Silence is Golden

Commenting on the previous post, Dave M from DuckRabbit says:

I also see a connection between McDowell’s “anti-anti-realism” and his “quietism,” but I don’t think it’s quite as direct as you make out. Naturally if a question is motivated only by a false assumption one will spurn demands from both sides that one give one’s own answer to it. That doesn’t make one a quietist.

Of course, Dave is correct that the connection is not a direct one. Evidently, it was misleading of me to say that McDowell’s rejection of what he takes to be an erroneous assumption common to realism and anti-realism was “a sign of McDowell’s quietism” without making it more clear that I do not take his quietism to be a simple consequence of making this sort of move. To see why quietism does not follow, we can consider three sorts of philosophical strategy that proceed in this way.

Firstly, we have the simple identification of a loaded question — the familiar fallacy of asking a complex question with a false or highly questionable suppressed premise (e.g. ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’). Obviously, examples of this argumentative strategy are ten-a-penny, and exposing a logical fallacy of this sort does not make someone a quietist.

Secondly then, we have what Michael Williams calls ‘theoretical diagnosis’. This sort of analysis attempts to give a genealogy of the problematic assumption. As such, it is not content to simply point out that an inquiry rests upon a questionable premise, but goes further in explaining how this premise came to be implicitly or explicitly accepted. Where appropriate, an analysis of this sort may tell an historical story, or demonstrate the inquiry’s dependence upon some substantive practical attitudes, or some combination of the two. The idea being that once we can see that the demand for explanation we faced is a conditional one, dependent upon a whole backdrop of beliefs and values that are not simply given, then we can loosen the grip that a problem has on us — the sense that by refusing to answer it something important goes unexplained.

As a slight aside: Rorty is someone who often proceeds in this way, especially when confronting what he takes to be epistemology. So, for example, in his attempted dissolution of the modern epistemological project, he provides us with a historical narrative that tries to show how we are led to an impasse by a set of distinctively modern assumptions about our relation to the world arising out of the Cartesian and Lockean programmes. These assumptions are supposedly alien to older philosophers, such as the ancient Greeks, and only arise in response to a particular set of problems introduced by the rise of modern science. Having recognised this, we are meant to see that engaging with the epistemological tradition founded upon the assumptions introduced by Descartes and Locke is, to use a Rortian term, ‘optional’. If we can see that the problem we are facing is not imposed atemporally, it is up to us to decide whether we want to engage with it or rather instead drop the presuppositions that motivate it, redescribe the phenomena in question and get on with something more useful.

Although this is a greatly simplified take on Rorty’s position, it nonetheless allows us to see why he has been accused of ‘decisionism’ by Charles Guignon, amongst others. The charge here is that Rorty overestimates our capacity, both normatively and psychologically, to simply drop problem-generating assumptions and think about the issue at hand in a different way. That is, we should be wary of accepting an unqualified version of Rorty’s claim, “man is always free to choose new descriptions.” (PMN: 362n.7) Following on from this, I am tempted to claim that Rorty is often like a psychoanalyst who is content to tell his new patients that he is sure that their troubles are the result of deep psycho-social traumas and sees no need to work through their particular circumstances with them. This is compounded by statements like the following, where quoting James Conant he says, “‘Rorty’s recommendation appears to be that one should leave the fly in the fly-bottle and get on with something more interesting.’ Conant here gets me exactly right.” (PPv.3: 47n.17)

How would the fly be shown the way out of the fly-bottle? Well, perhaps via the third approach, which is a genuinely therapeutic diagnosis. Recapping, the first approach simply pointed out that an inquiry is based on a false or otherwise questionable premise. The second tried to show how the adoption of the premise was conditioned. Therapeutic diagnosis countenances a further possibility though, that the adoption of the dubious premise is not conditioned, at least not in the way that the theoretical diagnostician tries to show. That is, such an approach does not insist upon tracing the adoption of the premise to some specific point, instead holding out for the possibility that the temptation to error is a diffuse one, arising perennially and not tied to a specific set of beliefs or desires (with the implication that we are free to dismiss them with relative ease).

