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.”

In my discussion of Stanley’s book, I am not going to use either of these terms he introduces. “Propaganda” and “demagogeury” as generally used are highly rhethorical terms which carry a lot of emotional meaning, and I think they muddy the waters more than clarify issues. I will simply use “double-talk”.

One question that jumps out is whether Stanley’s book is itself an instance of double-talk. Could it be that while it appears as if Stanley’s discussion is fostering democratic ideals, it is in fact undermining those ideals?

In a 300 page book, Stanley considers this kind of worry for 3 pgs, and quickly sets it aside. Near the end of Chapter 5, Stanley imagines someone objecting to Stanley’s theory of ideology on the grounds that Stanley’s view is itself a form of ideology. He is imaging a rich person using a relativist argument to say that everyone, including the “resentful, undeserving poor” and even a theorist like Stanley, has an ideology, and so Stanley’s critique of power structure is just yet another ideology. In response, Stanley writes:

One might worry … that my ideology does not just influence my choice of examples to discuss. One might worry that it also biases the tools I use in their analysis. However, the tools I use were developed in areas of philosophy that are overtly non-political. In chapter 4, in the analysis of one mechanism employed in propaganda, I used tools from formal semantics and pragmatics… In this chapter and the next, I employ tools from analytic epistemology, the characteristic puzzles of which lack any political content. So it is hard to see a case for the thesis that the tools I employ in chapters 4, 5, and 6 [the heart of the book] carry with them a political bias.(219)

Stanley’s point is that the tools he uses aren’t political biased: they are not Democratic or Marxist tools. This is certainly correct. But the worry that Stanley’s book engages in double-talk doesn’t have to reduced to a knee-jerk conservative’s accusation of Stanley using “liberal philosophy” to defend liberal politics.

The worry can instead be that Stanley’s arguments are themselves enmeshed in power structures which Stanley’s discussion does not make explicit. That Stanley’s book is mired in double-talk because even as it appears to foster democratic ideals, the way he argues undermines those ideals.

Imagine a lay person without much knowledge of academic philosophy reading Stanley’s book, and coming across a paragraph like this:

How should we think of the mechanism by which a contribution is in the service of erosion of empathy for a group of people? In an important series of papers, Sarah-Jane Leslie has connected generics to problematic stereotyping of groups. Leslie establishes that generics are cognitively fundamental generalizations that are acquired very early in life… In “The Original Sin of Cognition,” she provides an explanation of the epistemic problems that acceptance of a generic engenders…I am going to use Leslie’s insights, together with the mechanisms discussed by Veltman in his theory of generics, to explain various features of propaganda.(139)

The book is filled with paragraphs like this. What is the lay person to make of this paragraph? The words jump out of the page: “important series of papers,” “Leslie establishes,” “provides an explanation,” “Leslie’s insights”. But what does this mean to the lay person? What can it mean?

Stanley is not, and does not aim to be, arguing from authority. He is not asking the reader to simply trust him that Leslie has done important work. After all, Stanley’s overall aim is to help the lay person understand how ideology and double-talk work so that the lay person will be in a better position to be aware of it in his daily life. Simply taking Stanley on authority cannot enable this, since the aim is to foster the reader’s critical thinking capacities. That requires that the reader is able to read Stanley’s text itself in a critical way.

But this is the problem: there is nothing the lay reader can do with the above paragraph other than take it in passively! He cannot say “I agree” or “I disagree” because he has not even a preliminary grasp on how to go about evaluating Stanley’s claims about Leslie’s work.

Perhaps a zealous reader might google Leslie’s paper that Stanley mentions, and read it. Now the reader has gone from the frying pan into the fire. Given that Leslie’s paper is a move in the philosophy of cognitive science, a move which presumably even academic philosophers who don’t specialize in philosophy of mind can’t evaluate, the lay reader can at most attempt to understand what is happening. Even if he understands it, which is unlikely, what can he do with that understanding given that he is institutionally not in a position to contribute to that discourse? In fact, can he understand the text even though he cannot contribute to that discourse?

