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April 15, 2014

You can find in the old French hills old village washing places about which residents gathered in a past neither altogether forgotten nor present. As you make the round of the yellow stone basin with its multiple levels, spouts and numbered places, all of it housed beneath traditional wooden rafters and newer clay tiles, you muse on what becomes of the washing place after the washers. You pass from place 7 to 8, 8 to 9, 9 to 10, and trail a finger in the still pool and marvel at the temperature, cool and crisp. It is with no little amusement that you take note of the signage, explicitly forbidding washing in this place, and you take your leave to the sound of water escaping through the occasional hole into unseen drainage.

Fr. 508

April 14, 2014

The fourth and final set of remarks to be made in regards to the problem (“4. New models of collective decision making and collective rationality. Solving the problems of the 21st Century will require coordinated rational action on a massive scale. But we really have no models of collective rationality, no idea of the institutional, social, political and economic structures that will allow us to meet these challenges. Can philosophers help build them in time to guide us in meeting the challenges of this century?”) concerns the final question: what role do philosophers have in all of this?

The problem implicitly sets up the role of philosophers as follows:

3. Philosophers as rational advisers.

3a. The institutional, social, political and economic arrangements, models and structures necessary for such rationality are still to be developed.
3b. Philosophers are considered eminent agents of rational decision-making and collective models for reasoning.
3c. Philosophers will thus have a hand in developing the institutional, social, political and economic arrangements, models and structures necessary for such rationality to be developed.

Yet we might approach this role with a certain amount of trepidation, if not outright cynicism. Can philosophers truly be of much aid here? Do philosophers construct models of this kind? Without a doubt, our answer depends largely on what we make of the (metaphilosophical) question, “what is a philosopher/y?”, a question to which there is neither a simple nor definitive answer. With this in mind, we will content ourselves with a few brief observations on the matter.

First, the problem as worded suggests, perhaps even advances, a very particular view of reason and, by extension, philosophy. On this view, philosophy seems to consist in large part in the rules of social choice theory or decision theory and the aggregation of preferences applied therein. Although some part of philosophy is certainly bound up with these, we have previously observed that these do not exhaust all points of view on the question of “reason” or “rationality”. If these subfields do not exhaust rationality, then it stands to reason that other subfields might likewise have input on the matter.

Closely tied to the question of why social choice theory is seen as particularly suited to the models and structures above is that of why other versions of philosophy are ill suited for it. Certainly, contemporary continental philosophies centering on the isolation and manifestation of differences and the creation of incommensurable concepts are unlikely to appeal to those looking for models. The creative imagination has here too great a role to play, as it were. Similarly, analytic philosophies centering on the analysis or breaking down of concepts into their constituent parts do not seem to have a direct role to play in the practices at issue, unless it is as an auxiliary to the identification of political or social structures to be challenged, targeted, etc..

As we are here painting in quite broad strokes, it is reasonable to think that variants of these could have an important role to play. For instance, on the continental side, a philosophy like that of Michel Foucault, with its distinctive mix of archeology and genealogy, targets individual historical instances that could be altered in such a way as to produce different results; such a historical orientation seems particularly useful for this kind of exercise. Likewise, as suggested above, analysis could prove a useful auxiliary to similar processes. Neither of these falls, at least straightforwardly, into the case of social choice theory. In the end, this suggests at least a plurality of methods for arriving at such models and structures.

All of this can be addressed without entering into the waters surrounding the rather banal question, “does philosophy have anything to do with the real world?”. If such a question merits rebuttal, it perhaps suffices to remark that ethics and political philosophy have long been part of the philosophical canon and that even metaphysics itself starts out from the real world. More significantly, even those philosophies identified above as drawing significantly on the manifestation of difference or the creative imagination themselves issue in new approaches to ethics and politics, all of which brings out how real-world oriented philosophy is. In short, there is perhaps reason for cynicism, yet this is not at the level of philosophy’s bearing on the world, but on the bearing of which philosophy on that same world.

So concludes our initial investigation of problem 4.

Fr. 507

April 11, 2014

The third remark to be registered in regards to the problem of universal models of rationality and decisions concerns more particularly the precise mechanisms by which such decisions are to be made. More simply, what would such models look like?

