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!
This is the central point of the hermeneutics of suspicion, which is the mode of reading philosophy practiced by Marx, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Foucault and so on. These authors refuse to fall for the illusion of equality between philosophical interlocutors, as if just in virtue of doing philosophy, power has been set aside. This means that understanding a philosophical text and accepting the argumentative framework of the text are not the same thing. That, in fact, understanding the text requires not simply accepting that the author and the reader are bound by a universal, non-power-laden mode of philosophy, but requires rather peeling back the illusion that such a mode of philosophy has already been achieved.
These authors therefore read philosophy not, as it were, straight-on, as if everything is as it seems on the surface, but from the side, by taking a step back from the inner momentum of the text to try to understand it from a broader context that the text itself covers over. This is the sense in which they read the text with suspicion. This is not to deny that philosophy consists of rational conversation. It is say that such rational conversation is achieved through the cultivation of such suspicion. It is a way to be mindful of the traps one is prone to fall into when doing philosophy. Reading with suspicion is one of the ways to cultivate a more balanced and equal space for conversation.
Seen from this perspective, a striking thing about Stanley’s book, like much philosophy, is that there is no new, novel thesis articulated or defended in the book. Even though it has all the appearances that is what is happening. True, what is happening is of importance and significance, but just not in the manner Stanley presumes.
The central claims of the book are right, but they are right because they are platitudes. By this I don’t mean they are trivial or obvious. They aren’t. They are important platitudes, which takes philosophical skill to express. But they are platitudes nonetheless, as in things that any person through a certain kind of reflection on their own can come to. That is, as platitudes they are claims which don’t require any special professional expertise to come to, and certainly not specialized knowledge of analytic epistemology or philosophy of language. They are the province of each person insofar as their ability to recognize the platitudes is awakened in them.
Here is an example among many throughout the text. Regarding how language is used to foster double-talk, Stanley writes:
One kind of linguistic propaganda involves repeated association between words and social meanings. Repeated association is also the mechanism by which conventional meaning is formed… My claim in this chapter is that when propogandists use repeated association between words and images, they are forming connections that serve as the basis of conventional meaning…. When the new media connects images of urban Blacks repeatedly with the mention of the term “welfare”, the term “welfare” comes to have the non-at-issue content that Blacks are lazy.(138)
How does propaganda work? According to Stanley, it is by using language to create false or misleading associations. Call this the platitude. This much any person who is thinking through how mind-control happens can come to.
What Stanley is doing in this passage is taking the platitude and wrapping it up in the discourse of linguistics and philosophy of language — in the concepts he had been laying out in the pages just before the passage such as common ground, content, at-issue and non-at-issue content, and so on. Call this the packaging of the platitude. With the packaging the platitude now looks not like a platitude, as something any person can come to know on their own, but as a discovery enabled by analytic philosophy.
Surely Stanley isn’t doing this intentionally or even consciously. But if this is what is happening, why is it happening? Because we don’t have in our society a thriving space of non-specialized discourse. Just as we are losing pubic parks, spaces where any citizen lay claim to having a right to be just as a citizen not simply as a customer, so too we are losing the sense of public intellectual spaces, spaces where any citizen can engage with other citizens just as citizens.
How can one gain a voice in public? In a society where the public space is torn and there is no shared sense of community, professional expertise becomes the way in which one can lay claim on others for why one should be heard. You should listen to me, because you can’t figure this out on your own; you don’t have the expertise; you are busy doing other things, and I have used my time to figure this out; and so I will share it with you as long as you acknowledge that I know something you don’t. The intellectual packaging in Stanley’s book – all the stuff about the insights and discoveries of analytic epistemology, etc. – is all a way to reaffirm to the reader this sense of the epistemic authority of the author. It is the way that his platform as a public intellectual gets constructed. And yet it is a platform that reenforces the epistemic inequalities even as it claims to foster democratic conversation.
This isn’t to blame Stanley or other professional philosophers who use similar methods to get heard in a society in which philosophy isn’t publicaly valued. But it is to say the method is rife with practical contradictions.
