Category: philosophy

The Critique of Experience

Nick’s question about the status of Dewey’s concept of experience—and the preference for the term “practice” in writers like Latour—makes me feel like I have fallen into a deep well.  I will try to talk about “practice” and what that concept entails in future posts.  For now, I just want to consider the critique of experience.  I will start out with Joan Scott’s extremely influential 1991 essay “The Evidence of Experience” (Critical Inquiry, Summer 1991) and then move on to Richard Rorty’s explicit critique of Dewey’s reliance on experience (in the essay “Dewey’s Metaphysics” in Consequences of Pragmatism [University of Minnesota Press, 1982: 72-89).

Here’s a long passage from Scott that lays out her argument (note her reliance on the term “practice” in making her case):

Michel de Certeau’s description is apt. “Historical discourse,” he writes, “gives itself credibility in the name of the reality which it is supposed to represent, but this authorized appearance of the ‘real’ serves precisely to camouflage the practice which in fact determines it. Representation thus disguises the praxis that organizes it.”

When the evidence offered is the evidence of “experience,” the claim for referentiality is further buttressed–what could be truer, after all, than a subject’s own account of what he or she has lived through? It is precisely this kind of appeal to experience as uncontestable evidence and as an originary point of explanation–as a foundation on which analysis is based–that weakens the critical thrust of histories of difference. By remaining within the epistemological frame of orthodox history, these studies lose the possibility of examining those assumptions and practices that excluded considerations of difference in the first place. They take as self-evident the identities of those whose experience is being documented and thus naturalize their difference. They locate resistance outside its discursive construction and reify agency as an inherent attribute of individuals, thus decontextualizing it.

When experience is taken as the origin of knowledge, the vision of the individual subject (the person who had the experience or the historian who recounts it) becomes the bedrock of evidence on which explanation is built. Questions about the constructed nature of experience, about how subjects are constituted as different in the first place, about how one’s vision is structured–about language (or discourse) and history–are left aside. The evidence of experience then becomes evidence for the fact of difference, rather than a way of exploring how difference is established, how it operates, how and in what ways it constitutes subjects who see and act in the world.

To put it another way, the evidence of experience, whether conceived through a metaphor of visibility or in any other way that takes meaning as transparent, reproduces rather than contests given ideological systems–those that assume that the facts of history speak for themselves and those that rest on notions of a natural or established opposition between, say, sexual practices and social conventions, between homosexuality and heterosexuality. Histories that document the “hidden” world of homosexuality, for example, show the impact [of] silence and repression on the lives of those affected by it and bring [to] light the history of their suppression and exploitation. But the project making experience visible precludes critical examination of the workings of the ideological system itself, its categories of representation (homosexual/heterosexual, man/woman, black/white as fixed immutable identities), its premises about what these categories mean and how they operate, and of its notions of subjects, origin, and cause.

Homosexual practices are seen as the result of desire, conceived as a natural force operating outside or in opposition to social regulation. In these stories homosexuality is presented as a repressed desire (experience denied), made to seem invisible, abnormal, and silenced by a “society” that legislates heterosexuality as the only normal practice. Because this kind (homosexual) desire cannot ultimately be repressed–because experience is there–it invents institutions to accommodate itself. These institutions are unacknowledged but not invisible; indeed, it is the possibility that they can be seen that threatens order and ultimately overcomes repression. Resistance and agency are presented as driven by uncontainable desire; emancipation is a teleological story in which desire ultimately overcomes social control and becomes visible. History is a chronology that makes experience visible, but in which categories appear as nonetheless ahistorical: desire, homosexuality, heterosexuality, femininity, masculinity, sex, and even sexual practices become so many fixed entities being played out over time, but not themselves historicized. Presenting the story in this way excludes, or at least understates, the historically variable interrelationship between the meanings “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” the constitutive force each has for the other, and the contested and changing nature of the terrain that they simultaneously occupy. (pages 777-778.)

Scott’s position is clear enough.  Inspired by Foucault’s notion of “discursive power,” she is saying that there is no innocent experience.  Rather, what we experience is shaped by the categories through which we process and understand what happens to us, what we see, and whom/what we encounter.  Furthermore, the experiencing self has also been shaped by the culture/society of which it is a member.  A consequential analysis of an historical scene must take those shaping processes into account, must make evident that that scene is historical through and through, the contingent product of a construction that could have been otherwise.

Rorty’s critique of Dewey takes the same path.  “Experience” in Dewey is a metaphysical term—and belies Dewey’s more productive efforts to escape metaphysics altogether.  For Scott, experience “naturalizes” that which should be understood as historical and constructed.  Rorty makes much the same move.  He opens the essay by quoting, approvingly, a late letter from Dewey to Bentley in which Dewey says he is thinking of a writing a new edition of Experience and Nature.  This time around, Dewey will “change the title as well as the subject matter . . . to Nature and Culture.  I was dumb not to have seen the need for such a shift when the old text was written.  I was still hopeful that the philosophic word ‘Experience’ could be redeemed by being returned to its idiomatic usages—which was a piece of historic folly, the hope I mean” (quoted in Rorty, 72).

For Rorty, it’s a choice between Kant and Hegel.  Rorty sees Dewey as accepting the break with Humean empiricism which recognizes “that intuitions without concepts [are] blind and that no data [are] ever ‘raw’”(83).  Once accepting that basic fact, the Kantian sees the concepts as universal, shared by all rational creatures, while the Hegelian sees the concepts as historically and culturally relative all the way down.  Rorty writes: “By being ‘Hegelian’ I mean here treating the cultural developments which Kant thought it was the task of philosophy to preserve and protect as simply temporary stopping-places for the World Spirit” (85) Dewey, Rorty tells us, “agrees with Hegel that the starting point of philosophic thought is bound to be the dialectical situation in which one finds oneself caught in one’s own historical period—the problems of the men of one’s time” (81).