One possibility lies in catallaxy or rational choice theory, defined as the means of aggregating preferences and solving for the greatest number possible or with the most efficient input/output ratio. This theory has without a doubt its application to the field of political arrangements, as is shown in Chapter 5 of Cunningham’s Theories of Democracy. Of this theory, Cunningham remarks:

“Social choice theory is a species of more general ‘rational choice’ theory and is sometimes simply referred to by this name when it is understood that collective decisions are being addressed. Social choice theorists concerned with political behaviour agree on the core of their ideal model: a rational individual comes to a political situation calling for a collective decision with ranked preferences over possible outcomes and chooses that course of action [...] deemed likely to realize the most highly ranked of his or her preferences possible given the decision-making rules in place, the anticipated behaviour of other individuals, and other such constraints. One guiding methodological postulate of social choice theory is that rationality has only to do with whether people take appropriate means to their preferred ends. The ends themselves are neither rational nor irrational, but are simply taken as given for evaluating the rationality of those who take actions to further them” (p. 101).

Indeed, it is simple enough to see precisely how such a theory could be called upon within the framework of the problem that we are treating. If this problem sets as its goal precise the development of models of collective decision making and collective rationality, then it will be necessary to take stock of the preferences of the parties involved in the particular conflicts or disagreements under consideration. In short, catallactic theories of the sort above seem to fit quite well just this scenario.

Yet any attempt to bring a catallactic solution to global problems and conflict will run the same risk as any other catallactic theory, some of which is hinted at by Cunningham above. For rational choice theory of this kind remains silent as to what we are to make of the ends being put forward. These are taken as givens, mere brute facts. Fixed as the ends are, they are neither subject to further analysis and questioning nor subject to change following dialogue and reflection. It is precisely this that constitutes the impoverished nature of catallaxy and rational choice theory: they have nothing to say on the preferences or ends themselves.

More precisely, this insufficiency reveals itself in two ways. On one hand, there are the considerations of arbitrating between qualitatively different goods, preferences and ends, in the sense that not all of the latter are to be valued to the same extent. Some are without a doubt of higher value than others, and the rankings of these values will vary from one group to another. This is not to posit a complete lack of uniformity. Indeed, we have already conceded that there are more or less universal aspirations. Yet so long as these universal aspirations common to individuals and groups worldwide belong to a “soft” rather than “hard” consensus and there is to be expected some variance at the level of valuation, then these universal aspiration should not tempt us to require more work of these than they can reasonably hope to do for us the time come for the preference calculus. Here, the partisan of catallaxy must remain silent, for one good has largely the same worth as any other.

On the other hand, catallactic theories of this sort are, in some sense, change-blind. Preferences are taken as givens and come ever from the outside of the system or situation at issue. More simply, these preferences are established in a vacuum, prior to any and all reflection or dialogue that might provoke change in these. Cunningham singles out this feature when he writes:

“This prospect highlights a feature of catallactic and public choice theory generally that some have seen as questionable. On such theory preferences and the presence or absence of rationality in action on them are regarded parts of a given background against which political cost/benefit calculations are made. In this way the preferences and rational habits are outside of or ‘exogenous’ to political processes. But if political activity itself can internally, or ‘endogenously’, affect preferences and rationality, this assumption is challenged. Introduction of sophistications such as learning through repeated efforts to make a collective decision (called participation in ‘iterated strategic games’) can account for some changes internal to political processes, but it is not clear how this could accommodate changes in given preference rankings or in how rational one is. Moreover, even this complication detracts from the descriptive simplicity and prescriptive neatness that attracts many to the catallactic approach” (pp. 119-120).

We see just how far the manner of treating preferences is distant from the realities of dialogue between parties in global problems, where the mere fact of coming together to discuss the issue at hand might itself engender new preferences as well as different arbitrations or values of the preferences already being put forward. In this way, a catallactic approach to global problems seems to ignore the potentially transformative effect that models of collective decision making and collective rationality could have with regards to the preferences, goods, ends and goals being considered in a given problem. Wherefore the characterization of catallactic theories as impoverished views of human rationality.

The challenge would then consist in combining that which the social choice theory can offer with a more thoroughgoing transformative model for decision making.


Fr. 506

April 10, 2014

Leaving behind the question of whether the view of reason advanced above is fundamentally Western, we can now register a second critical remark with regards to the problem as currently worded:

“4. New models of collective decision making and collective rationality.

Solving the problems of the 21st Century will require coordinated rational action on a massive scale. But we really have no models of collective rationality, no idea of the institutional, social, political and economic structures that will allow us to meet these challenges. Can philosophers help build them in time to guide us in meeting the challenges of this century?”

