Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: sociology (page 3 of 7)

Leftism and the Banausic Thinker: From Plato to Verso

This is an essay about defining one’s self as better than the world, as purer than the world. The urge to take your marbles and go home is a very old one, yet its role in art and politics is paradoxical, since taking your marbles and going home would seem to suggest that you will be ineffectual and unremembered. In fact, I think that is what happens most of the time. But the purist’s ability to survive latently in society owes to a peculiar form of elitism. Sometimes the elitism is obvious; other times it hides under a mask of ideology.

Plato and Banausia

In her excellent study Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philosophy (1995), Andrea Wilson Nightingale delves into the various strategies Plato uses to distinguish his fresh new domain, philosophy, from whatever it is that everyone else is doing, which is most certainly not philosophy. Plato is not just talking about poets and sophists here, though they’re definitely on the list of pretenders to the throne, but also others who might claim to be doing philosophy, like Isocrates. Isocrates, either had a very fortunate or unfortunate name, was one of the best-paid philosophers of his time, and the dialogues seem to direct a fair number of barbs his way. Plato makes him the target of a seeming bit of nasty dramatic irony at the end of the Phaedrus, when Socrates predicts great, great things for the young Isocrates.

In particular, Plato uses a particular word when Socrates attacks these non-philosophers. They are banausic.

Plato exploits and redirects the rhetoric of banausia–rhetoric which was traditionally used by aristocrats to express their contempt for manual and/or servile labor. Take, for example, the claim found at Symposium 203a, where Socrates says:

“God does not mix with man, but it is through this [daemon] that all intercourse and conversation takes place between the gods and men, whether they are awake or sleeping. And the person who is wise in this regard is a daemonic man, but the person who is wise in any other regard, whether in the realm of arts and sciences or manual labor, is banausic.

The dichotomy drawn here between the “daemonic man” (who is, of course, the philosopher) and the “banausic” individual recurs at Theaetetus 176b-d, where Socrates says:

“God is in no way unjust, but is as just as it is possible to be, and there is nothing more similar to god than the man who becomes as just as possible. It is concerning this activity that a man is revealed as truly clever or else worthless and cowardly. For the knowledge of this is wisdom and virtue in the true sense, and the ignorance of it is manifest folly and viciousness. All other things that appear to be cleverness and wisdom–whether their sphere is politics or the other arts–are vulgar or banausic.

It’s generally held that Greek culture disparaged merchants and laborers in favor of the aristocratic warrior class (see M. I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus, for example). The humiliation, feebleness, and ugliness of cuckolded craftsgod Hephaestus is another indication, in contrast to Athena, who may patronize the crafts but is just as much the patron of warriors. Nightingale claims Plato to have taken that distinction even further: now even true knowledge is no longer the province of the banausic, but only accessible to a very specific elite.

Nightingale summarizes the history of the usage of the term banausic, finding it to be “highly derogatory” in usage by Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle. But what exactly is it to be banausic? The most common translation is “mechanical” (Levett’s Theaetetus, Allen’s and Nehamas/Woodruff’s Symposium, McDowell’s Theaeteus), though there is also “materialistic” (Howatson’s Symposium). That captures the English sense of the word “banausic” (it is an English word, meaning mundane, rote, or mechanical), but the usages of it in Greek philosophy are specific enough to mean far more than just that. (And arguably, “mechanical” is anachronistic relative to what it suggests to us.)

The associations suggest a few possibilities, in ascending order of extremity:

  1. Banausic thought has to do with automated, rote “know-how” type thought processes, distinct from the refined thought of a philosopher.
  2. Banausic thought is that which is commodified, exchanged, bought and sold, and no better than any other good for sale.
  3. Banausic thought is any thought directed toward a particular practical outcome, any thought that isn’t wholly disinterested and detached from the mortal world, period.

Nightingale quotes Aristotle to the effect that even the crafts aren’t inherently banausic, only if they are done for the sake of trade, and suggests that Plato agreed. Thus her position is that Plato means something more extreme than (1): somewhere between (2) and (3):

Plato, in sum, suggests that the philosopher occupies a disinterested position, since his wisdom is by definition incommensurable with all other “goods”… The philosopher, as it seems, is a mercenary who is no mercenary: an outsider who serves the city free of charge.

Some (like F.M. Cornford and Gilbert Ryle) imply that Plato’s position is almost completely that of (3): that in the face of practical political failure (first in Athens, then in Syracuse), an embittered Plato concluded that any civic engagement by a philosopher, no matter how disinterested, is partly corrupt and banausic. Plato doesn’t explicitly require the philosopher to be a recluse, but the demand not to engage in commerce certainly seems to extend to not working, laboring, or otherwise participating in an economy:

Plato denies that there is any human virtue in work and that certain aspects of it even appear to him to be the antithesis of what is essential in man.

Jean-Pierre Vernant, Myth and Thought in the Ancient Greeks

Nice work if you can get it, then.

The restriction on the commodification of philosophy would seem to restrict philosophy to those who can do without money, either by being rich aristocrats like Plato and Aristotle, or living in poverty like Diogenes and the Cynics. The ten years of mathematics Plato wants for the rulers of his ideal city are perfect training in this light, since mathematics was of little occupational value in classical Greece, having never been linked to practical applications. For Plato, mathematics has an appealing character, being full of (seemingly) indisputable truths with (apparently) no practical or commercial value, rendering it immune to the charge of being banausic. Presumably, after you’ve spent ten years doing something of no commercial value, you are sufficiently insulated from commerce to enter into the more marketable realm of philosophy.

Yes, philosophy was more profitable than mathematics in ancient Greece. The sophists were charging huge amounts for their services in how to persuade people, and Isocrates made quite a mint as well. But to clear the bar against banausia, wisdom doesn’t just have to be non-commercial, but also incommensurable, incapable of being perverted or corrupted through political or civic ambitions. (Presumably acceptable goals would be deployment of such wisdom to serve the Good and the True, though exactly what would qualify is hard to specify. By the Laws, at least, Plato was willing to get quite mundane in his prescriptions.) According to Nightingale, Plato’s philosopher must embrace an “outsider” position; he must break free of any contingent social fabric, similar to how Nietzsche sees his ideal man emancipating himself from his surrounding stupidity. It’s not that the philosopher rejects creating all practical results, but that most participation of the world is so toxic as to make philosophical thought impossible.

In Plato’s domain, being an outsider was not a position sought by much of anyone. The polis was so tightly-knit and bereft of privacy that most modern people would find it suffocating. But sometime late in the 18th century,  it became quite popular indeed to declare oneself an outsider, and especially in the United States, this became a tradition and a marker of authenticity. So this produced a new problem, which is how to tell the daemonic outsiders from the banausic outsiders.

Daemonic Art

Plato’s classification prefigures that of the Romantic position of the artist in touch with fundamental Ideas of Beauty and Truth. Thus, Plato wants the artists out because they and their “complicated mimesis” are too much in competition for the title of “Non-Banausic Thinkers,” as one common interpretation goes.

What separates the atemporal pleiad of creators of texts from the general run of writers acclaimed by critics and applauded by the public at large, is the fact they perceive what the latter reckon buzzes with life to be either worked out or dead. The innovative author, insensitive to the applause and reproaches of his contemporaries, knows he is surrounded by colleagues who are dead–whatever fuss these people make accumulating honours and prizes and aspiring, in the manner of some second-rate academics, to the glory of immortality…The history of literature, of each literature, is the history of these unmistakable voices which through the centuries speak to each other and captivate us with the magic of their singularity.

Juan Goytisolo, “To Read or to Re-Read”

Well, it’s one thing to think these things about yourself, and quite another to be right about them. And the problem of self-classification has never really gone away. I can tell you who I’d put in that skein of real creators, but there is quite literally no way for me to convince you I’m right (except through rhetorical force and force of personality, but I’m talking about actual proof here). This problem of being unable to establish a final authority for what art is truly daemonic and which is merely banausic, apart from mere estimations based on the durability of various works, is a practical marker for separating art from politics and science. Science and politics depend on at least the possibility of final agreement, the sense that there’s some negotiation that will win at least grudging acceptance from almost everybody.

In other words, science and politics are banausic because they depend on the commensuration of different schemata, and the results revise past, supposed solutions into ones that are generally accepted (often grudgingly) to be a bit better. Such negotiation over aesthetic value opens the trap door that causes art to drop into the realm of the banausic. If I permit your criticism to change my opinion of some novel, I’m doing so on my own terms, not for the sake of some practical nicety or some new superior synthesis. If I hold on to the value of one book which the aesthetic synthesis rejects as worthless, that is an acceptable and sensible position in art, rather than a dead-end or a reactionary position as a similar position would be in politics or science (not that it couldn’t be right, potentially–just that the terms of the debate are different). When the zeitgeist dredges up Stefan Zweig and declares that we should all be reading his books, and Michael Hofmann goes on the attack against him and says no, he’s still worthless, it’s a very firm either/or distinction: either Zweig is daemonic or he is banausic, and there’s nothing in between.

Now, it’s exactly such commensuration that makes relative assessment possible. Plato doesn’t think that argument between philosophers and non-philosophers is of much value. The only people who are fit to argue are those who have already secluded themselves from society. So Plato does seem to be making a generalized ad hominem: unless you have taken yourself out of society, you are a banausic thinker, regardless of what you say.

Banausic Politics, False Consciousness

Plato effectively makes a sweeping accusation of false consciousness across all of society. Far more comprehensive than anything Marx put across, Plato says that merely engaging in craft, trade, rhetoric, or politics is sufficient to cut one off from access to truth and justice. He does not say that he is the only person qualified to make such an accusation, but the standards he sets are quite high: you must have no stake in society, you must not trade in society, you must not negotiate with society’s members.

