I don’t mind who writes the laws of the future, if I can write and sing the theme tune

by Daniel on December 22, 2009

Let’s try and put ourselves in the shoes of a member of the John Birch Society, circa 1968. What would the basis of such a person’s political worldview be? Basically, that the USA was ruled by a small cabal of educated elites, who were systematically undermining the USA’s advantages against Soviet Russia, and sabotaging the efforts of the military to protect the USA from the danger of Soviet attack. This person might also believe that the truth about the Kennedy assassination was covered up by this same elite cabal.

And such a person would be correct, of course.

Not joking. The historical facts are quite easy to establish here, they’ve been on public record for years (since the publication of “Secrets” by Daniel Ellsberg) and they’re ably summarised in James Galbraith’s obituary of Robert McNamara, among other places. In the early 1960s, the USA had sufficient superiority over the USSR to win (or at least, survive) a first-strike nuclear war, and the main war-fighting plan of the US armed forces did in fact revolve around such a “preventive” first-strike war; it was believed that the USA would lose several cities but had enough ICBM superiority to destroy both Russia and China. This was, of course, horrifying, and the educated elites who came to power with the Kennedy government in 1961 were horrified by it. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations adopted a no-first-use policy (which was kept secret and which contradicted the stated NATO doctrine), and spent the next six years playing for time, while the USSR acquired a second-strike capability, after which point the Cold War was bound to play out as a mutual deterrence game. Achieving this new equilibrium (during a period over which the Cuban missile crisis happened and the USA’s involvement in Vietnam began), obviously required Kennedy, Johnson and McNamara to systematically plan for the USA to lose its missile dominance, and to overrule the substantial military lobby in favour of using nuclear weapons before the USSR acquired second-strike capability.

Furthermore, when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 (in circumstances which made it look very much as if the responsibility lay with the Cuban government, and thereby with the Soviets), Lyndon Johnson’s immediate priority was to ensure that a train of events was not set in place which might end in his losing control of the country’s slide into nuclear war; in a telephone conversation recruiting members to the Warren Commission, he actually said ” this is a question that has a good many more ramifications than on the surface and we’ve got to take this out of the arena where they’re testifying that Khrushchev and Castro did this and did that and chuck us into a war that can kill 40 million Americans in an hour”.

So does this mean that the John Birch Society had it right? Well basically of course not. Although on the specific facts of what happened during the 1960s, your average Bircher is a lot closer to the objective truth than, say, David Aaronovitch, the worldview that sees the actions of Kennedy, Johnson and McNamara as a treasonous stab in the back of the American military rather than a scrambled and deeply honourable attempt to literally save the world, is totally skewed – the Bircher view is made up of real events, but it’s got the wrong background music playing behind it, like one of those joke film trailers.

This is why I’m basically a relativist about a lot of things; if you lot can put your Richard Dawkins books down for a minute and perhaps save that hilarious joke about stepping out of a ninth floor window[1], I might get a breath to explain that the whole point about postmodernism is not that all interpretations are as good as any others, it’s about recognising that the choice of “mood music” is at least as important as the physical facts of what happened, and that this relative importance, paradoxically[2] is an objective fact. To take a topical example, it’s very clear that a lot more than twelve million people are under threat from a 2 degrees centigrade increase in global temperature, and that such an increase in temperature, if it occurs, will largely be as a result of policy choices taken by Western policymakers in full knowledge of the effects they will have. I don’t hear the same music playing behind these more or less uncontroversial statements that Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping[4] does, but one has to realise that Miles’ Law is applicable here (“where you stand, depends on where you sit”). To take another example, consider the outright impossibility of getting a sensible discussion of any subject related to the Middle East; both sides are watching the same movie, but the minor key orchestra hits and string tremeloes aren’t showing up synchronised to the same characters.

All of which is preliminary to the announcement that a couple of weeks ago, probably on that interminable Cornel West sublime and funky love thread, CT logged up its 250,000th comment. This is a large enough dataset for Kieran to get working on, and in the New Year we’ll be able to tell you if the experiment with comments has been a success. I kid, I kid, of course. Congratulations. A happy festive season to all our readers, contributors and commenters, whether you are celebrating Christmas, Hanukah, Eid, Diwali, Kwanzaa, Yül or just the stern exercise of your own rationality. And a happy New Year too. We’ve got rhythm, we’ve got music, we’ve got you guys, who could ask for anything more? I leave you with this semi-connected Youtube link.

[1] Still finding it strange that so many hard-line anti-relativist types choose Newtonian gravity as their favourite example of something that’s objectively true rather than a particular description that happens to be convenient for a subset of practical purposes.

[2] Paradoxically, that is, for people who enjoy puzzle books[3] and who find Russell’s Paradox more enlightening than, say, a couple of ounces of mushrooms. Perhaps if Wittgenstein had been a slightly more robust and less well-brought-up character, he could just have told such characters to “fuck off”, and he could have saved himself a whole book and saved the taxpayer a small percentage of the last fifty years of higher education funding for philosophy departments.

[3] Who are often exactly the same individuals as militant anti-relativists, “brights”, the Decent Left and other impedimenta to a sensible discussion of nearly any subject into which the word “Enlightenment” can be shoehorned; I have a lot of time for Martin Gardner and Douglas Hofstadter’s books, but my god they didn’t half set a couple of hares running.

[4] You might want to read this biographical note

{ 256 comments }

1

Hidari 12.22.09 at 1:13 pm

‘Still finding it strange that so many hard-line anti-relativist types choose Newtonian gravity as their favourite example of something that’s objectively true rather than a particular description that happens to be convenient for a subset of practical purposes.’

It’s particularly weird in that we now know (or at least, very, very strongly suspect) that Newton’s conception of gravity was taken from the alchemical texts he pored over.

2

Luis Enrique 12.22.09 at 1:18 pm

I’m confused, probably merely because of my own ignorance. It sounds to me like you’re not a relativist, in so far as you are happy to say some interpretations are better than others. I guess I don’t understand how you’re using the word. And while “recognising that the choice of “mood music” is at least as important as the physical facts of what happened” sounds like wisdom to me, many of the things I encountered under the auspices of postmodernism (and I’m referring to a dimly remembered Eng. Lit and Philosophy degree in the distant past) didn’t seem to be doing anything as sophisticated as that, and just seemed to be denying that some interpretations are better than others. I guess I was either a bad student, had bad teachers or just didn’t encounter the right postmodern thinkers.

3

gyges 12.22.09 at 1:39 pm

My vote for the appropriate mood music for the time outlined in your article would be Rammstein’s Amerika.

4

John Holbo 12.22.09 at 1:44 pm

But who was naughty and who was nice? (Don’t change the subject on me, Daniel. And don’t just whistle the same subject to a different tune!)

More seriously:

“the whole point about postmodernism is not that all interpretations are as good as any others, it’s about recognising that the choice of “mood music” is at least as important as the physical facts of what happened, and that this relative importance, paradoxically[2] is an objective fact.”

This may be a point you are inclined to make, which causes you to see postmodernists as fellow travelers of a sort, but this is – I think this is important – not the point OF postmodernism, in any of its more familiar/canonic doctrinal/textual formulations.

5

John Holbo 12.22.09 at 1:50 pm

Also, I think you are not actually a relativist, and – to modulate the point about postmodernism – your inclination to tell certain philosophers to fuck off may cause you to regard Wittgenstein as a fellow traveler of sorts. But it isn’t the case that Wittgenstein was telling them to fuck off, not in the same spirit that you are, all questions of manners aside. (Whereof we cannot speak profitably, thereof should we tell to fuck off. That’s not quite the burden of the PI, for better or worse.)

6

Matthias Wasser 12.22.09 at 1:52 pm

I’m confused, probably merely because of my own ignorance. It sounds to me like you’re not a relativist, in so far as you are happy to say some interpretations are better than others. I guess I don’t understand how you’re using the word.

I’ve literally never met anyone who claimed that all interpretations are equally good (what would that even mean, one is tempted to ask). I have met people who claimed (this is true for me over certain classes of judgments but not others) that the betterness involved is perspectival and doesn’t have an uncontestable “objective” basis. You’re probably a relativist about ice cream flavors, but that doesn’t prevent you from preferring one flavor to another and acting on that preference.

7

Luis Enrique 12.22.09 at 2:06 pm

Matthias,

Sure, I didn’t express myself terribly precisely and of course there are classes of judgement that don’t have an incontestable objective basis. For example, there’s no objective truth to the question of whether wearing women wearing short skirts is a groovy sort of thing, or a degenerate affront to decency worthy of punishment. What I meant by non-relativist is more like somebody who is prepared to say one of these subjective views better than the other, in a way that’s more meaningful than saying I prefer chocolate to strawberry ice cream.

8

Daniel 12.22.09 at 2:19 pm

But it isn’t the case that Wittgenstein was telling them to fuck off, not in the same spirit that you are, all questions of manners aside

I know, but he definitely should have done. The guy explained to them that a lot of what they were doing was just unproductive linguistic games, and they responded by spinning out his work into a vast panoply of unproductive linguistic games. Although the specific target of Karl Popper was misplaced, he had the right idea with that poker.

9

Daniel 12.22.09 at 2:21 pm

What I meant by non-relativist is more like somebody who is prepared to say one of these subjective views better than the other

I’m happy to say that one of these views is better than the other (still more! that one is right! and the other wrong!). But not to say that this is a fact in the same way in which physical facts are facts.

10

Hidari 12.22.09 at 2:21 pm

Since we are on the none-too-thrilling subject of relativism, may I point out that, whatever the Butterflies and Wheels website might think, relativism does not mean now, and never has meant, that ‘anything goes’,that ‘we’ can’t judge Nazi Germany, that the views of Holocaust Deniers are of as much value as those of Braudel, or anything similar.

What relativism means (and hey, the clue really is in the word itself) is that things are true or not true or whatever relative to something else (be it a cultural framework, our basic psychology, or something else). Which is a very different argument. (I might also add that there is a big difference between cultural relativism, epistemological relativism, moral relativism and so forth, and that unless you are defining what ‘flavour’ of relativism you are talking about the discussion tends to go round in circles).

11

Daniel 12.22.09 at 2:23 pm

Further to #10, I’d add that it is equally stupid to pretend that one doesn’t have a frame of reference oneself and thus can’t make judgements, as to pretend that one has the only frame of reference and can make authoritative judgements.

12

Matthias Wasser 12.22.09 at 2:24 pm

You’re going to have to define “more meaningful,” there. “Subjectively important enough that I’m willing to force the preference on others” is basically what metaethical nonrealists believe about ethical judgments. “More useful in this situation” is what pragmatists believe about judgments in general. “There is an objectively true ‘interpretation'” is the unambiguous “non-relativist” answer, of course. What’s missing are people who hold that “all interpretations are equally good” over much of any class at all. There are classes over which some people say “all interpretations are equally valid,” but that’s not really the same thing. The best interpretation is almost always a valid one, but not all valid interpretations are equally good (for particular judgers’ “goods”) in all respects.

13

MattF 12.22.09 at 2:24 pm

So, are you a P-NP (Post-Newtonian Parameterizer) , or do you actually believe that stuff about gravitation being space-time curvature?

14

kid bitzer 12.22.09 at 2:34 pm

did this post have any unifying theme, other than to troll as many different segments of the ct readership as possible?

15

Daniel 12.22.09 at 2:34 pm

and of course, in further reply to John’s #5, I note that “fuck off” is a rough English translation of Piero Sraffa’s vulgar chin-sweep gesture, which Normal Malcolm credited as triggering the conceptual break between Tractatus and Investigations.

16

ejh 12.22.09 at 2:40 pm

I note that “fuck off” is a rough English translation of Piero Sraffa’s vulgar chin-sweep gesture

I believe the normal rendering is “Jimmy Hill”.

17

Daniel 12.22.09 at 2:41 pm

nah, the “chinny reckon” is more of a scratch. I’ve seen the gesture I think they’re talking about and it’s more like the “I bite my thumb at you, Sir!” beloved of hack Shakespearean actors, except under the chin.

18

deliasmith 12.22.09 at 2:48 pm

On Globus – could not agree more with the insights offered. They’re 100 per cent right (on) about all those European battles, except Bannockburn of course. That was quite a different matter.

19

Luis Enrique 12.22.09 at 3:10 pm

D2 @9 oh, if that’s all it means, then I’m with you.

20

Alex Gregory 12.22.09 at 3:12 pm

So postmodernism is the belief in non-physical facts? That would make Thomas Nagel, Plato, and others postmodernists.

21

Dan S 12.22.09 at 3:53 pm

Everything that Daniel claims will blow the minds of dogmatic, linguistically-confused Analytic philosophers is actually a position held by prominent analytic philosophers. Then again, I shouldn’t expect any better from someone who likes Searle’s Chinese Room Argument.

22

dsquared 12.22.09 at 4:14 pm

#21 since “Everything that Daniel claims will blow the minds of dogmatic, linguistically-confused Analytic philosophers” is a null set, this is trivially true. And the “sneer condescending”, while certainly a popular way of objecting to the Chinese Room argument, isn’t actually a valid argument. Picture me stroking my chin suggestively right now …

23

dsquared 12.22.09 at 4:16 pm

actually, erratum to #22; it could be argued that “Everything that Daniel claims will blow the minds of dogmatic, linguistically-confused Analytic philosophers” is a set with one member, namely “half a pound of magic mushrooms”. However, “half a pound of mushrooms” isn’t a position at all, a fortiori not a position held by prominent analytic philosophers, so I think I am still golden.

In general, since I was claiming that my view was shared by Wittgenstein, it was never really on the cards that I was going to be trapped into the assertion that it was not held by any prominent analytical philosophers.

24

Timothy Scriven 12.22.09 at 4:18 pm

To press the point the Brichians don’t have their facts straighter than their saner interlocutors- they’re simply wrong when they allege that JFK was treasonous. Your typical left winger is also not fully correct in their relevant views for the reasons you outline, but they get the facts straighter than a Brichian, in one important sense at least, because they get the conclusion of the argument right (“JFK was not treasonous”) and the premises wrong while the Brichians get the premises right(ish) and the conclusion wrong- and for most purposes, including developing good politics, getting the conclusion right is usually more important than getting the premises right. The point you’ve made is fair enough- but the mere fact that the essence of something can sometimes be understood reasonably well by someone who knows few of the facts, and very poorly by someone who knows many of the facts, isn’t going to break any well thought out theories of truth. Anti Relativist positions need not be tone death.

Your metaphilosophical position on the value of a certain kind of philosophy, backed up by vague appeal to Wittgenstein and a haughty sneer about Russell’s paradox (1) seems rather odd given that Wittgenstein would almost certainly clash with your philosophical views as much as just about anyone else’s. If I were to engage in some sort of blanket dismissal of the bulk of contemporary sociology or literary criticism essentially without argument I’d be rightly scoffed at for it, so the onus is on you to give a more concrete argument before pontificating on contemporary philosophy.

(1) And if I am a little sharp here consider that you are effectively dismissing my life’s work so far and the life’s work of my colleagues.

25

Darius Jedburgh 12.22.09 at 4:20 pm

“whatever the Butterflies and Wheels website might think, relativism does not mean now, and never has meant, that ‘anything goes’,that ‘we’ can’t judge Nazi Germany, that the views of Holocaust Deniers are of as much value as those of Braudel, or anything similar” (my itals).

Simply not so as regards the forms of relativism retailed under the banners of postmodernism & poststructuralism: anyone who spent time around certain US English depts in the late eighties (Bérubé?) can or should attest that these exciting new currents in the humanities were self-consciously apocalyptic, and any use of objectivity-flavoured idioms (eg “what we know”; “but that’s just not true” etc) was met with an eye-rolling dismissal (“God, you’re so naïve!“). The Tour de France of back-pedalling over the subsequent decades, whereby “postmodernism” simply turns out to have meant all along “common sense, only a bit cooler” (I’m looking at you, Daniel), has been almost as annoying as the original cheapo posturing: “More fool you, for taking us at our word!” Obviously, they never said that we couldn’t judge Nazi Germany etc; they were just in denial over what their views entailed (partly because their own super-subversive vocabulary was supposed to “call in question,” “problematize” (etc etc) what “entailment” or “having a view” actually meant (gasp!)). The whole thing was just a massive sophomoric embarrassment.

This is not to endorse B & W, who are knobs.

26

Darius Jedburgh 12.22.09 at 4:26 pm

(Sorry, I lost sight of my original intention in commenting, which was to applaud the awesome “Shining” trailer.)

27

dsquared 12.22.09 at 4:27 pm

And if I am a little sharp here consider that you are effectively dismissing my life’s work so far and the life’s work of my colleagues

well sorry and all that, but if the cap doesn’t fit, don’t feel the need to wear it. There’s some modern philosophy that doesn’t involve messing around with pointless language-games but the persistence of extremely stupid arguments aiming to demonstrate that relativism is self-refuting seems to me to indicate that the kind that does is still around.

28

Hidari 12.22.09 at 4:27 pm

‘This is not to endorse B & W, who are knobs.’

Which is, I think we can all agree, an objective fact.

29

nnyhav 12.22.09 at 4:30 pm

May I enquire as to whether this rumination is prompted by the dissonant co-sponsorship of CPAC 2010 by JBS & GOProud?

30

dsquared 12.22.09 at 4:30 pm

Could we calm down on the B&W bashing please guys?

31

Darius Jedburgh 12.22.09 at 4:51 pm

“the persistence of extremely stupid arguments aiming to demonstrate that relativism is self-refuting”

What, like Theaetetus 170-171?

32

Dan S 12.22.09 at 4:56 pm

22&23: Yes, you didn’t explicitly say that these things would blow the minds of dogmatic, linguistically-confused analytic philosophers—you implied it. And yes, you were not talking about all analytic philosophers—specifically those who have been wasting taxpayer money over the last 50 years. Well, the points that you make are all mainstream, though not uncontroversial views among contemporary, taxpayer money-wasting analytic philosophers.

Sneering condescendingly at Searle, though not the best way of arguing with him, does seem to be better than sneering condescendingly at an entire field that I don’t understand. Please tell me to fuck off if you ever hear me going off about Derrida. FWIW, I added that link to show that I like the stuff you write when you’re not going on about analytic philosophy.

33

Matthias Wasser 12.22.09 at 4:57 pm

Could we calm down on the B&W bashing please guys?

Their name, one must note, is a joke about not going after easy targets. Postmodernity…

34

Josh G. 12.22.09 at 5:03 pm

Original poster: “Furthermore, when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 (in circumstances which made it look very much as if the responsibility lay with the Cuban government, and thereby with the Soviets), Lyndon Johnson’s immediate priority was to ensure that a train of events was not set in place which might end in his losing control of the country’s slide into nuclear war; in a telephone conversation recruiting members to the Warren Commission, he actually said ” this is a question that has a good many more ramifications than on the surface and we’ve got to take this out of the arena where they’re testifying that Khrushchev and Castro did this and did that and chuck us into a war that can kill 40 million Americans in an hour”.

People whose background is in politics (as well as members of the general public who have no relevant expertise at all) tend to think the Kennedy assassination was a conspiracy.

People whose background is in criminal justice (e.g. Vincent Bugliosi, John Douglas) tend to think that Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated Kennedy and that he acted out of the same banal motivations as other Presidential assassins.

I’m inclined to agree with the people who are experts in the relevant field.

35

Francis D 12.22.09 at 5:05 pm

As I understand it, Post-modernism came in waves. (Warning: I have no formal training in History of Philosophy)

Wave 1: The Rebels. The Modernists are crazy! They are utterly prescriptive and think they have The Answer ™ and some notion of subjectivity needs working in.

Wave 2: Hubris. The Modernists did not have The Answer ™ and therefore we have displaced them. We must therefore have The Answer ™ as we wouldn’t be dominant otherwise. And that answer is that we have no answers. And we should apply it as hard as possible and as often as possible.

Wave 3: The Morning After. Did we really do that? If so it’s because we were drunk. We would never have done that seriously. Post-Modernism is sensible. And claims no one can have all the answers. Let alone such simplistic ones. I don’t know why you would claim we think we do.

And I know people who are part of all three waves (although none in Wave 1 under 60). Most of the intellectual objections to post-modernism are levelled at Wave 2 (or from the few remaining Wave 2 Modernists).

36

geo 12.22.09 at 5:10 pm

Daniel @8: Karl Popper … had the right idea with that poker

How about Samuel Johnson, kicking a rock to refute Berkeley?

37

dsquared 12.22.09 at 5:13 pm

you implied it

No I didn’t. (chin stroking gesture).

… oh, I think I see where I was unclear in that footnote. Let me elucidate:

People who Wittgenstein should have told to “fuck off”

The kind of people who believe it to be a knockdown argument against relativism that anyone arguing for it needs to assert their premises to be true
More generally, people who believe that important philosophical conclusions can be drawn from trivial linguistic puzzles.

