Thursday, January 20, 2011

Reply to a Comment. . .

I feel compelled to reply to the comment made by Doconnor to my last post because this goes to the heart of what I have been trying to say. Furthermore, I believe it is motivated by a philosophical misunderstanding that not only doconnor makes but is rampant in our culture. Though I am sure that doconnor and I would agree on many things politically speaking and I appreciate his/her comments, we are operating in different paradigms. First of all and most pressingly, I think doconnor makes the mistake that many people make and which the work of philosophers of science like Feryabend attempt to correct, which is that he conflates so-called "facts" with "science" as though the two were the same thing, which of course they are not. Science is an ideological construct that attempts to organize a picture of the world which is more or less consistent and under the rubric of science there are many, often conflicting methodologies for doing this. "Facts," on the other hand, are a simple form of 'truth' claim. And of course, using Habermas' forumla in his monumental work "Theory of Communicative Action," there are other kinds of 'truth claims' such as normative and dramaturgical ones. Thus, to also follow Habermas, all three types of truth claims operate on different levels and continually operate together in order to function in the world. Obviously one can never entirely separate claims of fact, for example, from normative claims. They are interdependent. Now it is a common misconception, to which I believe doconnor is falling victim here, that assumes that pragmatic (think Rorty) or 'post-modern' operative philosophical approaches (think Derrida or Foucault) are attempting to circumvent 'factual' claims, which they are not. Rather, the real issue here is that all claims of 'fact' are (and think Nietzsche here)indelibly (and a priori) coloured by our normative judgments, many of which are assumptions of what the Germans call Lebenswelt. Seen in this light, 'science' is an entirely different matter and must be seen in an ideological light (here think Althusser). An effort to see it otherwise is bound, I believe, to fall into the worst kind of scientism.

Now, in this light, I think I can show why doconnor's statement that one can have "fact without ethics" is false and misunderstands the nature of epistemology and the interactions between different kinds of truth claims. Philosophers who are variously referred to as "rationalist" or "objectivist" or under some other rubric, have failed since Montaigne to understand the relationship between so-called rationalist standards and what one might call 'pre-rationalist' judgements. Montaigne's skepticism goes to the heart of this epistemological discourse. One cannot have "facts" without 'ethics" (and I use ethics in the broadest normative sense here) because our normative, non-rationalist, assumptions and judgments predate our perception and understanding of 'facts.' I think even the work of THomas Kuhn demonstrates this. First of all, many people, if not most, will be unable to see certain "facts" until they have colonized the lebenswelt.But second, there is a more subtle and complex issue at stake, which is for 'factual' claims to be in any way organized and meaningful to us as thinking beings, we must assume an entire structure of normative and ethical assumptions. In other words, while it is clear that one could not make normative claims without assuming certain 'facts' about the world because norms assume an external world in which to operate, it must also be said that you could not have facts without normative structures. (This is not, of course, to claim that the physical world of 'facts' doesn't exist without our judgements of it. Rather, it is only a claim that the two are co-dependent. A tree may have a physical reality whether or not we recognize it as such but it would have no "meaning" as a tree without an entire normative structure from we observe it.) Since the advent of the Enlightenment, Western rationalist philosophers have been, in Feyarabend's words, operating in a Conquest of the Abundance of the world. But regardless of what rationalists (or even scientists) believe they are doing, facts are not instructive, we cannot derive an ought from an is, and facts will only be widely accepted as such, or socially meaningful, when they properly relate to or are integrated into some kind of normative structure.

The problem with having this argument, and I have had it for twenty years with philosophers as well as scientists, is that it is paradigmatic in nature and in recent generations a paradigm has formed which is profoundly different from, and often hostile to, this position. Just as Odysseus was completely baffled by Achilles' paradigmatic rejection of the system of honour when he left the battle of Troy, people who are steeped in the contemporary rationalist paradigm will simply be baffled by such a position or falsely believe that it is a naive or an overly metaphysical kind of philosophy. It is always difficult to converse across paradigms, because people find it difficult to imagine that there are other meaningful world-views than their own. And the left has been just as guilty of this as any other group. But even more significantly, it has become very difficult to question the Western rationalist and scientific paradigm because people who adhere to it are so certain that they simply see the world "as it is" and everyone else is confused or deluded. Just as people on all sides of the political spectrum are hostile to anarchistic ideas, so most people are hostile to ideas that they think are relativistic or overly pragmatic. But all societies are dependent upon certain kinds of 'myths.' A member of the Aztec society would think you were deluded or insane if you claimed that the Sun was no more than a ball of fire. And most members of the capitalist society think you are similarly crazy if you say, for example, that competition is unhealthy. We have not reached (and I am not sure we can) the social position that Habermas thinks we have, in which people recognize conflicting ideas as meaningful positions that are all subject to discursive redemption.