More recent accusations of false consciousness lower the bar a fair bit, but less than it seems. The bogeyman of anti-liberal leftist thought is that which is defined as “neoliberalism”; the term has been so sweepingly used across different political and economic systems that I think it’s pointless to try to define it. Like “(late) capitalism” itself, “neoliberalism” has become, in Hans Blumenberg’s memorable words, “a causal formula of maximum generality to account for people’s discontent with the state of the world.” As “socialism” has served for the right, “neoliberalism” is now simply the term applied to all that is bad in the world, whether it is laissez-faire libertarianism, corporate welfare, gentrification, or drone warfare. “Neoliberalism” becomes a single, overarching system uniting and enveloping any and all power structures. This goes alongside calls to exempt one’s self from the system altogether, with declarations that democracy offers a false choice, the illusion of freedom, the right to be a slave, and so on and so forth. (Zizek is probably the most famous promulgator of these homilies, but they are quite common.)

With this comes the statement that work in a neoliberal society is demeaning, draining, and corrupting. Indeed it often is, but the Leftist critique is totalizing: the terms of work are such that one cannot escape such degradation even in a relatively comfortable job–that is, unless one ascends to the somewhat amorphous realm of the upper classes, at which point you become a tacit oppressor. Either way, your existence is inauthentic. Neoliberal existence is inauthentic, something from which you must be emancipated. Alternately, if you work a day job and suffer from what used to be called liberal guilt, it is something which mandates self-flagellation.

Those who are making the critique are thus placing themselves in a position similar to Plato’s. Their thought is not up for grabs (except by Verso and Zero, I guess), and they declare themselves immune to charges of collaboration with the ubiquitous neoliberal regime. Ergo, academic positions are very important, for they are some of the very few sanctioned jobs that don’t open one’s self up to charges of banausic thinking, labor organizing being another, more time-consuming one. (Plato would never accept this, of course, as the pursuit of an academic career and salary would already be sufficiently corrupting to make philosophical thought impossible.) The purgative power of “critiques” becomes a self-protecting scheme to ensure that the power of the truth is not diluted. Those who disagree with the critiques are seen to have a vested interest in the system–that is, they are banausic.

Leftism becomes, in this case, one of Mancur Olson’s “latent groups,” which exist only in opposition to a dominant group and do not seek to grow, lest they lose their sense of definition. In How Institutions Think, Mary Douglas elaborated on Olson’s latent groups by functionally describing how such a latent, idealist group survives based on three defining factors, which should all sound very familiar to those who’ve traveled in leftist circles:

  1. Weak leadership, owing to the tendency of members to leave or schism over even a minimal ideological or practical disagreement
  2. A strong boundary between members and non-members, maintained through group policing of purity, commitment, and in-group equality
  3. A tacit, shared belief in an evil conspiracy (e.g., neoliberalism) outside the group

The strong boundary is another way of declaring the incommensurability of the group’s values with the values of those outside the group. The group is pure; everyone else is a willing or unwilling victim of the conspiracy. Such a purist community endures (tenuously) via the persistent, though unconscious, reification of the wider conspiracy:

1. C, the belief in conspiracy, is an effect of weak leadership, and strong boundary.
2. C is beneficial in keeping the community, Z, in being.
3. C is unintended by Z so no insulting charge of duplicity stands against the believers.
4. Because of weak leadership, no consensus can be mustered for formulating or applying laws or for punishing deviants. The threat to secede can be indirectly controlled by the strong boundary, which automatically insures that exit will be costly. So only oblique political action is possible; hence, there is the tendency to check exploitative behavior by accusing incipient faction leaders of principled immorality. The activity of accusing, X, reinforces the belief, C, in outside conspiracy, but C maintains X. These causal links are not perceived.
5. C maintains weak leadership and strong boundary by actually splitting the community or expelling when treachery is suspected, producing a history to make every would-be leader nervous.

Banausia, then, is the conspiracy of society. The more maximally general it is, the better. “Neoliberalism” is one form of such a conspiracy; there is no shortage of others.

But for a self-proclaimed leftist, this latent group attitude is self-defeating: it is the elitism that dare not speak its name. If you are Plato and you are an aristocrat and an elitist, it is at least consistent to reserve the fruits of wisdom for a very select few while secluding yourself from society. If you are Lenin and you are an aristocrat and an elitist, you think you know better than everyone and have no trouble enforcing that belief by violence and dictatorship. If, however, your stated goal is enlightened liberation and growing awareness, the division of thought into one tiny wedge of Truth (accessible to you and your mates) and one gigantic wedge of Banausia (left for everyone else) makes you incapable of interfacing with the world on any terms outside your own narrow, pure argot. And indeed, many Leftist groups are wary of any growth that would threaten their strong boundaries.

The radical activist Saul Alinsky, who certainly got results, was notable for his sheer lack of purity, his indifference to ideological principles beyond some very rough anti-authoritarian and egalitarian ethics. That is politics. If, on the other hand, your believe your thought to be incommensurable, and believe the thought of all others to be banausic, then you will view engagement with the toxic heap of neoliberalism as an unalloyed evil–even as you engage with it–and you will sink into the dustbin of history on a mountain of critiques, tweets, tumblrs, and Verso Books.

When one reads philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, and Alain Badiou on their Marxist and/or communist commitments, one sometimes has the impression that questions of capital and class inequality are of only moderate interest to them and serve mainly as a pretext for jousts of a different nature entirely.

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Is Social Science a Joke?

Richard Biernacki’s book, cursed with the unwieldy title Reinventing Evidence in Social Inquiry: Decoding Facts and Variables, is frequently incisive, sometimes inspirational, and sometimes frustrating. Biernacki vigorously attacks the use of quantitative methods in social science, particularly as applied to texts. He finds their usage to be slapdash, prejudiced, and dependent on lumping disparate phenomena under a single label, often in whatever way happens to serve the researcher’s pre-ordained goal.

I have to cheer when he cites Erving Goffman and Clifford Geertz as spiritual guardians:

“Whatever it is that generates sureness,” Goffman intimated darkly, “is precisely what will be employed by those who want to mislead us.” Goffman left it to us to discern how the riddle of cognitive framing applies to sociological practice and to one’s framing of one’s own results. Geertz expressed a similar kind of caution more cheerfully: “Keeping the reasoning wary, thus useful, thus true, is, as we say, the name of the game.” The only intellectual building material is self-vigilance, not the reified ingredients “theory” or “method.”

Damn straight.

Biernacki’s points are very well-taken, and his individual critiques are devastating. He has little trouble justifying his main charge:

If you reconstruct how sociologists mix quantitative and text-interpretive methods, combining what is intrinsically uncombinable, you discover leg-pulling of several kinds: from the quantitative perspective, massaging of the raw data to identify more clearly the meanings one “knows” are important or, again, standardized causal interpretations of unique semiotic processes; to zigzagging between quantitative and interpretive logic to generate whatever meanings the investigator supposes should be there.

Each study was narrated as a tale of discovery, yet each primary finding was guaranteed a priori.

Where I have a problem is his suggested retreat to a “humanist” mode of inquiry, which, while extremely attractive to people like myself, does not necessarily solve the underlying problem. I will explain this later.

The Indictment

Biernacki has a huge range of reading behind him and he quotes a number of people of whom I’m very fond: Robert Musil (who gets the last word in the book), Erving Goffman, Flaubert (Dictionary of Received Ideas), Michael Frede, Ronald Giere, Barrington Moore, William Empson, Jeanne Fahnestock, Wilfrid Sellars, Kenneth Burke, Samuel Beckett, Mary Douglas, Novalis, Cosma Shalizi, Eleanor Rosch, Valerio Valeri, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Andrea Wilson Nightingale, Erwin Panofsky, and Erich Auerbach. (Bibliography available online here.) Now that I’ve written it out, let me go further: that’s an amazing list.

I’m not particularly keen on most of his targets either, so we overlap sufficiently that I’m baffled at his elevation of Giorgio Agamben, whose attack on quantitative sampling is needlessly overwrought and jargony. Biernacki’s prose, unfortunately, tends toward the same. His thinking is in fact quite clear and rigorous, but the overlay of sociological jargon gets quite dense at times and needlessly prolongs things. (I’ll offer paraphrases of less transparent passages below.)

This applies to the general terms as well. Biernacki defines the social science term “coding” as such:

Coding, a word that may introduce an aura of scientism, is just the sorting of texts, or of subunits such as paragraphs, according to a classificatory framework.

What the social sciences deem “coding”–the application of a common typological label to variable individual cases–would better be simply called “labeling” or perhaps “classification.” I prefer “labeling” because it is the simplest and the most informal. As Biernacki demonstrates, the research being carried out is anything but formal, and so building a fence around a particular textual method is misleading. While it may make it easier to delegitimize that particular method, it also limits the scope of his critique. It also makes it seem as though this process is distinct from the labeling we do every day of objects and actions, when I think any difference is one of degree and not of kind.

To make the broadness of the critique clear, my article The Stupidity of Computers describes very similar methods, except applied to people and objects as well as texts. I used “ontology” instead of “classificatory framework” and “labeling” instead of “coding,” but they’re fundamentally analogous. Or as I put it:

Who decided on these categories? Humans. And who assigned individual blogs to each category? Again humans. So the humans decided on the categories and assigned the data to the individual categories—then told the computers to confirm their judgments. Naturally the computers obliged.

The Stupidity of Computers

If anything, things seem worse in academic sociology, which is the field Biernacki treats. I am not familiar with the subfields Biernacki investigates and after his dip into those waters, I don’t have much desire to become familiar with them. Here is Biernacki’s brief:

Ironically, researchers who visualize a pattern in the “facts” often assert it symbolizes an incorrigible theory for which no data were required anyway.

They would turn meaningful texts into unit facts for the sake of converting these units back into meanings. What are the epistemological functions of the curious process of decontextualizing for the sake of recontextualizing? Cumulating the coding outputs purchases generality only if we know the codes rest on justifiable equivalencies of meaning, which is to return us to the original verbal settings that may vary incommensurably.

Paraphrase: sociologists are engaging in circular reading of texts. The squeeze a corpus into their frameworks and then reapply the frameworks onto specific examples to produce pre-ordained results.