People who would have been able to do something else if Wittgenstein had taken such an approach, thus allowing either greater production of philosophy or a small saving in tax expense

People who have spent the last fifty years writing about issues that ought to have been crystal clear in Wittgenstein but weren’t.

HTH. I suppose someone more magnanimous than myself might put an apology here, but since I don’t feel like doing so and you lot were rude to me too, you can wear it. Happy Christmas.

38

Rich Puchalsky 12.22.09 at 5:21 pm

Darius: “whereby “postmodernism” simply turns out to have meant all along “common sense, only a bit cooler” (I’m looking at you, Daniel)”

Yes, exactly.

And a bit cooler in the “it’s uncool to care too much about anything” sense. For example:

“To take a topical example, it’s very clear that a lot more than twelve million people are under threat from a 2 degrees centigrade increase in global temperature, and that such an increase in temperature, if it occurs, will largely be as a result of policy choices taken by Western policymakers in full knowledge of the effects they will have. I don’t hear the same music playing behind these more or less uncontroversial statements that Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping[4] does, but one has to realise that Miles’ Law is applicable here (“where you stand, depends on where you sit”). “

What? Twelve million people are under threat as a result of policy choices — and disagreement about this is breezily characterized as “where you stand, depends on where you sit”?

That’s postmodernism, right there. Sure, we can all agree on the facts, but they no longer mean anything really, because they are only interpretable through worldviews which are not right or wrong in the same way as facts. Or Daniel will assert that sure, some of them are “right”, but not really right. Whatever that means.

39

kid bitzer 12.22.09 at 5:35 pm

so the conduct of this discussion pretty much bears out my first guess, that this was daniel’s offer to act as universal troll for all comers.

and the rest of you were only too willing to be trolled, by engaging him as though he meant anything by it.

it’s a pleasant form of conviviality, on the whole. and god bless us every one.

40

Matthias Wasser 12.22.09 at 5:37 pm

“If we don’t act on global warming, millions of people will die” is a fact.

“We should prevent millions of people dying” isn’t a fact. That doesn’t mean you should waste any time in pursuing it.

Most important things are subjective.

41

rfriel 12.22.09 at 5:43 pm

I’m happy to say that one of these views is better than the other (still more! that one is right! and the other wrong!). But not to say that this is a fact in the same way in which physical facts are facts.

I’m confused as to how this is a species of relativism. I imagine most “anti-relativists” also think that there are important differences between physical and non-physical facts. The important question is whether or not these differences can be meaningfully described by using terms like “more relative” and “less relative.”

42

Rich Puchalsky 12.22.09 at 5:48 pm

“Common sense, only a bit cooler,” seems to apply, Matthias. Converting the fact that millions will die into a prescription for action does involve the non-fact “we should prevent millions of people from dying.” It’s just that it used to be more or less accepted that people who didn’t think we should prevent millions from dying were evil or crazy. Now it’s considered cooler to point out that these evil and crazy people have a coherent worldview in which the death of millions is, for them, the right outcome — wow, man. That’s deep. And it would be totally uncool to just say that those people were wrong, as if you were setting yourself up as the sole judge of objective truth or something.

That might be almost as uncool as engaging people as if they meant what they wrote. Man, only noobs fall for that.

43

kid bitzer 12.22.09 at 6:01 pm

if your last is directed to me, rich, then i think it is misdirected.

i engage lots and lots of people as if they meant what they wrote. indeed, that is my default mode (i’m doing it with you, at this very moment!)

but a post like this, from a poster like daniel, is a bit of a special case. the post itself was all over the map, veering from birchers to russell’s paradox with swipes at philosophers and litcrits tossed in for fun. it was like a christmas pantomime–a bit of everything for everyone, highly entertaining, but not strong on the dramatic unities.

and then when dsquared himself comes in at comment 35 and says, “i meant it! no, i didn’t really mean it…maybe i should ‘fess up…no, i won’t fess up…merry christmas!”, then what should the rest of us say except, “he’s behind you!!”

44

harry b 12.22.09 at 6:02 pm

In what sense is “we should prevent millions of people from dying” not a fact?
“Slavery is a serious wrong in normal circumstances” states a fact. Nothing subjective about it.

45

ehj2 12.22.09 at 6:08 pm

If this conversation had not been started with an example of a “political trope” (a review of the “myth” of Kennedy) I wouldn’t risk commenting here. As a retired engineer, I’m no more qualified than a squirrel among battling elephants to weigh in with an opinion about postmodernism.

There is a kind of person who believes the end justifies the means, and in hand-to-hand combat or collective warfare purposive false signaling is considered rational and justified and even ethical.

The Republican Party is filled with people who believe and act as if politics is warfare, and that “any” story or false signaling about both one’s own intentions and an opponent’s intentions that works is valid and becomes “true” in some strange twisted mythology. Every possible monster myth was thrown at the Clintons to see what would stick, and for different audiences, different nonsensical assertions rang true. Bush and his Party famously derided nation building and subsequently committed America to $trillion expenditures meddling in remaking an entire region.

Was Kennedy a traitor? Is Obama a Kenyan commie-socialist-fascist bent on implementing death panels and selling out the country. Near West Virginia, I’m surrounded by people who think so because they are told so.

Ugly lying is not a “bug” in the right-wing tool chest, but a “feature.” Worrying about the “truth-value” or “validity of world view” of anything the right wing promotes seems to me like wasted energy.

It is indeed the mood music (the meta-truth) that must be addressed. Is the worldview that considers politics an extension of warfare, where the end justifies the means, a valid one, a socially responsible one, an ethical one?

And if it isn’t, how do we address it?

46

Darius Jedburgh 12.22.09 at 6:09 pm

“people who believe that important philosophical conclusions can be drawn from trivial linguistic puzzles [are among the people Wittgenstein should have told to fuck off]”

Ahem. Daniel, are you suggesting that Russell’s paradox is a “trivial linguistic puzzle”? If so, you may have floated a little too far outside your enviably large intellectual comfort zone here. Important philosophical conclusions can certainly be drawn from the paradox. (Frege’s response to the paradox: “arithmetic totters.”) Wittgenstein never lost his interest in the foundations of mathematics and, although he probably did tell Russell (effectively) to fuck off more than once, he certainly realised that the paradox was one of the greatest cataclysms in the philosophy of logic and mathematics ever.

47

Matthias Wasser 12.22.09 at 6:14 pm

“Common sense, only a bit cooler,” seems to apply, Matthias. Converting the fact that millions will die into a prescription for action does involve the non-fact “we should prevent millions of people from dying.” It’s just that it used to be more or less accepted that people who didn’t think we should prevent millions from dying were evil or crazy. Now it’s considered cooler to point out that these evil and crazy people have a coherent worldview in which the death of millions is, for them, the right outcome—wow, man. That’s deep. And it would be totally uncool to just say that those people were wrong, as if you were setting yourself up as the sole judge of objective truth or something.

I think the implicit term of your enthymeme here is “only objectively-based moral judgments are worth acting on,” rhetorical condemnation included. Maybe there’s a good reason to believe this, but it needs to demonstrated. (Even objectively wrong worldviews, of course, can be internally consistent – happens in the physical sciences all the time – but that’s neither here nor there.)

It would be nice, in my subjective judgment, if you dropped this bizarre Cool Kids sneer. It really problematizes polite discourse, you know?

That might be almost as uncool as engaging people as if they meant what they wrote. Man, only noobs fall for that.

I have no idea what you’re trying to insinuate here.

48

ejh 12.22.09 at 6:26 pm

“Slavery is a serious wrong in normal circumstances” states a fact.

Does it? It states something that I think no civilised contemporary individual would disagree with, and I think it states something that’s true. But is something a fact because it’s true?

49

Darius Jedburgh 12.22.09 at 6:33 pm

“is something a fact because it’s true?”

Yes.

50

ejh 12.22.09 at 6:41 pm

But I d0n’t think it is, because there are different sorts of truths.

51

Bloix 12.22.09 at 6:43 pm

“is something a fact because it’s true?”

No.

52

Darius Jedburgh 12.22.09 at 6:43 pm

Well, in that case, there are different sort of facts.

53

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.22.09 at 6:50 pm

In what sense is “we should prevent millions of people from dying” not a fact?

I hear some say that “we should prevent millions of fetuses from being aborted” is a fact. But others say it’s something else.

54

Darius Jedburgh 12.22.09 at 7:28 pm

Bloix is simply registering his/her intention to use either “fact,” or “true,” or both, in a new and interesting way.

55

ejh 12.22.09 at 7:35 pm

No, I don’t think so. A fact is something that’s provably true, provably to a scientific standard. Sunderland won the FA Cup in 1973 and Ian Porterfield scored the winning goal. These are facts.

56

djw 12.22.09 at 7:41 pm

Well, in that case, there are different sort of facts.

Um, isn’t this blindingly obvious?

57

kid bitzer 12.22.09 at 7:45 pm

#52

i have always been mystified as to the source of this common and false piece of folk lexicography.

58

ejh 12.22.09 at 7:54 pm

It must be true it’s on Youtube

59

ejh 12.22.09 at 7:56 pm

(I remember watching it on TV at the time: my mother explained it to my then four-year-old brother as involving the Tiggers playing the Heffalumps.)

60

kid bitzer 12.22.09 at 8:04 pm

then i withdraw the objection.

61

Rich Puchalsky 12.22.09 at 8:16 pm

“It states something that I think no civilised contemporary individual would disagree with, and I think it states something that’s true. “

After the right wing took up their version of post-modernism, you can no longer assume this.

For example, in the Bush years it became more-or-less accepted by everyone that the DFHs who had been saying that America was an empire were, in fact, mostly right. The right wing then simply said that empires were good. They didn’t even bother to dispute the facts, they just said, hey, we believe that if we play the right mood music behind the facts, our interpretation will carry the day.

And this belief as a prescription for politics fails. It most especially fails in any case where the mood music collides with actual real-world facts — global climate change, say. The “where you stand depends on where you sit” then comes down to an actual analysis of differing economic interests based on market position and geography, something which has very little mood music to it.

62

Patrick S. O'Donnell 12.22.09 at 10:49 pm

Should anyone be interested, I have two related posts at Ratio Juris sharing the insights of a handful of contemporary philosophers (ones I’m inclined to agree with), among others (e.g., Jain philosophers), on questions of truth and objectivity (hence relativism as well), as well as facts and values. Please see, first, “A Jaina Propaedeutic for Metaphysical Relativism, Perspectival Rationalism and Contextual Pluralism:” http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2009/09/jaina-propaedeutic-for-metaphysical.html
And then, “Facts & Values, Truth & Objectivity:” http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2009/09/facts-values-truth-objectivity_22.html
The latter post has a nice list of “references and further reading.”

63

Patrick 12.22.09 at 11:57 pm

I’ve never met anyone who believed that all possible interpretations of something were equally correct. Or someone who believed that contradictory possibilities could genuinely be true for different people.

But I have met a whole lot of people, including academics, who were willing to use those words and then elide like crazy in order to stop people from pinning them down on exactly what they meant. They did the same verbal dance you get from kooks of all brands- make broad, unsupportable claims, retreat from them into obscurantism when pressed, then when your opponent ceases the attack claim that your ideas weathered it and return once again to your broad claims. Extra points if they sneered that “no one says or does [X],” where [X] is something anti-relativists criticize, when it would be literally impossible for them to be experts in their own field and not know that people in said field say [X] all the time.

So I figure that the “militant anti relativists” are giving them exactly what they collectively deserve. Strictly speaking the content of the abuse is undeserved. But since we can’t throw mud at them whenever they emerge from their offices, this is fair.

64

Walt 12.23.09 at 12:06 am

I’m finding 25 hilarious (though probably unintentionally so). Yes, actual human beings are required to believe every logical consequence of their not-fully-worked out argument. Once you entertain a thought, you active the Modus Ponens Engine of Doom, which leads you to your inevitable and grim fate.

65

stostosto 12.23.09 at 12:24 am

Wittgenstein?! Who is he and how did he get in here? Was he involved in Kenndy’s assassination?

66

Darius Jedburgh 12.23.09 at 1:13 am

ejh: “unproven fact” is not a contradiction.

67

Bloix 12.23.09 at 1:31 am

Well, in everyday usage, “true” is applied to many statements that are not facts. “True” often means no more than that a certain value judgment is widely accepted.

68

Darius Jedburgh 12.23.09 at 1:34 am

djw: Uh, yeah. The point is: that’s why there being different sorts of truths (as ejh claims) doesn’t show impugn the (obvious) claim that

p is a fact if and only if p is true.

Furthermore, if, as ejh claims

Sunderland won the FA Cup in 1973 and Ian Porterfield scored the winning goal

are facts, then both are true; and it’s hard to imagine how ejh could deny this latter claim.

OK, I’m stopping now, before d2 accuses me of retailing trivial linguistic puzzles.

69

Darius Jedburgh 12.23.09 at 1:38 am

Bloix: thanks for the report on how sloppy people use words.

Obviously people who use “true” in such a way aren’t going to be too scrupulous about how they use “fact.”

70

tomslee 12.23.09 at 1:41 am

@walt. I don’t think many of us expect humans to “believe every logical consequence of their not-fully-worked out argument”. All most of us expect is that, in return for letting them work through their argument, they not roll their eyes at us while they do so. And there was some fairly high-amplitude rolling going on as far back as the late ’70s.

71

novakant 12.23.09 at 2:46 am

“p is a fact if and only if p is true”

That sentence has close to zero explanatory value, though.

72

Darius Jedburgh 12.23.09 at 3:08 am

It’s not supposed to explain anything Novakant. It’s about meanings.

73

Timothy Scriven 12.23.09 at 4:12 am

“Wittgenstein?! Who is he and how did he get in here? Was he involved in Kenndy’s assassination?”

Almost certainly. He’s done that sort of thing before:

http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Ludwig_Wittgenstein#Various_Wars_and_Interwar_Periods.2C_Also_Hitler

74

Joaquin Tamiroff 12.23.09 at 6:06 am

Intellectually serious complex Modernism: Perspectives are important.
Pop/Cheap Modernism (not excluding political figures and academics): Perspectives are illusion. And if they were important once, they aren’t now because we’ve progressed beyond them.
Intellectually serious post-modernism: Yes, perspectives are in fact important.
Pop/Cheap Post-Modernism: “It’s all cool”
But Cheap Postmodernism didn’t last very long.

“It is important that women and minorities are represented in government and the courts because in our society at this point in time both offer a substantively different perspective from white men on policy and judicial decision-making.”
Our society is not a universal truth, but its all we know. That understanding can safely be called “post-modern”

75

Bloix 12.23.09 at 6:52 am

Darius Jedburgh – see #48.

76

Chris Bertram 12.23.09 at 9:02 am

_he could have saved himself a whole book and saved the taxpayer a small percentage of the last fifty years of higher education funding for philosophy departments._

As British academia today faces a round of further and deeper funding cuts, including likely redundancies and closures in philosophy departments, a set of cuts ultimately caused by the fuck-ups of people who work in the City of London (and their US confreres), I’d just like to say

Thanks comrade. Great timing. Happy Christmas.

[This announcement was brought to you by Bitter and Resentful Ad Hominem Services.]

77

engels 12.23.09 at 10:11 am

I think it’s quite common to use ‘fact’ to mean a true statement whose truth depends on the way the world is. So ‘the temperature outside is -2′ is a fact but ‘-2 is a negative number’ is not (it’s true by definition). On this way of talking arguably ‘2+3=5′ and slavery is wrong’ are not facts (although they are objective truths).

78

chris y 12.23.09 at 10:15 am

“Slavery is a serious wrong in normal circumstances” states a fact. Nothing subjective about it.

… and in the red corner, from Stagira in Chalcidice, Aristotles, son of Nicomachus. Seconds out, round one…

79

chris y 12.23.09 at 10:16 am

Also, I can’t spell.

80

Chris Bertram 12.23.09 at 10:39 am

#75 G.A. Cohen’s distinction between facts and (true) principles relies on a sense of “fact” restricted to merely contingent truths. I think he has some discussion (book in office) of the linguistic issues. Anyway, the sense in which, for Cohen, principles of justice are not fact-dependent, involves taking “fact” in this restricted sense.

81

Hidari 12.23.09 at 11:17 am

If anyone cares, you can get a much closer approximation to what I think the ‘relativists’ are getting at, if you substitute for ‘relativism’, the word ‘contextualism’ in most philosophical debates.

At least when discussing ‘contextualism’, you can actually discuss the issues, without having the ‘vampire reacting to sunlight’ reaction that some people have when the word ‘relativism’ is mentioned.

Contextualism is increasingly influential in modern philosophy, and for good reasons.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contextualism

82

dsquared 12.23.09 at 11:39 am

to be honest, I would bet large amounts of money that I’ve seen more friends of mine sacked over the last two years for other people’s mistakes than you have (the actual mistakes having been made for the largest part in the cities of Newcastle, Edinburgh and Bradford), so I’ve become rather inured to both the experience and people making insensitive comments about it. Nevertheless, sorry for that one if it was ill-timed and a merry Christmas to you and yours.

83

novakant 12.23.09 at 11:42 am

Thanks for that, Hidari.

No offense, but parts of the above discussion reminded me of the debates I had with friends when I wasn’t even at university yet, but a high-school student who didn’t know much about anything really. I’m not targeting anybody in particular, rather it seems to me that for some reason the topic often makes people forget everything they might have read and learned in innumerable hours of study and debate and elicits knee-jerk reactions instantly.

84

Michael Harris 12.23.09 at 12:23 pm

Seriously? We needed postmodernism to inform us that perspective and context matter?

Thank God they came in time to save us!

85

Darius Jedburgh 12.23.09 at 12:39 pm

Bloix — see #49

86

Darius Jedburgh 12.23.09 at 12:43 pm

Michael Harris: Quite so; and that’s all postmodernism qua relativism can amount to if it’s not to be vulnerable to the “extremely stupid arguments aiming to demonstrate that relativism is self-refuting” of Plato and others.

87

Darius Jedburgh 12.23.09 at 12:48 pm

chris y: Are you suggesting that Aristotle might have been right about slavery? Just so we know where we are. I mean, you wouldn’t suggest he might have been right about his cosmology, would you? Why should we have any less confidence in the wrongness of slavery than we have that the earth isn’t the centre of the universe?

88

Darius Jedburgh 12.23.09 at 12:50 pm

Engels: Like Bloix and ejh, you seem intent on using the word “fact” in new and exciting ways. Thanks, but I’ll stick to the established usage, whereby it’s equivalent to “true proposition.”

89

novakant 12.23.09 at 12:56 pm

We needed postmodernism to inform us that perspective and context matter?

That all depends on who you mean by “we”.

90

dsquared 12.23.09 at 1:20 pm

and what you mean by “matter”

91

Chris Bertram 12.23.09 at 1:22 pm

Darius (#88), much as I hate to disagree with you, you are plainly wrong about the univocality of “fact”. “Fact” can and sometimes does refer to a subset of true propostions, namely, those that are contingently true. See my #80 above. Referring to “the established usage” when there’s plainly more than one is just dogmatic of you.

92

ejh 12.23.09 at 1:23 pm

ejh: “unproven fact” is not a contradiction.

Of course not. But all facts must, I’d have thought, be provable, which is something different. You can hold truths to be self-evident: facts, not so.

I don’t think I’m “using the word ‘fact’ in new and exciting ways”: I think I’m using it rigorously. It’s that sort of word, is it not?

93

chris y 12.23.09 at 1:25 pm

Darius Jedburgh: I don’t for a moment believe it’s possible that Aristotle was right about slavery. But that’s a different use of “believe” to the question of the centre of the universe, and I don’t think they should be confused.

I think slavery is wrong is the same sense, and with as much passion, as people who care about that sort of thing believe that the guy whose birthday will be celebrated on Friday was crucified and then came back to life. I don’t see that my belief in the wrongness of slavery would avail me in the least as an argument with somebody who though that Aristotle was right. Why should they be impressed?

On the other hand, if I was arguing about the centre of the universe I could refer them to a physicist who would take them through a step by step demonstration, using observation and mathematics, that the earth ain’t it.

94

Hidari 12.23.09 at 1:44 pm

‘We needed postmodernism to inform us that perspective and context matter?’

And what you mean by “postmodernism”.

95

kid bitzer 12.23.09 at 1:49 pm

#91–

i think you’re right to emphasize the point that “fact” is used in various ways and is not univocal.

but by the same token, that also shows that there are no points to be scored by claiming that something is a “fact”.

grant that f is a fact; may we then conclude that f is contingent? no; not until we have figured out whether “fact” was used in the sense of “contingent fact” in the claim that “f is a fact”. (maybe it was, as by cohen. or maybe not.)

grant that f is a fact; may we then conclude that f is provable? no; not until we have figured out whether “fact” was used in the sense of “provable fact” in the claim that “f is a fact”. (as it is by some users and not by others).

and so on.

there’s really no argument about the contingency, provability, objectivity, etc. of facts, that cannot be more clearly and usefully conducted by eliminating the middleman (“fact”) and just arguing directly about provability etc..

the “folk lexicography” that i objected to back in my #57 was exactly the dogmatic claim that “fact” always (or even generally) means “provable fact”. sure; it may do that sometimes. and sometimes it doesn’t. it’s not univocal on that score either.

