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October 15, 2014

His fascination with the holy persists, if somewhat wrongheadedly, I observed. In his mind has developed a thoroughgoing inversion of saint and sainthood, between the holy men and women whose fleshy bodies were analyzed and broken down after death to further the church’s spiritual trade and those catacomb saints whose husks were bestowed titles and invested with unseemly meaning to line its coffers. True, the truly holy were brought low and their wholes became morbid remains and the wholly false raised high and their remains hallowed wholes, but I cannot countenance such a neat inversion in any industry, for even the saint industry has its deviants.

Fr. 573

October 14, 2014

Si l’histoire consiste en le rapport entre l’absolu et le relatif, entre ce qui refuse le rapport et ce qui se compose essentiellement de rapports, l’approche à l’absolu passe inévitablement par une ébauche d’un rapport et ceci sous une forme nécessairement manquée ou en retard. Admettons que l’Histoire comporte des évenements clés absolus qui déterminent un milieu (tels Auschwitz et l’après-guerre) et par rapport auxquels notre existence entière se résume en la tentative d’établir un lien. Bien que ce dernier possède une signification absolue dans l’esprit d’une époque, il n’aura jamais pour autant une forme absolue dans la mesure il fait appel forcément à la médiation d’un réseau circonstanciel qui détermine les conditions de son approche. Ce réseau comprend les plans matériel et personnel et on négocie son lien à l’événement absolu en termes de connaissance des matérieaux dans des contextes différentes (tel le fil barbelé dans un milieu fermier) ou de histoire personnelle concernant un lieu, une personne, une perspective, un document, etc. (telle une racine commune entre le nom des lieux et le nom de la personne). Ainsi, la signification absolue se refuse à celui qui cherche un rapport, un refus en raison duquel la rencontre de l’absolu et le relatif comporte toujours quelque chose de manqué.

Fr. 572

October 13, 2014

Having completed our survey of Leiter’s account, we can now turn our attention to what his understanding of public philosophy means for a grammar of identity and the (self-)articulation between subject and individual. This grammar turns on the interlocutors’ being able to analyze critically the genesis of self and their sense of self in such a way as to isolate those contingent elements which block mutual understanding on issues of moral and political urgency. In short, interlocutors must come to a clear vision of the reasons behind their positions, precisely the kind of vision that Leiter’s account calls into question in the public sphere. How can we avoid the pitfalls that he so clearly outlines?

Before all, it is necessary to bring back into view Leiter’s paradoxes so as to identify that which proves most problematic for our account, which seeks to empower interlocutors in public discourse. Recall for a moment Leiter’s diagnosis:

The two constituent paradoxes of public philosophy’s troubles are as follows. On one hand, public philosophers have no hard and fast, substantive conclusions on the right or good to hand on to the public. At best, they could only agree on very modest claims. Yet consensus of this kind seems to be a prerequisite for a claim that demands public assent. On the other, we might be led to believe following this first conclusion that, if not a content-ful claim, philosophers might still be able to offer something in the way of a method or way of thinking about contested normative claims.

Indeed, after some reflection, it becomes apparent that the first problem is not inherently an issue for our own account in the sense that we do not presume any special substantive knowledge that philosophy might afford. Far from leaving a grammar of identity dead from the start, the first paradox proves a powerful suggestion of the reasons why the need for this grammar makes itself felt.

On the contrary, the second paradox proves something more of an issue in the sense our position recognizes that, at least for a time, interlocutors may prove deficient in using such a grammar to target the more troublesome elements of identity formation, all of which supposes the need for a class of discursive specialists. Ideally, this class would guide, intervene in or stimulate discussion with the aim of identifying the sticking points in discussion and the ways in which these owe to contingent milieus. These identified, participants in discussion could find ways to “translate” their views and attempt to secure at least mutual comprehension through an appeal to the specific conceptual and discursive background of their audience.

