A Spurious Metaphor

Yes, the structure of rational argumentation resembles that of a trial. Yes, holding people accountable in the course of an argument is akin to ‘policing’, just as punishing them through the imposition of detrimental normative statuses is akin, in a limited sense, to punishment in the form of physical violence. There is nothing unusual about this analogy: both the legal system and the police system are ostensibly ways of holding people accountable for responsibilities they have freely undertaken, and of penalizing refusal of such accountability.

In reality, of course, both of these systems have been subject throughout history to such a massive degree of manipulation and abuse at the hands of powerful minorities within society that it is understandable why one would be wary of tendencies to idealize and celebrate them. However, there is a big difference between idealizing an existing ‘justice’ system and recognizing the ideal of justice in terms of which such systems should themselves be held accountable. However corrupt such systems may in fact be (and whether this corruption is systemic or merely deviatory), we can only intelligibly describe them as ‘corrupt’ if we presuppose an ideal to which they should be striving and in terms of which they should be measured. There is, in principle, such a thing as a good legal system and a good police force, even if we have rarely, if ever, seen such things in reality.

Not every exercise of power is an abuse of power; there are justified exercises of power. Not every demand that one justifies oneself is the demand of a malevolent and unreasonable inquisitor. I understand why one might experience such demands as oppressive, in cases in which satisfying this demand would require one admit the untenability of one’s own position. This is, in a very distant way, not unlike facing the threat of bodily dismemberment. However, you aren’t actually be oppressed, both because it won’t actually hurt you to admit you were wrong, and because the rules you have violated are not being imposed upon you heteronomously, but are rules you freely accept and agree to play by insofar as you are engaged in a discourse – this goes as much for the regionally specific rules of particular discourses, and the fundamental rules defining any discourse as a discourse, i.e. the fundamental norms of rationality.

It is, ultimately, rather cowardly to ignore an argument in favor of comparing an interlocutor to an inquisitor. Just because many in the past have abused others in the guise of upholding the law does not mean rules should not be enforced, justification should not be demanded, or judgments should not be made. And it is even more cowardly to paint your interlocutor as some sort of pervert for desiring that these functions be fulfilled. Whether or not one’s motives for making a claim are secretly obscene has no bearing on whether that claim is correct.

It might be comforting to exempt oneself from an argument by painting your interlocutor in a negative light because he wants to argue. (!) Who would want to engage with such a judgmental, oppressive, power-hungry sadist? Why can’t that unsavory character understand that we should all be free to express ourselves without having to worry about being judged, or forced to hold ourselves to standards imposed by particularly close-minded and self-important, ethnocentric and condescending others? Quit being so negative!

This may be easy, but sometimes its better to do the hard thing. Sometimes, it is better to bracket considerations of what sort of person your interlocutor might be and just respond to the argument. There is nothing noble about dodging one’s responsibility to give reasons for one’s claims by implying that requests for such reasons are inherently vicious. No one wants to see you tied to the rack, although they certainly do want you to part ways with theoretical commitments that are undeserving of endorsement. Not because they want to see anyone suffer, but because it is the right thing to do, and because doing the right thing will allow all of us to thrive as collaborators in a theoretical community.

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Preface on Clarity

Before beginning the substantive legwork announced in the last post, I want to clear something up. I complained about the lack of attention to clarity and rigor in my philosophical work up to this point. While I certainly take responsibility for my immature disregard of these ideals, it would be hard to argue that the canonical figures of Continental philosophy regard them very highly. At best, one can try to claim that some of these figures are rigorous ‘in their own way’, an expression that barely disguises an old fashioned bait-and-switch. Even worse are attempts to devalue these ideals by claiming their very definitions are contestable, or that they are simply rhetorical props masking oppressive, even racist or sexist or otherwise elitist power-plays. Some even go so far as to defend opaque, muddled and ‘fuzzy’ thinking as possessing valuable or even superior methodological resources.

None of these desperate and defensive tactics cuts the mustard. There is nothing mysterious or oppressive about what such argumentative clarity consists in. Of course, no favors are done to champions of such clarity by the “philosophically unilluminating and pedagogically damaging cartesian picture of the achievement of understanding as the turning on of some inner light, which permits one then to see clearly.” Clarity is not that of one’s unabashed access to the Truth, as in some sort of ecstatic mystical communion. It is not a clarity of vision, but clarity of reasoning. Pardon me for quoting Brandom at length, as he is brilliant in marking this difference:

We professors tell our students that it is important to think and write clearly. No doubt it is. But this can be frustrating advice to receive. After all, presumably no students think that fuzzy thinking and fuzzy writing are better than the alternative. [! - RK] The hard thing is to tell the difference. What, exactly, is one supposed to do in order to think or write more clearly? Thinking about meaning and understanding in terms of inference provides some more definite guidance in this area. Thinking clearly is a matter of knowing, for each claim that you make, what else you are committing yourself to by making it, what you are ruling out, and what would be evidence for or against it. You can test the clarity of your thinking by rehearsing sample inferences, so as to test your practical mastery of the inferential vicinity of your thoughts. Of course, you may be mistaken about what really does follow from your claims. But that is just a mistake. So your claim, your mistaken thought is at least clear. And writing clearly is committing yourself to by the claims you make, what you would take to be evidence for or against them, what follows from them, and what they preclude. And once again, this is something you can check for yourself when writing, by asking yourself, for each important consequence you take to follow from one of your claims, how your reader is supposed to know that you take it to be a consequence: what clues have you given to that effect?

