Wednesday, April 13, 2005

We have never been Old Hegelians

(I dedicate this post to John who has recently wondered whether he might, deep down, be a liberal ironist.)

1.
One doesn’t ‘take’ what one knows as the cutlery at a meal for cutlery; any more than one ordinarily tries to move one’s mouth as one eats, or aims at moving it. (Philosophical Investigations, Iixi, p. 195)
Wittgenstein writes this in the context of pointing out some asymmetries between first- and third-person attributions of aspect seeing or “seeing as,” which asymmetries, I believe, cut to the quick of the deepest philosophical problems about representation, a recurring preoccupation here at Fort Kant.

But what interests me here is this remark’s rejection of a mode of philosophy that sees propositions everywhere, that cognitivizes the experience of having a world (as if “having a world” were a sort of experience; as if “having a world” had a sense!), that analyzes habits into beliefs of a certain sort.

As I read the remark, its point is this: it is peculiar to speak of our ordinary actions as embodying beliefs about things, as if our movements in the world were packed with crypto-propositions that a linguistically overcharged phenomenologist could decode.

When I step forward, I “take” the floor to be solid. The proper response to such a remark is either No, you don’t or I don’t know what you’re telling me.

While it’s best not to try to get too philosophically specific about it, what someone does can show something about how they see the world, whether they know they see it that way or not. And sometimes it is useful to treat someone’s embodied sense of how the world is as a sort of text and subject it to ideological critique. (John does this forcefully in his post on Malcolm Gladwell and the Amadou Diallo case (“The power of thinking without thinking about ideology”), where he argues that "perception is not innocent"and that it makes sense to hold someone morally accountable for how the world shows up for them.)

Mark at Charlotte Street, like the sovereign individual who "hold[s] his kick in readiness for the frail dogs who promise although they are not permitted to do so," reserves a swift kick for those who would be judged on the considered beliefs that represent their conscience, instead of the inverted-comma beliefs that make up their practical identity in the lifeworld. Professed beliefs cover over the embodied beliefs we’d rather keep out of sight, but they don’t reflect what is most deeply the case about us.
Belief as stated is one thing; but more stubborn is that belief incarnate in practice - I.e., ‘materialized’ in what we do. Teaching for example, will involve certain implicit ‘beliefs’ about power, pedagogy and so on, which inhere in things as seemingly trivial as the layout of chairs etc. Belief circulates in objects and actions as much as in (or before) the mind of the individual teacher. If belief resides in, has its ‘proof,’ in the behaviour, the practice, then what we think of as ‘beliefs’ – i.e., articulated propositions – are often defences against, or ways of evading the actual belief.
(This is a deeply Platonic thought, parallel to Socrates’ denial of weakness of the will: if you know that x-ing is good, you’ll x. If you say that x-ing is good but fail to x, your avowal is nonsense, and you don’t know from living well.)

I wonder if we are to see Mark’s post as an endorsement of theory—the activity that susses out the structural or lived belief that professed belief masks—or a criticism of it as so much professed but unlived belief, a display of engagement in excess of the theorist’s real engagement. Let us turn to Marx to sharpen our thinking on these matters.

2.
Anything calling itself political theory might ought to respond to this:
Since the Young Hegelians regard concepts, thoughts, ideas, and all products of consciousness, to which they give independent existence, as the real fetters of man—while the Old Hegelians pronounced them the true bonds of human society—it is obvious that the Young Hegelians have to fight only against the illusions of consciousness. In the Young Hegelians’ fantasies the relationships of men, all their actions, their chains, and their limitations. This amounts to a demand to interpret what exists in a different way, that is, to recognize it by means of a different interpretation. The Young-Hegelian ideologists are the staunchest conservatives, despite their allegedly ‘world-shaking’ statements. They forget, however, that they fight them only with phrases of their own. (The German Ideology)
“But interpretations and phases are things, with material histories and material effects; there’s no principled way to mark off intellectual labor from other kinds of labor, to mark off theory from practice. Only a liberal idealist would still try to maintain a distinction between words and things.”

Let us grant without resistance this point about the ontology of language and proceed to ask, if theory is a practice, who practices it? For whom is it practiced? What is changed by this practice? Who gains by this practice? Quaeritur.

