary experience!) in sociology – now that sounds interesting and promising as a real way to challenge intellectual and practical hegemony. But it ain’t lit theory so those who have chosen to hang out in the English department might have to stick to English, if they can bear that.

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mds 06.25.09 at 5:25 pm

But the entire difference between scientific truth claims and others is that the scientific explanations must be observationally or experimentally verifiable. The untested explanation is never an end in itself in science.

(1) Much of the motivation for M-theory seems to have come from the concern over “Just how many different string theories are there, anyway?” Which, given that superstring theory was already rather tenuously connected to falsifiability, strikes me as especially disturbing. Then again, perhaps this merely indicates that some of these theoretical pursuits aren’t really science, a thought which many of my scientific colleagues would heartily endorse.

(2) Are you asserting that all explanations in Theory (no M) are untested ones? Or just that falsifiability is entirely irrelevant to Theory?

You can be all radical, without ever having to mount a coherent challenge against anything, and without saying anything that those hegemonic powermongers (who really are there, I quite agree) might be in the slightest bit concerned about.

So… there’s no point to diagnosing something unless you personally are able to fix it? I’ll send a memo to the medical school.

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Sebastian 06.25.09 at 6:05 pm

I want to deeply agree with 61, and go a little further. The thing about common sense isn’t that it is always right, but rather that it is a good check on letting your intellectual toy get out of control because of undetected false premises or undetected wrong turns.

Both science and theory often challenge common sense, but scientists say things like “yes electrons are counterintuitive, but look what we can do with them” (turns on computer). Liberal arts theorists say things like “yes my theory on Shakespeare looks counterintuitive, but disagreeing with me makes you a bigot”. (points at you).

If the scientist says counterintuitive things, trys to turn on the perpetual motion machine and it fails, common sense ignores him. If the liberal arts theorist says counterintuitive things, you typically never get to show him that he is wrong (he denies the ability of anyone to show that he is wrong by attacking ‘objective facts’) and you can be cast as a jerk for even raising the issue. Now most of the world ignores the liberal arts theorist too, so maybe that is ok.

I think Walt at 92 gets the core of the issue. ‘Theory’ has some interesting insights into social construction of some things, but goes way overboard if you try to apply it to all sorts of things. And very quickly it goes into ‘who cares’ territory. And that is where common sense can help. “So what?” can actually be a valid response to things like “You can’t really tell if my experience of blue is the same as yours”.

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Tim Wilkinson 06.25.09 at 6:22 pm

It’s mre a question of whether your sch medical shcool claims there’s no such thing as

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mds 06.25.09 at 6:25 pm

Liberal arts theorists say things like “yes my theory on Shakespeare looks counterintuitive, but disagreeing with me makes you a bigot”. (points at you).

Tell the straw man that Dorothy says hi.

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novakant 06.25.09 at 6:27 pm

John, nobody is denying that we are interacting with “the world”, yet that doesn’t mean that I have to subscribe to naive realism or the correspondence theory of truth. And if people like Kant, Hegel or Quine etc. etc., as well as a lot of actual scientists, don’t subscribe to such viewpoints either, then I find it hard to believe that there just isn’t a problem here. I’m afraid you will have to confront people like these on the level they’re arguing at and can’t just brush all of this aside with some common sense intuitions. Personally I would be interested in what you actually mean by objectivity and truth, both because I generally find these notions either implausible or useless and so that I won’t have to argue against strawmen.

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Tim Wilkinson 06.25.09 at 6:38 pm

I’m not a medical man, but no, that sounds wrong to me. I suppose it would be more a question of whether your school of medicine claims there’s no such thing as health.

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magistra 06.25.09 at 7:03 pm

A lot of the problem in any discussion of this is that it really is attacks on strawmen all the way down on both sides. In history, a caricatured outline might go like this. Late C19 historians developed positivist history because they wanted to be like scientists. Historians stuck to positivist history in practice on into the second half of the twentieth century, even when their actual theory of history got more sophisticated from listening to philosophers and scientists. This positivistic practice got increasingly challenged in the 1950s and onwards firstly by radical historians and then by those influenced by the ‘linguistic turn’. The reaction to such views has in turn come from a variety of historians who

a) don’t like being told that straight white male conservative historians might be biased

and/or b) worry that if you say there is no historical truth that’ll provide ammunition for Holocaust deniers

and/or c) think that Keith Jenkins and Alun Munslow couldn’t write a decent historical article in a month of Sundays, so why listen to them?