My thesis is that coding procedures in contemporary sociology, the beachhead for coding texts that is spreading into history and literature, follow the rites by which religious believers relabel portions of the universe in a sacred arena for deep play. As in fundamentalist religious regimes, rejecting the enchantment of coding “facts” is nothing less than blasphemy.

Paraphrase: precisely because of their lack of any more fundamental support, the frameworks are sufficiently shaky that they are protected by hierarchical social structures that emerge around vulnerable belief systems, shutting down critics and elevating allies/toadies/grad students. For less opaque examples, see the conservative movement’s classification of “liberal” bias, or much of the talk that constitutes privilege-checking. Both utilize postulated frameworks supported by mantric rhetoric and repetition to obscure the lack of conceptual support. (And yes, I know the former is far more harmful, but today’s Right doesn’t have a monopoly on all forms of stupidity, since a large number of people have not realized that this chart is a joke.)

The ultimate point of this book is to stand social “science” on its head as less rigorous than humanist approaches. The social “scientists” of culture, those claiming a kind of epistemological advantage via their coding apparatuses, are instead intuitive cultists without openly sharable procedure. Opposite much orthodoxy, humanist craft workers who footnote and who convey symptomatically the wondrous in their readings are truer to the ideals of so-called hard science conventionally understood. As I endeavor to show, the nonsystematizing humanists still appreciate the obstacles to induction, the gift of an acute trial, the insurance of shared documentation, and the transformative power of anomalies. My brief is not the cliché that humanist interpretation aims at insight different in kind. More subversively, I insist such interpretation better fulfills the consecrated standards to which social “scientists” ostensibly subscribe.

Paraphrase: the use of quantitative metrics in social science is usually decorative frosting utilized in order to make preconceived notions seem more objective. In actuality they’re rigged games. A thoughtful, passionate, genuinely humanist approach is more scientific than vacuous tables.

It is more transparent, therefore more faithful to inquiry, to assume radical difference in a population than to rush toward aggregating modern “facts” out of corpuses whose members are artificially assumed to have homologous structures.

He’s talking about texts here, but this would apply to any grouping of anything. How to put this into practice is a much thornier question.

The Evidence

Biernacki then presents three case studies of prominent papers in recent sociology. He has done the legwork of looking through the original sources to see how “objective” the classification process was. The results are disastrous. All three are not just littered with slanted interpretations, selective omissions, and poor fits, but outright errors and holes in logic. The demolition is extremely thorough, and the time required to do the research might have boosted Biernacki’s ire further. Here are representative examples from the three cases.

Bearman and Stovel, Becoming a Nazi: A Model for Narrative Networks (2000)

All the network data were extracted from a single Nazi story, but it was not an actual autobiography from Abel’s collection. Help from Peter Bearman together with detective hunting established that the researchers coded instead from “The Story of a Middle-Class Youth,” a condensation published in an appendix to Abel’s book in 1938. Although the intact story was at hand for Bearman and Stovel, and although they had secured English translations of complete stories from the Abel collection, they coded instead from an adaptation that indicated with ellipses where connecting segments had been deleted.

Bearman and Stovel adopt the same vocabulary to describe their own scientific outlook as they apply to a Nazi. They feature “abstraction” for converging on the essential: “Comparison within and across narratives necessitates abstraction . . . This is accomplished by grouping elements into equivalency classes” [83; see also 20]. When the researchers present the Nazi cognitive style, “abstraction” is again the key feature, but now using it to “order experience” is a character defect [85]. It is not we as network reductionists who have a rigid response in analyzing qualitatively incomparable situations, it is the Nazis with a “master identity” who do. [NB: They also complain about another researcher’s “abstraction”: “Real lives are lost in the process, and real process is lost in the movement away from narrative by this abstraction.”]

Wendy Griswold, The Fabrication of Meaning: Literary Interpretation in the Unites States, Great Britain, and the West Indies (1987)

griswold

This presentation, which appeared in 1987 in sociology’s most exacting journal, was greeted far and wide as offering confirmable and generalizable results. It remains probably the most broadly circulated classic whose findings rest on systematic coding of text contents.

Griswold combined the reviews from each of her three regions—the United States, Great Britain, and the West Indies—to see if she could explain why some of George Lamming’s novels resonated more powerfully than others in her sample of reviews of his six novels in all. She guessed that “ambiguity” would not only engross readers in disambiguating the novels, but doing so would stimulate appreciative reviews. This just-so account presumes we can know what ambiguity is according to its function rather than by its verbal expression in a review. How exactly does creative engagement by the critics appear when articulated on the page of a book review? What is ambiguity on site? The blurring of appealing scientific hypothesis-testing with exegesis of highly compacted reviews produced a baffling gap: Griswold did not offer an example from her evidence to concretize this entity called “ambiguity,” yet social scientists propagated news about the abstraction in every direction.

When I took reviews in hand, it astonished me to find that at the individual level ambiguity is “specifically mentioned” (to my mind) primarily when the reviewer expresses frustration and disappointment. This dislike of ambiguity more often pushed a review over to a mixed or negative appraisal of a novel, reverse from Griswold’s report of correlations at the aggregate level…. Consider how baffling it is to identify “ambiguity” and “positive appraisal” on the ground.

If a resonant review, like a seminal novel, is multidimensional, and if the reviewer therefore does not try to locate the book on a metric of approval, the overall categories “positive,” and “mixed/negative” are not there in the text ready for translation. The summary is only a fabrication of the social “scientist.”

More subtly, by introducing the binary of colonialism as present or absent, the ritual cordons off the reality that it was daunting for British critics to avoid incorporating the relations of a concept as permeating as colonialism. Griswold never illustrates what counts as mention of colonialism or of any other theme.

John Evans, Playing God?: Human Genetic Engineering and the Rationalization of Public Bioethical Debate (2002)

To launch the sampling and coding ritual, we have to take up a schizophrenic consciousness between the quantitative-scientific and the humanistic-interpretive perspectives. We cannot acknowledge in one frame what we do in the other. Evans wrote that “the two foremost proponents of the form of argumentation in the bioethics profession as I have defined it,” Beauchamp and Childress, are not among authors charted as statistically influential. Indubitable knowledge from the humanist frame does not impinge on the “scientific” procedure for equating influence with citations.

Evans in the 2002 book Playing God produced importantly different diagrams out of the same data inputs as in the 1998 dissertation “Playing God.” How did this change transpire? For the 1992–1995 interval of debate, Evans raised the threshold for inclusion as an influential author in the cluster diagram from nine citations in the dissertation to ten in the book. This chart trimming changed the storyline significantly. For instance, the sociologist Troy Duster, whose work seems to run contrary to Evans’s thesis for the final period, 1992–1995, is among several other authors who dropped out of the diagram.

For a self-fulfilling prophecy Playing God filters out the epistles most pertinently aimed at the public. “If an item did not contain four or more citations, it was not included in the sample, because the primary technology of a citation study is measures of association between citations. I examined 765 randomly selected items from the universe. Of these, 345 fit the parameters for inclusion” [G 208].

“In my research,” Evans wrote, “the question was which top-cited authors were most similar to each other based on the texts that cited them” [G 209]. Similar how? Decades ago the analytic philosopher Nelson Goodman convincingly showed “similarity” lacks sense beyond particular and incommensurable practices of contrast and comparison. Whatever might we be talking about when we demonstrate what relative “influence” means by frequency citations and when we have no operative concept of influence outside this arbitrary measurement? As with ritual process, the models of citation counts merely bring to life a visual experience of a symbol’s use and substitute for the symbol’s conceptual definition.

Evans quotes Jonathan Glover as follows: “What he [Glover] envisions is a ‘genetic supermarket,’ which would meet ‘the individual specifications (within certain moral limits) of prospective parents’” [G 161]. Here again, findings appear to emerge by mischance. The words Evans attributed to Glover occur in a passage of Robert Nozick’s libertarian Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which Glover happened to quote before advancing toward a different position.

The kicker comes with a particularly noxious passage from Evans’ book, revealing the deep-seated self-justifying elitism at work in Evans’ a priori theorizing. Biernacki writes:

If my framing of Playing God as a ritual affirmation were plausible, we would predict that the policy recommendations with which the book concludes, while impracticably “utopian” [G 198], would impart an essential verity. That happens when Evans dismisses the need for real-world brakes on how elites would match particular means to an array of ends, once those ends were chosen by the public:

“If an ends commission decided that its ends to forward in genetic research were beneficence, nonmaleficence, and maintenance of the current specificity of genetic change as possible in the reproductive act, I have no doubt that bioethicists could determine which, if any, forms of HGE [human genetic engineering] advanced these ends. [G 203]”

As you might suspect given the abstractness of “ends in themselves,” it seems unlikely their implementation is a neutral technical job entrustable to specialist intellectuals. The experts in deciding how to pursue a mandated goal would, by concretizing it, subject it to reinterpretation. Would not the means that elites chose to institutionalize populist HGE policy have ramifying implications for practice, and thus values, in other spheres of life, short-circuiting public deliberation? Dealing with these practical issues in ritual is beside the point of affirming the transhistorical message that deliberation over ends should be protected from instrumental degradation.

The quote Biernacki cites here is incredibly damning, evoking images of a bioethical Comintern insisting that its ends are right and proper. Evans is the sort of powerless person you do not want in power.1

More generally, all three come off as tendentious, obfuscatory, and disingenuous, using numbers as a smokescreen for their unjustified suppositions. Biernacki is dead-on in stating that with more classical humanist criticism, you get to see upfront what sort of conceptual abstractions are taking place, subjective and case-based as they may be. Here, they hide behind the guise of objective abstractions plugged into a computational framework.  (Shades of Ann Coulter’s Lexis-Nexis searches.)

