Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Attention to particulars

Nietzsche seems to think that we should say Yes to everything, even the terrible. And this Yes, I take it, is not equivalent to "OK then," but is more like a "Yes!", an enthusiastic embrace, Larkin's enormous yes that falls as love is supposed to. We should love it all, the whole world. But not dishonestly or distortedly. The terrible is to be loved but still recognized as terrible. It's hard to see how this could be done. As Tal Brewer says of The Gay Science section 341: "The problem is that one's life can be marred by tragic events such as the early death of a child, and it would hardly show one to be living well if one would consent gladly to the precise eternal recurrence even of these elements of one's life" (p. 149). You could only embrace the whole of your life (if something like this had happened) or the whole world (where things just like this have happened), it seems to me, if you abstracted away from these things. It would be dishonest to focus instead on some good thing, so the only thing is to not focus on anything. To look into the middle distance or, as it were, to take off one's glasses. But isn't loving a blur like this sentimentality?

The same kind of thing might be said about Schopenhauer when he suggests a choice between seeing the world as nothing and Nirvana as everything or vice versa. I think this is at least roughly what I was trying to get at when I expressed doubts about a generalized reverence for life. But I don't mean that we can or should just write off Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and, while we're at it, perhaps the whole of Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions too. What I mean (for what it's worth) is that the only honest, non-sentimental way to love the world (or life, or anything else as general as that) is to do so as these things are incarnated in particulars. Without attention to particulars there is no true love. (Can I get away with a grand claim like that?) And I think that this means there are (speaking broadly) two ways to be un-loving: to pay attention to particulars in the wrong way (e.g. callously or sadistically) and to disregard particulars and focus instead on abstractions or generalizations.

Military crimes tend to be of the former sort, as when they show or embody indifference to the innocent people killed along with the target (in a clumsy drone strike, for instance), or when they deliberately aim at inflicting pain (in the use of torture). Terrorism seems to be of the latter sort. Real targets are attacked, but as symbols, not because of what they actually are. The best example I can think of is the attack on time itself in the form of the Greenwich Observatory in Conrad's The Secret Agent, but the 9/11 attacks come to mind also, given their symbolic date and targets. The recent atrocity in Norway is another example, if the children killed were targeted because of what they were considered to 'represent' (i.e. their political views).

Terrorism can seem to be (and perhaps sometimes is) a combination of symbolic thinking (abstracted from the particular people involved) and consequentialism, breaking a few symbolic eggs in order to make some mythical omelet. But there can be also what I hesitate to call an aesthetic aspect to it too. The goal is to create terror, after all, which is roughly the goal of horror movies (and books and music and whatever else can share that general form). Terrorists want to make nightmares reality, even if this is not their ultimate goal. It wouldn't be surprising if Breivik had seen Battle Royale. But I don't mean that it is necessarily bad to enjoy such films, or shock rock, or scary stories. My point is just to recognize that terrorism is more complicated than I might have suggested if I had left out this aspect of it.

I have some sympathy with the views of Chris Bertram and dsquared here, especially the latter's complaint about "failure to own one's own bullshit." But there is, I feel, a tension in Bertram's worrying about people selecting themselves into groups while criticizing a rather vague range of people he disagrees with (albeit rightly) and throwing out the word 'fascist' (which he then neither applies to these people nor really declines to apply: he explicitly rejects throwing this kind of mud as "not particularly useful," but he puts them all in the vicinity of the mud anyway, perhaps hoping they will fall in without his having to get his hands dirty). It is the thinking in terms of groups that is the real problem, I think. But let me immediately qualify that.

If we're talking about the mass murder of children then that is the real problem. But if we're talking about something more intellectual like an "epistemic environment" then the problem is not hatred of terrorism or "honor killings" or war crimes or imperialism. The problem is failing to distinguish between terrorists and Muslims, or between war criminals and Americans. The problem is thinking in terms of large and ill-defined groups. It is true that this tends to be a problem more on the right than anywhere else these days, at least in the USA, but there is nothing necessary about this truth, and it is dangerous for people not on the right to consider themselves thereby immune to it.