These competing views on historical truth then get further simplified in magazine articles to become either Brave Scholars versus Trendy Relativists or Establishment Stooges versus Brave Activists. Most historians in the sludgy middle, meanwhile (we can know something about the past, but imperfectly) just get on with trying to do history, with more or less theory to taste.

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mds 06.25.09 at 7:09 pm

I suppose it would be more a question of whether your school of medicine claims there’s no such thing as health.

Close. It would be a question of whether the school of medicine were so crazy as to claim there’s no single context-free definition of “healthy.”

Look, it probably won’t help dispel overgeneralizations about scary liberal arts practitioners who hate dead white guys and facts, but Professor Bérubé has given multiple indications elsewhere that he belives gravity actually exists. Precisely delineating what “objective reality” means can nevertheless be a tricky undertaking, which is why cosmologists keep falling prey to anthropic principles.

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Tim Wilkinson 06.25.09 at 7:26 pm

Close. It would be a question of whether the school of medicine were so crazy as to claim there’s no single context-free definition of “healthy.”

And then (I’ll drop the dubiously useful analogy) to get so carried away with the sheer iconoclastic (or ‘scary’!) novelty of it all as to make obvious blunders like confusing inquiry into what ‘objective reality’ means with the ordinary business of discovering what is (objectively) real or unreal.

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Dave Maier 06.25.09 at 8:22 pm

Sorry for the length here; feel free not to read. I just don’t want John to think that no one both a) sympathizes with him to a degree and b) could be bothered to explain it to him. I think others have also said some of this. So anyway, John …

There is obviously no such thing as knowledge that is independent of all belief, because knowledge just is a belief. So why would a realist ever think you could have knowledge without belief?

MIchael wasn’t demanding “knowledge without belief”; he wanted “an example of something that humans know objectively, independently of their [...] beliefs” [my bold]. Not the same thing.

Rorty quite obviously isn’t saying that realists demand the former (although there are realists — Timothy Williamson? — who do). Take it as settled that knowledge is a species of belief. Rorty is suspicious of the idea of “objective truth” as a goal of inquiry. In inquiry, when evidence is taken to be conclusive, what pragmatists say happens is “the fixation of belief.” Rorty doesn’t see the point in going on to say “and btw my belief is true” or “I don’t just believe it, I know it.” By “knowledge independent of belief” I take Michael to mean that “extra” something invisible to Rortyan pragmatists but which realists make a big deal about.

How about “objective knowledge”? This is not a term I use either; but that’s not because it denotes a “hopeless” quest for an incoherent transcendence (we’ve got other words for that). So in response to this:

Is it hopeless because it’s so obvious that all knowledge is objective that it’s redundant, but in an irritatingly self-important way? (Yes, but MY cat is a mammal! But MY knowledge is objective knowledge.) Or is it hopeless because it’s obvious that no knowledge is objective so it’s a kind of oxymoron? (Nothing is REALLY objective, so putting the term in there is inherently misleading.) Or am I missing it and it’s something else entirely?

my answer is: both. That is, the problem with the term is that realists have spoiled it through rampant equivocation between these two senses, exploiting our “common sense” rejection of wacky relativism in order to cover for tendentious and pernicious philosophical doctrine (okay, antirealists do it too, in reverse). So it’s like “mind-independent”, which renders meaningless any sentence in which it occurs.

Not that you asked, but I myself tend to say that knowledge is objective, because it’s true and truth is objective; but that realists (and antirealists in recoil) construe objectivity wrongly, i.e. in dualistic opposition to “subjectivity.” So “objective knowledge” and “objective truth” are redundant; but isn’t redundancy of this sort objectionable, in being so easily corrupted to nefarious ends?

