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)
Continued from here (quotes taken from “The Claim of Reason”, Stanley Cavell, reprinted 1999, Oxford University Press).
“What experience? Well, of course, an experience or sense that one may know nothing about the real world. But what kind of an experience is that? How or when does it emerge?” (p. 140).
I wrote in the margin: ‘Nothing: so close to everything.’ There’s a sense in which the sign of the times is that we know everything. What kind of an experience is that? Being certain, so certain that no room is left for doubt, means that there’s no room left for others – at least not if these others are unlike you. This experience used to be reserved for faith but now it’s more and more associated with science. If we don’t know, it’s just because we didn’t try to know. It sounds a lot like: ‘If we don’t believe, it’s just because we didn’t try to believe.’ In the two cases skepticism is reserved for others and the prize is certainty for themselves. It is a neat and comfortably conservative split. The more nuance you put (the higher cultural or moral construct in a Carnapian sense), the easier it is dismissed. Nobody doubts objects anymore because they are established by science. If there is such a thing as minds they are of the type that can be read of by a suitably complex imaging device.
I’m as scientific as the next guy (probably a lot more scientific, in fact) but I won’t have it. Shit ain’t simple, mathematics is. It’s not because something is hard to understand that it is complex Neither vice versa: it is not because something is everyday common sense that it is simple to get to the bottom of.
Continued from here (quotes taken from “The Claim of Reason”, Stanley Cavell, reprinted 1999, Oxford University Press)
“(..) while the presence of symptoms (concomitants) of X can make it almost certain that X is present, the presence of a criterion of X necessarily makes it almost certain that X is present. The sense that “certainty” must be hedged, that the knowledge of reality provided, contingently or necessarily, can only be “almost” certain, is forced under the pressure of the question: But isn’t it possible that, given all the symptoms and criteria you like, the man may not in fact, then and there, be feeling pain? To which the answer seems, irresistibly, to be: Yes.” (p.39)
The brute fact of uncertainty may well be the perennial elephant in the philosophy room. I think Cavell can be read as nibbling away simultaneously at the thinking that establishes certainties and its skeptical counterpart of the certainty of our humanity as an anomaly. His sympathy for the skeptical position clearly aligns with the feeling that philosophy that deals in certainties is profoundly false and profoundly dangerous (specifically because this certainty is like sugar – or nicotine, or worse – for us human beings who cope so well with uncertainty that no computer even comes close but who, at the same time, need hooks and handles and, sometimes, a little peace of mind). Somehow the right position is somewhere in the middle – neither duck nor rabbit – but that truth, in a word, simply scares us.
As natural as it comes to us to deal with uncertainty in everyday life, as widespread is our hatred for theoretically dealing with probability, uncertainty and indeterminacy – with the scare word ‘statistics’. It was just when Hume started the empirical tradition that Bayes as well as some French mathematicians started to explore probability in a theoretical way. No amount of mathematical sophistication should fool us into forgetting how very recent this exploration is. A couple of centuries really is nothing in digesting break-through ideas to a point where we, as a culture, can integrate them in our form of life (Weltanschauung). I’m going to read this part of Cavell as interpreting Wittgenstein as coping with the brute fact of uncertainty so alien to philosophy as a clean, dehumanized, deductive framework.
Continued from here (quotes taken from “The Claim of Reason”, Stanley Cavell, reprinted 1999, Oxford University Press.
A measure of the quality of a new text is the quality of the texts it arouses. (p. 5)
I really don’t know where this is going. Nowhere, probably, but that’s not a bad thing. The really bad thing is this typically modern feeling that things need to go somewhere; where the somewhere is both sufficiently vague to gather a following, and sufficiently specific to trust a leader to go there. I’m sure the quality of this text is in itself not a measure of that of Cavell. This text is probably a dead end. Still, it was aroused – took as its starting point – the text of Cavell and a text is alive only insofar it invites to be interpreted rather than to be preached.
This is a Gadamerian point to make and that’s no coincidence.
The case is rather that, as I wish to put it, both statements of fact and judgments of value rest upon the same capacities of human nature; that, so to speak, only a creature that can judge of value can state a fact. (p. 15)
It’s not that science perverted us but that we have perverted science. We have imported, in these modern days, into science the certainties that, of old, came with the power of God. If we look at it this way, what we achieved is just a metamorphosis: one more effective at the expense of beauty. One of the great points Cavell makes, I think, is that the inspiration of ordinary language philosophy is to look at what we all say; to look at the inner logic – let us say, with Wittgenstein: grammar – of humanity as a talkative animal.