In his inimitable fashion, Rorty offers us a pocket-sized definition of metaphysics, utilizing a term from Dewey’s Experience and Nature.  Dewey’s metaphysics aim to designate “the generic traits of experience.” For Nick and me, Dewey’s metaphysics are most fully and fruitfully present in his interactionist account of human being-in-the-world.  It is that account, complete with its notion of “funded experience,” its unsettling of subject/object and other dualisms, and its dynamic picture of the ongoing production of identities, meanings, and novelty that we find attractive and see as adopted by Latour (and, presumably, Stengers, whose work I don’t know, but which Nick admires greatly).

Rorty is unimpressed.  “What Kant had called ‘the constitution of the empirical world by synthesis of intuitions under concepts,’ Dewey wanted to call ‘interactions in which both extra-organic things and organisms partake.’ But he wanted this harmless-sounding naturalistic phrase to have the same generality, and to accomplish the same epistemological feats, which Kant’s talk of the ‘constitution of objects’ had performed.  He wanted phrases like ‘transactions with the environment’ and ‘adaptation to conditions’ to be simultaneously naturalistic and transcendental—to be common-sense remarks about human perception and knowledge viewed as the psychologist views it and also to be expressions of ‘generic traits of existence.’  So he blew up notions like ‘transaction’ and ‘situation’ until they sounded as mysterious as ‘prime matter’ or ‘thing-in-itself” (84).

It is the easiest thing in the world—and so is done constantly—to say Rorty himself cannot escape transcendental or metaphysical claims.  After all, to say all thinking starts from the historical position in which one finds oneself is to identify a generic trait.  But such a critique of Rorty misses the point—and would miss his very significant difference from Joan Scott.  Scott wants to replace one kind of historical claim—the kind that relies on the evidence of experience—with another kind of claim—one that analyzes what enables (serves as the transcendental conditions of) experience.  She is looking for a more accurate or more adequate way of understanding discursive, ideological forces and the way they construct how humans constitute and are constituted by history.  Rorty finds that enterprise just another way of remaining trapped within the wrong-headed set of metaphysical and epistemological questions that philosophy has obsessed over since Descartes.  Rorty thinks we should just walk away from that game.

Why?  What’s wrong with that game?  Rorty has a complicated, but coherent (if not utterly convincing) answer to that question.

That answer hinges on what I am fond of calling “transcendental blackmail.”  In most every case, the metaphysician is trying to sell his audience on something.  The tactic used is to get that audience to accept a seemingly neutral and irrefutable (and almost invariably universalistic) description of the human condition (“the generic facts of human existence”).  Once the writer thinks he has established that irrefutable fact, its consequences are unfolded.  I followed this strategy in my liberalism book.  I tried to begin with the most uncontroversial claims and then lead the reader down the primrose path to liberalism by showing that, if they bought in to the foundational claims, then they, as a matter of logic and consistency, should accept positions that didn’t seem as self-evident and attractive to them at first blush.  Thus, Scott’s critique of experience attempts to establish its constructed nature  and is meant, eventually, to serve to get her reader to question established powers and the categories that serve that power’s ends.

Rorty, first of all, hates any kind of blackmail, any strategy for establishing an authority that deems itself irrefutable.  Everything is up for question in his preferred version of liberalism, just as everything could be constituted differently in a different historical period or culture.  There are no transcendentals, just historical contingencies.

Rorty would like that last sentence to be true.  But often recognizes that it is not.  His talk about “common-sense naturalism” in the passage I quoted above is a nod to that recognition.  Let’s be concrete about this.  Here is a universalized, metaphysical statement of a generic fact of human experience:  All humans die.  Rorty would not deny that statement.  What he denies is that it has any necessary consequences beyond the brute fact of death.  How to face death, think about it, avoid or embrace it, respond to the death of others, etc. are all underdetermined by the brute fact.  We know that various cultures have established an incredibly wide range of practices in the face of the brute fact.

Thus, for Rorty, all humans die is a common-sense platitude that has no straight-forward or inevitable consequence for human beliefs, values, or behavior.  I think this position—while tied to Rorty’s resolute anti-authoritarianism—is also linked to his positivist origins.  Rorty maintains a strict fact/value dichotomy.  Facts are value-neutral.  How we understand and interpret them is radically disconnected from their existence.  In his metaphysics, Rorty tells us, “Dewey betrayed precisely the insight . . . that nothing is to be gained for an understanding of human knowledge by running together the vocabularies by which we describe the causal antecedents of knowledge with those in which we offer justifications of our claims to knowledge. . . . [W]hat Green and Hegel had seen, and Dewey himself saw perfectly well except when he was sidetracked into doing ‘metaphysics,’ was that we can eliminate epistemological problems by eliminating the assumption that justifications must rest on something other than social practices and human needs” (81-82).  What Rorty says about epistemology here is fully consistent with his position on value as articulated in other works.  Our commitments in terms of value rest on “social practices” and what we (and/or our society) understands to be “human needs” and not on any facts that transcend (or dictate) a humanly produced vocabulary. [Note that Rorty’s quick acknowledgement of “causal antecedents” of some statements belies the idea that he is an anti-realist.  He is perfectly willing to say that the statement, “all humans die,” is motivated—or caused—by the encounter with death.  He is not denying the fact’s existence, just its consequences, while he also—as I am about to discuss—does not think that the elaborate gymnastics of modern philosophy’s epistemologies do anything at all to either confirm or unsettle one’s beliefs about facts. Philosophic metaphysics and epistemology are unproductive games.]

An unproductive game because metaphysics has no consequences—a position taken up aggressively by Knapp and Michaels in their essay “Against Theory” and in numerous works by Stanley Fish. Describe the facts of existence—and nothing necessarily follows. Scott’s essay seems to belie that conclusion. Surely, the practitioners of historical studies will proceed differently if convinced by her case that an appeal to experience is not sufficient.  I think that the pragmatist response (certainly it would be William James’s position and probably Rorty’s and Fish’s) is that my last sentence puts the cart before the horse.  What comes first is the commitment to a certain set of values—and then the theoretical (or transcendental) claim is constructed as a buttress for that commitment.  Certainly that was how my liberalism book was germinated.  Rawls’ Theory of Justice offers a more grandiose and even comical case. The painstaking elaboration of his Rube Goldberg-like argument is clearly motivated by where he wants to end up.