Nor is it to say that Stanley is being duplicitous, as if he knows what he is saying are platitudes but he is using the packaging of expertise to get heard. The problem is deeper than that. It is possible that Stanley is himself came to awareness of the platitudes through the packaging. In that sense, he is honestly saying as it were: “Look, I came to recognize these things about propaganda and double-talk through thinking about debates in analytic philosophy. So you too come to see them that way.” What this means is that Stanley’s own awareness of the platitudes is mediated through a dependence on institutional structures which are not available to most people. The confusion lies in the inference that because Stanley came to the platitudes in the way he did, somehow that same path will work for the reader as well.
This is a delusion. The reason it worked for Stanley, as it might for any professional philosopher, is that using the institutional structures of academic philosophy is tied up with Stanley’s personal growth as a thinker and a reflective person. Academics are all too familiar with this fact: one is apt to conflate one’s professional success with growing as a philosopher. Hence the pain of not publishing or not getting a job. It feels like an indictment of oneself as a thinker and a person, not just a reflection on one’s job or how one makes money.
One’s grows as a thinker only in relation to being able to grow and thrive as a human being. Hence the problem with saying that because analytic philosophy enabled Stanley to come to awareness of the platitudes, it can do so the public as well. It can’t, because the public can’t relate the analytic philosophy as something that is part of their personal growth. The institution of analytic philosophy is closed to them, since they are not qualified to teach or write as academics. So in what sense then can they themselves own the insights of analytic philosophy as something they can think about on their own?
They can’t. Not in the way Stanley is trying to leverage analytic philosophy to foster public philosophy.
Public philosophy requires that the public is able to get to the important platitudes on their own, without feeling that they owe to an epistemic superior. To see that the philosophical truths are in them as people, and that they have the power to discover those truths themselves. This requires the precise opposite of what Stanley does in the book: to take off the packaging of analytic philosophy to shine light on the platitudes which we need to recognize as belonging to all of us.
Doing the opposite – of laying on the packaging as if it were essential to the insights – makes it more about justifying analytic philosophy to the public than serving the public itself. It is a way to say: Public, we analytic philosophers can be negligent about the job we are supposed to do for you, but we can do it and have been doing it. Here is the evidence of that. Here are all the insights we have found! Now I am sharing it with you.
This is the main sense I get in reading Stanley’s book, and which no doubt the naive reader is bound to be taken in by: it is more a defense of academic philosophy and how important it is and how much work it has been doing than something which shows the confidence of a thinker who is able to leave the packaging behind and meet the public just as a person.
No doubt many people will benefit from the book. I don’t deny that. But it will only help people who are situationally predisposed to defer to analytic philosophy as a way of getting to the platitudes.
The debates in analytic philosophy are like the training wheels, the platitudes are the bike, and the reader like the rider of the bike. Someone who doesn’t know how to ride a bike can greatly benefit from riding a bike with training wheels. But that is different from riding a bike without training wheels. And that is what is required to foster democratic philosophical thinking – where people can feel they can come to the platitudes on their own. Stanley’s book doesn’t enable that because as the author Stanley himself depends on the training wheels, where the platitudes and the packaging of the platitudes are fused together as if they are the same thing.
This doesn’t mean it is easy to get rid of the training wheels. Insofar as my thinking on this blog is about analytic philosophy, I am also dependent on those training wheels. It takes time and effort to take them off. This is the difference between non-Wittgensteinian and Wittgensteinian philosophies. The former is unmindful of the training wheels as training wheels, while the latter is mindful of this fact, and works towards a mode of philosophy without the training wheels.
Here there is a difference between me and Wittgenstein. He assumed that the only mode of philosophy without training wheels is one that is silent, as if it is in the very nature of conversation to depend on the training wheels of analytic philosophy. I don’t think that is true. I think there can be modes of philosophy which can be flourishing and shared through conversation without the training wheels. So there can be public modes of philosophy which can be shared by people just as people. It is an ideal to aim for.