Monday, December 1, 2008

"Dewey" and "Adorno"

There are fewer habits more corrosive to thought than the tendency to name-drop and to speak in "isms" and sometimes "ologies." I'm as guilty of this as the next academic, and what I wish to do here is make explicit what's going on with the names I tend to drop. In doing this, I want to keep the names and traditions in our peripheral but not our foveal vision.

When I invoke the name of "Dewey," what I'm trying to bring into the conversation is a commitment to objective fallibilism -- the view that our knowledge and our ethics is both objectively valid and fallible, yet also corrigible, in light of experience -- also a commitment to piecemeal reform; a faith in the capacities of human beings to solve collective problems; a confidence that technology can be used democratically, humanely, and wisely, even though it usually isn't; a view of human beings as inseparable from and continuous with the rest of the natural world, even with respect to our capacities that seem most uniquely human; a sensibility that is respectful of spiritual yearnings even when skeptical of the supernatural; and a recognition that these yearnings often to take on a communal form, even though ecclesiastical hierarchies have usually posed obstacles to the furthering of freedom, knowledge, and justice.

When I invoke the name of "Adorno," what I'm trying to bring into the conversation is a recognition of the dialectical operations of society and culture -- e.g. how specific cultural products -- a play, a philosophical text, a novel -- can simultaneously conceal and reveal the movements of capital and power which generate them; an insistence that the evils of Communism cannot in any way excuse us from turning a blind eye to the evils of capitalism; an awareness of how fundamentally everything in Western culture, philosophy, politics must be re-framed in light of the Holocaust; and the imperative of re-conceptualizing the very nature of rationality itself in terms of a re-orientation of thought towards the sensual particularity that is excluded as "non-rational" by the canon.

The other philosophers by whom I've been most recently and directly influenced -- Buber, Foucault, Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein, Putnam, Rorty, McDowell -- are philosophers who I appreciate because of what there is in their work which I can appropriate in the further explication of Dewey and Adorno. (And that turns out to be a great deal!)

And, as the great philosopher Groucho Marx once put it, "these are my principles. If you don't like them, I have others."

68 comments:

Anonymous said...

Does Dewey use "objective fallibilism" or is this your way of summarizing his thinking?

I first heard the term fallibilism from you and I was enraged, which is a strange but perhaps revealing reaction. I've been trying to figure out what made feel that way.

--Yusef

Carl Sachs said...

I picked up the term from Richard Bernstein, who uses the phrase "objective fallibilism" in order to extract an insight from his own reading of Dewey.

Bernstein uses "fallibilism" as a contrasting term for "absolutism" -- taken as the thought that there are truths which are unconditionally valid, come what may. A 'fallibilist' is someone who thinks that the truth-value of any assertion can be revised in light of further experiences, theories, discoveries, inventions, etc.

Does this help give you a better handle on what enraged you about my use of this term?

Kirby Olson said...

how does fallibilist differ from relativist?

Perhaps a relativist doesn't think that anything can be falsified, but a fallibilist is an absolutist for now, until proven wrong in the light of subsequent events.

Carl Sachs said...

I don't know, Kirby. It could be that the only difference between fallibilism and relativism is that the former has better PR. I'll think about this and try and get somewhere with it.

Kirby Olson said...

Don't bother, because when I reread your post I get a pretty good handle on what you meant.

This morning I couldn't grok anything in your post.

But now I grokked more of it.

But here's my question: why the Holocaust and not the Gulags or the Killing Fields, the terrors of the Cultural Revolution?

It made me realize that for me everything has to be re-framed in the light of THOSE events, too.

Yusef argues that these events are not fundamental to Marxism. And yet, they are invariably associated with it.

If you want to make the transition to the state capitalism that Communist thought insists upon in order to mitigate the evils of individual capitalism, then you must get rid of the Kulaks and others like them who hold on to their two cows against the collective power of the state.

This means that you must commit genocide.

It's an inescapable aspect of communism. It's perhaps not a sufficient means of creating the totalitarian state that communism in its very nomenklature NAMES, but it's necessary as a first step.

