Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Rhetoric and Nonviolence

While persuasion is traditionally figured as "an outside" to coercion, or to the violent adjudication of disputes, it is also true that in order for persuasion to do its work its parties must already share or find their way to a shared framework the force of which always forecloses what might otherwise be deemed possible or important, yielding a violence of a different kind in enabling a nonviolence.

I don't think this gives the lie to those who would substitute discourse for violence (that's just a facile relativism), but I do think it means that those devoted to nonviolence have to attend to a kind of traffic between modes of violence.

In testifying to the violence in one register, testimony and even attention to violence of another is comparatively foreclosed. Consider that to open up to debate the "question" of the humanity of a person of color or a queer person is already to dehumanize the person of color or queer person by treating their humanity debatable as a "topic" -- and yet the violence inhering in the closure of that debate is not rendered thereby non-real nor irrelevant, and exacts its own dehumanizing toll. Or consider how many good moral people collaborate every day in propping up evil ethical norms and political institutions just through their under-critical acceptance of some customary attitudes or through their patterns of consumption. To declare such people simply morally "bad" is to refuse the definitive demand of the ethical that it be excessive and the ineradicable price of the political that it remain contingent, it is to fail to grasp the enabling paradox of nonviolent practice that it is at once impossible and necessary.

Slavoj Zizek genuflects at this notion of a traffic between registers of violence in his book on Violence, especially when he points to Brecht's famous quip, "What is the crime of robbing a bank compared with the crime of founding one?"

To digress a moment, I disapprove of the tripartite "objective-subjective-symbolic" schema of violence Zizek then uses to elaborate his helpful hunch into a mousetrap with his usual iconic laconic Lacanic mechanic morsel of cheese. It is only because violences are stabilized into legibility, and hence become obligating, at the cost of destabilizations of other possibilities and importances (violences themselves) that render illegible and ineligible other experiences of and testimonies to violence that Zizek proposes his demarcations at all. But it seems to me he would domesticate the force of this insight and our grasp of its demand by assigning to moments in the costly and heartbreaking (also promising, in a sense that takes us back, as always, to Arendt) dynamic of stabilizations and destabilizations the status of "objective" and "subjective," or to the traffic itself a mechanistic construal of the "symbolic." If you ask me, to fancy that we can definitively or even usefully declare of a testimonial to violence (not only of violation, but of violence) that it is "subjective" or "objective" is to attempt to circumvent the costly, deranging force of obligation for the pleasurable or consoling distractions of philosophy.

It pays to remember that rhetoric, together with the poetry of which it seems to me essentially to be a subgenre, is the classic, indeed inaugural, antagonist of the Western philosophical imaginary. Rhetoric has also, and I believe rightly, seemed especially attuned to the aspiration toward nonviolence. As it happens, this is the connection which drew me to the study and teaching of rhetoric in the first place.

The special relevance of rhetoric to the aspiration of nonviolence does not only derive from the way rhetoric concerns itself with the techniques, occasions, and benefits of persuasion (which have their own troubled affinities with coercion, after all, something that becomes clear enough the moment you meditate on the multiple senses in which we use the word "conviction"). More crucial by far to rhetoric's nonviolent ethos, in my view, is that it has always concerned itself definitively with the relation of literal and figurative language. Indeed, I would insist that it is the prior fixation on the figural that drives rhetoric's concern with persuasion and not vice versa.

Forgive the furious concentration of especially the next six paragraphs -- I am used to devoting hours and even weeks to the elaboration of these ideas in teaching settings:

Figurative language denotes deviations from (or violations of) customary usage that nonetheless make meaning, make sense. These deviations are the "turns" to which the term trope, from tropos, refers. Notice that these turns need not always be exactly spastic, anarchic, however:

The distance between the literal and the figurative is nothing like the ineradicable gulf that separates world and word (true whether the words are taken literally or figurally, and true despite the fact that all words are as worldly as billiard balls, marks and noises making their play in the environment). The distance between the literal comparison of the simile (love is like a rose) and the figural substitution of the metaphor (love is a rose) is a difference of degree that functions, for a time, as a difference of kind. Everything is at once infinitely similar and infinitely different from everything else, and it could be the work of a lifetime to testify to the similarities or differences obtaining between any two events. It is the work of language to organize the interminable play of differences (all always also susceptible to description as similitudes) provisionally into salience, according to whatever quandary in that play of differences they would answer to and answer for: confidence, science; belonging, morals; equity, ethics; reconciliation, politics, and so on.

