She Blinded Me With Hermeneutics


All the Philosopher-Kings Couldn’t Put Rationality Together again

More than virtue ethics, which he is most associated with, Alasdair MacIntyre’s corpus is concerned with the question of rational adjudication.

You see it in his most famous work After Virtue, and you see it in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? But it reaches its zenith in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition.

The latter begins with the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the worldview it embodied. This worldview held to a “unitary conception of reason,”

as affording a single view of the developing world within which each part of the enquiry contributes to an overall progress and whose supreme achievement is an account of the progress of mankind

The Ninth Edition embodied this view because of the very idea of the encyclopaedia at the time. It was seriously believed that you could just get all the experts to summarize the present state of knowledge across all domains. That the encyclopaedia could serve as a window into a unified world of the known, where truth, as Popper put it, was manifest. A non-expert could read the Encyclopedia Britannica and as a result be elevated to the status of an educated person.

This worldview was unable to sustain itself for very long. It’s unlikely that it would have continued even without Nietzsche, but MacIntyre believes that it certainly could not survive his critiques.  In the Nietzschean genealogy there is a radical disunity, and especially in its successors the only possibility of unity is in the cynical power relations lurking behind every moralistic mask.

Nietzsche gave the Enlightenment a kick over the side of the wall, and all the king’s philosophers and all the king’s technocrats have been trying to put it back together again ever since. Without success.

For MacIntyre it boils down to the “resources” a framework has for making progress with its internally identified problems. Once the problem of disunity became apparent to the thinkers of the Enlightenment, it quickly became clear that their framework lacked the resources to move beyond it. The genealogists contributed a real insight by shedding light on this problem. However, MacIntyre points out that their framework does not include a place for the genealogist himself. If all intellectual positions are simply cynical power moves waiting to be unmasked, then who is doing the unmasking? There is no place for the truth of this claim within the genealogy framework, for there is no place for truth at all beyond what is waiting to be unmasked as something else.

MacIntyre’s approach for adjudicating among rival and incommensurable frameworks goes something like this:

  1. Delve into the literature and debates within each framework until you can explain and defend them as well as any of their proponents.
  2. Identify the problems internal to one approach—that is, the problems that the proponents of that approach recognize as problems, on the terms defined by that framework.
  3. Identify another framework that has greater resources for resolving those problems than the framework which identifies them as problems.
  4. ???
  5. Rational adjudication!

I jest a bit here, because MacIntyre admitted that you could identify the superior approach through this method, but still fail to persuade anyone that that is what had happened. And indeed, the case of this process which he identifies in the book failed to take Christendom by storm. Thomas Aquinas successfully synthesized Platonic Augistinianism and Aristotelianism into a superior framework, but it still remained but one framework among incommensurable rivals.

Moreover, MacIntyre views persuasion as nothing but manipulation, something in opposition to the rational adjudication he strives for. Without an ethical, undevious theory of persuasion, it’s not clear to me how he can fill in step 4.

Consequentialist Duct Tape

I turn now to a tale of two posts: Akiva’s and Jordan’s.

Both center around the same problem as MacIntyre: we’ve got all these rival, sometimes categorically opposing points of view, and no way to adjudicate them.

Jordan focuses mostly on the logic of opposing divine commands:

With moralized political discourse, opportunities for compromise are unilateral closed. After all, if, for instance, you believe abortion to literally be murder, why would you negotiate with murderers or their supporters? If you believe in human rights, why would you ever allow your nation to trade favors with a nation that ignores them?

Akiva leans more heavily on social science:

Our feelings group-select us into tribes that share similar moral foundations, building identity (”I’m a conservative, and I stand for x”) but leaving us close minded to people who don’t speak our moral language. The resulting process from working from ideals makes us conceive of what is always a messy exercise in figuring out how to live with one another and coordinate social life, into a contest for dominance over institutions and encourages divisiveness. Politics breeds both abstract moralism and tribal thinking, encouraging groupish vindictiveness.

Both turn to a sort of meta-consequentialism in order to put moral adjudication back together again.

Akiva wants to reframe the debate in terms of ranked preferences and trade-offs.