Let’s see how that, inherently, bridges not only philosophical traditions but, significantly, the two-faced nature of modern man (top down ‘reason’ and bottom-up ‘passion’).
“But I have made no effort to sophisticate my early, tentative, amateur efforts to link the English and the Continental traditions, because I want them to show that to realign these traditions, after their long mutual shunning, at any rate to write witnessing the loss in that separation, has been a formative aspiration of mine from the earliest of the work I refer to here. It remains an aspiration to define and to date a place of its overcoming.” Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason, Oxford University Press 1979, p. xvii.
The least remarkable element of this quote, and why I started reading this book, is that it refers to the classical traditions. The most remarkable element of the quote, and why I will finish this book and write about it, is the emphasis on a charitable reading of other texts. I personally believe that it is that charity (of reading, of listening rather than the shortcut to charity which consists in giving money, time etc.) which has the potential to overcome all the man-made divisions which are the source of the need for the second, material, kind of charity.
A charitable reception of the other’s point of view is the basis of constructing a better – hence more shared – understanding. It simultaneously provides the motivation to share – hence improve – material stuff on beforehand instead of patching the inequality divide in a post-factum way. There will be less heroes this way but the amount of heroes a society generates is inversely proportional to the inherent charity in that society. That alone is the clearest of signs that our present society isn’t doing well. It needs heroes and it makes any other person feel average.
Feeling average is inhuman. In reading Cavell (and writing about it) it’s that very feeling of insignificance that is, in my humble opinion, deconstructed via scrutinizing the tyranny of points of view which are deemed (more, sufficiently, absolutely ) significant.
In this series of posts I will read Cavell’s “The Claim of Reason” and report on my reading. I invite you to read (with) me and contribute, as I will, your own peculiar points of view. I’ll start with some tentative, amateur observations of my own
“One doesn’t always have to formalize: Nietzsche thought that if God existed, the I is impossible. That may be very convincing, if A commands B, B no longer is autonomous, doesn’t have subjectivity anymore, but when in the course of thinking, you don’t stay in the formal, when you think from the contents, a situation called heteronomy has a totally different meaning.” (own translation), E. Levinas, Entre Nous, Editions Grasset & Fasquelle, 1991, p.121.
I’ve been blogging on and off on this site called heteronomy. Truth be told I have never in that long time really though about the meaning of that word. Until recently that is, when I read Kant’s “Foundations of metaphysics of morals” and discovered the passage about autonomy and heteronomy. It made me think. There’s something appealing to autonomy; one would not want to do the good thing because there’s an external motivation to do it. Still, something is missing there. The misery of our own period of history has a lot do to with autonomy gone wild. It literally takes the Enlightenment to anti-humanist extremes. As a once avid reader of Kierkegaard I can but wonder whether the either/or isn’t in fact inescapable and whether I don’t have to switch over to the religious side after all. I seem to share all of the values although I’m fundamentally abhorred by the heteronomous part; obedience is not my thing, let alone the blind variant.
I am, like many, looking for a long time to avoid being caught on the horns of the either and the or. There has to be a way to derive a positive morality without relying on anything properly religious. It was no coincidence that I decided to read some more Levinas. It was a surprise though to find the above quote. It sums up the promise of another kind of heteronomy, one not based on higher powers but one based on everyday interaction with others. That surprise triggered this post.
I think Levinas has it more or less right. The problem is that I’m looking for something that is exactly right. I’m after all an analytical person close to analytic philosophy. Now – like in this excellent piece (by Martin Shuster) – there is a lot of activity trying to bridge the gaps between the two philosophical traditions, that’s still not exact enough for me. What I want is to derive Levinas’ anomalous heteronomy from the basic facts of language and – more specifically – from Davidson’s principle of charity.
This is what I have (and, pretty please, do help me along):
It’s odd to talk about progress these days when everything seems backwards. We are given every reason to become pessimists and end up like Stefan Zweig. That these reasons are given by cultural pessimists might push us to withstand only because we want to deny them that victory too. Revenge, however, is their way so whatever victory that kind of resistance would lead to would not be really ours.
There is, then, no other option then to find a basis for our optimism in reason.
“(..) the whole (society) is prior to the part (the individual), not the part to the whole; and the part is explained in terms of the whole, not the whole in terms of the part or parts.” G.H. Mead, “Mind, Self & Society”, 1934, The University of Chicago Press, p. 7.