All the Four Master Tropes of which Burke wrote most provocatively and of which metaphor is the first -- the others are metonymy, synecdoche, irony -- propose associations that are not (yet) literal but are nonetheless governed by relations of contiguity, containment, reversal that have logical and topical as well as these tropological variations (not to mention correlates in the classic Freudian account of the creative unconscious).

If one wants to take the figure of catachresis instead of metaphor as the point of departure through which to grasp the relation of the literal and figural, this presumably provides for a more radical account, since catachresis refers to coinages or outright commandeerings of terminology in the face of novelty, rather than, as with metaphor, substitutions of the figural where literal language is nonetheless available. But we know from Saussure that the circuit of the sign is abstract through and through, the material form of the signifier which becomes the placeholder for the conceptual content of the signified corrals indefinitely many instances of materially distinguishable marks and noises as instead sufficiently similar signifiers no less than the indefinitely many also distinguishable-but-sufficiently-similar referents corralled together conceptually by the signified.

Catachresis re-enacts the arbitrary proposal of a material event as sign, but all figurative language -- and not just the schemic figures like alliteration, chiasmus, onomatopoeia -- foregrounds the materiality that typically must be disavowed for the sign to do its literal work (a material disavowal on which Barthes depends when he proposes in Mythologies that ideology is likewise structured like a language, but disavowing the materiality of history as social struggle in order to naturalize the status quo to the benefit of incumbents). Metaphor, for its part, re-enacts the arbitrary association through which language organizes the play of differences into provisional salience.

Donald Davidson famously observed: "Once upon a time, I suppose, rivers and bottles did not, as they do now, literally have mouths." What it is crucial to understand -- and especially crucial in connection with my specific question here of the special relevance of rhetoric, via its concern with the figurative, to the aspiration to nonviolence, is that these "dead metaphors" can be read as the dying into literality of a once-vital figure, or just as well as the coming into lively literality of a once idiosyncratic figure. If one happens to be paying special attention to the vitality of the poet who calls forth a meaning equal to the novelty and dynamism of material reality through the assertion of the special force of some material event (mark, noise, gesture, image) and manages to make the assertion stick, then one will tend to speak of a dying into literality of vital figurality. But if one happens to be paying special attention instead to the vitality of the scientist or ethician who manages through the public ritual of testing and publication to translate idiosyncratic hunches or parochial intuitions into reasonable and warranted expectations of prediction and control or the equitable and accountable government of "laws and not men," then one will tend to speak of coming into a lively literality of a shaggy figure. What matters to me most of all is the insistence that neither of these perspectives is rightly to be preferred over the other in every instance, that each captures a no-less primordial, indispensable, vital dimension of the agentic work of language.

Nietzsche famously said of truth that it is
A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms -- in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

Richard Rorty once chided this statement as apparently self-refuting. Does Nietzsche mean for his own utterance to be taken as a truth or as an illusion, after all? Of course, every good pragmatist knows (and I'm one who defends Rorty as one of the best pragmatists we've had), after James, that truths are only "the good in the way of belief" and I daresay it isn't exactly a stretch to propose that some illusions, certain perspectival effects, are good enough in the way of belief that we might be warranted at once in assigning them the status of the illusory and the true. And hence the worrisome whiff of self-refutation is resolved, no muss no fuss (the concern was always mostly a parlor trick distraction for undergraduate theory-head pricks anyway). While I do think Nietzsche is rather over-dramatic and Romantic in denouncing, apparently, literal truths as "worn out" metaphors here, what has always seemed to me most promising in his formulation is his insistence that this is in army in motion. An mobilized army is one the movements of which are usefully tracked, armies often move messily and unpredictably, they lag sometimes and then launch into a quick-march, they find their way to critical encounters they scarcely planned for as often as they arrive at their imagined destinations, and as often as not they back-peddle, they get stuck, they retreat, they go home, about which more in a moment. To insist too much on Nietzsche's self-referential incoherence is to risk the embarrassment of mistaking a rhetorician for a philosopher and making something of a fool of oneself, not to mention simply making too much methodologically of Nietzsche's temperamental annoyance -- shared with his truest contemporary Oscar Wilde -- with the statisticians and sticks-in-the-mud of the world.