Rorty certainly insisted that his philosophical commitments and arguments had no political consequences.  His liberalism was not a product of—or even connected in any way—to his pragmatism.  He described himself as mostly in tune with Habermas’ and Rawls’ versions of liberalism (characterized by equality, open unimpeded discussion/deliberation, and hostility to concentrations of power) while disagreeing with their conviction that liberalism required theoretical or transcendental underpinnings.  The first-order commitments to certain values—commitments generated by upbringing, by sensibility/temperament, social practices, and comparisons among varied ways of living on display in the word and in the historical record—were more than sufficient for taking a stand.

Philosophers are no different from any one else in  trying to persuade others to adopt a particular stand—while stories, images, emotional appeals, and displayed loyalties are very likely much more effective tools of persuasion than philosophical argument.  “[P]hilsophers’ criticism of culture are not more ‘scientific,’ more ‘fundamental,’ or more ‘deep’ than those of labor leaders, literary critics, retired statesmen or sculptors” (87).  Philosophers just start out by working on a different set or materials—“the history of philosophy and the contemporary effects of those ideas called ‘philosophic’ upon the rest of the culture—the remains of past attempts to describe the ‘generic traits of existences’” (87).  And philosophers use different rhetorical means to persuade—means that are presumably effective for some people, that minority (?) which likes (prefers?) their commitments to be underwritten by a certain kind of argumentation instead of only by stories, images etc.  Rorty is guilty of unjustified metaphysical generalization when he claims (as he often does) that stories are always more effective than arguments.

I find this radical levelling—both of the hierarchy of thinkers and of planes of existence (no deep undergirding truth about our daily round)—attractive.  I find it harder to credit that understanding being-in-the-world and action-in-the-world in this way has no consequences.  Maybe adopting a particular attitude is not ratified by some set of metaphysical facts.  But the description itself is fruitful. How we understand the facts influences our reaction/adaptation to them.  [That’s simply straight-forward Peircean pragmatism.] Of course, it is not clear that Rorty would deny that.  He thinks the vocabulary we choose to work in does have consequences.  Those vocabularies (and the activities/practices that accompany them) just need to be recognized as ways of “adapting and coping rather than copying” (86).  Still, the adapting must be to something—like the COVID 19 virus.  Coping requires, it would seem at least in some cases, accurate modeling.

To conclude—and to set up the next posts on practice—it seems clear that the critique of experience is a resistance to the way the term takes as self-evident the naturalistic placement of an experiencing self in an environment.  The preference for the term “practice” is meant to introduce the social influences (determinants would be, for me but not I suspect for Scott, too strong a term) that shape what any individual might experience or might articulate as her experience.  Certainly, with his notion of “funded” experience, Dewey is not utterly naïve about the ways that experience has social and historical dimensions.  But the term “practices” tries (as I will discuss in the next posts) to put much more flesh on this idea of the ways in which experience is embedded within social settings that have prevailing norms, preferred ways of “going on,” and pre-established goals/ends.

Joseph North Five—The Aesthetic (Interactive Version)

My first stab at characterizing the aesthetic gave us a weak version of pluralism.  The aesthetic viewed things in a particular dimension, it “saw them as” meaningful, where that term covered their import and their importance.  Significance in both senses of the term: what some thing meant or conveyed and how (why?) that thing was of significance or value, worth caring about and for.

Such an understanding leaves the thing itself untroubled.  In Nicholas Rescher’s book Pluralism (Oxford UP, 1995), he accepts that there are multiple possible descriptions of a thing, what Wittgenstein calls its “aspects,” but insists there is still only one “reality.”  You and I are both seeing the same thing when I marvel at the color patterns in the fire and you worry about the people who might be trapped inside the building.  We are both responding to the fire.

I think (I’d have to go back and check the relevant texts carefully) that Richard Rorty, the most notorious anti-realist of late 20th century philosophy, would still hew to Rescher’s position.  Rorty focuses on “redescriptions” as a site of creativity, and as proof that “reality” under-determines the ways that human understand it, utilize it, and can creatively re-script their relations to it.  As Nick Gaskill points out in his essay on Rorty, one particularly dominant theme is Rorty’s work is anti-authoritarianism.  And that theme extends to “reality.”  Rorty writes against the authority that “reality” acquires in more traditional philosophical metaphysics.  He denies to “reality” the last word; humans can always—and are constantly—saying new things about the world.  And, following Kenneth Burke, we can claim that new things said open up new possible courses of action.

But what if we take a more radically interactive approach?  Such an approach is certainly suggested in the pragmatism of James and Dewey.  Debates about the “two pragmatisms” (H. O. Mounce’s term) in fact often center around the extent to which pragmatism is “realist.”  For Mounce, Rorty is the enemy, and we must return pragmatism to Charles Sanders Peirce’s metaphysical realism. [Howard Mounce, The Two Pragmatisms (Routledge, 1997).]  (Peirce, by the end of his life, was very close to a Platonic realist.)  This battle then gets fought over the body of Dewey; was Rorty’s radical reading of Dewey accurate or not?  And in most of these debate, James (and his radical empiricism) barely figures at all.  He is not taken seriously as an epistemologist or an ontologist.

Today, however, James’s radical empiricism has come to seem a fruitful approach to a variety of writers, none more prominent than Bruno Latour.  In his recent major tome, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (Harvard UP, 2018), Latour offers what we might call radical pluralism.  “Modes” is, in fact, a slippery term—and Latour himself often seems unsure just how far he wants to push his ontological claims.  There are mountains of books trying to figure out what Spinoza meant by “modes,” although I think it fair to say there is general agreement that his “modes” are secondary to, dependent upon, “substance.”