I think it’s basically right that (a lot of) Theory tends to reject the possibility of objective knowledge, for certain plausibly central values of ‘objective knowledge’. Now we would need to spell out what that means, but let’s just say it’s sorta kinda Protagorean. ‘Man is the measure of all things’. There is something fundamental subjective (distorting, ideological, perspectival) about all beliefs, hence it is wrong to regard man as the sort of creature who ever REALLY knows anything, or knows it objectively. What we call ‘knowledge’ is really something less than realists have supposed they could attain, objectivity-wise.

Bleah. That last sentence is true. Realists demand more than is coherent to demand. But we do indeed know things (really), and know them objectively. Yet there is also something ineliminably “subjective” about our knowing (we’re subjects, after all). That something is objective doesn’t mean it’s not subjective, and vice versa. How else would you like me to express my anti-dualism than by saying this?

But that’s just my view (or the truth, if you prefer). What about “Theory”? Here I think the key is the gloss you give on “subjective”: “distorting, ideological, perspectival.” To claim that our beliefs “distort” reality is to recoil from realism into antirealism, leaving the dualism in place. “Theory” (qua “hermeneutics of suspicion”) can indeed be guilty of this. But that’s not the same as “perspectival” (at least, again, in my usage, which defines the term in direct opposition to “relativistic”), and I do wish that you at least would not use that term this way.

So on this gloss of “objective knowledge,” D. might even come out right (emphasis on “tends to take this line”). But I actually think Bill Benzon has the most plausible interpretation; and on that reading (on which “objective” runs the senses together in the realist manner) Michael is basically right to respond as he did: show me something of which both senses are true, and no, scientific facts don’t count. My own question is why he thinks that, given his care to distinguish scientific facts from Theoretical questions about value. But that’s another story for another day, I imagine.

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john c. halasz 06.25.09 at 8:36 pm

@97 “Yes, but there is a straight line between the physical world and language (no quotes). This allows us to communicate.”

That amounts to the perfect example of an unarguable and nonsensical assertion. Shit happens!

@69 & @70:

The point of my comment @67 was not to question or deny the possibility or meaningfulness of the term “objective knowledge”, but rather to deny the reflex generated by the notion that objective knowledge is the sole legitimate object or aim of inquiry, which is that there would somehow be unique and particular “subjective knowledge”, which is at once irreducible and impalpable, which would constitute the “object” and justification of the “humanities”. Of course, our language readily affords us with the capacity to make cognitive validity claims with referential import, though that of itself doesn’t establish validity. But there is no possibility of reference outside of any frame-of-reference, which relies on a framework of meanings and concepts involved in “the kind of understanding which makes connections.” All worldly knowledge, experience, activity and intentional agency is mediated through our meanings and concepts, (which does not mean sheerly reducible to or indifferent from them), and there is no way to somehow strip off our frameworks of meanings and concepts from the world and compare them, thus separated, to the “thing” itself. We are always involved in the warp and woof of a form-of-life as a background condition, and there is no way to step outside of that form-of-life, Platonically, transcendentally, or dialectically, to judge that form-of-life as a whole. (Which is not to say that parts or aspects of it can not be judged or criticized from within it, or other forms-of-life judged in terms of our standards, though without the full existential consequentiality of that other). Hence I simply pointed out the aporia: if nothing can be judged true or false (or just or good or any other dimension of validity) without first being meaningful, then can our meanings and concepts themselves be adjudicated true or false? Indeed, we do falsify and revise our validity claims, but that is a fairly complicated process that does not proceed through sheer appeals to reference and independently of the underlying activity of interpretive understanding, but involves further differentiations within our form-of-life and “justification” in terms of the needfulness thereof. But the fact of the matter is that we always encounter reality through horizons of possibility and skeins of implication, and there is nothing merely “subjective” about that fact of the matter, but rather that fact of the matter bears inquiry, (especially when and where possibilities and implications break down). (It is a reasonable intuition that reals are particulars, but we do not simply group together such particulars and form meanings through generalizing them, if only because the referential identification of particulars already requires the operation of meanings).