Perhaps philosophy can help here. As Frege said:
The logic books contain warnings against logical mistakes arising from the ambiguity of expressions. I regard as no less pertinent a warning against apparent proper names having no reference. The history of mathematics supplies errors which have arisen in this way. This lends itself to demagogic abuse as easily as ambiguity -- perhaps more easily. 'The will of the people' can serve as an example; for it is easy to establish that there is at any rate no generally accepted reference for this expression. It is therefore by no means unimportant to eliminate the source of these mistakes, at least in science, once and for all.
It might be helpful to challenge on similar grounds references to "the liberal elites," "the gay agenda," perhaps even "Islam," but also "fascists" and perhaps also "elite scribblers of this [right-wing] spectrum." At any rate we should be careful about making such generalizations (even if it is sometimes very hard to avoid using them).

But I doubt that philosophy can do very much to change the world. I'm tempted to think that terrorism will become more a feature of life because people despair of the world being a genuinely democratic place. If it is ruled by multinational corporations and people like Rupert Murdoch, or some combination of money and stupidity, then how can anyone hope to achieve any political objective without using wealth (which we don't all have) or violence (which is much more accessible)? Or so, I imagine, some people think. Really, though, democracy is probably about as alive and well as it has ever been. Terrorism will continue because the means to create terror are widely available and there are a lot of crazy people out there.

It can't hurt to try to create a less hate-filled and more nuanced appreciation of reality though. I think we owe it to the victims of these crimes to do so. And in some sense, although this is probably the wrong language to use, we owe it to ourselves and to reality too. .


  1. It is true that this tends to be a problem more on the right than anywhere else these days, at least in the USA, but there is nothing necessary about this truth, and it is dangerous for people not on the right to consider themselves thereby immune to it.

    A very important remark. I talked about this phenomenon at length in my first political book, Mikä vasemmistoa vaivaa? ('What's the matter with the left?'). It is by no means limited to the political right. In fact, one of the reasons I wrote the book was that I'd seen it occur on the political left, where I'm situated myself, so frequently that it often made me want to tear my hair or bang my head on a wall.

    I'm tempted to think that terrorism will become more a feature of life because people despair of the world being a genuinely democratic place.

    Partly, yes. But many people also identify "the world being a genuinely democratic place" with having their way, and despair of it after the outcomes of processes that are genuinely democratic leave their preferences frustrated - because they are in a minority, often a quite tiny one. I suggest in both my books that one of the neglected, inadvertently revealing features of our age is the frequency with which various groups - again on both the right and the left politically - manage to convince themselves that they are a majority instead of the minority they are, and then proceed to think that because their will is not done, this can only be because of some crime, betrayal, sin, conspiracy, deep cultural sickness or such - which are comical misdiagnoses of their mere unpopularity.

  2. I haven't read this super-carefully (alas), but I agree with the point about attention to particulars and the dangers of abstraction. On the other hand, I just discussed Crito and spent a lot of time discussing Crito's complaint that Socrates is betraying his children if he refuses to escape. This looks like attention to particulars; whereas, Socrates is caught up by/in his ideals. But of course "think of your children" might only seem like attention to the particulars, while itself being an abstraction (i.e. neglecting the larger context, and facts such as that Socrates can see to it that his children are cared for by his friends and so forth). That is, someone might say that particulars trump ideals, and if Socrates is right that it's not life, but the good life, that is "chiefly to be valued," then that must be wrong, too.

  3. Perhaps philosophy can help here. [...] It might be helpful to challenge on similar grounds references to "the liberal elites," "the gay agenda," perhaps even "Islam," but also "fascists" and perhaps also "elite scribblers of this [right-wing] spectrum."

