Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Personal is Philosophical

In hearing a friend recount an argument she had with another friend I thought about how ethics and ethical norms play a role even in intimate encounters. We tend to think of the fights we have with intimates (friends, lovers or family) as purely personal or interpersonal and having to do with feelings. But there is that aspect of arguments in which people say things like: “You should’ve called.” “That’s an overreaction.” “How could you do that to me.” Each has a charged emotional component but they also assume and assert a belief in what is right and wrong. Is it right or expected to call in this or that situation? When is an emotional reaction an overreaction; how do we judge the proper level of emotion for a given perceived offense? Was the wrong committed a wrong? Each of these presupposes and asserts a view of how to behave properly and improperly. Part of the understanding of propriety is based on what we think is right and wrong behavior given our society and culture. In some cultures there could be great offense in not accepting an offer of food or drink upon entering a person’s home. Is that an overreaction? It depends on one’s belief in the social norm being violated. One’s position on that norm is part of the argument in an interpersonal conflict.

When is a reaction to another’s actions an over or under or proper reaction? It is whether the reaction is appropriate to the behavior that caused it? How is that determined if the two people disagree about the norm violated?

A: How could you do this to me?
B: What are you talking about? It’s not that big a deal.
A: It’s a big deal to me!
B: You’re overreacting.
A: No I’m not. I’m hurt by what you did.
B: Well, you’re too sensitive.
A: I’m not too sensitive. You’re insensitive if you can’t see that what you did was wrong.

The emotional element is intertwined with a normative or ethical element and both have to be sorted out. The ethical element brings into play one’s philosophy of right and wrong.

I wonder if some philosophers have thought and written about this. A quick search of the philosopher’s index didn’t reveal anything, but it does seem like the kind of thing others have thought of already, maybe feminist philosophers.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bruno Latour and Rorty

Reading Bruno Latour’s Pandora’s Hope word by word, page by page unlike most books where I jump around and get what I want and then leave it. I see him as doing the practical work not elaborated by Richard Rorty’s anti-essentialism. Rorty suggests we stop looking at things as entities with a nature or essence that we are groping to finally represent correctly. That essentialist mentality leads to tough “What is …?” questions like: “What is the nature of mind?” “What is money?,” etc. Rorty suggests there will be many descriptions of things depending on our needs and goals.

Latour who is describing “science studies” is taking that anti-essentialism seriously and showing how to describe and understand changes in science. Instead of the dominant picture of the world as being one particular way and as always having been that way and that we gradually describe more and more correctly, he describes the many associations and connections that occur in order for a scientific object to become what we take it to be. So the development of atomic energy was an interaction between many actors: scientists, colleagues, funding sources, the military, mineral suppliers, opponents, the public, the media. What “atomic energy” is arises through the interactions of that collective and its character is determined by that array of, what he calls, “articulations” that changes over time. Articulations that last and become well-entrenched achieve the social category of “reality” by becoming an “institution.” The “reality” of the things comes later after the struggle for dominance is won, but it can be reversed since it is an historical and social process. Latour, like Rorty, advocates moving away from the standard modern epistemological view of a reality “out there” which is veiled with a variety of appearances and which we gradually mirror better and better. This way of conceptualizing things leads to a gap between the world as it is in itself and our representations of it and to the irresolvable epistemological and other problems of Western philosophy.

Latour’s view sees all actors or participants – humans and nonhumans – as relationally engaged in creating themselves and each other through the particular way they interact through history. And as history itself moves on there is an ongoing reinterpretation of what happened in the past.

What’s nice about Latour is that he keeps coming back to the central philosophical conflict between the standard, modern, philosophical essentialism and his alternative anti-essentialism instead of leaving the questions hovering in the background.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Gordon Wood in the Radical Middle

Watching the historian Gordon Wood on Book TV’s “In Depth” program on C-Span 2 where they spend three hours interviewing a noted author. He’s a popular historian of revolutionary America. What struck me was his complete ignorance of questions regarding the philosophy of history writing and the value-laden character of all history writing. He was asked about Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” and saw it as emphasizing only a “dark” view of American history and implied that it doesn’t tell the whole story, which presumably Wood does. Wood says nothing about Zinn’s book being a counter-history to conventional history and that it chooses a different perspective from which to write history, that of the poorer, disempowered people who are generally overlooked in conventional history writing. Wood shows no awareness that there is even a question regarding the perspectival character of history writing. Even on a show for the general public this could be acknowledged.