It would be a characteristic gesture of philosophy to valorize one side of literal-figural distinction and then seek to subsume meaning-making under the terms of whichever pole happens to be the preferred one for whatever philosopher is making her separate case. After all, the quintessential gesture of all philosophy is its designation of a First Philosophy, whatever it may be, against which or in terms of which philosophizing will measure all endeavor, including its own philosophizing: Hence while it is customary to point out that philosophy names the "love of wisdom," from philo-, love, and sophia, wisdom, it is important to remember that Plato's inaugural repudiation of rhetoric, sophistry, which constituted the Western philosophical imaginary, was an inaugural repudiation that first re-figured wisdom as "The Way," the One True Knowledge, philosophy as the super-science, the queen of the disciplines, the meta-physics. But the characteristic gesture of rhetoric, to the contrary, would be to attend to the traffic between the literal and the figural, to document the historical vicissitudes through which the figure is literalized, the literal figured, the moribund figural within the literal re-activated, yielding what different vitalities and problems along the way, providing what tools to which we might avail ourselves under what occasions, and so on.

The traffic between modes of violence to which those who would be nonviolent should properly attend -- lest they become uncritical or complacent collaborators in this or that systemic violence playing out elsewhere, whatever the keenness of their efforts to ameliorate this or that violation or injustice here and now, or vice versa -- is of a piece with the traffic between the literal and figurative. Let me be clear about this: my point is not to assign to violence of some particular type the moniker "figurative" and to others "literal" and then offer up an account of mechanisms through which the one is predictably frustrated by attention to the other. As I said in connection to Zizek before, it seems to me these terminological assignments are far less clarifying than they may seem, and indeed function to circumvent or domesticate the excessively costly derangements that often attend actual ethical obligation for the pleasures and consolations of philosophy. The rhetorician knows that there is no final assignment to be made to the word of the status of the literal or the figural -- that army is mobile, recall -- the rhetorician knows the at once enabling and subversive possibility of the other always resonates in the most secure stabilization of the word at one pole or the other for the moment. It is the rhetorician's attunement to the traffic between the different vitalities and demands of the literal and the figurative that affords her the sensitivity to the violence through which other violence becomes susceptible to its necessary redress and that makes rhetoric the space for a hope for nonviolence that it has traditionally and rightly been taken to be, and not, of all thing, its supposed mastery of some one rhetorical method -- Aristotelian, Toulminian, Kingian, Rogerian -- that "masters" violence.

Pragmatism works to dispense with the philosophical fantasy that the universe has a language the terms of which it prefers to be spoken in and the authoritative speakers of which it anoints its worldly Priests (naturally, the philosophers themselves, or scientists, politicians, religious leaders indulging in philosophical salesmanship peddled as science, policy-making, or religion when it is not and always in a quest for control), and pragmatism defends the reasonable confidence inspired by warranted beliefs and the capacitation and capaciousness that follows from reasonable belief. But pragmatism denies certainty or finality to warranted belief and denies supremacy to one mode of reasonable belief over all others whatever their occasion (scientific belief, say, over moral, ethical, political belief), and pragmatism repudiates the philosophical fancy that to deny the first is somehow to call into question the existence of reality or that to deny the second is somehow to embrace relativism or that either denial demands a descent into madness or anarchy. Still profoundly unfinished in my view is the work of pragmatism to grasp that obligation is like any other fact -- a thing made, or done -- and exerts its worldly force, its truth, on us no less tangibly and indispensably, but also no more finally, certainly, or supremely. Until it makes more headway in this effort, until it shrugs off its philosophical vestiges and embraces its rhetorical heritage more fully, it cannot properly contribute as it should to the address of the deepest paradox of nonviolence of all: Namely, that human beings themselves are incarnated poems, and our freedom depends for its intelligibility and force at once both on our legibility within the terms of vocabularies, norms, customs, laws on offer (to be illegible or partially legible to the eye of the law is so often to suffer abjection, humiliation, exploitation, violation, death) as well as on our confounding excessiveness in those terms (to be reduced to the terms of the already-legible is to be rendered an object and not a peer). Like any words making their play in the world, wordy-worldly we must resonate both with literality and figurality if we would be forceful, and if we would be free.

The aspiration to nonviolence must be attentive then not only to the ways in which we risk violence in the necessary work of rendering violence capable of address, but also to the ways in which every address of one who might be the subject or object of violence obligates us to embrace an encounter in which we might be violated in our own selfhood (confounded in our deepest prejudices, beliefs, or desires as we potentially are by any good poem) as the condition of a nonviolence that takes freedom seriously. For me the resources available for this work, and for thinking our way through it, are mostly to be found in the archive of rhetoric, as well as in those works of philosophy and critical theory that come closest to repudiating philosophy for rhetoric (Hannah Arendt, Judith Butler, and the American Pragmatists).


jimf said...

