Monday, November 24, 2014


173. Where does argumentation stop?

Earlier in this blog I endorsed the idea (attributed to Wittgenstein and Heidegger)[1] of social action in the world, or language games, as the cradle of meaning, but I objected to the all too easy acceptance that judgement of adequacy or ‘truth’ is simply up to consensus, established practice. That would yield an unacceptable, horrendous surrender of personality, creativity and responsibility.

Personality would be sacrificed to the collective. There would be no room to deviate and create something new, a new game with new rules.

Such radical social, cultural relativism would entail surrender to prejudice and discrimination. It would entail submission to the rule of powers that be. Large-scale aberration from justice, like the recent financial crisis, would be taken for granted (as indeed it seems to be, in view of the limited rebellion against it).

Yet, argumentation does indeed have to stop somewhere, and some basic conventions, terms of discussion, have to be taken for granted, to avoid infinite regress.

So, how far should argumentation go, and how can it escape from prejudice? How can individuality and sociality, self and other, be combined? How can unity and variety, and stability and change be combined? Those questions constitute perhaps the biggest theme in this blog.

While I accept pragmatic, temporary stops to argument, I cannot accept permanent ones. Indeed, that would be against the spirit of pragmatism that I employ in this blog, because it would raise temporary truth to the level of an absolute. One should not too easily assume incommensurability between language games (or paradigms) and accept differences of view as irreconcilable.

Earlier in this blog (item 21) I criticized some basic elements of the Enlightenment, but here I maintain its basic value of commitment to discourse, debate and attempts at mutual understanding.     

I discussed cognitive distance, as a source of variety for creation, and the need to ‘cross it’ in order to realize its potential.

How does that work? One central tool to trigger understanding between views (or paradigms, or language games) is metaphor: describing one thing in terms of another. This can be elucidated in terms of the scripts discussed earlier in this blog. In those terms, metaphor would entail the attempt to substitute items from one script into another, or to import a node from one script to another. Or in linguistic terms, to exchange connotations.

There is an evolutionary argument, from evolutionary psychology, why gaps between rival language games or paradigms should not, in principle, be unbridgeable. The human species developed ways of cognition that contributed to survival in the world, and that, I propose, has somehow become part of our shared genetic make-up. Perhaps that will sometime show up in brain science.

As a result there is a fundamental similarity between people in how they see the world. That similarity is greatest where it concerns interaction with nature, with its stable laws, in what I would call ‘first order similarity’.

In this blog I argued that this has also led to what I called the object bias, whereby we try to make sense of abstract notions on the basis of metaphors taken from experience with physical objects in time and space.

As a result, socially, culturally and morally cognitive distance is greater. Nevertheless some common basis remains, if only in the basic, primary, natural, physical experience that supply those metaphors used to make sense of abstract notions. I would call that ‘second order similarity’.


[1] See Lee Braver, 2012, Groundless grounds; A study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, MIT Press.