96

ejh 12.23.09 at 1:52 pm

Fact is something of a dogmatic concept.

97

engels 12.23.09 at 2:08 pm

Darius, have you ever heard of the ‘fact/value distinction’? Or Leibniz’s ‘truths of fact’ and ‘truths of reason’? Or, in journalism, the oft-touted distinction between fact and opinion? They are all examples of people using the word ‘fact’ in a way that is supposed to distinguish the class of facts from other classes of propositions, which may also be true.

98

Darius Jedburgh 12.23.09 at 2:09 pm

Chris B: I don’t think it’s dogmatic to insist that it’s a fact that 2+2=4; “contingent fact” is not a pleonasm. To restrict the term to contingent truths (as Hume arguably did) is to make it a quasi-technical term; ie to use it in new and exciting ways.

ejh: Why insist that all facts must be provable? According to Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem (which dsquared no doubt considers a trivial linguistic puzzle), any formal theory strong enough to express arithmetic will include a true proposition (ie one expressing a fact, pace Chris B) which is not provable in the theory. More prosaically, there is a fact of the matter (leaving aside issues of vagueness) about how many blades of grass there were exactly one year ago on my front lawn, but this fact is not only not now provable, it’s presumably not even knowable.

Chris Y: Why so pessimistic about our prospects for establishing the wrongness of slavery (and so optimistic about our ability to persuade people of the true cosmology, come to that)? Is it really just an article of faith for you, no more rationally compelling than religious belief? We could, eg, make Aristotle our slave for a day and then say “How would you like it if that was the whole of your life?” We recognise that as a broadly legitimate mode of argument, and in other contexts so did Aristotle. We couldn’t convict him of contradiction, but then a paranoid schizophrenic could give very consistent-looking grounds for believing that the earth is the centre of the universe (the scientists are all in on the conspiracy etc).

99

Chris Bertram 12.23.09 at 2:18 pm

Well, yes, Hume’s distinction had occured to me. It is a bit much to describe an 18th-century usage as “new and exciting”!

100

engels 12.23.09 at 2:18 pm

Ok, so what you’re calling ‘the established meaning’ is the one you like best. Glad we’ve got the straight.

101

Darius Jedburgh 12.23.09 at 2:24 pm

Engels: Nope, never heard of them. Ha ha! Just kidding! The point of the fact/value distinction, for those who believe in it, is that statements about value can’t be true (or false). That’s why they’re being contrasted by such people with (putative) facts. The point of the “oft touted distinction between fact and opinion” is that facts, by definition, are true, while opinions are not. (That is, opinions may of course be true, but their truth is not guaranteed by their status as opinions.) Leibniz, like Hume, is using “fact” in a quasi-technical sense.

102

Darius Jedburgh 12.23.09 at 2:26 pm

Engels: I think it’s the person who denies that it’s a fact that 2+2=4 who is allowing their conception of the established meaning to be moulded by what they like best.

103

Tim Silverman 12.23.09 at 2:27 pm

@Darius Jedburgh: if you think there’s a single well-defined, widely agreed-on “established usage” for the word “fact”, or for the word “true”, then you can’t have got involved in many metaphysical debates. People’s usages differ a lot, and that’s before you get to down to the level of actual philosophical disagreement. (The words “real” and “exist” are, at least in my experience, even worse.)

104

novakant 12.23.09 at 2:30 pm

engels @ #97

but it’s not only Darius, upthread Harry wants to conflate the fact/value distinction as well

I myself will bow out by quoting Quine’s “Two Dogmas”:

As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer . . . For my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer’s gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing, the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conceptions only as cultural posits.

Happy Xmas!

105

Tim Silverman 12.23.09 at 2:32 pm

@ejh: “there are different sorts of truths”

I’d go further. There are a bunch of phenomena between which various people see family resemblances and call by the same name “truth”. But between any pair, people disagree about the degree of the resemblance, the importance of the resemblance and the nature of the resemblance, as well as whether there’s really any resemblance at all (or, conversely, whether they aren’t really just the same thing). It’s hard even to find widely-agreed on core examples. Describing them as “sorts of truths” already pre-judges the issue of whether they actually are all different species of the same genus, rather than merely superficially similar-looking phenomena.

106

Darius Jedburgh 12.23.09 at 2:40 pm

Tim Silverman: But I do think that, and yet I have got involved in very, very many metaphysical debates. So you’re wrong!

Novakant: you are confused. It is true (ie a fact) that I don’t really believe in the so-called “fact/value” distinction, but I don’t conflate it by insisting that “fact” is equivalent to “true proposition.” On the contrary, only on such a conception of facts can the distinction make any sense for those who believe in it.

107

engels 12.23.09 at 2:43 pm

Maybe one could have a relativist theory of relativism. Relativism is true in certain places (US political scence? The internet?) not in others…

108

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.23.09 at 2:49 pm

2 + 2 could be also 10 or 11.

109

engels 12.23.09 at 2:52 pm

Nope, that’s like saying ‘Snow could also be blanche‘.

110

kid bitzer 12.23.09 at 2:53 pm

so dj, why eschew the option that bertram and i have outlined? i.e., say that “fact” is not univocal; certain speech communities have used it in augmented, semi-technical ways; some of these ways have become sufficiently common to count as distinct senses.

you could even say, if you wanted, that the core and central sense of “fact” is just “fact iff true”. but why deny that various other usages have become sufficiently well-established so as to count as other senses? (esp. since doing so would not give anyone else any argumentative leverage; no conclusions follow from the label, cf. my #95)

111

Darius Jedburgh 12.23.09 at 2:56 pm

How illuminating Henri.

ejh: I meant to mention that your claim that one can’t hold a fact to be self-evident is bizarre.

112

Steve LaBonne 12.23.09 at 3:00 pm

Disucussions about relativism always put me in mind of Larry Laudan’s amusing little dialogue Science and Relativism. I’ve always especially enjoyed the the book title ascribed to the relativist figure, Quincy Rortabender: Skepticism about Everything Except the Social Sciences: A Post-Modernist Guide.

113

Hidari 12.23.09 at 3:02 pm

An academic friend of mine who is also a competitive cyclist points out that the word ‘true’ is polysemous (or a homonym, depending on your point of view). Obviously it means what we have all been discussing but it is also a verb (and adjective) relating to something to do with bike wheels that I don’t quite understand.

And of course you can only know which sense of the word is being used by looking at the context. The question: “Is this true” when looking at a philosophical statement and when looking at a bike wheel might have very different answers (i.e. socially appropriate answers).

114

Chris Bertram 12.23.09 at 3:02 pm

Darius, your insistence that your preferred sense, in which “fact” is equivalent to “true proposition” is the established use and that Hume’s use is a deviant “technical” sense ought to be settleable by reference to a dictionary. Here’s sense 4a from the OED:

bq. Something that has really occurred or is actually the case; something certainly known to be of this character; hence, a particular truth known by actual observation or authentic testimony, as opposed to what is merely inferred, or to a conjecture or fiction; a datum of experience, as distinguished from the conclusions that may be based upon it.

Which does, I think, tend to support the Humean view on the basis of ordinary usage.

You could appeal to 6c:

bq. the fact (of the matter): the truth with regard to the subject under discussion.

But generally, the OED isn’t on your side.

115

engels 12.23.09 at 3:04 pm

Skepticism about Everything Except the Social Sciences: A Post-Modernist Guide

I think it should be published alongside a similar book by internet know-it-alls ‘Trust No-one — Except Me’…

116

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.23.09 at 3:38 pm

Nope, that’s like saying ‘Snow could also be blanche‘.

Nevertheless, I believe it raises a reasonable doubt about the notorious “2+2=4″ dogma.

117

Darius Jedburgh 12.23.09 at 4:07 pm

Chris B: Well, “Something that… is actually the case” seems to fit. I’m prepared to go along with K Bitzer’s suggestion about core meaning. If someone came up with a proof of Goldbach’s conjecture and said: “You know, it turns out, the fact is, every even number greater than 2 can be construed as the sum of two primes!” it would totally absurd to accuse her of abuse of terms or deviant usage.

118

Matt McIrvin 12.23.09 at 4:08 pm

I think dsquared just made the ultimate dsquared post.

Concerning the heirs/circle of Gardner and Hofstadter and global warming, apparently James Randi just made some comments expressing doubt over anthropogenic global warming and then backpedaled when somebody educated him. I suspect it’s a manifestation of a more general phenomenon. It’s annoyed me for some time how deeply the organized skeptic movement is entangled with AGW contrarianism, and, generally, anti-environmentalism to the point of reflexive mistrust of some good science that proper skeptics really ought to be paying attention to, and improper credulity toward industry astroturfers. Penn and Teller are major offenders.

It’s not universal; lots of prominent skeptics like Michael Shermer and Phil Plait stress that the evidence for AGW is good. But even they often evolved that view from an initially contrarian or confused position, probably because of what was in the air subculturally. To their credit, they eventually paid attention to evidence, but they could have had better priors, so to speak.

I’d say that this is just overreaction to various bits of New Age environmentalist antiscience, but I doubt it’s just that; I suspect there is tribal/ideological stuff going on. The movement has a lot of libertarians in it, who tend to be quite vocal about their libertarianism, and American-style libertarianism has never been terribly sympathetic to environmentalist causes or the proposed remedies thereto.

119

Joaquin Tamiroff 12.23.09 at 4:16 pm

Post-modernism is one way to describe the understanding that the intent of the reconstruction amendments of the US constitution (though necessary) could be considered un-Constitutional as such, and that the Constitution as a text could be as contradictory as the bible, but still useful. When we claim to ‘follow’ the Constitution the best we can do is engage it.

Bridges aren’t built with smoke and mirrors but societies are; we ignore the distinction at our peril. And yes we’ve needed post-modernism to teach us that and we still do.

120

dsquared 12.23.09 at 4:31 pm

Matt – I think that the trouble with the skeptic movement these days is that it’s full of people who like science but are scared of maths (that is my explanation for why Roger Penrose, who is a fantastic science writer, is such a marginal figure for them compared to Dawkins). In general, lots of the philosophers that I’m talking about above really ought to have been mathematicians (as in, they’ve clearly got enough intelligence to do it and it would clearly have been a more productive and satisfying thing for them to do) and I’m very interested in trying to work out the reasons why so many of them didn’t go that way.

121

engels 12.23.09 at 4:40 pm

Bridges aren’t built with smoke and mirrors but societies are; we ignore the distinction at our peril.

Leo Strauss was a Post-Modernist?

If someone came up with a proof of Goldbach’s conjecture and said: “You know, it turns out, the fact is, every even number greater than 2 can be construed as the sum of two primes!” it would totally absurd to accuse her of abuse of terms or deviant usage.

Since you’ve moved the goal posts that far, why don’t you just dismantle them and take them home with you?

122

JoB 12.23.09 at 4:41 pm

Penrose, LOL.

123

ejh 12.23.09 at 4:51 pm

Why insist that all facts must be provable

Because otherwise the term has no meaning. Hence the point about self-evident is that whether you (or I) consider somethig self-evident or not, that’s not good enough a standard to qualify it for the term “fact”.

But I repeat myself. So here’s a more interesting disquisition on the topic:

124

novakant 12.23.09 at 4:58 pm

#106

As I have pointed out earlier, I think that playing hermetic games with words like “fact” and “true” does not elucidate the matter one bit and is irrelevant to the fact/value distinction, which is an insufficient but still worthwhile attempt to describe the material difference between the realms of human action (free and conscious) and nature (deterministic and soulless). In #87 you are clearly conflating the two, which you are of course your free to do, but then you also need to bite the bullet and dismiss anything that remotely resembles moral philosophy as misguided and useless.

125

Matt McGrattan 12.23.09 at 5:07 pm

re: 122

Dsquared has a point, if he’s talking specifically about Penrose’s “Road to Reality”, which is a pretty fantastic bit of popular science writing.

126

engels 12.23.09 at 5:18 pm

I’d be curious to know if anyone has read Road to Reality all the way through. Not just anyone here, but anyone?

127

Matt McGrattan 12.23.09 at 5:21 pm

re: 126

No idea. I’ve personally gotten through most of the first half and then put it aside for later. I expect that’s fairly common.

128

Kevin Donoghue 12.23.09 at 5:23 pm

I think that the trouble with the skeptic movement these days is that it’s full of people who like science but are scared of maths (that is my explanation for why Roger Penrose, who is a fantastic science writer, is such a marginal figure for them compared to Dawkins).

Substitute W. W. Sawyer or Ian Stewart for Penrose and I would agree with this, but The Road to Reality is unreadable AFAIAC and I’ve done plenty of maths.

129

AcademicLurker 12.23.09 at 5:34 pm

If you enjoy little mathematical puzzles, the exercises (or whatever they’re called) in Road to Reality are good fun.

But I also finished the first half and then put it aside.

On the larger issues in this thread (I know, the original post was, per #14, trolling; but I’m sick of working on my grant so I’ll bite): the trouble with these discussions of the science wars > 10 years on is that they devolve into learned discussions about folks like Wittgenstein and Popper and Russell, which isn’t really to the point. What annoyed scientists back in the 90’s were folks like Andrew Ross, Sandra Harding and Steve Fuller.

To put it mildly, Ross Harding and Fuller ain’t no Wittgenstein, Popper and Russell.

130

dsquared 12.23.09 at 5:46 pm

Horses for courses I guess – I loved it. But also Penrose is unpopular I think because of “The Emperor’s New Mind” – I forgot that for various reasons to do with Hofstadter and Dennett, being a skeptic in the 1990s seemed to mean that you had to be a total believer in some sort of Turing-machine theory of the mind, which for equally historic and contingent reasons was given the name “Strong AI”.

131

JoB 12.23.09 at 6:13 pm

125-127 – !

130 – being a skeptic in the 1990s obviously depends mostly on what you ‘particularly’ want to ridicule at the end of 2010 but: Penrose, come on; & philosphers that ‘ought’ to have been mathematicians, come on squared.

132

bianca steele 12.23.09 at 6:22 pm

Steve LaBonne@112
It’s the next shelf over from Failure of Nerve? I’ve Never Heard of Such a Thing.

133

Matt McGrattan 12.23.09 at 6:25 pm

re: 131

I can still think it’s a pretty interesting attempt at doing something different in popular science writing, no?

re: 130

I don’t think that’s really why a lot of people didn’t like ‘Emperor’s New Mind’, tbh.

134

dsquared 12.23.09 at 6:34 pm

JoB, when I suggested that Wittgenstein ought to have adopted that method of argumentation on one particular point, I wasn’t suggesting it as a general method for everyone.

135

JoB 12.23.09 at 7:07 pm

133 – you can think what you want.

134 – Is there method to my madness? Did I put forth an argument? “Libel!”, I shout, & maybe also would whisper something about not using the word ‘ought’ too much.

(but: thanks anyway! – even if I did mis that particular suggestion of yours to Ludwig)

136

Michael Harris 12.23.09 at 8:58 pm

Q. We needed postmodernism to inform us that perspective and context matter?

A. That depends on what you mean by “we” / “matter” / “postmodernism”

Well, I guess these are examples of perspective and context.

(But don’t ask me what I mean by postmodernism — it was dsquared who started in on “the whole point about postmodernism”. I’ve no idea which works or writers he meant, and what they added to matters of “perspective” and “context” over and above everyone prior to them, from the Greeks on.)

137

Sam C 12.23.09 at 9:31 pm

Patrick: thank-you for the link to your “Facts & Values, Truth & Objectivity” post – not the first time I’ve been indebted to your posts at Ratio Juris, especially for interesting references.

138

Dr. Hilarius 12.23.09 at 11:00 pm

I think that I’ve heard this conversation before – after taking a few ounces of mushrooms.

So it was Wittgenstein on the grassy knoll?

139

john c. halasz 12.24.09 at 4:51 am

At least someone finally bothered to remark upon the vagueness of the term “postmodernism”, which, if not simply non-existent, is phantasmic, a matter of rather superstitious imputations to ward off the dreaded spectre of “relativism” wherever its evil is suspected.

As to the formal Platonic refutation of relativism, Gadamer pointed out that it fails, simply because the assertion of a Platonic absolute truth and its denial don’t take place on the same level and are not symmetrical in their burdens of proof. The obverse form of “refutation”, attempted by some above, is to cite some claim which is held to be indubitably, incontrovertibly true, such that no one would dare to relativize its claim. So let’s take the claim forwarded above: “slavery is (morally) wrong”, which I don’t exactly take to be itself wrong. Now, I’m inclined to the view that any abstract moral “ought” taken independently of the embodied social relations and contexts in which it occurs or to which it refers is close to meaningless, but also that no moral claim is simply continuous with and derivable from some given set of factical arrangements. Still, prior to the advent of industrial capitalism, all extended societies relied upon, if not explicit slavery, then analogous forms of coerced labor, with the productive surpluses overwhelmingly accruing to the dominant elites and supporting as well their educated or half-educated hangers-on, the scribes, scholars, poets, ideologues, priests, etc., who buttressed elite rule. And “free labor”, a.k.a. wage slavery, was subject to subsistence conditions just as slaves needed to be maintained, such that slaves at times might have had better conditions. All of which was deemed “necessary” to the re-production of such societies and “justified” in the name of “higher” moral goods. In fact, slave systems of production were “competitive” with other contemporaneous systems for a very long time, often being more efficient and yielding higher productive surpluses, and not necessarily because of lower de facto unit labor costs. It was only the boosting of energy sources attached to mechanized technology that obviated the “need” for coercive labor incrementally. But technology is generally adjudged a morally neutral instrumental means, for good or for ill. So why is the coercion of human agency to produce socially appropriated surpluses to be deemed immoral, but its technical substitution of no moral relevancy? Not to mention that technological systems tend to generate their own artificial forms of “necessity” and also tend to morph into advanced means of domination. Is “slavery is wrong” an incontrovertible and invariant absolute or unconditional moral truth or is such a claim symptomatic of a lack of historical reflection, as well as, perhaps unreflectively appealing to an unspecified account of human agency, “freedom”, and its limits, as determinative of moral worth?

The upshot here is that the “refutation” of relativism by means of a specific incontrovertible, undeniable example might actually operate by restricting the contextual amplitude and range of questions that might be relevantly raised. I’ll just add that mathematical instances of such “absolute” truths are particularly inappropriate, since they rely on systems of rules setting up formal operations. (It was Russell who said that in mathematics we literally don’t know what we’re talking about, though he was relying on an empiricist account of “know”). Recent neuroscience has forwarded the claim the brains naturally “perceive” quantity in proportional terms of a logarithmic scale, rather than in terms of a digital counting series, which is culturally acquired, so that, if one asks the mid-point between 1 and 9, the “correct” counting answer is 5, but toddlers or innumerate Amazonian tribes are inclined to answer 3. The claim “But X just is a fact!”, (which term “fact” originally meant something made or done), is usually an assertion or constative speech act meant to lead to some further inferences or implications, rather than a foundational claim or an argument-stopper.

Just what is it about “relativism” that provokes such fear and strenuous theoretical efforts to refute it? I’m inclined to paraphrase Adorno’s remark about nihilism, (which no doubt was aimed at his bete noire Heidegger, though many lesser lights might be included), that attempts to overcome it are worse than the thing itself.

140

jholbo 12.24.09 at 5:42 am

“As to the formal Platonic refutation of relativism, Gadamer pointed out that it fails, simply because the assertion of a Platonic absolute truth and its denial don’t take place on the same level and are not symmetrical in their burdens of proof.”

As someone who thinks the Platonic argument is sound (if a bit dusty), I’ll bite. What’s the Gadamerian argument against the argument against relativism, john?

141

john c. halasz 12.24.09 at 6:38 am

Ah, Google and Google books! Discussion of the point seems to occur around pg. 340 of “Truth and Method” in a chapter entitled “On the Concept of Hermeneutic Experience”.

But I already stated the point, that denial of some absolute, invariant and therefore (sic!) encompassing truth doesn’t occur on the same level and with the same burdens as an assertion of the former. And it doesn’t amount to an assertion of the absence of any possible truths. Such a “strong” argument is too “strong”; it’s trying to leverage itself against the “weakness” of its projected opponent. Levinas makes a similar point about radical skepticism, which, like Wittgenstein, he doesn’t think is actually possible. Nonetheless, at the level of formal philosophical argument, the figure of the radical skeptic ends up shadowing the “position” of the other, which formal arguments at once implicitly address, while attempting to suborn, assimilate and deny.

142

John Holbo 12.24.09 at 9:03 am

Well, I think I sort of got the point (it’s only gestural, in your formulation). What I was really asking after were the reasons, such as they may be, for accepting the point, such as it may be, as true or valid. But I’ll give old google a try.