The Dangers

I don’t doubt that these three works are representative. And Biernacki’s most fascinating point is that this misuse of science plays directly into theories of cultural determinism that have become very common across the humanities and social sciences:

The same problem of mixing scientific controls with texts occurs in demonstrating the theory of cultural power. That proposed theory starts firmly within the interpretive perspective, because it makes categories of understanding the “variable” that interacts with the novel to produce an engrossing experience. As Kenneth Burke emphasized, in an ideology-saturated society, readers deal with a plethora of contradictory schemas from which they choose how to interpret a text. Alternatively, much important literature, such as Beckett’s plays in the 1950s, from inside its own lines blatantly models unprecedented schemas from which a reader may learn to decipher the work as a whole—“the absurd.” To probe the fabrication of meaning, the reading process might be analyzed more fruitfully as a rhetorical operation rather than as a social one. Kenneth Burke intimated that inquiry into the schemas for reading might include syllogistic progression (step-by-step appreciation of a kind of argument pressing forward via the narrative), qualitative progression (the appreciation of feelings post-hoc from narrative action), antecedent categorical forms (such as “the sonnet”), or technical schemas (such as chiasmus and reversal). In any event, by underspecifying the cultural workings of the literary experience, we arrive at “society” as the default explanation of differences in the received meanings of the novels. The more you attend to the critics’ professional know-how and to the generative schemas with which they read, the weaker the rationale for leaping to a generally shared “percipience” to explain coding outputs. Sociologists since the nineteenth century have invested so much energy in solidifying “society” as a “cause,” they can invoke it without asking whether more tangible but less spirit-like forces may be operating.

Paraphrase: by reducing texts to a handful of ostensibly constituent effects and declaring them to constitute the text, researchers rob the texts of any power they might really have, using them as interchangeable totems for empty confirmation of unsubstantiated theories of cultural domination. Everything feeds back into a giant phantom of “culture” (or “capitalism” or “modernity” or “secularism” or take-your-pick) that ensures the identical outcome. Hence Biernacki’s point:

Ironically, researchers who visualize a pattern in the “facts” often assert it symbolizes an incorrigible theory for which no data were required anyway.

This is not only true, but even if they do not assert such, this is what’s going on anyway. There has to be some underlying theory conditioning the coding/labeling in the first place.

This complements Hans Blumenberg’s observations about the nature of generalized maladies. While Blumenberg emphasized the vagueness and generality of such overarching theories of discontent, Biernacki completes the thought by demonstrating that when the incorrigible theory is reapplied to specific cases, the specific cases become interchangeable.

In considering the prevalent openness to theories of ‘capitalism,’ one cannot fail to notice not only that there always seems to be a need for a causal formula of maximum generality to account for people’s discontent with the state of the world but that there also seems to be a constant need on the part of the ‘bourgeois’ theorist to participate in the historical guilt of not having been one of the victims. Whether people’s readiness to entertain assertions of objective guilt derives from an existential guiltiness of Dasein vis-a-vis its possibilities, as Heidegger suggested in Being and Time, or from the “societal delusion system” of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, in any case it is the high degree of indefiniteness of the complexes that are described in these ways that equips them to accept a variety of specific forms. Discontent is given retrospective self-evidence. This is not what gives rise to or stabilizes a theorem like that of secularization, but it certainly does serve to explain its success.

Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age

Biernacki’s point is that these theories not only accept a wide variety of specific forms, but that they also homogenize these forms. Cultural theory commodifies its subject matter.

Yet at this point the particular issue of quantification has fallen by the wayside in favor of the problem of incorrigible theories. For quantification per se, Biernacki’s evidence is less than ideal, because all three case studies contain such elementary errors in reportage and logic that they would be poor even if the quantitative aspects of the papers were removed. That is, I have no doubt that were Griswold or Evans to write a qualitative assessment of the texts they treated, they would not produce very good work either.

Biernacki is right to say that the scientific frosting obscures the poor quality of their work and exacerbates reductionistic tendencies toward cultural determinism, but the question of “coding” gets into problems that come up even in the absence of quantitative metrics, because coding is labeling, and labeling is what we do all the time.

The Solutions?

Though Biernacki limits the scope of his critique to labeling applied to texts, the arguments go through for ontologies applied to any phenomena. I think Biernacki gets into a muddle in trying to specify texts as specifically exempt from classification, contrasting words like “novel” with words like “dog”:

The intensional definition of “dog” is historically closed, whereas newly discovered literary works and financial instruments stretch and revise the anterior category of “novel” or of “a hedge-fund practice.” A previously unconsidered novel that stretches the distinctions between biography and fiction, for example, can remake the denotation of the label “novel.”

Intensions are dangerous things, and I think you could find that even seemingly clear concepts like “dog” can prove slippery in themselves. You would find more agreement among people, certainly, but who’s to say it’s enough? Labels are inherently unstable things. I think the very point of Beirnacki’s book makes it impossible for him to draw such a clear-cut line. Biernacki sometimes seems to assume that a stable “code” label is being assigned to unstable and ambiguous “data,” but there’s no reason to suppose the label is in general that much more stable  than in the specific text.This is to enter philosophy of language issues that would derail this post entirely, so I will just leave matters at that unless someone wants to debate the point.

Consequently, the ultimate effect of Biernacki’s critique is to make the remaining space for quantitative science very small indeed. In this he is similar to Rudolf Carnap, whose requirements for science were so rigorous and unattainable that many philosophers of science (Popper among them) complained that he would put scientists out of a job. Certainly Griswold, Evans, and Bearman/Stovel come off much closer to Carnap’s idea of bad poetry (e.g., Heidegger) than science.

Contrariwise, I don’t see why the inclusion of quantitative measures in and of itself is a bad thing as long as the labeling is done in a sufficiently responsible way. Are interpretive reading and quantitative analysis “intrinsically uncombinable,” as Biernacki says? I admit that “sufficiently responsible” is a very high bar to clear. But while I agree that so-called “raw data,” is a misnomer, there is a difference between medium-rare and well-done.  I would like to see Biernacki apply his methods to far more intelligent usages of corpus linguistics, such as those performed by Martin Mueller, Eleanor Dickey, Ian Lancashire, or Brian Vickers. All work at a far lower lexical level than Biernacki’s subjects, and all are better scholars. (And none is a sociologist. Biernacki does take a few swipes at Franco Moretti for following Griswold’s bad tendencies, but mostly leaves literature alone.)

But I want to push in the opposite direction as well against Biernacki’s elevation of what he loosely terms humanist interpretation (much as I love it). It is interesting that Biernacki makes a claim of rigor for his humanistic methodology. This is very tricky. When I read Auerbach and Spitzer and Fahnestock, I certainly get the impression of intense intellectual rigor, but rigor applied both to the careful reading of texts and to the holistic grasp of the whole. That is, because of the great difficulties in labeling, rigor must be accomplished by having both

  1. a heuristic, intuitive feel for the whole of one’s field and beyond, stemming from vast reading and reflection, and
  2. a complementary sense of where one’s knowledge is incomplete, where variations might occur, and what should be left open and tentative.

The blunt use of statistics can cover up the need for either of these time-consuming and tenure-threatening processes. Punch a corpus into a computer and analyze it and your work “seems” complete without your brain needing to process all the ambiguities and elisions. Clearly that is unacceptable. But ruling out quantitative measures is not necessarily more rigorous. Biernacki thinks very highly of Weber, and I do as well, to a point. But Weber’s theory of secularization and disenchantment has ultimately been overadopted by less imaginative minds than his. I think and hope that Weber intended his theses to be provisional, to be reassessed and revised (just as scientific theories should be) with the passage of time and research, not mindlessly parroted by crypto-conservative postmodernists looking to smuggle religion back into intellectual discourse under the guise of “reenchantment.”

To put it another way: is the generalized, reductive application of Freud’s theories any better than the generalized, reductive application of the DSM-IV?

This is not a complaint against Weber as much as it is frustration with general intellectual incompetence. What I mean to stress here is that I’m not so sure that this intellectual incompetence is so different in kind from the sort of intellectual incompetence Biernacki exposes in his subjects. Both stem from sloppiness, laziness, and a sheer lack of creativity. So while Biernacki rightly praises Panofsky:

The historian Robert Marichal followed Panofsky’s thesis to explain why the style of breaks in Gothic letters on parchment appeared simultaneously with the same breaks in stone, intersecting ribs in Gothic vaults. Both shifts expressed an analysis of whole lines to cut them down and regroup them into clearer, hierarchically ordered parts of parts. Compare this depth of analysis to a quantitative argument about net trends in abstract codes. Such blurred social “science” is less stringent about the patterning required for confirmation and too indefinite to isolate productive anomalies. Again the humanist focus on precise designs draws it closer to the rigor of the “hard” sciences.

I still think he overstates his case somewhat, because the “codes” at work here are just as subject to dispute. They are, however, more explicit, and this is a good thing, as Biernacki says. The issue, however, is that such great humanist works as he identifies are by their very nature exceptions, works of prodigious and unique minds that cannot be replicated en masse. The weaker philological work of years past is, alas, very nearly as formulaic as some of the scholarship Biernacki condemns (though far less sloppy).

As a prescription for better work, the humanist traditions provide little help in the mass production of research other than to set the bar so high for work that most people should immediately drop out of the field. (Not that this would be a bad thing, necessarily.) But it makes his prescriptions very difficult to imagine practically, unless academia is to return to being a elite, cordoned-off field as it was prior to the postwar higher education boom. (Though that may well happen.)

I am being speculative here, and none of this dampens the force of Biernacki’s critique. It just steers his critique more in the direction of “Don’t use numbers to cover up your incompetence” rather than “Don’t ever use quantitative measures on texts.”2

Science, ideally speaking, provides a workable means for adjudication of disputes, and even occasionally consensus, that is less dependent on the most powerful person around dictating what’s right. To a point, Biernacki employed science, in tandem with humanistic close reading, in his book to undermine the very bad “science” of the works he examined. That, I think, is the best model going forward that we have.