> Nietzsche famously said of truth that it is
> > A mobile army of metaphors. . . which after long use seem firm,
> > canonical, and obligatory. . . illusions about which one has forgotten
> > that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out. . .
> Richard Rorty once chided this statement as apparently self-refuting.
> Does Nietzsche mean for his own utterance to be taken as a truth or as
> an illusion, after all? . . . the concern was always mostly a
> parlor trick distraction for undergraduate theory-head pricks. . .

It may be a parlor trick, but something similar (the accusation of "self-refutation"
aimed at an argument purporting to explain the nature of truth) comes up
over and over again. E.g. (from an exchange in my e-mail archive):

One of our unresolved arguments [i.e., between
N.L. and me] was the one put forth by
[C. S.] Lewis and others against Naturalism --
i.e., if my thoughts are simply the end-product
of random collisions of inert matter [a caricature
of evolution -- the randomness is at the **margin**,
but let that pass ;-> ], then why should I believe
them to be true? Ergo, Naturalism is self-refuting.
I thought that argument was begging the question
(i.e., of whether a "dead" universe can give rise
to life and intelligence via evolution) by asserting
the negative by a simple appeal to prejudice,
and I still think so.

Oddly, I take seriously that C.S. Lewis position,
though I associate it with JBS Haldane, no foe of

Well, well. I never realized that Haldane had
made this argument, and I'm a little shocked to learn
that he did. But it does indeed seem to
be attributed to him in several Web articles,
and in fact it seems that Lewis actually quoted
Haldane approvingly in _Miracles_ (how could
I have missed that? ;-> ):
C.S.Lewis quotes Prof. Haldane as saying, "If my mental
processes are determined wholly by the motion of atoms
in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my
beliefs are true . . . and hence I have no reason for
supposing my brain to be composed of atoms" ("Miracles", p.18).

jimf said...

No urgency, but learning your refutation to it. . .

Well, who am I to "refute" it? ;->

My reaction is more or less as follows. For Lewis,
this line of argument is simply a way to keep God in the
picture. For Haldane (and Darwin himself, it seems),
their reservations might simply be accounted for by the fact
that taking Naturalism seriously forces one to
adapt to a huge intellectual discontinuity,
especially for somebody brought up in an older
religious tradition.

My take is that just being able to seriously
entertain the possibility of materialism
(Napoleon: "How is it that, although you say so
much about the Universe, you say nothing
about its Creator?" Laplace: "Sire, I had no need of that
hypothesis") is something quite new and strange
and disquieting in the human intellectual
sphere (God, the gods, angels and devils, spirits and souls, etc.
are an old, familiar, comfortable story) and my inclination
is to give it a chance and see how far the best minds can run with
it. I am no evolutionary epistemologist, but I do not
outright reject as nonsense the notion that variation --
randomness -- followed by selection, can act as a "probe"
to extract and store information about the world.
The randomness isn't complete chaos -- it's highly
constrained by all the selection that came before.
The continuing variation occurs "on top", or
"at the edge", or "at the margin" of the structure
that's already been created over aeons (or over a
lifetime). There are lots of books out there about
evolution, and as for how an analogous process might
account for intelligence, you can read Gerald Edelman
or Jean-Pierre Changeux, or Henry Plotkin (on
evolutionary epistemology).

jimf said...


Problems of materialism include:

1. Self-refuting
Materialism is self-refuting. As leading Darwinist
mathematician-biologist J.B.S. Haldane realised, "If my
mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of
atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my
beliefs are true ... and hence I have no reason for
supposing my brain to be composed of atoms." (Haldane, 1927,
p.209; Lewis, 1947, pp.18-19; Moreland, 1987, p.78ff).
That is, materialism applied to the mind undermines the validity
of all reasoning, including one's own, since if our theories
are the products of chemical reactions, how can we
know whether they are true? (Johnson, 1997a, p.82). Darwin
himself expressed his "horrid doubt" that the
reasoning of a mind that was the result of chance could
not be trusted upon (Darwin, 1898, p.285). Thus
materialistic science destroys its own base, since scientists
must be able to trust the conclusions of their
reasoning, but if man's mind was evolved wholly by natural
selection for survival value, then all scientific
theories, including evolution, would be untrustworthy
(Lack, 1957, p.104; Plantinga, 2000; Johnson, 1995b, p.65;
Sire, 1988, p.94; Wilcox, 1990, pp.2:20-21). Materialists
must therefore implicitly exempt themselves from
materialism in order to make their arguments for materialism
(Pearcey, 2000b)! But as Plato long ago pointed
out, a theory is always wrong which, at its very root,
invalidates itself (Grene, 1959, p.56).

