Saturday, July 5, 2008

Fundamentalism vs Pragmatism?

In a comment below, Kirby wrote:

You still need some axioms that you take on faith in order to think at all, so I think I prefer fundamentalists to Nietzscheans.

(Not clear who the Nietzscheans are here -- surely not me!)

I'd like to make one minor point and one major one. The minor point is that I object to the use of "axioms" here -- it seems to me that inquiry begins from lived situations which are found to be problematic. To call these problematic situations "axioms" is to put far too 'logicized' a gloss on our cognitive process.

The major point is what really matters isn't whether one has presuppositions and prejudices from which one sets sail -- since it is incontestable that such are always and already at work -- rather, what really counts is whether the presuppositions and prejudices are themselves subjected to criticism based on subsequent inquiry.

The error of fundamentalism, like that of rationalism in general, is that certain premises are held a priori and so immune to criticism, whatever the results of inquiry turn out to be.

Now, I realize that I've just made a sudden shift in my position from my previous post, and that shift deserves emphasis. Below, I fell for the standard line that there is something "irrational" or even "stupid" about fundamentalism. Now I want to shift positions here -- and perhaps pick a fight with WW in the process.

In rough, what strikes me about fundamentalism (whether "religious" or not -- there is also Marxist fundamentalism, Freudian fundamentalism, feminist fundamentalism, etc.) is how basically rationalistic it is. By which I mean, that there are certain assumptions from which one begins, and the consequences of these assumptions are drawn with admirable rigor and acumen, whether those consequences concern the decadence of the West or the foolishness of teaching evolution in public schools.

I want to contrast this rationalism with a different attitude which I identify as pragmatism. The pragmatist attitude is one in which presuppositions and prejudices are revised in light of the results of inquiry. Thus, nothing is a priori in any firm or absolute sense. What is held as stable at a time is just whatever makes possible fruitful inquiry, and any inquiry might allow for rejection or revision in what has previously been held as stable. (And of course the criteria according to which inquiry is evaluated as "fruitful" are themselves revisable!)

In that light, the problem I find with fundamentalism is not a deficiency of rationality but -- if anything -- an excess, a hypertrophy, of rationalism at the expense of correction by experience (scientific, historical, artistic, religious, or otherwise).


Kirby Olson said...

Give me an example of a pragmatic experience that would help you reach some kind of axiom.

I think for a lot of people 9/11 created such a disturbance that they shifted to the center right out of the moral chaos of the left.

Many people thought relativism was all there is (I was one of these). But then I was forced to deal with OBL, and with radical Islam, and to see them in much the same way Nazism and the attacks on Poland and France must have made people think: wickedness actually exists, and must be dealt with by tanks and brave men with guns.

The 60s ended when it turned out that Manson killed all those people in Hollywood. People could no longer believe that grooviness came in the form of long hair and drug usage.

It sounds silly, but things like that do end whole movements. They make you see the light.

Valerie Solanas put an end to my belief that women were somehow inherently better than men when she shot Warhol.

So to some extent I can see that there are paradigmatic events that force you to rethink a theory.

My time in the Seattle left forced me to see that Foucault was a pig, and that the people who loved him were deluded idealists who were fundamentalists very much in the way that you describe. I would show them p. 31 of The History of Sexuality in which he says that it's ok to molest children.

They couldn't take this in. They would retreat, and then decide that there was something the matter with ME.

Foucauldian fundamentalism, or race gender class fundamentalism, in which there is a theory that must not be challenged, is every bit as ooky as any other fundamentalism.

What I like about Christian fundamentalism is that Jesus is such an odd character to begin with: he argues against fundamentalism (the parable of the Good Samaritan is a perfect example), so that if you know anything much about Christianity you can get minds to open.

That said, I don't know any fundamentalist Christians. I only know Lutherans, and a handful of avant-garde Presbyterians and a tiny pile of Unitarians (who are really Marxists to a great degree) and perhaps now one Methodist who is completely lacking in the fervor about getting rid of cards and dancing.

At any rate, I think the academy has a new breed of secular fundamentalists who are worse than any Christian fundamentalists.

I especially can't believe that they don't understand this.

I think I'm more likely to find an open mind in some Bible belt seminary than at Antioch or at Oberlin (yourself excepted).

That is, someone who was going to vote for Obama in some tiny town in Oklahoma wouldn't necessarily lose their job.

An untenured faculty member at Oberlin or Antioch who said they planned to vote for McCain would almost certainly lose their job.

Skittles, The Huntress said...

Dear Carl Sachs,

I've had my head buried in cat blogging, so I missed all this.

I don't think I would pick a fight with you about your thoughts here. I think I understand, and agree with you.

But I'm working 7 straight days, and need a little time to catch up.

As far as Kirby is concerned, to say that he knows no fundamentalists......wrong....the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is fundamentalist.

I would be very interested to know what instigated the "sudden shift" in your position.



Carl Sachs said...

I'd like to see some evidence for the claim that

"someone who was going to vote for Obama in some tiny town in Oklahoma wouldn't necessarily lose their job. [but] An untenured faculty member at Oberlin or Antioch who said they planned to vote for McCain would almost certainly lose their job."

And by evidence, I don't mean one's intuitions, or feelings, or anecdotes of martyrdom. I mean I would want to see the results of a carefully designed sociological analysis. I don't even know if such a study has been done, but to be honest, Kirby, even if such studies have been done, I'm skeptical as to whether or not you've seen them and have arrived at your views as a result. Consequently, I'm tempted to be as skeptical of your claims here as I am of any other mythologizing.