Then Wood was asked about how he reacts to histories written that are to the political right and to the political left of him. He used the hoary defense of thinking he’s doing something right (correct) because he’s criticized by both sides. This is a ridiculous defense I’ve heard many times since you could also conclude that you are doubly wrong because you’re being criticized twice. But the point of the defense is to portray the two sides criticizing you as having an agenda so Wood can say that he transcends that partisanship but occupying the neutral middle. This is the myth of the neutral observer which people who hew to the reigning values use to make it appear as if they are disinterested truth tellers. Wood can’t see that he has a perspective like everyone else and everyone has to choose the values that will inform their history-telling. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t agreed upon (and debated) criteria for determining facts and good arguments, it means that any history writer who is telling the story of the past must have a value system in order to organize their narrative. This is the argument of Hayden White. What’s striking about Wood is that he indicates no awareness of this perspective and blithely believes that his position in the center, away from the agenda-biased extremes, allows him to simply get at the truth better.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Philosophy's Perennial Problems

Western philosophy’s perennial problems – mind/body, free will/determinism, objective truth, ethics, etc. - are generally thought to be persisting problems because they capture an essential mystery or conundrum about existence. But here’s a different way of looking at them. The perennial problems of Western philosophy - its recurring problems – can be seen as repetition compulsions. That is, as a pathological repeating on a superficial level of some unresolved issue deeply buried in philosophy’s social-psychology. And if they should be seen as a pathology what is the issue that Western philosophy is trying to work out?

The Meyerhoffian Solution (A personal favorite) - One possibility is that the underlying pathology is a split between the psychology of the thinker and the thinker’s beliefs. Since the major philosophical problems have not been rationally resolved and can be criticized by those opposed to any view, believers in a solution to the problems cannot have their belief in their solution by the reasons of their arguments alone. Their belief in their view and their adoption of their side of the argument has to have some of its origin in their personal psychologies since their reasons do not hold sway. On the foundational level of our beliefs we can’t have our allegiance to the answer to a philosophical problem without our non-rational attachment to a particular way of looking at things. This is fundamental and unresolved, and mostly unrecognized split, in the contemporary rational inquirer, but I’m not sure that resolving the split would lead to a resolution of the philosophical problems. More likely we would know why a given person adopts their side of the philosophical argument.

The Frankfurt School Solution - That perspective would interpret the cause of the persisting dualities of Western philosophy as a result of the persistent socio-economic divisions of contemporary capitalist society. We are socially and economically divided and in conflict with each other through class and power inequalities. There is no inherent betterness in one person rather than another or more reason for one person to have the necessities of life rather than another yet we must live in a society that distributes the means of existence based on a skewed view of achievement rather than human need. This socio-economic condition creates existential, personal and interpersonal divisions and is reproduced on the cultural level in the persisting contradictions and conflicts that philosophers encounter.

The Neo-Wittgensteinian-by-Way-of-Rortyan Solution - A third explanation I take from Richard Rorty. Western philosophy’s enchantment with the assumption or concept that there is “a way in which things are” leads to arguments about what that “way in which things are” is. If we don’t assume there is a way in which things objectively are (or is not knowable) then everyone is presuming and using a representationalist vocabulary, assuming that our words are representations of the world, and an objectivist or realist assumption that cannot be redeemed. There is no way the world is in and of itself which some of us have a superior insight into. There is the way we hash out our differing views of the world and for the differing purposes we have for doing so. The philosophical assumption – here thought to be false or of little use – is that there exists an entity – the actually existing state of affairs – which is what one side of each argument is matching or getting right but which cannot be shown to exist. By ceasing to assume that we are trying to “get reality right” the attempt to solve the perennial problems of philosophy would not have to be repetitiously enacted and inevitably failed at.