This is immensely valuable advice, advice that I wish I’d received (or really, that I wish I’d been open to receiving) a long time ago. This sense of clarity of writing as a clear grasp of the inferential moves one is making with the claims one makes, this is the ideal to which I now aspire in my own writing. Hopefully, in the coming posts, I will do this commitment justice.

[quotes from Brandom, Reason in Philosophy pp. 172-3]

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Learning to Think Again

Update: Pete Wolfendale has posted a brief reply to this post, complimenting and expanding on my thoughts here.

Some time ago, I came to the conclusion that I had taken a wrong turn in my philosophical education. I had become deeply mired in the most obscure works of the ‘Continental’ tradition — those of Deleuze, Derrida, Badiou, Lacan, and Laruelle — works that, despite their merits, did little to abate the tradition’s bad reputation for lack of argumentative clarity and rigor. I had little concern for argument, preferring to conceive of philosophy more along the lines of fictional world-building. My attitude was premised on the presumption that philosophers need not persuade anyone that such-and-such is really the case, and rather should only imagine possible ways of understanding the world without regard for their validity, if not necessarily for their utility. This is not to say that I never made arguments, even somewhat compelling ones at times, but that I was not explicitly aware of when or how I was doing so. I certainly didn’t believe that I ought to be making them, nor that I ought to have an explicit understanding of the practice of argumentation.

As a result, I cannot look back very proudly on the work I produced as an undergraduate or a masters student. There is some good and some bad, and certainly lots of vague and underdeveloped. For this I do not blame the philosophers I studied or the professors I studied under; I don’t think assigning blame is a worthwhile endeavor. Only I am responsible for the work I produced, and in retrospect, the choices I made led to a product with which I cannot be content. However, I don’t see this as a failure, but as an opportunity to continue my education in philosophy. My path of learning has looped back to the beginning. To move forward, I first have to learn skills that I have come to believe are essential to philosophical thought.

There was a long while during which I engaged in amateur speculation, “armchair metaphysics”, coming up with wild and creative conceptual mappings of the world. The bulk of this speculation has been chronicled here, in fact. There was no clear method involved. I would simply find a compelling idea somewhere and run with it. The thought process unravelled with more rhyme than reason, as I tended to develop thoughts in the most poetically appealing direction, seeking a maximum of both syntactical and semantical musicality. Beyond poetry, I had little regard for the truth of these concept-schemes. Faithful to the Nietzschean fire carried by my favorite thinkers, I regarded claims to and concerns with truth to be highly suspicious, implicitly underwritten by deeply entrenched relations of oppressive and arbitrary hierarchy. Despite the immaturity of my methodological convictions, I had only fallen into this rut contingently, as a deeply flawed means to other ends.

My initial interest in philosophy followed from a question that plagued me increasingly as I passed from adolescence to young adulthood: “why is the world this way and not another?” I did not ask this question in an explicitly metaphysical register at the time, although I would later take it in that direction. By the world, I was really asking about the social world, and specifically its political and economic dimensions. The more that I learned, the more I couldn’t understand why I should be so lucky when so many others aren’t. I don’t mean to paint myself in such noble light; practically speaking, I did little to address inequality of which I am a benefactor. I have been content, if not guiltlessly, to entertain this question as a mere theoretical curiosity; I wanted to understand it, but wasn’t ready to worry about helping change it. I sold myself the bill of goods saying such change is only possible once a truly sufficient understanding is achieved, a very tidy justification for inaction.

It was opportune, then, that my theoretical pursuits became tainted by the aforementioned quasi-Nietszschean poeticism, a surefire means of warding off understanding if there is any. Even my studies of Marx were tainted by it, despite how directly it opposed the scientific spirit in which he wrote. I struggled with this for a long time, as my heart was squarely in the continuation of Marx’s work in both theoretical and practical directions, even as my habits were finely-tuned to undermine progress in either one. All of the approaches I adopted, be they Deleuzo-DeLandian, Lacano-Zizekian, Agamenbian or Laruellean, were all effectively variations of the same basic theoretical bias, which was at its core incompatible with the Marxist spirit. (Let me be clear in saying that I do not believe any of these approaches are necessarily tainted by this bias, and that I hold myself largely (if not solely) responsible for interpreting them this way.)

I understood this subconsciously, and gradually grew more discontented with my basic methodological attitudes. It wasn’t until I met Pete Wolfendale that I began to see an alternative, one that had much more promise for the continuation of Marx’s work. It is no exaggeration to say that in my conversations with Pete, and in reading his blog, I became convinced that those attitudes were due for a complete overhaul. I began to understand that while ‘truth’ can sometimes be a mere ideological prop, and discourse explicitly concerned with truth can be somewhat or even predominately power-laden, these phenomena deserve to be understood as distortions that betray the ideal to which they pretend, and that the solution is not to abandon the ideal and adopt a different approach altogether (one whose ideal is musicality rather than truth, for example), but to counter the pretenders with the genuine article.

Unfortunately, for the bulk of my philosophical studentship I was preoccupied with avoiding such discourse and the skills necessary to understand and engage in it. My understanding of how arguments work and how good arguments are to be recognized and produced is, I’m sad to say, not far beyond that of a second or third year undergraduate. My growth as a philosopher was stunted, right around the time I discovered that insidious brand of soft Nietzscheanism.

Well, I’m going to go about rectifying that. I’m going to resume where I left off, as best I can without institutional support. I’m going to read a lot of things I should have read, for the most part from the analytic tradition. This isn’t because I now believe it is the ‘better’ half of the divide. From those in the know, I’ve come to believe that it is not much better off, and that what it has gained in argumentative clarity and rigor, it has lost in becoming stuck on nitpicking shortsightedness and hyper-specialization. I turn to certain key texts of analytic philosophy in order to acquire the skills I need to move forward with my research, which is not particularly indebted to either analytic or Continental philosophy, but rather to Marx and a select group of his interpreters.

