Posts filed under Dialectic

Transcendental macros

So, because we live in a cultural world rapidly approximating the truth of the Principle of Plenitude, now there’s an Analytic Philosopher image-macro series.[1] A few are heavy-handed axe-grinding, but lot of them are pretty funny (including, as you might hope, a lot of meta-macros about the macro itself). This one, though…

Here's a Scumbag Analytic Philosopher macro, adjusting his bowtie while saying ...
“I USE LANGUAGE … TO TRANSCEND LANGUAGE.”

According to the generator site, this is supposed to be a Scumbag Analytic Philosopher macro. But the caption really just makes him seem like a super-badass. You go, man. All our hopes and dreams are with you.

  1. [1] Not memes. There is no such thing as a meme.

Clarity and clarifying

A couple of notes from a couple of different conversations on being clear and becoming clear. (It’s about philosophy, I promise, not about Scientology. . .)

Me, in reply to Andy Bass and Nemo during a conversation on Wittgenstein and philosophical method (Dec. 2011):

[Quoting A.B.:] Wittgenstein’s “end” to philosophy altogether would be some way of living with, and using, language in which linguistic inconsistencies and their resulting philosophical conundrums cannot arise at all. Wittgenstein doesn’t spend much time with this notion of a final treatment… .

I dunno, doesn’t he? It seems like this sort of end of analysis is importantly part of the goal of the Tractatus, and the struggle against that picture is part of the important shift in PI. To live with language in such a way as to end philosophical puzzling would be to become perfectly adept as a logical grammarian — to succeed in catching and keeping the will-o’-the-wisp of logical form. But if there is no such thing to catch, or no such thing as catching it … .

I’m rather inclined to think that if we take seriously what Cavell (for example) has to say about the projectability of concepts — and on the late Wittgensteinian themes that Cavell is drawing on here (on the urban geography of natural language, etc.) — then I think it has to be part of the nature of a certain sort of language-game — of any language-game of the sort you could reason or explain in, say — that there could not possibly be a way of living with language that does not raise the possibility of philosophical problems. To live with a language where concepts and linguistic structures can constantly be projected into novel forms is to live with the pervasiveness of risk, doubt, misfires, mistakes, confusion, — since to acknowledge the possibility of projection just is to acknowledge the risk of failing to cotton onto the novel uses, or to shift contexts appropriately, or to recognize the interplay between the old usage and the new, or . . . .

And often we should like to be perfectly adept at these things, but (1) it seems clear that we cannot do that with any set of ex ante rules about what good language ought to look like (as the positivists seem to have thought); (2) it also seems clear that we cannot do that with any set of ex ante principles about what good linguistic therapy ought to look like (as AoTLP[1] hinting); and (3) setting all that aside, it’s not clear that we possibly could count as being perfectly adept by any means within us (what if the conversational context is not something that’s always up to us, but depends on future contingents about what others will play or non-play? what if it involves external objects, like the meter-stick in Paris or the chemical structure of water, which may not be epistemically transparent to us? etc.). And it’s not even clear if this, were it possible, would always be desirable (what if projection serves a tentative or exploratory purpose, not just an analytical or declaratory one? not to allow a certain degree of risky or even confused behavior may simply be to close us off from some funky new neighborhoods that language might otherwise work itself into. . . .).

. . .

[Quoting Nemo:] After a conversation with Socrates, one would say to himself, I don’t know what t’m talking about! I don’t know what [the thing] really means. I’ve got a problem. With Wittgenstein, I know it now! Avoid logical fallacies and speak proper grammar, there is no problem at all.

Well, I think that the bit after I know it now! is for L.W. much easier said than done, but it’s the doing that he’s interested in. The AoTLP[1] seems to have some faith that there is a state you can be in where you will become perfectly adept in the avoiding and in the grammaticalizing — a state that can only be really understood by reaching it, but which will disclose itself to you, irresistibly when and to the extent that you reach it. (In many ways it ends up sounding something like what Socrates is portrayed as teaching Meno about the unforgetting of true knowledge in the second third of the dialogue.) Now, as I understand the later L.W., that faith in the End of Analysis is one of the things that really does change and come under the later L.W.’s criticism. In some ways this makes his project seem less Socratic (or Platonic, whichever), since it means a much less idealized picture of what logical understanding amounts to; in other ways, it makes it seem more Socratic, since it means that there is no end of philosophy to aim at — it’s not a matter of reaching some perfected state of clarity, only an ongoing process of recognizing confusion and clarifying. . . . (In PI, Wittgenstein says that the real discovery is the one that allows you to stop doing philosophy when you want to — but of course stopping it is rather different from finishing it.)

