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."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Left-Wing Cultural Conservatism

A few days ago, I mentioned to Kirby (at Lutheran Surrealism) that I regarded myself as a "left-wing cultural conservative." A Leftist Cultural Conservative (LCC) is someone who agrees with the cultural conservatives on most points: the decline of community and tradition; the hypertrophy of the government as diminishing individual liberty and flexibility of response; the rejection of self-discipline, rigorous standards, and commitment to
ideals beyond oneself; and the increase in narcissism or infantilism
generally . . .

. . . but in the left-wing version, all this is seen as symptomatic of a society in which consumerism runs unchecked, and the dynamic which drives consumerism is the dialectical movement of capitalism in its current manifestation. So I find much to agree with cultural conservatives at the level of CULTURE, but I see the motor of these changes as ECONOMIC -- hence the 'left-wing' part. Whereas right-wing cultural conservatives, esp. the Christians but increasingly Muslims -- tend to shift the blame to "the 60s" or to Darwinism, to "materialism," etc.

I'd hasten to point out that I don't mean to put religion firmly on the "right-wing" side without qualification -- there are also devout Christians, Muslims, etc. who are "left-wing cultural conservatives" -- and I would further hasten to add that my peculiar version of Reform Judaism-cum-religious naturalism is indispensable to my version of left-wing cultural conservativism -- the rise of narcissism is concomitant with neglect of considerations of justice for both human others and non-human others.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Forms and Forces

In the philosophical tradition, there is a hidden but important debate between the advocates of a static metaphysics -- forms are more real than forces -- and a dynamic metaphysics -- forces are more real than forms. It's been said -- correctly, I think -- that one of Plato's accomplishments was to create the appearance/reality distinction in order to resolve the debate between Heraclitus and Parmenides. In those terms, it might said that Nietzsche's move is to reverse this priority. So there are "ousiological" metaphysicians and "metabological" metaphysicians -- metaphysicians of substance and metaphysicians of change.

Lately I've been trying to articulate why I've retreated from my enthusiasm for Nietzsche and for Deleuze, and I now think I'd want to put it this way: forms and forces are phenomenologically equiprimordial. And my quarrel with Nietzsche, but especially with Deleuze, is that they are no more sensitive to this experiential truth than are the philosophers in the tradition from Parmenides to Hegel which they reject.

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.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bounded in a Nutshell

In a comment to Science, Religion, and Metaphysics, I made this remark which I want to bring up to the front for closer examination:

There is no more conflict between science and religion, nor any more need for reconciliation between them, than there is between carpentry and cooking.

Science, Religion, Metaphysics: Some Preliminaries

A long-standing motivation for my philosophical work has been the relationship -- sometimes adversarial, sometimes conversational -- between "science" and "religion." [I come to this relationship as someone who has strong undergraduate background in science (neuroscience and paleontology) and as someone who does not identify with a particular religious institution but who nevertheless feels the pull of religious experience.]

Much like Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, Stanly Cavell, and Jurgen Habermas, I want to find a way of resisting the temptation to endorse or create a doctrinal metaphysics -- not even a metaphysics of becoming, process, or "difference" in the senses of Nietzsche, Dewey, Whitehead, or Deleuze. (Despite my strong affinity for such metaphysics!)

(This is not to say that I think one can simply dispense with metaphysics; rather I tend to think, along with Cavell and Putnam, that the temptation to metaphysics is deeply ingrained in the Western psyche. I would not want to interpret this temptation as a transhistorical dimension of the human condition, but neither is it something that can be lightly thrown off, as Rorty seems to think.)

The crux of my pragmatic pluralism is that the question "what is there?" must always be re-phrased as "what is there in which respect?" For only when that latter question is answered do we have a specified domain the entities of which can be considered. For example, consider the question, "does Sherlock Holmes' wife exist?" This question can only be answered by first specifying the domain of discourse which is relevant. If the domain of discourse is "the real world," then the answer is "no" (but neither does Holmes, of course). If the domain of discourse is "the world of the Holmes stories as authored by Doyle," then the answer is "no" (but for a different reason -- because Holmes never married.)

But this line of thought works not only for literary creations -- it works just the same way for all discursive practices. Quarks and protons certainly exist -- within the framework of modern quantum mechanics. (Whether we will still say that they exist within the framework of whatever theory eventually succeeds quantum mechanics is an open question!) And even in ordinary language, we are confronted with a plurality of ways of distinguishing between aspects of lived experience.

Suppose I had had chicken for dinner last night instead of steak. Then I today would be a different system of molecules. But it seems odd (to say the least!) that I would therefore be a different person. One might be tempted to side with dualism here. But my alternative is to insist that there is no deep and fundamental truth of "what I am", tout court. Considering me as a system of molecules, and considering me as a person, are not different metaphysical realities -- they are different ways of considering, which is to say, different ways of using language. (As Rorty would say, they are different "vocabularies".)

If one succumbs to the temptation of metaphysics (and it is difficult not to succumb), then one will be interpret science, and/or religion, as metaphysical doctrines. And that is the decisive move which is taken for granted, and which I want to avoid. For once that move is made, everything else follows. Only then can one ask if science and religion are concerned with the same reality or different realities, e.g. "natural" and "supernatural". Or assert that where science and religion conflict, one or the other must be rejected. Both hard-core theism and hard-core atheism emerge only once it is accepted that metaphysics is the only way of speaking.

By contrast, the pluralism I want to develop here is a way of sidestepping the metaphysical impulse entirely. Instead, the question is one of which entities we are committed to speaking about when we employ a certain vocabulary (that of genetics, physics, psychology, literature, art, music, philosophy, etc.). In my terms, the temptation of metaphysics is the dream of a final, absolute, and uniquely correct vocabulary in terms of which everything real can be described. And that dream is one from which I have not only awoken but from which I find myself in the process of constantly having to awaken myself from.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Education and Philosophy (Part I)

Doing without the usual fanfare and preamble -- that is, doing it by way of loudly announcing that I am doing without it -- I want to introduce two motifs for subsequent elaboration --

that education is the production of freedom and

that philosophy is education for adults

Thus and so!