Wittgenstein’s suggestion that philosophical problems appear when language ‘goes on holiday’ might serve to illustrate this. On this sort of account, we cannot explain the myriad temptations to platonism, reductionism, behaviourism, cartesianism, etc. as merely a series of contingent mistakes — of propositions we simply endorsed in error but can now see are false. Rather, these temptations will be seen as more deeply rooted within us than that, as habits fostered by the misleading analogies suggested by language that offer themselves to us when we turn to philosophical topics. As such, they are something that needs to be tended to so that they do not become overgrown. Less metaphorically, this will mean actually reflecting in concrete cases, catching ourselves when we go on to demand and then supply ourselves with explanations for phenomena that can be perfectly well acounted for by way of careful description rather than a theory that seeks to expose the essential nature of the phenomenon at hand. By doing this, we would develop a certain habitus (in the sense of cultivating a comportment towards the world) that means that we are no longer troubled by what we once thought were problems demanding our attention as constructive philosophers.

If we think that philosophical problems are usually amenable to some form of this latter treatment, then quietism — understood as the refusal to assert philosophical theses — ought to seem more reasonable. This is because if philosophical problems stem from near-inevitable tendencies entwined with some fundamental aspect of our existence, such as language use, once we have accounted for and dismissed such ‘anxieties’ then there is nothing left to explain. There would be no philosophical theses because such things would not add to our knowledge; they would not be seriously contestable. But instead of theses, we may need reminders. This is because a reminder does not add to knowledge, it is a prompt which allows us to do something else: to orient ourselves in the right way, silencing our philosophical anxiety — something that it is a practical achievement as much as an epistemic one.

What underlies McDowell’s quietism is, I think, a refusal of a certain demand for explanation which arises from a philosophical anxiety. Again without going into the full details of McDowell’s views, in the case of the traditional debate between realism and anti-realism, the common assumption that he rejects seems to be that either of these views explain anything at all — that they are capable of doing any philosophical heavy lifting. The anxiety is the longing for foundations — the worry that we need an account to show us that our practices are safe; that science really is in order because it connects up with mind-independent entities or that morality can after all be on a sound footing simply by virtue of social practices within certain communities. But giving a philosophical explanation at this stage is always too late in the day. I take McDowell to suggest that we ought to be able to nip these demands in the bud by coming to see how our common-sense platitudes, properly marshalled, do not sell us short, leaving us with something further to explain. Once we dispell the anxiety, the need for a substantive explanation vanishes along with it.

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5 thoughts on “Silence is Golden

  1. Tom – I’ll have to apologise, as I’m sort of cold-befuddled at the moment, and not really able to articulate clearly, but just wanted to say that the issues you raise here resonate with me – particularly in relation to the points you raise about Rorty and what appears at times to be his sort of exhortative approach to thinking about how we might transform philosophical problems. To me, this has always seemed bound to a certain tacit assumption that philosophical problems are… er… exclusively philosophical – that they reside, as it were, in intellectual history, and that such history is contingent in a strong sense. (Forgive the awkward formulations here – I’m really thinking very sluggishly today.)

    Your use of Wittgenstein above begins to get at some of the issues: what if certain patterns of philosophical problems are not completely arbitrary, and also not completely “intellectual”, but grounded in some sense in practice. Here, though, it begins to matter what sort of practice we think generates certain recurrent philosophical detours. Quietism makes most sense in a context in which the practices that generate problematic philosophical temptations are themselves ineradicable – if the practices are, as you say above, “near-inevitable tendencies entwined with some fundamental aspect of our existence”. By posing the practice at the base of certain philosophical problem as something like “language use” in a general sense, we are probably driving toward a quietistic response.