— Charles Johnson (Dec. 2011), comments re: Wittgenstein on Progress in Philosophy

Kelly Dean Jolley, on Clarity, Combative Clarity (Dec. 2011):

I am Wittgensteinian enough, or Kierkegaardian enough, or Marcelian enough to believe that what philosophy aims for is clarity. But one is always becoming clear; one is never finally clear.

Clarity. Clarity is internal to philosophical investigation: it is not a separable result, isolable from the activity that realizes it and such that it confers value onto the activity because of a value it has independent of that activity. If a result is separable, isolable and independent, then it has a career cut off in an important way from the process that realized it. Indeed, in one sense its history only begins after the process that realizes it is finished. The result can be seized and put to purposes quite different from anything that those involved in the process of realizing it intended or foresaw.

But clarity is valuable because of the process of philosophical investigation that realizes it. And there is no clarity in isolation from the philosophical investigation that realizes it. Philosophical investigation does not realize a clarity that someone could hope to enjoy who is no longer involved in philosophical investigation. (I got clear, you see; and now I am enjoying my clarity, although, thank God!, I am no longer involved in the travails of philosophical investigation.) –Kierkegaard’s Climacus talks about the true Christian, the subjective Christian, as combatively certain of Christianity, as certain in a way that requires that the certainty be daily won anew. Eternal certainty (his contrast-term) is not something that the subjective Christian can enjoy on this side of the blue. Similarly, the clarity realized by philosophical investigation is combative clarity, not eternal clarity.

— Kelly Dean Jolley (Dec. 2011), on Clarity, Combative Clarity, in Quantum Est In Rebus Inane

  1. [1] The Author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the later Wittgenstein’s way of referring to his earlier views when he wished to criticize them.

In which market anarchists are sent out to catch the wild 22

Here’s Juan Cole, Informed Comment 2011-08-12: Paul, Santorum and the Sixth War (on Iran):[1]

A significant stream within [Right-wing] libertarianism theorizes war as the ultimate in this racket, whereby some companies use government to throw enormous sums to themselves by waging wars abroad and invoking patriotic themes. This analysis is remarkably similar to that of Left anarchists such as Noam Chomsky.

The difference is that for anarcho-syndicalists like Chomsky, the good guys of history are the workers and ordinary folk, whereas for Libertarians, it is entrepreneurs. Both theories depend on a naive reading of social interest. Right anarchists seem not to be able to perceive that without government, corporations would reduce us all to living in company towns on bad wages and would constantly be purveying to us bad banking, tainted food, dangerous drugs, etc. I mean, they behave that way when they can get away with it even when there is supposed government oversight, usually by capturing the government oversight agency that should be regulating them and then defanging it (e.g. BP and the Minerals Management Service). On the environment, private companies would never ever curb emissions without government intervention because of the problem of the commons. (Tellingly, Ron Paul calls global climate change a “hoax.”)

And, what makes the Libertarians think that if there were no governments or only weak governments, the corporations would not just wage the wars themselves? The East India Companies of Britain and the Netherlands behaved that way. India was not conquered by the British government, but by the East India Company. Likewise what is now Indonesia was a project of the Dutch East India Company. Libertarians have difficulty imagining warmongering corporations who pursue war all on their own without any government involvement.

And below, in comments on the post:

The theory that big corporations exist only because of government, and that monopoly capitalism is a result of government, is wrong. In fact, it is so obviously wrong and ahistorical (the biggest corporations and the strongest monopolies have occurred in the most laissez-faire societies) that it bewilders me how intelligent people ever came to believe it.