Society is the soil and the individuals are the flowers. The flowers are not there just to fertilize the soil but the soil isn’t something we can leave unfertilized either. Staying on-metaphor: language is the fertilizer. It’s allowing the soil to bring forth better flowers but takes, without coercion, from those flowers to make for an even better soil.
Nothing can be further removed from current opinion. If only because it is dynamic – and this world of now hates anything that is elusive; anything that can’t be decomposed in parts and reassembled in the whole we (think we) need. We live in anti-Darwinian times where we think we can make leaps without evolving.
But aren’t our cultural pessimists the ‘owners’ of the primacy of the whole (society)?
“We have found, indeed, that although we had contemplated building a tower which should reach to the heavens, the supply of materials suffices only for a dwelling-house, just sufficiently commodious for our business on the level of experience, and just sufficiently high to allow our overlooking it. The bold undertaking that we had designed is thus bound to fail through lack of material – not to mention the babel of tongues, which inevitably gives rise to disputes among the workers in regard to the plan to be followed, and which must end by scattering them all over the world, leaving each to erect a separate building for himself, according to his own design. At present, however, we are concerned not so much with the materials as with the plan; and inasmuch as we have been warned not to venture at random upon a blind project which may alltogether beyond our capacities, and yet cannot well abstain from building a secure home for ourselves, we must plan our building in conformity with the material which is given to us, and which is also at the same time appropriate to our needs.”, Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Reinen Vernunft, Reclam, 1966, p. 726 – this is the semi-official English internet translation of the original passage.
[I am re-posting this from another blog of mine out of nostalgia. This is a favorite quote of mine and my quought of 2008 actually is, in an endearing kind of way, something that has stayed constant in my head over the past 30 odd years.]
I know: a poet he was not. Nevertheless, this is a sublime poetic truth. It is much like my history teacher (the forever unknown Jef Arras) told me twenty years before I mustered the courage to read, happily unguided as ever, this rather annoying but great book: there was philosophy before and after Kant, and only the latter is of real significance. Continue reading
“Meaningful criteria are not simply those posited by society – or those of our ancestors – applied as law to a given case. Rather, every concrete determination by the individual contributes to socially meaningful norms. The problem is similar to that of correct speech. There too we find undisputed agreement on what is admissible, and we subject it to codification. The teaching of language in schools, for example, make it necessary that the schoolmaster apply these rules. But language continues to live, and it thrives not according to a strict adherence to rules, but by general innovations in spoken usage, and in the last instance from the contributions of every individual.” Hans-Georg Gadamer, in “On Education, Poetry, and History. Applied Hermeneutics, SUNY, 1992, p. 173.
It’s hard writing this and at the same time listening to a live report in Spanish of a Real Madrid game. All indications are I’d do better doing neither. But here I am, thinking about whether things that – like my life, this place – ultimately come to an end still come to an end. They do. Although not in the way most people like their ends – final, clean and clear cut -, they do. Every contribution contributes. To what? How? No clue. A certain amount of voluntarism is indispensable. Not a question of laissez faire the big things but one of laissez aller the small ones.
I started here with an overview of the objectives. I continued here with the second one dedicated to our prior art. It is now time to finish this with the third and final objective which, when reached, will ensure a common context (foundation) for the real work we’d like to do later on.
This is what we said before about this objective:
3. Acquire the ability to integrate the prior art with the goals
Now this was probably not the most fortunate way of putting it. Acquiring an ability is an activity. Unless we believe all of the nonsense of brain scientists, there is no way of monitoring whether such a process takes place let alone whether it takes place successfully. To put it more directly: we can all think we are acquiring all kinds of abilities whilst we are just acquiring the ability of procrastination combined with that of complacency. The flip side of this is that anybody can attest to anybody else of us ‘doing our best’ or ‘putting in a lot of work’ but whilst all of that may have ‘merit’, neither has a direct link with that ability we want acquired.
So the better formulation would have been ‘to demonstrate the acquisition of the ability to integrate the prior art with the goals’ (even if it sounds horrible, as a sentence). How to demonstrate this? Via language of course. In our case specifically by using language to demonstrate we can create original links between the 8 philosophers reviewed and the conjecture of progress being the nature of language.
Below the fold you will find the concrete steps to do this in this community. Your contribution could well demonstrate in concrete fact an example of progress by language. In fact, that is the third objective.