    Yes, what you make of the quote from Frege (himself a notorious proto-Nazi sympathiser, of course...) is certainly one important aspect of this. "[T]o demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions". But as Wittgenstein of course continues: "This method would be unsatisfying to the other - he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy".

    Where I, by way of contrast, would begin to bring Wittgensteinian philosophy into it, would be: "The work of a philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose". And these reminders would be reminders not of grammatical vacuousness, but of empirical facts. When someone says that the Muslim immigrants are swamping us (or whatnot), we can point to cold quantitative facts, from the statistical yearbook of our country or some similar source, to demonstrate that they simply just aren't swamping us. For the "particular purpose" to be a political one need not violate the neutrality of philosophy, the "leaving everything as it is", in an un-Wittgensteinian way, because the other person can always assemble their own counter-reminders of facts we ourselves have conversely neglected or brushed under the carpet. And so the discussion goes on.

  4. The above considerations, incidentally, are why I have long been acutely discomforted by the casual way in which many Wittgensteinians - Peter Winch is the example who always comes to the forefront in my mind - emphasise the entirely non-empirical nature of philosophy. Of course I agree completely that philosophy has nothing empirical to discover. But I don't think this means that it has to swear off using the discoveries of natural and social science to bolster the Wittgensteinian diagnoses of conceptual confusion it makes. If the confused concept is the concept of something empirical, then looking at what this something is, is relevant to judging the justice or injustice of the diagnosis of confusion. And for most empirical things there is a science, the whole task of which is to look at the empirical thing.

    For instance, one of the things I suggest in my second book is that certain traditions of political philosophy (e.g. post-Rawlsian liberalism) are conceptually confused, not because they ignore Frege's "warning against apparent proper names having no reference", but because they speak and think as if some empirical facts about the social world were other than they actually demonstrably are (e.g. quantitative, empirical studies in social psychology and political science constantly show the political thinking of most adults in contemporary Western democracies to be significantly more ignorant, illogical and irrational than post-Rawlsian liberalism tacitly assumes it to be, with the quantitative difference to the Rawlsians' optimistic picture being so huge that it might as well be a qualitative one).

    I cannot help feeling that there is a curious lack of fit between the enthusiasm with which Winch and other Swansea Wittgensteinians endorse the use of novels, movies, etc., as a source for the "reminders to be assembled for a particular purpose", and the lack of enthusiasm for using the empirical results of the various sciences similarly. If we can use a novel as a reminder that love can come to this or religious belief can come to this, why cannot we use an opinion poll as a reminder that democracy can come to this?

    In your review of Berel Lerner's book on Winch, you respond to the accusation that Winch "ignor[es] the policy importance ofsocial science" by saying: "Winch might be wrong about the value of social sciences, but not because he ignores pressing political matters. He just does not think that social science could help with these [...]." I think it can, and thus your review did not make the accusation go away. It's been nagging me constantly ever since I read Lerner's book, and by now I have given up hope of ever being able to look at The Idea of a Social Science quite the same way again.

    (This final comment is something I abortively drafted in my head last year, to send to you for comments; it was triggered by revisiting the Lerner book while writing my own. If you respond, it might well end up influencing what I say about these matters in my next book, which I'm starting to write right now for publication next year.)

  5. Thanks, Tommi and Matt. Let me see if I can respond to all that.

    Tommi 1: I wish your books were available in English! Thanks for summarizing some of your points here. "But many people also identify "the world being a genuinely democratic place" with having their way, and despair of it after the outcomes of processes that are genuinely democratic leave their preferences frustrated - because they are in a minority, often a quite tiny one." Good point. Even though the satirist Stephen Colbert made a similar point the other day ("No one I know voted for Obama, so there must have been fraud"), this is something that I managed to overlook.