Some months back I started a new blog, The Luxemburgist, to mark a shift from my concern with amateur metaphysics to a more pure focus on Marxism. However, it went quiet not long after, due both to a lack of confidence and a lack of the skills necessary to render my thoughts explicit. Having recognized the problem, I’ve decided to revive Planomenology, mostly for the sake of convenience, as a place to conduct my philosophical re-education in public, in order to solicit the help or advice of anyone who might care to read it, and perhaps to inspire anyone who is hung-up as I was to see there is another way. Hopefully, once I’ve learned enough and built up my confidence enough, I will revive The Luxemburgist. Until then, I’ll be posting here with my thoughts on and problems with a selection of basic texts by Quine, Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Kripke, etc, as well as some secondary sources. I will make sure to post links to texts whenever available, so that anyone interested in following along with me can easily do so. Anyway, I’m back.

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On the Rift

Justin Erik Halldór Smith on the analytic-continental rift. As my recent work has drawn me more and more out of the continental and into the analytic tradition, I can’t help but sympathize with the assessment he borrows from Brian Leiter that the majority of people working in the former are producing work with lower standards of rigor. I’d include myself here, and I don’t think its anyone’s fault. Most of the brightest people I know work in continental philosophy. The problem is that less is expected and required of them. I certainly feel that way about my own intellectual development.

Smith suggests the rift is a symptom of the deeper divide between the cultures of the natural sciences and the humanities, the latter in its post-modern form having thoroughly purged itself of the trappings of its scientificity and even at times expressed skepticism about scientificity in general. If the humanities, and a fortiori work being done under the banner of continental philosophy, is to reassert itself now as the post-modern identity loses the last of its intellectual appeal and public respectability, it should do so by recognizing the distinct sort of scientificity it ought to pursue, one concerned not with knowledge of objective, attitude-independent truths about the external world, but with what Pete Wolfendale calls the realm of non-objective truths. At its most abstract, philosophy deals with those truths that, while independent of the particular attitudes of individuals and groups, are nonetheless true in virtue of the structure of attitude-having in general, or transcendental truths. The more concrete elements of the humanities, both in the philosophical/reflective and in their practical significance, then deal with the concrete cultural phenomena of that which is true because we take it to be true (for example, that a commodity has a specific value, or that a poem can be considered brilliant).

What is called for is a rescuing of the concept of truth from its post-modern degradation. There is a sense of truth indigenous to the humanities (or human sciences, really) that, when properly distinguished from the sort of truth pursued by the natural sciences, should avoid the problems diagnosed by continental philosophers throughout the 20th century. This does not mean advocating the sort of cavalier repurposing of the concept that Badiou undertakes, as he ultimately only continues the fraught tradition of employing a monolithic notion of truth whose lack of precision does little to overcome the rift within philosophy.

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Translated

I meant to link to this earlier but it slipped my mind: Jonatham F Morich was kind enough to translate one of my older posts into Spanish. You can find his translation here, and the original here. I’m very flattered!

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Luxemburgism and Historical Materialism

I’ve created a new blog, called The Luxemburgist, the inaugural post of which I’ve cross-posted here. While it may seem strange to create a new blog when I hardly publish here anymore, there is reason behind it. Planomenology was conceived from the beginning as a blog about metaphysics, the name ‘planomenology’ itself being a riff on Deleuze’s metaphysical concept of the plane of immanence. Yet as my philosophical development has progressed, my desire to engage in metaphysical inquiry has waned. This is not due to a skepticism about metaphysics, which I think Pete has shown to be a very important enterprise, but rather a personal shift in convictions and passions toward Marxist political philosophy and political economy.

While political philosophy, and Marxism in particular, has been a concern of this blog from the beginning, I have been until recently beholden to a metaphysical characterization of politics, a tendency that was alternately explicit and implicit. Yet corresponding to my growing disinterest in metaphysics has been a growing skepticism of such metaphysical accounts of politics, a skepticism I owe in large part to Pete’s influence. This culminated in this post, wherein I sought to explicitly abandon the metaphysical interpretation of historical materialism I had long cultivated in favor of one influence by Brandom’s normative pragmatics and Pete’s fundamental deontology.

Having broken with the tendency, I feel increasingly uncomfortable writing under the “planomenology” heading, if only because I want to avoid confusing political philosophy and metaphysics. The Luxemburgist will thus be home to the majority of my writing for the time being, which will have a more explicitly political, political-theoretical, or strategic character. I will keep using this blog to continue conversations initiated here, to keep up with developments in ‘speculative realism’ and the like, and to engage in metaphysical topics if I ever see fit to do so again. I will also use it as my platform in the upcoming SCIENCE AND METAPHYSICS event, in which I urge you all to consider participating. (The deadline for submissions is September 17th.) Anyway, here is the post:


I think it is crucial, when dealing with schisms within the radical left, to ask how different parties understand the real process of social transformation and the way in which our conscious, ideal activity is implicated therein. Such sociological questions play a crucial role in grounding explicit political positions, and yet I’d wager they are given far less consideration amongst the most politically committed of us than they deserve. Nonetheless, the importance of these questions does not always go unrecognized. For example, while objections to Marx are often political and strategic in their focus, contesting his advocacy or implicit support of some form of authoritarianism, these are typically supported by deeper ‘philosophical’ issues with the sort of materialism Marx advocates and its stifling sociological implications.

