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!

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.

27 thoughts on “Hermeneutics of Suspicion

  1. terenceblake

    To translate your analysis into my terms, you are saying that Stanley’s book is theory-laden, power-laden, and subject-laden (which I take it that you think any book is, not just his). His theory is at the level of thought purely ad hoc, it encodes already existent or readily accessible insights. Usually one would think that a theory-laden observation or insight is inseparable from the theory used not just to account for it, but also formulate it or to express it. In Stanley’s case, you argue, this is not so, hence the impression of “conceptual” mobilisation around platitudes that are in principle separable from the theory and concepts. This separability means that his theory is functioning as extraneous meta-language, i.e. first elaborated on a different plane it remains on that plane, and doesn’t interact with the insights and examples that are conveyed in the book to shed new light on them. Nor do the insights and examples transform the theory. So there is no positive heuristic to take us forward: once you have read his book you have no idea how to go further in understanding and dealing with propaganda in your life.

    Your therapeutic recommendation at this level seems to be to drop the jargon and talk about your ideas.But maybe this is a little one-sided, and you could also say: stop being so static about your jargon, push it further and transform it when you apply it. Otherwise you are enouncing a dualistic version of Wittgenstein’s maxim of silence, that you criticise at the end. The dualist version seems to say: let the theoretical mind be silent, but let the public mind talk. This is in danger of enforcing conformism, because sometimes to get further we need to reconceive or at least reformulate platitudes.

    If we take an example of a failed conversation to see the problem better, we can take the dismissal by Chomsky of “Continental” thinkers such as Zizek, Foucault, and Derrida. Chomsky has declared repeatedly that it is a waste of time to read these people, because they merely express obvious ideas in convoluted language. On some days I believe he is right, but on others I am convinced he is wrong. The point of the obscure language of the Continentals is that they think that you need a sort of “poetic” break with the ordinary way of talking to get new ideas. So maybe your critique goes too far, in that what you are thinking through by means of the specific example of Stanley’s book cannot be simply generalised.

    It is true that in France in the 60s and 70s intellectuals had to write in a complicated élitist style to gain social prestige and institutional power, and then in the 80s and 90s began to valorise a more democratic style (power-ladenness was at work). But it is not obvious that they could have gotten to their later ideas without putting their brains through the jargon-mixer (which was also, one hopes, a concept-mixer). Today, Alain Badiou writes brain-crackingly complicated books, but after publishes simpler summaries. So he makes a democratic effort without presuming that the whole of his theory can be captured that way. Bruno Latour says he wants as little meta-language as possible, but this may paradoxically make his latest book AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE in some ways more difficult to understand.

    Your therapeutic recommendation for the subject-ladennes seems to me quite sound. Do not impose the path you followed to get to your insights on your conversational partners. Do not presume that people need to go through the same experiences, master the same disciplines, apply the same methods. Yet are all my insights fully detachable from my path through life, including my academic path? I want to say: it depends. Somtimes I may need more experience, or a change of heart, to understand what you are saying. Or even just to read more.


  2. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    Lots of great points! Let me begin with what Chomsky says of Zizek, Derrida, etc. I think he is right. The strange thing is why he thinks that Stanley’s book or similar analytic books are any better. The issue is not really about “clarity”, or how long the sentences are, and so on. It is: are these books, be it Zizek’s or Stanley’s, creating structures where more people can engage in the conversation themselves? I had the same feeling with Stanley’s book as I do when I pick up a Zizek book, and that is: if I was a lay reader, what could I do with this book? Supposing I put in the effort to get through it, what then? No doubt the reading itself as an activity would improve my thinking. And then what?

    An analogy: suppose a town is under attack from a conquering army, and 95% of the town are lay people without expertise in combat, and 5% have that expertise. Imagine the 5% gain that expertise by practicing for 10 hours a day. Then in order to teach the lay people to fight, they simply get in front of the lay people and show them their best moves, and then say, “Just do like this!” Some of the lay people manage to do it; most don’t. When the attack comes though, even the ones who manage to mimic the 5% get killed because all they are doing is mimicking expertise.

    The trouble is that Zizek and Stanley are dependent for their expertise on academic structures which are essentially undemocratic. This dependence is obvious with Stanley because he quotes lots of professors; it is less obvious with Zizek because he speaks as if he is simply thinking out loud. But what they have in common is they have one foot in the academic world, and one foot out of it, without it being clear how the knowledge transmission from one world to the other is supposed to happen. Their dependence on the academic structures makes it seem as if they first made the discoveries in this world, and are now transporting it into this other world. This suggests that the public can only be in a mode of passive reception, since they can’t enter the world where the insights are generated.

