In Spirit

Featured Image is Moonrise Over the Sea, by Caspar David Friedrich

In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, the Philosopher defended the art of persuasion against the teachings of his master Plato and Plato’s master Socrates. He sought to harness the wisdom of their critiques of the sophists without throwing out the art of persuasion entirely.

The characterization of persuasion as performed by the sophists—handed down to us in the pejorative sophistry—is that of pure manipulation. Other human beings are reduced to means for us to achieve our ends. Alasdair MacIntyre views all persuasion this way. In this, he is more Platonic than Aristotelian.

Aristotle observed that the form of Socratic dialogue doesn’t differ substantially in appearance from the sophist’s rhetoric. Indeed, many would consider Socrates among the worst offenders, where sophistry is concerned.

The difference between dialectic and sophistry is a matter of ethical commitment. Or we could say that it is a matter of committing yourself to the spirit of inquiry, just as the good lawyer interprets the spirit rather than merely the letter of the law, and we honor the spirit of our obligations. In short, it is about practicing in good faith, by honoring the spirit of the practice, rather than cynically and opportunistically bending it for our convenience.

The romantic critics of technology and social science, among whom I would count Heidegger and Gadamer, seem to believe that all technology, science, and bureaucracy are pure manipulation. Yet hierarchy, technology, and inquiry have very long histories. The romantic criticism envisions a past in which we had a more authentic relationship with our tools and our surroundings. It is for good reason that such days-gone-by thinking is derided as romantic in a pejorative sense.

Like rhetoric, the form of the made—from our tools to our organizations—differs only in degree. But differences in kind are determined by the spirit of the thing. A bureaucracy in which everyone holds an ethic of treating one another like fellow full human beings is very different from one in which employees are resources that need to be allocated, like coal.

The technocratic impulse is sold as a detached, rational thing, but in practice it always has a spirit. And in the 20th century, the spirit of technocracy was, ironically enough, usually a species of romanticism.

Thus Heidegger, the critic of technocracy, became an ally to the regime that was iconic for its literal factories of death. Why? Because of the romantic, nationalist spirit behind the thing, evident in their propaganda. The Soviets, which many foolishly put on the opposite end of a spectrum from the Nazis, were basically identical in this regard. Again, just look at their propaganda.

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What our age needs is a humanist spirit that has not been warped by romanticism. We need to heal the severed link between spirit and reason. Let us stop thinking of reason as something that concerns narrow, instrumental relationships among objects and objectified subjects, and instead begin thinking in terms of the unity of ethics, politics, and rhetoric.

The current of history runs deep, and there is more to our age than enlightenment and counter-enlightenment, rationalists and romantics. It’s time we began to explore those greater depths again.

The Gordian Knot

Featured image is Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot, by Antonio Tempesta

One of the key disputes in the continental vs analytic divide in modern philosophy is one of style. German and French philosophers largely follow Hegel’s impenetrable style—or worse, Heidegger’s—while English-speaking philosophers largely follow Bertrand Russell’s approachable prose.

A problem arises immediately because the substance of philosophy is relevant to the question of its style. Consider that the conclusions of economic theory, which concern human beings, are thus relevant to the practice of economics itself.

Philosophy falls into a similar recursion, even when we are just talking about the style in which philosophy is done. Plato’s decision to write only in the form of dialogues was a conscious choice made on a philosophical basis; his master Socrates believed that written philosophy was a contradiction in terms.

What, then, are the philosophical presuppositions behind the stylistic divide in modern philosophy?

There’s a lot that can just be chalked up to bad or sloppy writing. I’m told that Kant wrote The Critique of Pure Reason in a hurry and did not get it properly edited. Analytic philosophy itself is no stranger to putrid prose. One need not be a good writer to become a professional philosopher, even in the English-speaking world.

But Hegel’s writing style was, I believe, a choice. And Heidegger’s certainly was. Heidegger believed that common language came with philosophical assumptions baked in. That point is at least defensible. His solution, however, seems worse than the problem. The relentless neologisms and wordplay are all but impenetrable. George Steiner claimed that in German, the style has literary merit. Perhaps so, but I am in no position to judge that. All I know is that Gadamer, no great stylist, nevertheless was able to wrestle with the same perceived problem in a perfectly straightforward manner.

If we are going to write, we should strive to be good writers. In this way, I stand much closer to Russell than to Heidegger. However, being a good writer does not always mean making the simplest possible point in the simplest possible way.

I fear that for all the faults of the continental tradition (the USSR used Marx to justify mass murder, while Heidegger was a registered Nazi and delivered a speech touting their virtues mere months after Hitler was made chancellor), the analytic tradition too often thinks that the world’s problems are merely a set of Gordian Knots begging for Alexander’s solution.

I often think, these days, in terms of “low context” or “direct” speech as opposed to “high context” or “indirect” speech, distinctions I learned of in Arthur Melzer’s book Philosophy Between the Lines.