Popper says that "the decisive argument for indeterminism is
the existence of rational knowledge itself." This, of course,
would be "scientific" indeterminism, proven by the "scientific evidence"
of the existence of knowledge. He quotes J.B.S. Haldane,
who wrote, "I am not myself a materialist because if materialism
is true, it seems to me that we cannot know that it is true.
If my opinions are the result of the chemical processes
going on in my brain, they are determined by the laws of chemistry,
not those of logic." Popper identifies materialism with
determinism, but both he and Haldane seem to accept this
argument as a self-evident truth, which I would paraphrase
"I know I have knowledge, therefore I know I am not determined."
Descartes would be proud.

Lewis's version of the argument is described at:
C. S. Lewis's Case Against Naturalism

There are various (all biased, one way or another, no
doubt) accounts of the famous debate between Lewis
and Elizabeth Anscombe (herself a Catholic) on this
topic. Some people have suggested that Lewis "lost"
the debate and was terribly demoralized thereby;
others claim that Anscombe merely suggested modifications
to Lewis's argument. Who knows what really happened?

jimf said...

> what has always seemed to me most promising in [Nietzsche's] formulation
> is his insistence that this is in army in motion.

W. V. O. Quine:

"There is no absolutely certain starting point
that can be the foundation for our philosophical
edifice. Nor is there any point of view from where
we can see it all from outside: we are thrown
into a kind of existence that we must seek to
understand without stepping out of it. 'There is
no vantage point, no first philosophy,' Quine said.
He therefore picked as his motto for his main work
of _Word and Object_ the following quotation from
Otto Neurath: 'We are like seafarers, who must
rebuild their ship in open sea, without being able
to take it apart in a dock and build it up of its
best constituents from the bottom up.'"

Dale Carrico said...

When I said that those who dismissed as self-referential incoherence Nietzsche's "truth and illusion" declaration were indulging in a parlor trick, my point is that they are either impatiently misunderstanding or dishonestly circumventing -- rather than "refuting" -- Nietzsche through a stubborn clinging to the customary definitions of truth and illusion it is Nietzsche's whole point to trouble in the passage.

If some illusions under Nietzsche's perspectivism can be good in the way of belief then it will not be a distinction between truth and illusion premised on Platonic essentialism or naive correspondence that facilitates our reasonable or warranted beliefs in the matter. That is to say, when mobile metaphors replace word-world correspondence, when occasion replaces certainty it no longer makes much sense to declare as forceful a truth-illusion distinction in the way those asserting the formulation to be self-refuting are doing.

What they are really saying is something like, "Nietzsche is using the words truth and illusion in uncustomary ways." Thus rephrased, their objection not only no longer seems a stunning refutation but seems instead to name the obvious in the clumsiest most clueless manner imaginable. Of course, Nietzsche depends on an awareness of both the customary and noncustomary usages and the play between them for the force of his point.

Hence, the "parlor trick distraction for undergraduate theory-head pricks" comment. I am far from saying that self-referential incoherence is always a useless parlor trick. Indeed, scouting for logical, topical, tropological incoherences butters your bread if you are in the business -- as I am -- of textual close reading!

jimf said...

> [T]hey are either impatiently misunderstanding or dishonestly
> circumventing -- rather than "refuting". . . through a stubborn
> clinging to the customary definitions of truth and illusion it is
> [one's] whole point to trouble. . .

Ain't it the truth! ;->

jimf said...

> to be reduced to the terms of the already-legible is
> to be rendered an object and not a peer. . .