The answers to such questions are embarrassing only if we had high hopes for theory. But if we aren’t overly moralizing, if we don’t wear jackboots and fatigues to lecture, if we don’t make noise about our peers’ being insufficiently radicalized or engaged, if we don’t pretend that a deluded friend of humanity is more dangerous than an enemy of humanity, if we don’t get too uppity about left-vs.-liberal, if we don’t act as if revolution could spring from the armchair—in short, if we are properly ironic in our theoretical activity—and by “ironic” I mean something like “trusting” or “open to inspiration from anywhere” or “honest about the dynamic nature of mental life, and not unrealistically insistent on ideological perfection or austerity (‘out of crooked timber…,’ after all!)” or “underenthused about the project of eradicating humanism”—then we can freely theorize without looking silly if we fetch up as academics writing for other academics. (And perhaps we’ll be less susceptible to the neo-conservative pendular swing that Young Hegelians seem to undergo later in life.)

“But irony is complicity. Worse: it appropriates the surface of revolution and guts its substance, simply to make the ironist feel comfortable in acquiescing to something monstrous.”

I guess it depends what it is toward which one adopts an ironic attitude. Theory as a form of discourse—no sweat. The dehumanizing effects of capital—more alarming. The welfare and dignity of human subjects and communities—this where the solidarity kicks in, and where we might be better off worrying about projects than theories. (Here is a doubt that haunts the ironist: projects may be more important, but I’m better at playing with theories. Perhaps the liberal ironist's motto might ought to be this: Let us be the party of ideas, in every sense of “the party of ideas.”)

P.S.: The double modals are dedicated to my friend Matt Weiner, soon to be one of “the boys back in Lubbock.”

P.P.S.: I have just read Henry's post on Radical Literary Theorists at Crooked Timber ("Look, he vomits crooked pins!"), and I have become ashamed. I pray that if this post has a conservative streak, it is at least conservative in a marginally more interesting way. I would like to think that I'm not defending something pre-theoretical against theory, but rather defending theory—by which I mean free-ranging, raving, roving abstraction that's not afraid to try to frame thoughts that are still too big to think—against the monological sham austerity that it can adopt.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are those who dispute, at least in part, the veracity and stability of the PI and its creator allowed to continue to post? It does not seem correct to argue that an analytical philosopher such as Quine sees propositions everywhere; rather he might say statements are formed about various events, facts, processes, etc., and then subjected to some form of confirmation. The distinction between a formal semantics or quantification and ordinary language is relevant here as well--semanticize as well as cognitivize. Anyways, if I were tryin' to enter major league epistemology I'd prefer to take a stand with Uncle Bertie and Popper than with that mad arrogant viennese schoolteacher--(drop the poker Ludwig).........

And though the Cliffsnotes to the PI is not my favorite tune, if I recall Wittgenstein himself denies that we can make any accurate statements about mental processes such as beliefs or intentions...oh well so much for criminal law and psych. 101

4/13/2005 1:37 AM  
Anonymous John said...

I've tried to come in with some back-up over at my own journal. Don't be ashamed about all that crooked timber stuff: it's clear what you mean.

4/13/2005 5:17 PM  
Blogger Carl said...

Reply to anonymous

Are those who dispute, at least in part, the veracity and stability of the PI and its creator allowed to continue to post?

Help me parse the above sentence. Is Wittgenstein the creator? Am I allowed to continue to post?

Veracity: I'm not sure what it would be for philosophy to be veridical. Do philosophical propositions have a truth value? Why does it sound weird to speak this way. (If I thought about this more, I'd probably conclude that philosophical propositions are intended to be synthetic a priori propositions--that these are constitutive of the philosophical register--and obviously these aren't true in the same way that empirical propositions are (though whatever formal logical of truth would obviously still apply to them).)

Stability: Though the book lacks overt structure--especially the second half, which I believe Wittgenstein had no hand in collating, for he was dead--I think it is a pretty stable text, in that you can count on Witt to consistently make the same sort of move. (In this respect, Moby-Dick and In Search of Lost Time are also stable texts. KdrV is not a stable text.)

Propositions everywhere: I think I might have a sort of linguistically turned phenomenologist in mind, not an analytic philosopher. But I don't know that any professional philosopher holds the view I discuss. I'm probably describing something more like a stage in the natural (dialectical) philosophical progress of someone who thinks.