143

engels 12.24.09 at 12:45 pm

The upshot here is that the “refutation” of relativism by means of a specific incontrovertible, undeniable example might actually operate by restricting the contextual amplitude and range of questions that might be relevantly raised. … Recent neuroscience has forwarded the claim the brains naturally “perceive” quantity in proportional terms of a logarithmic scale, rather than in terms of a digital counting series, which is culturally acquired, so that, if one asks the mid-point between 1 and 9, the “correct” counting answer is 5, but toddlers or innumerate Amazonian tribes are inclined to answer 3.

So refuting relativism by pointing to a specific example like 2+3=5 is a big no-no but defending relativism by pointing to the specific example of Amazonian natives (discovered up by recent neuroscience!) choosing a different mid-point among a sequence of numbers is a-okay?

The claim “But X just is a fact!”, (which term “fact” originally meant something made or done), is usually an assertion or constative speech act meant to lead to some further inferences or implications, rather than a foundational claim or an argument-stopper.

What is a ‘foundational claim’ if not a ‘an assertion… meant to lead to some further inferences or implications’?

’ll just add that mathematical instances of such “absolute” truths are particularly inappropriate, since they rely on systems of rules setting up formal operations. (It was Russell who said that in mathematics we literally don’t know what we’re talking about, though he was relying on an empiricist account of “know”).

When I assert that 2+3=5 I am relying on a system of rules setting up formal operations? Are you sure? And why would this mean that whether or not 2+3=5 depends on the society in which I live? And how do Russell’s views about the nature of mathematics support this?

144

engels 12.24.09 at 1:05 pm

Is “slavery is wrong” an incontrovertible and invariant absolute or unconditional moral truth or is such a claim symptomatic of a lack of historical reflection, as well as, perhaps unreflectively appealing to an unspecified account of human agency, “freedom”, and its limits, as determinative of moral worth?

Well that puts Wilberforce firmly in his place…

145

novakant 12.24.09 at 1:21 pm

John & engels, I think we’ve been through this whole rigmarole before in the thread where John tried to defend his version of rationalism (if I didn’t miss something in the meantime, I think he never got around to further elaborate on this position and we got kind of stuck in the trenches).

The problem, as I see it, is this:

If one chooses to insist on viewing strict adherence to the laws of logic as the ultimate benchmark applied to every argument, that really leaves no room for or at least makes it incredibly hard to have a productive discussion which otherwise might bring the different camps a little bit closer. And before anyone jumps up and points out that we certainly would be unable to have a discussion at all if our arguments were wholly illogical, let me say that I am talking about matters of degree in adhering to those laws and, more importantly, differences in how we weigh certain aspects of arguments here.

And in observing that the further we move away from supposedly self-evident, analytic “truths” and towards descriptions and interpretations of events in “the world”, the messier things get and the less useful a rationalistic approach becomes in doing these events justice, I’m not saying anything terribly new or “postmodern”, which becomes abundantly clear if you look at the tradition who has grappled with the matter to no end.

Thus I find the insistence on prioritizing one form or one aspect of discourse over all others a bit surprising really and would urge those who do so to reconsider in order to make debate even possible, as otherwise we will always get stuck before things might get interesting.

146

Chris Bertram 12.24.09 at 2:07 pm

_let me say that I am talking about matters of degree in adhering to those laws_

Hmm. Does the law of non-contradiction admit of degrees of adherence?

147

dsquared 12.24.09 at 2:33 pm

Well, it does and it doesn’t.

148

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.24.09 at 2:41 pm

Well that puts Wilberforce firmly in his place…

Is it a mere coincidence that Wilberforce lived at the time of the industrial revolution in the UK?

149

engels 12.24.09 at 2:44 pm

Yes and no, but only up to a point…

150

Steve LaBonne 12.24.09 at 2:48 pm

Is it a mere coincidence that Wilberforce lived at the time of the industrial revolution in the UK?

Yes, I would say that it is, if you’re alluding to some sort of economic-determinist argument here. Such an argument would rely on the myth that the slave trade was no longer highly profitable. That is not the case. Read e.g. David Brion Davis’s piece in the current NYRB (can’t link because it’s behind a subscription wall.)

151

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.24.09 at 2:57 pm

You can’t be serious, guys.

152

engels 12.24.09 at 3:14 pm

Is it a mere coincidence that Wilberforce lived at the time of the industrial revolution in the UK?

Probably not, but let me ask you a similar question. Is it a mere coincidence that ‘post-modernism’, ethical relativism and rejection of the possibility of progress, rational social criticism and knowledge of world around us all became wildly popular among lower-middle-class people in the late-imperial period of American capitalism?

153

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.24.09 at 3:54 pm

I think the increased complexity of life does, naturally, lead to attempts to reconcile a variety of views. I don’t think that “rejection of the possibility of progress, rational social criticism and knowledge of world around us” is a part of it.

It’s like with mathematics: we know that in Euclidean geometry the sum of triangle’s angles is always 180 degrees (that’s a fact!), and then we learn that in hyperbolic geometry it’s not – and yet this doesn’t lead us to conclude that nothing in the world makes sense.

154

Joaquin Tamiroff 12.24.09 at 4:07 pm

“Hmm. Does the law of non-contradiction admit of degrees of adherence?”
Can the law of non-contradiction be applied to human society, and
can it be applied to any human society that we could consider just?

A modernist would say yes/ a post-modernist would say no.
An 18th century Philosoph would say yes/ a 16th century Humanist would say no.

And there’s a difference between relativism in an absolute sense and relativism as an acceptance of what we can know of the world. Relativism of some sort is a necessity for a democracy, otherwise if you want to follow Plato fully take the politics too.
The dream of a perfect grammar in politics becomes a defense of authoritarianism. That’s the post-modern and the pre-enlightenment (still secular humanist) critique of modernism and of the enlightenment and the age of revolution.

And Engels in a different context your words could have been written by a someone at Volokh arguing with Jack Balkin, or Brian Leiter mocking Bruce Ackerman. Your argument is fundamentally conservative in that to follow it results in conservative [read: anti-democratic] policy.

References follow:

Thus the Renaissance conception of humanitas had a two- fold aspect from the outset. The new interest in the human being was based both -on a revival of the classical antithesis between humanitas and barbartias, or feritas, and on a survival of the mediaeval antithesis between humanitas and divinitas. When Marsilio Ficino defines man as a “rational soul participating in the intellect of God, but operating in a body,” he defines him as the one being that is both autonomous and finite. And Pico’s famous ‘speech’ ‘On the Dignity of Man’ is anything but a document of paganism. Pico says that God placed man in the center of the universe so that he might be conscious of where he stands, and therefore free to decide ‘where to turn.’ He does not say that man is the center of the universe, not even in the sense commonly attributed to the classical phrase, “man the measure of all things.”
It is from this ambivalent conception of humanitas that humanism was born. It is not so much a movement as an attitude which can be defined as the conviction of the dignity of man, based on both the insistence on human values (rationality and freedom) and the acceptance of human limitations (fallibility and frailty); from this two postulates result responsibility and tolerance.
…The humanist, then, rejects authority. But he respects tradition.
Irwin Panofsky, “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline” in Meaning in the Visual Arts

“Humanism- Most generally any philosophy concerned to emphasize human welfare and dignity, and optimistic about the powers of unaided human understanding.”

Simon Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

Two definitions of Humanism. I prefer the first, but then I’m not a Modernist.

155

Philip 12.24.09 at 5:18 pm

@55, that is a fact and it’s true that it’s a good one, unless you support Leeds which makes it even better.

156

john c. halasz 12.24.09 at 8:32 pm

@141:

So what exactly is wrong with mere “gestures”, such that they should be excluded from rational consideration? Perhaps you should read the collected works of one Diogenes of Sinope, who was a real character, though I don’t think he appeared as one in any of the Platonic dialogues. Nonetheless, Plato purportedly called him mad somewhere. (Personally, I find Plato, with is obsession with the passions as “little despots”, more than passingly weird).

But we’re back at “the disunity of reason” again. There is no set of absolute premises underpinning a logically self-inclosed space or circle of reasons, by which all concepts and thereby (sic) the being of the world itself can be conjured. (And yes, it must end up as a circle, for reasons of systematic completeness, as Hegel recognized, though the image of the perfect circle is already a motif in Plato). The belief in such a thing is precisely metaphysics. But reasons are actually of disparate sorts and a “good” argument is one that judiciously combines such disparate reasons, Oh, dear! We’re knee deep in the mud. But the muddy ground on which we’re standing is called “practical reason”.

But then “philosophy” would not be a matter of elaborating logical techniques to calculate perfect arguments and achieve knockdown conclusions once and for all. Rather it would be an art of apposite questioning, which doesn’t arrive at “final” conclusions, but rather recognizes there is always more to be said, (or, following Levinas, unsaid).

There are various forms of “relativism”, some of which are simply unexceptional, such as differences between cultural mores, such as, e.g. burial practices. Granted, there are brutal and reprehensible practices in tribal or traditional societies. But brutal and reprehensible things also occur in “advanced” societies, without necessarily being reparable or readily resolved. And rescue fantasies involving the U.S. Marines are little likely to be of much avail. But why exactly should we consider philosophical reason capable of solving such problems or immunizing us from them? On the other hand, there are forms of relativism that are just non-starters, such as the subjectivist variety, which Wittgenstein put paid to with his critical dissolution of solipsistic skepticism in PI. It may be in some “deep” or undecidable metaphysical sense that each of us occupies a unique perspective to which somehow all our truth claims attach incommunicably and incomensurably, but once we’re talking about the matter and sorting our differences, we’re already irretrievably past that point, so what’s the worry?

All truth or validity claims are raised in particular contexts and conditions by similarly conditioned beings, but equally all such claims involve some degree and elements of conceptual generalization, which extends beyond particular contexts and lays claim to something “unconditional”, if perhaps impossibly so. The general worry about “relativism” is that it would impugn such validity, but it’s often not clear why that should be so, unless final and absolute conclusions amidst differences are sought. If there is a general formula to confute relativistic claims, it’s not the formalistic objection that a claim to relativism must at least be claiming that it itself is true and hence acknowledge at least one unconditional truth. Rather the way to go about confuting or defusing a relativistic argument is to point out that it is actually adhering to some absolutistic standard, which it shares with its absolutist antagonist, and by removing that absolute standard and, in effect, relativizing and “radicalizing” the relativistic claim, the relativistic quandary goes away. For example, historicist relativism was all the rage in fin de siecle Germany. But such historicism was based on claiming an absolute extra-historical theoretical standpoint, by which all historical knowledge could be gathered together and the variance of standards of validity between different historical societies/eras could by observed. But it failed to note that historicism was itself a product of history, such that the recognition of variance in historical norms and standards of validity, (based on temporal finitude), doesn’t impugn currently reigning norms and standards of validity, which historicism itself was implicitly drawing upon. And historicism is focusing on precisely the wrong problem with history. An idiosyncratic version of such a radicalizing move is a key to Benjamin’s critique of historicism and a more normalized form of it occurs in Gadamer’s notion of “effective history”. Such a substantive approach toward countering worrying relativistic claims works much better than the mere formalistic objection, as it actually gets into the weeds of what is at issue and the stakes involved. But then simply asking different sorts of questions about the “same” matter from the perspective of a different project of inquiry doesn’t constitute relativism, as when, say, one inquires into the power relations or interests involved in the generation of scientific knowledge, rather than into its basis of validity and modes of confirmation.

Much animus against “relativism” currently occurs in the name of the “authority” of modern natural science. But it was precisely modern natural science that stripped natural causal processes of any moral or human meaning or purpose, resulting in an “Enlightened”/disenchanted view of the world. Which precisely gave rise to all sorts of possibilities and worries about “relativism”. But denouncing and shouting down “relativism” hardly serves to vindicate that “authority” or resolve the issues involved. What is required instead is an account of the sorts of rational obligations involved in adhering to scientifically informed beliefs, which is not a simple matter and requires patient deliberation, but also, I think, an appreciation of the limits of scientific claims and their validity. Grounding the claims of scientific rationality on a decisionistic basis, such as occurs in complicated and ambivalent fashion in Weber or more simplisticly with Popper, leads to the worry that a too narrow conception of rationality and the issues involved is decided for, generating its own forms of irrationality, both with and against.

157

john c. halasz 12.24.09 at 8:52 pm

Chris Bertram @145:

Kant held to the law of non-contradiction: “A lawless will is a contradiction in terms”, etc.. But then he fell into some peculiar and powerful contraditions of his own: noumenal vs, phenomenal, etc.

That a thing can’t both be and not be, nor an attribute of a thing and its opposite be predicated of that thing at one and the same time and place: is that a universal invariant law of logic, or is it an ontological insight into the “definition” of a substance? (Personally, I think Aristotle liked syllogisms because they were a handy pedagogical format. But the actual structure of his inferences is much more complex than that. One could no more usefully re-write him in a series of syllogisms than re-write him in rhyming verse).

And natural language is the primary medium in which we make sense of/understand/interpret the world and its phenomena. Are you claiming that natural language has a pervasive and consistent logical structure? Looks highly doubtful to me. More like an invitation to a wild goose chase.

Again, what if something can only be present only on the basis of an absence? Is it then meaningful to say it is present and absent at the “same” time?

Ah, paralogical questions…

158

Darius Jedburgh 12.24.09 at 11:17 pm

Novakant 124: You’re still confused.

I don’t admit to conflating facts and values — I just don’t believe in the distinction!

It’s not me who has to “dismiss anything that remotely resembles moral philosophy as misguided and useless” — it’s the people (such as yourself?) who don’t think that “value-judgements” can be true or false.

159

John Holbo 12.24.09 at 11:59 pm

“So what exactly is wrong with mere “gestures”, such that they should be excluded from rational consideration?”

Sorry, I certainly didn’t mean to say they should be excluded from rational consideration. I love gestures! I was only asking for something more as well.

Merry X-Mas!

160

novakant 12.25.09 at 4:29 am

Does the law of non-contradiction admit of degrees of adherence?

Well, in an introduction to philosophy 101 sense: no.

But I strongly suspect that professors of logic, mathematicians and other experts on these matters don’t spend all their time harping on about what a wonderful law this is and how everybody should always adhere to it. Rather, I’m pretty sure they’re probably busy working on all sorts of variations and extrapolations that would at least partially clash with our common sense view of it.

And anyway, as soon as we leave the confines of formal logic and are trying to apply those laws to our discourse about the wider world, we do have to deal with the fact that the latter cannot be restricted by such laws in a narrow sense, if it is supposed to have some actual substance. Reading Hegel, Quine or whathaveyou, an essay, a poem or a novel, or simply trying to make sense of our own conflicted selves and relationships, this becomes clear quite quickly.

161

John Holbo 12.25.09 at 9:04 am

A slightly lengthier reply to john c halasz.

You have no moved on past the gestural stage, for sure. (I have yet to check out the Gadamer.) Your “if there is a general formula to confute relativistic claims …” bit suggests to me you are confused about the scope of the ‘Plato argument’, as least as I understand it. (And, to be fair, Plato might be guilty of encouraging this.) Plato’s dusty old ‘relativism is self-defeating’ line only works against a narrow set of positions, i.e. those that assert the proposition he seeks to show is self-defeating. There are obviously going to be forms of relativism that don’t fall into the target zone, e.g. ‘this finger is bigger relative to that one’. “Such a substantive approach toward countering worrying relativistic claims works much better than the mere formalistic objection, as it actually gets into the weeds of what is at issue and the stakes involved.” Your comments hereabouts suggest that Gadamer’s argument does not seek to show that Plato’s argument fails, in its own terms. Rather, G. attempts to craft a form of relativism that will not be a fair target for what is, in other cases, a perfectly fair argument. He will assert a relativistic proposition without asserting one of the self-defeating ones. Is that right, on your reading? (There really are two long traditions of trying to get around Plato-type objections. 1) defeat it. 2) dodge it. Which hallowed gambit do you take Gadamer to be developing?)

If this helps: one thing that made me suspicious of your initial gesture – which I took to be a card from the good old ‘I’ll beat Plato at his own game by playing a different game’ deck – is that it’s hard to maintain BOTH that one’s claims are immune to Platonic objection, because they operate on a different ‘level’, AND to maintain that one’s claims bear on the Platonic argument at all. Either you are on the same level with Plato or you are not. If you are talking to him then he is talking to you. This isn’t necessary right, but if it’s not right, one would like to hear the reason why.

162

John Holbo 12.25.09 at 9:32 am

Reading the Gadamer, a bit quickly, I’m only semi-agreeable. At first he says that the Platonic argument is perfectly valid, but that it isn’t very interesting. Which I would tend to agree with. (If someone is REALLY willing to stand on that bright red X, you can drop a big Plato bust on his or her head, but …) But then he says that the deeper point is that “the formal refutability of a proposition does not exclude its being truth”, as evidence of which he cites Plato’s Seventh Letter. But to me this sort of posture looks like precisely the thing Gadamer is disdaining: a perfectly useless, uninsightful thought-for-every-occasion. ‘Even if you have shown I am wrong, perhaps there is a mystical sense in which I am right.’ Yes, fine. But is that really ALL that interesting? (I don’t think this is what Plato’s 7th Letter says, but if you cite that letter as support for this sort of claim, this is what you are claiming.)

The thing we can probably agree on, so maybe we can really agree to agree all around, is that people shouldn’t be SO dumb about their relativism that they get their heads taken off by a bust of Plato. (But it does happen.) The challenge is to formulate forms of relativism that don’t get your head taken off. What is the insight or thought that, when it misses a step, turns out self-defeating and wrong? What is the right formulation of that felt, intuited insight into something Plato would prefer to minimize? To get clear about this, you really need to have respect for the dumb old Plato argument, and I don’t think it’s healthy to cultivate – as Gadamer seems to me to be doing here – a sense that one is somehow mystically immune. Getting refuted by Plato’s anti-relativism argument is something that happens to other people. I don’t think that’s a very healthy attitude.

Scanning around more generally in this section of the book, Gadamer is presupposing a lot of stuff by page 341 – as well he should be. That whole historical consciousness has the structure of experience business. But that makes the things he says he here distinctly un-portable into, say, stray comment boxes. This sort of philosophical Big Gun can really only be properly brought to bear if someone is assaulting Fortress Gadamer (or some place quite close by). It can’t be scooted around the field to meet local deployments of the good ol’ Platonic argument, which – by contrast – is very portable and handy whenever you really need it. Which is to say: once in a while, when someone has said something really self-defeating.

163

novakant 12.25.09 at 11:35 am

The challenge is to formulate forms of relativism that don’t get your head taken off.

No – the challenge is to formulate non-relativist, “true” descriptions for all sorts of situations and events, and by extension the whole world, so powerful that they totally rule out the possibility of anyone coming up with conflicting but equally plausible or valid descriptions. I wish you good luck with that.

164

John Holbo 12.25.09 at 2:06 pm

novakant, that is also a challenge. Perhaps I should not have used ‘the’. I should have said, instead, ‘the challenge for aspiring relativists is to formulate forms of relativism that don’t get you in serious conceptual trouble.’ Likewise, of course, the challenge for aspiring non-relativists is to formulate forms of non-relativism that don’t get you in serious conceptual trouble. And I wish everyone all around good luck with that! After all, it’s Christmas!

165

chris y 12.25.09 at 2:13 pm

Is it a mere coincidence that Wilberforce lived at the time of the industrial revolution in the UK?

A full answer to this question would need to take into account that slavery was actually abolished in England twice. The second time in 1833, through the efforts of Clarkson and Brougham with a bit of grandstanding by Wilberforce, but the first time by William the Conqueror, whose statute of abolition was re-issued a couple of times by his immediate successors.

The socio-economic factors, if any, involved in that decision are unlikely to have been the same as those motivating the Clapham sect in the time of William IV. The socio-economic factors which led to slavery becoming respectable again centuries after its abolition would probably make a more interesting study than either.

166

chris y 12.25.09 at 2:15 pm

Oh, and Io Sol Invictus to all.

167

Hidari 12.25.09 at 8:41 pm

‘After all, it’s Christmas!’

Well that’s just YOUR opinion.

(No, more seriously, happy xmas to all and here’s a secular, non-relativist christmas ditty that even the most anti-hermeneutically challenged Gadamerite should enjoy:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCNvZqpa-7Q.

Enjoy!!! (In whichever sense of the word ‘enjoy’ most meaningful in your value system))

168

Maynard Handley 12.26.09 at 12:54 am

“Seriously? We needed postmodernism to inform us that perspective and context matter?

Thank God they came in time to save us!”

Come on, Michael, this is precisely the sort of know-nothing attitude that makes opponents of postmodernism look like dicks.

Most reasonable people [I’ve no idea if you are one] would agree that, for example, there are attitudes embedded in literature that are not always obvious to the casual reader, attitudes regarding, for example, class, race and gender. Likewise they would agree, if pressed, that there is something deeply dishonest about claiming that literature shows “human universals” when the authors and intended readers of a work had in fact a very different worldview from us.