Historical materialism is characterized as deterministic, affording no genuine role for a metaphysically substantial sense of freedom. Rather, human behavior can be explained and predicted in a purely naturalistic manner, requiring no reference to causal input from a scientifically suspect entity like “thought”. For this reason, even when social change is consciously initiated and carried through, the intentions of the individuals involved only reflect a deeper determination that is out of their hands. The only effective revolutionary project is therefore one that defers to the expertise of those able to get a scientific grasp of the necessary unfolding of historical progress.

At this point, Marxism seems to let authoritarianism in through the back door, such that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” can only be actualized in the form of the dictatorship of the scientific elite who are capable of understanding the “will” of the proletariat better than they themselves are. This has, of course, really come to pass in the form of Leninism and all its various deviations. One can be forgiven for thinking that Marxism necessarily leads to Leninism, whether Marx intended as much or not, but this is only true on the basis of a particular, contestable interpretation of historical materialism.

While it is doubtful that most non-Marxist radicals would agree that one’s political and strategic commitments should follow directly from a prior commitment to a particular theoretical understanding of social change, they nonetheless would likely agree that such an understanding should inform the former to some extent. Yet the rejection of historical materialism as such a theoretical understanding is rarely accompanied by affirmation of some other incompatible framework. At best, it is replaced by a set of unsystematized and at times unjustified claims that in their content resemble weak reiterations of Marxist idioms.

My work is primarily concerned with offering a very different account of historical materialism than the commonplace one, an interpretation that is moreover more consistent with Marx’s actual claims. On this reading, Marx’s theory of social change neither explicitly affirms a Lenin-esque authoritarianism, nor does it implicitly lean in its direction, but rather proves to be an incohate Luxemburgism.

This Luxemburgism, the same that is affirmed in the title of this blog, does not refer to Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘underconsumptionist’ attempt at a Marxist theory of economic crises (which is not to say that I find this theory wholly without merit), but to her political position which combines a Leninist demand for the imminent revolutionary activity and a critique of Lenin’s vanguardist authoritarianism in favor of a genuinely democratic form of proletarian collective determination; it is close to council communism and anarchism in its insistence that the only legitimate form of politics is one rooted in the self-organization of workers, but rejects the refusal to engage in the political machinations of the existing State apparatus as well as the categorical exclusion of representative forms of democracy.

To defend the claim that Luxemburgism draws the correct political consequences from historical materialism, we have to get clear what historical materialism entails. The basic principle of historical materialism is that historical periods are to be understood in terms of a certain relatively stable coordination amongst the contemporary material forces of production, the relations of production or the relations people have to the former and to each other as mediated by the former, and the ideological superstructure or relations between people over and above those shaped purely by the material world. This schema accounts for historical change in terms of a change in the material forces of production significant enough to have become out of sync with existing relations of production, and thereby force the latter to readjust. And, because these relations constitute the real basis of the ideal (or ‘ideological’) realm, this entails an ideological shift as well.

The major problem plaguing the interpretation of this principle is an ambiguity as to the character of the determining relation of productive forces to social relations, and precisely where to situate ourselves in terms of this relation. Are we simply passive vehicles driven and directed by our material constitution? There have been roughly three approaches to this question. The first is a straightforward deterministic interpretation, according to which social relations (both productive and ideological) are simply reflections of material forces, bearing no causal efficacy of their own. Yet this would seemingly contradict Marx’s Hegelian emphasis on the analytical importance of the form of appearance, and thus the implied, though yet undetermined, autonomy of the latter. The second emphasizes this relative autonomy, and so to the autonomy of conscious social activity, but does so in an imprecise and haphazard way: it may leave unspecified the precise character of the relation, or it may go so far as to attribute a causal power to appearance, consciousness, thought, etc that is on par with that of materiality. Yet in taking the latter course, one must either strive to show how this causal power can be accounted for in material terms, and thereby reduce social relations to a particular subset of material relations of force, or one must renounce the metaphysical commitment to materialism.

The third approach overcomes these deadlocks by affirming the autonomy of social relations, appearance, the whole ideal realm, while refusing to characterize this autonomy in metaphysical terms. The material relations that constitute productive forces are thoroughly deterministic and causally complete unto themselves; we can characterize them as ‘objective’ because the way they are is independent of the ways in which we understand them. Insofar as we are material entities, we can in principle be thoroughly explained in objective terms, as loci of material force. Yet our self-understanding is by no means limited to such an objective, scientific characterization. First and foremost, implicit in our practical engagement with the world is a rudimentary understanding of what we can and ought to do vis a vis the objects we encounter, including other people. This understanding corresponds to the particular shape taken by material-practical relations at a given time; it is a way of characterizing or representing to ourselves our objective, material situation. While this ideal characterization is derived from our objective situation, it is not itself objective, insofar as it is simply the way in which we take things to really be, and by no means necessarily amounts to an adequate or accurate representation. Moreover, this non-objectivity is not simply due to the failure of representation, but follows from the fact that something is added to the objective state of affairs: normative attitudes as to what ought to be done. (I owe this sense of objectivity and non-objectivity to Pete Wolfendale, whose work has been so significant for my understanding of Marx that my project might be described as simply applying his insights to the interpretation of historical materialism.) This is the case at least as long as people relate to things and to each other in terms of property, such that someone has the right to determine how others ought to behave vis a vis a particular object, how it is proper to treat that object.

