Reflections on Reflexivity

Following the recent reflections on reflexivity at Now-Times, Roughtheory, Self and World and Larval Subjects I want to pursue a connection between two of the senses of reflexivity distinguished. Since a fair measure of my own inquiries are articulated with some reference to the post-Kantian problematics expounded by Alexei, yet also relate to the normative questions that preoccupy NP, this is perhaps an understandable venture. My research of late is coalescing around the compatibility of various broadly Kantian accounts of autonomy and their compatibility with post-Sellarsian understandings of how we can be ‘objectively’ accountable to an ‘external’ world that can exert a normative force on our practices. In this vein, in what follows I am going to attempt to weld together some of the consideration pertaining to the Kantian and post-Kantian tradition with some of the normative considerations that I see as intersecting it. Since the full details involve some protracted engagement with interpretations of the Transcendental Deduction, I am not going to go into them here just yet. Rather, I want to leave this post as a placeholder for further development in which I will state yet not fully defend my position on these matters.

To begin: when NP discusses ‘reflexivity’ then the term is deployed at a meta-theoretic level where it describes a condition of adequacy for theories that can explain how the context interpenetrative with a set of practices (paradigmatically a social field, such as one inclusive of capitalist relations of production) provides both the ground for the reproduction of those practices whilst containing an opening for a change or development (specifically, emancipatory change) in those practices. As I read this general line of thought, the aim is to determine a normative stance — some standards for assessment — that do not float freely of the object of critique; rather, they are to be rooted immanently in their objects. (Hegel attacks the contrasting pure ‘oughts’ in both his earliest works like The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate as well as his last ones, such as the Preface to the Philosophy of Right.)

A reflexive theory is one that will be able to explain its own role as an element within its analytic field, specifically the way that the very formation of the theory opens up new avenues for critical practice. Non-reflexive theories are thus those prone to forget their own contribution to their explanandum; so while they may be quite competent in characterising the mechanisms or functions that contribute to the reproduction of a set of practices, they ignore the fact that the very attempt to grasp this reproduction of practices, especially if the analytical theory is an especially insightful one that allows us to come to a good understanding of this reproduction, can intensify or disrupt the process of reproduction of practices. A fully reflexive theory will not only proclaim its membership of its own analytic field but will be able to demonstrate how it itself opens (and perhaps closes) critical potentialities. That is, it can show how its analysis of its object (the fact of its analysis, not just its content) does or does not provide a basis for specific changes in our practices — changes that were not even latently potential ones without the formulation of the theory. (In light of Sinthome’s posts on the materiality of writing, I am tempted to say ‘how it provides a material basis for practice.’) This will allow it to avoid an abstract negation that dismisses its object as inadequate without furthermore showing how this inadequacy may be overcome by building upon such things as the very realisation and attendant explanation of why the object is inadequate.

Logically speaking, a reflexive relation is simply one that something bears to itself (e.g. ‘tired cliché’ is a tired cliché). Thus, the meta-theoretic sense of ‘reflexive’ describes a theory that applies to itself. The other sense of ‘reflexive’ that has been in play over at Now-Times is one of self-reflexivity: the relation that the self has to itself. It might appear that there is only a linguistic similarity here then, for initially there seems to be no reason to suppose that the self’s relation to itself has anything much to do with a theory’s relation to itself.

Yet, I take it that the Kantian insistence on self-reflexivity as a condition for knowledge — that I must be able to relate to myself as a condition of entering into cognitive relations with the world — extends to normativity in general; that is, I must be able to relate to myself in a certain way if it is to be intelligible that I am legitimately appraisable for my actions in and attitudes towards the world. Furthermore, the way that I must so relate to myself is of the same form as the meta-theoretic notion of reflexivity. To see meta-theoretic reflexivity as a condition for an adequate critical theory — thereby a norm-bearing and not merely descriptive one — is to suppose that a theory must understand its own capacity to enable new determinate interventions with respect to its objects. A parallel move is, I think, to be found at the heart of the subject. So, a meta-theoretically reflexive critical theory is a structure of beliefs that theorises itself as a condition of its own normative claims being authoritative; where I take it that the subject (qua minimally rational agent) is something that understands itself to have the power to determine itself insofar as it can be responsive to purported norms — introducing a possible tension between what it is possible we should do and what we might in fact do — as a condition of its activities being actually norm-governed (and thereby both potentially intentional and also rationally defensible and thereby be themselves authoritative).

That last claim is almost impossibly compressed here. To give a basic hint of what I have in mind, I want to claim that it is a necessary condition for the possibility of a norm being authoritative with respect to a certain activity that the person engaged in that activity can (but not necessarily does, as in constructivism) take themselves to be subject to the authority of that norm. The central consideration here being that it is the possibility of so taking oneself, endowed as we are with the critical faculties of rational agents to contextualise our activities against the background of standards which we can then endeavour to pursue, that is important. It is this capacity to view our activities against a backdrop of norms that fall short of rigid determinations of what we will in fact do that provides a partial ground for norms being actually intelligibly in play at all.

How this schematic account links up with the Deduction I will, again, only hint at here. The crux of the issue is how to understand Kant’s insistence upon the possibility of self-consciousness being a condition for the synthetic unity of the manifold, which in turn is itself a condition for the identity of the ‘I’. The way I read the discussion is that Kant does not require a radical ‘Fichtean’ model of the subject whereby the subject must apperceptively take itself to be doing something to qualify as so doing. On some such interpretations, categorical synthesis, as a normative process (categories = concepts = rules = norms), requires us to implicitly understand ourselves to be following norms to synthesise the manifold. But I take a more austere line, whereby the simple possibility of self-consciousness is the required necessary condition for synthesis of the manifold. This is because I think that the stronger reading here makes Kant more constructivist than I think he actually is, and that without independent motivations for such a reading then it brings extraneous considerations to the Deduction that although consistent with the text are not born out by it directly. The reflexivity here on my reading is a weaker one that, at places, shades (although, I think, does not ultimately revert) into simply ascribing a substantial role for the possibility of reflection rather than a strong adverbial conception of action and thereby adverbial synthetic activity.

This all may be too compressed here to be of much use, but if not I hope it has been at least suggestive of my approach to self-reflexivity and possible points of contact with meta-theoretical reflexivity.