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall, for example, probably the most famous and influential writer in the field, distinguishes between what he calls “low context” societies like the United States and Europe and the “high context” societies found throughout most of the developing world. In the former, when one communicates with others— whether orally or in writing— one is expected to be direct, clear, explicit, concrete, linear, and to the point. But in most of the rest of the world, such behavior is considered a bit rude and shallow: one should approach one’s subject in a thoughtfully indirect, suggestive, and circumlocutious manner.

To forestall an objection from Ryan, Melzer does not rely on evidence from theorists alone. He also draws on practical guides created for people who have to work in other cultures which emphasize the pervasiveness of indirect speech outside of the west. The book assembles a formidable corpus of such practical and theoretical discussions, all pointing in the same direction—towards the existence of cultures favoring “low context” and “direct” styles on the one hand, and “high context” and “indirect” styles on the other.

The chief distinction is not between obscurantism and clarity, but how much of an onus is put on the audience. From one paper Melzer cites:

The burden for understanding falls not on the speaker speaking clearly, but on the listener deciphering the hidden clues. In fact, the better the speaker, the more skillful he may be in manipulating the subtlety of the clues.

To a western and especially an English speaking audience, this seems the very definition of obscurantism. But Melzer emphasizes the pedagogical value of making students pay close attention to a text in order to be able to understand it. What seems superficially easy to understand too often yields only a superficial understanding.

It is an uncomfortable fact for philosophers that stories are the chief means through which societies convey wisdom, not philosophy. Philosophy and art have struggled over which was the appropriate source of wisdom since antiquity. Philosophy succeeded in achieving a certain status among intellectuals. But most people, especially children, find more wisdom from cartoons, movies, or comics than from philosophy–continental or analytic, ancient or medieval. Eastern or western.

In my view, there must be great value in conveying ideas indirectly. Of the writers here at Sweet Talk, no one has demonstrated this more thoroughly than David.

The exact opposite is not true, however. Indirect and direct, high and low context communication, both have their place.

What should not have a place are bad writing, badly organized presentation, and intentionally opaque language.

Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger were not seeking to provide well written parables or even dialogues, for all of their love of dialectic. For all the talk about “dialectical” styles, they ultimately gave lectures and wrote essays and books. And the stylistic choices they made provided cover for later, more mediocre thinkers to shroud their mediocrity in impenetrable writing.

What can be considered good writing depends on the goal as well as the audience of the piece. Good writing for a technical audience will be different than good introductory writing. Conveying wisdom through poetry, parable, or essay will also be judged differently in each case. But having different standards isn’t the same as having no standards, and philosophical writing is too often synonymous with bad writing.

Quid est veritas

Featured image is a painting by Homer Dodge Martin

After a failed expedition into Being and Time, I thought I might have better luck trying Heidegger’s essays. “The Origin of the Work of Art” is supposed to be a direct inspiration for Gadamer’s treatment of truth in art in Truth and Method; a section of that book which remains mostly a mystery to me.

One line from the essay kept coming back to me today: “Truth, in its nature, is untruth.”

On its own, of course, it sounds like exactly the kind of thing people think of when they dismiss writers like Heidegger—a seemingly contradictory statement that appears to serve no purpose but to be provocative. But in context it does make sense.

Truth, for Heidegger, is unconcealedness. Think of the straightforward case of a ray of sunshine piercing through an otherwise cloudy sky, illuminating what had been hidden in shadow. “Unconcealed” here is like that.

But the unconcealed and the concealed aren’t simple opposites in Heidegger’s scheme. The former isn’t even possible without the latter.

At first I thought about this in terms of standpoints. A person standing in front of you, unhidden and in plain view, obstructs your view of what is directly behind them. So the unconcealed itself conceals.

But taking the essay as a whole, and further reading I’ve done since, lead me to believe that’s not what Heidegger was getting at. It may be a related point, but the connection between the unconcealed and the concealed is much deeper than that.

Consider a piece of writing. There is more implied by it than is said explicitly in it; that is responsible for such phenomena as semantic indeterminacy. The text is always a finite part that points towards a larger whole needed to make it intelligible. The part, as well as the whole that we could describe explicitly if called upon to, is part of what Heidegger calls “world” and Gadamer calls our horizon—this is what is unconcealed, and what is fundamentally intelligible.

The other part of the implied background for interpreting a text, however, is what Heidegger calls “earth”—the concealed, what is at least currently unintelligible.

Truth as understood by Heidegger is not a stand-alone thing that is ours to grasp if we can find it; it is the unconcealed but only exists in the tension between the unconcealed and the concealed. In a text, we are ever striving to make more and more intelligible. But as we shift our focus, or follow a particular train of thought (especially when that train of thought “has swung into its joint“), that which seemed previously intelligible to us may need to be reinterpreted in a manner that makes it unintelligible. Or, to switch to Gadamer’s terminology, as we expand our horizon in one direction, we may lose sight of the edge of the opposite “side”; as finite beings with finite minds, our horizon does not simply stay fixed as we expand it.