But, at any rate, my objection was directed at the notion of “subjective knowledge”. The notion of a “subject” is a term from traditional epistemology and means a ground of knowledge, traditionally identified with individual consciousness. The “memo” was sent in “Being and Time”, though PI would do just as well, since part of the purport of both works is the critical dissolution of traditional epistemology. Both subject and object are already comprised in or “constituted” by language and consciousness alone is not sufficient to account for our actual cognitive practices, which don’t actually appeal to or require such a foundation in a “subject”. But then the term “subject” just loses functional meaning, becoming just a synonym of “existent human being” or “self”. The notion then that there would be some sort of purely subjective knowledge, as knowledge of something so particular that it would be devoid of any real or objective effects, but also absolutely essential to “constituting” any knowledge of the real just lapses into incoherence, and certainly won’t do for specifying the domain of the “humanities” or their “justification”.

But then Gadamer wrote is fat book nearly 50 years ago partly to explicate that “justification” for the humanities as independent of natural sciences, partly by explicating and criticizing how the humanities had become entangled in imitating the methodologism of the natural sciences, thereby seemingly de-legitimating their own modes of inquiry. The title was chosen at the last moment, with the working title moved to the subtitle, presumably because it was not just pithy, but echoed Goethe. But given the thrust of the work it should have been “Truth or Method”. IMO part of the problem is that American academics began importing that weird form of French formalistic scientism called “structuralism” and then followed up the “internal” critiques of it forming what Anglo-Saxons only call “post-structuralism”. (Though I never understood how “structuralism” quite got going in the first place. Yes, a critique of phenomenological intentionality. But then abusing a rather thin linguistics to form a notion of “signifying structures” that operate as an “autonomous language”? Language operating without the interpretive understanding of its agents? I would think “we” operate language at least as much as it operates us. As best I can figure, “structuralism” amounts to an incompetently formulated attempt at general systems theory). This then leads to the highly presuppositioned and recondite institution of “Theory” in literature departments and endless entanglements and disputes over its status and legitimacy.

But I’m going to be a bit old-fashioned here. I’ve never understood why, in the first instance, one needs a form of theory to read and interpret literary works. Yes, as a second order matter, inquiring academically into the status and “nature” of literary works in general, the construction of a theoretical framework might be useful and interesting. But no theory can substitute for the actual work of interpretive reading, nor externally validate it. (At any rate, deconstructing the rhetorical nature of essentially rhetorical works seems a bit too easy, carrying coals to Newcstle). And it’s the works themselves that count, as having an independent, transpersonal “existence” beyond the intentions of both their authors and readers. Because it’s such works or artefacts involved in the socio-cultural institution of reality, which we can’t get out of, that comprise the domain of the “humanities”. And their “justification” is simply the necessity of interpretation, that is, the fundamental or basic role of the underlying activity of interpretive understanding, at once unavoidable and unstoppable, in comprising human existence in the world. This is not to say that interpretation is or should be ad hoc, licentious, without recourse to recurrent structures, without appeal to background assumptions of secured understandings, and without regard to considerations of validity or evaluations of better or worse interpretations. But it is to say that there is no scientific or theoretical substitute for the work of such interpretive understanding, and to commit such a category mistake is to do damage to the self-understanding of human beings in the world. Which is not to say that the “justification” of humanistic inquiry is that it enriches the self and its appreciation of the world. That would be just the old subjectivistic aestheticism, “humanism”, in the pejorative sense of an individual cultivation of the glorious personality. It doesn’t matter whether interpretation is “enriching” or “impoverished”; what counts is whether it enhances the understanding of existence in the world.

For example, to inquire into how the Parthenon was constructed is a question about ancient engineering, and adopting the objectifying stance of causal theory and gathering thereby the relevant empirical facts is appropriate. But inquiring into the role that the Parthenon played in the political religion of ancient Attica involves a much different stance with different relevant facts. To insist on an objectifying causal explanation in the latter case, say ,in terms of a reductive and impoverished account of a Darwinian struggle for existence, would be to entirely miss the mark, to deny and “abolish” the very matter “given” to be understood. Which is to say, interpretive understanding itself plays a role in assessing the legitimacy and scope of causal explanations in natural science, since, er, natural science is itself a socio-cultural institution.

