Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The unforced force of reason II

SquirrleyMojo [sic] has replied to my recent post, “Critique of Violence,” which suggested that some uses of language are motivated by a cynical anti-rationality that is formally the same as the intent to use violence to shape minds. SquirrleyMojo:
but language _is_ psychological force; those who know how to "play the game," as Derrida would suggest, know this . . .
(1.)One might reply that deconstruction acquiesces in those features of language that anyone interested in consensual social change would reject; that, as many have suggested, it can’t generate a constructive political discourse; that its quietism tacitly endorses whatever forms of power are in place; that, untrue to the Spirit of ‘68, the institutionalization of deconstruction helped replace engaged campus radicalism with a scholastic witchhunt for hegemonizing texts; that it might make sense to invoke Derrida in defending the linguistic practices of Bush and friends, and so on.

(2.) It is obvious that language has psychological effects. Whether it should additionally aspire to more is a question interesting not just to philosophers, but to anyone who cares whether the addressees of language are called on as interlocutors, as potential contributors whose contributions might matter. You don’t have to be a raving metaphysician to care about how language is used, or whether it constitutes its listeners as subjects.

I have suggested that we can distinguish two attitudes one might take to the use of language: one on which discussion is impossible, and language is a series of sounds that produces psychological effects, and another on which the aim of discussion is rational persuasion.

On the first view, the only way to use language poorly is to cause undesired effects. This view probably doesn’t count as a view—if language is just one part of a continuum of physical effects, it doesn’t have enough distance from the world to have a view on it—but it at least counts as a strategy. Certain sounds have certain effects and are produced to achieve them. There’s no interesting normative question whether certain sounds ought to have certain effects. Contempt for the listener’s ability to reason releases the speaker from responsibility to the listener as a subject.

On the second view, language can run afoul of rules of logic, relevance, grammar, use, mechanics, and so on, and its sense depends on the permanent possibility of its doing so. It can provide reasons and explanations that are more or less adequate to the epistemic and inferential standards of people who think about what they hear. It is consistent with this view to regard consensus as an elusive and unrealistic aim, though one constitutive of discourse itself. While recognizing the empirical difficulty of identifying uncoerced, rational agreement, this view insists that it’s worth trying to achieve consent without employing fear and confusion. A speaker must offer her listeners the opportunity to say no, for consensus depends on the right to reject what is proposed. This much is applied Kantianism: you ought to treat your interlocutors as ends in themselves, and never as a mere means.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pst. Excuse me sir. How do you justify putting a "[sic]" after my blog's name? Do I not have the agency to name/spell/symbolize myself?


4/02/2005 11:56 PM  
Blogger Carl said...


Certainly you have the right to name yourself. The "[sic]" simply indicates that "SquirrleyMojo" is your spelling, and not my misspelling of "SquirrelyMojo," which a speaker of English might reasonably assume to be the intended spelling.

Also, recall that the post you originally commented on was concerned with orthography and its relevance or irrelevance to meaning. So issues concerning spelling rights were thematically appropriate.

Additionally, I thought it might be an ironic note with which to begin a discussion of uses of language that respect the autonomy of the interlocutor. Maybe this was a tasteless joke.

Anyhow, I'm not aesthetically opposed to standardizing/altering spelling in certain cases. But you should know that I wouldn't have messed with your name if it appeared in a quotation of your text. (Though I do from time to time correct genuine errors in texts I quote, without marking the intrusion. Oh well.)


4/03/2005 2:11 PM  

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