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Monday, March 21, 2011

Philosophical Guns That Shoot Nothing But Blanks

Upgraded from an edifying exchange in the Moot with "Poor Richard" who proposes in a lengthy comment you should read for its own sake: "I've been thinking of how to rescue utility."

He says much more, to which I reply:

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." That business of offering up reasons for warrantable assertions of belief according to their different modes, scientific, moral, aesthetic, ethical, political, commercial, legal and so on is, sensibly enough, the essence of the reasonable, properly so-called, to my way of thinking.

I do think that common or garden variety truth 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. I think 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. And I think that common or garden variety utilities, whether of the scientific kind that confer best-on-offer powers of prediction and control, of the moral kind that keep us from losing our scruples despite our belonging to more than one discursive community but to none of them fully, and of the prudential kinds that differently navigate legal, commercial, political tangles are all perfectly sensible notions, too, but that any "general utility function" will be yet another philosophical gun that shoots nothing but blanks. Needless to say, such guns are still noisy enough to leave your ears ringing when you ought to be listening more carefully to what is afoot.

True to my training in the humanities academy (BA literature, MA philosophy, PhD rhetoric, teaching cultural theory for over a decade, lions, and tigers, and bears) that is to say in the belly of the pomo beast, as no doubt the elite effete aesthete you see before you, I suppose, I do happen still think theory is better off reaching first for the tools in the historicization and contextualization drawers rather than the generalization drawer when one is trying to make sense of things. Well, fancy that: a generalization!

You see, 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, actually. Metaphysical traditions and their many scientistic-evolutionary-cybernetic progeny in the present day seem to me to offer more discursive cul-de-sacs and pathological symptoms than uses in this work, I'm afraid. To be honest about it, I consider all such fancies that the universe has preferences about the words humans describe it with or takes sides in human squabbles over the vicissitudes of fashion and so on mostly to be vestiges of organized religiosity with priestly authoritarian politics in tow, and rather think we would all do well without them.


Poor Richard said...

I read that to mean you are not interested in visiting the zoo of utilities any time soon (I don't blame you--its a pretty shabby exhibition) much less discussing utility ecology.

I can't say I'm not a little disappointed, because you seem like one who would be well-suited to approaching the general utility ecosystem from some local point of entry in a very pragmatic way--not just running around the meadows of the utilisphere chasing philosophical butterflies.

I'm not one to worry over a field left fallow but for that pesky (if apocryphal) barb of Burke's: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing to improve general utility."


Dale Carrico said...

Nietzsche's answer to the utilitarians, The Genealogy of Morals, was so darned good that by the time Foucault wrote it again under the title Discipline and Punish Hannah Arendt had already re-written it herself under the title The Human Condition. Given how large those three books loom in my imagination and given how much worth saving in utilitarianism was already taken up in that American strain of post-Emersonian thought, Jamesian-Deweyan-Rortyan pragmatism (and as Cornel West convincingly indicated Nietzsche himself and his heirs are well considered the European strain of post-Emersonian thought), I'll admit I don't find much allure in what passes for utilitarianism these days, especially given how many under its banner are playing out what honestly seem to me to be played out variations on what were already facile consequentialisms, positivisms, bioreductionist scientisms and so on. You'll forgive the sweeping character of that mapping exercise: the caveats, qualifications, ramifications would take a two-semester upper-division course in late modern philosophy and critical theory to tell aright.