Friday, August 8, 2008

A Pragmatics of the Multiple: A Brief Sketch

In a private correspondence, Yusef (of The Enlightenment Underground) suggested the term "a pragmatics of the multiple" for what I want to do here -- a term which I'm happy to accept!

The contrast I wish to draw is between a pragmatics of the multiple and the metaphysics of unity. The former not only allows for but insists on a multiplicity of ways of speaking with the further realization that different ways of speaking are different ways in which human needs, desires, interests, fears, and hopes are given voice -- that is, in which they take on a concrete and public existence in the on-going life and evolution of a culture. Since these multiple ways of speaking can be in conflict, as needs and desires and interests are in conflict, there arises an agonistic dimension to cultural life which cannot be entirely eliminated.

The latter, the metaphysics of unity, is the demand to locate the correct way of speaking -- the way of speaking that fits the world, which shows us how the world really is. Such a way of speaking would put an end to all social antagonisms by showing once and for all what is true and what is false in each sphere of discourse. The impulse or urge towards a metaphysics of unity was born, and not without good reason, in Plato's rejection of the Sophists and of Thucydides. Since then even if one does not embrace the Platonic solutions to the problems he poses, it was felt that one is obliged to formulate an alternative. Thus the panoply of metaphysical doctrines: Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Neoplatonism, Christianity (Augustinianism, Thomism), Cartesianism, Spinozism, mechanism/materialism, idealism, phenomenalism, Hegelianism, Marxism, process metaphysics (Nietzsche, Whitehead, Dewey, de Chardin, Bergson), phenomenological ontology (Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty). Each doctrine opposes all the others and sets itself up as the most fundamental or highest truth of all things.

In the science/religion debate as it unfolds before us today, the deadlock is exacerbated by an insistence on the metaphysics of unity. Thus it is asked - do science and religion both refer to "the same reality"? Do they thereby conflict? Or do they refer to different "aspects" of "the same reality"? Or is one merely bias, subjective, opinion, and the other alone describes things as they really (basically, deeply, fundamentally, ultimately) are?

The pragmatics of the multiple offers a way out of this impasse by recognizing the metaphysics of unity as itself simply one more way of speaking. (This is, in effect, Nietzsche's jujitsu move against Plato. Among Nietzsche's Anglophone readers, Rorty has been unusual in his appreciation of the full force of this move.) But the pragmatics of the multiple is not mere Rortyian "conversation" any more than it is Habermasian "discourse." On the one hand, conversation and discourse are decisive turning-points in the trajectory that leads from the apes to the Enlightenment. There is no return to a time before Plato and before the ethics of dialogue, contra Nietzsche and contra Heidegger -- nor would we want such a return. The moral revulsion one feels at the world described by Thucydides is indication enough of that.

Thus a pragmatics of the multiple is also an ethics of dialogue. But it is one which, unlike the metaphysics of unity, does not attempt to put an end to dissent and to "dissensus." Nor, importantly, does it cordon off each vocabulary within its assigned territory -- science here, religion there, art over there in the darkened corner, and so on. Rather the pragmatics of the multiple seeks to enrich each vocabulary through its conflict with the others -- science with religion, art with science, religion with art. (Sanity with madness?) Each vocabulary must remain open to all the others and at the same time respond the provocations it receives from within its own traditions and procedures. A theologian cannot respond to the provocations of neo-Darwinism except theologically; an artist cannot respond to the provocations of religious doctrine except artistically.

In this way a pragmatics of the multiple differs from the demand for mere "tolerance" which asks us to not feel or think about the provocations which are all around us. At the same time it differs from a metaphysics of unity which demands the determination of a final, definitive way of speaking. Nor is it mere relativism, if only because relativism necessarily stands in relation to some absolute against which certain things (vocabularies, concepts, values, etc) are found relative. But the pragmatics of the multiple does not say that the place of the absolute is unoccupied; it says that there is no such place as 'the absolute', or more precisely, that metaphysics of unity is itself a vocabulary, albeit the most curious of them all.

8 comments:

The Country Shrink said...