The Mystical-Transcending solution – Here the practitioner of a mystical practice is understood to cultivate the ability to have a direct experience of the nature of reality, bypassing or transcending discursive thought in order to dissolve the boundary between self and other or subjective and objective. The perennial problems of philosophy are resolved in practice and in the transformed being of the practitioner. The duality of thinking is resolved through the non-duality of being.

The Nietzscean-Foucauldian-Rortyan Genealogical Solution – Demonstrate through a historical analysis that what are thought to be the perennial problems of philosophy are not perennial problems, but historically contingent problems. Contemporary problematizing tendentiously interprets past dilemmas as the same as present day dilemmas when they aren’t the same dilemmas. The words used and the social contexts in which they were used changes. Rorty cites works like Wallace Matson’s “Why Isn’t the Mind-Body Problem Ancient?” Foucault describes the practice of genealogy as distinguished from conventional history in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.”

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Bald Ambition in Hardcover

My book Bald Ambition is now out in a non-virtual form. It has a cool cover. And it already has a negative review! Today it ranked 44th in Books>Nonfiction>Philosophy>Criticism.

You can get it at amazon.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Metaphysical and the Pragmatic

The discussion I participated in on asked which is more real: dreams or waking life. Presented in this way it sounds like a metaphysical question.

But I suggested that determining what is really real is dependent upon the approach or stance or perspective we adopt in order to determine what is most real. So if you are doing psychoanalysis then you could think that dreams are the gateway to the real because one’s real motivations, the real determiners of one’s life, are found by interpreting the dreams and gaining access to one’s unconscious. One could also adopt a commonsensical, intuitive perspective and say that our waking life seems realer than the dream and maybe argue that we think about the dream in waking life but rarely think about waking life while in the dream. As a third alternative, we can adopt and do a Buddhist practice and eventually see that what we regard as normal, waking life is really a dream or a form of being asleep compared to the superior wakefulness of a Buddhist mindfulness practice and eventually enlightenment.

So it seems the practice adopted trumps or comes before the determination of the real. We tend to think that by asking questions like: What’s real? Or what’s more real? We are neutrally inquiring into the nature of things. But this way of inquiring presupposes that this particular method tells us how things are. There are other methods for determining how things are, such as a Buddhist practice or psychoanalysis or appealing to common sense or intuition or faith rather than reason.

But, in another twist, the practice adopted comes with presuppositions about the way things are: which is a metaphysics. In Buddhism they say meditate and see for yourself the nature of experience as it arises and passes away in each moment. That by doing this you will see things are they are. But this presupposes that that method of looking or inquiring is the superior method as well as presupposing other things, such as that the present moment is the true reality, that past and future only exist as experiences in the present moment, that in examining our subjective experience we learn about all existing things, etc.

Likewise psychoanalysis has metaphysical presuppositions that one assumes or adopts by inquiring in that way.

Rational inquiry is an approach to determining the real which hides its assumption that it is the best method of inquiry. The various practices which shape what will be seen as real presuppose a metaphysics or beliefs about how things are which leads one to see things in a particular way.

In answering the pragmatic question of which inquiring practice to choose we presuppose the metaphysical and in choosing the metaphysical – i.e. unquestioningly inquiring using our chosen way – we presuppose the pragmatic superiority of that mode of inquiring.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Is Life a Dream?

I replied to a post at the Philosopher's Magazine:

Here's my reply:

The phrase “Life is a dream” can have a deeper meaning if there is another state beyond the two states of existence: waking life and dreaming. In Buddhism and other mysticisms it is claimed that there is another way of living and relating to reality that makes what we call waking life seem like a dream in comparison to it. In Buddhism the story goes that when a man passing the Buddha on the road and noticing something special about him asked if he were a god or magician or demon, he replied, “I’m awake.” A strange reply (since obviously he was awake) unless there is a state of being that makes our normal waking life seem like a dream in comparison to its superior wakefulness. This is what Buddhism asserts but not only as an intellectual assertion; it recommends a practice that must be done so that one sees or experiences that this is the case. You write as if it is a purely intellectual claim to be considered philosophically or in thought. But Buddhism and most mysticisms are about the person’s decision to pursue a daily practice which involves some sort of method of inquiry that either does or does not wake them up by showing them how what we call waking life is actually like a dream in comparison to a superior wakefulness. The Buddhist practice is mindfulness meditation. The moment to moment practice of witnessing the contents of consciousness – thoughts, feelings and sensations - as they arise and pass away. The claim is that you will see that everything is impermanent, changing. You don’t just think it is impermanent, you experience it immediately and that experiencing alters one’s being.