"According to scientific materialism, the parts are more important than the
whole -- to the degree that sometimes the whole seems to be a lot less than
the sum of its parts. The end result is what the late British neurophysicist
Donald MacKay liked to call the “nothing buttery” syndrome, the
attempt to explain every fact of human existence as “nothing but” some
nonrational material process -- as in, “Our enjoyment of symphonies is
nothing but the conversion of mechanical energy into electrical signals by
the cells in our inner ear,” or “Morality . . . is merely [i.e., ‘nothing but’] an
adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends,” or “your joys
and your sorrows . . . your sense of personality and free will, are in fact no
more than [i.e., ‘nothing but’] the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells
and their associated molecules.” Even the realms of mind and spirit cannot
escape from the reductionists’ onslaught, because in their view “matter
is the ground of all existence; mind, spirit, and God as well, are just
[i.e., ‘nothing but’] words that express the wondrous results of neuronal

-- "Nothing Buttery from Atomism to the Enlightenment"

See also C. S. Lewis's essay "Meditation in a Toolshed"

Dale Carrico said...

Metaphors are of course natural rather than supernatural phenomena materialized as are all signifiers in events, marks, noises in the world and materialized as are all signifieds as electrochemical dispositions in brains that register the organized attention and responsiveness of organisms to impingements upon their sense receptors of streams of energy articulated by the negotiation of a demanding environment by that organism. I don't see how materiality or reality are imperiled particularly by recognitions of the dynamism of the literal-figural distinction, or any of the series of post-Nietzschean (among which, American pragmatists) recognitions: namely, that science yields confidence but not certainty, truths are good but not final, salient associations can be familiar or not, we are on our own but have each other, and so on.

For Lewis, this line of argument is simply a way to keep God in the picture.

There's a whole lot of that going on, in my experience.

My own position is rather idiosyncratic because I am a crusty atheist and champion of consensus science on the one hand, but a pluralist about reasonableness in that I think different criteria warrant as reasonable our judgments about scientific, legal, aesthetic, moral, ethical, political, even more circumscribed professional questions.

Sometimes I sympathize more with the arguments of religious folks (of whom I am not one) against atheists (of whom I am one) who want to be too imperializing about reducing all endeavor and value into terms they fancy to be properly scientific -- a project that seems to me to have nothing to do with science (let alone atheism), properly so-called.

While I don't believe in God I do follow a path of perverse private perfections exploring and appreciating the delights of the world or the pursuit of my own thoughts in ways that are far from entirely justified by the terms that justify and warrant (and rightly so) our beliefs in respect to consensus science where matters of prediction and control are concerned. A reasonable person is not only capacitated but capacious, and this is all good.

When a materialist declares a pragmatist to be relativist you can be sure he is revealing that his is a fundamentalist rather than properly scientific materialism. When a naturalist declares pluralism supernatural you can be sure he is revealing that his science has been commandeered by a reductionist project that has nothing to do with science properly so-called.

On the other hand, I do wish that those who complain about materialism or naturalism or science and then always freight these terms with words like "merely," "simply," "random" and so on would be much clearer that it is reductionism and scientism that they really oppose. Opposing these leaves plenty of reasonable conceptions of consensus science, materialism, naturalism cheerfully intact -- and it provides nothing to reassure one's faith in a creator-god or guardian angel or eternal life or superhuman judge punishing the wicked and rewarding the well-meaning in life as too rarely happens, demoralizingly enough, here on earth.

Poor Richard said...

Some really breath-taking rhetoric and analysis here, Dale.

I like your contrast between rhetoric and philosophy. I am reminded of Gurdjieff's "Philology more important than philosophy."

I like your formulation of what, if you don't object, I might call "fuzzy materialism". I am reminded of John Lilly's "Contained mind vs uncontained mind vs leaky mind."

I want to read your post again before I say more.


Dale Carrico said...

Thanks very much! Only because you seem such an appreciative audience of writings of mine I'm proudest of do I venture the immodest suggestion -- vis-à-vis "fuzzy materialism" which I presume is not so unlike Rorty's phrase "nonreductive physicalism" with which I sympathize -- that you might also enjoy:

Is Science Democratic?

Raised Vulcan Eyebrows and Hopeless Human Hopes

Sold Out Truths

Poor Richard said...

Dale, I like your comments about pragmatism. When I was much younger I called myself a pragmatic idealist but now I'm just a pragmatist.

Have you written anything about consequentialism or utility?

I would like to equate pragmatism and utilitarianism but there is too much about utilitarianism that seems impractical, especially the difficulty of computing or predicting consequences with any confidence in view of typical ambiguities and complexities. I guess the same applies to pragmatism so perhaps they are equivalent.

I think of pragmatism as an art/craft/science with a big set of tools and an emphasis on skills and aesthetics rather than philosophy and ideology.