    What is needed to foster democratic thinking is to have new modes of philosophical expression and discourse such that it can happen in the midst of everyday life itself without sacrificing quality. What mode of philosophy is that? I am not sure, and am working my way to it. It has to involve not depending on the training wheels of academic structures, and taking the leap to speak from one’s core as a human being without the guarantee that it will have an audience. One has to simply speak as a person in the situation one is in, and put the words and concepts in the air and the world, and let the audience find it when it will without any institutional pressure on them to listen to the words. Public intellectuals have too much institutional backing, and while that gives them a platform, it also decreases the power of what they say from that platform.


  3. Jason Stanley

    In contrast to your previous critique, which is fair, I think this critique is unfair. What you call “the platitude” is a radically out of context quote. The full quote is this “My claim in this chapter is that when propagandists use repeated association between words and images, they are forming connections that serve as the basis of conventional meaning. Typically, the conventional meaning is not-at-issue content.” The part that is the non-platitudousness claim is that the kind of content that was created by repeated association is what folks like Chris Potts, Craige Roberts, Mandy Simons, David Beaver and others call not-at-issue content. I take it here I am following a tradition blazed by Rae Langton, Caroline West, Kate McGowan, and others. So this is a philosophy of language and semantics chapter. I didn’t really expect non-philosophers to get into it, but people do seem to be very interested in the thought that the mechanisms behind e.g. the Southern Strategy of connecting “welfare” to racist associations are well-known in non-political parts of speech. Maybe they shouldn’t be, but I there are. I think they should be, but I’m happy enough just contributing to the geeky philosophy of language issues, and pointing out, as Kristie Dotson has urged, that concrete instances of injustice can be of great interest.


  4. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    To bring out where we disagree, let me make explicit the limits of what I know: I don’t know linguistics as a field. Unlike old school Wittgensteinians, I am not going to tell linguists whether the concepts they use are sensible; perhaps Wittgensteinians who know linguistics and linguists who are Wittgensteinians are suited to do that.

    I do worry though about the work of Langton and others. Not because it isn’t good. I have read Langton, and think she is great – but mistaken. And mistaken not about her views as such, though surely one can debate that as with any position. Rather, I am skeptical of the method of bringing together analytic philosophy and feminism in the way she does. Here I am similar to Bauer.

    I am not saying analytic philosophy and feminism shouldn’t come together. Of course not. It has been together for a long time, and that’s great. I am totally for the topics Langton pursues, and am also totally for her freedom to pursue that with the methods she, and many people, find compelling. I am concerned about, as I see it, a tension between the method Langton uses and the practical goals she aims to achieve. This is the same tension I see in your book.

    In your comments you suggest that I am a quietist. I am not. Here it is helpful to distinguish at least four paths for Wittgensteinians who are critical of the tools you use. First, there are the quietists (Dreben, Goldfarb, McDowell, etc.). I don’t agree with this group because this is a quietism which ends up being complicit in the institutional status quo. Second, there are the Aristotelian Wittgensteinians (Anscombe, Hacker, etc.). I don’t agree with this group because they avoid quietism by reenforcing the Eurocentrism of academic philosophy: Descartes is bad, so let’s go back to Aquinas and Aristotle. Not my preferred option.

    Third, there are the academic pluralistic Wittgensteinians (Cavell, Bauer, Noe, etc.) On this view, the appeal of Wittgensteinian philosophy is that it can open up a space of “the ordinary”. As you know, for Cavelleans this phrase has a mythic quality. But the basic point is simple: it is academic philosophers freeing themselves of their academic constraints so as to create a mode of philosophy which is challenging without being specialized. There is nothing quietist about this position, but in fact is all about creating new discourses of philosophy. I think this is basically right in theory. But it is still mainly theory as long as one remains an academic; or as long as one doesn’t actively work to change academic philosophy. Hence the fourth option: non-academic pluralistic Wittgenstienians. This is what I identity with.