Similarly, if one is a modern medieval historian, understanding the etiology and epidemiology of the plague is an important part of the story. Also understanding how mass depopulation would alter the distribution of rents, raise per capita yields and thus affect the conditions of bonded labor would be relevant considerations. But such causal factors are applied to understanding how the people understood and reacted to the course of events in terms of the socio-cultural institutions of their day, else one is not doing historiography, whether empirically or not. Since history concerns particular, unrepeatable courses of events, and “there can be no science of the particular” (Aristotle), there’s no question of empirical facts or causal explanations yielding to general methodology or universal theory of a scientific sort, (though it’s hard to see how such inquiry could be got going without some sort of comparative method, if only the implicit one between then and now). But then the role of the struggles of past agents, however conditioned and structurally constrained, in potentiating (or revising) present structures and understandings of the world is the very point of the exercise of historical inquiry. Which is counter-scientific, if not at all anti-scientific, in limiting any sweepingly “universal” claims for the theoretical mastery of the present.

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aleth 06.25.09 at 8:39 pm

mds @99: Slightly off-topic, but I must correct you when you say “the motivation for M-theory seems to have come from the concern over “Just how many different string theories are there, anyway?””. That’s not at all how M-theory came to be – it’s not an invention addressing a concern but a necessary mathematical consequence of the original string theories (demonstrating that their apparent differences are only different descriptions of the same underlying structure). It’s just that the consequences were and are hard to work out and tend to be unexpected and counterintuitive…

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Sebastian 06.25.09 at 9:08 pm

“Personally I would be interested in what you actually mean by objectivity and truth, both because I generally find these notions either implausible or useless and so that I won’t have to argue against strawmen.”

I normally agree with what you say novkant, but this sentence just made my head hurt.

What does ‘implausible’ mean if you are outside the world of truth claims? And even more so ‘useless’? What does ‘implausible’ mean that can get away from something like “provoking disbelief that the thing in question is objectively true”?

As for the rest of the ongoing argument, I guess for me, I find much of Theory in literature to be an enormous distraction from the work of understanding and enjoying (or being challenged by) actual texts. It is more often than not a way of avoiding engagement with the text itself and instead using it as an object for political statements and prounouncements. At its best Theory might be ok as a branch of historical or applied sociology, but it sucks at the things that actually draw readers to literature. It rarely acts as a liason with the text, or an attempt to get to know the text better, but rather as more of a rape of the text–an attempt to force it to submit purely to your own uses.

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b9n10t 06.25.09 at 10:54 pm

john c. halasz @109

I didn’t choose the straight line metaphor. I responded to it. My mistake. I suppose I should have said, “What is it you deny when you say there is no straight line between the physical world and ‘language’”.

“All worldly knowledge, experience, activity and intentional agency is mediated through our meanings and concepts”.

Except knowing when you are hungry, or experiencing pleasure or pain. Or the many examples I’ve listed. Are you saying, if someone cuts off my tongue, the pain I know I feel is mediated through meanings and concepts? Yes, a vast degree of concepts are entangled with prior, usually unexamined, claims that have no ability to be verified (“He stole my sunglasses”). But human beings do a lot of knowing that is not so entangled. I know I am alive, I know the past precedes the present and future, etc… The expression of these objectively known ideas to others will be mediated by meanings and concepts, but the knowing itself is not. So I take issue with the absolutes in your first big paragraphs (everything, always, nothing).

“Both subject and object are already comprised in or “constituted” by language”

What’s exactly wrong with these entirely intuitive notions?: Subject and object are not consistuted by language but by consciousness. The differentiation of self from other (“this hand is my hand, that stone is not me”) is biologically hard-wired into our consciousness and presents itself as true without reference to any conceptual system. Subjective knowledge (“that film was awful”) and objective knowledge (“I’m dizzy”) are indeed constituted by language; both are just what brains in people do. I agree that subjective knowing doesn’t and can’t require the thoughts occurring sui generis in the consciousness of the subject thinking them. And yet, one knows objectively that one didn’t feel pleasure or attraction to the film while seeing it.