The issue raised by Stanley’s reliance in the book on analytic epistemology and philosophy of language isn’t that those fields are influenced by liberal politics. It is that those fields are some of the most specialized fields in academic philosophy, bordering sometimes almost on the sciences of linguistics and psychology.

In responding to the conservative’s worry, Stanley plays up the fact that he uses tools from formal semantics and pragmatics, which are apolitical. True. But they are also non-normative in the sense that these are not fields like normative ethics or political philosophy which concern what norms we should adopt. Formal semantics is in the business of saying how our linguistic capacities work, not how we can or should use language to foster democratic ideals.

This is the tension at the heart of Stanley’s book. The appeal of analytic epistemology and philosophy of language is that they avoid the worry the Stanley’s book is politically biased; that it is is just one more book written by a liberal about how conservatives use propaganda based in false ideology. Here is the difference between Stanley and authors like Rorty or Nussbaum. Rorty in a book like Achieving Our Country is explicit that he is a liberal, and that he is engaged in a project of improving our democracy from within his stance as a liberal.

I think Stanley worries that an approach like Rorty’s ultimately reenforces the bifurcations already prevalent in the society, and that in order to have a thriving democracy we need to have modes of discourse which can incorporate our differences and so enable critical dialogue. This is great, and I agree.

But the way Stanley tries to have this encompassing, politically non-biased discourse is through the areas of academic philosophy which are, other than fields like logic or philosophy of science, the most scientific sounding. Stanley’s point is that his use formal semantics is no more politically biased than Stephen Hawking writing about the big bang is politically biased. This doesn’t mean that Stanley or Hawking are neutral on questions society is divided on. They are not. Both are liberals, atheists, and so on. But the idea is that the truth of what they are writing about isn’t determined by their political views. The truth or falsity of Stalnaker’s view of content, anymore than the theory of big bang, does not depend on Stalnaker’s political views.

All this is right. But the crucial difference between How Propaganda Works and A Brief History of Time is that Hawking’s book is explicitly and obviously authoritarian. He is the expert and the lay readers are merely trying to understand as best as they can. The tension in Stanley’s book is that Stanley can’t make up his mind about whether he is an expert about propaganda in the way Hawking is an expert about the big bang, or if thorough his book he aims to foster democratic dialogue with his readers as fellow citizens.

How Propoganda Works aims to occupy a middle ground between texts like A Brief History of Time and texts like Achieving our Country. The way Stanley tries to occupy that middle ground gives the book a particular schizophrenic flavor where in one paragraph Stanley is appealing to the reader’s sense of moral outrage, and in the next paragraph he is lecturing the reader about semantics. The strange thought hangs in the air throughout the book that a proper understanding of semantics holds the clue to how we can best act on our moral outrage and create a more just society. This is as bizarre as saying that understanding Marr’s theory of vision is essential to learning how to see one another as equals.

This is the pervasive double-talk in Stanley’s book. His aim is to foster democratic ideals and to help the reader develop critical reasoning skills in order to be aware of the double-talk all round them. And yet the method of Stanley’s book ensures that the lay readers can at most passively take on the insights from analytic philosophy that Stanley assures them are insights.

By being mainly silent in the book about even the possibility of this tension, and about the epistemic inequality about himself and his lay readers, Stanley fosters the illusion that the discourse in the book is happening at a purely rational level. As if it is only interested in bringing to light the double-talk that happens over there, away from the context of the book itself, and that the book is nothing other than a democratically engaged work simply in the service of its lay readers.

In 0rder to better understand double-talk, it is helpful to understand as an instance the sources of the tension and illusion in Stanley’s book. I will talk about this in the next post.

