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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”.

 

Fr. 503

April 4, 2014

In a post published four years ago, one blogger makes note of the top ten philosophical issues for the 21st century, as elaborated in the 200th episode of “Philosopher Talk”. Of particular interest to those areas most often broached here are issues 3, 4, 9 and 10. To each of these issues will be dedicated a short reflection in hopes of teasing out precisely what is at stake therein.

After having treated 9 and 10 in previous weeks, we shall continue today with 4, stated as follows:

“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?”

 

It is important to begin by analyzing the basic claims being put forward here.

1. Global causes require global solutions.
1a. The greater the scope of a problem, the greater the scope of its solution.
1b. The scope of problems in the 21st century is global.
1c. Therefore, the scope of the their solution is likewise global.
(1d. IMPLICIT: The best means of tackling global problems is through coordinated rational action and decision-making.)

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.

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.

 

Having outlined the claims, we can now consider the broader implications of the problem as worded.

In fact, the areas to be explored further concern almost uniformly the implicit from which the entire problem proceeds: the means for solving global problems are rational in nature. Given the limited space devoted to the problem, it is unsurprising that such an answer should appear in shorthand, as it were, and without further development. The obvious question that arises is why these means must be rational in nature and precisely what is meant by “reason” in this case.

As to the first half of this question, the answer seems rather straightforward. As solutions to global problems involve many different actors, these actors must have terms common to all parties and in light of which they may proceed when evaluating different solutions. Without a common discursive language of evaluation, it would be nigh impossible to proceed towards some viable solution to be worked towards by all parties. In this same line of thought, it is difficult to see which other human faculty would occupy this same role in the elaboration of solutions. Intuition, understanding, creativity, etc.: these seem indispensable to the proper exercise of reason but do not seem in a position to stand in its place in the solution process.

Yet the straightforward resolution of the first half of this problem belies the difficulties with which the second half is fraught: what is meant by reason here? If certain dictionaries give the definition as “the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic”, this leaves underdetermined the precise nature and content of reason. Is this reason the same the world over? Or are different cultures bound to manifest this human faculty under different forms? More extremely, might they arrive at very different judgments in starting out from the same premises? Without treading into the waters of relativism or positing that no one way is better than another, it is still legitimate to wonder whether the mechanisms by which the decision-making process are to take place are themselves universal.

Specifically, we might question whether this view of reason is fundamentally Western and, more strongly, whether it would be right to impose the use of such Western categories onto societies and cultures of the Third World, a core tenet of postcolonial studies. Can such universalistic categories as rationality, objectivity, liberalism and democracy be justifiably applied to the world, its cultures and societies as a whole? Such is the implicit assumption on which this problem and its elaboration hinge. For this, a closer examination of the true import and viability of such critiques of universalistic rationality is in order. In the words of Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, with which rationality are we here concerned?

Fr. 502

April 3, 2014

The other reason why Descartes is to be evaluated only in terms of the goals set by his formulation of the problem owes to a variant of anti-essentialism (which finds still other expressions in Deleuze’s work). There is no way to speak of the “cogito”, plain and simple, for there exists no such concept such that we could elaborate an identical content in each case of its appearance. For the “cogito” is not merely Cartesian; there exist as well the Augustinian and Kantian cogitos. When considering the latter, it is simply not possible to maintain that these are better than the former or vice versa. Likewise, we cannot reject the cogito in any of its variants simply because its author failed to consider some issue which would not have otherwise occurred to him or her. This restriction owes to the fact that the cogito has no essence; this concept’s content changes the moment that the problem underlying it does. Indeed, for Deleuze, there is no sense in debating the relative merits of these concepts insofar as the problems in light of which they are to be evaluated are no longer the same, if not incompatible.

Furthermore, this restriction underlies Deleuze’s rejection of philosophical discussion or debate. So long as the perspective from which each participant in the different does not coincide with that of his or her fellow participants, the discussion will not progress. For the criteria for marking success or elaborating criticisms are not the same. Thus, philosophical discussion is, for Deleuze, largely limited to the interaction between the reader and the thinker read or that between collaborators starting out from the same problem. (This last case is notably considered “conversation” rather than “discussion”.)

Such is the relation between Deleuze’s treatment of philosophical evaluation and discussion and the theoretical pairing of semantic holism and anti-essentialism. This anti-essentialism finds, however, expression elsewhere in Deleuze’s work in his attempts to lend a new sense of movement and transformability to frozen or fossilized philosophical concepts or mechanisms for thought. This renewed emphasis on movement and transformation issues in the call for a proliferation of concepts, determinations and forms in a new era of philosophy, free from the strictures and rigidity of the previous. This applies just as well to the individual’s personal development and becoming. Notably, this call for proliferation draws on certain vitalist intuitions prevalent in Deleuze’s oeuvre, particularly as this manifests itself in the fecundity of a given concept or system of thought.

Interestingly, there seems to exist something parallel in the work of certain thinkers belonging to the current of American pragmatism, particularly at the level of political philosophy. On one hand, we can see a comparable formation in John Dewey’s call to reorganize education, civil society, and democratic institutions so as to promote intellectual curiosity and experimentation, plurality of views, adaptation of institutions to the communities and organizations in which the former are embedded, and the promotion of informed public opinion following research, debate and participation in democratic structures. The changes for which Dewey calls capture something of the movement and transformability that Deleuze sought to instill in contemporary thought.