Carl,

I always enjoy your writing, although I must admit to being out of my league on this one. I have not read a lot of the philosophers that you point to. At the same time, I will point to a basic aspect of philosophy as it seems to me. That is for every philosophical perspective there is another opposite or contradictory perspective.

For those more philosophically minded, I would point to Pascal's Wager. The fact that by believing in God, you have nothing to lose and potentially everything to gain. By disbelieving, you may gain some temporary pleasures in sacrifice of the infinite.

It also may be that the purely intellectual side may miss a fundamental aspect of reality by ignoring the basic emotional aspect of being human.

Carl Sachs said...

I presented the hit parade of metaphysics in order to show that all these systems, for all of their real and considerable differences, were attempting to answer the same basic question:

What is reality, considered as what is most basic and most fundamental, really like?

Even philosophers who have argued that this question is not answerable as such -- such as Locke or Kant -- have provided instead an account of something else that is most basic and most fundamental, the structure of the human mind, which explains why this question cannot be answered.

Whereas what I want to do is stop asking this question -- but without thereby ceasing to do philosophy. So I am saying that there is a way of honoring what is most important in philosophy -- the ethics of dialogue -- without following through on the metaphysical urge or impulse.

In other words, I want to say that when someone says, "the purely intellectual side may miss a fundamental aspect of reality by ignoring the basic emotional aspect of being human," I want to respond by saying, why is this term, "a fundamental aspect of reality," a helpful, interesting, healthy, effective way of doing philosophy?
What does this term do? And what doesn't it do?

The Country Shrink said...

"So I am saying that there is a way of honoring what is most important in philosophy -- the ethics of dialogue -- without following through on the metaphysical urge or impulse."

That's fine, but it ignores that there is an emotionally driven motivational component under the surface, in my opinion.

"I want to respond by saying, why is this term, "a fundamental aspect of reality," a helpful, interesting, healthy, effective way of doing philosophy?
What does this term do? And what doesn't it do?


From my perspective, emotions serve a purpose. They can be the result of complex unconscious evaluations that help us identify what is personally important and meaningful to us that the purely rational or cognitive side cannot do on its own (integrated with our past experiences). What they do not do is provide a systematic or intelligible basis for what we believe and do not believe. That's in a nutshell related more to what we are discussing, but there are other things they do and do not do.

Carl Sachs said...

CS, I'm fascinated by how you've introduced "emotions" and "the emotional" into this discussion -- and though I'm fascinated I'm also puzzled, I guess, about what it is I've said, or how I've said it, which has provoked you to respond along these lines.

The Country Shrink said...

Carl,

The reason I introduced the emotional side, is that the post seems to bury that aspect of you as a person. Emotion is always involved to one extent or another in arguments we find compelling. I think they can also help us at times to cut through the chaff of intellectual discourse, by helping us to identify what is personally important. I could be way off base by introducing that idea, and I'm sorry if its off topic.

The Country Shrink said...

Or, I guess if you don't mind me expanding a bit further on the point, I went back to re-read the comments and post to remember what made me take it that way.

If you go back to your second paragraph:

The contrast I wish to draw is between a pragmatics of the multiple and the metaphysics of unity. The former not only allows for but insists on a multiplicity of ways of speaking with the further realization that different ways of speaking are different ways in which human needs, desires, interests, fears, and hopes are given voice -- that is, in which they take on a concrete and public existence in the on-going life and evolution of a culture. Since these multiple ways of speaking can be in conflict, as needs and desires and interests are in conflict, there arises an agonistic dimension to cultural life which cannot be entirely eliminated.

You reference, needs, desires, interests, conflicts, fears and hopes.

And then in a comment:

"So I am saying that there is a way of honoring what is most important in philosophy -- the ethics of dialogue -- without following through on the metaphysical urge or impulse."

With this comment, I believe it was the words that were used. "honoring" "most important" "urge" "impulse" These words all convey aspects of emotional significance and motivation.

When you talk about the "impulse or urge toward metaphysics," and the countervailing urge to resist this, that gets me thinking in terms of emotions. Then there is a shift to a purely cognitive or intellectual discourse without tying it back into the emotional. I'm not trying to "psychoanalyze" here, I'm just trying to help you understand how that came up in my mind and why I brought it up.

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