All Marxist countries have seen this as the first step, all have instantiated it in praxis.

And yet it's the ultimate horror.

I would argue in fact that the Holocaust was nothing more than the Gulags in that it was an attempt by Adolf & co. to rid Germany and its subserviant states of the capitalist individualism of the Jews by seizing their goods and redistributing it along the lines mandated by National Socialism.

It's the same exact structure, and has the same exact rationale.

You cannot get rid of capitalism.

You can, however, mandate NATIONAL capitalism, which is what communism and NATIONAL socialism is (they are the same thing, but have different names -- they may as well be Venus and the Evening Star).

Fallibilism is more precise as a term than relativism, so let's stick with that.

I think that in essence you can rethink the Holocaust AND the Gulags by one move: you can outlaw any and all one-party states (even if they promise to wither away).

Just don't ever allow a monopoly on state power, and you lick the problems of the Holocaust AND the Gulags (same problem, structurally speaking) simultaneously.

Go ahead and think with and against the novel. Go ahead and be against individualist capitalism and so on. But just allow others to be for those things, and let the factions play themselves out algorhythmically, and let the better philosophy win.

Just give up a monopoly.

Monopoly is what's happening in both the Gulags and the Holocaust -- it's the wiping out of philosophical rivals.

I think we even have to allow communists and Nazis.

We just can't allow them to have a monopoly (as one of them now does -- almost -- on English departments).

Hinkmeisters.

Carl Sachs said...

Yusef argues that these events are not fundamental to Marxism. And yet, they are invariably associated with it.

I would resist interpreting Yusef's words in that way. I don't know what he's said about what is or is not "fundamental" to "Marxism." But I'll let him speak for himself here.

My own view is that the atrocities committed by Communists should not control what we can do with Marx's texts -- should not monopolize, if you will, our interpretations of or experimentations with those texts. There are other ways of reading those texts -- as for example opened up by Adorno, or by Deleuze and Guattari, or for that matter, whatever new horizons are opened up whenever a new interpretation is constructed.

Of course one cannot interpret anything however one wishes, and there are better and worse interpretations, according to criteria that are themselves subject to dispute (within a range of disputations).

In any event, Kirby, the conversation you're trying to have here with us is not going to go forward if you insist on attributing to me, or to Yusef, any of the views which you like to associate with "Communism" -- whatever that is.

Anonymous said...

I think the fallible/infallible terminology annoys me because it isn't always clear how this meshes with the scientific terminology.

For example, in the case of scientific theory. Is scientific theory to be considered fallible? We might say yes because we do expect a scientific theory to be modifiable by further evidence, experience, data, etc. But then what does this imply about a scientific theory? That it is no more than a well-elaborated guess? And if a scientific theory is just a guess, why is one guess really any better than another? (The reason one guess is better than another can't be the elaborateness of the guess--there can be very elaborate, very terrible, guesses.)

I think the idea of fallibilism is (as I understand it, but I'm not trying to pretend to understand it well,) that we take up an attitude beforehand regarding validity,it's as if we assume validity is always suspect. I don't think this is useful.

For example, with the theory of evolution. I don't see where it gets us to repeat over and over "it's just a theory." When this is repeated over and over the intent seems to be to remind us of fallibility. And this reminder of fallibility is empty--what would be earth-shaking would be to show how and where and why the theory of evolution is fallible. The reminder never does that. I think the reminder even to some degree blinds us to the remarkable scope and power of the theory as it stands.

--Yusef

Anonymous said...

Kirby, how do your collegues respond to your putting words in their mouth? How about your wife? If they like it, or even put up with it, I find that surprising.

If they do object to it, do you tell them that's just the way you are and you can't help it? If so, does that work?

--Yusef

Anonymous said...

I don't think I've said a single thing here about Marxism.

--Yusef

Kirby Olson said...

Well, Carl, I don't know anything about Yusef, and he won't say anything. I just assume that birds of a feather flock together, as they say.

You think there is something salvageable from within the Marxist paradigm. I don't.

