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Monday, December 10, 2007

But I'm Not a Relativist

An e-mail interlocutor has patiently explained to me why he thinks I protest too much when I insist that I am not an effete postmodern relativist to the solid stolid champions of He-Man science who sometimes like to criticize me online. He then proudly affirms his own relativism. I appreciate his support, of course, and the fact is that this particular interlocutor is a European with an actual background in philosophy and so he doesn't mean by these terms quite the same thing that people tend to do who excoriate my muzzy relativism in online debates as a way of assuming their Priestly vestaments in the defense of dumb death-dealing scientism.

In a nutshell, the key philosophical figures for me are Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty, and Judith Butler. I'll probably spend the rest of my life struggling to find the language in which to express intelligibly to others how these four weirdly incompatible figures in some ways have come -- probably in no small part completely accidentally -- to crystallize a harmonious perspective from which I understand the world.

Philosophically, I am most legible as coming out of the tradition of American pragmatism (James, Dewey, Rorty) and working today in the discourse of queer theory in Butler's practice of it (which seems to me to mean something more like the delineation of non-sovereign performative/prosthetic self-determination in planetary multiculture these days). All of these figures are post-Nietzschean and one finds in all of them an expression of something like his perspectivalism.

In online anti-intellectual discourse in America "relativism" is defined as something like the belief that any belief is as good as any other. I don't believe that and it isn't really worth the time to walk Americans all the way through to the place in which they can better understand what the actual claims involved are. I do believe that one can warrant one's beliefs with good reasons, and understanding that point gets most folks close enough to what I really mean that there doesn't seem much point in going further into the matter, unless they indicate a real sympathy and talent for the nuances involved.

I propose that scientific, moral, aesthetic, ethical, and political modes of belief-ascription are all warranted as reasonable according to different criteria, that these are not reducible to one another in their proper work, their proper forms, their practices, their histories. But since I do believe one can warrant one's beliefs in any of these modes with good reasons it isn't really right to say that I am a relativist in the sense Americans tend to mean, and probably not according to the sense in which many Continental philosophers use the term either.


Robin said...

What would you say to someone who puts "religious" just as comfortably in your list that includes "scientific, moral, aesthetic, ethical, and political"?

(This isn't a challenge, by the way. I'm just genuinely curious!)

When I read your recent reply on technolib that said simply "I don't want to join your cult, stop asking" I nearly hugged the computer. Which, in itself, is ironic.

Dale Carrico said...

When people start making religious claims that might otherwise sound batshit crazy to a longstanding atheist, secularist, and (hey, I can admit it) sensualist like me I find that if I adjust my Universal Translator a bit and hear them making aesthetic claims ("I am following my bliss"), or moral claims ("I try to be a decent person according the norms of my community") instead of making troubling onto-theological claims in the philosophical sense, I have discovered to my delight that the overabundant majority of religious discourse becomes pretty unobjectionable.

Not only that, but I have found that I can carry on quite sustained and detailed conversations with people who locate their religiosity pretty close to the center of their selfhood in ways that seem completely mutually respectful and intelligible so long as I keep these mental translations to myself. That makes me think these translations are probably capturing the substance of what is really at stake in much of the discourse that passes for "religious."

From all this I conclude that

(1) my sense that the United States is pretty much a secular country despite the megaphone organized religion has is correct,

(2) my Deweyan faith that Americans, like everybody else, are critical enough to sustain democratic institutions and intelligent enough to collectively solve shared problems is justified

(3) my belief that most people really are mostly right about most things most of the time isn't ruled out by the prevalence of rampant irrationalism after all

(4) militant atheists are mistaking as terrifying irrationality what is often little more than a rather glib usage of superficially theological vocabularies to express esthetic and moral beliefs, and this mistake of theirs makes them feel more alienated, scared, and desperate about the state of the world than they need be.

That said, when a fundamentalist champions patriarchy, an evangelical asshole champions genocide or theocracy, when a Robot Cultist muddies the distinction between policy discourse and flim-flam artistry and fraud, when people uncritically substitute the dictates of authorities for critical engagement, well, you can be sure I do call them on it for dangerous bullshit.

In answer to your specific question, I don't think "religious" is properly added to my list of modes of warranted belief, because the only bits of religiosity that are warrantable are already subsumed under the aesthetic and moral categories. If it hurts the feelings of an otherwise unobjectionably religious person to put that point so baldly, I'll just do the mental translation in my head and go ahead with dinner.

Does that answer your question? I didn't take it as a hostile provocation or challenge at all! I like that question. I tend to think my approach on it could be much more widely applied to good result!

Bob said...

I find it strange that you take your philosophical quadrivium to be "weirdly incompatible." They seem to me to be war horses of a very similar philosophical color. For instance, both Rorty and Foucault have so defined—or radically redefined—the concept of the epistemic as to make it unrecognizable to most philosophers who specialize in the subject (granting that they see the political consequences of such redefinitions in sometimes starkly different terms). But perhaps once you ally yourself with the pragmatists (I inhabit a distant latitude on the spectrum, near now-quasi Pluto), it's easier to see the internal distinctions.

Dale Carrico said...

Yes, it's true that the differences that make a difference between these figures are more legible to those who care enough about what these four people actually said (and say) to pay attention to them.

Bob said...

I perhaps flatter myself to think that, apropos of caring (enough) and of paying attention, I've given Butler, Foucault, and Rorty (I haven't read much Arendt) the benefit of many doubts (together, I'm happy to admit, with their giving me a number a beautiful insights or, at the very least, provocations to further thought). I still think I could make a stab at outlining the case for their sharing a number of philosophical positions and (what I take to be) prejudices.

Dale Carrico said...

I meant no harm, perhaps a smiley would've made my comment go down smoother. It's true, I'm pretty deeply internal to these four figures and so their differences seem quite a bit more conspicuous to me than what might appear to be definitive continuities to you. If you do find your way to outlining their shared ground, point me to what you come up with -- I'd be interested to read it.