Postmodernism, at its best, simply highlights these points — it tries to make explicit both attitudes in the text that were not obvious to the author and intended readers, because they were simply part of the water in which those individuals swam; and it tries to make explicit the same attitudes, NOT in the text, which are brought to it by current readers. This may seem like a sensible and reasonable proposition, but it is in fact the case that, yes, we needed postmodernism to inform us of these issues — or, less drastically, it is the case that viewing literature through these lenses was not commonplace until postmodernism. To take an example, read your Victorian critics — they certainly do not view the world in this way, in terms of what social context is implicit in a text and in its reader.

Now people can, and have, gone beyond this into the political realm — you can, if you wish, elide from discussing the portrayal of women in Moby Dick to a rant on how little women are valued in contemporary American society. But this secondary activity, regardless of what you feel about it and about its politic, has no relevance to the value of the first activity.
Personally, for example, I find Stanley Fish to sometimes come across as a douchebag when discussing contemporary issues, almost autistic in his blindness; but that doesn’t change the fact that I have found him absolutely fascinating when discussing literature, pointing out so many ways in which there is a context to a piece of writing of which I was largely unaware.

169

John Holbo 12.26.09 at 4:14 am

“Postmodernism, at its best, simply highlights these points.”

But if this is true, then postmodernism, at its best, merely reiterates almost commonsensical (hardly even theoretical) historicist (‘you’ve got to understand the context!’) attitudes. This kind of historicism/contextualism, at the philosophical/theoretical level, was quite common for decades if not centuries before postmodernism hit the scene. Are you willing to concede, Maynard, that, at its best, postmodernism was no philosophical advance over centuries-old historicist/contextualist just plain good sense? If so, why exactly did we need it? Not philosophically. Then why.

Just for the sheer vividness of the fancy verbal formulations of what were, if you are right, old familiar points?

170

John Holbo 12.26.09 at 4:51 am

This point sort of relates to Hidari’s claim, upthread, that relativists are usually just contextualists. I think it’s important to realize is that ‘relativists are usually just contextualists’ is typically an objection to relativism, not a defense. That is, if you really just want to make the garden variety point, it’s not such a good idea to overstate it, for thilling emphasis, in completely incoherent and confused fashion (see, for example, the collected writings of Stanley Fish – to stick with the example Maynard gives.)

171

Matt McIrvin 12.26.09 at 5:51 am

Personally, the reason I didn’t much like The Emperor’s New Mind was the physics: its whole argument hinged on accepting some extremely speculative and probably incorrect ideas about the brain doing quantum computing by microtubules. Penrose, unlike some other AI critics, actually thought a true thinking machine was possible in principle; he just thought it would have to have some artificial quantum gadget that worked like the ones he was claiming existed in our brains.

172

Maynard Handley 12.26.09 at 6:09 am

“But if this is true, then postmodernism, at its best, merely reiterates almost commonsensical (hardly even theoretical) historicist (‘you’ve got to understand the context!’) attitudes.”

You and I would consider this to be a common sense attitude. But there are plenty who do not think this. And, while I am nothing close to an expert in this area, my limited exposure to the way “people” (ie the establishment) viewed literature in the 19th and even the early 20th century was that this was not the way they operated. You might get some background discussion of the mores of the time in which the work was written; but you’d certainly not get an analysis of the assumptions that the reader was bringing to bear on the work.

Heck, outside the academy this attitude is rare even today. Hollywood will make a movie about Rome in which our heroine acts in some very feminist manner, and few will criticize this as an unhelpful way to understand what Rome was really like.
It is interesting to see the widespread blog discussions of _Avatar_ viewed as _Dances with Smurfs_, viewed through the lens of 100 years of anti-colonialism, but this, as a relatively mainstream phenomenon, strikes me as something new, not the way the movie would have been discussed 20 years ago.

So I think there was something new, in that this way of viewing literature, obvious as it may be to us, became commonplace starting, what, fifty or so years ago. I think to imagine that people always viewed the past “in context” is to radically retrodict our attitudes into the past — precisely to miss the whole point of the exercise. Similarly historians may have believed, for a long time, that they were looking “objectively” and “dispassionately” at the past, but it seems to me that it’s only in the last seventy years or so that there’ve been really serious attempts to compare how different societies and different groups have viewed the same events, and to try to pin down more seriously the ways in which the onlooker interprets matters; attempts before then seem somewhat cursory and slipshod, of the “of course I’m not being biased, I talked to all the guys who went to school with me and considered all their different opinions” variety.

173

novakant 12.26.09 at 7:12 am

There’s nothing new under the sun, John – most postmodernists would agree wholeheartedly. It might also shed some light on the term that pomo was first used to describe an anti-modernist movement in the field of architecture. Also, it seems to me that you yourself on occsaion exhibit a decidedly pomo attitude, because it seems you like to mix high and low culture quite a bit, no?

174

bianca steele 12.26.09 at 3:27 pm

@171 I don’t think he even went as far as that.

I was never able to get very far into the book, but it seemed to me he simply asserted “physics has proved there are phenomena that [cannot be computed] by a Turing machine” and concluded, “therefore we don’t have to believe the brain/mind is mechanistic,” therefore AI is pointless. This seems to be correct–Penrose, unlike some other AI critics, actually thought a true thinking machine was possible in principle–as the argument would seem pointless otherwise. He didn’t have any reason we should believe there were little non-Turing-computable particles in the human brain that made us thinkers.
\

175

Gareth Rees 12.26.09 at 4:08 pm

The argument, in so far as there is one, in The Emperor’s New Mind takes the form:

1. We don’t fully understand consciousness.
2. We don’t fully understand quantum gravity either.
3. So, they might be related somehow.

It’s a perfectly sound argument, but it’s hardly likely to convince anyone who wasn’t already convinced.

Otherwise, a great book. What other writer of a popular work, having introduced the notion of a Universal Turing Machine, would actually goes so far as to write out the encoding of that very UTM in a suitable form for input to itself?

176

kid bitzer 12.26.09 at 6:21 pm

#173–
that’s a joke, right? i mean, it has already become clear that the main defense of pomo is now, “well, it didn’t say any of that controversial stuff, really.” but this is taking lowering the bar to new lows.

now it is sufficient for something to be pomo, that it mixes hi and lo culture? that is the innovation which only derrida, deman, foucault, and their gang could bring to us?

just one thread over, we’ve been discussing henry iv, parts 1&2. doll tearsheet? bardolph and peto? they are mixed right into the same play with kings and archbishops. it scandalized voltaire, of course, and racine would never do it. but dickens did it all the time, and it has been english at least since chaucer followed the knight’s tale with the miller’s.

you’re just going to have to work harder to show us something which is characteristic of pomo, genuinely innovative, and not a load of bollocks.

177

engels 12.26.09 at 7:24 pm

now it is sufficient for something to be pomo, that it mixes hi and lo culture? that is the innovation which only derrida, deman, foucault, and their gang could bring to us?

As I understand it, the position now being defended is that everything ‘post-modern’ thinkers ever said was always crushingly obvious to anybody with any sense (‘people have different perspectives on things’, ‘context matters’, ‘modern life is complex and confusing’, etc) but most academics were so stupid, out-of-touch and set in their ways the only way to get them to understand was to use lots of impenetrable jargon and exaggerate massively for effect.

178

kid bitzer 12.26.09 at 7:35 pm

177–

sadly enough, i think something roughly like that is true about the market for fresh phd’s in the mla.

it’s not so much that “the only way to get them to understand” old stuff is to dress it in impenetrable jargon. it’s rather that the arbiters of disciplinary fashion want fresh, bold, revolutionary ideas, or the simulacra thereof. if you say something dull in a way that is easy to understand, you won’t get the job or the book-contract.

anyhow, that’s how it used to be. but now that bérubé is the new sheriff in town, it’s all gonna change.

179

novakant 12.26.09 at 9:20 pm

Well, kid bitzer, it should be immediately obvious that “postmodernism” is a very broad umbrella term. The playful juxtaposition of low and high culture is merely one aspect of it that was pursued by some and not by others – incidentally the three thinkers you name belong to the latter group and discuss texts and authors belonging to the realm of what we might want to call “highbrow” culture. Are you sure you know what you are talking about?

180

kid bitzer 12.26.09 at 10:34 pm

oh, enough to recognize a bait and switch when someone attempts it.

now your stance is that you are still defending pomo, only it’s a very big umbrella. and you’re only going to defend the parts that are common to the whole history of english literature prior to the rise of pomo, while abandoning three of the central names who were associated with its most distinctive claims.

your umbrella has torn in half. you’re all wet.

181

novakant 12.27.09 at 12:02 am

This is getting a bit tedious, since you don’t have sufficient knowledge of the actual authors and texts, and therefore resort to facile labelling and name-calling. Rest assured that I don’t feel a particular need to “defend pomo” – whatever that is supposed to mean and however Derrida, Foucault or de Man are supposed to fit this particular label (btw, is Quine pomo too?)- which would be a silly undertaking, as the term is much too broad and I’m more a close-reading type of guy.

Instead I am criticizing certain simplistic and vacuous approaches to philosophy, certain overly limited readings of the tradition and claims that privilege one form of discourse over all others by slapping the label “logical” or “rational” on it. Do yourself a favour and pick up a volume of essays by Derrida or de Man and you will see that they are very well capable of close reading, careful analysis and clear writing.

182

Michael Harris 12.27.09 at 12:06 am

Come on, Michael, this is precisely the sort of know-nothing attitude that makes opponents of postmodernism look like dicks.

Heh.

I’m Christmassing with the out-laws (in John Quiggin’s fair city, as chance would have it) so don’t have access to my own computer or bookshelves, so this is a bit seat-of-the-pants.

Please note that my own starting point here is Daniel’s “the whole point of postmodernism” claim, which sounds (arguably) stunningly trivial. Imagine if Daniel had posted “the whole pont of heterodox school of economics X was to demomonstrate that markets are rarely perfectly competitive”. It would be fair enough to draw one of two conclusions:
(i) we didn’t really need a whole new heterodox school of thought to demonstrate that, or
(ii) Daniel is vastly under-selling the more significant contributions of school of thought X.

Comparing options (i) or (ii), individuals’ mileage may vary.

I note that very few significant thinkers associated with post-structuralism (say) are being name-dropped in the many comments above. We’ve got John Holbo taking us all the way back to Plato, and then, with various figures chronologically in between, we’ve got a somewhat separate discussion on Turing, Penrose and AI. I don’t see Foucault or Derrida as the centre of these discussions, and if I did, I’d be interested in the literature critically evaluating their contributions (including but not confined to John Ellis on Derrida/deconstruction and Merquior on Foucault, for example — whether or not these critics are the kinds of taxpayer-draining analytical philosophers Daniel was sneering at might be revealed).

All that said, I don’t think postmodernism can take credit for what you claim it can, Maynard. I think the 1960s can. The rise of civil rights and feminism in the US and elsewhere, and liberation struggles in many countries, changed the whole landscape. As an example, feminist criticism was making its impact felt during the rise of the second wave (especially 1970s-80s) before postmodernism became the default analytical frame in many Women’s Studies programs.

OK, restaurants are being booked and movies arranged. But remember, you cannot take seriously anything I might have just said.

183

Darius Jedburgh 12.27.09 at 1:48 am

Novakant 179: Are you sure you know what you are talking about?

Ha ha ha!

184

John Holbo 12.27.09 at 2:48 am

novakant: “The playful juxtaposition of low and high culture is merely one aspect of it”

This seems to me just a basic conceptual mistake in mapping the terrain, novakant. Playful juxtaposition of low and high culture is neither here nor there with regard to postmodernism, at least insofar as this is considered a philosophical position. Philosophical non-postmodernists – for example, myself – may playfully juxtapose low and high culture without therefore become postmodernists. And (and you yourself see) philosophical postmodernists may fail to engage in this sort of play without failing to be postmodernists. Kid Bitzer therefore has you dead to rights re: the umbrella.

To put it another way, you are engaging in that rhetorical move I have previously dubbed ‘the two-step of terrific triviality’. That is: make claims that are ambiguous between some wild and implausible (probably metaphysical or epistemological) thesis and something so basically obvious or commonsensical that no one would bother mentioning it (certainly not with a thrilled tone of voice.) Now here are the two steps: when accused of saying something wild and implausible, object that really one is saying something quite trivial (some mild-mannered unassuming thing that would never trouble a soul). When accused of saying something quite trivial, assert that one’s interlocutor fails to see how we are dancing over the abyss here!

Hop from foot to foot as necessary.

You, for instance, are hopping mightily on the first foot. For the sake of defending postmodernism’s philosophical virtues, you are turning it into a diffuse sort of cultural attitude or energy, such as is plainly shared by philosophical postmodernists and their adversaries. But how can this be philosophically interesting? If the energy shows that anyone is philosophically wrong, it shows that the postmodernists were wrong – not their adversaries – for confusingly claiming something as a distictive virtue of their position that, in fact, wasn’t. (Postmodernists – deconstructionists – have frequently accused their philosophical critics of being tone deaf to the subtle music of play and irony, and so forth. Their critics, however, have never accused themselves of being tone deaf in this way. And, in fact, the critics quite typically are not tone deaf in this way – why should they be?)

185

kid bitzer 12.27.09 at 2:53 am

still, john, i had to admit he was bang on about the “this is getting tedious” part.

186

Maynard Handley 12.27.09 at 2:59 am

Personally, Michael, I’m happy with your statement. The problem with referring to “the 1960s” is that, even more so than “postmodernism” it has too many connotations — one could start imagining the reference is to the changes in sexual attitudes of the 60, or the Vietnam war, or drug culture or whatever.

To me, an outsider, reading this entire thread, it seems that there are a few different arguments going on:

(1) The claim that postmodernism is a waste of time because (as I understand the argument, reduced to its essence) people and societies are, apart from the superficial, basically all the same across time and space. A slightly fancier version of this admits that societies differ, but claims that it doesn’t matter because words “mean what they mean”.
This is the know-nothing argument against postmodernism that I was criticizing. I really have nothing to add to what I said earlier. It seems to me absolutely obvious that, to use a notorious example, when one encounters words like “punish a criminal” one CANNOT simply assume “words mean what they mean”. To us, the phrase conjures up a whole host of ideas — laws, codified by legislators, enforced by police, judgement at a trial, guilt, paying a fine or time in prison, the point of prison being deterrence and/or keeping dangerous folk away from decent folk. How much, if any, of this constellation of ideas is what goes through the head of a 16th century European confronting the phrase, as opposed to ideas of sin and God’s judgement and I don’t know what else (contamination? it’s all just a gamble, and he had bad luck? )

(2) On the other hand, we have the supposed idea that postmodernists claim that they alone, for the first time in history, saw the true relationships between authors, their society, and their current and future readers. We’ve had a lot of complaints against this view, but, for this thread I can’t see against whom these complaints are directed. I imagine there probably are people, somewhere, who have made claims like this — the world is full of nut, there are even plenty of them in universities — but it seems unfair to allow such nuts to tarnish the whole field. Would those who deal with this stuff day to day claim that
– this belief (pomo opened our eyes, for the first time, to the true light) is common or even
– this belief, while fringe, is not vociferously rejected by most people?

(3) Finally we have the claim that this stuff (when reading a text there is value in understanding both your culture and the authors culture, part of which means that the plain words the author states may actually have meant something very different to him than they do to you) is all obvious, and always has been. A few people have stated something like this above, and it strikes me a grossly wrong — not just a false opinion, but a false FACT.
– As I said, Victorian critics did not carefully consider their cultural biases when writing about, for example, classical literature; they operated basically like all those Renaissance painters depicting Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus as European bodies wearing European clothes of the time.
– Africa and Polynesian art, at the start of the 20th century, were, notoriously, interpreted by most Westerners through Western eyes. It was precisely the genius of Picasso et al to go beyond that. But Picasso et al did not represent the majority view by any means. AND what they took from the images was essentially the visuals; they took the other culture seriously, but did not take the characteristically postmodern step of “viewing their own culture as a martian might”. You could say Duchamp did that with his urinal, but Warhol does this more aggressively.
– When I went to high school, our reading of, lets say Shakespeare, was along the lines of “this strange word here means outside”, or “this phrase here refers to a ship bringing spice from India” or suchlike — the sort of one-way translation of “foreign language” into modern English. But there was NOT the reverse process, the explanation that when we think of a concept, “love” or “justice” or whatever, we bring to that concept a whole host of ideas that may have been very different from the ideas that Shakespeare and his audience brought to the idea.
And I don’t think it’s much different today in high school. Sure, there is the obligatory viewing of the past through the lenses of “sexism bad, racism worse”, but there is no real attempt to unpack OUR implicit understanding of the world, to attempt to show how truly foreign other societies were. Instead we have the reverse, claims that literature shows “universals” of how we are all actually the same; which wraps back to my point 1.

So if people want to continue this, there might be value in their stating exactly which of these three points they are contesting, and why.

187

novakant 12.27.09 at 3:14 am

John, you’re trying to force me into a corner by demanding a definition of postmodernism, yet I have made it perfectly clear that, I find the term of only very limited use and to underline the point have put the term into scare quotes for the most part – so at least as far as my position is concerned, this is simply a convenient strawman that allows you to attack without ever elaborating on how your rationalism (or whatever your actual position exactly is – I still don’t know) can meet the challenge I posed in #163.

188

John Holbo 12.27.09 at 3:32 am

Maynard, you will note that, upthread, I was careful to say ‘decades or centuries’, to show that there is a serious question about how far back to trace these attitudes. Is there any sort of supple play of skepticism in Derrida that wasn’t worked first by Montaigne? To the extent that relativism just means contextualism and contextualism just means historicism or sensitivity to culture, philosphical belief in the importance of the study of culture and history, then we are at the very least reaching pretty far back into the 19th Century. To the extent that Picasso and Duchamp did it first, we are talking modernism not postmodernism. And the 60’s changed a lot, too. What we have been objecting to in this thread (I and those who have been saying similar things, that is) is that it is quite silly to try to wag the whole dog of Western intellectual attitudes from Montaigne to Woodstock, by this tail: a set of post-1960’s philosophical fashions that achieved dominance for a time in university humanities departments, outside the philosophy department. That is, when accused of philosophical error, vaguely take credit for the whole cultural atmosphere. Which makes no damn sense, because it’s obvious that academic Theory is not the cause of this atmosphere, for better or worse, but only one of many effects. We are all, if you like, postmodern. But that doesn’t mean we have to put up with a lot of nonsensical arguments, just because they are labeled ‘postmodern’.

And another point you are making is that these virtues – historicism, contextualism, so forth – are not always lived up to. And that is quite true, but not at all to the point. It’s not as though postmodernists have a recipe for fixing THAT problem, after all. I don’t see any reason to suppose that people who like to read postmodernist philosophy (Theory) are any less bad at noticing their own critical failures than any ‘traditional humanists’. Why should they be?

You make the point that there is a very naive ‘words mean what they mean’ and facts is facts attitude that is less sophisticated than postmodernism. But this is setting the bar pitifully low. What we need is an argument that postmodernism is distinctively philosophically sophisticated. What you are saying is that it is logically possible to be more philosphically naive than postmodernism. But, seriously, who is there worth talking to who is naive in this ‘facts is facts, and words is words, and you just stick ‘em on each other, and there couldn’t possibly be a problem with that’ way?

As to boredom, novakant, I am an incurable romantic, and so I must quote F. Schlegel:

“In order to be able to write well upon a subject, one must have ceased to be interested in it; the thought which is to be soberly expressed must already be entirely past and no longer be one’s actual concern. As long as the artist invents and is inspired, he remains in a constrained state of mind, at least for the purpose of communication. He then wants to say everything, which is the wrong tendency of young geniuses, or the right prejudice of old bunglers.”

Which is why I am an analytic philosopher, more or less. When I read ‘postmodern’ arguments, I think: this is all well and good for geniuses going wrong and old bunglers, but I aspire to a more sober intellectual equilibrium state.

189

john c. halasz 12.27.09 at 6:02 am

http://books.google.com/books?id=HfNUhz7T6ocC&pg=PA93&lpg=PA93&dq=plato+seventh+letter&source=bl&ots=W7U3rSzePG&sig

O.K. That’s a link to a discussion of Plato’s “Seventh Letter”.

But that’s not of particular interest to me. (And I was asked to provide a citation from Gadamer, which I did. But I was working from memory, and I’m sure the “same” point was raised elsewhere in shorter essays).

The point about the Platonic “refutation” of relativism being comparatively trivial was already made, in that: there is no such generalized “thing” called “relativism” that requires or admits of a general refutation; some forms of relativism are non-controversial, virtually common sense; other forms are basically non-starters, in which case the Platonic formal argument is almost redundant; the interesting cases require careful consideration and response in terms of the “substantive” matters under consideration.