If this class could provisionally be filled by philosophers, these could be replaced in time by some other group. This would lend itself to a reading of our position on which, like Leiter’s, philosophers practice discursive hygiene with regards to everyday discourse in hopes of teasing out entailments, bringing to light background assumptions, and enabling greater synthesis. In this way, our account would encounter those same problems which figure prominently in Leiter’s diagnosis: emotivism and tribalism. For our account would bring nothing new to discursive hygiene’s inventory such that it might bypass the role of sentiment in judgment formation and expand humanity’s capacity for sympathy with others. Certainly, the latter remains an end for this account, but much the same could be said for Leiter’s.

In sum, by invoking discursive hygiene, we would find ourselves in the very same imbroglio. Yet this is to miss the point of our account, at least to some extent. Without a doubt, we want to prompt others to engage in reflection, but this reflection does not necessarily align with the kind put forward by Leiter’s discursive hygiene insofar as we recognize and accept emotivism’s role in judgment formation and self-articulation. In fact, by accepting actual conditions for discourse, less restricted values for discourse, we accept discourse (in large part) as it is already to be found in public discussion. Hence, we gain something of an edge over Leiter’s account in doing away with the unwieldy distinction between private discursive hygiene and public rhetoric, which is, as we have shown, a source of considerable difficulties for a two-language account.

In other words, when we appeal to that which is already latent in actual discourse, we bring the practical and theoretical closer and acknowledge, like Leiter, the considerable work done by rhetoric independent of discursive hygiene. But, rather than subordinate or sever discursive hygiene and rhetoric, private and public discussion by positing the existence of two languages, we seek a way in which reflexive structures can become part of discourse without isolating one from the other. Instead, we place rhetoric at the fore and develop a method for furthering rhetoric in two ways: first, by encouraging individuals to continue and refine rhetoric in their own terms, and, second, by opening up new paths for rhetoric without stipulating its conclusions.

In reality, this can be seen in certain grounding elements of our account, namely, Jeffrey Stout’s emphasis on widening the conditions for legitimate discourse in the face of John Rawls’ attempts to limit acceptable justifications for public action. If Rawls holds that arguments on constitutional matters can only be advanced from a common basis, i.e. for reasons that all individuals would acceptable because independent of any comprehensive doctrine, Stout signals how little such a view is grounded in the reality of public discourse. Therein, participants offer all manner of private reasons which explain their commitment to some position or other. Moreover, Stout is right to point out how wrongheaded it would be to require these participants to advance a publicly acceptable reason for their views, which is not in fact the true reason behind those same views. In granting Rawls’ conditions on discourse a merely regulative role, Stout anticipates to a great extent the shortcomings that plague public philosophy and discursive hygiene on a view like Leiter’s.

To the extent that our view aligns with Stout’s understanding of discourse (all the while trying to integrate some greater measure of universality), the paradoxes of public philosophy fall away. More simply, Leiter’s paradoxes of public philosophy prove false problems for a view like our own. What this means for our broader project is therefore not its impossibility, but, instead, its very necessity, a point brought out by the confusion surrounding the articulation between private philosophy and public rhetoric in the two-language account.



October 9, 2014

Here, beneath the railway bridge, I notice the umbrella’s taut membrane picking up vibrations from the air of this hemmed-in space. Movements that would otherwise go unnoticed are now registered by my unwitting device, its new purpose only afforded by the shelter of these rose stone arches.

Fr. 571

October 8, 2014

Yet the most persuasive rhetoric meets with the same challenges illustrated by Leiter above, even in the absence of discursive hygiene’s officiating: the masses do not want to think, at least not in the terms framed by philosophical rhetoric. This leads us to the third and final element of our evaluation. Does Leiter’s interpretation provide enough capacity for synthesis such that we can make sense of the actual state of discourse?

However sensitive some interlocutors may be to discursive hygiene, rhetoric framed by discursive hygiene is unlikely to sway those given over to emotivist appeals. Indeed, the philosophical corpus contributes much in the way of confirmation on this point. Beginning with the Allegory of the Cave, if not still earlier, philosophy has conceded at regular intervals that genuine thought is, at best, a difficult enterprise and, at worst, an undertaking beyond the public’s capacities. From this list, we would like to call attention to two instances with which we are more well acquainted.