On the other, the work of Jeffrey Stout underscores a similar desire to promote transformability at the level of political norms and organization and holds notably that democracy provides best apparatus, as of yet, to encourage such transformability in civil society. This aspect is without a doubt present in his advocacy for increased political discussion with an emphasis on reason-giving, i.e., giving reasons for our own perspective and engaging that of others in immanent criticism. That said, it is brought out more forcefully in his reworking of Hegel’s dialectic to the political sphere, an adaptation that results in the notion of “dialectical location”. According to this notion, the beliefs of a member of political society will naturally evolve as he or she espouses certain beliefs, puts these forward and alters them in virtue of his or her encounters with different or contrary reasons in political discussion. In this way, a proliferation of reasons and reasoning comes to the fore in political identity and discussion.

For all of the reasons above, it is possible to bring select “continental” philosophical tenets in Deleuze’s work closer to those found in a more analytic current, namely, American pragmatism. Beyond the interest that this exercise poses in and of itself, it also suggests that there is still more fruitful translation and juxtaposition to be done as concerns the perceived gap between the analytic and continental.

Fr. 501

April 2, 2014

Philosophers encounter considerable difficulties when it comes to juxtaposing claims from analytic philosophy with those from so-called “continental” philosophy.Rather than making blanket statements and gross generalizations, it is typically more advantageous to proceed on a case-by-case basis when comparing and contrasting claims of this kind. It is in this general frame of mind that we would like to address the question: What relation, if any, can be traced between the work of Gilles Deleuze, 20th century French philosopher, and the “school” of American pragmatism, one key strand of thought amongst others in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy?

It is important to begin by isolating certain elements common to those thinkers identifying with the pragmatist school of thought. Perhaps the foremost elements to be retained are those of semantic holism (as opposed to semantic atomism) and anti-essentialism (as opposed, unsurprisingly, to essentialism). In what precisely do these elements consist?

The first, semantic holism, requires that claims concerning meaning and epistemology be evaluated relative to the relevant context, i.e. that in and from which they issue. More simply, in order to understand a claim, it is first necessary to understand the claimant, as it were, namely: his or her background; the information available to him or her at the time; the judgments informing the claim; his or her reasons for motivations for advancing the claim. In epistemology, this is to be approach to, more broadly, coherentism and, more narrowly, contextualism, both of which emphasize evaluation of a claim in view of the various background commitments with which it is combined.

The second, anti-essentialism, is a related principle and holds simply that the person evaluating the claim is to abstain from generalization and thinking in the absolute. Notably, -isms are to avoided, as advancing broad claims about a field, theory or principle tend to exaggerate certain aspects at the expense of others all the while discouraging study of and impeding comprehension of the field, theory or principle under consideration. It is for this reason that overreaching statements concerning such domains as “theism”, “clericalism”, etc. are to be avoided by those on the left and similar statements about phenomena like “secularism”, “modernity”, etc. by those on the right. (For this precise reason, any further claims about pragmatism would themselves have to be nuanced in light of the particular context.)

The basic claims laid out, how do those advanced by Deleuze in his own work map onto those explored here?

Let’s first consider the principle of semantic holism. In his later work, particularly Qu’est-ce que la philosophie?, Deleuze approaches something rather like a principle of semantic holism in his elaboration of philosophy as the creation of concepts and the impossibility of philosophical debate or discussion. For Deleuze, the processes leading to philosophy begin with a particular question or problem making itself felt to the thinker or would-be philosopher. In other words, the thinker first feels that there is a particular problem for which some solution or other is needed. In view of the problem and the particular resources available to him or her, the philosopher beings to elaborate a concept that follows in some sense from the problem, as originally worded. The concept thus created responds in somewhat to the question or problem experienced by the philosopher. In response to still another problem or a problem itself arising from the elaboration of the first concept, the philosopher might then be led to create still another concept which supplements the answer to the original problem or answers the one having just arisen. Taken together, the concepts arising from the original problem or annex problems form a “philosophy”.

Yet it is important to note that the solution, as constituted by the resulting body of thought, does not have the place of pride within a philosophy, but, instead, the problem from which it all arose. Put differently, the act of experiencing the problem constitutes the philosophical experience itself rather than the fact of having “solved” for the problem once and  for all. As an example, consider the case of Descartes. Descartes felt the problem of skeptical doubt concerning knowledge and existence to which he elaborated “the cogito”. To the cogito are then joined such annex concepts as reality under its objective and formal forms. The question or problem remains that of skeptical doubt.

The question remains whether Descartes’ solution for this problem can be considered a success. Yet the answer to this question can only follow from careful examination of the problem to which he responds and the wording that he gives this problem, which contains implicitly the conditions under which the solution is to be realized. If, after scrutiny, Descartes is found to meet the conditions that he set for himself in the formulation of the problem, then his solution to the problem cannot be reproached for having failed to meet its own goals. In other words, any critique of the solution represented by the cogito must follow from whether Descartes meets the goals that he both explicitly and implicitly sets himself. In short, what is at issue is a variant of internal coherentism or the evaluation of a claim in light of the background claims feeding it.

PGS

April 1, 2014

The mere sight of the blackthorn prompts in me a reaction, half-delight, half-disgust, as there is unfailingly joined to the sight the taste of its fruit, blue-violet in hue, smoky flesh bristling with slivers from the pit. By reflex, I tongue my cheek as though to remove the stone or what little remains of it.

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