17 thoughts on “Double-Talk

  1. Jason Stanley

    Bharath – thank you for carefully reading the book. I think you have identified a central worry, but I don’t think you have been charitable enough about how often I address that worry and in what ways. The more general worry is that, given the characterization of undermining propaganda as a manipulative use of ideals, how am I in a position to appeal to some ideals in a way that isn’t subject to the critique that this appeal is undermining propaganda? What should the right response to this worry be? It’s a sufficiently central worry that I address the point early on, from pp. 72-78. It is here where I explicitly address the objection that “my project requires a neutral stance, a non ideological perspective”. I argue that this is not true. The argument is by analogy. Even logic and semantics do not allow the neutral stance (see my discussion of Tarski on p. 77). Indeed I state “there is no neutral stance”. I say that the right reaction is not paralysis (or in the case of philosophical ideals, philosophical quietism). The only tool we have is something like reflective equilibrium (p. 78). It’s just “the postmodern condition”, as Tommie Shelby has said, that even choice of tools of rationality could be ideological. I argue (pp. 66-7), if one chooses the correct ideals, even for ideological reasons, one can still know they are the right ideals (see e.g. Roger White’s paper, “You just believe that because”). The proper reaction is not to cease debate (your quietist alternative). I return to the proper reaction to the dilemma at the end of Chapter 4, pp. 169-77, when I discuss one instance of the problem – what if “it is not really possible to approximate any ideal of public reason” (p. 169). I argue that the right response to the problem that all public reason is potentially biased by ideology and propaganda is “to adopt systematic openness to the possibility that one has been unknowingly swayed by bias” (p. 176). In other words, this is to adopt a hermeneutics of suspicion. In a later post you say I fail to do this, because I place too much trust in the ideals of philosophy of language and epistemology (and social psychology, one could add). And you are right that I discuss this instance of the objection in the last few pages of chapter 5. What I say there is more subtle than you give me credit for. I say that it could be that the selection of examples to focus on could be and most certainly is ideological. As Charles Mills shows, the decision to focus on knowledge and justice rather than ignorance and oppression is an ideological choice. But that is consistent with the work being done on knowledge and justice being correct. As I say in pp. 72-77, one may pick a topic to focus on for the wrong reasons, but nevertheless produce knowledge in studying it. There is a further objection – that the tools I use are systematically screwed up, that they are *flawed ideological concepts* in one of the senses I discuss in chapter 5 (or perhaps another sense). I don’t dismiss this objection, but as I point out in many places, it is an objection one can raise to any choice of ideals. I do not therefore see you as having a meta-objection to my book, but rather a specific objection about the use of certain tools. You object to those tools. But as far as I have seen, you actually haven’t given a positive argument that concepts of analytic epistemology and analytic philosophy of language are flawed. Rather, you have for the most part raised the possibility that they could be flawed, and so one should not employ them. But I think the inference from “these ideals could be flawed” to “one should not employ them” is not correct (that you think it is correct does however explain your quietism). I do not preclude the possibility of a positive argument that the concepts of analytic epistemology and analytic philosophy of language are flawed – hence my interest in feminist critiques of rationality (and in a sense my own work in epistemology is a critique of one conception of rationality). But you haven’t yet provided one. And I do think I adequately address your meta-critique in the book, or at least you only very partially address my responses.


  2. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    Jason, Thanks for your comment. And more generally, for your book. I enjoyed reading it, and benefited from it. Though, as is clear, I also have reservations about the overall form of the project.

    I realize you argue both against the possibility of neutrality, and that the assumption that neutrality is needed for your project. But I think the issue of neutrality is a red herring. To my mind, the more pertinent issue is: what is the relation between you as the author and your reader? The double-talk I see in the book is that under the ideal of fostering democratic public discussion, you are re-enforcing the power differential between you and the lay reader. Democratic reflection requires that, at least as an ideal, every adult can engage in conversation about the society. Surely we are very far from that ideal; that means the lay readers need some help to get there, and so there has to be some scaffolding. But it has to be help which can enable the lay reader to in due course jettison the scaffolding and engage with the author as an equal. I don’t see how they can do that with your book.

    If academic philosophy is to help democratic reflection, the lay reader must be able to throw away at some point the ladder of academic philosophy and think for themselves. But in your book it seems as if the ladder is being cemented into the very structure of public discussion such that lay readers must always concede to the authority of analytic philosophers.