Latour quite clearly wants to jettison the notion of “substance” altogether.  But still the term “mode” is never in and of itself sufficient.  It must be a mode of something.  And what we get is “an inquiry into modes of existence.”  But to what does “existence” refer?  The general metaphysical condition (i.e just another name for “reality,” even if that reality is more inchoate, more open to various manipulations, multiple shapings than some other versions of “reality.” It is unclear, since despite the prominence of the term in the title, Latour never explains to us what he means by “existence.”) But he does rely heavily on the term “existents,” and its meaning is quite clear.  Latour wants to substitute “subsistence” for “substance”—and refers throughout his book to “existents” (y which he appears to  mean “things that subsist.”) There are identifiable things (existents) that subsist.  (It seems to me, although Latour only mentions this term once, that he has his own version of Spinoza’s conatus.  Latour seems to posit a fundamental drive to subsist, a fundamental energy devoted to subsisting.)  In this framework, “a mode of existence [is] a way of being that cannot be substituted for any other and that no other can replace” (268).  “A way of being” for what?–presumably for “an existent.”

Where Latour moves toward a more radical, ontological pluralism is in his insistence that to subsist requires change.  If there is a fundamental reality in Latour’s recent work, it is the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of ceaseless “flux,” a Jamesian conceit if there ever was one. [“in fact, there is neither real continuity of courses of action nor stability of subjects” (370).]  Against the relentless tide of time passing, an existent must exert itself to maintain itself.  It must be ever adapting to the novelties that time’s passage throws at it.  So are “modes” different strategies of subsistence?  Latour doesn’t go that way.

Instead—and here is where a Latour inspired version of “the aesthetic” would dovetail with North’s desire that the aesthetic provide us with images of and models for collectivity—Latour focuses on what “assemblage” of participants (“actants”) must work together to allow an existent to subsist. [The “malign inversion” that elevates a persistent “substance” over the struggle for “subsistence” is malign because it “loses the thread of the means that could have ensured subsistence” (279)] In the case of science, concentrating on “the means of subsistence” requires attention to the procedures, the instruments, the experiments—in short, the whole range of interactions between the scientist and both the “thing” studied and the scientific community.  Some existent is only “known” and only continues as an object of scientific discourse when it can be discerned by the procedures/instruments, fit into a causal story that the community (the peer reviewers in the first instance) buys, and remain an object of interest for subsequent inquiries.

Science, in Latour’s terms, grants us “access” to various existents—and it takes a village to secure such access.  But it remains unclear (at least to me) to what extent the “existents” pre-exist these interactions with them.  There seems to be some raw material out there, even if Latour is very specific that he wants to banish the reification called Matter (with a capital M).  Latour’s commitment to the primary flux is such that he battles against all reifications: Matter, Society, Truth, the Economy.  In their stead, he offers processes of assemblage in which “gatherings” (interactions) produce things. It would be better to say “produce states of affairs” (rather than produce things) because things always and only exist in relations. (That’s a major lesson of James’s radical empiricism.)

Thus, things emerge out of the flux, take on solidity as a result of interaction–and gain subsistence, plus any identity they might temporarily possess, in and through their relation to others.  Latour is insistent that the path to being is through the detour of otherness; I only become myself through my relations–which are never stable, always unfolding–to others.  But (here’s my nagging worry when it comes to science—and I think Latour actually is inconsistent on this score) what then are these existents, with their will to subsist?  It seems as if he posits not just an originary flux, but also some existents lurking within the flux.  Now we might say those existents are inchoate; he does at times use the term “articulation.”  So we could say that existents are articulated, take a specific form, through specific processes of assemblage.  And then we could say those specific forms are “modes.”  But that would still mean they are “modes of” something more primitive—of a non-solid stuff (substance?) that needs a lot of help to keep subsisting.  And that non-solid stuff has a will to subsist.  Specific objects emerge from communal processes, but those processes work upon some mysterious stuff called “existents.”

But the aesthetic (to get there at last) may not have science’s handicap.  There is little reason to think the aesthetic object pre-exists the act of artistic creation.  Certainly, in the kind of common sense view that Latour is at pains to validate against the wrong-headed metaphysics of “the moderns,” that artist works upon her material (words, musical sounds, marble etc.) and shapes it into her art work.  The interactive model works perfectly here.  The material offers various affordances and resistances.  It is hardly, as every artist knows, a passive participant, supine before the artist’s vision.  It has its own contributions to make, its own ways of frustrating or enabling the artist’s desires.  So this is not the Wittgensteinian interpreter who is seeing or highlighting “an aspect” of the finished thing he contemplates.  Rather, it is the very creation of that thing through an interactive process.  And it is not just the creation of the art work, but also the creation of this person as “an artist.”  You don’t get to assume the identity of artist until you have done the act of making.  It is not a pre-existent identity, but an emergent one–and it depends not just on the act of making but also on the community’s recognition of what you have made as a “work of art.”

Such a description immediately raises the question of whether or not there is a strong distinction between the aesthetic as experienced/practiced by the creating artist and the aesthetic as experienced/practiced by the audience.  I am going to leave exploring that question to my next post.

Today I just want to finish up by expanding (as Latour would certainly urge us to do) our account of the interactions that characterize the aesthetic.  In order for even that basic act of artistic creation to occur, there needs to be much more in place than simply the artist sitting down to work.  That act hardly takes place in a vacuum.  The artist has been trained in her craft, has received feedback and encouragement (or discouragement) of various forms, has learned something of the tradition of that craft, and has some idea of the possible places for display of her work.  Once the work has been created, its subsistence is radically dependent on practices of display—and institutions (museums, schools, theaters etc.) for “showing” works.  Roland Barthes, in an epigram I love, said “Literature is what gets taught.”  The canon is one way works of written art subsist.  A poem is dead, has not succeeded in subsisting, if it never gets read.  Similarly, “the art world” is a subject of so much fear and loathing precisely because an art work lives or dies by its ability to negotiate the various intricacies, procedures, and institutions that characterize that “world.”

In short, as Latour is always trying to get us to see, the number of actants involved in the subsistence of any activity and its products is almost always more numerous than we first suppose.  And thus the outcome—the artistic work that emerges from this activity—is always shaped by inputs from all of these actants.  No wonder artists continually dream of “artistic freedom.”  Images of heroic individualism push back against the inevitable entanglement in complicated webs (networks) of relationships that defeat any idea of mastery, of sovereignty over, the field.