I think it's as unthinkable as thinking there's something salvageable from within the Nazi paradigm.

(Ok, maybe Volkswagons.)

So I think the terms leave me out.

I think it's more likely that there's something salvageable from within Nazism. (Perhaps the upper lip moustache could be recuperated, for instance.)

And their salute is fascinating.

But I don't think I could draft that sieg heil salute for members of Ls to say hello to one another. It has too strong a connotation. We could do it for fun, but I think outsiders would get the wrong idea.

At any rate, it's perhaps possible that Marxism and its outliers and Lutheran Surrealism and its outliers don't really have any overlap. We can't even come up with a common salute, much less a common text, or a common term.

The furthest I could go with Dewey is to think about the poet Charles Olson, and the concept of art as experience.

But I think we're headed in different directions.

I will continue to lob water balloons over from time to time, and please do the same on my blog.

Yours (albeit sans moustache and sans salute), K.

Anonymous said...

"Well, Carl, I don't know anything about Yusef, and he won't say anything. I just assume that birds of a feather flock together, as they say."

Actually, I consider it something of an honor to be flocked together with Carl, as he is an entirely decent, intelligent, and honorable fellow.

I have to wonder,however, about the way Kirby would have us flocked together--which is neither decent nor intelligent nor honorable.

While I have said nothing about Marxism, Carl has very recently stated he is not a Marxist. Carl has also restricted the kinds of claims he is willing to make for Marxism.

This sort of thing just doesn't matter to Kirby, engaged as he is in a dialogue of the deaf, or perhaps a dialogue with some kind of mirror. In other words, not a dialogue at all, but a sadly solipsistic monologue...

...Reflecting narcissism or infantilism?

I'm glad he'll not be continuing in our flock. We're definitely not of a feather.

--Yusef

Carl Sachs said...

You think there is something salvageable from within the Marxist paradigm. I don't.

A "paradigm"? Good Lord, I hope not! I have nothing but utter contempt for those sort of things! They're as noxious and antithetical to genuine thought as all the other "isms" and "ologies"!

The last thing I want to do is tie myself down to any ism, or to bind my identity to that of someone else -- I could no more be a "Marxist" than I could be a "Lockean" or a "Kantian" or a "Darwinist" or an "Aristotelian" or anything else!

All those "isms" and "ologies" are utterly reprehensible, and must be repudiated by anyone who hopes to, for even once in his or her life, have a thought that is his or her own, and no one elses.

Kirby Olson said...

This was like wandering into a patch of poison ivy. My mistake.

Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly,Carl, your mention of fallibilism arose during a discussion of an earlier version of your "pragmatics of the multiple" ideas. (PoM ver 1.0). I think it is interesting to weigh the concepts of fallibilism again in light of the more extensive developments of the "pragmatics of the multiple" ideas. (PoM ver 1.1). My feeling is that the PoM ver 1.1 obviates the need for the concepts of fallibilism. I also think PoM ver 1.1 relieves you of a need to assess the relationship of fallibilism to relativism in part because PoM ver 1.1 is successful in part because it is demonstrably not a relativism.

--Yusef

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Tom McDonald said...

To Yusef's comment on evolution:

Indeed the mantra that evolution is 'just a theory' seems unhelpful if merely repeated without understanding the reason why. In the many instances of empirical phenomena from which natural selection is inferred -- enthusiastically inferred by its proponents -- the principle, rule, or law of natural selection is never itself observed and is never itself supposed to change. It is a metaphysical object. Richard Dawkins even suggests that it is -- beyond any realistic empirical investigation -- a law ruling throughout the universe! (in his book the God Delusion). What this shows is what Karl Popper suspected: Evolution is more a metaphysical-interpretive research program than science, at least not a predictive science in the classical sense of the term.

Anonymous said...

-- the principle, rule, or law of natural selection is never itself observed and is never itself supposed to change.

Please give examples of scientific theories where the principle, rule, or law is observed and/or where the principle, rule, or law is supposed to change.

--Yusef

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