 

  1. Perhaps not so powerless. Only after writing this entry did I discover that John Evans was involved in a UCSD scandal to attempt to prevent Biernacki from investigating Evans’ work. In 2009, UCSD’s Social Sciences Dean Jeffrey Elman threatened to censure and dismiss Biernacki on the grounds that Biernacki’s research “may damage the reputation of a colleague and therefore may be considered harassment.” Full story here. IHE article here. It is appalling that Jeffrey Elman has retained his position as Dean after sending such a letter. Needless to say, my support for Biernacki’s pursuit of this research is total.
  2. The sociological establishment is having an easier time attacking the second thesis, however, judging by Andrew Perrin’s nasty review. Perrin adopts a ridiculous “They aren’t trying to be scientific” defense, which leaves you wondering what all those charts are doing in the papers, as well as wondering what the point of such sociology is. Perrin also didn’t disclose that he is friends with John Evans until pressed in the comments.

The Case Worker, by George Konrád

The true symbol of the totalitarian state is not the executioner, but the exemplary bureaucrat who proves to be more loyal to the state than to his friend.

George Konrád, “The Long Work of Liberty”

Harry Kent’s cover for the Korean edition of The Case Worker

The Case Worker (1969) is a short and brutal novel by George Konrád (1933-). Konrád is a Hungarian Jew who barely escaped the Holocaust. He stayed in Hungary after the Soviet invasion of 1955, eventually becoming a dissident whose works could only be published samizdat. The Case Worker was his first and only novel to be published publicly in communist Hungary. It is not explicitly political, but the graphic bleakness of the novel does its country of origin no favors.  I’m a bit surprised that it was published.

Konrád was a case worker himself for a time, and I fear that the novel has an autobiographical basis. The narrator is sort of a social worker who takes down the reports of the lowlifes, unfortunates, and madmen who come to him: suicides, domestic violence, sexual abuse, murders. Sometimes he takes further action; often he does not. The early part of the novel is a sequence of disconnected, brutal stories of violence and perversity, chronicled in a sober, semi-detached voice. The narrator is explicit that his dissociation is a coping mechanism so that he does not go insane from overempathizing with the hopeless cases he sees, but even from the beginning, there is too much humanity in his voice for us to ever think that he will succeed in disconnecting completely.

At the beginning of my career, I thought: It’s like swallowing fistfuls of mud; I can neither digest it nor vomit it up. IN the last ten years I must have said, “Have a seat, please,” thirty thousand times. Apart from colleagues, witnesses, informers, prying newspapermen, and a few inoffensive mental cases, it was distress that drove most of them to my desk. In most instances their anguish was massive, tentacular, and incurable; it weighed on me in this room where people cry, “Believe me, it hurts,” “I can’t go on,” and “It’s killing me,” as easily as they would scream on a roller coaster. ON the whole, my interrogations make me think of a surgeon who sews up his incision without removing the tumour.

The plot arrives in the form of a brain-damaged four-year-old child. His barely functioning parents have committed suicide, and the narrator is unable to find anyone to take care of the child. The parents raised him feral in the hopes of toughening him up, and he is more animal than human, incapable of any emotional relationship to another person. No institution will admit him, so the narrator takes him in, while continuing his work.

The narrator grows sicker from hearing more horrific stories. His care for the child is a mechanism not to alleviate guilt, but to remove the jarring transition between the damaged world which he views in his work and the safe, sane world in which he otherwise lives:

I would merely wave a token farewell to the child, certain that the meaning of my gesture would not get through his vacuous gaze to his consciousness, and after shaking hands with the staff, hasten down the steps of the pillared portico to where the taxi driver, impatiently drumming his fingers on the half-open window of his car, would be waiting to take me back from this morgue, which humanitarianism had disguised as a home, to the city that tramples its misfits and castaways, the city where both of us have our jobs and families and friends capable of articulate speech, and where more or less efficient organizations segregate the untouchables, the maladjusted, the waste products of a society that maintains order by violence, from us free citizens with our inborn sense of duty: the sight of their repulsive existence must not be permitted to remind us that we and they might have anything in common.

So the novel becomes a chronicle of a seriously divided consciousness. Half of the narrator is the functioning member of society, while half of him is the feeling, bleeding, and dysfunctional empathizer, who takes care of this child because it is the only way he can feel any meaning in the world. This is no budding revolutionary consciousness or political awareness. That sensitivity does great damage to the narrator, and only serves to disconnect him from any sort of functioning social realm. The social realm, through organizational necessity, squashes such sentiments as he has.

Taking the handy legal shortcut rather than the roundabout path of sympathy and indignation, dealing superficially with thousands of clients instead of giving three or four, or even one, the attention they deserve–all this, I sometimes think, is plain fraud.

Actually, what I do amounts to nothing. I regulate the traffic of suffering, sending it this way and that, passing on the loads that pile up on me to institutions or private citizens…There’s no hurry, no situation is irreversible, today’s mortal danger will be nothing tomorrow and vice versa, today’s nothing will be death. If I don’t help my client, someone else will; if nobody helps him, he’ll help himself; and if he can’t, he will learn to bear his lot. But try as I may to encourage myself with such phrases, this child has undeniably become my lot.

Society, which treats him as an interchangeable part in one structure or another, a representative member of one class of people or another (be it occupation, economic class, gender, ethnicity, etc.), entices him to remove responsibility that goes beyond what he is tasked with in that part. With the arrival of the child, his unsocialized half rebels and will not permit him to remain in his part. But to do so is to isolate himself from society and ally with the wretched ones who come to his office.

I have been deleted from their schedules; they transfer their emotions to some worthier object and discover with relief that I can be replaced. That is as it should be–I feel the same way. If I live to old age, I shall love only the interchangeable.

The novel ends, sort of, with a great statement of solidarity for the broken people of the world. Konrád proclaims the impossibility of any institutionalized system of empathy, and thus the need to preserve unregimented empathy no matter what the cost. And the cost is great; the narrator is cut off, at least for a time, from his family and any institutionalized aspect of culture, including sex itself, which becomes to him a meaningless, socialized form of affection. For the case worker, only incommensurable, non-interchangeable emotion can grant meaning.

It’s a remarkable and powerful novel, particularly for amassing such volatile emotional material into a cogent moral and social statement. (It is that last element that is completely lost in a book like his countryman Attila Bartis’s Tranquility.) I think it shares a sensibility with Ludvik Vaculik’s The Guinea Pigs, but it is far more overwhelming and less allegorical. It works with the bare stuff of pain.

A final note on culture: Irving Howe writes in the introduction to the 1987 edition that Konrád’s communist Budapest does not seem so different from capitalist Manhattan. I’m not sure quite how he draws the comparison: more than any political difference, the tonal and stylistic differences between Konrád and literally any American writer I’ve read are so blatant as to make it extremely difficult to compare the underlying socio-political circumstances between The Case Worker and an average 20th century American novel. It’s possible that the American institutionalizing of individualism has made it that much more difficult to draw out that unsocialized empathy, and so works that ask us to empathize beyond any reasonable expectation have become rather rare in American society.

The Authority of Obscurity: Fludd, Hamann, Heidegger, Kripke

The democratization and accessibility of knowledge has always been opposed by those who wish to keep power for themselves. These opponents may wish to be seen as wise authorities, or they may be fearful of the changes that will occur if people get too curious and too smart. Their weapon in disguising or confusing real knowledge is obscurity.

Obscurity can take several forms. Just a couple:

  1. Proclamations of secret inner knowledge and access to fundamental essences known only to a few.
  2. Accusations to others of ignoring the real truth at the heart of things.
  3. Deliberate obfuscation, hiding and/or complicating what is said in order to intimidate.
  4. Appeals to instinct and conventional wisdom to justify shaky reasoning.

All of these have been mixed in with quasi-religious rhetoric in order to reify the power-base of those who wish to be exempt from the strictures of rational inquiry and science.

(For those tempted to see this as religion-bashing, this actually has very little to do with religion per se. It is about rhetoric and power and authority.)

Not that science is exempt. Such techniques are sometimes used within science (string theorists have been guilty of this recently), but they have been used outside of it with far more vigor. The sheer consistency of this is shown by three examples each a century apart: Robert Fludd, J.G. Hamann, and Martin Heidegger. There is a fourth case too, a more recent one, who doesn’t quite fit the mold but merits inclusion: Saul Kripke.

It may seem unsporting or even perverse to point out this tendency when its advocates are so clearly on the losing side–at least among the cognoscenti. But unlike Scientology or Objectivism, the quasi-mystical obscure position needs criticism because so much real intelligence has fallen under its sway, possibly because its current underdog status masks the underlying hegemonic attitude of its proponents.

Also significant is that the underlying position hasn’t really changed that much: in each, a certain high-minded rhetoric is deployed with the signifiers of authority to do an end-run around the hard toil of more rigorous thinkers.

Four examples, then, from four eras: the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernism, and today.

 

1. Robert Fludd (1574-1637)

Robert Fludd was an occultist and an exponent of the Hermetic traditions in the High Renaissance, just as Bacon, Galileo and Kepler were dismissing all sorts of superstition and trying to get a semi-coherent and semi-unified science off the ground. Unlike the far more brilliant Giordano Bruno, Fludd was simply not terribly bright, and in combination with colossal arrogance, he comes off as quite unpleasant.

Fludd’s half-baked thinking, which led him to propose perpetual motion machines are best seen in his famous engraving The Divine Monochord, used on the cover of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, among other places.

Robert Fludd, The Divine Monochord

The engraving overlays the notes of the scale with Ptolemy’s circular orbits of the spheres. Even if you give him the geocentric universe, to which Fludd held half a century after the death of Copernicus, Fludd messed up the notes: the F should be an F sharp. Fludd was not one to worry about such things, and while the results may have artistic value, Fludd’s attempts to link them to physical phenomena are laughable. But this he did.

For Fludd, the mere stipulation of symbolism is enough to make something true:

Further, all kinds of natural things, and those which are supernatural, are bound together by particular formal numbers. The mystery of these occult numbers is best known to those who are most versed in this science, who attribute the Monad or unity to God the artificer, the Dyad or duality to Aqueous Matter, and then the Triad to the Form or light and soul of the universe, which they call virgin.

That is, numbers have special powers given to them by their “formal” nature, that is, their nature beyond mathematics. The analogies for numbers proposed by occultists lend the numbers real power, in Fludd’s view.  Well, as Hans Blumenberg said, analogies are not transformations.