The aesthetic, precisely because it entails the creation of new objects, seems particularly suited to serve as an instance of radical pluralism.  Its conditions for creation can be specified—and can be seen as distinct from the conditions of existence in other fields (such as science or, to cite some of Latour’s other examples, politics, law, and economics.)  Those conditions can be described (Howard Becker’s work is exemplary here, but we can also think of Bourdieu as well).  And we can even take a stab at trying to describe the factors that contribute to making judgments about the quality, importance, and/or significance (in all its senses) of aesthetic works.  That’s where I want to start in my next post.

 

 

 

Today I just want to finish up by expanding (as Latour would certainly urge us to do) our account of the interactions that characterize the aesthetic.  In order for even that basic act of artistic creation to occur, there needs to be much more in place than simply the artist sitting down to work.  That act hardly takes place in a vacuum.  The artist has been trained in her craft, has received feedback and encouragement (or discouragement) of various forms, has learned something of the tradition of that craft, and has some idea of the possible places for display of her work.  Once the work has bene created, its subsistence is radically dependent on practices of display—and institutions (museums, schools, theaters etc.) for “showing” works.  Roland Barthes, in  a epigram I love, said “Literature is what gets taught.”  The canon is one way works of written art subsist.  A poem is dead, has not succeeded in subsisting, if it never gets read.  Similarly, “the art world” is a subject of so much fear and loathing precisely because an art work lives or dies by its ability to negotiate the various intricacies, procedures, and institutions that characterize that “world.”

 

In short, as Latour is always trying to get us to see, the number of actants involved in the subsistence of any activity and its products is almost always more numerous than we first suppose.  And thus the outcome—the artistic work that emerges from this activity—is always shaped by inputs from all of these actants.  No wonder artists continually dream of “artistic freedom.”  Images of heroic individualism push back against the inevitable entanglement in complicated webs (networks) of relationships that defeat any idea of mastery, of sovereignty over, the field.

 

The aesthetic, precisely because it entails the creation of new objects, seems particularly suited to serve as an instance of radical pluralism.  Its conditions for creation can be specified—and can be seen as distinct from the conditions of existence in other fields (such as science or, to cite some of Latour’s other examples, politics, law, and economics.)  Those conditions can be described (Howard Becker’s work is exemplary here, but we can also think of Bourdieu as well).  And we can even take a stab at trying to describe the factors that contribute to making judgments about the quality, importance, and/or significance (in all its senses) of aesthetic works.  That’s where I want to start in my next post.

 

’t go that way.

 

Instead—and here is where a Latour inspired version of “the aesthetic” would dovetail with North’s desire that the aesthetic provide us with images of and models for collectivity—Latour focuses on what “assemblage” of participants (“actants”) must work together to allow an existent to subsist.  In the case of science, that means thinking about the procedures, the instruments, the experiments—in short, the whole range of interactions between the scientist and both the “thing” studied and the scientific community.  Some existent is only “known” and only continues as an object of scientific discourse when it can be discerned by the procedures/instruments, fit into a causal story that the community (the peer reviewers in the first instance) buys, and remain an object of interest for subsequent inquiries.  Science, in Latour’s terms, grants us “access” to various existents—and it takes a village to secure such access.  But it remains unclear (at least to me) to what extent the “existents” pre-exist these interactions with them.  There seems to be some raw material out there, even if Latour is very specific that he wants to banish the reification: Matter (with a capital M).  Latour’s commitment to the primary flux is such that he battles against all reifications: Matter, Society, Truth, the Economy.  In their stead, he offers processes of assemblage in which “gatherings” (interactions) produce things (probably saying “produce states of affairs” would be better).

Thus, things emerge out of the flux, take on solidity as a result of interaction.  But (here’s my nagging worry when it comes to science—and I think Latour actually is inconsistent on this score) what then are these existents, with their will to subsist?  It seems as if he posits not just an originary flux, but also some existents lurking within the flux.  Now we might say those existents are inchoate; he does at times use the term “articulation.”  So we could say that existents are articulated, take a specific form, through specific processes of assemblage.  And then we could say those specific forms are “modes.”  But that would still mean they are “modes of” something more primitive—of a non-solid stuff (substance?) that needs a lot of help to keep subsisting.  And that non-solid stuff has a will to subsist.  Specific objects emerge from communal processes, but those processes work upon some mysterious stuff called “existents.”

But the aesthetic (to get there at last) may not have science’s handicap.  There is little reason to think the aesthetic object pre-exists the act of artistic creation.  Certainly, in the kind of common sense view that Latour is at pains to validate against the wrong-headed metaphysics of “the moderns,” that artist works upon her material (words, musical sounds, marble etc.) and shapes it into her art work.  The interactive model works perfectly here.  The material offers various affordances and resistances.  It is hardly, as every artist knows, a passive participant, supine before the artist’s vision.  It has its own contributions to make, its own ways of frustrating or enabling the artist’s desires.  So this is not the Wittgensteinian interpreter who is seeing or highlighting “an aspect” of the finished thing he contemplates.  Rather, it is the very creation of that thing through an interactive process.

And it is not just the material the artist works with that is transformed in the process. So is the person doing that work.  Her identity as “an artist” only emerges through doing that work–and depends not only on what she produces, but also on how others are willing to view her.  We all know people who want to call themselves “writers,” but who do not feel entitled to claim that self-description because the community has not yet bestowed it on them.  That identity can only be achieved through the “means” of the others–the material worked on, the community to whom the work is presented.

Such a description immediately raises the question of whether or not there is a strong distinction between the aesthetic as experienced/practiced by the creating artist and the aesthetic as experienced/practiced by the audience.  I am going to leave exploring that question to my next post.

Today I just want to finish up by expanding (as Latour would certainly urge us to do) our account of the interactions that characterize the aesthetic.  In order for even that basic act of artistic creation to occur, there needs to be much more in place than simply the artist sitting down to work.  That act hardly takes place in a vacuum.  The artist has been trained in her craft, has received feedback and encouragement (or discouragement) of various forms, has learned something of the tradition of that craft, and has some idea of the possible places for display of her work.  Once the work has been created, its subsistence is radically dependent on practices of display—and institutions (museums, schools, theaters etc.) for “showing” works.  Roland Barthes, in  a epigram I love, said “Literature is what gets taught.”  The canon is one way works of written art subsist.  A poem is dead, has not succeeded in subsisting, if it never gets read.  Similarly, “the art world” is a subject of so much fear and loathing precisely because an art work lives or dies by its ability to negotiate the various intricacies, procedures, and institutions that characterize that “world.”