Gadamer’s interest was in articulating his “principle” of hermeneutic “charity”, (which is much different than Davidson’s, though the latter apparently drifted toward the former toward the end), which involves acknowledging from the get-go that one might be in the wrong and attempting to give the fullest possible account of the possible truth and rationality involved in the matter under consideration. It may well be that more limited, even deficient, forms of rationality and truth are involved in the matter under interpretive consideration, but: a) one wouldn’t know that, if one didn’t make any interpretive effort, b) no one is exactly in a position to claim an “absolute”, complete, final or sufficient form or account of rationality or truth, c) the point of the interpretive effort is that it forces one to extend one’s own understanding into a “fusion of horizons”, which draws one’s own conceptions into question, as to their limits, as much as those of the other. (Heidegger was perhaps the last most, desperate stand of the old German spiritual-aristocratic standpoint, but it ends up in the paradox that any adequate conception of “absolute truth” would be one that somehow includes its own error, – and not exactly in the sense of the Hegelian “Aufhebung”). One of Gadamer’s most fruitful suggestions is to regard the matter under consideration as an “answer” to a question or some set of questions, and seek to find the questions at issue, rather than assuming conclusive answers. That allows, as well, for reflection upon the practices, needs, interests, and concerns involved, rather than assuming that they are already included at the level of discursive “answers”, whether one’s own or other. Again, coming to grips with differences is not exactly a failure of understanding.

Gadamer was, of course, subject to criticism as a “relativist”, but the “absolutist” kinds, whether from (anti-)Heideggerian neo-classicals, such as Loewith or Strauss, or the intentionalist accounts of intepretation, are far weaker and more questionable or less robust than the account he offers, IMHO. It’s true that he is initially oriented toward the historicist questions involved in Western conceptions of “reason” and only later attempts to re-configure his account in terms of the cross-cultural case. But the sense that questions of truth and rationality remain open, indeed, are partly “defined” by such openness, without any sense that such openness is an easy, readily appropriable, or “final” matter, remains of lasting value.

Lastly, the “Platonic” formal refutation might be compared to the old Greek liar’s paradox. I like Wittgenstein’s response: yes, one can go back and forth on that forever, but so what? (Interpreting: when would one ever issue such an utterance, with any aim at conveying anything, and with what possible context? If there is no such instance, then the sentence could have no “illocutionary force”, which is tantamount to saying no semantic meaning. In fact, that would be a “good” instance for drawing into question any purely semantic account of meaning).

190

Michael Harris 12.27.09 at 11:23 am

Maynard

I’m really, I suppose, trying to work out what people here think “postmodernism” added to existing intellectual discourse over and above stuff that was already “known” from thinkers past. Of course, this is hard to pin down in a conversation where Daniel has, perhaps deliberately, set many hares running by referring vaguely to “the whole point about postmodernism”, without giving any specific clues. Hence my opening comment in the thread, a kind of arm-folded “ORLY?”

A run through the history of ideas ought to make clear that context and perspective and interpretive nuance are things that were thought about before the 1960s. Did the intellectual zeitgeist ossify at some point? Maybe. Did we need the postmodern turn in the humanities to save us from this? Well, this brings us to a counterfactual question about what might have occurred as a result of social, political and intellectual changes stemming from “the 1960s”. I’m pretty convinced (and the example I gave of feminism in the 1970s and ’80s helps convince me) that whole world views were in the process of being redefined and sometimes overturned. How would things have turned out had writers like Foucault or Derrida (or Lacan or …) turned their talents to baking or roof-tiling instead of writing? How would we be dealing with context and perspective and nuance, ‘about recognising that the choice of “mood music” is at least as important as the physical facts of what happened’?

We can’t really talk about that without getting down into the muck with individual writers and assessing their contributions, which we haven’t really done.

But, you know, something about how interpretive diversity has changed over some of these years can be gleaned from Fred Crews’ satirical books on Pooh:, The Pooh Perplex from 1964, and Postmodern Pooh, from 2006. He seems a lot less light-hearted in the second one.

(Shorter me: I’m ignoring your (1); I’m saying we can’t deal with your (2) without analysis of specific thinkers/authors; and (3) isn’t about ‘we always had context and perspective’, it’s about asking what the pomos genuinely added to our ability to apply context and perspective — this also needs some discussion of specific thinkers/authors, but some of us here are likely to start from the assumption that it might not be that much.)

191

Hidari 12.27.09 at 11:33 am

Msgs 156-189:

At the risk of sounding like an analytic philosopher (it was apparently G.E. Moore who made this form of question ubiquitous in philosophy seminars), but these discussions really are all pointless, unless someone explains precisely just what they mean by the word ‘postmodernism’* in this, ahem, context.

This is hardly a trivial point in that many (most?) post-structuralists went out of their way to deny that they were postmodernists, and the one that most famously didn’t (Lyotard) explicitly based his ‘postmodernism’ on his reading of……

…the later Wittgenstein.

*(We know it can’t just mean ‘relativism’ or even ‘contextualism’ because, as pointed out, people have been making relativist/contextualist arguments since the time of the Ancient Greeks. It is therefore perfectly possible, presumably, to be a relativist but not a post-modernist. In theory (or in Theory) at least. )

192

novakant 12.27.09 at 12:09 pm

In this context I think it means something along the lines of: “He looks French!”

193

ejh 12.27.09 at 12:11 pm

Surely of its very nature, the meaning of “postmodernism” is something we can’t be precise about?

194

novakant 12.27.09 at 12:52 pm

A strategy I’ve always found useful was to actually study the authors being subsumed under a certain label – one might be surprised by what finds in such texts, and if they are any good the whole labelling business will soon seem much less important.

195

Hidari 12.27.09 at 1:04 pm

‘Surely of its very nature, the meaning of “postmodernism” is something we can’t be precise about?’

In some ‘absolute’ ‘Platonic’ sense, sure. But there’s nothing to stop you being precise about your definition of postmodernism.

196

John Holbo 12.27.09 at 1:26 pm

Novakant: “Also, it seems to me that you yourself [Holbo] on occsaion exhibit a decidedly pomo attitude, because it seems you like to mix high and low culture quite a bit, no?”

Now that I know (192) all novakant meant was that I look French – I’ll agree to agree. (Just to be friendly)

Are there any more outstanding disputes needing address at this point?

197

engels 12.27.09 at 2:19 pm

you are engaging in that rhetorical move I have previously dubbed ‘the two-step of terrific triviality’

It does rather seem that way by now, doesn’t it? Of course the usual way of doing this is through careful use of capitalisations or inverted commas, so you can start off by announcing that ‘there is no World Out There!’ or ‘”truth” is a myth’ and when someone points to object X that does indeed appear to be out there and rather hard to move or statement Y that seems to be (rather inconventiently) true you can reply that of course you weren’t saying there is no world out there, nobody would deny that, but only that there is no World Out There, obviously some statements are true and others are false but still there is no “truth”… I am sure it must have been amusing the first few times…

198

novakant 12.27.09 at 2:22 pm

No – another impasse, but at least we seem to be able to keep things reasonably civil.

If anyone doesn’t already have enough to read over the holidays and feels the need to delve deeper into the matter, may I suggest this book:

Manfed Frank: What is Neostructuralism ?

199

bianca steele 12.27.09 at 2:26 pm

Well, for a first stab, how about: “postmodernism says the mood music can be set from bottom and trickle up, not only the opposite.” I assume Daniel thinks the John Birch society, as a populist movement, naturally is a bottom-up kind of thing.

200

novakant 12.27.09 at 2:33 pm

engels, if refuse to go beyond “x is out there and y is true”, i.e. naive realism, you’ll have a pretty hard time even at the most hardcore analytical philosophy departments …

201

engels 12.27.09 at 3:02 pm

But I didn’t refuse to go beyond “x is out there and y is true”. I just implied that I believe that some objects are in fact out there in the world and some statements are in fact true. Those beliefs don’t make me a naive realist. (Fyi naive realism is not an untenable position in ‘hardcore analytic philosophy departments’.)

202

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.27.09 at 3:20 pm

I believe that some objects are in fact out there in the world and some statements are in fact true

That is a nice interpretation, and it should be encouraged.

203

novakant 12.27.09 at 4:14 pm

What type of statements are true, in what sense are they true, relative to what are they true, what “makes” them true?

204

bianca steele 12.27.09 at 4:31 pm

Alasdair MacIntyre says IIRC that the postmodernist should refuse to answer the questions put to novakant at @203. A less than amusing alternative is to refuse to answer, but then go find a new victim and put the same questions to him/her, not that I believe there’s a fact of the matter as to whether anyone here including myself is truly doing just that.

205

bianca steele 12.27.09 at 4:31 pm

“put by novakant”

206

engels 12.27.09 at 4:33 pm

What is the capital of Azerbaijan? What were the causes of the First World War? How many elephants can you fit in a mini?

207

novakant 12.27.09 at 4:58 pm

Like John, you are very eager to point out purported shortcomings of your “relativist”, “postmodern” or whatever you want to call them opponents – but when it comes to laying out your non-relativist position that is supposed to do away with all this terrible frivolity and nonchalance, you are both suspiciously vague. I am aware that there is limited space and time here to lay out such a position and as a shortcut would certainly accept a pointer towards some prominent names in the field of analytical philosophy, who hold a position close to your own.

208

Hidari 12.27.09 at 5:19 pm

‘It does rather seem that way by now, doesn’t it? Of course the usual way of doing this is through careful use of capitalisations or inverted commas, so you can start off by announcing that ‘there is no World Out There!’ or ‘”truth” is a myth’ and when someone points to object X that does indeed appear to be out there and rather hard to move or statement Y that seems to be (rather inconventiently) true you can reply that of course you weren’t saying there is no world out there, nobody would deny that, but only that there is no World Out There, obviously some statements are true and others are false but still there is no “truth”… I am sure it must have been amusing the first few times…’

OK: first point. Who, precisely, actually stated, in a paper published in a recognised academic journal (or for that matter in a book published by a reasonably prestigious academic press) that ‘truth is a myth’ (or even that “truth” is a myth)? Since it’s Christmas I’m not even going to make it clear that really this person should be a self-described postmodernist to make the point (which is, presumably, that this is the kind of thing that postmodernists believe (or ‘believe’)).

That’s your starter for ten. Follow up question: who, precisely, stated that ‘there is no world out there?’ (Let’s skip gaily past the problem that it’s not clear where ‘out there’ might be if there is no world ‘in it’).

I mean, since Bishop Berkeley?

209

engels 12.27.09 at 5:53 pm

210

engels 12.27.09 at 6:16 pm

Novakant, I don’t have a ‘position’ on the nature of truth — and I’m not required to have one in order to hold a generally negative opinion of post-modernism, relativism, or whatever it is you take yourself to be defending here — but you can find references to recent work on this topic here:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/truth/

211

Sperry 12.27.09 at 6:29 pm

I mean, since Bishop Berkeley
Hume?

Or even that quote/unquote truth is a myth… Let’s skip gaily past the problem that it’s not clear where ‘out there’ might be

Let’s not. Much of this discussion has been the sort of snarky dismissal of a version of pomo so watered down that criticizing its triviality isn’t even worth the time. I am perfectly willing to bite the bullet, hop on the other foot, go all the way: it is not apparent to me that “truth” is not a myth*, and I have no idea what you mean when you assert, “there exists a ‘world’ ‘out there’!”** In short, for fifteen points, I state, “‘Truth’ is a myth”, “There is no world out there” (and that’s not even an endorsement of pomo).

*Sure you can pack elephants into Minis, but I suspect that when you are talking about “truth” you want the word to carry some of the conceptual weight that a word like aletheia used to bear. If that is the case, then “Myth” doesn’t seem so irrelevant in a discussion of “Truth”.
** I have a vulgar sort of understanding, albeit a very hazy one, as to what this metaphor is supposed to capture, but I confess that my actual experiences hardly make it obvious that this sort of metaphor is unimpeachably “correct”.

212

Joaquin Tamiroff 12.27.09 at 6:44 pm

Engels,
Why is it now thought wise to have both women and racial minorities on the US Supreme Court? Is it to satisfy political obligations, or because it is understood that minorities and women may see facts differently than white men? Is there an intellectually substantive politically neutral logic or merely a politically instrumental one?
Both can apply of course but for you that’s not an option.
People argue over the definition of justice. Does that mean there’s no such a thing as justice, or only that justice is a thing we argue over?

On a more general note. Modernism is the celebration of Synchrony -Saussure, Mallarme and Cezanne- and the move away from the representation of the emotional life of others -mimesis- and to “Structuralism” and “Formalism.” You want a historical determinist description it’s pretty basic.
Q: In the history of human culture what is usual representation of crisis?
A: At the beginning, there isn’t one, only the representation of an increasingly brittle representation of an increasingly ideal abstract stability Look the record (read: the history of culture,) it’s all there. Look up scholasticism, the renaissance and mannerism, the culture of the reformation, the counter-reformation . Look not only at the history of ideas but the history of forms of representation: flexible or brittle.

In the context of the 19th century: against narrative as mimesis, against the ethics and esthetics of time: time as the origin of the logic of “perspectives” of the subjective as opposed to the ideal. The ideal as Scientific, Platonic, timeless, absolute. Plastic and formal. Narrative- films and comics- as the popular representation of popular vulgarity in the context of the modernist high snobbery. When “modernist” forms of abstraction were returned to the social sphere the result was disaster. Inflexible ideas worked as well in politics as they did in architecture.

Wittgenstein’s understanding of language late in life was where Proust’s began. Proust like Baudelaire and others was a “modern” not a “modernist.” But modernism is not just instrumental reason but Adnrno’s phobia of instrumentalism: is not only hyper-rationalism but hyper-anti-rationalism. Post modernism is the new understanding of modernity or a return to an earlier less simplistically enthusiastic view of the facts and situation.
As to Derrida and Montaigne the answer is obviously, yes., in the sense of the attempt to reclaim a history. But Derrida is mannered, trying to escape and to become. Every generation relives the past in its own language, and sometimes that language is adolescent.
Our age is one of mannerism, heading towards the baroque. The baroque age at its best was an age of sophistication. We’ll see if we get there.

Following arguments like those above is like listening to a man talk about what a good driver he is because he doesn’t drink.

213

novakant 12.27.09 at 7:02 pm

Why do I get the feeling that “analytic philosophy” is used here merely as a cudgel to hit your opponents over the head with, rather than taken seriously as a philosophical inquiry? It seems that some here would like to have analytic philosophy simply confirm their pre-philosophical intuitions and help them bolster their self-image as tough, logical and sober thinkers who are having none of that fuzzy, frivolous pomo stuff. Yet, if they actually bothered to read Quine, Goodman or Davidson they would realize quite quickly, that they won’t find there what they’re looking for. So I’m afraid most of this grandstanding about truth and logic is merely a pose, rather than a philosophical position worth engaging with seriously.

214

Chris Bertram 12.27.09 at 8:59 pm

“Why do I get the feeling that “analytic philosophy” is used here merely as a cudgel to hit your opponents over the head with …?”

I’ve no idea why you have this feeling. Ignorance? Prejudice? Insecurity? Certainly there doesn’t seem to be anyone actually using the term in the sense you describe.

215

novakant 12.27.09 at 9:21 pm

Ignorance? Prejudice? Insecurity?

I am ignorant of or prejudiced against what exactly, Chris?

Certainly there doesn’t seem to be anyone actually using the term in the sense you describe.

Except explicitly John Holbo in #188 and implicitly people all over this thread – maybe you need to work a little on your hermeneutical skills.

216

bianca steele 12.27.09 at 9:53 pm

Joaquin Tamiroff: At the beginning, there isn’t one, only the representation of an increasingly brittle representation of an increasingly ideal abstract stability

But don’t postmodernists characterize this as always being the case–that what had been well understood close to the source, in both space and time, gradually degenerates–until someone creates a new form of order again? It sounds as if you are denigrating modernity for being overly abstract and hence “brittle” (a term I like, something fragile, which can’t be changed even a hairsbreadth here lest unpredictable failures crop up there, but which I’m not sure applies well to mental representations of reality or to social systems).

217

lemuel pitkin 12.27.09 at 10:48 pm

I’d just like to say how much I am enjoying this thread — it’s as clear a vindication of blog comments as a medium for serious intellectual discussion as you could ask for.

Personally, my sympathies are all with dsquared, Novakant, Joaquim Tamiroff and John C. Halasz. But I’m just as grateful to the folks on the other side, because without them there would be no conversation. (Is that postmodern?)

218

Michael Harris 12.28.09 at 12:15 am

@203: What type of statements are true, in what sense are they true, relative to what are they true, what “makes” them true?

Isn’t this where someone poses the “What would be the result of stepping out of a ninth floor window on the planet earth with nothing between you and the concrete roadside below?” question?

219

John Holbo 12.28.09 at 1:13 am

novakant, what makes you so sure I haven’t read Davidson? (I’m actually a former student of Donald Davidson, at Berkeley, so I’m curious how I pulled off the trick. And how you heard about it.)

As to cudgeling with ‘analytic philosophy’ – if what is bothering you is that I deployed a really rather moderate amount of snark in 188, I can only prescribe contextualism: look around you. Does it, or does it not, appear to you that this is a comment box on a blog? I appears so to me. So where’s all this ‘why is Holbo being a little snarky? … whatever could be the explanation? … he must be (dum-dum-DUM!) an analytic philosopher!’ rigamarole coming from. (YOU are a bit snarky. Do you conclude that YOU are an analytic philosopher? No. I take it not. So apply that interpretive conclusion more broadly.)

In general, I think the problem is that you have failed to understand the aim of my argument, hence the form of my argument, hence the content of my conclusion. And that has pretty much done for it. I have really been making two points. 1) I said I doubted Gadamer could have decisively disposed of Plato’s argument against relativism, as john halasz suggested. As it turns out, he didn’t. So that’s fine. 2) I criticized attempts to advertise the virtues of ‘postmodernism’, in a philosophical sense, by vaguely giving it credit for a whole cultural atmosphere of sensitivity to context, history, culture, so forth. I think dsquared started down this road, and Maynard took it up, following him. My point was that this doesn’t make sense. And I think I am right (and if anyone thinks otherwise, they can give their arguments, but no one has so far.)

So please note: the reason I haven’t critiqued any specific expression of philosophical postmodernism (or poststructuralism or Theory or call it what you will) is 1) that no one has put one forth for consideration. But mostly 2) since I’m complaining about praise for postmodernism in a generic, diffuse sense, I really don’t have need of any non-generic, non-diffuse sense of this philosophical quadrant to make my (valid, so far as I can tell) point.

You say I have not adequately defended or spelled out my Platonic, Rationalist position. This is because I am neither a Platonist nor a Rationalist. So the position in question does not exist. Does that satisfy you?

220

John Holbo 12.28.09 at 2:21 am

Just to be clear: I’m not denying I’m (more or less) an analytic philosopher. I’m just saying that it doesn’t make much sense to link my comment snarkiness to my analytic philosopheriness, and deplore analytic philosophy – or usage of the term ‘analytic philosophy’ – on that basis. Because many people who are analytic philosophers are not especially snarky. And many people who are especially snarky are not analytic philosophers.

221

Dave Maier 12.28.09 at 5:06 am

John, I don’t understand why you’re so quick to pounce on ‘the two-step of terrific triviality’ while at the same time you give a total pass to the corresponding move, the realist bait-and-switch, which goes like this: first (in calm, reasoned tones, as if lecturing a child), point out that the world doesn’t go away when you close your eyes (or, again, that if you exit the 42nd floor window you will plummet to the ground whether you will or no). That’s the bait; now the switch: when these things are granted, claim (or, more typically, simply take for granted, without even bothering to claim it) that this establishes metaphysical realism as correct.

In fact to those of us who see metaphysical realism as the “wild and implausible” thesis, your description of the “two-step” fits the realist bait-and-switch perfectly. Only I think we’d have to change the last sentence to something like “When accused of saying something quite trivial, assert that one’s interlocutor fails to see how obviously true realism really is!”

222

John Holbo 12.28.09 at 5:34 am

I don’t think I DO give a total pass to the corresponding move, Dave. It may be that I should have said so earlier. If so, I hereby state that the realism-Realism one-step certainly cannot be securely made in one step. (Possibly not in any steps, but certainly not in one.) This mistake is not the same as the two-step of terrific triviality mistake (although it is equally serious, plausibly). I have been trying to keep my eye on two balls only, in this thread. This would have been number 3. But again – if it helps – yes. Bad argument, clearly.

I do think the ‘you believe in rocks, don’t you?’ move retains a certain, albeit annoying, strictly negative utility, in that certain ‘relativist’ positions (constructivist, a couple of other ists as well) really commit their proponents to denying this. Stanley Fish, for example, has no business believing in (non-socially-generated) rocks, what with the other stuff he believes. (Obviously he really does believe in rocks. And he will say so, and he’ll try to leave it at that. But, conceptually, I think he can’t.)