Notice that this isn’t just a classification of the banners under which we ride our noble steeds for Justice, our hair streaming in the wind whilst we thrust the lances of Truth. What the right is saying is that they opt for a distinct set of moral tradeoffs. They would prefer that private actors have higher degrees of control over their domain, with the imperfections that come from ensuring compensation only from competitive pressures, in order to allow actors to make more individual choices about their dealings with one another, and prevent what they view as an unfair form of paternalistic management that raises costs and restricts contracts. The left would prefer that we attempt to guarantee an absolute level of market wages for a certain aggregate of workers, because they would rather ensure an absolute footing of bargaining power for at least a certain percentage of people, and be guaranteed that specific benefits are assured for those workers.

Jordan wants us to adopt a “trader morality” in which we are more open about the price we put on a particular value:

Trader morality doesn’t have to be amoral, but it means knowing the price of one’s values. There’s a facetious dilemma that went around evangelical Christian circles when I was a kid, wrongly attributed to a popular figure at the time, in which the man asks a woman if she’d sleep with him for a million dollars. She says yes, so then he asks if she would sleep with him for 50. The negative response is then shown as proof that she “lacks values”, but I don’t see that at all. The woman, as opposed to her interlocutor, understood her values and knew where she was willing to trade on them. In this case, she valued financial security more than abstinence; the man, on the other hand, by ascribing infinite value to obedience to God (in the form of sexual purity), was shown incapable of negotiation.

These are both attempts to provide a theoretical framework which both embraces pluralism and allows for rational adjudication between the plural value systems within it. The problem with this is that all pluralisms share with monisms an excluding quality—for one thing, a monistic order is excluded. So a trader morality must exclude a morality which says that it is always wrong to sell your body, no matter the price, full stop. But it must also exclude other forms of pluralism.

Your version of pluralism becomes just another rival, incommensurable framework floating around in the marketplace of ideas. And consequentialism is just as much a tribe as the political ones Akiva describes.

Prejudicial in the Best Sense

I don’t want to be too hard on my fellow Sweet Talkers, I liked a lot of what they had to say. And I found it interesting that Akiva said that we ought to be more postmodern. It’s just a shame that his ultimate argument was couched in terms of how to “reconfigure ideology” into a framework in which “a significantly consequentialist attitude is king.” To me this phrasing, and especially consequentialism itself, seem to bring with them all the trappings of High Modernity.

Lately I have been reading Hans-Georg Gadamer, who no one would accuse of being modernist. David likes to call him “non-modern” to avoid the baggage of “postmodern” but also to emphasize that it was modernism that was an aberration.

Part of the problem with even someone like MacIntyre is the tendency to see traditions of thought as way too self-contained, given things. He makes it seem like there are these rival threads that are intellectually cohesive, and you have to approach them as the structures that they are, and choose among alternatives or fashion something new from the materials they provide.

In reality, things are much more fluid. I think Deirdre McCloskey’s perspective on persuasion is better at capturing that, and is a good supplement to MacIntyre. But Gadamer’s take on understanding is best of all, in the sense of being the most fleshed out and the most true to human beings.

Akiva talks at length about our biases and irrationality. Gadamer instead speaks of prejudices, and says that the chief prejudice of the Enlightenment was a prejudice against prejudice.

“Prejudicial” is simply “pre” as in “before” and “judicial” as in “judgment.” Historically, it once meant the provisional verdicts that a judge would mentally arrive at before the time came to render the final judgment. Prejudice is not only necessary here, but good. Making a provisional judgment before the final one allows you to focus on specific questions, to guide your attention to particular matters you might have otherwise overlooked. It’s not only impossible for a judge to sit back without prejudice until the time of rendering a judgment, as the romantics and others have emphasized, they would also be a bad judge for doing so.

Gadamer thought that the romantics, and even Burke, just made themselves into mirror images of the Enlightenment. Where the Enlightment thinkers asserted that tradition was something accepted without reason, and therefore bad, the romantics asserted that tradition was something accepted without reason, but was greater than reason. In both cases it was treated as a black box to be labeled either bad or good.

For Gadamer, tradition is something that only exists if it is participated in, and it is continually created and transformed in that participation.

The central case for him, is, of course, the interpreting of a text—hence hermeneutics. The act of interpretation is neither objective nor purely subjective; though he didn’t have the word, it is conjective. It takes place in the space between reader and text. We cannot read a text any way we like; there is something about it that asserts itself. This is in the nature of language, and how we are inculcated into it. But the truths in a text go beyond simply communicating information; we must interpret, and we always interpret by integrating what we read into what Gadamer calls our horizon.