Fludd was an Oxford graduate and finally entered the College of Physicians after six failed attempts. Connections to the royal physician may have helped. Fludd became famous for his debates with Kepler, who was easily the most mystical of the scientists and astronomers.

Though Kepler had made his name by predicting a notoriously cold winter in 1595, Kepler distrusted astrology and generally held the more superstitious arts like alchemy and divination in total contempt. Nonetheless, he sought a cosmological union of mathematics, physics, and music that would explain the complete and utter perfection of God’s world. In the process, he correctly theorized that the orbits of the planets were ellipses rather than circles, a discovery of gobstopping genius contrary to pretty much what everyone everywhere had ever thought, and even more amazing given the lack of any theory of gravity to explain why the orbits were ellipses. He also discovered two other laws of planetary motion of similar import.

Fludd, in words that sound eerily contemporary (and not for the better), attacked Kepler as vulgar and scientistic, in a prolix pamphlet that needs to be heavily summarized:

In the arrogant pose of the esoteric and mystagogue Fludd lectured to Kepler, reproaching him for crass ignorance and ambition. Kepler’s science, in Fludd’s opinion, refers only to the outside of things. A distinction must be made between vulgar and formal mathematics. Only the chosen sages, skilled in formal mathematics, perceive nature truly; to the representatives of vulgar mathematics, among whom he also counts Kepler, and whom he calls bastards and stunted people, it remains invisible and hidden. These measure only the shadows instead or the reality or things. Fludd compares Kepler’s astronomy to a “mystical astronomy.” While Kepler stopped short with the outer movements of nature, he himself contemplates the inner and fundamental acts, which flow forth from nature. So it goes on, on fifty-four thickly printed folio sheets.

These samples from Fludd’s pamphlet are characteristic of the intellectual temper of that epoch. One who looks about in that departed era of writing and printing is astonished at the flood of astrological, alchemical, magical, cabbalistic, theosophic, mock mystic, and pseudoprophetic writings which held the intellects in a spell. The vaguer their content and the richer the promises they ventured in predictions, in communication of secret knowledge and abilities, the more readers they found. What was always being proclaimed under the name of Hermes Trismegistos passed for revelation, whereas imitation of the ideas of Paracelsus passed as the highest wisdom.

When Fludd, in the delusion of possessing deeper perception, held forth that he himself had the head in his hands, Kepler only the tail, then the latter replied humorously: “I hold the tail but with the hand; you clasp the head, if only it does not happen just in a dream.” The widdy disseminated writings, aiming to found and extend the order of the Rosicrucians, were naturally also known to Kepler. Yet he wanted to have nothing to do with a secret organization which feared the light. He urged the Brothers of the new order not to turn only to the ”children of the truth,” but also to go and to talk in the meetings of people, on the mountains and in public places, so that people would get to know their true doctrine.

In the face of all such pseudoscientific efforts, Kepler most strikingly characterized his manner of thought and the goal, which he also pursued in the Harmonia, when he says about his connection with Fludd: “One sees that Fludd takes his chief pleasure in incomprehensible picture puzzles of the reality, whereas I go forth from there, precisely to move into the bright light of knowledge the facts of nature which are veiled in darkness. The former is the subject of the chemist, followers of Hermes and Paracelsus, the latter, on the contrary, the task of the mathematician.” Fludd answered Kepler’s apology once more. The latter, however, did not want, as he says, to press this issue any longer and was silent. “I have moved mountains; it is astonishing how much smoke they expel.”

Max Caspar, Kepler: A Biography

Kepler only sees the outside of things, while Fludd penetrates to their innards. We’ll hear that line again.

Kepler eloquently described how Fludd “inner workings” terminally confused the causal workings of things with symbology:

I too play with symbols and have planned a little work, Geometric Cabala, which is about the Ideas of natural things in geometry; but I play in such a way that I do not forget that I am playing. For nothing is proved by symbols; things already known are merely fitted [to them]; unless by sure reasons it can be demonstrated that they are not merely symbolic but are descriptions of the ways in which the two things are connected and of the causes of these connections.

Brian Vickers draws the contrast quite vividly, emphasizing the replacement of Fludd’s visual constructions with Mersenne and Kepler’s primarily mathematical ones:

Mersenne rejects much of the conceptual structure of occult science, the whole analogical-correlative method, its symbolism, its confusion of mental and physical worlds….Kepler, by contrast, believed that the principles defining the structure of reality are picturable only in a certain sense. What is entirely lacking from the Fludd mentality is any interest in measurement or in testing an analogy against data derived from experience, and in this respect Kepler’s assumptions and methods are wholly different. The crucial issue is the relationship between pictures, words, and things. Fludd starts with ideas and pictures, finds words to describe them, and then links this composite to reality. Kepler, who deals with reality in terms of geometry, rejects Fludd’s analogies as visual or rhetorical, never capable of demonstration and often arbitrary.

Brian Vickers, Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance

The particular method I’ve highlighted in bold is one that will recur as well.

Fludd was not well-liked. Even the alchemist Johannes Baptista van Helmont disparaged him as  ‘a poor physician and a still poorer alchemist, talkative, loud, thinly learned, inconsistent . . . a fluctuating Fludd.’ And when you’ve lost the alchemists….

Frances Yates, generally rather sympathetic to the Hermetic tradition and its influence on the development of science, says this about him and Kepler:

Nevertheless, Kepler had an absolutely clear perception of the basic difference between genuine mathematics, based on quantitative measurement, and the “Pythagorean” or “Hermetic” mystical approach to number. He saw with the utmost distinctness that the root of the difference between himself and Fludd lay in their differing attitude to number, his own being mathematical and quantative whilst that of Fludd was Pythagorean and Hermetic. Kepler’s masterly analyses of this difference in his replies to Fludd brought this matter out into the clear light of day for the first time and performed a great service in finally releasing genuine mathematics from the agelong accretions of numerology.

Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition

Accretions can still accumulate, however.

 

2. J. G. Hamann (1730-1788)

J. G. Hamann was a lesser-known philosopher of the Enlightenment who had connections with Herder and Kant. Isaiah Berlin calls Hamann the first anti-rationalist opponent of the Enlightenment, though most of his substantive criticisms had been made already by people within the Enlightenment, so his influence is debatable. Hamann heavily protested against the anti-religious, scientific trends of his age, without articulating a particularly clear alternative beyond God.

What is not debatable is Hamann’s pioneering efforts into obscure, allusive writing. Unlike Kant, who writes densely but does not seem to be covering his tracks, Hamann takes pains to avoid saying much of anything directly. Sarcasm and ridicule are more his style than sincerity or cogency.

He engages in mystical investigations reminiscent of Fludd, such as his New Apology of the letter h. It is uncannily proto-Derridean in its punning half-fatuousness, as Hamann attacks a proposed spelling reform to standardize German by removing some silent letters. The proposal is not just wrongheaded, Hamann says, but blasphemous:

The canon of writing no letter which is not pronounced is the most impossible and exaggerated postulate in the exercise. Why is the author himself unfaithful to his own propositions, not only in regard to all the other letters, but even to h? Why does he not write in instead of ihn, and inn instead of in, or ir instead of ihr, and tun instead of thun, in order to comply at least with the appearance of an analogy? What reason can indeed be envisaged for his biased exception of all the remaining letters and his unjustified severity toward a breath, which is not even an articulated sound?

If the pronunciation of letters is to be elevated to a universal judgment throne over correct spelling such as the one so-called human reason arrogates to itself (under cover of liberty) over religion, then it is easy to foresee the destiny of our maternal language. What divisions! what Babylonian confusion! what mongering of letters! All the great diversity of dialects and speech and their shibboleths would pour into the books of each province, and what dam could withstand this orthographic deluge? The h, turned out from the raw midnight of Germany, would prolifherate [sic] itself in the writings of the greater and milder nations of the Holy Roman Empire with such opulence that would not be comparable to the wise generosity of a famous translator  of sacred parchment rolls in very isolated cases. – In short, the whole social bond of literature among the German nations would be destroyed in a few years, to the great disadvantage of the true, universal, practical religion, its dissemination, and the peace promised by it – –

J. G. Hamann, “New Apology for the Letter h” (1773, tr. Kenneth Haynes)

I suppose this is good fun, but I find it rather tiring and trivial for a supposed major work, though Haynes is to be commended for assembling a reasonably compact and accessible collection. His sneering at “so-called human reason” and the elevation of his stipulated “true, universal, practical religion” grate. I’m more inclined to agree with Michael Forster’s view of the impoverishment of Hamann’s philosophy:

Besides being unsystematic, Hamann’s writings are typically short; occasional in nature; adorned with mysterious visual symbols (e.g. the figure of Pan), and enigmatic titles, subtitles, and mottos; authored with an adoption of strange identities; extremely obscure in content; lacking in developed argument; full of quotations from ancient and modern works left in their various original languages, as well as citations and allusions, many of whose significance is left unclear; prone to the use of German archaisms, especially the vocabulary and constructions of Luther’s German Bible; bombastic and dramatic; crude, sometimes to the point of obscenity; humorous and satirical, often in cruel ways; and rich in metaphors. As Goethe already observed, the cumulative effect of such features (especially for a modern reader deprived of the help that was supplied by the contemporary context) is to preclude satisfactory understanding.

Hamann did not have to write in this way; his early Biblical Reflections, a long work, is written clearly and even elegantly, and his letters throughout his life often show similar virtues. Why, then, did he choose to write in this way? Part of the explanation lies in his principled contempt for reason, and therefore for the conventional ways of writing that rely upon it. Another part of the explanation lies in a deep disaffection with his age and its ‘‘public’’—rooted in his unpopular religious position, but also exacerbated by more mundane grievances, including, for example, his lowly employment and inadequate salary—which leaves him uninterested in being understood by most of his contemporaries, and indeed keen to mystify them. Yet another part of the explanation lies in a motive that is in tension with the preceding one: a wish to cultivate a strikingly distinctive authorial individuality. Yet another part of the explanation lies in a fear that his ideas were not original or cogent (in his letters he voices a fear that he got all his main ideas from the poet Edward Young, and laments the weakness of his own intellect, e.g. in comparison with Kant’s), and in a resulting desire to mask his intellectual nakedness. It is difficult to have much sympathy with these motives.