The trick is distinguishing cases in which 1) someone is deploying ‘you believe in rocks, don’t you?’ fairly and strictly negatively, to show that, say, Stanley Fish has got a serious metaphysical and epistemological problem on his hands, making sense of his own claims; and 2) someone is deploying ‘you believe in rocks, don’t you?’ to try to prove a form of metaphysical Realism that clearly cannot be proven in this way. I am not sure that those in this thread who have been trying out the ‘you believe in rocks’ argument are doing the bad thing, not the good thing. So I haven’t really weighed in.

The important thing to see (I think you and I agree) is that Realism and Anti-Realism are twins, in that they both have the same philosophically dubious features. They are non-explanatory and not clearly meaningful (a Wittgensteinian point). But it is common, I think, to see this only with regard to Realism and to conclude that Anti-Realism is the answer. But no: anti-foundationalism (to shift terms again to another usual suspect) is just as metaphysically unsupported as foundationalism, paradoxically. (But the paradox is only superficial.) So I tend to target the Anti-Realist claims – which results, maybe, in Novakant concluding that I’m a Realist. So perhaps I should be clearer.

To put it yet another way: when I argue with, say, John C. Halasz, we both try to take the later Wittgensteinian line. This is due to our reading Wittgenstein differently. John sees Wittgenstein as advancing a version of Anti-Realism, whereas I see Wittgenstein as trying to avoid both Realism and Anti-Realism. That is, I see the position that Halasz thinks IS Wittgenstein’s position as one of his targets. The issue, really, is whether the kind of anti-Realism Halasz favors turns out to be an Anti-Realism. Which, admittedly, is not an issue that can be settled simply by use of the shift-key.

223

novakant 12.28.09 at 5:41 am

So where’s all this ‘why is Holbo being a little snarky? … whatever could be the explanation? … he must be (dum-dum-DUM!) an analytic philosopher!

There seems to be a failure to comprehend my position towards analytic philosophy by both yourself and CB – since I really don’t see how I was unclear on this in #213, I’m afraid I’ll have to repeat my words with added explanations to rectify this. I said:

Why do I get the feeling that “analytic philosophy” is used here merely as a cudgel to hit your opponents over the head with, rather than taken seriously as a philosophical inquiry?

So I see analytic philosophy as a worthwhile form of philosophical inquiry that should be taken seriously, yet complain that it is not taken seriously by some, but instead used merely as a reference point for putting down your opponents. This is not a critique of analytic philosophy, but of the way it is being misused, or at best misunderstood, which should have become clear when I follow up with:

Yet, if they actually bothered to read Quine, Goodman or Davidson they would realize quite quickly, that they won’t find there what they’re looking for.

Here I name three leading lights of analytic philosophy and contend that if one actually reads their work, it becomes quite impossible to contrast the tradition they are coming from in a polemical fashion with pomo or whatever you want to call it, for the simple reason that there is a lot of common ground between the two. I even gave an example of this, when I quoted Quine further upthread – what he says there is pretty radical, especially if one wants to hold on to some form of correspondence theory or atomism, with which it would obviously be incompatible.

I think this was all quite clear and can only assume that our little “misunderstanding” is due to some wishful thinking on CBs and your part, namely that I could thus be put into the box labelled “people with an irrational hatred of analytic philosophy”, which of course would make it a lot easier to dismiss my arguments. Unfortunately, I do not fit into that category at all, since I have profited greatly from reading some analytic philosophers and see more common ground than conflict between their work and my, shall we say, “post-structuralist” leanings.

what makes you so sure I haven’t read Davidson? (I’m actually a former student of Donald Davidson, at Berkeley, so I’m curious how I pulled off the trick. And how you heard about it.)

Well, I am a “former student” of several leading philosophers – if one hangs around prestigious universities it isn’t all that hard to acquire such a status, but it doesn’t really mean much per se. In the case of Davidson there is the added complication that his writings can be pretty opaque and that even specialists sometimes seem to have a hard time trying to establish what he’s actually getting at. I certainly don’t claim to have a comprehensive knowledge of either analytic philosophy in general or Davidson’s work in particular, but I have read and understood enough of it to find statements like the one below cringeworthy:

Which is why I am an analytic philosopher, more or less. When I read ‘postmodern’ arguments, I think: this is all well and good for geniuses going wrong and old bunglers, but I aspire to a more sober intellectual equilibrium state.

224

John Holbo 12.28.09 at 5:52 am

“I have read and understood enough of it to find statements like the one below cringeworthy:”

Is there some philosophical reason for this? If so, what is it? Just to be specific, what point in Davidson do you take ito be 1) important and correct and crucially bearing on the present discussion; 2) clearly not appreciated by me, his former student? (I agree that it is possible I have badly misunderstood my teacher. Wouldn’t be the first time.)

I would note, in case it was clear, that the statement was intended somewhat ironically and hyperbolically, following up on the Schlegel quote the way it did. Soberly, and bereft of snark, I think a lot of Theory is just philosophically appalling. I hereby express an opinion and do not expect anyone else to share the opinion on my say-so. However, I have not infrequently been told that I cannot possibly hold this opinion without thereby depriving myself of a lot of good sense about pluralism and contextualism. To this I reply: whether I am right or wrong about a lot of Theory being philosophically appalling – for that we would have to get down to cases, and I am willing to do so – I am sure my thinking that a lot of Theory is a terrible muddle does not straightaway cut me off from all that good stuff about pluralism and contextualism and so forth. I find my way to it by alternate routes, which certainly exist.

225

Dave Maier 12.28.09 at 6:53 am

John — I do agree that we need an anti-Anti-Realist stick of the “you don’t disagree with common sense, do you?” sort. (For various reasons, I prefer one of the form “you agree that [P], don’t you?” rather than “you believe in rocks, right?”, as the latter makes it sound like figuring out what entities are in one’s ontology is a perfectly natural thing to do, which puts us halfway to realism all by itself.)

But you need a carrot too. That is, you need to make clear to the Anti-Realist that believing that [P] (or truth, or objectivity, or whatever) is not a threat. We do this by showing that our position (whether it’s pragmatism, later-Wittgensteinianism, contextualism, or whatever) guts realism like a helpless perch while Anti-Realism (in sharing with realism what you call “the same philosophically dubious features” — and yes, I do agree about this part) paradoxically lets it off the hook. That’s what I’m not hearing from you. (But I do retract the idea that you give realism a “total pass.”)

It’s interesting that you see it as more common to “see this only with regard to Realism and to conclude that Anti-Realism is the answer.” I must not read enough Theory, because in philosophy (in my experience) it’s mostly the other way. But I do agree about Wittgenstein. That is, I also describe him as neither realist nor anti-realist. But I think John C. Halasz would say this also, so that hardly helps. That is, it clarifies your charge, without actually making it stick. But as you say, it’ll take more than the shift key to do that.

Oh, and for the record I’ve never found your position(s) to be particularly Davidsonian; but I certainly agree with novakant that “even specialists sometimes seem to have a hard time trying to establish what he’s actually getting at.” Maybe we can get into that later.

226

Joaquin Tamiroff 12.28.09 at 7:23 am

In for a penny:
“It sounds as if you are denigrating modernity”
I’m not denigrating modernity. Or maybe I am but we’re stuck with it. We’re modern. Modern-ism is something else: enthusiasm and optimism regarding the technological advancements of modernity. Modernism involves a conflation of technological and moral progress. It gets more complex when you’re dealing with someone like Eliot who is called a modernist when he’s more a regretful modern. It’s the same when thinking about humanism. Do you mean the humanism of humane irony or the later humanism of clarity and optimism? I think of the latter as a variant of post or anti-humanism. But I’m not any bigger on the optimistic enlightenment than I am on modernism. And for the record Surrealism and Duchamp weren’t dealt with seriously in this country until the 60’s and 70’s, with the moves against Greenbergian modernist idealism. Surrealism is more a touchstone of post-modernism than modernism itself. See Rosalind Krauss.

Quine’s naturalism begins with the arch rationalist’s assumption that the self is a stable thing: acting and not reacting. And if that’s not his argument then that doubt should be applied back to any speaker. This ties in in the 50’s I guess to a distaste for behaviorism. A distaste that’s more moral than logical.
But what happens when you apply formal systems or assumpions to the complexities of the social world? If you want to treat language as formal system go ahead, but don’t delude yourself that it will still function as a representational one, representative that is of our experience. Numbers may or may not function as models but words are used in mimesis and mimesis is very personal. Don’t even begin to talk about politics. It seems more like an escape from politics or with social engagement outside the academy.

If you want to talk about philosophy in the world look at the relation of ideas and behavior. You may want to see your ideas as representing yourself in the world, but actions do a better job of that. Arguing that we should all live by rules when we live (at our best) by principles and prudence is arguing for abstract reason from wishful thinking. Successful politics is always founded in empiricism, both the politics that civilized people despise and that they praise. But it’s a functional streetwise empiricism, a different form of “realism” than that discussed here. What sort of a naturalized epistemology can we have when the agent of naturalization is so prone to going off?
And this means specifically that no one should confuse my argument with anti-realism. The relevant question to me is not the existence of the outside world but the problem of access and of moral responsibility. Someone should respond to my question about SCOTUS. And in general: if you don’t have the capacity to describe your existing relations to the world: of social life; and politics, then you have little business discussing philosophy. And I say that assuming that for anything to be of broader philosophical interest it has to be seen to model something other than itself.

As to post-modernism. There is another division. There’s the librarian model of de Man and Borges which is a sort of literary epicurianism (of language divorced from the world) which is connected to decadence and even anti-humanism but which helped lead towards a return to humanism. I think Garcia Marquez called Borges something like ‘necessary’, which wasn’t meant simply as a compliment. And again: Duchamp and Surrealism and Krauss. Don’t rely on Danto for Duchamp. Duchamp goes back to Baudelaire. He didn’t want to be called a dumb painter because as he said: no one ever got called a stupid poet. And Eliot used readymades too, as collage: “Hurry up please, it’s time.” Duchamp is a literary trickster and if anything as conservative in his way as Eliot.
Playing off of outmoded forms of narrative that he couldn’t quite let go of. He was a perv of the old bourgeois, but the pervy bits got him street cred with the punks.

Between modernity and modernism it’s a mish-mash but they aren’t identical. And the same with what follows, but if you want to imagine the American equivalent of European pomo-theorists you won’t find them in the American academy. The unreliable subject is the subject of literature, and from there it became one of continental philosophy. The American academicized version of continental theory is like the perfect replica of the Parisian bistro in NY: a simulacrum without the context. And the unreliable author, whether Derrida, Deleuze, Zizek , Philip Roth or Norman Mailer, becomes in the academy the very very reliable expert in Unreliability Studies. The American academy is predicated on the reliability of American academics, when they are no more reliably aware of the external world than the rest of us. Humanism on the other hand, I am being snarky here is founded on the hope of a worldly academy, even occasionally a vulgar one.

And in relation of ideas to literature, complaining that the Europeans are just ripping off Montaigne is like saying Proust is ripping off Lady Murasaki. The point is the communication of ideas in the language of the present. It’s the present that’s being observed and described in literature. The world is the subject being represented through mimesis in language. People have been making chairs for thousands of years. If you and a friend are looking at a room full of chairs at the Metropolitan Museum you’re not going to talk about the one thing they all have in common. If you’re talking about novels you’re not going to pretend the stories are “true.” But there’s probably more truth in the collected lies of Philip Roth than there is in the collected truths of Donald Davidson. The difference is that all Roth is trying to give an objective description of his subjective experience.
And maybe the Continentals are all lousy poets but in a very real sense what they were trying to describe was post-war Europe, while their American contemporaries were trying to describe absolutes. But maybe all the Americans succeeded in describing was post-war America. And that is what makes the Europeans smile.

227

novakant 12.28.09 at 8:21 am

re #224

semantic holism / anomalous monism

- sorry for the brevity, I’m very busy

228

John Holbo 12.28.09 at 9:10 am

For the record, then, novakant: I’m a semantic holist (of sorts) and I believe that anomalous monism is a possibly correct view. Certainly it is a very consideration-worthy position. Is there any any inconsistency (or even mild tension?) between me believing such things and also believing the things I have written upthread? If anything, these sorts of positions are evidence that I am right: namely, there is no particular reason to suppose you need to be a philosophical postmodernist to be contextualist, holist, non-reductionist, etc. etc. You can be, alternatively, a Davidsonian, for example. (This is really all I have been arguing in this thread: namely, it is wrong to regard postmodernist philosophy as the privileged route to these attitudes, or to suppose critics of postmodernist lack a healthy appreciation of the importance of such things.)

So: so far I do not see the inconsistency in my position. If I am cringeworthily wrong about this, then I think it ought to be possible to provide some brief indication of how and why this is so.

229

John Holbo 12.28.09 at 9:19 am

Dave M., you are right that I brandish the stick more than the carrot, and that is bad practice. It is largely a function of comment box animosities – which is not a reason or excuse or justification, I appreciate. When I feel snarked at, I tend to deploy the ironic stick of negative dialectic. A nobler soul would extend the irenic carrot as well.

230

Danielle Day 12.28.09 at 1:38 pm

I read all 229 comments (whew). My main reaction is that i’m glad you guys are “blogging it out” rather than doing stuff in the real world.

231

JoB 12.28.09 at 2:03 pm

Well, my main reaction is one of jealousy for at least a few people that seem relatively unaffected by Xmas.

As at least part of this debate turns toward Continental ‘poetic philosophy’ and ‘hard & sober’ analytic AngloSaxon philosophy it may be worthwhile to add Davidson made an explicit attempt at classifying this as a historical accident de parcours in his works that discuss Gadamer, as explicitly Continental as they got. It seems there is no coincidence in the link between Gadamer and Davidson and (unless one is tempted to say that what can be said at all, philosophically, was somehow written down or at least foreshadowed by Plato) that this non-coincidence is peculiarly post-modernistic.

(but I guess the term postmodernistic is abhorred to the extent of cringeworthiness by people like myself because the vulgarized thinking under which it became most known is a combination of the most laughable of New Age and the most tedious of Heidegger)

232

bianca steele 12.28.09 at 5:42 pm

John Holbo @ 222
Okay, but Fish doesn’t have to fail to believe in rocks, because rocks really are socially constructed. Both at the academic level and at the popular level. Now, when you go to Hawaii and you visit a volcano and you got to the visitor’s center, you’ll see an exhibit of different kinds of solidified lava, and these will be labeled with the different names given to the different kinds. And, I guess, you can argue about whether they’re all the same kind of thing, whether they are really “rocks,” whether the local Hawaiian religious or other cultural connotations given to these different lava formations should have equal epistemological and ontological status as geologists’ names, even whether differences of opinion between academically trained geologists in different parts of the world are real or more like “emacs vs. vi.” But for Fish, from what I’ve been able to gather from some of what he’s written, especially recently, it doesn’t really matter, if you want to think like an academic (and, granted, he restricts his argument only to the humanities, which geology very obviously is not one): the only thing that matters is the arguments that have been given for and against all the different aspects of all the different positions, and being able to list them, deploy them, etc.

But Fish needs it not to really matter whether one (as an academic) holds to one of those positions rather than another. He says, or at least implies, over and over again, that if you are an academic, you need not to care whether a position is true or false, only whether there have been good arguments of a certain sort made in its favor by the people whose writings you care about. (And, as I’ve suggested before, since he’s writing for non-academics, this comes off oddly, because it sounds as if he’s urging Times readers to think the way he does, raising the question whether he believes non-academic thought–coming down on one side rather than the other–is worthy of the name thought.)

Obviously, Realism disagrees with that. If you’re a neo-Thomist, the upshot of no argument can be that certain propositions are false. Power struggles between academic schools have nothing to do with the search for truth. Similarly, Bruno Latour has the notion of “resistances” that make certain intellectual positions impossible, but I’m still trying to work out why Latour and his school, which seems fairly uncontroversial to me (and from what I’ve read to other scientifically educated people), is described as anti-science reality-deniers.

233

AcademicLurker 12.28.09 at 6:05 pm

232:
“but I’m still trying to work out why Latour and his school, which seems fairly uncontroversial to me (and from what I’ve read to other scientifically educated people), is described as anti-science reality-deniers.”

I was a bit surprised when Latour emerged as a primary villain in the immediate aftermath of Sokal’s hoax: I’d considered his particular school of science studies to be one of the more reasonable ones.*

My guess is that, like many others, Latour can’t resist the urge to occasionally say outlandish sounding things just to be provocative. Critics seized on these as evidence that he was just another one of those wacky pomo’s who don’t beleive that reality exitsts & etc.

*Although it’s kind of a mark against him that in > 20 years of talking about actor network theory he still hasn’t managed to explain clearly what it is.

234

AcademicLurker 12.28.09 at 6:11 pm

By “emerged as a primary villain” I mean “in the minds of Sokal’s partisans”.

235

Steve LaBonne 12.28.09 at 6:12 pm

…but I’m still trying to work out why Latour and his school, which seems fairly uncontroversial to me (and from what I’ve read to other scientifically educated people), is described as anti-science reality-deniers.

I expect it’s because if one is so minded, one can cherry-pick the occasional frankly pretty dumb rhetorical flourish from his mostly uncontroversial writings. Which is a useful exercise if and only if one’s purpose is the polemicize rather than to enlighten.

236

Steve LaBonne 12.28.09 at 6:13 pm

AcademicLurker beat me to the punch!

237

bianca steele 12.28.09 at 6:33 pm

I’m not convinced by Latour’s more philosophical statements, which may or may not be original (and some of which, like the idea that the technically trained ought to be given enough political education that they’ll know they have to do what the politicians say, is probably applicable only to France). But long before the Sokal thing, there was a lot of anger at people like Latour who wrote accounts of scientists and engineers, working in offices and labs, including their more venal traits, suggesting priority of discovery was an amorphous concept, and so forth–clearly from people who idealized science to the extent that they could not envisage scientists possess any faults.

238

Hidari 12.28.09 at 11:44 pm

I think a lot of the problem is (guess what!) a clash of cultures. From what I can tell there’s a specifically Gallic kind of humour, evinced by Latour and Baudrillard, among others, in which one says ‘outrageous’ things one obviously doesn’t mean just to be ‘provocative’. It’s very obvious (at least to me) that both the thinkers mentioned above consider these ‘controversial’ statements* to be hugely amusing, or at least thought provoking, and don’t know (or don’t care) that the average Anglo-Saxon thinks that statements like these could only be produced by self-important twats.

*Such as ‘the Gulf War did not take place’, etc.

239

John Holbo 12.29.09 at 1:18 am

Bianca, I agree with you about what Fish wants to have said. What I disagree with you about is what he’s actually committed to, conceptually, by what he has written. I think his position has awkward implications that he can’t possibly want, but can’t just wish away, or brush aside on the grounds that they are too silly to be his views – as if no one ever accidentally implied silly things while making a philosophical argument. But we can just set that to one side for present purposes. IF (just suppose for the sake of argument) I am right about Fish, then ‘but you believe in rocks, don’t you?’ is actually a reasonable line of objection because it shows an actual problem with the position. My point was just that sometimes this actually is a reasonable line to take because the problems of the other side come to the surface at precisely this point.

“As at least part of this debate turns toward Continental ‘poetic philosophy’ and ‘hard & sober’ analytic AngloSaxon philosophy it may be worthwhile to add Davidson made an explicit attempt at classifying this as a historical accident de parcours in his works that discuss Gadamer, as explicitly Continental as they got.”

I think it’s important not to regard it as a Continental/analytic split/debate, although it is probably wrongly regarded as such by some on both sidees.

240

bianca steele 12.29.09 at 1:33 am

John,
I’m not sure why you would want to say, for the sake of argument, Fish holds a position that it’s not likely he holds. By misunderstanding him, even for the sake of argument, it seems to me, you allow him to say something like “people like John Holbo, for obvious reasons (for example, everyone knows Holbo is a postmodernist who thinks comic books and Zizek and ‘performativity’ are worthwhile), think such and such stupid, wrong things.”

And my guess about Fish is that he doesn’t think “failing to believe in rocks” is something anybody can really do. I have no real reason to think this is true about him other than that I think I understand his approach to some other issues. Another guess is that he has never encountered a situation where he was asked, “don’t you believe in rocks,” as a way of leading him to accept the existence of, say, Platonic Forms, and felt the need to take his questioner seriously.

241

bianca steele 12.29.09 at 1:35 am

Though maybe he would never say such insulting things about a fellow tenured academic. I really don’t know.

242

bianca steele 12.29.09 at 1:37 am

And he may have said something that implies “nobody can fail to believe in rocks” somewhere in The Trouble With Principle or somewhere else where he’s saying something about “socially constructed” being a meaningless term.

243

bianca steele 12.29.09 at 1:52 am

Anyway, to be clear, what I think Fish thinks is: All knowledge is socially constructed. Which means talk of social construction is pointless as far as factual knowledge goes. “Social construction” is a term used by people who for political reasons want to disparage certain areas of knowledge. It is not contradictory to disparage a certain area of knowledge, because knowledge can be proven to have been wrong and not-knowledge. Knowledge is inherently social and there is no way to rise above that. But there is a big academic system that puts knowledge to the test (which Fish seems not to like, but to the argument for and against which he devotes a lot of time).