In particular, it is the second bundle of sub-claims that we would bring to the fore at this time and their reliance on the notion of the model.

2. Models for collective rationality are not in place.
2a. Collective rationality on a global scale requires global models and structures.
2b. There are no such models or structures ready at hand.
2c. The institutional, social, political and economic arrangements, models and structures necessary for such rationality will need to be developed.

At issue in each part of the sub-claim is precisely the ideal of a model. We can surmise of this ideal that, for each instance in which the parties would need to navigate the murky waters of conflict, there would be a single model that we would bring to bear on that instance. This model would presumably come complete with its collection of rules and cases, as well as major exceptions. Taken as a whole, these rules would then be applied to this instance so as best to solve for institutional, social, political and economic problems bound up with that instance. Being a model, this collection would naturally attain to a universal status and would thus apply across the entire range of concrete instances. Moreover, once agreed upon, the constituent rules and cases would stand as a complete entity, with little need for further alteration or review. On a final note, it seems reasonable to think that rational agents would themselves choose from a range of options precisely those rules and cases most essential to the arbitration of global problems and conflicts of institutional, social, political and economic kinds.

Although there is much to be commended on this view, particularly in its call for cooperation, the notion of “model” engendres considerably more problems than might otherwise be thought to be the case. Indeed, the concept of a “model” seems entirely too rigid, strict, and inflexible to be able to arbitrate properly all of the varied concrete instances that we are likely to encounter in solving for problems across the globe. It is important to note that this is not mere trifling at the level of semantics. If we are to use the word “model” to designate the ensemble of rules and cases to be applied and a “model” is precisely that is which is uniform across and capable of solving for all instances, then this word would obscure rather enlighten the function of this ensemble, as well as our expectations for it, should it prove insufficient in some context or other.

Indeed, it is eminently plausible that it will in the end prove insufficient when faced with one instance or another and will need to be considerably amended or even thrown out entirely in order to come to grips with said instance. For it is difficult to cite any particular model capable of solving for the full range of phenomena in a field so diverse and underdetermined as even that of “institutions”, much less “society”, “politics” or “economy”. More precisely, we might wonder what single model in the field of institutions would be able to provide satisfactory responses or explanations for the diverse arrangements and structures that will inevitably be found therein. What then is to be made of this notion of model?

To illustrate further this same point, we need only consider the way in which John Rawls and Jeffrey Stout navigate a similar difficulty with regards to the question of justice. For Rawls, rational agents in society come to agreement about a system of rules for arbitrating instances of justice and injustice. Although broad in application, these rules are fixed in number and are nominally the object of consensus for every citizen in society. Whereas their precise application and interpretation is subject to some variation, the rules themselves and their content remain the same for each member of society qua legal subject bearing rights. Where this conception of fixed rules and universal consensus comes up short is precisely in its expectation that every citizen will assent and that every instance of dispute is capable of being arbitrated along these lines. In those instances where the rules do not seem to apply, it is difficult to see how dialogue between the different parties might continue.

To this end, Jeffrey Stout notes that some citizens might find such a notion of consensus and fixed rules epistemically dubious or stifling. For these parties, there is reason to suspect that such consensus and rules are, on one hand, out of the realm of possibility and, on the other, potentially harmful to the society in which they are being applied. For these stifle the particularities of a given instance to which any satisfactory solution would have to pay careful attention. To remedy this lack of flexibility, Stout recommends instead preliminary dialogue so as to establish or at the least adapt the rules to be applied in that instance. Following this period of dialogue and exchange, the parties are more likely to come to satisfactory conclusions and agreements about the best means to arbitrate their problems.

In this way, flexible dialogue would supplant rigid rules. That said, it remains to be seen just how far such dialogue could be applied in situations in which the opposing sides find themselves in long-held and particularly entrenched positions. Regardless, this does give us pause when it comes time to advance a “model” rather than a more open-ended collection of rules or cases or other predictive tools.

Dream Experiment CXVIII

April 9, 2014

?:?? am: Again adrift in the streets of Krakow, to pass through one of the two arches beneath this grey stone building, fronted with large glass rectangles, no sky to be seen in the panes. Lingering gaze and one of the cut grey stones shifting wildly through the entire spectrum of color, from reds to blues and back, and the knowing that one is far from Krakow but in-dream. The walk along the river beneath the trees, all an illusion.