  5. Jason Stanley

    I think you are wrong about the practical goals of my book, and this may show we have bigger disagreements. There are parts of my book that are meant to approachable to the non-academic public. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 are not. They are directed at two audiences: (a) philosophers and (b) academics outside philosophy. In chapter 4 one thing I’m trying to do is show that academic philosophers of language should be interested in propaganda. I’m also trying to show that the linguistic mechanisms that can explain propaganda must be independently postulated to explain non-propagandistic speech; so there is no basis for skepticism about certain critiques of language. But I imagined this would be for an academic audience; for law professors, for example. That said, it’s just a fact that these chapters have proven to be of wider interest. That is going to be trickier for you to explain in your larger theory. It’s not because I’m some credentialed expert that major newspapers are interviewing me; it’s because the interviews seem to have wider interest. It’s because folks click on them. That suggests to me that you are wrong that the concepts of analytic philosophy are technical ones that are beyond the reach of readers of Die Zeit, the New York Times, and other mainstream newspapers. There are a lot of academic discourses that don’t travel easily but I think the Stone has shown that people do have an independent interest here. I do not see the aspect in your world view that explains the brute fact that there seems to be both an appetite for and an understanding of these concepts in the wider public.


  6. Jason Stanley

    That said, since these chapters were meant to be digested by philosophers and academics outside philosophy, even if they hadn’t proven to have wider interest, I would be totally fine with that. I have been surprised at the wider interest too.


  7. Jason Stanley

    I didn’t ask to write for the Chronicle Review; they received my book and paid me to write an article for them because they thought the material you say is technical and incomprehensible in fact has general interest. And it has relevance for detailed discussions in political science and legal theory; social meaning is not a concept that philosophers came up with.


  8. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    “It’s not because I’m some credentialed expert that major newspapers are interviewing me; it’s because the interviews seem to have wider interest. It’s because folks click on them.”

    This is not an either or. In fact, from my perspective, it is very simple why folks click on your interviews or non-academic essays. It is because they care about the topic being discussed (propaganda), and it is a novelty for them that an academic philosopher from Yale is talking about it. This shows that, yes, the public is hungry for discussion of these topics. At the same time, the lay reader might not know what to do with your writings. They might think: “this topic sure sounds interesting, and I kind of like what this person is saying.” Then what? What do they do with that? The worry is that they might then not do anything because they figure they don’t have the necessary expertise. Certainly this is better than the public not having anything to read. Its like you – and most academic public philosophers – give a taste to the public of how philosophy can be impactful to their lives, but then reenforce the expertise because that is the way the academic philosopher gets the platform to be heard in the first place.

    The point here is not unique to the analytic philosophy you mention in the book. The same applies to, say, Rorty. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was treated like a big call to arms inside academia, and I am sure some people outside academia as well read it excitedly; if Rorty was in our generation, he would be all over blogs and the Stone, etc. But was Rorty right? Was Descartes confused? The only people who can contribute to this conversation are academic philosophers. This is another example of where the scaffolding is cemented into public discourse, and so the public are cemented into the position of simply being listeners.

    I realize academic philosophy and the humanities are under attack. But this is the wrong way to make them relevant. It is only by giving up the guarantee of specialization – of insights coming from the academic factory – that humanities can be saved. The lay public, in order to do philosophy, needs to identify with the philosopher, and vice versa, and specialization is the main obstacle to such mutual identification.

    You say chapters 4, 5 and 6 were not meant for non-academics. I find this strange. So the beginning and end of the book, and much of the groundwork of the initial chapters are for non-academics, but the heart of the book isn’t. This is the worry: the non-academics can come only so far, but not further into the inner sanctum. What use is the preliminary stuff for them then? It only gives them a false sense of understanding and participation.


  9. Jason Stanley

    I can’t get into this broader discussion. I was simply pointing out that this post is false. You quoted me out of context. You simply dropped entirely the subsequent sentence which is not a platitude and represented me as saying that my claim in the chapter was a platitude. This allowed you to make the point that the technical stuff is doing argumentative work. I am simply saying this just is a flat out misunderstanding and misrepresentation.


  10. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    Another way to see it is not an either-or is the fact that, based at least on impact on popular culture, the public values Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Derrida, Zizek, etc. as philosophers. These philosophers get a lot of attention from non-academics. Does that mean the public just values the philosophy and doesn’t care about credentials? Of course not. The reason the public cares about these philosophers is partly because, at least in some circles, these thinkers are trumped up by academics. If Wittgenstein wasn’t endorsed by Russell and wasn’t at Cambridge, would he have made a dent (such as it is) in the broader culture. Highly doubtful. In fact, the public is in no position to evaluate Wittgenstein’s works; the main cause of that is Wittgenstein himself. A lay reader who picks up “On Certainty” might get the feeling he is thinking along with a philosopher; and so he is in a sense. But as the image goes, its a lever that’s not connected to anything.