Relations of production are the non-objective reflection of objective, material relations. As such, they form the infrastructure for more elaborate sorts of non-objective relations between people. The ideological superstructure is made up of genuinely non-objective modes of understanding, characterizing, or relating to people and things; it is the set of ways of “taking things to be the case” that are not implicit in our material-practical relations, that cannot be traced back to what is objectively the case, but that arise from that addition to the latter of things that are only the case for us, or things that are the case only insofar as we take them to be the case. Such attitude-dependent “facts” are not for that reason invalid. They are socially valid, holding true for the society that takes them to be true, even if they are not objectively valid, or true independent of whether one takes them to be true.

A crucial consequence of this approach is that the whole ideal realm of thought, appearance, and theoretical knowledge is only developed as the explication of the understanding implicit in our material-practical situation. Attitude-dependent normative statuses derive from and supervene on attitude-independent material relations, and superstructural normative statuses supervene on productive relations as the elementary level of normativity. Nonetheless, this supervenience does not invite reduction, insofar as the ideal realm of attitude-dependent normative statuses does not depend only upon objective truths, but also upon socially-valid truths. Socially-valid truths might have some objective content, but this only in addition to their non-objective content. Nonetheless, it can happen that the objective situation changes so drastically as to force a change in socially-valid concepts in a degree determined by the proportion of objective content they bear. So, for instance, a significant shift in the material practical relations by which society continuously reproduces itself would cause a corresponding shift in the implicit understanding we have of those relations, and consequently, in the fundamental norms regulating how we are to practically conduct ourselves in relation to people and things. For historical materialists, this has significant implications for how to understand the real process of social transformation.

Our productive relations are forced to change due to a certain extent of change in our objective situation. Furthermore, superstructural relations will also be forced to change as the crisis increasingly spreads from their smaller objective part to their larger non-objective part. As fundamental non-objective truths are increasingly impinged by the seismic shifts in objective circumstances, the crisis will cascade out into the superstructural truths that cite them as premises. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the validity of concepts is completely relative to contingent modes of social organization. We are capable of tracking the objective structure of the world in a way that is resistant to historical shifts in social organization, employing genuinely objectively-valid concepts. The possibility of such universal concepts depends upon the manner in which we attribute objective validity. Objectively valid concepts are not compromised by changes in the material-practical organization of our objective situation because they do not confuse social necessity — that something ought to be the case because our commitments oblige us to make it the case — with objective necessity — that something must be the case because it is required by its objective structure. Dramatic transformations of the material-practical organization of our objective situations may reveal some allegedly objective concepts to be invalid insofar as they attributed objective necessity to what was in fact an historically contingent shape of social relations, which only appeared to be necessary from a socially-embedded prerogative. Our concepts are vulnerable to revision so long as they attribute objectivity not only to their objective content, but also to the non-objective social necessity they prescribe. (To be more precise, we ought to distinguish between two kinds of revision to which allegedly objective concepts are subject: critical revision on the grounds of confusion of objective and non-objective contents, and scientific revision on the grounds of empirical evidence forces a reevaluation of objective content.)

The very activity of explicitly distinguishing between objective and non-objective validity, and of critically discriminating scientific from non-scientific truth, is itself a historically contingent organization of material-practical relations. It only becomes available at a particular “stage of development”, and depends upon the coordination of the practical reproduction of this activity and the institution of its social necessity. This practice involves the subtraction or “bracketing out” of non-objective contents. Yet such contents are not eliminated; they must be retained in order to institute the social necessity of this practice. What is thus clear is that scientific activity does not have a privileged place over and above the unscientific self-consciousness of the proletariat; rather, scientific activity is only possible on the basis of the critical operation social consciousness performs upon itself, an operation that, once it reaches the science of economy, can only be properly performed by the proletariat.

While Marx may be a determinist, this entails neither the unreality of freedom nor the necessity of subordinating political activity to some scientific authority, be it that of biopolitical technocrats or a revolutionary vanguard. On the contrary, determinism only holds within the objective sphere, from which the non-objective sphere is relatively independent. We can be more or less practically free or unconstrained by social prohibitions and obligations and by historically contingent relations of force without being free from the chains of material causality; nonetheless, freedom can have a real significance for us without also having metaphysical significance. Moreover, scientific authority, while real, is only possible as a consequence of practico-critical activity, an activity that becomes politically revolutionary when it takes the economic structure of society as its object. Far from requiring political activity to submit to scientific authority, the latter is only a status instituted on the basis of the critical practice that discriminates between scientific and unscientific claims. This already amounts to a reversal of Leninist vanguardism.

We must therefore remember that Marx’s determinism is an economic determinism: society is fully determinate insofar as it is material, but its material character significantly includes the practical force exerted by humanity upon its world (labor). Our place in the schema is not on the side of relations of production, determined from without by material forces that constitute the “essence” of which we are the appearance. Rather, we are embedded in productive forces as much as productive relations; the two are merely different ways of understanding the same object, in objective and non-objective terms respectively. Our non-objective “internal” understanding of our practical existence may be subject to change due to changes in our objective situation, but we are ourselves part of and a significant force within this situation, and so change is not something that happens to us, but a movement of which we are a part. Instituting a critical evaluation of the economic structure of society is a historically contingent potential for social organization that we can seize upon, and that has been available to us at least since Marx’s time.

A further consequence that I cannot adequately defend here, and hence will simply assert with the the promissory note of future explanation, is that such critical activity has the effect not only of purifying science of unscientific presuppositions, but also of purging the ideal sphere of illegitimate claims to authority, justified by false appeals to objectivity. Fully realized critical activity (that is, when applied to social science, especially political economy) becomes revolutionary because it involves the practice of ceasing to recognize unjustified authority claims, including property rights. Individual freedoms like the right to property depend upon the collective institution of these rights, and if this institution is to be determined without unjustified forms of authority constricting collective decision-making, there must be a genuinely egalitarian form of productive relations such that all have an equal say in social institutions (economic and otherwise). Unjustified inequalities in wealth, for instance, are an impediment to such egalitarianism, and possessing exorbitant wealth to the detriment of others counts as unjustified form of authority to be critically liquidated. Thus, the same movement that produces a genuinely scientific political economy must also produce a form of social organization wherein a materially-equal population partake in collective determination of social institutions.