8:06 am: Confronted with the Krakow of the dream and otherwise believing the scene, the dream-subject belief is, in the end, belied by the shifting color of the stone. It is as though the dream itself could not bear the thought of betraying the waking subject’s memories of the place and so beckons to the dream-logic. So it is that the dream-logic acquiesces and signals its deception to the dream-subject through this one stone that all is not that which it seems. Might the coincidence of emotion and memory be capable of producing an effect in the dream-logic such that the latter reveals the dream for what it is, thereby betraying its normal mode of operations? In any case, the dream-logic here saw fit to restore to the dream-subject the discursive function and the suspension of belief, normally absent in the dream.

Fr. 505

April 8, 2014

Charges of cultural essentialism against postcolonial theory consist principally in the claim that the latter makes too much of local practices and forms at the price of downplaying universal aspirations or content. When Chibber’s interview comes around to the subject of cultural essentialism, it does so from the angle of resistance to capital:

“JB: A lot of the appeal of postcolonial theory reflects a widespread desire to avoid Eurocentrism and to understand the importance of locally specific cultural categories, forms, identities, and what have you: to understand people as they were, or are, not just as abstractions. But I wonder if there’s also a danger with the way they understand the cultural specificity of non-Western societies, and if that is a form of cultural essentialism.

VC: Absolutely, that is the danger. And it’s not only a danger; it’s something to which Subaltern Studies and postcolonial theory consistently fall prey. You see it most often in their arguments about social agency and resistance. It’s perfectly fine to say that people draw on local cultures and practices when they resist capitalism, or when they resist various agents of capital. But it’s quite another to say that there are no universal aspirations, or no universal interests, that people might have. In fact, one of the things I show in my book is that when the Subaltern Studies historians do empirical work on peasant resistance, they show pretty clearly that peasants [in India], when they engage in collective action, are more or less acting on the same aspirations and the same drives as Western peasants were. What separates them from the West are the cultural forms in which these aspirations are expressed, but the aspirations themselves tend to be pretty consistent [...] I am endorsing the view that there are some common interests and needs that people have across cultures. There are some aspects of our human nature that are not culturally constructed: they are shaped by culture, but not created by it. My view is that even though there are enormous cultural differences between people in the East and the West, there’s also a core set of concerns that people have in common, whether they’re born in Egypt, or India, or Manchester, or New York. These aren’t many, but we can enumerate at least two or three of them: there’s a concern for your physical wellbeing; there’s probably a concern for a degree of autonomy and self-determination; there’s a concern for those practices that directly pertain to your welfare. This isn’t much, but you’d be amazed how far it gets you in explaining really important historical transformations.”

In sum, although the given shape that resistance to capital takes differs from one culture to another, what remains constant is precisely the body of aspirations fueling that resistance: health, freedom, welfare, etc. To this list, others could perhaps be added, such as the health, freedom and welfare of our family or social circle. Taken as a whole, these aspirations might be thought to outline a “soft consensus” amongst agents from wildly different cultures and societal backgrounds. (See here for more on the political, pluralistic understanding of “soft consensus” in Western political culture.) For this reason, these universal aspirations would guarantee the applicability of at least some universal categories, of Western origins or otherwise, as concerns these cultures. It is not difficult to see how liberalism’s rights talk could correspond to certain of the aspirations given above.

The question remains: How does all of this tie back into reason, the point from which we set out? Taken from a similar perspective, the desire to provide a hard consensus on the content of reason would be fundamentally wrongheaded. Indeed, it is unsurprising that, given the same premises, different rational agents should arrive at different conclusions. Nor is it surprising that, given the same standards for judging of rational adequacy and excellence, different arguments should be assigned these values. The cultural particulars that form and clothe rational argumentation make for some variance.

The lesson that we should, however, retain, from the above is the following: despite a difference of outward form, certain common aspirations underlie the various instantiations of reason and rational argumentation. For example, it seems likely that various participants to the dialogue will hold that, whatever the conclusions, these must be justified in view of the premises. Similarly, the internal argumentation leading from premise to conclusion must be logically consistent and the means employed coherent with the content. In giving shape to the new model of reason to which the problem alludes, we might set out goals of precisely this sort for reason’s soft consensus: justification, coherence, openmindedness to revision, etc. Such goals or targets would constitute precisely a common ground about which we can have dialogue on the worth or merit of various arguments, common standards which naturally see different concrete applications but which constitute nonetheless ends to strive for in the elaboration of a rational argument.