    You are right that in my posts I haven’t given arguments that the analytic philosophy tools you endorse are flawed. Two points about that. First, there are arguments of that kind to be given, and, as you and any academic philosopher is aware, they have been given by Wittgensteinians for the last 75 years (and not just by them). You might not think they are successful, but then that is the nature of a disagreement.

    Second, and more to the point re your book, the lay person reading your book would not even be aware that there is a debate within analytic philosophy regarding the tools you use in the book. My sense is that to most readers your book would read like a text book, where they cannot tell whether a given claim is science or philosophy of science or social theory or ordinary moral indignation. This is connected to the Wittgensteinian criticism of the tools you use in that this is one way to use Wittgensteinian philosophy (contra how Wittgenstein himself used it): to show how it is possible to throw away the ladder so that we can all meet in public discussion more as equals.


  3. Jason Stanley

    Right I see this as a first order disagreement about some of the tools of academic philosophy. That is correct. But I have yet to see an argument that the tools *I* use are subject to the Wittgensteinean critiques. In chapter 4 I give due deference to the work of inferential role theorists such as Lynne Tirrell who are working in a broadly Wittgensteinean paradigm. I explain why I slightly favor my tools but I point out that the phenomena can be described from the more Wittgensteinean direction too. And I make a lot of Wittgensteinean points in that chapter!


  4. Jason Stanley

    I also think that you are not engaging with the actual analytic philosophy that occurs in chapters 4, 5, and 6. The “interest-relative” view of knowledge is not something I would think Wittgenstein would criticize. You lump ‘the tools of analytic philosophy’ into a single bag and I just don’t think such a bag exists. There are different positions and different concepts and I see no uniform a priori Wittgensteinean critique of “all” tools of analytic philosophy that applies even to concepts and arguments he didn’t address.


  5. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    There are lots of points which are Wittgensteinian, some good, some bad. But the one that is at issue at present is: when academic philosophers claim to be engaging in debate, is there an important sense in which the debate itself is confused? I don’t see anything remotely Wittgensteinain like this in the book.

    As I see it, you are like a priest who is trying to change his church in order to better serve the people. I am like a believer who is not tied to any church saying that more practical change will happen when we see the limits of institutions like churchs altogether. This later point is what I take to be the central Wittengensteinian idea.

    My point is not tied only to analytic philosophy. It generalizes to the structures of academic philosophy more broadly. I was thinking through your book as an example, but similar points apply to most philosophy books read by the public.

    I think at this point in our society, it is not this or that view or tradition, but the general debates in academic philosophy are disconnected from the main social changes that need to happen. So making academic philosophy itself pluralistic is all to the good and significant work, but addressing the general problem of pluralism in the society also requires seeing the limitations of the debates of academic philosophy, no matter how up-to-date and pluralistic they are made.


  6. Jason Stanley

    It would be mad to deny that academic debates in philosophy have their limits. They can nevertheless be of value. That’s my position anyhow and obviously it is self-interested of me to believe it but as I argue in the book that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.


  7. Jason Stanley

    There are many debates in analytic philosophy I argue are confused in this book. For example, the debate about slurs. I argue it’s ideologically confused to focus so much attention on slurs. I also argue that the view that knowing how is not knowing that is ideologically confused. It’s the basis for a distinction between manual labor and cognitive work. So I think I do a lot of classic Wittgensteinean arguing in the book.


  8. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    The debate about knowing how and knowing that is a good example of a confused debate. But not in the way you say. For a long time I used to believe the opposite of what you say: that it is essential to show that knowledge how is separate from, and more basic than, knowledge that in order to change society and recognize the significance of manual labor and overcome class distinctions. The idea was that intellectualism reduces all knowledge to abstract knowledge in the head, and so is the basis for the idea that the intellectual classes are speaking for what is best in the labor classes. Just as know that is to know how, so too academia is to non-academia. Hence intellectualism is a rather convenient, and self-serving, view for an academic to have. This was never my whole motivation for believing anti-intellectualism, but it was there in the background.