In psychoanalysis of a Freudian or Lacanian kind you do the practice of therapy in such a way (and with the assumptions and practice) that regard the dream as conveying more reality – the really real – in comparison to our illusory waking life.

I think the crucial question is: what method of inquiry do you choose? If you choose a mystical path and do the practice and see what they say you see then do you then believe that that is the way things are? If you choose to use philosophical reflection and see things in a certain way is that the way things are? So, which mystical practice or philosophical tradition should one choose? Phenomenologists “see,” or talk in terms of different things, than do analytic philosophers. If we ask philosophical questions about the way things are we think that we are just neutrally inquiring, but we’ve really unconsciously adopted a method and approach to investigating that comes with certain presuppositions about how we will know what’s real.

Which method of inquiry is the right one to choose to investigate whether “life is a dream”?

Monday, April 05, 2010

The Will to Believe

In again reading Richard Rorty’s magnum opus Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature I find myself absorbing it as if it is a sacred text. As if I’m trying to understand The Truth or how things are by reading it. And as with sacred texts, I experience a mix of getting it and not quite getting it. Of course, this way of being disposed to reading it is a direct contradiction of its point, that being that there is no way in which things are or absolute truth or ultimate guarantor of the true, the good and the beautiful and all the implications that flow from not assuming those absolutes exist or are available to us.

This is not the way I read most texts. I generally read them both to understand them and to be critical of them. Yet my oft-handled copy of Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature has become as soft and floppy as an evangelist’s Bible. Shouldn’t I be more detached and critical of it? Why aren’t I? Is it saying something that I need to hear? Why would I need to hear that? Why have others chosen some other text as their “Bible?” What is the unique character in which their chosen text speaks to them? What about it and them captured their allegiance?

Yet there is something in the fact that I do keep having to read Rorty’s book. Is it that I don’t believe Rorty’s book is right and, contrary to its thesis, the absolutes exist, or is it the opposite: some part of me clings to an illusory belief in absolutes and reading Rorty is the existential remedying or extraction of this false or impractical belief?

Zizek describes Lacan’s concept of the subject supposed to know. We carry this belief in the subject supposed to know into our psychoanalytic sessions and transfer it onto the analyst. So we imagine the analyst knows the truth of our psychological process. But Zizek, citing Michel de Certeau, describes an even more fundamental concept: the subject supposed to believe. This is the belief we have that there are others, more authoritative than we, who believe completely what we only want to or try to believe.

My subjects supposed to believe are Noam Chomsky (in politics) and Richard Rorty. I do believe what they believe, I’ve adopted their beliefs, but there is a way I don’t believe as fully as they appear to believe. And part of my confidence in my beliefs is dependent upon my imagining that, despite my doubts, they believe completely the things I profess to believe that I’ve gotten from them, but that I feel secret uncertainties about. I believe, and need to believe, in their belief.

Oddly, the certainty I apply to Rorty and am trying to achieve for myself, is in contradiction to the uncertainty which is an inevitable result of his philosophy critical of belief in absolutes.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

When "My Spade Is Turned"

An interesting difference of view that may be an example of reaching a bedrock assumption is the different arguments that Matthew Bagger, a philosopher of religion, and Graham Priest, a logician, make about the fact that mysticism, and, Priest would say, all philosophical thinking, reach an inevitable point of contradiction. Such contradictions are “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao” or none of our concepts can ever grasp God. These assertions are contradictory because they say with words or concepts that we can’t know these ultimate things with words or concepts. Yet they do tell us something about these things.