In general: I hope I don't have to agree with all of Wittgenstein in order to use a quotation out of context to further my own aims!

Reply to John

It suddenly seems that we're playing paintball or something. Hilary asked me what this was about, and I was unable to say. Perhaps we are playing Cops and Robbers or Cowboys and Indians.

4/13/2005 6:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I was referring to Wittgenstein and the PI. There are some important issues raised by the PI certainly, perhaps more psychological or linguistic than philosophical. And that is my own philistine-like take on analytical phil.: it's more akin to programming than to metaphysics. AS you probably are aware of, the positivists were interested in clarifying the language and syntax. Carnap and Quine continue that trend; as I guess did the speech acts guys like Austin and Searle (tho I think there are many problems with that "school"). SO why has AP become so metaphysical? ( It's due to the "latin quarter heideggerians" pernicious influence maybe) Phil. of language, formal semantics and logic, perhaps phil. of science: other than that, any additional speculations belong in theology--and since I don't think theology can be defended, I think the positivists were right in asserting the death of metaphysics (Werner Heisenberg seconded that opinion, and dismissed Kant and Descartes).

The cognitivists and brain scientists are telling us what metaphysics is (was); in a few decades I doubt philosophy and literature will exist except as an intellectual history type of thing.

4/13/2005 7:18 PM  
Blogger Carl said...

SRY, Anonymous. I was reading an extra word into your sentence that made it ungrammatical. My bad.

more akin to programming than to metaphysics: Computer programming, or the programming of the reader? I guess I feel that analytic philosophy gives you all kinds of readerly freedom, which is maybe weird since it aims to use language in such a careful and controlled fashion. I think I can see the computer programming angle, though. You know what you want the program to do, but the challenge is in writing a complete set of steps that will get you there. (You can see geometrical facts in a flash, but the science of geometry is in writing the proofs that will legitimate your intuition.)

I guess we have different ways of reading Wittgenstein. I can't make myself excited about his thought on language or the mind (though I'm getting interested again in first-person/third-person asymmetries, as I've suggested), but, like Charlotte Street, I find the metaphilosophical aspects of his work fairly gripping.

Whether philosophy exists twenty years from now is, I suppose, an empirical matter. Concerning this empirical matter: if our form of life exists twenty years from now, I imagine academic philosophy will, too. There have probably never been more analytic philosophers than there are today, and they've probably never been more committed to analytic philosophy or as good at it. But if everyone did give up on philosophy, I can't see how that would constitute a refutation of it; an assailant's gun might terminate your thinking, but it wouldn't refute it.

(BTW, while we're on the topic of legitimations: remember that a priori and a posteriori are epistemological concepts that concern the manner in which an a proposition can be justified, or how its truth value could be ascertained. Pre-Kantian empiricists conflated psychological accounts of concept acquisition with legitimations of those concepts; Kant attempts to distinguish these two very different tasks. Like R.Eason, I don't think the epistemological and the ontological can be clearly separated in KdrV, but to think that the most interesting thing about Kant is that he's committed to a ridiculous theological theory of innate ideas--to think this is... well, I guess we're just not interested in philosophy for the same reasons.)

4/13/2005 11:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"remember that a priori and a posteriori are epistemological concepts that concern the manner in which an a proposition can be justified, or how its truth value could be ascertained."

Sure, but the positivist distinction that logic/math are analytical a pri. and natural science synthetic a post. still seems more accurate than the old Kantian schema of the syn. a pri. I think those who disputed Quine's reduction of everything to synthetic a pri. in "Two Dogmas" and an updated empiricism may be correct; however, though analyticity holds, it need not imply metaphysics or a non-physical account of nature. However, I do think "Two Dogmas" may be read as a pretty decent groundwork for how science and knowledge operates; yet most of us raised in sunday school America have a lot of difficulties--more psychological than logical-- becoming accustomed to a pure material-behaviorist account of knowledge and truth.

4/14/2005 2:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops. I meant those who disputed Quine's reduction of everything to synthetic a posteriori in "Two Dogmas" had decent grounds for their criticism.

4/14/2005 2:51 PM  

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