    So, which is it: does intellectualism promote class distinctions or does it undermine class distinctions? I now think: neither. In fact, what promotes class distinctions is the whole debate about the relation between know how and know that. Ryle and Fodor disagree, as do Wittgenstein and Russell, and Austin and Ayer, etc., but what keeps the power structures the same is the way the debate happens between those select people at a high level of affluence. It is select people having debates among themselves thinking that the winner of that debate speaks more for the masses. Even as the majority are left out of the debates altogether.

    As I see it, the current academic structures are mainly a relic of the Enlightenment, a transition phase from monarchy to democracy. Academia is intrinsically elitist: only, say, 5% of the population, if that, can occupy those roles. It is better that 5% is pluralistic rather than just white males, but still there are only so many slots, just as there are only so many tenured positions. This is the why the explosion of new participants in academia in the last fifty years is stretching academia to its limit and the cracks are showing.

    Most debates in academic philosophy won’t ever be resolved, because resolution is not the point. The point is to have the see-saw back and forth so that what is retained is the system. Debates between intellectualists and theirs opponents, or materialists and dualists are just like debates between Democrats and Republicans: the debates mainly reenforce the status quo. And no use saying: “But these debates are ancient; they are around since the dawn of humankind!” Of course they have been around because human society has also been hierarchical since its beginning. We are still mainly hierarchical as a society. But uncritical philosophy covers this over by making it seem as if it is dealing with timeless debates set apart from institutional dynamics.

    This isn’t to say there aren’t basic insights to philosophical debates. Of course there are. But over time those insights get wrapped up in institutional packaging until it seems as if the packaging is essential to the insights, and the debates become part of the status quo. A healthy skepticism about the debates themselves – all the debates in academic philosophy – helps to shake off the packaging.


  9. Jason Stanley

    What do you think of Antonio Gramsci, who argues repeatedly (via the notion of an organic intellectual) for the intellectualist side in the debate? He made those arguments from a prison cell and not a university office.


  10. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    I don’t think Gramsci argued for intellectualism in the current academic philosophy sense. I am completely for what he argued: that there aren’t two kinds of people, intellectuals and non-intellectuals, and that even the workers are intellectuals. His view is about how social institutions should be set up, and, in particular, that they should be set up to foster the intrinsic intellectual skills of the workers. This is altogether orthogonal to the question of whether when a person engages in a skillful action like juggling that action is mediated through certain states in his brain. This is a question about cognitive architecture.

    It is tempting to treat cognitive architecture and social institutions as mapping onto each other. Just as Plato says the divisions of the soul correspond to the divisions of society, so too one might say that there aren’t two kinds of people is the same as saying there aren’t two kinds of knowledge. But I think this is crazy. The two issues address entirely different kinds of topics. The cognitive architecture question is not a normative question; it is about just how the mind works. The social institution question is a normative question; it is about what choices we should make, and how we should organize our institutions.

    Beyond the fact that it conflates two very different kinds of knowledge, one reason to avoid this mapping model is that it seeks to consolidate power in a way that is problematic. To say that cognitive architecture and social institutions map onto each other is to say that a person who is an expert in one can transfer that expertise onto the other. That a philosopher of mind can thereby also be a political philosopher, and vice versa; or, as in Plato, the philosopher as the ruler. I think this is the exact opposite of what Gramsci had in mind, since he was interested in how best to unconsolidate power so that there can be distributed social structures which can tap into the intellectual energies of all people. That requires a mode of philosophy and intellectual discourse that is not professionalized, but is one in which all people, irrespective of how they earn their living, can meet and talk as equals.