    A lay person can’t think along with Wittgenstein or Rorty because these thinkers never acknowledged the enormous power they wield over the readers. They presumed to just speak to the heavens, as if they don’t have, and don’t care about, any power. The lay public falls for this, and assumes that the little philosophy they can get from the books is the most there is for them to get. If the philosopher acknowledges the power differential, then the reader, either out of a sense of outrage of the power differential or out of a sense of being giving a helping hand, can expect more out of themselves.


  11. Jason Stanley

    By the way, a side issue, but I find it weird that you simultaneously represent yourself as on the side of the people but your three examples of heroes who share your view all were either professors or graduate students in the Harvard Philosophy Department. I have respect and admiration for all three of these philosophers. But as I have said to you before a lot of your orientation is a product of that environment. I am not convinced by your attempts to argue that this orientation is the true “of the people” movement,


  12. Jason Stanley

    What’s your basis for thinking that Cavell, Noe, and Bauer are understood by the people, and my writing, when it is read by the people, is only done so because of my credentials and the topics I am writing on? I was writing on these topics before I came to Yale and people were reading what I was writing. Your assumption is simply personal animus.


  13. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    It’s true when I was quoting the passage I dropped the sentence about not-at-issue content. It was a conscious decision, which brings out the point at issue. If I quote that sentence, I have spend time in the post talking about not-at-issue content. Which I didn’t want to do because it pulls into the specialization, and colors the whole discussion. I don’t deny I slightly misrepresented your position. But to represent your position in your terms is to get sucked into an energy flow that pulls away from me as a non-academic. In my post I was trying to find a way to be in the middle ground between how an academic or a lay reader might read your text. What you call a misrepresentation is what I call a necessary step needed to counter-balance the power differential between you as an expert in linguistics and me as a non-expert in linguistics.


  14. Jason Stanley

    I don’t find that a plausible defense of what is a bad misrepresentation because what you call a “platitude” is a platitude and you represent me as spending 60 pages arguing for it with what would be useless appeals to technical stuff. So it’s really a pernicious misrepresentation.


  15. Jason Stanley

    There is just not much relation between those out of context sentences you quote and chapter 4. If misunderstanding and misrepresenting sixty pages of prose is necessary for you as a reader I don’t know what to say. Look, you have made very good points in other posts that I have addressed at length. I don’t see a substantive point here that isn’t just a misrepresentation.


  16. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    It is not personal animus. I never said Cavell, Noe and Bauer are understood by the people. That would be a crazy claim to make. Cavell is as impenetrable to the public as anyone. In fact, much more so than your book. But it brings up an important distinction: readability versus equal standing as thinkers. A lay person can’t read Cavell, but he is trying to get to a mode of philosophy where people can have equal standing as thinkers, and in that light, he is suspicious of the much academic philosophy. This also is not an either or. I admire your work and attempts as much as I do Cavell’s. I just happen to agree with his more theoretically.

    Also, of course my views are based on my education and the circles I have been in. I have never said or implied otherwise. My point is that this is true of everyone, and that no one has managed to break out of it.

    One of the interesting debates is what it means to be “of the people”. Your work in some ways is more of the people than Cavell’s, and his in some ways more than yours. And neither of yours in some ways than what I think is needed. Also, I am not claiming that I am more of the people. I would love to be that, as I imagine you or others would too. At the same time, I am trying to understand what that could even be given how hierarchical our society is. I don’t think anyone has figured this out. One of the main advantages I find of having gone through academic philosophy is realizing that academic philosophers haven’t figured it out either.


  17. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    “I don’t find that a plausible defense of what is a bad misrepresentation because what you call a “platitude” is a platitude and you represent me as spending 60 pages arguing for it with what would be useless appeals to technical stuff. So it’s really a pernicious misrepresentation.”

    That is what I think. It is a platitude surrounded by 60 pages of technical stuff that doesn’t help with the practical task of the reader getting better at not being mislead by double talk. The technical stuff mainly works to reenforce the power differentials between the author and the reader.