Well, you know, when left-libertarians get into arguments with progressives about this sort of thing, and we point out that, historically speaking, American-style capitalism did not really arise in anything resembling a free market — that there never has been anything resembling a free market — and when we point to the actual history of regulatory capture, legal monopoly, state subsidy, government dependence, etc. that historically lies behind commercial empires like the East India Companies (government-chartered and government-protected monopolies), British Petroleum (until recently a wholly owned subsidiary of the United Kingdom), Standard Oil and its descendents, Ma Bell and its descendents, General Electric, J.P Morgan-Chase, Bank of America, General Motors, etc. etc. etc. — and which created and sustained the family fortuens of the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Vanderbilts, Morgans, Goulds, ibn-Sauds, et al. — the response to this discussion of the historical sources of actually-existing capitalism is always met by a purely hypothetical alternative history, in which, it is alleged, such titanic concentrations of wealth, even though they actually arose in a system of privilege that had nothing to do with free markets, would still have arisen and maintained themselves just as well under purely hypothetical conditions of laissez-faire, even without all the concentrating, insulating, and subsidizing efforts that the manorial and corporate states have so energetically made on their behalf. If this claim is argued for at all, it is not argued for historically, since, of course, there are no historical examples of it ever having happened. It is instead argued for apriori, based on well, why wouldn’t they sorts of appeals to the nastiness of businessmen[2], and the occasional reference to ahistorical hypotheticals or game-theoretic models, like Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons[3] Then left-libertarians are accused of being naive.

But if we respond to this hypothetical speculation by adding on, alongside the history we have already discussed, some more general, apriori economic reasons to believe that stable monopolies and cartels cannot maintain themselves without government privilege, that freed markets would tend to dissipate concentrated fortunes, and that they would systematically contain and undermine, rather than entrenching, monopolies and cartels, then we are accused of utopian theorizing, and told that our view of markets is ahistorical.

Apparently we can’t win. Maybe that’s the point; but I think a rhetorical victory that actually engaged with the historical arguments being offered, or with the apriori arguments being offered, rather than simply waving them off as either nonexistent or obviously beneath the notice of intelligent people, might be a more satisfying achievement.

  1. [1] Cole’s post is, structurally speaking, a post about how Juan Cole agrees with Ron Paul, and disagrees with Rick Santorum’s belligerent idiocy, on Iran. But Juan Cole cannot simply write a post about how he agrees with Ron Paul, just like that. So instead he spends about a third of the post talking about how he thinks that Right-wing libertarianism is a lot of rubbish with a dangerously naive view of corporate power. Which is not in an of itself a problem — right-wing libertarianism is a lot of rubbish with a dangerously naive view of corporate power. And I certainly have nothing against criticizing Chairman Ron’s version of it. But if your criticism of Ron Paul is based on the assertion that he is a Right anarchist — and that what makes him an anarchist is that he [wants] the least government possible then you are about to say something that has probably nothing really to do with, and certainly is not an accurate representation of either Ron Paul or Anarchism. And if you think that Ron Paul is an example of a Right anarchist, and Noam Chomsky is the best example you can think up for a Left anarchist, then I must gently suggest that you are talking outside of your area of expertise.
  2. [2] As if a freed market meant nothing more than that businessmen will act however they please — as if there were no other social forces that could possibly be activated within a freed market.
  3. [3] There is actually quite a lot of good economic literature demonstrating how and why real-world common-pool resources don’t simply get obliterated, as Hardin predicts they must be, in the absence of individualized ownership or top-down legal regulation. See for example the work of the Ostroms.

State-ing a Fact

In comments on Those Damned Statists!, Gene Callahan gets pissy about the claim that he’s being fussy about word usage. Thus:

One of the most telling rhetorical tics one finds amongst radical libertarians is to refer to every single person who does not buy their entire program as a ‘statist’. Now, when Mises used that term, he was referring to people like, say, Mussolini, who were engaged in some form of state worship, who were making the State a God on earth. This made sense.

But many rad-libs today apply it to every person who does not want to destroy the State as a social institution. This is an extraordinary usage….

And so:

I am not being fussy about word usage; I am noting the extraordinary phenomenon of a group that represents .1% of the political spectrum lumping the other 99.9% under a single label.