  11. Jason Stanley

    Gramsci repeatedly argues that the notion of an intellectual, and the notion of a divide between manual labor and other kinds of labor that appears to be on its face ‘intellectual’, is a purely social division, that has to do with power. It’s an ideology. His positive view is that all kinds of labor involve intelligence in any non-ideological use of the term “intelligence”. He specifically says that they are intelligent because they involve decisions based on knowledge. John Dewey makes similar points in a number of places; “Labor and Leisure” comes to mind. More generally, the idea that the debate about whether there is an intellectual – practical divide in cognitive architecture has no political import is dubious to me. Ought implies. Choices have to be governed by the possible. If there is a cognitive architecture that divides those most adept at manual labor from those most adept at reflective inquiry, that constrains our institutional choices. Both Gramsci and Dewey are attacking the background cognitive architecture claim. They argue that it is ideological.


  12. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    I agree Gramsci and Dewey think the idea of an intellectual is a purely social category, which tracks who gets to occupy certain roles. This means that just as kings aren’t chosen by God, so too intellectuals aren’t chosen by nature, as if the existing social classes exist because they are tracking “the nature” of the people: the intellectuals here, and the laborers there. I don’t know any anti-intellectuals, in your sense of the term, who disagree with Gramsci or Dewey on this.

    We need to distinguish (1) the debate between intellectualism and anti-intellectualism which is at issue in academic seminars and which even in principle only some people can participate in, and (2) the debate between anti-classism and classism which is at issue in the public domain and which everyone can in principle participate in. I think you are conflating the two by connecting intellectualism with anti-classism and anti-intellectualism with classism. But anti-intellectualists are just not committed to classism. Ryle wasn’t supporting the idea that he got to be a professor because his intrinsic cognitive architecture is different from that of a factory worker.

    I take it you are saying: but classists often use anti-intellectualism to defend their view, so by arguing for intellectualism we can defuse this move. I suppose an analogy is: (1*) the debate about the limits of evolution as a theory (say, between Dennett and Nagel), and (2*) the debate between anti-creationists and creationists. Some argue that if Nagel is right, then creationists win, and so showing Nagel is wrong is a way of fighting creationism. Similarly, you seem to argue that if Ryle is right, then proponents of classism win.

    I think this is wrong for both evolution and classism. What is at issue between creationists and opponents isn’t the fine details of evolution as a theory. It is about power, whether the main decisions in our society are going to be made by churchs or universities. The vaneer of debate about the merits of evolution are just the way that the power issues are played out A real debate requires mutual understanding and a shared framework: this exists between Dennett and Nagel, but not between churchs and universities.

    Similarly, proponents of classism use the power of universities to make it seem as if those in universities are there because of their intellectual make up; that it is a meritocracy. I take it you want to want to resist this power, and that is why you argue for intellectualism. But in using your expertise to argue against classism, you are actually reenforcing the core idea of classism: that only expertise of the academic kind can settle intellectual issues. To resist this power, one has to speak out simply as a person, and not from one’s professional expertise. One has to make clear that the classist’s use of anti-intellectualist rhetoric doesn’t rise to the level of a genuine intellectual position (like anti-intellectualism), but is simply a self-serving power move which anyone, irrespective of their professional expertise, can see.


  13. terenceblake

    I find this whole discussion very interesting, yet very puzzling. Bharath, you seem to use a model of “detachability”, where insights and discussions can be expressed in academic format, but can be detached from that and expressed and pursued in a more popular mode. This is behind your idea of getting rid of the academic “packaging” and of “throwing away the ladder”. The result would be the far more desirable practice, from the point of view of resisting academic power structures, of “speaking out simply as a person”.

    Yet is this what you are doing on this page of comments? One could argue that no, you are being incoherent, as you are using terminology, concepts, bibliographical references that are not familiar to the lay person. From this perspective you have been lured back into an academic debate, if ever you left it behind, and you are yourself now guilty of double-talk.

    One could also argue that you are “speaking simply as a person”, from a number of points of view. One is that such speaking from the heart cannot be simply generic, but involves, as you say above, “mutual understanding and a shared framework”. It would seem that there is some degree of mutual understanding between you and Jason, based on partially overlapping reading and even on some degree of shared aspiration about philosophical debate (despite divergences). So perhaps with a different interlocutor you would proceed differently, as the shared framework would be different.

