Monthly Archives: July 2015

Talking About Oppression

There was an interesting debate a few months back between Joseph Heath and Audrey Yap about what Health called “Me studies”. The issue: what is the best way to study mechanisms of oppression?

Heath cautions against the idea that the oppressed are best suited to study it. Because the oppressed are too close to the thing being studied, and so it clouds their judgment and perception. A consequence is that the oppressed, in the name of enabling the oppressed to speak up, draw boundaries of who can participate in the debate, or what participation is supposed to look like. Heath’s point: these boundaries are inimical to rational debate and critical thinking because it creates the sense that disagreeing with the oppressed person’s philosophical thesis is to support oppression. He says, “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met, who specialize in some form or another of ‘critical studies,’ who are among the worst critical thinkers I’ve met.”

Yap responded by suggesting that we “treat issues of oppression the way we treat many other cases of specialized knowledge in philosophy, like philosophy of science or mathematics.” On this view, there should be boundaries of who can participate and how just as there are in any sub-field of philosophy. A non-oppressed person can’t just chime in on a debate about oppression just as someone who doesn’t know logic can’t chime in on a talk on Godel. The oppressed person, just in virtue of being oppressed, has knowledge that the non-oppressed person doesn’t. So when a non-oppressed person presumes to chime in without due deference, that is a form of reenforcing oppression. Especially because it is the oppressing mechanisms which give the non-oppressed person the leverage to speak up even when the topic is out of their depth.

Both Heath and Yap engage with the issue in a thoughtful way. Still, I think both are missing something significant: namely, the distinction between the oppressed and the non-oppressed no longer makes any sense. To put the point in a pragmatist way: it is a distinction without a practical difference.

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Hermeneutics of Suspicion

I have suggested here and here that Stanley’s book is filled with the very kind of double-talk he aims to diagnose in democratic societies. There is a deep tension in the book: it aims to engender democratic discourse by affirming the epistemic authority through specialization that the analytic, academic philosopher has over the reader.

One might say: “But this claim about Stanley’s book is not engaging with the book as philosophy! What about the claims he defends and the arguments he gives? You have to engage with those.”

My response: Once you treat the arguments as on a level-ground, as if Stanley the author and the reader are simply engaging in an intellectual conversation stripped of power and epistemic differentials, then you have already lost the possibility of a democratic conversation between the author and the reader. There is no non-power-laden space of pure rational conversation, and engagement as equal citizens. The problem with Stanley’s book, as it many philosophy books, is that works under the illusion that there is such a space: that in fact that space is being realized right now between the author and the reader!

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My View

Contemporary philosophy in America is in the midst of a sea change. In simplest terms, it is going from being mainly about a canon of white males to becoming more pluralistic. But this is not a binary issue: traditional or pluralistic. There is much scope for genuine, productive philosophical disagreement on what pluralism can look like, and what form it can take.

To see this, consider the following three questions:

1) Is Pluralism, as opposed to Eurocentrism, correct?

2) Is there merit to Wittgensteinian criticisms of philosophy? (One might ask similarly of Heidegerrian or Pragmatist criticisms, and so on.)

3) Is it possible to do cutting-edge philosophy outside academia?

Each of these questions can be answered yes or no. That means there are eight possible views in conceptual space.

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There Are No Shoulds

Academic moral philosophy normally deals with the question: In a world of atoms, how can there be moral “shoulds”? Where does normativity come from in a world fundamentally without norms? Standard answers: from desires, the rational will, community, God, etc.

This debate misses the essence of human flourishing. For flourishing involves seeing that there really are no shoulds at all in the fabric of the world.

Seeing this not just in the scientific sense. But seeing it in lived experience. Someone can believe that the world is made up of atoms, and affirm that the world is fundamentally non-normative. And yet at the same time they might get furious at the waiter for bringing the wrong order.

It is easy to scientifically see the world as non-normative. It takes skill and mindfulness and attention to the right things to see, in the midst of day to day life, that the world is non-normative. To see it from the inner core of our life. That is wisdom. But we don’t need a fancy word like that to talk about it. We can just say: it is merely being fully alive.

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Recent Analytic Philosophy II

As I suggested in the last post, by the end of the 80s, there were at least four groups in analytic philosophy. There were the 80s status quo, who were working on the debates and texts central to analytic philosophy at the time, and who seemed content with just that. There were the culture radicals, who were working on the same debates and texts as the 80s status quo, but who sought to change the culture of analytic philosophy, its background habits and norms. There were the outside radicals, who sought to change the debates and texts of analytic philosophy by rejecting the core assumptions and methods of analytic philosophy. And there were the inside radicals, who sought to change the debates and texts but through the methods of analytic philosophy.

If I were to put them in order of influence at the end of the 80s, I would say in descending order: the 80s status quo, the culture radicals, the outside radicals and the inside radicals. Now, 25 years later, the landscape is different: the culture radicals are merging with the inside radicals, the 80s status quo is on the defensive and waning, and the outside radicals are almost out of the game. What happened? How did this change come about?

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Recent Analytic Philosophy I

In the previous post I suggested that in academic philosophy there is double-talk regarding friendship. Just as in America talk of democracy can be used to re-enforce hierarchical structures, so too in an institutional structure like academic philosophy talk of friendship can be used to re-enforce hierarchical structures.