    Matt: Yes, someone might respond in that way, and it would be hard for me to respond very convincingly, I think, even though I think the criticism actually misses the point I want to make. It's not so much principles I'm against as abstract principles, or the appeal to principles in abstraction (as an escape) from concrete reality. In both "Sophie Scholl" and "Of Gods and Men" we see people acting in what be called principled ways, but they do so in a very human way, feeling the pull of temptations to act otherwise but responding in the end to an appreciation of what doing so would mean (who would be betrayed, who would win, and so on). There isn't any of that robotic or bureaucratic blind application of moral rules that one might fear in a "principled" person. There is nothing cruel or supernaturally holy (in a sort of Kantian, temptation-free sense) about them. And I think that Socrates is a similar case, for the kind of reasons you mention, although of course it's hard to know or prove anything about him and what he was thinking.

    Tommi 2: You're at least partly disagreeing with me here, but I'd like to agree with what you say. I think that facts are very important. So if someone says "The problem with these Muslims..." I might interrupt and ask "which ones?" That would be less frustratingly philosophical than "Define 'Muslim'," but still make the same point that they aren't actually talking about anything clearly identified. And then the conversation might move in the kind of direction you suggest. So I don't think it's necessary to choose between my quasi-Fregean/Tractarian approach and your later Wittgensteinian one. They can support each other. Or so I hope.

    Tommi 3: I agree with the first three paragraphs here, which makes me worry that I have got Winch and/or Lerner wrong. I'll have to go back and check what I wrote in full in that review, and maybe re-read Winch (and Lerner), to be sure what to say though.

  6. So I don't think it's necessary to choose between my quasi-Fregean/Tractarian approach and your later Wittgensteinian one. They can support each other. Or so I hope.

    Well, neither do I think there is any choice to be made between the grammatical and the empirical. Not at all. I'm sorry if this impression has come across; I view both the grammatical and the empirical as equally legitimate objects of philosophical invocation. The rejection of the empirical by Wittgensteinians has just been so cavalier so often that it made me use a somewhat strong turn of phrase in its favour.

    I'll have to go back and check what I wrote in full in that review, and maybe re-read Winch (and Lerner), to be sure what to say though.

    Were you to do so, I'd certainly appreciate it. The relevant passage in Lerner is a short one, from the middle of page 10 ("It would be unfair...") to the end of the chapter two pages later. I'm always struck by the way Lerner is able to use the word "luxury" to criticise Winch, whose philosophy is much more often viewed as austere and plain, even intimidatingly so. But if one accepts Winch's preferred order of importance between social science as social science and social science as fodder for philosophical reflection, that's probably what his philosophy is bound to strike the practicing social scientist as - an indulgence, an extravagance. And simultaneously something quaint in its seeming innocence of its own oddness in the eyes of the social scientist. That's what I suggest when referencing the Lerner passage in the introduction to my book, anyway.

    I've been thinking that I should write an entire paper on this, in English, and for publication. It would look a bit more widely at two or three different uncomfortable tensions I seem to detect - and cannot seem to explain away convincingly - between the official self-image of (Swansea) Wittgensteinian philosophy and what the practice of this philosophy often comes to in individual cases. Not just in Winch but also in Phillips, and perhaps Roy Holland as well. Right now I'm busy with a number of other things (witness the long gaps between my comments here), but I nevertheless feel that I cannot put this off much longer. Should that be the case, you'll bag the draft of course.

  7. Thanks, Tommi. I have some transport issues right now (i.e. my van is being repaired and it's very hot outside for walking), but I'll try to get to my office today so I can take a look at this stuff. I wonder whether you've looked at much of Rupert Read's work, some of which seems relevant to this. He's very sympathetic to Winch, I believe, but also takes account of empirical work. (I just tried to find good examples but his online list of publications and works in progress is bewilderingly long.) Anyway, more later, I hope.