In short, as Latour is always trying to get us to see, the number of actants involved in the subsistence of any activity and its products is almost always more numerous than we first suppose.  And thus the outcome—the artistic work that emerges from this activity and “the artist” who also emerges from it—is always shaped by inputs from all of these actants.  No wonder artists continually dream of “artistic freedom.”  Images of heroic individualism push back against the inevitable entanglement in complicated webs (networks) of relationships that defeat any idea of mastery, of sovereignty over, the field.

The aesthetic, precisely because it entails the creation of new objects, seems particularly suited to serve as an instance of radical pluralism.  Its conditions for creation can be specified—and can be seen as distinct from the conditions of existence in other fields (such as science or, to cite some of Latour’s other examples, politics, law, and economics.)  Those conditions can be described (Howard Becker’s work is exemplary here, but we can also think of Bourdieu as well).  And we can even take a stab at trying to describe the factors that contribute to making judgments about the quality, importance, and/or significance (in all its senses) of aesthetic works.  That’s where I want to start in my next post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Secular Ethics

I am about one-third of the way through Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (Pantheon Books, 2019), of which more anon.

But I have been carrying around in my head for over seven months now my own build-it-from-scratch notion of ethics without God.  The impetus was a student pushing me in class last fall to sketch out the position—and then the book on Nietzsche’s “religion of life” that I discussed in my last post (way too long ago; here’s the link).

So here goes.  The starting point is: it is better to be alive than dead.  Ask one hundred people if they would rather live than die and 99 will choose life.

A fundamental value: to be alive.

First Objection:

Various writers have expressed the opinion that is best not to have been born since this life is just a constant tale of suffering and woe.  Life’s a bitch and then you die.

Here’s Ecclesiastes, beginning of Chapter 4:

“Next, I turned to look at all the acts of oppression that make people suffer under the sun. Look at the tears of those who suffer! No one can comfort them. Their oppressors have all the power. No one can comfort those who suffer. I congratulate the dead, who have already died, rather than the living, who still have to carry on. But the person who hasn’t been born yet is better off than both of them. He hasn’t seen the evil that is done under the sun.”

Here’s Sophocles’ version of that thought, from Oedipus at Colonus:

“Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best; but when a man has seen the light of day, this is next best by far, that with utmost speed he should go back from where he came. For when he has seen youth go by, with its easy merry-making, [1230] what hard affliction is foreign to him, what suffering does he not know? Envy, factions, strife, battles, [1235] and murders. Last of all falls to his lot old age, blamed, weak, unsociable, friendless, wherein dwells every misery among miseries.”

And here is Nietzsche’s version, which he calls the “wisdom of Silenus” in The Birth of Tragedy:

“The best of all things is something entirely outside your grasp: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you is to die soon.”

Second Objection:

As Hägglund argues, many religions are committed to the notion that being alive on earth is not the most fundamental good.  There is a better life elsewhere—a different thought than the claim that non-existence (not to have been born) would be preferable to life.

Response to Objections:

The rejoinder to the first two objections is that few people actually live in such a way that their conduct demonstrates an actual belief in non-existence or an alternative existence being preferable to life on this earth.  Never say never.  I would not argue that no one has ever preferred an alternative to this life.  But the wide-spread commitment to life and its continuance on the part of the vast majority seems to me enough to go on.  I certainly don’t see how that commitment can appear a weaker starting plank than belief in a divine prescriptor of moral rules.  I would venture to guess that the number of people who do not believe in such a god is greater than the number who would happily give up this life for some other state.

Third Objection:

There are obvious—and manifold—reasons to choose death over life under a variety of circumstances.  I think there are two different paths to follow in thinking about this objection.

Path #1:

People (all the time) have things that they value more than life.  They are willing (literally—it is crucial that it is literally) to die for those things.  Hence the problem of establishing “life” as the supreme value.  Rather, what seems to be the case is that life is an understood and fundamental value—and that we demonstrate the truly serious value of other things precisely by being willing to sacrifice life for those other things.  To put one’s life on the line is the ultimate way of showing where one’s basic commitments reside.  This is my basic take-away from Peter Woodford’s The Moral Meaning of Nature: Nietzsche’s Darwinian Religion and its Critics (U of Chicago P, 2018; the book discussed in my last post.)  To use Agamben’s terms “bare life” is not enough; it will always be judged in relation to other values.  A standard will be applied to any life; its worth will be judged.  And in some cases, some value will be deemed of more worth than life—and life will be sacrificed in the name of that higher value.  In other words, “life” can not be the sole value.

I am resolutely pluralist about what those higher values might be that people are willing to sacrifice life for.  My only point is that an assumed value of life provides the mechanism (if you will) for demonstrating the value placed on that “other” and “higher” thing.  In other words, the fact (gift?) of life—and the fact of its vulnerability and inevitable demise (a big point for Hägglund, to be discussed in next post)—establishes a fundamental value against which other values can be measured and displayed.  Without life, no value. (A solecism in one sense.  Of course, if no one was alive, there would be no values.  But the point is also that there would be no values if life itself was not valued, at least to some extent.) Placing life in the balance enables the assertion of a hierarchy of values, a reckoning of what matters most.

Path #2:

It is possible not only to imagine, but also to put into effect, conditions that make life preferable to death.  As Hannah Arendt put it, chillingly, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the Nazis, in the concentration camps and elsewhere, were experts in making life worse than death. Better to be dead than to suffer various forms of torture and deprivation.

I want to give this fact a positive spin.  If the first plank of a secular ethics is “it is better to be alive than dead,” then the second to twentieth planks attend to the actual conditions on the ground required to make the first plank true.  We can begin to flesh out what “makes a life worth living,” starting with material needs like sufficient food, water, and shelter, and moving on from there to things like security, love, education, health care etc.  We have various versions of the full list from the UN Declaration of Rights to Martha Nussbaum’s list of “capabilities.”