    I am broadly sympathetic to the notion that certain recurrent philosophical dilemmas are essentially practical dilemmas, and therefore can’t be resolved purely at the philosophical level (which doesn’t mean that I don’t think theory has a role to play). But my questions have revolved around whether we’ve understood the sorts of practices that are generating certain sorts of problems. What if we aren’t talking about an “ineradicable” form of practice such as language use, but instead a much more contingent and transformable form of practice, such as practices constitutive only of a specific kind of social configuration? Then we are potentially on the terrain of critical theory – a position that reacts back, both on Rorty’s suggestion that we can just “change our minds”, but also on a quietistic “therapeutic” response that seeks to help us learn to adjust to what we cannot transform…

    I’m very worried that I’m much too fuzzy today to be posting. Apologies if this is completely incoherent or if I have completely overlooked some or all of what you were saying above…

  2. Thanks for the comments; they’re as insightful and useful as ever, however cold-befuddled you feel. (Hope you get well soon though!)

    You pick up on the very ambiguity in the post that is most important and which I do not attempt to resolve: that is, how we are to take the claim that there is a ‘near-inevitably’ to philosophical anxieties. One, potentially dangerous, way of taking this claim is that these anxieties are natural illusions (a phrase I borrow from Micheal Williams). But this invites the further question of just how ‘natural’ they are, whether they are short-circuits arising from the way that we are constituted as organisms, or from fundamentals of any recognisably human form of life like communication, or more contingent but still deep-rooted practices, or the bequest of specific traditions of thought, and so on. If we are drawn to the latter end of this spectrum, then the supposed inevitability of philosophical confusions will be in virtue of specific more-or-less contingent concatenations of forces shaping us (paradigmatically, some sort of social set-up). Illusions generated in this way will be natural in the sense that they are deeply lodged in the grooves cut by said forces. Given certain facts about us and our practices, making these sorts of mistakes will be a kind of Hegelian mediated immediacy. That is, although they rely on a complex set of interests, inclinations, habits of thought, theoretical assumptions, etc., they get presented to us as an obvious way to proceed. Thought of in this way, it might seem like there is an opening for critical theory here, as you suggest. We would not have to throw up our hands in despair at language or culture or our form of life in general, or rest content with solving local problems as they arise, but could rather take a closer look at the way our thought and action is mediated by other (typically social) forces.

    My thought on these matters is rather up in the air at the moment, which I think shows in the rather confused state of the above post. What McDowell sees himself as up to is set out very clearly by Daniel here, and my musings are somewhat rambling in comparison when taken to address that topic. But hopefully, part of the reason for this is that they reflect some of the tensions I am feeling when it comes to deciding how we should approach these issues. Put simply, I am worried about some of the conservative impulses in McDowell as reflected in his quietism and naturalism. Daniel does a job of showing how we might allay some of these worries with respect to quietism, but I feel that there are still lots of problems lurking under the surface. Basically, I want a better way of thinking the social, one that is neither too social-pragmatist nor Aristotelian naturalist, and I suspect that Adornian critical theory might be able to help me out (alongside a not-so-quietistic reading of Hegel). At the moment, I suppose I am trying to find a way of expanding a broadly McDowellian philosophical project out into more critical-theoretical territory, so it’s heartening to hear you suggest a similar line of thought. The only problem is that I don’t know my way away around critical theory at all — though I won’t let such trivialities stop me…

    Hope that wasn’t too much of a mess. I am very much looking forward to hearing some of the results of your research into Brandom, by the way!

  3. I’m looking forward to hearing some of the results of my research into Brandom, as well ;-P – let’s hope I come up with some soon!! (More seriously, there’s been a lot of backchannel chatter between LM and me, but everything I’ve stumbled over has seemed to tentative for purposes of public discussion – that will have to change some time between now and the 5th of December, as we have to put together our presentation by then… At the moment, I’m mainly drawn to some of the tensions around Habermas and Brandom’s discussions of “objectivity” – which, strangely, may link back to some of the issues raised here about what sorts of social practices we’re trying to talk about… But hopefully something coherent, or at least more useful confused, will come out of this soon…)