Does rejecting Leninist vanguardism means we must also reject the strategic emphasis on the dictatorship of the proletariat? Or is there a formulation of this concept consistent with the interpretation of historical materialism posed above? If the politicization of the proletariat does not require its deference to the “scientific” authority of a vanguard, then this dictatorship should not take the form of a technocracy of the vanguard, and certainly not an autocracy of their executive. Rather, our interpretation would require that the whole of the proletariat become organized through egalitarian collective decision-making processes, and thus collectively act as dictator. Yet this would be nothing but a democracy of the prolateriat. (While one may still retain suspicion of a democracy that is still qualified by its restriction to a particular group, there is nothing in principle that prevents non-proletarians from joining the proletariat; they need only give up their unjustified authority and material advantage and thus become a materially-equal member of society.)

A full elaboration of my interpretation of historical materialism will require a far broader account of the relation of Marx to Hegel and Kant, and how he can therefore be read in light of Robert Brandom’s normative pragmatics, and Pete Wolfendale’s fundamental deontology. (I have ventured a very preliminary attempt at this here.) Nonetheless, I hope this has at least laid the groundwork for an interpretation of historical materialism that does not fall prey to either scientism or indeterminism, and that therefore avoids Leninism and leads instead toward political Luxemburgism.

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Reply to Levi on Marx and Normativity

Levi posted a series of responses (1, 2, 3) to my post on Marx and Normativity, to which I owe a long overdue reply. I regret that it has come long after the discussion has grown cold, but finishing my dissertation and moving have consumed all my spare time. Nonetheless, its an interesting discussion and I hope its rekindling will be welcome.

1) Here, Levi claims that my post is premised on a misunderstanding of his position, itself based on a terminological misunderstanding.

My claim [that Marx says little about normativity] makes sense if we work on the premise that discourses of normativity refer to something highly specific: Kant’s deontological moral theory, and those deeply influenced by Kant’s deontological moral theory such as Habermas and Brandom. If normativity is understood as a synonym for this style of thought, I think my claim is perfectly valid. [...] By contrast, Reid’s rejoinder to my claim makes sense if Reid is not using the term “normativity” to refer specifically to value theories coming out of Kant, but to any discussions of value whatsoever. If this is what “normativity” means, then Reid is quite right to be shocked when I say that Marx does not have much to say about normativity precisely because Marx talks about values all over the the place. Over at Cogburn’s blog I explicitly stated (a couple of times) that I had been taking normativity to be synonymous with Kant style deontological ethics, so I’m somewhat surprised that Reid is attempting to demonstrate to me that Marx has an important place for values within his thought. But perhaps I’m misconstruing what Reid is arguing, as he also seems to be claiming that Marx advocates a deontological moral theory in his thought.

There are a series of problems with these remarks, and I’ll work backwards through them:

1.1) I was not trying to demonstrate that Marx “has an important place for values”, as this point would be a triviality. I was trying to demonstrate that Marx’s materialism is not a reductivism about values, in which values are thoroughly relative to the material situations in which they are produced, and can be exhaustively explained in causal/material terms. (I know Levi does not read Marx this way, but an overwhelming number of his readers do.) Rather, Marx gives an account of the material basis of socially valid ‘entities’ like values in which the former constrains and distorts the latter, but in which the latter has a relative practical autonomy from the former.

1.2) I do not claim that Marx “advocates a deontological moral theory”. This accusation condenses three big problems with Levi’s response:

1.2.1) While Levi admits that he had be confusing talk about the importance of normativity with advocacy of Kantian moral philosophy, he doesn’t seem to understand that he is still conflating what Pete has called ‘fundamental deontology’, which involves explicating a certain set of norms to which we are necessarily bound insofar as we count as rational, with Kantian moral philosophy. While both Pete and I think that there are some important ethical implications to be worked out from these fundamental norms, neither of us think this even comes close to exhausting moral philosophy. At best, it provides a very spare and basic latticework that requires far more fleshing out in relation to concrete ethical and political situations and problems.

1.2.2) While Kantian moral philosophy is far more formalist, roughly claiming that ethical maxims should be derived solely from that which we are in principle obligated to do insofar as we are rational (in other words, that which all rational agents should will to be done), Levi has been characterizing it as somehow tyrannical and oppressive, instructing people what they must do in all situations. This completely elides the absolute centrality of the autonomy of the agent’s will from all forms of coercion, and the principled equality of every agent’s will. Agents should only act on maxims that they can freely decide upon, on the condition that they respect the equal freedom of all other agents. This account has severe limitations, which show up very clearly in its political-philosophical consequences, but how these could be interpreted as oppressive is beyond me. Marx by no means advocates a Kantian moral theory, but that is because he places primacy on collective rational determination over individual rational determination (a move indebted to Hegel), and thus on political over moral questions. In that regard, the Kantian emphasis on autonomy and equality is preserved and strengthened in Marx’s work.