The first is drawn from the writings of Novalis, the German Romanticist, who sought to sow the seeds of higher thought (magical idealism) in broader society through the use of fragments. When confronted with the fragments qua self-contained thoughts, individuals were to come to a higher consciousness of themselves and, in time, take their place amongst a class of philosopher-poets. Yet Novalis’ writings are never entirely class as to the make-up of this class, i.e. whether it was to be a class open to all or merely a class of elites. A charitable reading would hold that, while recognizing the potential for such a transformation in all, Novalis would likely admit the actual conditions for such a transformation to be limited in scope and number.

The second concerns Gilles Deleuze and his diagnosis of the beginnings of thought. For Deleuze, genuine thought begins with a feeling, a nagging incomprehension before that which resists our understanding. At this initial stage, we cannot perhaps not even speak of this as a something for the problem is merely felt and remains to be defined. It is with time and considerable effort that we begin to make sense of that feeling by grasping certains “points” that constitute the problem in some sense or other. Only following this grasping does the problem take on form for us in an articulable way. Unsurprisingly, many refuse the call to feel and never pass to the stage of thought and concept formation.

In short, though distinct from Leiter’s discursive hygiene, genuine thought as admitted by these authors proves inaccessible to broad swathes of the public. Indeed, it is easy enough to imagine that a number of philosophers would concur on this point, whatever their conception of thought and public discourse. Bearing this in mind, we must ask what hope there is for both Leiter’s tempered optimism concerning discursive hygiene’s future and the feasibility of parallel or separate discourses.  

From the beginning, we might worry that the need for two discourses, one for philosophers and another for the public, belies the optimism underlying the paper that discursive hygiene may hold some broader role in public life in some future. If public philosophy as presently understood is to be made private in some sense, it remains to be seen how its now private ends can be brought around again to exert some pressure of public discourse.Herein, we see the tension between Leiter’s broader points above (point 1 vs. points 2 and 3).

Certainly, some do genuinely want rational positions which articulate their underlying sense of some issue or other. Yet this proceeds on a merely ad hoc basis and seems difficult to articulate in any meaningfully regular sense independently of concrete situations. In this way, Leiter’s own lucid assessment of the problem provides reason to limit further application of discursive hygiene following his own limiting claim on public philosophy as presently conceived. In the end, further investigation is required to determine the precise articulation between discursive hygiene, philosophical rhetoric and rhetoric, public and private discourse.


October 7, 2014

The skin pulled tight around his lips, and, from the vibrations in the air, it became clear that, to his mind, intelligence could be narrowly defined as a way of getting out of one’s own head, not to spill the contents of that mind outwards but to extract the capacity for thought from the head while leaving all the inward behind. The measure of one’s intelligence would then be precisely the extent to which one could abstract from the body and the embodied mind, the egocentric perspective and rational fallacies to which such are prone, all of which would explain the people’s incapacity for true thought, calling as it did for a shattered skull.

Fr. 570

October 6, 2014

What remains unclear on both these views is the precise level and directionality of influence and the extent to which one language might hold primacy over the other. For, if philosophers have previously done away with philosophical rhetoric and only been brought to recognize its importance in certain spheres, this is out of concern for discursive hygiene and the subsequent recognition of limiting cases to the latter. Moreover, given the philosopher’s primary commitment to discursive hygiene, as signalled by Leiter’s earlier remarks on the priority of the private question of right and wrong over the public of policy impact, there would seem to be an prima facie case for the primacy of the language of discursive hygiene over that of rhetoric. Rhetoric would then be, on this view, an accessory to the former and, hence, subordinate to its ends.