Truth is untruth because the unconcealed is grounded in the concealed, and the reverse is also true—they exist in a hermeneutic circle. Our most concrete grasp of each occurs at the boundary, where we strive to unconceal but what has been unconcealed is also becoming concealed again. A work of art—including a work of architecture—has its truth not in unconcealing, but in setting up a conflict between unconcealed and concealed, between world and earth.

This relationship between truth and untruth has me thinking about something fellow Sweet Talker David has said about Heraclitus—that he believed “justice is injustice.” Perhaps “justice, in its nature, is injustice” would apply in exactly the same way as an interpretation of this idea.

But I’m no philologist.

The Whole Truth

truth

There is no way to establish fully secured, neat protocol statements as starting points of the sciences. There is no tabula rasa. We are like sailors who have to rebuild their ship on the open sea, without ever being able to dismantle it in dry-dock and reconstruct it from its best components.

Otto Neurath

If Martin Heidegger brought epistemological holism to Continental Philosophy through the central metaphor of the hermeneutic circle, W. V. Quine did the same for Analytic Philosophy. Part of how he did that was by popularizing the idea of Neurath’s Boat.

The idea is this: we can only appraise the truth-value of some specific assertion in light of a background web of beliefs that provide the necessary context. Thus, it is like we are sailing on a boat which we can scrutinize—and even repair—one plank at a time, but not all at once.

A more straightforward way of saying all of this is that you can only really understand the partial truths available to you in the context of the whole truth. But the whole truth is not available to anyone, and so instead we have beliefs, theories, frameworks.

Neurath’s Boat is a neat metaphor, but I prefer one I encountered from Susan Haack (via Joseph Heath). The idea is that knowledge is like a crossword puzzle. What you fill out has implications for what the likely answers are for nearby slots. But when you figure out what goes into those nearby slots, if you have greater confidence about them, you may need to revise what you put in the initial slot. Thus, the crossword puzzle has this property of a web of answers that are interconnected in important ways.

If we stuck with the idea of a puzzle we could see all of and were merely filling entries out for, it would imply an incrementalism just like the one explicit in Neurath’s Boat. But that would be silly—we do not know what the whole truth looks like. If we did, we would have a great deal more certainty about an enormous number of areas that remain hotly contested.

No, instead it seems to me that the crossword puzzle metaphor works, but we only get pieces of it and attempt to guess at the shape of the rest. Our experience of partial truths is fundamentally projective—based on the parts we encounter we attempt to project a provisional outline of the whole truth, though this outline may itself be quite incomplete.

When Hans-Georg Gadamer argues that the hermeneutic experience, as well as dialectic, are fundamentally about the subject rather than authorial intent, I think he means something like this: guessing at authorial intent is like trying to guess what their projection of the whole truth is. Focusing on the subject, on the other hand, is simply attempting to work out what we think the correct projection of the whole truth is, using what we learn from what we read or the conversation we participate in.

One last observation: the whole truth is not value-neutral; not for humans. Elizabeth Anderson argues this very convincingly—responding, coincidentally, to Susan Haack. She uses the example of The Secret Relationship, a book which apparently uses some very selectively chosen facts in a misleading way. “Although many characters in mysteries lie, the most interesting characters deceive by telling the truth—but only part of it.”

She continues:

How are we to assess the significance of the facts cited in The Secret Relationship? Taken in isolation, they suggest that Jews played a special or disproportionate role in the Atlantic slave system or that their participation was more intense than that of other ethnic and religious groups. But in the context of additional facts, such as those just cited, they show that Jewish participation in the slave system was minor in absolute terms and was no different in intensity from similarly situated ethnic and religious groups. The larger context exposes a serious bias or distortion in the way The Secret Relationship characterizes the significance of Jewish participation in the Atlantic slave system. The characterization is “partial” in the literal sense that it tells only part of the truth needed to assess the significance of the matters at hand. What matters for assessing significance, then, is not just that an account be true but that it in some sense represent the whole truth, that it be unbiased. Furthermore, the fact that an account is biased or distorted is a good reason to reject it, even if it contains only true statements. Haack’s premise (2) is therefore false: to justify acceptance of a theory one must defend its significance, not just its truth.

Our projection of the whole truth has political implications, and so too do the partial truths accessible to us, because of the whole truth that they imply. There is therefore an importantly ethical dimension in how we assemble those partials truths.

Of Subjects and Object

If you’ll forgive me for subjecting you to another lengthy post, I’ve got a subject I’d like to explore a bit: the subject-object distinction. Before you object, let me say that my primary objection is how few people even see it as a distinction, rather than revealed truth. In an argument a few weeks ago, I was accused of magical thinking simply for asserting the existence of what Deirdre McCloskey calls “conjective,” Searle’s “institutional facts,” or Habermas’ “intersubjective.”

The idea of something not purely subject or object seems impossible in our post-Enlightenment world. Even the religious largely argue for the existence of an objective world that is affirmed by God.

So I’d like to subject the subject-object distinction to some much merited scrutiny.

Continue reading “Of Subjects and Object”