  8. Ah, the lengths you'll go to in order to continue the conversation!

    I know Rupert, we've had a number of exchanges and discussions over the years, and I even went to see him in Norwich a couple of times back in the early noughties when I was still ensconced in academe. But as far as I can tell, his proffered reply to Lerner's particular question on the problematic "knowledge-interest" of Winch's work would be basically the same as yours in your book review, which I found unsatisfactory.

    I've read the book on Winch that Rupert co-authored, and in the entire 150-page book there are in fact only four passing references to Lerner, all of the briefest nature, and even those not to his book but to an earlier journal article. As we all know, Winch has had far more than his fair share of criticisms that are just infuriatingly crass and superficial, and Rupert is very good and very effective on many of these. But the reason Lerner's criticisms made such an exceptional impression on me was precisely the feeling that here at last were some criticisms which I simply couldn't (in good faith) put in this category, no matter how hard I tried. If and when I write my paper, I must remember to send it to Rupert for comments as well.

  9. Well, somehow I managed to survive the heat and I have now re-read my review and the relevant pages of Lerner's book. I should really read Winch again and the whole of Lerner's book, but here goes anyway. It seems to me that Lerner criticizes Winch for ignoring a certain aspect of social science and that I defended Winch by pointing out that he does allow for something like that aspect but does not apparently regard it as genuinely scientific. This raises questions about what exactly ought to count as a science, and Winch's view on that might be too narrow (I don't know). What seems most interesting to me is the question of what value there is in the work of psychologists, sociologists, etc., rather than whether this work is science, philosophy, or something else properly called 'social science.' Lerner seems to want to insist that there is value in such work, and Winch seems to want to deny that it could really constitute a special kind of science. I don't see these positions as being necessarily incompatible though. Since Lerner presents his view as a criticism of Winch, I see this compatibility as a strike against Lerner. But that doesn't mean he is wrong to see value in this kind of work. I don't think Winch ever denied that. But a) I might be mis-remembering on this point, and b) it is possible that Winch distracts our attention from a possible source of valuable findings just because it doesn't fit his idea of what science is. That would be worth pointing out if it's true.

  10. Thanks for taking the trouble. This is a very interesting way of putting the matter, and one which is largely new to me (e.g. I certainly haven't come across it in the other reviews of Lerner's book that I've read).

    Regarding what you say "would be worth pointing out if it's true", I will consider pointing it out specifically when I come to write my paper.

    Thanks again.

  11. It really wasn't any trouble. I wouldn't have gone if I hadn't wanted to. (That isn't an expression of a theory about human motivation, just a fact about me in this particular case.)

    Anyway, I hope what I say isn't new just because it's wrong. But I fear that might be the case.

    And if it is true then I think you should point it out when you write your paper. But I suppose I have already said that.

  12. Well, it's been a while since I looked at my book, but I *think* that I wanted to say that Winch also seems unconcerned about the practical communicative importance of our at least avoiding major errors when interpreting the speech, actions,artifacts, etc. of other cultures. It's nice to be able to philosophize about other forms of life, but the more pressing need is to know (for instance) whether the people living those forms of life mean to welcome us or are telling us to leave.

  13. Thanks. It's been a while for me too, but I think you're right about this. Here's my take on the issue right now (i.e. without having read either Winch or your book for a few years): I think that Winch has a certain idea of what science is and, based on this, a certain (a priori) idea of what it would mean to have a social science; he argues that there really cannot be any such thing; you pointed out that there are things that go by the name of social science that seem (at least potentially) useful; I tried to defend him by saying that these aren't what he was talking about and that, as you note in the book, he does allow for something along the lines you describe (but he doesn't say enough about it, as I recall, to be sure exactly what he has in mind). I'm currently unsure whether this is a good defense. If someone is criticized for not talking about x is it a defense to say that he never intended to talk about x? Perhaps he should have intended to do so. Perhaps that is the very criticism being made. But I'm also unsure whether I should be trying to talk about any of this without re-reading the relevant books. I'll try to do that this week.