Bagger argues that this paradoxical quality of ultimate entities is made into something mysterious by religions when they are just paradoxes. Priest says that the fact that mystics and philosophers keep running into contradictions at the limits of thought suggests that there are true contradictions. That we are finding something out about the nature of existence when that is the result we keep encountering. And as a corollary, the law of non-contradiction which says that something’s wrong with our understanding of things if there is a contradiction is, in this case, wrong. The contradictions at the limits of thought may be information we keep rejecting; that there are true contradictions.

Wittgenstein wrote: "If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: 'This is simply what I do.'"

Bagger’s book is “The Uses of Paradox” and Priest’s book is “Beyond the Limits of Thought.” Who we think is right is dependent upon the kind of world we want to live in.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Psychoanalyzing Some Philosophizing

The blog “The Joy of Curmudgeonry” has criticisms of Richard Rorty’s philosophy. The blog’s author employs a common technique which is interesting to psychoanalyze. He takes a one or two sentence quote from Rorty and then “refutes” him. This technique is in contrast to the usual critical method of grasping a thinker's overall argument and responding to it. This facile technique is done more with Rorty and, more generally, with people who are strongly antithetical or fundamentally undermining of the critic’s position. Examples I’ve seen of this technique are numerous: several critics’ responses to Noam Chomsky’s radical political critiques; the analytical philosopher Rudolph Carnap’s making the continental philosopher Martin Heidegger look ridiculous by quoting a particularly abstruse passage without any context; Noam Chomsky calling the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan an “amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan.”; several critics of Jacques Derrida.

The critic’s criticism usually has an air of dismissiveness. The opponent is not worthy of consideration because their view is so wrong-headed that it can be disposed of easily. Yet what’s interesting is that the opposite is the case. The opponent’s view is so radical that it challenges the basis of the critic’s worldview and so is profoundly threatening. When the target of the criticism can make a fundamentally opposed worldview plausible and compelling (and I find all the above named thinkers compelling) it relativizes the critic’s worldview. It’s the profundity of the threat and not the foolishness of the thought that causes the threatened critic to act as if their opponent cannot be taken seriously.

If Rorty were as easily dismissable as the curmudgeon of the blog suggests why are twelve of the top philosophers in the world responding to Rorty’s work in the collection Rorty and His Critics? If he is that easily dismissable what is going on in the book? As we might expect from a knowledge of psychoanalysis, the critic’s tone of easy dismissal hides its opposite. In psychology it’s called a reaction formation. We feel and express consciously an emotion opposite to the one we are unconsciously feeling underneath it. A smug confidence in one’s rightness masks the vulnerable fear of a threat.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Rorty and the Need to Tweak

The link between Rorty and non-dual mysticism – the Tao, Buddhist emptiness, Advaita Vedanta, negative theology - is that he’s continually trying to convince us that there is nothing to hold onto. There’s no It. No way in which It really is. No essence. That our words, vocabularies, concepts, or the assumption we have about them, keeps fooling us into thinking we can grasp how things are if we get our words to work, our understandings to cohere.

But, according to him, it’s also not the case that we know for sure that there is no essential nature to things. That would be another metaphysic. He wants us to leave off the search, stop asking the bad philosophical questions. But how to let go?

Rorty is the only philosopher I’ve kept reading over the years and yet he keeps doing the same thing just in different ways. As he said, nowadays he’s just “tweaking” what he’s already written. I keep reading him because I can’t let go of the dream. The dream of finding The Answer, the final resting place, where one doesn’t have to search anymore. Wittgenstein said the goal of philosophizing is to be able to stop philosophizing when you want to. I both believe Rorty that one must let that quest go and, since I keep reading him, obviously don’t believe it. To choose his view and say that’s the way it is is to contradict oneself because you choose to rest and feel sure that there is no surety. To do the opposite and cling to a fundamental understanding and say there is a Way, an Answer, The Truth, is to cling to an ideal that you cannot prove and so believe in that which you cannot show and so, as a rationalist, contradict yourself. The contradiction at the limits of thought.