Michael Forster, After Herder: Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition

Contra Socrates, Hamann thinks self-knowledge is “a descent into hell,” merely painful preparation for the real truth of salvation. So Hamann is really opposing not just the intellectual trends of the time but the use of reason as a means to anything but faith. The obscuritanism and the attacks on reason go hand in hand with Hamann’s appeal to religion (Christianity, of course), and so it is not so surprising that today he is being used by postmodern theologians to help expand the gaps in which they wish God to exist. That is to say, postmodernism not in the service of skepticism or pluralism, but in service of ignorance and superstition.

John Betz enthusiastically endorses Hamann’s attack on Kant and the claim that Kant’s system is really just another religion like any other, Kant a “magician” and “alchemist” playing tricks on us:

Indeed, following Hamann, the very structure of Kant’s Critique could be said to mirror the mystagogy of the temple cult, proceeding by way of an ever more inward progression from the forms of intuition, which concern the “outer court” of sensibility, to the “sanctuary” of the transcendental categories of the understanding, to the sanctum sanctorum of the regulative ideas of reason itself.

In any case, as Hamann reads it, the Critique is a kind of “magical mystery” tour de force. Kant’s philosophy is “alchemical” because its transcendental method involves a similar process of purification; the only difference here is that the “dross,” which must be separated in order to attain the “philosopher’s stone” is phenomenal experience.

John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary

Teach the controversy! Kant’s philosophy, whatever its many problems, is not alchemical and not a temple cult. I repeat again: analogies are not transformations. Betz seems to think that Hamann has some sort of knock-down arguments, and that these knock-down arguments, having God in them, are somehow superior to all other criticisms against Kant and deserving of more attention.

Betz sides with Hamann in his attack on Herder’s pioneering naturalist account of the origin of language. I will not get into why Hamann’s criticisms of Herder are weak and specious (Forster’s book addresses this issue convincingly), since the rhetoric is my focus here. Note how Betz goes right along with Hamann’s invective precisely when it is most free of content:

In a masterful stroke of irony Hamann then adds that Herder’s “natural” theory must have been the product of divine inspiration, due to a divine “Genesis”; indeed, it must be even more supernatural and poetic than the oldest account of the creation of heaven and earth. For, surely, only inspiration would cause this learned author to set himself up “so confidently and so recklessly for such public, earth-shaking, hyperbolic-pleonastic, retaliatory criticism, and to misuse polemical weapons only to incur wounds and lumps at his own expense, accomplishing thereby precisely the opposite of what his readers are promised and flatteringly led to expect.”

What a lashing!

With consummate irony, Hamann then caps his parody with the following coup de grace: “With this divine organon of understanding the entire Koran of the seven [liberal] arts and the entire Talmud of the four faculties was invented, and upon this rock stands the fortress of the philosophical faith of our century, before which all the gates of oriental poetry must submit.” That is to say, how can this understanding of the origin of language, which rests upon a plain contradiction, possibly serve as a suitable foundation for philosophy, for the sciences, for philology?

What a damning appraisal!

John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary

I find it vaguely frightening that such rhetoric as Hamann’s should appear so convincing to a theologian that it could be cited with such cheerleading enthusiasm. Betz’s choice of the phrases “lashing” and “damning appraisal” are rather intriguing on their own, but that’s left as an exercise for the reader.

It should not, then, come as too much of a surprise that Betz then links Hamann to Heidegger and Derrida and enlists all three in his religious project, finding fault with the latter two in that they are not sufficiently religious (i.e., Christian), making Hamann the clear choice:

Thus it comes about that for Heidegger, the anti-Augustine, paradoxically “Nothing” really “Is”; and that this “Nothing” becomes the source of ethics, revelation, and poetic inspiration. Such is the odd, uncompelling, and, in view of the horrors of the twentieth century, ethically chilling result of Heidegger’s attempt to purify philosophy of theology, whereby he essentially repeats in the realm of ontology the same fundamental error Hamann identified at the heart of Kant’s epistemology, thereby bringing the history of philosophy (divorced from theology) to its explicitly nihilistic conclusion.

After the Enlightenment, the problem of reason, following Hamann and now Derrida, has come down to the problem of language. In short, it comes down to a choice between inspired and uninspired language: either language inspired by the Holy Spirit in response to the Logos, or language inspired by Nothing at all.

John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary

Here it is more difficult to argue with Betz, for he is opposing thinkers who have dispatched the only terms of argument that could help them against Hamann, and given the choice between Nothing and God, people will tend to plump for the latter. All of the relativism eventually gives way to the “true, universal, practical religion” of which Hamann, and presumably Betz, are certain.

 

3. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

Much of the discussion of Heidegger can be found in the entry on Herman Philipse’s Heidegger book, where Philipse diagnosed Heidegger’s rhetoric as authoritarian and theological. (More on Heidegger’s sloppy scholarship.) Heidegger’s irritating statement “Only a god can save us” is ultimately representative of the tactics of his later work. I quote the relevant bits from the previous entry:

Sometimes Heidegger claims that he has a specific epistemic gift for discerning what Being sends us, and he compares those who do not have this gift to people who are color-blind. Unfortunately, this analogy with color-blindness does not withstand critical scrutiny. Color-blindness can be explained by specific defects in our visual apparatus, whereas I suppose that the inability to grasp what Heidegger claims to be discerning cannot be so explained. Heidegger relies on a epistemic model derived from theology, and assumes that he is the recipient of some kind of revelation…

What Heidegger counts on, then, is that we will simply believe what he says. He uses a number of authoritarian rhetorical stratagems in order to obtain this perlocutionary effect, and he is remarkably successful in securing it.

“History” in the habitual sense of the word designates both the sum of human actions, artifacts, and forms of life in the past, and the discipline that studies these actions and forms of life. Because Heidegger in section 7 of Sein und Zeit calls empirical phenomena “vulgar” phenomena, we might label empirical history “vulgar” history. To vulgar history, Heidegger opposes real or authentic history (eigentliche Geschichte), which is the sequence of fundamental stances underlying vulgar history. Real history is “necessarily hidden to the normal eye.” It is the history of the “revealedness of being” (Offenbarkeit des Seins). Heidegger’s later “historical mode of questioning” (geschichtliches Fragen) aims at making explicit fundamental stances of Dasein amidst the totality of beings. Since these stances allegedly can be studied independently of empirical history as an intellectual discipline, Heidegger’s doctrine of real history implies that the philosopher is the real historian, and that by reconstructing the sequence of metaphysical structures, he does a more fundamental job than the historian in the usual sense is able to do. Heidegger often intimates that his historical questioning is also more fundamental than historical research done by historians of philosophy, and that it may brush aside the methodological canon of historical philology and interpretation. As Joseph Margolis observes, Heidegger’s doctrine of real history “manages to ignore the concrete history of actual existence and actual inquiry.”

Heidegger belonged to the elect, to those favored by Being, who were destined to hear Being’s voice. In Beitrage zur Philosophie, the theme of the elect occurs again and again.

Herman Philipse, Heidegger’s Philosophy of Being

I trust that the linkages here are evident. Like Fludd and Hamann, Heidegger appeals to some sort of revelation to which he has privileged access, one that both trumps other accounts and is not accessible to them. The presupposition of having penetrated to the inner core of things is stated as a first principle, not a conclusion.

This passage from The Question Concerning Technology is representative:

In truth, however, precisely nowhere does man today any longer encounter himself, i.e., his essence. Man stands so decisively in subservience to the challenging-forth of enframing that he does not grasp enframing as a claim, that he fails to see himself as the one spoken to, and hence also fails in every way to hear in what respect he ek-sists, in terms of his essence, in a realm where he is addressed, so that he can never encounter only himself.

Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”

But Heidegger sees, Heidegger encounters. Heidegger knows the fundamental inners of things, like Fludd. His claims would be easily dismissed if technology and science didn’t present so many genuine questions that Heidegger is forcing out of people’s minds with his mystification. Such obfuscation neuters the rational force of any critique it is used to make and replaces it with pure authority. If you have the authority that Heidegger had, you can win the argument; if you don’t, you will lose.

 

4. Saul Kripke (1940- )

It may seem unfair and even perverse to include Kripke on this list, for unlike the others he has an indisputably great contribution to formal logic. Yet it is his metaphysics and his rhetoric with which I am concerned here, and I can’t deny the overlap. In fact, it’s significant that both an “analytic” and a “continental” philosopher can fall into this list.

Kripke does not use obscurity per se; what he does do is utilize a closed system that is then pushed onto reality. In this he resembles Fludd, who in Vickers’ words “starts with ideas and pictures, finds words to describe them, and then links this composite to reality.” The composite here is far more rigorous and “scientific” than anything Fludd ever managed, yet the outcome is not so different. Those who favor Kripke will certainly disagree, but the burden of proof remains with them. Central to Kripke’s approach is an appeal to ungrounded intuition that mimics the tactics of the above thinkers. Intuition becomes another obscuring tactic.

Kripke acolyte Scott Soames gives a non-technical summary of Kripke’s impact:

[Kripke’s theories] brought back the idea that things in the world have discoverable essences, which are properties not just physically required but metaphysically necessary for their existence. Some of these properties are discoverable by science. But these may not exhaust the essential properties of human beings. The impact of Kripke’s book was its message that, despite the progress philosophers have made in understanding meaning and language, philosophical knowledge is not limited to that, which means that philosophy must reconnect to the non-linguistic world.