1.2.3) While I think that Marx’s presentation of these concerns remains either implicit or unsystematic, I by no means think he is advocating in an implicit or unfocused way either straightforward Kantian deontological ethics (which I don’t advocate either), or a moral and political philosophy that draws upon a ‘fundamental deontology’ (the latter being what I take Levi to be accusing me of in saying I seem to be reading “a deontological moral theory” into Marx). My point was rather 1) that Marx’s philosophy, specifically his account of fetishism, does not exclude the possibility of fundamental deontology, as Levi implies it does, and 2) that it may turn out a consistent reconstruction of Marx’s philosophy might benefit from, or even require something like ‘fundamental norms of rationality’. I do think that Marx advocates a political philosophy that is influenced by the Kantian emphasis on rational autonomy and equality (by way of Hegel), but this is certainly not to say that he advocates a broadly Kantian moral philosophy, or even the importance of fundamental norms of rationality.

1.3) I don’t have the time to develop this point in detail, but I did want to say that I don’t think Levi is right to characterize Brandom and Habermas as straightforwardly advocating Kantian moral theory. Both are heavily indebted to the Kantian deontological approach to normativity (and to a certain pragmatism this entails), but Brandom to my knowledge does not have much to say about moral philosophy, and even if he did he would certainly be more Hegelian than Kantian about it; and Habermas’s discourse ethics, while perhaps closer to Kant, are a substantial innovation over his work. I’d like to see Levi back up this characterization with some evidence, because he seems to be lumping thinkers together so he can easily dismiss them in a single stroke, and in particular, doing so by assimilating them to the sense of normativity he finds instinctively offensive (Kantian morality). Yet normativity in Kant is not reducible to his moral philosophy, nor is the debt Brandom and Habermas owe to Kant primarily on the moral account. Finally, as I said above, I don’t even recognize Levi’s dismissal of Kantian morality as justified, resting instead on a particularly bizarre mischaracterization, and so even if Brandom and Habermas straightforwardly advocated Kant’s moral philosophy, I wouldn’t see this as adequate grounds for dismissing them either.

1.4) Concluding here, I’ll address a this remark by Levi, which seems to summarize things nicely:

When I refer to deontological models of normative thought, I am referring to something akin to Kant’s categorical imperative. Those familiar with Kant will recall that the categorical imperative states “that we must will the maxim of our action such that we can will it as a universal law of nature.” Kant argues that the categorical imperative is a truth of reason alone, and that in formulating the categorical imperative we must make no reference to either circumstances or whatever personal motivations we might have. Working on this premise, this led me to argue that deontological normative theories risk falling into a form of ideological fetishism.

I am likewise critical of Kantian morality for its neglect of concrete situatedness. Nonetheless, I think two things are being conflated here. Kant is claiming that we should strive to act on the basis of maxims that are justified solely in rational terms, and not through appeal to ‘pathological’ reasons, or what I’ve been calling ‘material interests’. Yet the point of this is that one should act according to maxims one is capable of deciding upon in absence of the influence of things like threats of violence or promises of material gain (bribes, etc). One should be capable of acting because that action is the right thing to do, and not because one will be penalized or rewarded for doing so. The latter are not considered morally good reasons. Similarly, Marx’s political philosophy is focused on the possibility of collective actions that are determined not on the basis of the material interests of a certain group (class), but on what is good or right in general. (Whether this latter point means ‘for rational agents as a whole’, or ‘for rational agency itself’, is another question, but I tend to think Marx leans toward the latter.) The point of Marx’s critique of fetishism is precisely that it takes what are in fact the material interests of a certain group to be in the rational interests of all groups. (The twist Marx’s gives to this error is that it leads to a situation in which the material interests of a certain group, the proletariat, really do overlap with general rational interests, and thus their victory would entail the dissolution of social organization based on the primacy of material interests (class). I should also clarify a potential ambiguity: in using the term ‘rational interests’, I do not mean ‘interests that are rationally defensible’, but ‘interests one has insofar as one is a rational agent’.) I think that the Kantian account of morality is vulnerable to such fetishism in that it does not adequately emphasize the possibility of mistaking material for rational interests in this way, and insofar as it neglects the social (and hence political) character of rational determination (and thus in a sense the primacy of the political over the moral), but this vulnerability does not mean the Kantian account is based on fetishistic distortions in the way that classical political economy is. In short, the Marxian critique of fetishism is based on the same sort of separation of rational interests from material or ‘pathological’ interests as the Kantian account, and differs in emphasizing the more insidious forms in which the latter can infect the former, and on the primacy of collective over individual rational determination. While Kant is very much at risk of ‘falling into ideological fetishism’, specifically insofar as his account of the relation between material and rational interests in insufficiently nuanced, Levi’s approach has already fallen into the ideological trap insofar as he tries to collapse the distinction. I’ll come back to this point later when discussing the nature/culture question.

2) Levi contests my reconstruction of the commodity fetishism argument. Yet in doing so, he doesn’t show why my account of Marx is wrong; he simply restates the positions that I’ve argued are incompatible with Marxism.

2.1) Levi begins by saying the following:

Reid contends that I don’t understand what fetishism is within a Marxist framework. Needless to say, I think he’s mistaken. In the context of his analysis of commodity fetishism, Marx argues that commodity fetishism emerges when social relations between people are expressed as objective relationships between things. For example, rather than seeing value as arising from a particular form of production, we instead treat value as an intrinsic property of the thing itself.

I completely endorse the last two sentences, and my account of fetishism is nothing but a fleshing out of this claim. Marx is arguing that we should sharply distinguish between properties we ascribe to objects that have only social validity from those that have objective validity. Yet Levi follows this assertion with claims that are plainly incompatible with Marx’s argument.

By treating the moral law as preceding social relations rather than as arising from particular types of social relations, these forms of moral thought risk fetishizing norms and obscuring the manner in which norms are reflective of particular forms of social relations.