I think there is an art of science and a science of art; a philosophy of science and a science of philosophy; a politics of science and a science of politics, and so on. These pairs are recursive like the images that recede to infinity in a facing pair of mirrors.

The processes the brain has evolved to resolve ambiguity and complexity are themselves ambiguous and complex. Science, scholarship, craftsmanship, and even language are very useful forms of reduction, but there is always a residual ambiguity that is left for aesthetics to resolve.

I think Wittgenstein said something like that in Tractitus.


Dale Carrico said...

I don't think we know enough to call ourselves consequentialist, and that that is knowing more than enough to know we shouldn't. Utility is always -- to whom? for what? at the expense of what? And answering these questions eliminates most of the benefits that presumably make it alluring to be a utilitarian, it seems to me. I consider both consequentialist and utilitarian viewpoints altogether too reductionist and too cocksure (attitudes which tend catastrophically to go hand in hand). My own tendency is pluralist, and I tend to prefer the pragmatists when they are in their pluralist moods more than in their reductionist moods -- there is plenty of both to be found in the archive. It is only useful to resolve those ambiguities that are troublemaking -- and sometimes what is wanted instead is to embrace and even bring out ambiguities where a hardening of the orthodoxies is making the trouble. I think every modality of reasonable belief ascription contributes its measure to the resolution or ramification of ambiguities, from time to time, not just the aesthetic. You will be unsurprised to hear that I prefer the latter to the early Wittgenstein. Sorry for the tumble of responses there all at once.

Poor Richard said...

"I don't think we know enough to call ourselves consequentialist, and that that is knowing more than enough to know we shouldn't. Utility is always -- to whom? for what? at the expense of what? And answering these questions eliminates most of the benefits that presumably make it alluring to be a utilitarian, it seems to me"

This was exactly my reservation about utility a year ago. Since then I've been thinking of how to rescue utility and what I've managed to throw together so far is certainly, on the surface and without caveats on every other line, the kind of hyperbolic futurism you despise:

"I consider both consequentialist and utilitarian viewpoints altogether too reductionist and too cocksure ."

What I have done is try to make it slightly less reductionist and far more inclusive and pluralist.

For example:

"Both the so called “utility function” and utilitarianism have their critics and their historical baggage. In philosophy, economics, and social science they have been formulated in overly vague, reductive, or simplistic ways often rife with primitive, pre-scientific assumptions and externalities. That doesn’t matter to me because I assume a priori that any philosophical school has historical baggage and needs to be reformulated to conform with a modern empirical framework. Henceforth I refer to a more scientific framework as General Utility 2.0. I call it “general” utility to distinguish it from prior species of utility theory which I characterize as narrow or “special” versions of utility.

In theory, the General Utility 2.0 framework is a multi-dimensional matrix of all currently known and measurable variables that impact the well-being and flourishing of human life and everything on which it depends (i.e. the biosphere.)"

I go on to offer a rough sketch of what a taxonomy of such variables might look like.

Reading some of your stuff on amor mundi makes me feel that such an enterprise is pretty foolish and naive.

Certainly in its grand scope it is absurd and impracticable. But I guess I am holding on to the hope that somewhere within the bathwater is a more parsimonious and less ambitious baby, perhaps some je ne sais qois, that can be lifted out and salvaged, which would still be an incremental improvement on the intuitively appealing but impractical ethical calculus of utility.

General Utility 2.0, Towards a science of happiness and well-being

Is there any at all here that might pass your muster?

(Disregarding all the reference material I threw in at the end it isn't long.)

Dale Carrico said...