“Which is to say, interpretive understanding itself plays a role in assessing the legitimacy and scope of causal explanations in natural science, since, er, natural science is itself a socio-cultural institution.”

I think I agree: “Interpretive understanding” is the agent in your sentence, it “plays a role”. But there is no actual thing as “interpretive understanding” in the world, so your agent is a conceit, an illusion created by thought. That’s not a problem; the problem is that I take you to believe that you are attempting to make a truth claim that is inherently unverifiable. You want me to believe that the statement “interpretive understanding itself plays a role in assessing the legitimacy and scope of causal explanations in natural science” but there is no thing to believe. So I don’t get your point.

I think your point is: the value that a person places on scientific facts and theories needs to be assessed and interpreted. And I agree. But why not just say that? Maybe you believe that you cannot disentangle e=mc2 from the meaning and concepts that arise with it (including the social context in which it appears). There, I would disagree: the practice of natural science is a socio-cultural institution, but truth claims that occasionally result from its practice transcends the institution from which it arose.

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Bloix 06.26.09 at 12:27 am

“Since history concerns particular, unrepeatable courses of events, and “there can be no science of the particular” (Aristotle), there’s no question of empirical facts or causal explanations yielding to general methodology or universal theory of a scientific sort,”

Really. So for you, evolution is just a theory?

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mds 06.26.09 at 12:53 am

Er, Bloix, I’m fairly sure that based on the Aristotle bit and the rest of the context, the reference was to “recorded human history,” since historians aren’t usually concerned with prehistory or geologic timescales. And on the scale of recorded human history, evolutionary theory can, to first order at least, be considered irrelevant (It’s already factored into the initial conditions).

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John Holbo 06.26.09 at 4:49 am

novakant, “yet that doesn’t mean that I have to subscribe to naive realism or the correspondence theory of truth.”

But no one is asking you to subscribe to naive realism or the correspondence theory of truth. (Are they?) So why are responding as if you must have been asked to do this thing?

john halasz: “The “memo” was sent in “Being and Time”, though PI would do just as well, since part of the purport of both works is the critical dissolution of traditional epistemology.”

Ah, I got both of THOSE memos, of course. I don’t really buy the first, largely on Wittgensteinian grounds. And I reject your reading of the PI on what I take to be later Wittgensteinian grounds as well. Probably we’ll just have to leave it at that for today.

Dave M., I pretty much agree (as you know). The key is realizing that a certain sort of constructivist anti-realism (john halasz is a good example) does not actual get around the old problems with realism but reproduces them by means of a new metaphysical theory that is no worse (maybe) but no better. Meet the new boss, same as the old. But I hasten to add that this is a more subtle error than putting it this way suggests. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and it’s easy to misread Wittgenstein as a proponent of the sort of metaphysical anti-realism john favors, and many smart people have done so. (Again, I don’t expect john to take it from me.)

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novakant 06.26.09 at 7:31 am

John, instead of playing this passive aggressive game of hide and seek, why don’t you just lay down your position regarding these matters in a couple of paragraphs. I think that is not an unreasonable request and it would help counter my suspicion that you haven’t really thought this whole thing through.

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John Holbo 06.26.09 at 7:57 am

That’s fair enough, novakant. I am actually in the process of writing a follow-up to Michael’s post in which I try to address these points more positively. (His comment thread is really not a proper house for my positive philosophy.) In the meantime, my concern is that there is a too-hasty tendency to write off a whole swathe of positions – a swathe that includes naive realism, which can take its lumps for all I care, but also some sophisticated alternatives to naive realism AND to the sort of thing I think you and Michael B. and john halasz think (not that I know for sure you think exactly the same thing). I think you are too quick off the mark in complaining about terms like ‘objective knowledge’, which don’t necessarily express a wrong theory or even any theory at all.

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novakant 06.26.09 at 8:04 am

Cool, I’m looking forward to it.

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Bloix 06.26.09 at 1:51 pm

mds- my point is that there are such things as historical sciences – evolution, geology, cosmology – that productively apply the scientific method to unrepeatable sequences of events. The argument that there cannot, now or ever, be a science of history solely because history is composed of unique events is simply wrong.

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