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Fr. 599

March 9, 2015

We have previously stated our problem as follows: contemporary accounts of self, action and discussion in the public sphere tend to confuse the subject of legal rights and the individual of concrete history in such a way as to obscure where the real conflict lies in political controversy, to which the solution consists in a clearer delineation of subject and individual in the crafting of political identity. If we have likened this “solution” to a grammar, which we might then conjugate in different contexts, this is not to suggest a definitive end to the problem. Nor is this to take our problem as a given.

For problems can prove merely verbal. Otherwise, we might deem them unsuited for our day and age, no longer a problem for our present. As per Quine’s famous “explication is elimination” dictum, does our own problem resist the “explication” test?

Recall that “explication” consists in the taking up of a troublesome term with the twofold intent to explain away those functions which no longer serve a clear purpose and thus obscure meaning and to transform those functions which may still serve a purpose but require reformulation for an altered context. Insofar as our problem deals with a troublesome object indeed, that of “self”, it is perhaps more prudent to ask how much, rather than whether our problem resists “explication as elimination”.

An instructive negative application of this test can be found in Part I of Stout’s The Flight from Authority wherein he lays out, on one hand, how little separates foundationalists from skeptics in epistemology and, on the other, the ways in which Descartes’ own dilemma, the choice between scientia and opinion, is no longer a meaningful problem for contemporary society. Without going further into details, suffice it to say that Stout persuasively diagnoses a false problem in epistemology, i.e. how overly demanding Cartesian standards for knowledge necessarily fail to incorporate modern notions of probability into epistemological vocabulary and thus set the stage for the superfluity that is contemporary, post-Getterian epistemology. In short, contemporary epistemology sets out from a merely verbal problem, centering on the term “knowledge”.

If the application above is negative in purpose, it remains instructive for positive accounts in that it provides the obverse of a successful establishment of a real, non-verbal problem. It would appear that the latter must pass muster before a twofold test. First, is the problem as posed a holdover from previous conceptual networks or is it to be found latent within our own discourse? Secondly, if present within our discourse, does the problem as constituted owe merely to confusion surrounding different functions of the terms or do these functions genuinely stand apart?

For his own part, Stout constructs a positive account with regards to historicism, particularly in showing how historicism can help to reduce the preponderant and transcendent role ascribed to philosophers of Descartes’ stature or ilk. Our challenge here will be, in provisional form, to construct an account that itself passes muster before Stout’s Quinean test and hence secures self as both a problem for reflection and an object of study.

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