Yet Leiter’s analysis of Singer’s case shows the extent to which rhetoric can take the fore even in the arguments of otherwise rigorous philosophers speaking ostensibly from discursive hygiene. Indeed, philosophers are themselves people and, thus, subject to, within limits, to the same constraints as those individuals who are largely unswayed by the language of discursive hygiene. If both groups exhibit some of the same tendencies and practices, it is less clear how we are to go about setting out sharp distinctions needed to ground the primacy of the language of discursive hygiene over that of rhetoric. If anything, the two seem more interconnected, perhaps even more muddled than Leiter is willing to allow. In the end, we may be faced with one polycentric language in lieu of two well-defined languages.

Examination of the concrete forms taken on by philosophical rhetoric in 2.) may shed further light on this phenomenon. In addition to Singer’s emotional appeal, as cited by Leiter, we may add such tactics as thought experiments, theatre, new media and “vulgarisation” of technical conclusions. Of these, thought experiments illustrate perhaps best the extent to which the language of rhetoric can cut both ways and belie the ostensible primacy of the language of discursive hygiene over that of rhetoric itself.

Thought experiments, or at least certain among them, have come to be known by another name: “intuition pumps”. Although originally coined by Daniel Dennett to show how the description of Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment highlighted certain aspects of the situation at the expense of others to obscure important implications or logical entailments, the term has lost something of its negative semantic charge and captures an essential aspect of thought experiments, namely, their capacity to portray vividly in the imagination otherwise abstract lines of thought and so make their force felt even to those untrained in the language of logic (or discursive hygiene). In this way, the cognitive contents of philosophy can become accessible to a broader public through more concrete, if highly imaginative, scenarios. Thought experiments like the Chinese Room, Swamp Man and Mary’s Room are suggestive of the way in which philosophy can make itself (somewhat) more public by appealing to rhetorical tools tethered to discursive hygiene.

In examining the ebb and flow of academic discourse, we might, however, find ourselves confronted with the creeping suspicion that these arguments owe their power not to the underlying discursive hygiene but instead to their evocative scenarios structured in such a way as to stimulate the imagination’s pleasure centers and elicit approbation from listeners. If, as has been suggested elsewhere, it is not merely the best argument that wins out but that most capable of generating enthusiasm and garnering assent through groupthink to the detriment of genuine debate, then it is difficult not to see discursive hygiene’s primacy and guiding influence as illusory and the mere inversion of good rhetoric.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the fact remains that good rhetoric can carry the day. Indeed, this point seems to stand independent of Leiter’s narrower claims concerning discursive hygiene while complementing his views on emotivism. The question is then one of identifying means of reaching the public through rhetoric other than through thought experiments, which, admittedly, remain somewhat limited in mass appeal. We had earlier evoked theatre, new media and “vulgarisation” of technical conclusions in this line of thought, and it is striking to consider, in this light, Leiter’s ambivalent, if not scathing, remarks on the need felt by English academics to measure their influence in terms of public reach, i.e. television appearances. For this seems at least one manner in which new media could facilitate the sort of reach that philosophical rhetoric promises.

What else might Leiter foresee as instances of philosophical rhetoric capable of reaching an emotivist audience? It is interesting to consider recent efforts made by humorists and academics to distill the essentials of a specific line of research into information capable of being assimilated by an intrigued audience in the form of sketches and humorous interviews at certain American research institutions. TED talks and short dissertation presentation might likewise be considered means of “watering down” ideas. Although the above tactics diverge from strictly philosophical rhetoric, it is easy enough to see the potential application of such practices, particularly in the field of moral and political philosophy where questions at times carry more hefty import in daily life.

New media could likewise contribute to this effort by furnishing “bite-size” reflections and exercises for the public. In French media, Roger Pol-Droit is well-noted for popularising daily experiments of this kind. Such tactics also find echoes in certain Romantic practices, notably that of the fragment, as practiced by Novalis and Schlegel, where a short piece could give rise to a complete thought in much the same way as an oak grows from a seed to a sapling to its adult form. This sowing of seeds amongst the reading populace was practiced by the likes of Percy Shelley as well, who was known to have distributed prompts for thought throughout the English countryside via balloons and luck.


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