“Bare life” is not sufficient; attending to life leads quickly to a consideration of “quality” of life.  A secular ethics is committed, it seems to me, to bringing about a world in which the conditions for a life worth living are available to all.  The work of ethics is the articulation of those conditions.  That articulation becomes fairly complex once some kind of base-line autonomy—i.e. the freedom of individuals to decide for themselves what a life worth living looks like—is made a basic condition of a life worth living.  [Autonomy is where the plurality of “higher values” for which people are willing to sacrifice life comes in.  My argument would be 1) no one should be able to compel you to sacrifice life for their “higher value” and 2) you are not allowed to compel anyone to sacrifice life for your “higher value.”  But what about sacrificing your goods—through taxes, for example?  That’s much trickier and raises thorny issues of legitimate coercion.]

It seems to me that a secular ethics requires one further plank.  Call it the equality principle.  Simply stated: no one is more entitled to the basic conditions of a life worth living than anyone else.  This is the minimalist position I have discussed at other times on this blog.  Setting a floor to which all are entitled is required for this secular ethics to proceed.

What can be the justification for the equality principle?  Some kind of Kantian universalism seems required at this juncture.  To state it negatively: nothing in nature justifies the differentiation of access to the basic enabling conditions of a life worth living.  To state it positively: to be alive is to possess an equal claim to the means for a life worth living.

Two complications immediately arise: 1. Is there any way to justify inequalities above the floor?  After every one has the minimal conditions met, must there be full equality from there?  2.  Can there be any justification for depriving some people, in certain cases, of the minimum? (The obvious example would be imprisonment or other deprivations meted out as punishments.)

Both of these complications raise the issue of responsibility and accountability.  To what extent is the life that people have, including the quality of that life, a product of their prior choices and actions?  Once we grant that people have the freedom to make consequential choices, how do we respond to those consequences?  And when is society justified in imposing consequences that agents themselves would strive to evade?

No one said ethics was going to be easy.  Laws and punishments are not going to disappear.  Democracy is meant to provide a deliberative process for the creation of laws and sanctions—and to provide the results of those deliberations with legitimacy.

All I have tried to do in this post is to show where a secular ethics might begin its deliberations—without appealing to a divine source for our ethical intuitions or for our ethical reasonings.

Kim Evans Responds

Here’s is Kim’s correction of my mis-understanding of her project.

Dearest John,

Many thanks for the shout out! I’m intrigued by your account of my argument and your response to it—which has sent my head spinning (not in an unpleasant way). Here are a few initial reactions, and since you paint the scene with a useful mix of the personal and the intellectual I’ll respond in kind.

First, you have perfectly captured the gist of our not-wasting-any-time-with-chit-chat encounter: that by changing the original meaning of “noumena” from “that which is thought” to his own “things as they are, independent of observation,” Kant not only altered (detrimentally) the trajectory of thought in the modern era but also created the conditions for our enduring misreading of Plato. Ironically, Plato gets the rap for Kant’s dualism.

However, I did *not* say (as you report) that “we should understand the Forms as the concepts by which we (humans) grasp things.” I’m sorry to be so fastidious on this point, but something I find preoccupying is how confused many people have become about concepts (or what it means to have the use of a concept) and concept formation. The confusion is largely due (thanks for nothing, Kant!) to the belief that concepts are formed in the individual theater of the mind. You are still reading Kant or operating out of a set of assumptions established for you by philosophers in the modern era (after the defining work of Descartes and Locke) when in the second half of your post you object to what you call my idealism or worry about the way that all this talk about concepts “confines humans within the boundaries of our languages.” This Kantian view of concepts (as an activity of mind) simply does not map onto the view we find in Plato’s writing. Plato calls attention to the world of forms in order to help us see how language actually works. And discovering how language actually works, according to good readers of Plato (like Wittgenstein) and good readers of Wittgenstein (like Bernard Harrison), helps us to see how a) the “meaning” of a word or linguistic expression—“whale,” for example—doesn’t come, as it were, from Nature and it doesn’t come from Mind; it comes from the role the world plays in language, and b) the meaning of a word can’t be divorced from the wide array of socially devised and maintained practices in which the speakers of language are engaged.  This should come as an enormous relief to anyone who wishes, as you do, to emphasize the central importance of practices in the formation of concepts. I could also say here that something you presumably like about Wittgenstein is that he both denies the existence of a referential relationship between words and things and at the same time dispels the view that language is self-referential, the meaning of its signs established by nothing more than the history of language. But for goodness’ sake let’s please finally concede that this is in fact the position of the classical realists and their best readers (like C. S. Peirce)—though this will presumably only happen when we get back to reading Plato’s dialogues instead of using him as a foil.

SO, to repeat, I did not say that “we should understand the Forms as the concepts by which we (humans) grasp things.” After all, we’ve never had any problem grasping things! The matter that needs explaining is how we grasp thoughts (or the thoughts our words express, which all together make up what Plato called the noumenal realm) and also how the thought a word expresses is affected by or sedimented out of our undeniable placement in the phenomenal realm or world of empirical objects, forces, etc.

The formulation I prefer (and if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, would like to be remembered by) is this one:

For Plato, the real world is the world of things signified by the signs in our language. 

Or,

The things signified by the signs in our language (“the living whale in his full majesty and significance” in Melville’s signature expression, when the sign is “whale”) are what Plato calls real.

What I like about this formulation is that it gets us away from all the garbled transcendentalism misleadingly associated with Plato but really pushed by philosophers in the modern era (for example all the talk about the “stability” of the forms) and back to the view, which is the view we get from reading Plato’s dialogues, that our concepts are in motion. (They are in motion because they are always being revised and added to, as you say, but this does not make them subjective. For Plato concepts are not private but public.)

