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Fr. 568

September 29, 2014

His initial diagnosis concluded, Leiter turns in the final pages to the question of public philosophy’s future. As he asks, “should we simply not bother with ‘public philosophy’?” Skepticism of this kind is far from being the takeaway of his argument, and he briefly enumerates some of his reasons, both negative and positive, for keeping some version of public philosophy.

Leiter begins by recalling his remarks on the neoliberalization of the discipline and considers its alternative:

[…] to reason our way to sound views of moral and political questions of public significance, despite the irrational and Tribalist tendences of most public discourse. That may effectively render “public philosophy” private, defeating its originaly [sic] neoliberal rationalization: but perhaps that needs to be acknowledged. The primary reason for trying to figure out what is right and wrong in public affairs is to figure out what is right and wrong, not necessarily to influence public policy (16).

If public philosophy is now pursued with an eye to public purposes, its grounds remain a private principle in the sense that any inquiry begins from an inquiry into the right and wrong undertaken at a personal level. This much is clear in Leiter’s reading. What is, however, unclear is the extent to which the neoliberal rationalization is, in fact, defeated. Indeed, this rationalization resurfaces in a slightly different shape in both his second and third considerations.

As to the second, Leiter remarks that:

[…] we do not understand well the conditions under which discursive hygiene matters to public policy over the long haul, and that is an additional reason for philosophers to continue trying to cleanse public debate and reasoning of his fallacies and non-sequiturs; discursive hygiene may lead philosophers to satisfactory conclusions about the right and the good, but it also may, through causal channels we do not yet understand very well, lead society to similar conclusions (16-17).

Although discursive hygiene influences public discourse neither primarily nor directly, it is at least conceivable that such discursive practices could exercise some influence through unknown and indirect means. It is thus reasonable to make some room for discursive hygiene, regardless of the unlikelihood of changes in either human physiology or psychological economy.

Part of the reason for Leiter’s tempered optimism owes to the important public role played by a similar discipline:

[…] the discipline closest to philosophy – namely, law – is grounded in a commitment to discursive hygiene as well, albeit less rigorously and formally. Judges give reasons for their decisions, and those reasons are based on premises, from which inferential steps purportedly follow (17).

If law is able to exercise some influence over public discourse and political imagination, then it is again a priori plausible that structurally and functionally similar domains, like philosophy, might come to such a role in time or, more realistically, in limited areas and ways. Again, this should be taken with a grain of salt, as Leiter has already demonstrated in the Salaita case and the subversion of established legal norms. As further support for the possible influence exercised over the intuitionist society by discursive hygiene, Leiter presents an anecdote on American Legal Realism, an informal school of legal thought about how legal decisions are truly arrived at. To this end, the anecdote details just how a prominent thinker of the school relied on his moral sense in deciding cases.

Yet the anecdote reveals two other factors at work in the judge’s thought process. The first of these consists in judges’ “still want[ing] to find legal principles that will justify deductively the conclusion they find morally attractive” (idem.). To this, Leiter adds the note that “judges can still be ’embarrassed by a technical rule,’ that is, they can come to recognize that the result they deem fair is not permissible discurisvely [sic.] because of the logical entailments of the controlling legal rules” (17-18). All of which leads Leiter to draw the conclusion that “discursive hygiene can still exert pressures”, a task to which public philosophy in some form or other can contribute (p. 18).

That said, Leiter thinks it right to maintain a certain level of skepticism with regards to what reason can accomplish in that the latter “underdetermines what to believe, even in the best of circumstances” and, in the worst, is drowned out by non-rational factors and considerations (idem.). Regardless, philosophy can lighten the load borne by law qua public practitioner of discursive hygiene. If philosophy can contribute to this charge, it has something as well to learn from the field of law: the art of rhetoric. And this art proves the final point of Leiter’s presentation. Of rhetoric, he remarks that:

[…] the art of persuasion part from appeal to what follows from discursive hygiene – matters, and often matters decisively, in what the public beliefs. ‘Belief fixation’, the process by which certain beliefs take hold in the cognitive and affective economy of the mind and thus yield actions, does not necessarily track evidential, inferential and logical relations that interest philosophers […] (18)

If “rhetoric does not tell us what beliefs we should try to produce” or inculcate with the skillset that it affords, discursive hygiene is no more likely to provide guidance on this count (18). For reasons made clear earlier, philosophy is no more able to establish substantive beliefs from grounded reasons that necessitate the assent of any and all. Contrary to the present state of the “profession”, a telling word, philosophers have, in the past, been great practitioners of rhetoric, and Leiter draws attention to two such cases in the way of illuminating examples: Marx and Nietzsche. For the former, on Leiter’s reading, it was enough to think that “the understanding of how things really work would suffice to produce action” on the part of the majority (p. 19). By contrast, the latter sought to make room for ” a self-conscious ‘legislation of values,’ values in the service of making life worth living”, which would replace the effort to make sense of and enshrine the idiosyncrasies of certain cultures over others (idem.).

Insofar as neither of these public figures practiced discursive hygiene in the sense established and now valued by public philosophy of the neoliberal bent, Leiter considers that public philosophers today have much to learn from their forebears. This lesson consists in the acknowledgement that:

We need discursive hygiene for the study and the seminar room; but in public, we need something else, something much more important, namely, rhetorical skill that will make our academic conclusions salient to a public too often influenced by emotion and Tribalist sympathies (idem.).

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