Some clarifications. First, I am not saying there aren’t normal friendships in academic philosophy; of course, there are. Just as there can be, and is, some genuine discourse for democracy in America. The issue is that just as in America the language of democracy can be used to undermine democracy, so too the language of friendship can be used to undermine greater equality in institutional structures.

Second, I am not saying this use of friendship talk is intentional. That makes it seem as if people “in power” are purposefully using the rhetoric of friendship to cover over institutional hierarchies. And that in turn makes it seem as if we already know in principle how people should interact to foster real equality, but that we are failing to live up to that. But I don’t think we know what it would be for people to really engage as equals, since we don’t yet know how to structure our society to enable that. Of what “true equality” could even mean. Lacking such knowledge, but also not being to confront the essentially hierarchical structures of our society, can lead to a general discourse of “we are all friends” which is mainly a form of wish fulfillment. As Stanley suggests in his book, this is perfectly compatible with people having good intentions. But as long as we don’t become aware of it as wish fulfillment, we assume that the ideal is already close to hand, and in that way re-enforce the existing structures.

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Friends, But Not Really

Oh my God. I finally get it! It is starting to make sense.

As I mentioned in posts in my earlier blogs (here and here), in September of 2011 I went to a conference at Harvard on meta-philosophy. By that time I had been out of academia for a few months. One thing that stayed with me from that conference was that people at the conference who I thought were my friends, who insisted that we were friends, who were my former colleagues and teachers turned away from me when I told them that I left academia.

When I told a few of them at the conference that I had left academia, they didn’t ask, as one imagines friends would, why I left, what the matter was, what might help me to stay in academia. What I got instead were blank stares and pleasant smiles, as if by leaving academia and yet coming to the conference I was doing something rude. As if I were betraying them as friends. And that their smiling pleasantly at me was a sign of their magnanimity, that they were willing to overlook my rudeness and still show their friendliness.

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PGR Advisory Board

In the previous post I suggested that Stanley’s How Propaganda Works is filled with double-talk. On the one hand, Stanley argues that in order to have a thriving democracy we have to be wary of technicism, the view that we as the citizens have to kowtow to scientific expertise in all domains of human life. He cautions that epistemic inequalities undermine democracy.

But on the other hand, in arguing for this view Stanley relies on some of the most technical areas of analytic philosophy, regarding which the lay reader is not in an epistemic position to think critically and can only take Stanley’s expertise on trust. There is the persistent feeling in the text that when Stanley argues against technicism, what he means is: Don’t trust those experts, who aim to take away your critical thinking skills; trust experts like me, who will teach you how you can think for yourself.

One way this double-talk is achieved in the book is that Stanley is completely silent about the institutional structures from within which he is writing. Some institutional facts are apparent just from the book cover: the publisher is Princeton University Press, the quotes on the back are from professors at MIT, Harvard and Cambridge, and that Stanley teaches at Yale. There is the air that the text is arriving into the public’s hands from the most upper echelons of academia. By the time a lay reader starts reading, he has already been unconsciously reminded in a dozen ways of how he as the reader ought to trust the expertise of the author. Of who in this context is the expert and who is but a novice in need of guidance.

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The topic of Stanley’s How Propaganda Works is public discourse which is a kind of double-talk: it appears to be fostering an ideal that is important, but is in fact undermining that very ideal. For example, it is talk which appears to foster equality, but which in fact re-enforces inequality.

In an explicitly totalitarian state, there is no such double-talk, since there is no appearance of equality. In an ideally democratic state, there is no such double-talk, since there are no inequalities to reaffirm. Double-talk is a feature of a flawed democracy: the very discourse of democracy is used to undermine democracy. If we want to improve our democracy, we need to understand double-talk, and see how it can be minimized. That is Stanley’s project. This is an important project, and I am fully on board with it.

The key terms for Stanley are what he calls “undermining propaganda” and “undermining demagoguery”. Undermining propaganda is “a contribution to public discourse that is presented as an embodiment of certain ideals, yet is of a kind that tends to erode those very ideals.”(53) Undermining demagoguery is a kind of undermining propaganda: it is presented as fostering worthy ideals, but in fact undermines those ideals. Undermining demagoguery is what I above call “double-talk.”

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Technicism and Professional Philosophy

I recently read, with great interest, Jason Stanley’s new book How Propaganda Works. I often hoped to read a book like this: one which reorients analytic philosophy to address pressing social problems of the day. Part of the joy of reading the book was the sense that here is an author who is attempting to do just that. It might be lost on most of the public, but it would be hard for people familiar with academic philosophy to read the book without a vivid sense that this is a new, and desperately welcome, direction for analytic philosophy. Not new as in the first book to do it, since many other authors, some noted by Stanley, have been working along these lines for a long time. But new in being part of a new wave in philosophy. In this sense, the book greatly deserves the praise it has received and, no doubt, will receive.

Still, we have to distinguish between the aim of a project and its realization. The aim of Stanley’s project is fantastic. The realization, however, not so much. It perpetuates much that is problematic about analytic philosophy, and in a way that is all the more troubling because in the book it happens under the rubric of change and finally seeing the light. The book is a step in the right direction, but progressing in that direction will require being critical of many of the moves in the book.

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