244

John Holbo 12.29.09 at 2:13 am

“I’m not sure why you would want to say, for the sake of argument, Fish holds a position that it’s not likely he holds.”

Just to be clear, I am saying, for the sake of argument, that Fish holds a position that he is not only likely to hold but actually holds – in the sense that he is committed to it by decades of published writings. I realize that you do not believe he is committed to this position. That’s fine. I think you are misreading Fish. And you, clearly, think I am misreading Fish. Again: fine. My point is just that if – IF (!) – someone (Fish is an example) has made an argument that commits them to something absurd, it is perfectly reasonable to point this out by pointing out some ordinary thing that they are, unfortunately, no longer able to hold, because the absurd thing has accidentally displaced it. The point is to induce the other person to give up the absurd thing that has pushed out the ordinary thing. Now. I am willing to argue with you about the substance of Fish’s commitments. But can I first get you to grant the simple thing I’ve been arguing for? Because there is a serious point here. Namely, ‘but you believe in rocks’ is not properly regarded only as a bad attempt to establish dubious forms of Realism. It is also part and parcel of perfectly reasonable attempts to point out to someone that their signature brand of social constructivism has gotten out of hand.

245

John Holbo 12.29.09 at 2:25 am

It may be that you are focusing only on the actual psychology of the situation, whereas I am focusing on the conceptual implications of theoretical claims. I agree that it is not at all likely that Fish either has or could fail to believe in rocks. But then the objection would be that his actual psychology shows that he can’t really accept his own philosophy, because it has implications that he is, as a matter of psychology, flatly incapable of believing. Again, what I am asking you to grant is small but significant.

“He has never encountered a situation where he was asked, “don’t you believe in rocks,” as a way of leading him to accept the existence of, say, Platonic Forms, and felt the need to take his questioner seriously.”

I am quite sure, to the contrary, that Fish feels he has been in this situation time and time again. And, since he feels he knows Platonic Forms are silly things, he has time and time again felt entitled to brush the objection off. And – this is my point – he was wrong, because it didn’t occur to him that the objector was not necessarily trying to get him to believe in metaphysical Foundations but get him to see the dubious metaphysics of his Anti-Foundations.

246

bianca steele 12.29.09 at 2:39 am

Is Fish committed to not believing in rocks? Yes: The existence of rocks can make no difference to what he believes to be true, because what he believes to be true is socially constructed.

I can, however, come up with numerous ways Fish could get out of it. My favorite would be to suggest that as a non-philosopher, and as someone who’s written with some resentment towards philosophy, he can’t be held to fine distinctions in meanings of philosophical terms like a technical definition of “true” or “believe.” Trying to supply reasons why his position should be finer-grained will look like hair-splitting.

Another would be to suggest that he separates what he really believes from what he thinks is warranted for public, academic purposes. The people socially constructing the knowledge are no less in touch with the truth than anybody else. The system for winnowing out falsehood is a good one. At any given time, what’s generally held to be true might actually be false, but there’s reasonably good reason to believe we can move closer to truth.

I’m leaving the stuff about Milton’s angels out of it, though. I don’t think they fit well.

Not sure whether this is what you were asking for.

247

bianca steele 12.29.09 at 3:00 am

@245: The thing is, it seems to me: why should Fish be concerned about the philosophical consistency of his beliefs? I’m not aware of any psychological theory that holds philosophical consistency to be necessary for mental health. I suspect that, from one point of view (not necessarily Fish’s), insisting upon the importance of a specific strand of medieval Christian tradition eventuating in modern Western philosophy looks like idolatry, especially when it flies in the face of the things that every good person knows.

I’m having a difficult time conceptualizing “anti-foundationalism,” so I’m not sure what someone trying to get Fish to recognize his was dubious would look like.

248

John Holbo 12.29.09 at 3:11 am

Bianca, I really don’t understand this. “My favorite would be to suggest that as a non-philosopher, and as someone who’s written with some resentment towards philosophy, he can’t be held to fine distinctions in meanings of philosophical terms like a technical definition of “true” or “believe.”

First, that amounts to just giving up. Which is fine, so long as Fish actually admits that philosophers are perfectly right to ignore his arguments (which he won’t do). But also: how do you know how to get Fish out of ‘it’ when I haven’t told you what it IS? How do you know that my argument against Fish is going to hinge on technical definitions of ‘true’ and/or ‘believe’. (For the record, I wasn’t planning on using technical definitions of either term.)

I’m stilling looking for a very small concession, before we move on to the question of whether Fish is right or wrong about anything. Let’s shift subjects. Suppose there is a thinker named …. Schmanley Schmish. Now just run the whole thing again. He has written things I think are absurd. I chose to bring out the hidden absurdity by showing the inconsistency between things he has written and other ordinary things he surely accepts. That is, I construct a reductio ad absurdum. Do you, or do you not, accept this as a reasonable way to argue against Schmish? You seem to be resisting this possibility. That is, you seem to be hinting that it will always be legitimate (palatable, intellectually or socially plausible) for Schmish to brush aside any reductio ad absurdum on his position as … something he doesn’t have to bother about. (Because he didn’t intend for his position to be open to stupid objections, so therefore whatever position the stupid objection is scoring against can’t be his? I’m not clear.)

249

John Holbo 12.29.09 at 3:37 am

“I’m having a difficult time conceptualizing “anti-foundationalism.”

But you are aware that Fish claims his philosophy is a form of anti-foundationalism?

“I’m not aware of any psychological theory that holds philosophical consistency to be necessary for mental health.”

I am not proposing to set myself up as Fish’s shrink – in case there is any confusion on that heading. I’m just prepared to offer philosophical critiques of his philosophy. This involves, among other things, testing for coherence. But before I do so, in the face of your doubts, I want to reassure myself that you actually believe this is possible and of potential interest. Otherwise there is not much point. Here is my position, in the abstract: I think it is quite possible that Fish is the more or less ‘mentally healthy’ possessor of a philosophy that is open to serious objections. By ‘mentally healthy’ I don’t mean anything particularly definite, but if you insist, I’ll settle for Freud’s formula: ‘able to work and love’. I regard myself as in possession of no argument that Fish is incapable of either. Yet (I believe) his philosophy is open to serious objections. By ‘serious objections’ I mean, in this case: his claims have implications he himself would not accept. So, if he really understood the implications of his own claims, he would be psychologically incapable of believing them. So he should retract them.

Do you have a problem with this template for a line of critique? If so: what? (Again, there is not much point to me offering a philosophical critique of Fish if you disbelieve in the whole class of such things, except in cases of mental illness.)

250

john c. halasz 12.29.09 at 4:14 am

Of course, john c. denies the “anti-realism” imputation, which is that Analytic fetish of classification/labeling in binary oppositions without regard to degrees and nuances and aspects in the complexion of any “serious” philosophical view or position. And, of course, he recognizes that Wittgenstein was concerned with critically dissolving aporetic philosophical puzzles, such that he would not be taking up either horn of the dilemma. (The only thing I can recall having said about W. that’s even semi-controversial is that he devolves from Kant and is to be understood far more in line with “continental” thinking than empiricist/Analytic thinking). I would actually be inclined to say that W. was a realist of sorts, though only in attitude, and not a metaphysical realist (Platonically , epistemologically, or what not), nor a scientific realist (such as Popper). But he was obsessed for peculiar reasons of his own at bringing about a reconciliation with the world-as-it-is, while avoiding the reifying traps involved in attempting to grasp the world as given or providing releasement from them. At any rate, though he claimed to provide philosophy with a stopping-off point or resting place, he himself proved unable to cease his ongoing, rather compulsive activity, perhaps because we always remain liable to bumping into our own mental furniture and such undoing activity is never completely done.

“Anti-realist” is a label that could be applied to all manner of matters or views, such that it doesn’t convey much specifically. I’m most familiar with its use in philosophy-of-science debates. Without getting into the weeds there, I’ll just remark that it’s often enough natural scientists who might say “anti-realist” sorts of things, as when advanced physicists say that they are not interested in or concerned with causality, (rather than, presumably, formal relations between basic forces). (For the record, lacking any but the sketchiest notions of advanced physics, I tend to stick to the “common sense” view). But I suppose the key issue is: is a change in the understanding of the world or part of the world actually based on or requiring the notion that such understanding is entering into or increasingly approximating some “final” reality, or is the motive-force of an enlarged understanding and an increased phenomenal coherence sufficient, (which also means a more complex and differentiated understanding)?

If someone points and strutters, “b-but external reality exists!”, what is the need involved in attempting to erect a theory over such an utterance and what further, missing implications would it yield? One can’t prove P: “the physical world really exists”, since that is neither true, nor false, but tautological, which is a species of nonsense, and one can’t prove nonsense. (I don’t believe the physical world exists, which is not to say that I believe it doesn’t exist, but rather that the matter would be so far in the background of any belief I would entertain, that it would never come up, as a matter requiring or worthy of any investment of belief). The scandal of philosophy is not, as Kant had it, that the reality of the external world has never been adequately proven, says Heidegger, but rather that the matter was ever considered as requiring proof. It’s not the reality of the world that is doubtful, but our own sense of unreality. As finite, embodied beings situated within the reality of the world, we are subject to constraints; but not all those constraints, nor necessarily the most important ones are addressed by answers such as “gravity”, nor are all the questions we might responsibly be enjoined to decide upon.

Again, similarly, what is it about our words/language that represents or corresponds to the reality of the world other than the ways in which we use them? It’s reasonable to claim that because of their well-worn iterations, and the concomitant practices that they help to sustain, that they are likely suitable to such communicative purposes. But that is not to claim that they somehow reflect or are pinned down to some prior givenness of the reality of the world. If one asks how the world emerges into language and language maps onto the world, then the obvious answer would be through communicative interaction across the world. But that is not to offer some guarantee of “correspondence”, nor “identical” and invariant understandings, which would obviate all misunderstandings or specify uniquely correct ones.

“But no: anti-foundationalism (to shift terms again to another usual suspect) is just as metaphysically unsupported as foundationalism, paradoxically.” But no, this seems to me to be obviously incorrect, since it misses the asymmetry between the two cases: denial of the existence of or need for (metaphysical or epistemological) “foundations” is not on the same level as assertion of them. Worse, it misses the critical point: that recursion to the “necessity” deriving from a “foundation” in prior being as the basis of “rational justification”, obstructs and misconstrues the actual possibilities and limits of such “justification” and puts it in league with the reifying tendencies of “given” reality with respect to our actual and emergent possibilities.

So the upshot is that I fail to see just what I am accused of missing, in not somehow adequately taking account of “reality” and what addition implications re to be supplied. And why that accusation might not itself be involved in reifying category mistakes, in which, say, the existence of rocks is offered as an answer to how and why we attribute pain. (There might be many other issues on which the accusation of “anti-realism” functions as a disguise for too cozy assumptions, such as, say, the “nature” and limits of human agency, the (dis)unity of the self, its dependency on/exposure to the other, the collective basis of “freedom”, hence its implication in power, etc., but I’ll leave off for now).

“Post-modernism” is such a vague terms that it’s useless for getting at much of anything, so it might as well be just mood music. That’s, I take it, the whole point of this thread, and why it tended to drift back into old discussions of the Analytic/continental rift. (If one wanted to put some meat onto “post-modernism”, the place to start might be declarations by post-War rightist German thinkers of entering into a “post-history”, in which modern societies/cultures would become “crystallized”, succumbing, if not to Egyptian immobility, than, at least, to Hellenistic cultism, followed by a leap ahead to considering the intensification and proliferation of mass media in generating/producing what now passes for “culture”). “Post-structuralism” for that matter is an Anglo academic coinage, not recognized in its originating province, (though from the outside, some commonality of sources and concerns might be recognized in the differences among that disparate group of thinkers, such as a focus on problematicizing problematics). And “Theory”, after all, was assembled by Anglo literary studies to address the concerns involved in studying literary works/matters, so no matter how philosophically “bad” it might be adjudged, it’s not clear that the “same” concerns are at issue. (Though deconstructing literary works strikes me rather like carrying coals to Newcastle, as too easy and redundant, given the unreal and fictive, as well as, polysemous and subtextual, status of such writings). So some care in considering the boundaries being crossed, in the darkness and confusion of these times, might be in order. If only to avoid the wilder sorts of polemical misprisions.

That said, I’ll add some comments on “Analytic” philosophy. It doesn’t seem to me fruitful to remain stuck in the 1950’s, in maintaining some sort of polemic divide with the “continental” tradition. In fact, Analytic philosophy has lost its “unity” and now represents a considerable diversity of views, some of which have taken on board “continental” concerns and considerations, (as well as, a much better appreciation of Wittgenstein). It amounts to a style or, very loosely, a method of doing philosophy, no more unified in method and substance than phenomenology ever was. That stated, much of Analytic philosophy still seems to me to be oriented toward a common project of developing a consistent, systematically complete form of naturalism, which I would take issue with on 3 “grounds”: a) such a drive toward systematic ‘”completeness” is still driven by a metaphysical urge; b) an inconsistent and incomplete naturalism is closer to and more consonant with the “facts”; and c) modern science and technology have so thoroughly, if not “completely”, displaced, repressed, destroyed or dominated natural reality, that such a project amounts to an obtuse denial of the “artificial” world and its “imperatives” that such “naturalism” has produced, so as to amount to a kind of bad faith or inauthenticity with respect to the responsibilities involved. Such a “final” aim amounts to philosophical mis-direction.

BTW, “Joaquin Tamiroff”above, on the evidence of his last iteration, seems detectably to be our old mutual friend Mr. Third-Son-of-Adam Tree-of-Paradise.

251

bianca steele 12.29.09 at 4:23 am

If I thought I knew what Fish believed on some other topic that he considered related in a relevant way, I certainly might attempt the kind of argument you describe.

What “other ordinary things he surely accepts” are you talking about, though? If these can be shown not to be the case, wouldn’t the reductio argument fail? Admittedly, if these could be known by intuition, a lot of time would be saved.

I certainly think it is plausible in several ways that Stanley Fish would feel justified in brushing off arguments, especially reductiones ad absurdum, made by bloggers. Maybe he would be less likely to brush off an argument made by Richard Rorty or Morris Dickstein. Maybe not.

I also think it is reasonable to brush off an argument that can’t presently be answered, under some conditions. For example, it isn’t reasonable to teach undergraduate physics to someone who objects to an argument that presupposes a knowledge of undergraduate physics (much less in a blog comment box). But it isn’t always feasible (for example, on the witness stand or when being interviewed by a journalist, or I suppose, in a dissertation defense).

Would ignoring the argument be reasonable/palatable assuming Schmanley Schmish was a guy in his thirties with more time than people taking potshots at him? (Assuming the topic is an academic one, not moral, assuming he put his position out for criticism and this isn’t an internal project memo Socrates is jumping on.) No, but only as long as the argument didn’t target the presuppositions of his discipline in a way he couldn’t be expected to respond to.

Could you attempt to show other people, not Fish, that he is wrong, with an argument that targets the foundations of his discipline that he couldn’t be expected to respond to? Yes, I think you could. Is this a reason Fish should in fact respond? Not if his response will fail and leave his discipline worse off as a result.

I think this is close to the actual situation w/r/t Fish. I hope you’ll forgive me for being so bold as to criticize a well-known and well-respected scholar, but I doubt he is able to respond to a strong philosophical critique in a way that does the greatest possible justice to his position (seen at its best).

252

bianca steele 12.29.09 at 4:39 am

@249: John, I don’t know for sure that Fish’s position has implications he would not accept, even assuming he agreed with you about what is implied by what. I think we agree that he doesn’t have a philosophical justification for a belief in the existence of rocks. But who except some unfortunate, caught in the snares of Descartes’ nightmare, would disbelieve in the existence of rocks? Who was it who ordained we ought to have a philosophical justification for our beliefs? Having a philosophical justification (or something like one) for things academics do might be a different story.

Now, I think it is a contradiction in Fish’s position that he apparently rejects at least some philosophical critiques of what literature professors do, and at the same time pronounces on what law professors and judges do.

But if all it comes down to is whether you think philosophers or literary critics are (as Rorty puts it) the proper teachers of the young, it hardly matters whether a literary critic like Fish is going to accept a philosopher’s critique. I guess.

253

John Holbo 12.29.09 at 4:48 am

john c. halaszL “Of course, john c. denies the “anti-realism” imputation, which is that Analytic fetish of classification/labeling in binary oppositions without regard to degrees and nuances and aspects in the complexion of any “serious” philosophical view or position.”

What makes you so sure I’m fetishizing artificially sharp binary oppositions? You also complain, after all, that “Anti-realist” is a label that could be applied to all manner of matters or views, such that it doesn’t convey much specifically.”

So it seems I could be guilty either of 1) being excessively clear and sharp; 2) being excessively vague and woolly. How do you decide which is the actual fault in my case, john? On what basis? We’ll start with that. When you have addressed it adequately I’ll move on to your other points.

254

geo 12.29.09 at 6:14 am

JH @222: Realism and Anti-Realism are twins, in that they both have the same philosophically dubious features. They are non-explanatory and not clearly meaningful

Could you elaborate a bit, or simply refer me to something (perhaps upthread) that does? Ditto for “anomalous monism”?

255

Dave Maier 12.29.09 at 6:22 am

John, I’m really not sure Fish is your best test case here. As I recall, he believes (or says he believes) in objective reality and all that, but believes also that it is impossible to construct a non-question-begging argument from agreed-on premises to any significant conclusions. This being the case, he feels justified in arguing in any particular context in whatever way he feels appropriate, in order to bring about whatever he thinks needs to happen. In other words, he’s a sophist (and is — at least in the article he says this in, which might be “Why We All Can’t Just Get Along,” but I’m not sure — remarkably upfront about it). Which means that he is very unlikely to be embarrassed in any way by your challenge about rocks (or, that is, by inconsistencies in his position). He’s much more likely to fire off the standard Whitman and Emerson lines and smirk at your naïveté. Now I deplore sophistry as much as you do, but I don’t think that your attack on it is going to get anywhere.

256

john c. halasz 12.29.09 at 8:06 am

@253:

Nope. Sorry, boss, you’re just trying to pull rank. It’s not me who’s ever claimed to be “anti-realist”; that imputation comes from you. So it’s incumbent on you to make plain the distinction and its implications. I’m just refusing to be pinned down and classified in Dr. Holbo’s Museum of Philosophical Insects. As if that were a worthy enterprise. It’s not as if there is a philosopher’s stone called “Reality”, which would a priori contain and confer all inferences and implications, eh? Logical moves like modens ponens or reductio ad absurdum might work locally, but don’t necessarily apply globally, without question begging. All our inferences and implications will break down somewhere, though we don’t know just when or where. But that assurance is a pretty good indicator of “reality”, eh? Which is not what remains the same amidst all change, but rather what changes of itself, willy-nilly. Thinking otherwise might “cause” one to fly over differing philosophical “terrains” without noticing. It’s only the routes of transmission of the “news” which are at issue. (And, of course, natural language is no more immune to break-downs than formal logic).

BTW, not to interfere with your tete-a-tete with Bianca Steele or defend Stanley Fish, but, according to my last iteration/comment, “I believe in rocks” is an incoherent or nonsensical utterance, unless taken in some pervy sense, such as, “only my pet rocks accord me the love and comfort I deserve”. “I believe in the existence of rocks” is not much better.

@255:

“As I recall, he believes (or says he believes) in objective reality and all that, but believes also that it is impossible to construct a non-question-begging argument from agreed-on premises to any significant conclusions. This being the case, he feels justified in arguing in any particular context in whatever way he feels appropriate, in order to bring about whatever he thinks needs to happen.”

Er, again, not to defend Fish, but that sounds more like a description of rhetoric than sophistry. Which latter means a deliberately fraudulent deployment of rhetoric, akin to the modern notion of ideology. Rhetoric was highly esteemed in the ancient Greco-Roman world, with the pejorative sense of it, as mere empty verbiage, a minority view, largely arising with the Stoics, who contrasted it with “dialectics”, meaning in their account basically analytic logic. But Plato knew that “dialectical” arguments needed rhetorical clothing to address its audience effectively, else why the dialogues? And Aristotle made the distinction in his work on rhetoric between the practicing and the learned kind, which would be irrelevant, if the only use were to deceive. Further, “first principles”, archai, could only be arrived at by means of dialectical syllogisms, in which the premises were “merely probable”, rather than “certain”. Why is it that philosophical history is so easily forgotten, while being drawn upon?

[a note from the management – John Holbo that is. The time limit on the thread has run out and comments have closed automatically. Just thought I should say: I didn’t turn the thread off in response to john halasz’ final comment, which – having won the luck of the final word draw – shall be the final word. But I’ll try to find the time to compose a suitable follow-up post on a related theme.]

Comments on this entry are closed.