So are we trapped in a kind of paradigmatic 'double-bind' or can we find a way to relate to each other? I am not sure. I am fairly confident, however, that the great philosopher Max Weber has been sadly overlooked in recent times and that the technocratic, scientism which grows out of Western rationalism is leading us to an iron cage of teleological efficiency and rational control that is widely misunderstood even by people who think that they live with a different worldview than the prevailing capitalist one. Herein lies the rub.


doconnor said...

It's going to take me a while to fully understand this. Most of the philosophers I know are from this.

People have been raising big philosophical questions with me lately in this post on my blog on how great science can be.

kirbycairo said...

I am sorry I ranted on a bit. And I didn't mean to throw out so much at once. These are difficult and very complex issues and I have been struggling with them for many years. I read Habermas in the early 90s when I was living in Leeds, UK which came on the tail end of many years of Marxist study. From Habermas I branched out into Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, and other contemporary thinkers. It took me many years to begin to shift the paradigm with which I had looked at the world and society. What they often refer to as the "linguistic turn" in philosophy operated and gained in insight as the 20th century progressed. But after a while I truly came to believe that the technical-rational outlook of Western society that emerged out of the Enlightenment and became the paradigm for philosophers for generations, has been deeply problematic and that ironically the left and the right were operating from roughly the same paradigm for over a century. But as I said, to see the paradigm in which one is operating is a notoriously difficult prospect, particularly if that paradigm is ruthlessly dismissive of alternative ideas.

But because the issues are so complex, my only goal is to suggest to people to have an open mind and investigate what has been a monumental change in the notion of epistemology. And it is important not to be too quick to marginalize ideas that have been formed by some of the most informed and sophisticated thinkers who have ever populated the world of philosophy. I suspect that Derrida, for example, will in coming years become a towering figure along the lines of Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche.

Take care and thanks for the discourse, it is always interesting.

LMA said...

In your last post, KC, you stated that you reject biological determinism. I differ from you in that I believe our level of biological development sets limits on our ability to perceive the "facts" of the natural/real world. Science represents the best understanding we currently have of those "facts", but it is by no means an accurate or complete explanation.

Similarly, our level of biological development determines the level of empathy we show to others, as well as our ability to control our negative emotions, which in turn determines whether or not we act ethically, with kindness and compassion.

While we are now able to understand that we are making the world uninhabitable for many species through climate change and habitat destruction, I am not at all sure that we have the biological capacity to act ethically to change our behaviour. I'm not at all sure that we are free to make our future.

I don't think my views represent any particular philosophical paradigm, and they may not be relevant to the above discussion, and if so, I apologize for being O/T.

kirbycairo said...

LMA - You seem to be talking about a fairly 'soft' kind of biological determinism. As I said, one must act within a context of reasonable facts. I don't think, for example that people can lay chicken eggs. And this could interpreted as a kind of biological determinism. However, what is prevalent today is a very strict kind of determinism which claims to control almost all aspects of our behaviour, and claims, for an extreme example that people of color are genetically prone to criminal behaviour. And of course there is the other complex problem that almost all aspects of biological determinism in contemporary parlance are ideologically driven and there is a significant epistemological problem of whether any of this kind of information is reliable.

Thanks for the comment.

doconnor said...

Over the last week or so I've been studying your posts and reading Wikipedia articles on the philosophers you mention. I started to write a point by point rebuttal of your post, but in the end I still don't understand what you are talking about.

How, in your opinion, does the universe work, how do we figure it out and what evidence do you have to support your belief (assuming you believe in evidence)? Name dropping philosophizers doesn't explain yourself very well, especially when many of them had a variety of ideas.

You seem to think that scientists cannot over come their biases, but you don't give them enough credit. Most scientists are aware of the dangers of bias and work to minimize it. While it can be slow and difficult to overcome preconceptions, it has happened before and will happen again.

Aristotelian physics was replaced
with Newtonian physics despite the fact some of it is counter intuitive, like that light objects fall at the same speed as heavy objects and that the Earth revolves around the Sun, not to mention having to overcome the strenuous objections of the Church. Since then Quantum physics has replaced Newtonian physics which is even weirder with quantum entanglement and wave-particle duality.

Much of the bias in science happens when the science is presented to the public so they appear more biases then they actually are.

Some of the arguments I read seem to be attempts to justify faith by broadening what constitutes a legitimate argument. It the bias caused by these people's faith that is the problem, not a problem with science.

I'm still interested in learning and I've reserved Derrida, the movie, at the library.