The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point. Applying this to the thinking mind, we speak of narrowness of horizon, of the possible expansion of horizon, of the opening up of new horizons, and so forth. Since Nietzsche and Husserl, the word has been used in philosophy to characterize the way in which thought is tied to its finite determinacy, and the way one’s range of vision is gradually expanded. A person who has no horizon does not see far enough and hence over-values what is nearest to him. On the other hand, “to have a horizon” means not being limited to what is nearby but being able to see beyond it.

What occurs in reading a text—say for the purpose of learning history—is not some objectivistic “fusing of horizons” between yours and someone else’s. You are always within your own perspective, never outside of it.

Understanding tradition undoubtedly requires a historical horizon, then. But it is not the case that we acquire this horizon by transposing ourselves into a historical situation. Rather, we must always already have a horizon in order to be able to transpose ourselves into a situation. For what do we mean by “transposing ourselves”? Certainly not just disregarding ourselves. This is necessary, of course, insofar as we must imagine the other situation. But into this other situation we must bring, precisely, ourselves. Only this is the full meaning of “transposing ourselves.” If we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, for example, then we will understand him— i.e., become aware of the otherness, the indissoluble individuality of the other person— by putting ourselves in his position.

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes means that you yourself, with all your prejudices, are able to broaden your horizon in order to see more than you could before. But you are still seeing it from your perspective, though this perspective will be transformed by becoming “aware of the otherness”. It will be transformed precisely in bringing out prejudices that may have been hidden from you, to scrutinize more closely but, more importantly, to view in light of your expanded horizon.

The Spiral

If that sounded more than a little opaque, I apologize. The continentals are a difficult bunch, and I’m still wrestling with Gadamer’s ideas. Let’s turn for now to the concept of the hermeneutic circle, or as David prefers to call it, the spiral.

This is the old idea that you can only understand the part in terms of the whole, and you can only understand the whole through the parts. It sounds circular (hence the name) but it is absolutely true of everything from learning a language to becoming a specialist within a particular field.

You can think of our prejudices as forming a provisional notion of what the whole looks like and what its relationship to the parts are. When we encounter a new part, we both interpret it in terms of our provisional concept of the whole, and we revise that concept in terms of this new part.

Similarly, when we read a text, we have some provisional guess as to what the book as a whole will be about when we go into it. We revise this with each part of the text that we confront, and once we have read the whole book, the meaning of each part will seem different than it did as we were still making our way to the end.

But where to draw the line at what is considered “the whole” is in some sense arbitrary. Is a book the whole? Or is the author’s entire life work the whole? Should we also include all his letters? Will we never know the whole unless we also know every conversation he ever had? What about the entire tradition he was operating in? What about all of history before and after him? When is enough enough, in terms of context? What is the whole?

And what counts as a part? Is a sentence the basic part of a text, or the paragraph? Or the word? The letter?

Prejudice is how we make these choices. We think of individuals as the basic social unit, rather than cells or molecules or atoms, because we provisionally decide so. If we did not have this prejudice, we wouldn’t be able to operate at all, socially.

If hermeneutics is Gadamer’s discipline of arriving at understanding, rhetoric is the art of bringing other people to an understanding.

Rhetoric is what I would elevate above any attempt to create a method of rational adjudication. You start with prejudices which color your understanding of the part and the whole. Through hermeneutics, you constantly revise each. Through rhetoric, you seek to bring others to your understanding, by offering a part or a picture of the whole which provokes your audience to reconsider.

In spite of my biases, my ideological tribalism, and—dare I say it—my prejudices, I believe that I have understood Akiva and Jordan. In fact, I can only understand them at all because of these things.

I promised Akiva a response to his piece. What should the nature of this response be? Should I tell him what values I rank very highly that I think his system would imperil?

Or should I give him a post attempting to provoke him to revise his provisional judgment of how the marketplace of ideas works on the whole?

I can tell that my rhetoric needs work, where Gadamer is concerned. Perhaps this post will do a poor job of conveying his ideas in particular, or even my understanding of them (or worse—why they are relevant to the discussion at hand).

But I think that Akiva and Jordan will find something that they understand in this post.

This does not mean that they will agree with me. I suspect they probably won’t. But I hope they’ll be able to understand me, to a greater or lesser degree. And I’m not worried about our rival, incommensurable standpoints serving as completely opaque and impenetrable walls between us.

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