    But more on point: your discussion of “natural illusions” above identifies the sorts of things, since Hegel at least, I would take us to be looking for in a critical philosophy or a critical social theory – and then a series of questions flow on from the notion that this is the sort of thing we’re trying to understand: what’s the historical register of such “illusions” (are they grounded in some sort of general dimension of sociality – which might be one way to understand, say, certain psychoanalytic approaches to this sort of question, or certain approaches that see “language use” or similar as the genesis for such illusions – or can we identify illusions as being necessary moments of forms of practice that are much more contingent); how strongly do we mean the term “illusion” (are we talking about actual – though understandable – error?; or are we talking more about “things appearing as they are” – about forms of perception that are valid *for us*, but where the failure to capture the “for-us-ness” does lead to something like error?); how strongly do we understand these illusions to be “necessary” (are we committed inevitably to make them, or are they more probabilistic in character? to what extent, and in which ways, are such things malleable); and, perhaps most important, the reflexive question of how such things present themselves to us, as givens, but as given in such a way that we can also come to pose these questions about how they are given: the capacity to talk about such things as “illusions” means that, even now, even “for us”, they aren’t completely this – they are available perspectives, but not entirely doxic ones – posing the problem of how we can understand the possibility of such a thing…

    Not trying to gesture at anything systematic with these questions – too foggy for that today… It’s just an interesting set of issues you raise…

    The tricky thing about existing forms of critical theory – and the reason that a relative lack of background in critical theory might not be too much of an obstacle for the questions you’re posing – is that much critical theory doesn’t go beyond, at best, posing these sorts of questions. There’s a level at which (at least from my point of view – but I may be very idiosyncratic here) the questions don’t actually structure the theory at a depth level: an enormous amount of critical theory, even talking the reflexive talk, tacitly smuggles in external standpoints when it tries to walk the walk. Doing this, I don’t think it can really “cash out” on the programmatic insight that certain “illusions” may be specifically “illusions for us” – the register remains tacitly transcendent (even though the emergence of this transcendent into our particular social is sometimes historicised, as in Habermas).

    An appropriation of Hegel, from my point of view, would probably get you closer to where you’re aiming (and, of course, I’m trying to suggest that something like this motivates Marx’s project).

    So far, though, the best accounts I’ve seen that are dealing with this notion of intrinsic illusion, don’t really embed the generation of the illusion in historically contingent practices – or, to say the same thing in a more normal way for me: most approaches that tackle this question, tacitly treat their own standpoint as a negation, rather than as a positivity that is also generated on a plane of practice that is symmetrical to the plane occupied by the practices being criticised. This isn’t so much a problem, if the only thing sought is a kind of distantiated comprehension of the phenomenon being analysed. It becomes a problem if and when we want to start thinking about potentials for transformation… (and, by extension, if we want to start talking about the possibility for forms of secular judgment amongst potentials equally immanently generated, and therefore equally “contingent”, within our context…)

    Much, much too muddled today to write about this… Apologies… :-(

  4. Excellent post, I’ve nothing substantial to add. I fear I’m torn between finding attractive quietism’s ability to dispel or dissolve and finding necessary critical theory’s promise to criticize and, in the end, actually effect some (needed) change. I don’t think quietism makes critical theory impossible, but it certainly forces one to be more cautious when attempting a critical project.

    Though he was speaking of science, we may read Wittgenstein a bit more broadly (without losing much, I hope):
    when we’ve finished with all the questions, “the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.”
    The paradox of critical theory is that it seems necessary, but what are we to make of answers without questions?

    And as much as I enjoy Rorty’s characteristic gumption, I agree with the faults you find in his approach. Moreover, there’s no reason to think “showing the fly out of the fly-bottle” cannot (or won’t) be an enduring project; perhaps instead of “the discovery”, Wittgenstein should have more precisely spoke of the “the discovering” [that gives philosophy peace].

    Maybe we have to turn Marx on his side; if Marx turned Hegel on his head, then turning Marx on his side should give us equal access to both.

    Still though: the thought of a quasi-pragmatic, quietist, Hegelian, critical theory is (surprisingly) pleasant to entertain. Wide-eyed and sure-footed is how I try to approach philosophy.

  5. Pingback: Roughtheory.org » What in the hell…

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