  18. Jason Stanley

    Thank you for that explanation. We got into some surrounding general issues in this thread. But let me say that I appreciate your close read of the book and your comments. I objected to this post, but I thought your charge of potential hypocrisy in previous posts is important and a central issue, in general in debates about ideal and non-ideal theory. My efforts in the other thread were to explain how I address that critique in the book (my efforts in the previous thread were focused on directing your attention to the several lengthy discussions of that critique, not on dismissing the critique, as I am doing with your original post here).


  19. Jason Stanley

    “It is a platitude surrounded by 60 pages of technical stuff that doesn’t help with the practical task of the reader getting better at not being mislead by double talk. The technical stuff mainly works to reenforce the power differentials between the author and the reader.”

    This is the misrepresentation again. What you call a “platitude” is not something I claim to be a focus of argument in the chapter. “My claim” in the chapter is what is in the subsequent sentence, which you omitted, and it is far from a platitude.

    I did not write the book to “help with the practical task of the reader getting better at not being misled by double talk”. I just didn’t. I think I’m clear about that on pp. 72-78. I wrote my book for philosophers, to show that thinking about negative notions like ignorance, ideology, and propaganda can be as systematic and philosophically interesting as thinking about knowledge, justice, and ideal public reason. And once one sees that, then one sees that plenty of very great philosophers have worked in political philosophy and epistemology, who are not traditionally recognized as such. So I think part of your disagreement is just misunderstanding of what I’m doing. It’s not my fault that a project directed at philosophers seems to have had considerably wider resonance.

    Now here you might say that the wider resonance simply is a function of my position at Yale and my presumed authority as an expert. Well, what’s your evidence for that? When I have appeared on the Philadelphia Morning Drive show, people seemed to like it. The callers had smart and interesting questions. The two reporters for Die Zeit also had super smart and interesting questions – about chapter 4 in fact. They understood and digested the material about not-at-issue content. They got the example with “might”. So have many other non-academics who have contacted me. It’s not my fault that they understand me. Maybe you underestimate the people.


  20. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    This post gets most at what I think about the book, so for me it is central to all the other posts. I don’t mind at all talking about it.

    “It’s not my fault that a project directed at philosophers seems to have had considerably wider resonance.”

    I find this amazing. This makes it seem like you are talking to your peers, and then interested passers-by stop to listen and then ask you questions about it, which you are more than happy to answer. If this is the dynamic, if you and your peers are set apart from the public in this way, in what way could academic philosophy understand “the nature” of double-talk without simply reenforcing the privileges of academic philosophers to be set apart in that way?

    I think in the book you are doing two things, which public philosophers like Rorty, Dennett, Singer, Nussbaum and others have been doing for decades: which is to play the academics and the lay public off each other. If a non-academic presses the public philosopher about the power differential, the academic philosopher reverts to saying they were writing for academics, or it involves technical discussion. If a fellow professional pressed why the book doesn’t read the way a journal article does, then the public philosopher says they were writing for the public.

    This is no doubt part of the power of being a public intellectual: one can leverage the fact that the public likes one’s work to put pressure on institutional inertia and create institutional change. This is another thing that is hidden from the public. What to them seems like just an interesting discussion of propaganda is also, at the same time, part of an institutional change in academic philosophy. But if you as the author are too explicit about the inner squabbles of academics, then you will lose the public, and then will lose whatever leverage the book gives to change academic philosophy.


  21. Jason Stanley

    It is certainly not the case that I would ever say to a “fellow professional” who “pressed why the book doesn’t read the way a journal article does” that I was writing for the public. I have been thinking of a connected set of topics for 15 years and the connections they have to political stuff I care about. And here I bring it all together. Bring it on, fellow professionals. And I think lots of people outside philosophy have been thinking about the issues I care about, such as the role of propaganda in politics, for example, and would be interested in seeing what various resources they are unfamiliar with can say about the issues. And it connects analytic philosophy to debates in feminist theory, Black feminist theory, queer theory, disability studies, and philosophy of race and allows us to see that there are similar debates happening. I suspect we are thinking of the project of the book in different ways.


  22. Jason Stanley

    And crucially I’m trying to show that there are insights in e.g. Black feminism and so-called philosophy of race that are very useful and not often enough absorbed. These are messages for philosophers.


  23. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    Fair enough. More power to you. I think our situations in society, and perhaps our philosophical perspectives as well, are quite different, and so that is bound to effect how we see things. I understand: these are things you have been thinking about for a long time, and they are coming together in this way, and connecting to all these other debates. That’s great. Clearly those debates in their academic form are not central to my future, and so that gets to some of the differences in our perspectives.



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