Scott Soames in The Browser

Essential properties: the insides of things, just as Fludd claimed access to. The armchair discovery of essential properties beyond those discoverable by science is quite an achievement, one capable of generating a lot more business for philosophers itching to escape the punishing strictures of mid-century anti-essentialism. How did Kripke do it? Richard Rorty provides a good overview in the LRB, but I will briefly summarize the technical points:

Kripke postulated a formal modal logic for talking about possible worlds, creating a formalization of “necessary” and “contingent” propositions that has caught on like wildfire, wiping away the austerity of W.V.O. Quine and a number of other mid-century analytic philosophers in favor of bold new metaphysical conjectures. Some of these conjectures are indeed dangerously close to postulating the inner essence of things, as anyone who reads Kripke’s Naming and Necessity will realize. Key to this is Kripke’s idea of the “rigid designator,” a name that picks out the same thing in all possible worlds. Rigid designators include all proper names, various technical physical science terms. Somewhat famously, he says:

I thus agree with Quine, that “Hesperus is Phosphorus” is (or can be) an empirical discovery; with Marcus, that it is necessary.

So it is not possible that Hesperus could not have been Phosphorus, and this modal, metaphysical claim is based solely on the nature of the linguistic terms involved and the counterfactual possible world setup he has going. In response to those who complain about possible worlds, he says:

Those who have argued that to make sense of the notion of rigid designator, we must antecedently make sense of ‘criteria of transworld identity’ have precisely reversed the cart and the horse; it is because we can refer (rigidly) to Nixon, and stipulate that we are speaking of what might have happened to him (under certain circumstances), that ‘transworld identifications’ are unproblematic in such cases.

Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity

The shorter version of this, again, is: saying makes it so. The way in which we use language somehow makes it possible to generate claims about metaphysical necessity. Can we rigidly refer to Nixon? That seems to be the shaky ground on which cart and horse must ride.

For someone like myself who thinks that simply naming something isn’t even sufficient to be certain it exists, Kripke is far off the mark, but again, that is beside the point here. My consideration here is with the rhetorical tactics involved and how they echo past thinkers who presume a familiarity with the inner nature of reality and use a certain sort of authoritative language to proclaim it.

Other Kripkean feats include proving the necessity of “Water = H2O” and “Cicero = the organism descended from sperm s and egg e,” as well as the non-necessity of “Mental events are identical with brain events.” The passage related to this last one is worthy of quoting. Here, “C-fibers” are the part of the brain that happen to be associated with pain in humans.

What about the case of the stimulation of C-fibers? To create this phenomenon, it would seem that God need only create beings with C-fibers capable of the appropriate type of physical stimulation; whether the beings are conscious or not is irrelevant here. It would seem, though, that to make the C-fiber stimulation correspond to pain, or be felt as pain, God must do something in addition to the mere creation of the C-fiber stimulation; He must let the creatures feel the C-fiber stimulation as pain, and not as a tickle, or as warmth, or as nothing, as apparently would also have been within His powers . . . The same cannot be said for pain; if the phenomenon exists at all, no further work should be required to make it into pain.

From here it is a short hop to Kripke’s personal views:

Kripke is Jewish, and he takes this seriously. He is not a nominal Jew and he is careful keeping the Sabbath, for instance he doesn’t use public transportation on Saturdays. He thinks religion can help him in philosophy:

“I don’t have the prejudices many have today, I don’t believe in a naturalist world view. I don’t base my thinking on prejudices or a world view and do not believe in materialism.”

He claims that many people think that they have a scientific world view and believe in materialism, but that this is an ideology.

GoInside interview with Saul Kripke, 2001

Such remarks sound a bit condescending, and so I ask: does Kripke have his own prejudices? It seems that he does not. He is well above the rest of us, having evidently transcended the need for a worldview. And perhaps language as well:

“People used to talk about concepts more, and now they talk about words more,” he says, capsulizing the profession. “Sometimes I think it’s better to talk about concepts.”

Saul Kripke profile in the New York Times (1977)

Yet the reason for why analytic philosophers migrated to words was that no one could agree on what a concept was. Nor how to grasp one. The Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Concepts encompasses nearly every discipline of philosophy, while offering little that is uncontested save for the gnomic first sentence: “Concepts are the constituents of thoughts.” So the way I read Kripke’s statement is that people should talk about concepts his way.

Yet in justifying the correctness of his versions of things, Kripke often appeals to intuition. The word “intuition” appears frequently in Kripke’s writings, often as something he wishes to “capture” formally. The Preface to Naming and Necessity appeals to intuition on nearly every page in justifying rigid designators. The papers in Philosophical Troubles use intuition, if anything, more frequently, particular when speaking about truth and knowledge. Some form of the word “intuition” is used 246 times in the book’s 380 pages. For comparison, Quine uses it 9 times, and not always favorably, in the 130 pages of From a Logical Point of View, while Davidson uses it 23 times in the 285 pages of Inquiries into Truth and Intepretation. Wittgenstein uses it only four times in all of Philosophical Investigations, while Sellars makes only a single derogatory use of it in the entirety of Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind.

Now perhaps Kripke’s experience is different, but I live in a world in which the vast majority of intuitions that I or anyone else has are wrong. Today’s intuitions are tomorrow’s mockeries. Either way, I don’t see how you combat Kripke if you have an opposing intuition. I doubt he expects one to do so. Appeals to intuition in philosophy are not so different from appeals to feeling, consensus, or religion: they rely on you accepting an unsubstantiated claim from a supposed expert or authority. It is hard to see intuition as much more than an authoritative cudgel designed to shut down questions and let things remain cloudy. At the end of the day, I think this is what Kripke’s metaphysics will remain: ungrounded appeals to intuition.

In some ways Kripke has embraced obscurity, publishing next to nothing in the years since Naming and Necessity and cultivating an oracular persona. He is very much a counter-Wittgenstein, another religious philosopher who published almost nothing, yet where Wittgenstein leaves us with questions, Kripke is always in a hurry to give answers. I do believe that Kripke’s metaphysical system has more value than Fludd’s pretty but false pictures of the world, but I do wonder how much more value.

I’ll let Quine have the last word on intuition’s use as a core tool of mystic authorities:

Twice I have been startled to find my use of ‘intuitive’ misconstrued as alluding to some special and mysterious avenue of knowledge. By an intuitive account I mean one in which terms are used in habitual ways, without reflecting on how they might be defined or what presuppositions they might conceal.

W.V.O. Quine, Word and Object

And this dual nature of ‘intuition’ is why intuitions are obscure, and why they form the fundament of Fludd, Hamann, Heidegger, and Kripke’s work.

Jan Assmann on Auschwitz and Guilt

I don’t study ethics much because there is already such a high bar in reaching a minimal level of human decency, so slicing and dicing moral principles feels like buying a fuzzy sweater for a dead dog. And at any rate I am suspicious of any moral calculus.

I pay more attention to the question of responsibility and guilt–not in the sense of what responsibility should be borne and what guilt should one feel, but what tendencies people have and what tendencies have good and bad effects. That is, regardless of whether someone should feel guilt or not, what mechanisms of guilt and responsibility tend to cause better behavior in the future, without psychological scarring or deep misery?

I have no quick answer to that question. And I worry about the quick applications of those sorts of principles to socio-political problems. I have grave doubts over such things as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation program, which to varying extents coerced forgiveness from victims:  “The witness’s refusal to forgive or to support the granting of amnesty thus is met with attempts to convince her that her attitude will harm her country’s rebuilding efforts.” It’s possible it was all for the best, but who can sit easily with this sort of institutionalized ethics?

There is a passage in Jan Assmann’s Religion and Cultural Memory collection that captures this for me as well as anything. Assmann alludes to how every memorial for an atrocity also can serve the dual function of distracting others from atrocities their peoples may have committed–a form of scapegoating.

Auschwitz, the darkest chapter of German history, has long since assumed the dimensions of a “normative past” that must not and cannot be allowed to fall into oblivion under any circumstances because its importance goes well beyond the memories of victims and perpetrators; it has become an instance of unviersalized bonding memory and the founding element of a global secular religion that is concerned with democracy and human dignity. Its commandment is “never again, Auschwitz,” and this means not just that there should never again be victims of a German fascism, but that we–and this “we” includes humanity–wish never again to be perpetrators, fellow travelers, or electors of a regime that tramples on human dignity. If we wish to procure world-wide recognition for these principles, we would do well not to repress what we mean by “Amalek,” that is to say, the essence of all that we must reject if we are to secure a better future. Instead we must publicly take responsibility for it, in solidarity with those sections of mankind for whom Auschwitz has become the normative memory of a guilt incurred.

In such acts of recognition of the suffering caused to others through no fault of theirs we can discern the outlines of a universal form of bonding memory that is committed to certain fundamental norms of human dignity.

Jan Assmann, “What is ‘Cultural Memory’?”

The point here is that by identifying the Germans as those who will bear the normative memory of guilt, a non-German forgets whichever tendencies lay dormant within him- or herself that could permit future atrocities were the circumstances right. The non-German is inoculated against critical and humbling doubts about one’s own self and culture. Assmann asks instead for solidarity with those who brand themselves with the collective guilt of the sins of their forefathers–rather than moral superiority. (Chakira has some related thoughts on Shaul Magid.) In other words, “Never again” is facile if not applied as inclusively as possible.

In drastic contrast, there is the hypostatizing moral certitude of Levinas, who exempts an entire nation from such doubts:

Chaim Grinberg brought together articles by several Israeli authors on the relation between religion and State. Reading these texts, which are above all eye­ witness accounts, one is struck by the ease with which the move from religion to ethics is carried out. We do not get the impression of a morality being added to the dogma, but of a ‘dogma’ that is morality itself…Not that belief in God incites one to justice–it is the institution of that justice.

Justice as the raison d’etre of the State: that is religion. It presupposes the high science of justice. The State of Israel will be religious because of the intelligence of its great books which it is not free to forget. It will be religious through the very action that establishes it as a State. It will be religious or it will not be at all.

Emmanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom (1963)

This is precisely the attitude Assmann warns against. Identifying justice, religion, and one’s state is tantamount to exempting that state from any such solidarity and any possible collective guilt. Regardless of one’s feelings about Israel (swap any other country into the passage if you wish), this is dangerous bunk.

 

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2021 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