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Sunday Cavell: Strike -cracy, keep demos (4)

Continued from here (quotes taken from “The Claim of Reason”, Stanley Cavell, reprinted 1999, Oxford University Press).

“You don’t have to talk to everyone about everything.” (p. 197)

I’m pretty sure this was not originally intended to have a political meaning. I’ll try to give it one all the same. The problem with democracy – and, as lofty the ideal is, there clearly is a problem with democracy – isn’t that it assumes a possibility of overlapping consensus in a Rawlsian sense. The democratic problem rests entirely with its suffix: the idea that such a consensus needs to be arrived at by a public discussion involving all, resulting in external institutions exercising power in the name of the people.

Let’s unpack this.

“He (the traditional philosopher) admits as much explicitly when he says that he is, in the context of his philosophizing, using the word “see” in a special, or “stricter than ordinary” sense. He wishes to effect that reconciliation, offer that concession. And this is another way of saying that, perhaps of beginning to see why, his conclusions are “unstable”. (p. 199)

In itself there is no problem that philosophy comes up with artificial positions. As long as the conclusions derived from those positions are recognized in their inherent instabilities. In political philosophy there is a basic truth in the value of public discourse so prominent in for instance the thought of Jürgen Habermas. The question is how a consensus is arrived at. The ordinary language philosopher will point to the background processes of language, and leave us without the kind of immediate solution that settles things short term – and as much as possible once and for all. The traditional philosopher will erect a system giving us the latter at the expense of violating a (naïve view of) organic growth of such a consensus.

“This suggests that what the philosophers call “the senses” are themselves conceived in terms of this idea of a geometrically fixed position, disconnected from the fact of their possession and use by a creature who must act.” (p. 202)

In a specific field of the senses (vision), JJ. Gibson made the ecological point that seeing is not a static thing but assumes dynamically moving around and interacting with the objects seen. Applying this to our political situation: you cannot force somebody to have opinions on random things. Discussing a specific point requires interaction with that point and it is impossible that everyone can discuss everything. Relatedly one cannot say that it is a civic duty to have an opinion on everything that is politically relevant.

“(..) I am suggesting that there must, in grammar, be reasons for what you say, or be point in your saying of something, if what you say is to be comprehensible.” (p.206)

Rawls forced this situation by conceiving his ideal Original Position. There is truth in that theoretical construct but that truth does not take away its impracticality. People cannot be held responsible to (they should not) have opinions on everything. What they should have is respect for the consensus arrived at by people who have discussed, with reasons, one or the other side of an issue. These people on the other hand should respect the opinion from people joining the discussion late. Impartiality, taking the other’s point of view, really is important as Smith has it but impartiality cannot be combined with just having ‘academic’ interest.

“It is a concentration one of whose consequences is the traditional search for the meaning of a word in various realms of objects, another of which is the idea of perfect understanding as being achievable only through construction of a perfect language. A fitting title for this history would be: Philosophy and the Rejection of the Human.” (p.207)

It is our impatience to come to conclusions that connects to the the concept of power that is as endemic to democracy as it is to aristocracy or any other political form. What we want is to come to the end of public discourse, to settle things once and for all. The openness to other’s point of views is seen as a weakness, in conservative parlance: a typically human – all to human! –  weakness. I’m not saying there’s an easy way out, nor for that matter that looking for idealized constructs is avoidable. I am just saying – with Davidson and others – that however valuable these theoretical constructs are in practice, they are not all there is to the matter.

“The philosopher feels that he must say and think beyond these conditions; he wants to speak without the commitments speech exacts.” (p. 215)

Whilst the philosopher may get away with this, understanding the restrictions he imposes by idealizing certain conditions; it is something we as citizens cannot get away with even if we want it with a vengeance. Still, getting away with it is something democracy is giving us a pass at (voting being a little like confessing your sins and moving on). Being a citizen of a democracy is sometimes too easy because we take it to be so hard.

“(Taking him as a member of a foreign tribe would be fairly easy. Maybe that is what people (and some philosophers?) think the philosopher is.)” (p.222)

The really hard part is to keep the discussion open, to keep it alive, to include others even if they came late or came from a totally different place and tradition. It is particularly hard to do this if you come from a specialized (scientific, philosophic, traditionalistic) field and have been misunderstood time and again. It is the root cause of both xenophobia as well as of extremism which are, after all, just two sides of this same coin.

The problem is the Absolute. There is no way we could have made progress without having put, as Plato did, this essence of all perfectionist theory but it is just a “helper construct”. It is there to help us make progress but, very much like a lemma, it signals that the work’s not done but merely on its way.

“Here the philosophical conclusion is not that our claims are perhaps inadequately based altogether, that perhaps we have no evidence at all in the way, or for the thing, we thought we had, but only that they are not as good as we had thought, that there is always “more” relevant evidence which we are not taking into account.” (p. 231)

And so my point of criticism of democracy is not so much this or that institution of it but a sense – which I think we’ve lost – that not even democracy as we know it is an end point. I sincerely believe that over time more and more emphasis is on the “-cracy” part, less and less on  the “demos” part. The reason probably is that we have gotten used to it and take it for granted, as a “tradition”, our tradition (which it’s emphatically not: it’s the tradition of progressive insight for all reasonable creatures).

So what we need is to apply to politics our everyday flexibility to accommodate each other in ongoing charitable interpretation building an ever evolving common language. Really, I have no clue what this practically means from an institutional point of view.

“It is an expression of what I meant when I said that we want to know the world as we imagine God knows it. And that will be as easy to rid us of as it is to rid us of the prideful craving to be God – I mean to rid us of it, not to replace it with a despair at our finitude.” (p. 236-237)

The truth is – as recent events illustrate – that democracy as it is has not rid us of that.

“Both Wittgenstein and Heidegger continue, by reinterpreting, Kant’s insight that the limitations of knowledge are not failures of it.” (p. 241)

But both are also still impatient in settling (in Cavell’s words) “the cost of our continuous temptation to knowledge” precisely because they see it as a cost, as a predicament and as a moral hazard whereas I believe it is a benefit, a place to be and the moral incentive. If we’d allow for the factor time then our creativity will (as it always has done) diachronically get us closer. Not by everyone having opinions on everything and settling disputes in a public, and definitive, way but by allowing language to develop our natural tendency to interpret each other and the world.

I don’t know whether my idiosyncratic reinterpretation of some thoughts on epistemology into the realm of politics will mean anything to anybody. I do know that if I have faith it is in the ability of us humans to reasonably interact and lock in the progress via their cultural vehicle of a common language. It is my cultural optimism in evolution which, despite all of the signs being negative at this very moment, allows me to meet my children being happy they will live in happier times.

Follow-up posted here (link will be activated when the follow-up is published).


April 24, 2016 - Posted by | boredom, Tuesday Quought | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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