I guess I don't think utility really needs rescuing -- which isn't to say I think the notion needs to be bagged for disposal but that utility is plenty useful enough that it doesn't need the protection of philosophers freighting it with our rather silly idiosyncratic baggage. As a good Jamesian pragmatist I say that "the true is the good in the way of belief... for definite, assignable reasons." I think that common or garden variety truths as beliefs we have reasons for which we are willing to state in public/ation is a perfectly sensible notion but that "truth as correspondence" is a philosophical gun that shoots nothing but blanks, that common or garden variety certainty as warranted confidence on which one is willing to stake one's life or at any rate the mortgage is a perfectly sensible notion but that "certainty as indefeasability" is a philosophical gun that shoots nothing but blanks, that common or garden variety utilities, whether of the scientific kind that confer prediction and control, the moral kind that keep us from losing our scruples, the prudential kind that differently navigate legal, commercial, political interactions are all perfectly sensible notions but that the a "general utility function" philosophical gun that shoots nothing but blanks. True to my training in the belly of the pomo beast, I suppose, I do still think theory is better off reaching first for the tools in the historicization and contextualization drawers rather than the generalization drawer. If I speak derisively of philosophical impulses, do understand that I have had the philosophy bug most of my life and feel I know Socrates and Kant and the Founders and many Marxists and Arendt and Rorty better than most living people, I haven't shaken that bug yet -- and so acerbic comments should be viewed as wry commentaries on weaknesses to which I am prone more than finger-pointing exercises at silly benighted Others. I do think one needs to re-think what intellectual ambition properly looks like from a pluralist-pragmatist-rhetorical perspective (I'm a teacher with a vocation for it, so this is something I think about fairly incessantly) ... metaphysical traditions and their scientistic evolutionary cybernetic progeny in the present day seem to me to offer more cul-de-sacs and symptoms than use.

Poor Richard said...

Fair enough Dale. That's what I thought you say, and I'm pretty much on the same page.

I just have one question and I'll stop beating this nag:

Have you seen this kind of thing around anywhere?

Utility 2.0 Framework


I. Identity & demographics

II. Mental/emotional status

Note: possibility of real-time monitoring of some items

1. vital signs
2. galvanic skin resistance
3. pupil dialation
4. brain scan(qEEG, fMRI)
5. hormone levels
6. subjective reports

III. Health & longevity (many scales)

IV. Safety/security (ditto)

V. Freedom/constraint/capability

VI. Information/communication

A. Education

1. Formal education
2. Self-directed education
3. Educational goals
4. Quality assurance, confidence

B. Self-knowledge

1. implicit associations and biases
2. conscious values/beliefs
3. strengths and weaknesses
4. habits
5. effective/ineffective reinforcement history
6. etc.

C. Knowledge of consequences of alternative choices, thoughts, or behaviors

1. short-term consequences
2. long-term consequences

D. Beliefs and opinions

E. Cognitive and communication metrics and skills

VII. Social matrix

1. Status (gender, age, wealth, power, rank, position, fame, celebrity, etc.)
2. Family
3. Friends
4. Community
5. Employment (job code, job satisfaction, working conditions, culture, co-worker relations, etc.)
6. Memberships and affiliations
7. On-line social networks
8. Other support networks

VIII. Skills & abilities (academic, technical, mechanical, professional, athletic, parenting, housekeeping, etc.)

IX. Standard of living factors

1. market basket
2. assets & liabilities
3. disposable income
4. etc.

X. Other quality of life factors

1. creative activities
2. recreation
3. exposure to nature
4. etc.

XI. Contribution to flourishing of others (including ecosystem impacts)

"Instruments" exist to measure most of the parameters above.

The next stage of the Utility 2.0 model would be correlating data in the profile so that a change in one variable would be reflected in any others where a relationship was known. So the Utility 2.0 framework is a model of both data and relational algorithms.

One metaphor for the General Utility framework might be the control board in a recording studio. The individual parameters of the sounds on multiple "tracks" can be adjusted and combined in an infinite number of ways but somehow one particular set of levels gets chosen as the most pleasing combination. Earlier models of utility and social welfare might be analogous to the generic rock/pop/jazz settings on a cheap acoustic equalizer. General Utility is a more granular, eclectic, and empirical approach to altering parameters and measuring results.


Dale Carrico said...

Well actually there is an enormous sociological literature supporting the various comparative national health and wellness and happiness indices that one finds in various United Nations publications and harm-reduction model policy analyses, for example. There is something of a cottage industry in pop happiness theory, often taking perfectly sound and useful theory and deranging it into libertopian don't worry be happy theory, so one must be careful in surveying the scene. Also, the recent scholarship vogue debunking rational expectations in economic and sociological discourses contains a wealth of such empiricial gap filling. It isn't my field, so I can't say that I've read more than a few hundred books and articles in this area (mugs for camera).

Poor Richard said...

"Well actually there is an enormous sociological literature supporting the various comparative national health and wellness and happiness indices that one finds in various United Nations publications and harm-reduction model policy analyses, for example."

I linked to a lot of that stuff from my utility page. At least that's an improvement on well-being = GDP, isn't it?

All I'm doing is suggesting directions for further improvement.

I wonder if utility doesn't stand in the same relation to morality as science did to religion in the middle ages.