In short, these standards would hold together under a “soft” conception of universal reason, and such categories as “rationality”, “objectivity”, etc. would retain their applicability even outside of the Western world and its philosophical traditions. To label such categories “Eurocentric” is at once to make too much and too little of them. Too much in that the “Eurocentric” becomes the sole inheritor of all that which belongs by right to the human exercise of reason. Too little in that the culture to which postcolonial theory attributes the title of “Eurocentric” becomes itself another instance of cultural essentialism.

Therefore, in answer to MacIntyre’s question “which rationality?”, we can respond, at least to some extent, “human rationality” at the level of universal aspirations. Yet there remains a danger in promoting these from the level of aspiration to that of content.

Fr. 504

April 7, 2014

For this reason, we will briefly consider postcolonial studies’ rejection of the universalisms and meta-narratives associated with Enlightenment thought, rejection of which dovetailed with the broader turn of the intellectual left during the 1980s and 1990s. At its most superficial level, postcolonial theory advances the claim that Western categories issuing from the Enlightenment and Radical Enlightenment, such as rationality, objectivity, liberalism and democracy, cannot be applied to postcolonial societies. In an interview at Jacobin magazine, Vivek Chibber explains at some length his analysis of postcolonial theory in his recent book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. There, Chibber begins by explaining the socioeconomic bases of the claim above. In particular, he notes that:

“The argument really comes out of a background sociological assumption: for the categories of political economy and the Enlightenment to have any purchase, capitalism must spread across the world. This is called the “universalization of capital.” The argument goes like this: the universalizing categories associated with Enlightenment thought are only as legitimate as the universalizing tendency of capital. And postcolonial theorists deny that capital has in fact universalized — or more importantly, that it ever could universalize around the globe. Since capitalism has not and cannot universalize, the categories that people like Marx developed for understanding capitalism also cannot be universalized. What this means for postcolonial theory is that the parts of the globe where the universalization of capital has failed need to generate their own local categories. And more importantly, it means that theories like Marxism, which try to utilize the categories of political economy, are not only wrong, but they’re Eurocentric, and not only Eurocentric, but they’re part of the colonial and imperial drive of the West. And so they’re implicated in imperialism.”

In short, the applicability of such notions as liberalism and rationality (in the form of preference aggregation) is predicated on the existence of certain socioeconomic systems or bases that enable their development and use in the first place. In the absence of such bases, these notions lose their groundedness, and their application takes on an illegitimate cast. Put somewhat differently, without the proper socioeconomic realities, the thinker making use of such categories is tilting at windmills.

Beyond the socioeconomic universalism promoted by liberalism and brought to the fore by Chibber, there is also the question of universalistic moral philosophies, such as utilitarianism, for which there is a similar appeal to universal conditions, such as the desire to reduce suffering, promote the pleasures of ordinary life, and bring forth the natural human tendency towards benevolence. Insofar as these conditions are present in all human societies, the categories at work in these moral philosophies are thought to hold and be binding for all societies concerned. For this reason, like liberalism, utilitarianism and other moral philosophies of its kind have, in the end, a leveling effect and leave little room for difference as concerns specific goods. After all, the value attributed to a good is, from a utilitarian perspective, derivative of the pleasure or pain following therefrom.

If these conditions are not, however, present in all societies, ethical universalism falls prey to the same critique as the socioeconomic: the conditions and circumstances that it is meant to describe are not present in the target society. Universalistic categories in ethics would then not apply to the society in question, revealing the shortcomings of the universalistic approach. For the postcolonial theorist, the preceding examples show just how much such standards as reason and objectivity (and, more specifically, rational adequacy and excellence) are bound to the conditions on the ground in terms of which such attributions are to be made and considered binding. If there are societies to which our socioeconomic and moral terms of judgment do not apply, it is a priori plausible that similar terms concerning proper and improper uses of reasons will likewise fall short. In the end, in order to avoid the skewed perspective of Eurocentrism, it is necessary to set aside the universal standards by which we would judge of such affairs of reason.

Yet the setting aside for which postcolonial theory claims hides a dangerous tendency that does as much to obscure the realities surrounding universal standards as it does to clarify these. This danger consists in making too much of the differences between standards for judging instances of reason, liberalism, ethics, etc. and takes the form of “cultural essentialism”.



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