    This phenomenon suggests that “speaking out simply as a person” does not mean speaking generically, as if one had never had any experience of academia or had never read any jargon-filled philosophy books. I question the detachability thesis. It seems to me that speaking simply as a person would mean mobilising all my experience, when relevant to the discussion. I have read, with passion, a lot of philosophy, although I am not an academic. I even migrated from Australia to France to attend seminars by Deleuze, Lyotard, and Foucault. So if I speak out as a person t would be very bizarre if I made no use of all that experience. One aspect of that experience is the language, as French philosophers think that a new vocabulary can be transformative without necessarily being authoritarian.

    An opposing point of view to yours is expressed in a blog post by Daniel Tutt entitled “Should Critical Theory Be Accessible?” ( I think that it chimes in well with Jason’s concern about ideology. I think you will agree with me that speaking out simply as a person is not just a spontaneous letting go, as that runs the risk of just unwittingly repeating ideology. Speaking simply as a person is in fact hard work, or the result of hard work, although it can also be very enjoyable in the sense of the “joy” of exercising our intellectual and relational capacities to the full.

    So thanks to both of you for a very interesting discussion, which I hope will continue.


  14. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    Terence, I agree with what you say. I especially agree that speaking simply as a person is not to reduce things to the common denominator or to merely seek to appeal to the public in terms of concepts they already possess, as if there is no such thing as intellectual expertise. As I see it, both the extremes of academic discourse and the mundane discourse of the public have to be avoided, and a middle ground of discussion, and structures which can sustain such discussion, has to be created. This is along the lines of “worldmaking” as Tutt discusses.

    Here is my basic picture, which can be put in terms of four stages of human society. In the first stage, prior to modern religions 3,000-5,000 years ago, abstract reflection about the direction and meaning of the society was limited to just a select few people in the community, the shamans; the major of the community contributed by taking part in the rituals.

    In the second stage, with modern religions, the group of people who could engage in abstract reflection increased, and the religious structures are what enabled this; there weren’t just some shamans guiding the community, but a priestly class. Still, the majority of the community contributed by following what the priests said.

    In the third stage, with the rise of modern universities, the group of people who could engage in abstract reflection increased even more, and so the academic class was formed. The majority of the community contributed by taking classes and being deferential to professors.

    Now we are entering, and have been doing so in the last couple of centuries and especially in the last 50 years with higher education becoming more accessible, a fourth stage where the group of people who can engage in abstract reflection is increasing beyond the academic class. Now lots of people have higher education who aren’t and won’t be professors, and so modes of reflection are breaking out beyond the institutional structures of academia. This fourth stage doesn’t mean that now everyone can engage in reflection; this is not Marxist utopia or the coming of heaven; nor is it the last stage. It just means that the number of people who can engage in reflection are much greater than what the academic structures can handle, and so there is a need for new intellectual structures in society. I take much of 20th century philosophy to be heralding the end of the third stage and looking toward the fourth stage.

    What does this fourth stage look like? I think this is what lots of people inside and outside academia, in books and blogs, people like me, you, Jason and many, many others are trying to figure out, each in our own way. Hence the discussion on this blog and this comment section is a mix of academic and non-academic, where this mix has not yet coalesced into something coherent and distinctly set apart from both academia and ideological public discourse. But things are moving in that direction.


  15. terenceblake

    This is a very interesting lecture by Badiou on philosophical language: It has a lot of relevance to Daniel Tutt’s critique of the requirement of immediate accessibility and to Bharath Vallabha’s critique of academic language. Badiou criticises the idea that “Being speaks L” for any language. The problem with “English” is the problem with any language that remains faithful to democratic materialism, and thus ideologically accessible. The problem with a particularistic language is repeated in academic language, Being does not speak academese. In both cases universality is lost in favour of abstraction.


  16. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    Thanks for the link to the Badiou talk. Seeing it bring up lots of thoughts, which I will explore in a separate post.



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