The first thing to note here is that Levi is using the term ‘preceding’ ambiguously. To say that something is a priori is not to say it is chronologically or temporally prior, but rather to say it is logically prior, or that it is presupposed by something else. In this case, the fundamental norms of rationality are presupposed in all particular forms of rational social relations. Now, in the fifth section of my previous post I sketched an account of how the historical character of historical materialism is irreducible to temporality, and while that account is still problematic and incomplete, Levi does not try to show why it is wrong, but simply ignores it, continuing to treat apriority as equivalent to ahistoricity. This neglects that I have tried to show, be it in a preliminary manner, how a priori norms, while irreducible to any particular historically-specific culture, are historical in the sense that they are relative to rational social relations. Levi is, on the other hand, the one who is at risk of fetishizing norms insofar as he is leaning toward suggesting they are either reducible to the material conditions from which the arose, or that they are objectively embedded in those conditions. Either way, he would thereby attributing objective status to something that has only social validity, and thus fetishizing it.

2.2) Levi goes on to say:

Rather than beginning with an abstract normative framework and analyzing the world in terms of that framework, Marx instead begins with the analysis of social relations and examines how particular normative frameworks emerge from those social relations.

There are two problems here.

2.2.1) The approach I would advocate, and I believe this is true of Pete as well, does not begin from an ‘abstract normative framework’, but from concrete discursive practices, only to show how fundamental norms are implicit in these practices.

2.2.2) While Marx does not directly advocate such a resort to ‘fundamental norms’, and he does indeed try to show how norms emerge from social relations, this is precisely in order to show how those norms have certain social validity. What Marx rejects is not the claim that some norms might have universal social validity (indeed, I have argued that he must implicitly suppose as much), but that social validity can be grounded in appeals to objective validity. (Nicole Pepperell has persuasively argued that in Marx’s analysis, even categories with apparently universal validity are only available as explications of contingent practical forms of relating to the world. Yet while she might not go as far as I want to in this regard, she recognizes that this practical grounding does not amount to the invalidation of these categories, lest historical materialism amount to nothing but historicist relativism. Following the concluding argument in my last post, I’d go on to say there is a universal necessity of theoretical categories that is compatible with their contingent practical genesis, but this will require more argumentative defense than I can give here. I can point to a rather clear instance in which Marx suggests as much, from the Introduction to the Grundrisse:

[I]s Achilles possible with powder and lead? Or the Iliad with the printing press, not to mention the printing machine? Do not the song and the saga and the muse necessarily come to an end with the printer’s bar, hence do not the necessary conditions of epic poetry vanish? But the difficulty lies not in understanding that the Greek arts and epic are bound up with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still afford us artistic pleasure and that in a certain respect they count as a norm and as an unattainable model.

A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does he not find joy in the child’s naïvité, and must he himself not strive to reproduce its truth at a higher stage? Does not the true character of each epoch come alive in the nature of its children? Why should not the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm? There are unruly children and precocious children. Many of the old peoples belong in this category. The Greeks were normal children. The charm of their art for us is not in contradiction to the undeveloped stage of society on which it grew. [It] is its result, rather, and is inextricably bound up, rather, with the fact that the unripe social conditions under which it arose, and could alone arise, can never return.

Marx does not want to say, e.g. Greek art is only valid for the ‘specific social system’ from which it arose, but that its validity can transcend this specificity. Understanding the socio-practical basis of this transcendence is at the heart of the Marxist problematic.)

3) Levi criticizes my characterization of Latourian “a-modernism”:

I think Reid simply mischaracterizes both my own understanding of the relationship between nature and culture, as well as Latour’s. The situation is not entirely unambiguous in Latour, but the entire issue revolves are the thesis that there are two entirely distinct domains of being, such that on the one hand we have the domain of culture that consists entirely of meaning, values, freedom, signs, and mind, while on the side of nature we have purely material entities governed by causal laws alone. The key point, is that the modernist vision argues that we should maintain these realms as entirely separate, such that we never discuss the realm of natural objects in when analyzing the cultural and we never discuss the domain of culture when dealing with natural objects. The basic lesson of Latour’s critique of modernity is not that there is no distinction between natural objects and cultural objects, but rather that we live among tangled networks of culture and nature where natural objects play a key and significant role in social formations and where social formations play a key and significant role in how we investigate nature.

The important contribution of modernism, as I understand it, is not some kind of unbridgeable gap between nature and culture, but the insistence that we be capable of talking about ‘culture’, specifically the aspect of culture that includes the activity of talking about…, in non-objective terms. So whether or not Levi and Latour maintain some sort of distinction between the two domains, they fall foul of my particular criticism so long as they undermine the possibility of such a non-objective self-characterization of cultural production. This is precisely what occurs when one understands ontological claims as being explanatorily prior to epistemological ones. Without such a non-objective account of thought/discourse, it becomes impossible to properly distinguish between practical and objective validity; the former at best is regarded as a species of the latter, whereas the reverse is in fact the case. If one cannot draw this distinction, one has automatically fallen prey to fetishization, or the ascription of objective validity where only practical validity holds.

4) Levi has often brought up the issue of what the libidinal motives behind certain positions, such as those that afford particular emphasis to the analysis of normativity, and subsequently accused the latter of arising due to a desire for control, etc. First, I should note, as Pete has, that such considerations are fundamentally irrelevant to considerations of the veracity of a claim. Yet even playing at his game, we can note that a very different desire can, and likely for the most part does, give rise to such positions: the desire to limit the legitimacy of authority to claims rooted in an independently verifiable account of the structure of the world, or more fundamentally (and it may be that the former type requires the latter), in collective social determination equally inclusive of all rational agents.

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