Now, there is something else at work here that I think is worth remarking on. In your post you comment on your reading habits (that you only skim the news but prefer to read books, the longer the better) and you reference (with sympathy or shared feeling, I think) my remark that the sound of not reading is what we mostly hear. But then, after introducing my position (as found in my MLA talk, but given full development in my new book, One Foot in the Finite: Melville’s Realism Reclaimed) you go on to spell out a difference you see between your position and mine on the grounds that what I say about concepts has not taken enough account of practices. But good god, man! As the author of a book about, precisely, the relationship between concepts and practices or the materiality of our conceptual lives (through the lens of Melville’s Moby-Dick, the most practice-aware study of concepts in all recorded thought!) I’m puzzled by your account. I can only imagine that you are not reading all of the book in which the view you characterize is laid out. This would be perfectly understandable, given the demands of life. Even the most intelligent and serious of readers learn to make use of reviews, rumors, and what they can glean from titles. (And speaking of reviews, I’ll paste below the first few paragraphs of one of the reviews of One Foot so that you don’t have to take my word for it on the question of my focus on practice.) But I am nevertheless interested in the likelihood of people not reading because not-reading seems to have become the means by which our profession keeps chugging along. Well, to speak more accurately, your profession, since as you point out I am no longer paid by anyone to be a reader of texts or to help other people undertake that work. Payment, as my latest labor of love suggests, is not necessary—though the want of it is profoundly uncomfortable & of course the kids suffer.

In any event I am brought back to something you said at the beginning of your post. I am extremely happy to be characterized by you as “a scholar of rare conviction and a thinker of even rarer originality,” and wouldn’t it be nice to think that this is the reason I am presently unemployed! My feeling is that the truth is more mundane and (to me) more unsettling. My last position, as you know, was Associate Professor of Literature and Philosophy at Yeshiva University, and when I am asked what happened there the best way I have of explaining is with a line cribbed from The Great Gatsby. I say I fell into the hands of careless people. ‘Careless’ is perhaps less damning a mode than many others (like ‘ill-willed’ or ‘frightened by originality’) but I think that when it is the mode taken up by professional readers and critics it can feel almost calculated—an engine of professional life rather than an obstacle to it. Isn’t that what Kant demonstrated, when in his Critique of Pure Reason his “unwarrantable” use of the word “noumena” (to quote Schopenhauer) both launched his own career and buried Plato’s own view under two centuries of misreading?

I’m sure I have made certain missteps, here—but oh, the pressure of a blog to respond quickly! I prefer the slowness of books. And shouldn’t books be read as deliberately as they were written? When did that way of reading end, and what will be the result?

 

Very much love, Kim

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

2018.04.28 View this Review Online   View Other NDPR Reviews

  1. L. Evans,One Foot in the Finite: Melville’s Realism Reclaimed, Northwestern University Press, 2018, 210pp., $34.95 (pbk.), ISBN 9780810136120.

Reviewed by Gary Shapiro, University of Richmond

Recently there has been an explosion of Anglophone philosophical interest in Herman Melville. The author of Moby Dick, or the Whale (1851) was neglected until the Melville renaissance that began among literary critics and historians in the 1920s and that has grown steadily since. However, it is only recently that those working in the analytical philosophical vein have turned their attention to the writer. Others writing in English with a more continental orientation have produced several monographs and essay collections in just the last three years or so. These studies were preceded some decades ago by a number of European thinkers, such as Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Ranciére, and Giorgio Agamben. Evans’s book should be of great interest to those seeking a strong interpretation of Melville’s great novel and to those exploring the value of Wittgenstein’s thought for literary analysis.

Evans focuses specifically on Moby Dick. As her title suggests, she is interested in reclaiming Melville’s realism. In a larger sense, she joins in an effort to reclaim American literature for philosophy, a project identified most frequently, but not exclusively, with the work of Stanley Cavell. She advances a Wittgensteinian reading of the novel, claiming that Melville “in effect lays out a solution to the problem that has vexed philosophy since its inception — the problem of how we grasp thought” (118) or (just a bit more modestly) that he dissolves the Cartesian problem of bridging “the ontological chasm between nonspatiotemporal thoughts and spatiotemporally bound thinkers” (164). While Evans devotes about as much time to explaining her version of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, knowledge, and reality as to explicating and commenting on Melville’s text, she does offer a number of distinctive readings of the latter inspired by the former analysis. This book offers an original understanding of Melville’s realism and argues that, so understood, the novel is quite coherent, contrary to many critics who regard it as a poorly patched together combination of a realistic whaling narrative and a metaphysical tragedy.

Evans comments acutely on a signature philosophical passage in Moby Dick that compares a whaling vessel hauling along two dead whales, one on each side, and so precariously balancing itself, to a thinker attempting to juggle Locke and Kant (chapter 73). Nominalistic empiricism competes with the transcendental a priori: is our knowledge limited to the things of sense, or do we possess concepts and forms of intuition that invariably structure our experience while rendering the noumenal world inaccessible? The narrator comments on the plight of those who “for ever keep trimming boat” as they compensate for a tilt toward one by hoisting up the other side. Evans endorses the narrator’s exclamation: “Oh, ye foolish! Throw all these thunderheads overboard, and then you will float light and right.” Melville, as read through Evans’s take on Wittgenstein, recognizes that our concepts are embedded in common forms of life, elements of a rich and complex network of habits, customs, practices, and institutions. The “living whale in his full majesty and significance” — a phrase that Evans repeats with increasing resonance — is not to be reduced either to a set of sensible experiences nor to the idea that a single person might form of the cetacean. The whale is the object of those forms of life practiced by whalemen who pursue, catch, slaughter, process, and are sometimes the victim of the leviathan.

Throughout, Evans engages in a running discussion with a number of Wittgenstein’s leading interpreters and commentators. She is particularly partial to Bernard Harrison’s explication of meaning as use and the concept of language games. Evans suggests a continuity which has not always been apparent between the “logical space” of theTractatus and the Investigations‘s focus on use. In clarifying this project, she observes — rightly, I believe — that it is misleading to reduce Wittgenstein’s meaningful “facts” to mere “things,” as the Pears and McGuiness Tractatus translation tends to do. Literary scholars inspired by (say) Cavell’s readings of Emerson and Thoreau should find these analyses, which are bolstered by discussions in the extensive notes, especially helpful. Philosophers who are in the current Wittgenstein loop may find them a bit repetitious, while others less conversant with relatively recent relevant discussions may be grateful for them……