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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10 Responses to A Spurious Metaphor

  1. johneffay says:

    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?

    But that’s not the point, is it? It’s not about freedom of expression; it is about arguing, but one’s interlocutors are not allowed to set the terms of the argument. Ask questions, by all means, but do not ask inconvenient ones because one is then clearly an idealist and/or mired in scientism and so can be dismissed out of hand. Even better, ask complicated questions and one is accused of verbosity.

    The irony is, of course, that what is missed is that the reason the ‘epistemology police’ ask these questions is because (initially at least) they afford their interlocutors the respect of assuming they hold a coherent philosophical position which they are happy to discuss and amend in the light of criticism, i.e. that they want to engage in the ‘process of learning and enquiry’ as widely as possible, not simply sit around in a circle jerk.

  2. ktismatics says:

    If I’m writing a short story or advertising copy, either explicitly or implicitly I subject my work to norms. However, the norms I accept as relevant to my own practice might have nothing to do with truth. I might judge my work, and submit it to judgment by others, on the basis of artistry, creativity, persuasiveness, or audience size. You might want to subject my fiction or my ad to standards of truthfulness, but I needn’t be bound by your expectations or demands.

    Here are some excerpts from Levi Bryant’s recent post “On the Function of Philosophy”:

    Some people seem to think that the function of philosophy is to rigorously ground claims so as to get at The Truth(tm). It is beyond truth or falsehood in the referential sense, instead striving to think the sense of its Time. With Badiou I thus hold that Truths always come from elsewhere, outside of philosophy, from politics, art, love, and science. Philosophy has no Truths of its own and is thus a sort of empty square that travels an aleatory course throughout history… Concepts are not representations, nor are they ideas in minds. Rather, they are lenses and tools. They are apparatuses, every bit as tangible and real as hammers. It makes as much sense to ask “is this concept true?” as it does to ask “is a hammer true?” …The proper questions when encountering a hammer is not “is it true?”, but rather “what does it do?”, “what can I do with it?”, “is it put together well for these tasks?”

    Here Bryant explicitly rejects the norm of truth for critiquing philosophical work. Instead he proposes that evaluation be based on usefulness and craftsmanship. If that’s how he wants to go about his business, I say fair enough. What I’m sure is objectionable to many philosophers is that Bryant generalizes his self-selected normative criteria as binding on the work of philosophy in general. Similarly, many psychologists would find empirically objectionable his contention that concepts cannot represent the real world and cannot be regarded as either true or false statements about the world. Let him speak for himself, his own philosophy, his own concepts.

    Then there’s Graham Harman’s endorsement of Levi’s post:

    …it is nothing to be proud of when a philosophy is read only by professional philosophers. The pride some take in this outcome is based on a false analogy with the exact natural sciences, where it can possibly be a good sign if only 5 or 6 people in the world read your articles. In philosophy, by contrast, it’s probably the sign that you’re a pompous and over-professionalized bore who doesn’t realize that everyone at the table is bored and no longer listening.

    Here Harman almost explicitly endorses the ability to entertain a large audience as a general norm for philosophy. Clearly he is prepared to subject other philosophers’ work to this norm of audience entertainment value; however, they’re not obliged to adopt this norm as their own. By the same token, other philosophers can subject Bryant’s and Harman’s work to norms of truth, but B and H need not adopt truthfulness as normative in their own practice.

    As an aside, it’s well known that the audiences seeking entertainment can be as cruel and punitive and arbitrary as any inquisition…

  3. michael- says:

    As Adorno wrote, in Negative Dialectics (1966):

    “The liquidation of theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice… The interrelation of both moments [of theory and practice] is not settled once and for all but fluctuates historically… Those who chide theory [for being] anachronistic obey the topos of dismissing, as obsolete, what remains painful [because it was] thwarted… The fact that history has rolled over certain positions will be respected as a verdict on their truth content only by those who agree with Schiller that ‘world history is the world tribunal’. What has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth content only later. It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations.”

    – T. W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (Continuum: New York, 1983), pp.143-144

    • reidkane says:

      I’m struggling to see how this is relevant.

    • Ross Wolfe says:

      Yes, I’m with Reid on this one, Michael-. Adorno was here referring to the increasing tendency to place an emphasis on thoughtless “practice” at the expensive of theoretical analysis and criticism. This would culminate three years later, when his students at Frankfurt occupied classroom buildings and started making mindless authoritarian demands about education. His point was that the failure to adequately work through the historical and practical exigencies of the day at a theoretical level would inevitably resurface in the errors committed by atheoretical practitioners somewhere down the line.

      I don’t think it really applies to anything Bryant or Harman was saying. Besides, Levi’s positively hostile to Adorno’s thought; according to him he transformed Marxist thought into some sort of tacit idealism. I have no idea how Bryant arrives at such a ridiculous notion, but that’s what he’s stated to me.

  4. johneffay says:

    Michael, you missed this bit out of the middle of that quote:

    The fear of epigonality and of the academic odor that clings to any reprise of motives codified in philosophical history has long induced the various schools to advertise themselves as unprecedented. Precisely this confirms the fatal continuity of precedent.

  5. michael- says:

    which adds exactly what to your position John?

  6. johneffay says:

    He’s saying that because they want to look unique and unacademic, philosophical schools claim that they are doing something novel and outside/beyond the academy and the mere fact that they all do this demonstrates that it is neither novel nor free from the ‘academic odour’ of philosophical history as it’s what all ‘new schools’ claim.

    It doesn’t add anything to my position (my enthusiasm for Adorno is not so high that I would use him as an authority), I just thought it worth mentioning that you’d missed it out.

  7. Ross Wolfe says:

    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!


    I couldn’t agree more with your characterization of those who wish to bypass the norms of rational discourse by painting these norms as oppressive and those who try to enforce them oppressors. Particularly regarding the charge that these norms are ethnocentric, as if “reason” by argumentation and logical justification were the arbitrary construction of Western discursive convention, you nail it. Reason has no native country. It is true that there are different forms of rationality, which have been outlined by thinkers such as Kant and Weber, but this hardly means that each and every culture can produce its own peculiar standards of logical justification. Beyond the different conceptual apparati that various philosophical traditions have employed (nominalist, empiricist, transcendental, dialectical, phenomenological), Aristotle’s three fundamental laws of logic are still universally applicable: the laws of identity, non-contradiction, and the excluded middle. Even though one might say that dialectical thought violates these principles by positing that entities and concepts exist in contradiction to one another at the same time, this is true only in the sense of determinate negation, and is used as a principle of conceptual movement. The old pragmatist dictum that truth is only good insofar as it is useful (or insofar as it has “cash value,” as William James used to say) was an impoverished doctrine of epistemology to begin with, and was certainly never intended to license such wild and improvisational metaphysical speculations as performed by Bryant, Harman, and their epigones.

  8. Ross Wolfe says:

    I’m not sure if you’ve been following Levi’s posts on commodity fetishism over at Larval Subjects, trying to work out an OOO-approach to the subject, but you might find it of some interest. I naturally am suspicious of any theory that claims that objects exist external to their relations, especially if it is trying to incorporate a theory about the relationship between objects and the relationship between persons. Bryant has suddenly warmed to Adorno, after heaping scorn upon him for months. But Adorno’s theories do not deserve to be put to such misuse. Anyway, I’ve written a reply to his post on commodities over on my blog.

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