You mean like when Jews (about 0.2% of the population of the world) refer to all of the other 99.8% of the people in the world as “Gentiles,” or when priests (about 0.03% of the total membership of the Roman Catholic Church) refer to all of the 99.97% of the Church as “laity” or atheists refer to absolutely everyone who believes in any way in any gods at all a theist? My, how extraordinary. Ah-HA! Gene will say, clutching his New Science of Politicsall of your examples are religious; isn’t that telling? Only if you think it’s equally telling that the residents of every country on earth refer to the 6.5+ billion or so other people in the world as foreigners, that gay men and lesbians took to using the word straight to refer to absolutely everybody who’s not gay, when BOFH types took to describing absolutely everybody outside of their subcultural circle of technical expertise lusers, etc.[1] It seems to me the most ordinary thing in the world for members of a relatively coherent, exclusive group to spend some non-zero amount of time discussing (whether politely or abusively or neutrally) the much larger number of people who are not a part of that group, and to come up with a word to name them. (This does, of course, tell us that radical libertarians are a small group in a much larger world who spend some time arguing about the things that make them radical libertarians. Well, yes.)

Let me offer an alternative story here about what has happened, linguistically speaking, with statism. I haven’t done a lot in the way on paleontological research on the past uses of statism, so I am going to recklessly presume there isn’t much to say about it before where Gene starts — with the use of the word by Mises and the rest of the mid-century minimal-governmentalist coffeeklatsch. Now, those folks frequently employed a political term which was transparently polemical and had more or less no neutral analytical use. (State worship? Really?[2]). They applied it to Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon quite as freely as they did to explicit totalitarians like Mussolini or Stalin.[3] This certainly had its uses, but it was more or less an overt example of a persuasive definition, and had no descriptive content except by reference to the moving target of how much government, in what direction, the speaker considered decent or worthwhile.

Then some Anarchists came along, found this empty polemical term in the discourse, and gave it a new meaning — more or less, someone who accepts the legitimacy of government as a social institution, or someone who does not believe that the state as such must be abolished. Unlike the use by Ludwig von Mises or Ayn Rand, this use of the term statist included minimal-statists like Mises and Rand, since they too believed in at least some government. Their use of the term lumped together something like 99% of the population of the world under a single label, since it defined everyone else by contrast with laissez-faire/laissez-passer limited-governmentalism; our use of the term lumped together something like 99.9% of the population of the world, since it also tossed out folks who believed in minimal government. On the other hand, it also gave statist a non-polemical, descriptive, and analytically useful definition. Statist as non-anarchist meant something that the person being so described would probably accept as a self-description; it is analytically useful because it turns out that sometimes we argue about whether or not any government can be legitimate, and this gives a handy descriptive term for each side of the debate — anarchists on the one hand and statists on the other.[4] Admittedly, this is an appropriation of the term and a redefinition of it. But, well, so? Planet used to include Pluto and New York City used to refer only to Manhattan. We take the words we find and apply them to our own circumstances; sometimes existing words get jiggered to have a narrower or broader extension, or a more technical usage, in order to make them more useful for purposes of discussion or analysis.

Then Gene Callahan came along and took it as another reason to gripe about the language that libertarians use rather than identifying any specific problem that this language-use has caused in any specific conversation. No doubt there are examples where this has happened, but I think that if you go looking seriously, you will actually find that the old, empty polemical use of the term in the hands of mini-statists like Mises or Rand (the use that Gene insists made sense) has caused far more conversational misfires than the newer, more descriptive meaning employed by libertarian anarchists.

See also:

  1. [1] In spite of the religious subject matter, the structured relationships between Jews and Gentiles, priests and laity, atheists and theists, etc., are in any case really nothing like the kind of relationships between the initiated and the uninitiated in Voegelian Gnosticism.
  2. [2] Of course, I myself have frequently drawn parallels between religious devotion and the ways that states legitimate themselves. I hope there’s some insight in that. But the insight is insight by means of an acknowledged metaphor: hardly anybody accused of being engaged in some form of state worship … making the State a God on earth would accept that as a non-tendentious description of what they do or believe. And the talk about worship is clearly meant polemically — the real application of the term is wherever the speaker finds devotion or deference significantly beyond whatever she herself considers acceptable. For Mises, the critical point was supposed to be whether the person believed in limited government or unlimited government. But of course limited and unlimited in that context were just as contested as the terms they were supposed to define. Limited government for Mises certainly didn’t just mean any government with any constitutional limits whatever. Most mid-century welfare-state liberals, for example, believed very strongly that government should be subject to some constitutional limits. Just not the specific limits that Ludwig von Mises thought it should be subject to.
  3. [3] Mises in any case explicitly included both socialism and American-style state-capitalist interventionism as forms of what he called statism or, as in Omnipotent Government, etatism. The claim that he reserved it for people like, say, Mussolini, is pure bosh.
  4. [4] We’d use archist — Tucker, for one, sometimes did — but, ew.

Clearing Up

A quote to-day from Chapter 23 of one of my Christmas presents — In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent’s delightful book on artificial languages, their inventors, and the communities that (sometimes) sustain them.

We should admire [the inventors of artificial languages] for their raw diligence, not because hard work is a virtue in itself, but because they took their ideas about language as far as they could go and really put them to the test. Who hasn’t at one time or another casually suggested that we would be better off if words had more exact meanings? Or if people paid more attention to logic when they talked? How many have unthinkingly swooned at the magic of Chinese symbols or blamed acrimony between nations on language differences? We don’t take responsibility for these fleeting assumptions, and consequently we don’t suffer for them. The language inventors do, and consequently they did. If we pay attention to the successes and failures of the language inventors, we can learn their hard-earned lessons for free.

We can also gain a deeper appreciation for natural language and the messy qualities that give it so much flexibility and power, and that make it so much more than a simple communication device. The ambiguity and lack of precision allow it to serve as an instrument of thought formulation, of experimentation and discovery. We don’t have to know exactly what we mean before we speak; we can figure it out as we go along. Or not. We can talk just to talk, to be social, to feel connected, to participate. At the same time natural language still works as an instrument of thought transmission, one that can be made extremely precise and reliable when we need it to be, or left loose and sloppy when we can’t spare the time or effort.

When it is important that misunderstandings be avoided, we have access to the same mechanism that allowed Shirley McNaughton’s students to make use of the vague and imprecise Blissymbols, or that allows deaf people to improvise an international sign language—negotiation. We can ask questions, check for signs of confusion, repeat ourselves in multiple ways. More important, we have access to something that language inventors have typically disregarded or even disdained—mere conventional agreement, a shared culture in which definitions have been established by habit. It is convention that allows us to approach a Loglan level of precision in academic and scientific papers or legal documents. Of course to benefit from the precision you must be in on the conventional agreements on which those modes of communication depend. That’s why when specialists want to communicate with a general or lay audience—those who don’t know the conventions—they have to move back toward the techniques of negotiation: slowing down, answering questions, explaining terms, illustrating with examples. . . .

When language inventors try to bypass convention—to make a language that is self-explanatory or universal—they either make a less efficient communications tool, one that shifts too much of the burden to negotiation, like Blissymbolics, or take away too much flexibility by over-determining meaning, like Wilkins’s system did. When they try to take away culture, the place where linguistic conventions are made, they have to substitute something else—like the six-hundred-page book of rules that define Lojban, and that, to date, no human has been able to learn well enough to comfortably engage in the type of conversation that any second-semester language class should be able to handle.

There are types of communication, such as the language of music, that may allow us to access some kind of universal meaning or emotion, but give us no way to say, I left my purse in the car. There are unambiguous systems, such as computer programming languages, that allow us to instruct a machine to perform a certain task, but we must be so explicit about meanings we can normally trust to inference or common sense that it can take hours or days of programming work to achieve even the simplest results. Natural languages may be less universal than music and less precise than programming languages, but they are far more versatile, and useful in our everyday lives, than either.

Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think. Likewise, the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention or cultural habit is not a flaw but a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision. Language needs its flaws in order to do the enormous range of things we use it for.

—Arika Okrent (2009), In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers who Tried to Build a Perfect Language. ISBN 978-0-385-52788-0. 256-258.

Something important to remember: we are, after all, so often calling for clarity in language (whether as philosophers or political radicals or…) and when we do that it’s often easy to think that what we need is language that is perfectly clear. But this is a will-o’-the-wisp; what is interesting and important is clarification as a practice — not the ex ante features of a language or a text, but the process of a conversation.

See also: