Sunday, December 27, 2015

235. Beyond postmodernism

This blog and my philosophy books form an exercise in moving beyond postmodernism, preserving what is useful in it, and replacing what is not. The two main features of my approach have been the use of a pragmatist approach (building on Dewey, among others) and, as an extension of that, a dynamic approach of meaning, truth, identity and ethics, in terms not of what they are but how they arise and change. Following Heidegger: ‘being’ as a verb, not a substantive.

Postmodern discounting of rationality and objective knowledge does not necessarily imply radical relativism, in the sense of claiming that any interpretation or view is as good as any other. No postmodern philosopher claims that.

However, postmodernists are often cagey, evasive about truth. Some (e.g. Derrida) seem to replace argumentation with ‘narratives’, without claim to any truth, as long as they are ‘interesting’. This, together with the rejection of universals, produces irony. That is in danger of avoiding commitment to any position, and a dodging of responsibility. Without any notion of truth there would not only be no science, but also no ordinary daily discourse. We talk all the time about whether a politician or the media, or the neighbour, or one’s child or partner is telling the truth. So, what notion of truth remains?

Inspired by pragmatist thought, in this blog I adopted the notion of truth as ‘warranted assertibility’: one should be willing to give reasons, and arguments for what one asserts, and be open to discourse about them and to alternative views or interpretations. One can claim to have such arguments without claiming any final, or ultimate truth. Here, truth is the best we can do with our admittedly imperfect, biased, prejudiced views. Let others help to unearth those imperfections, biases and prejudices. And when that happens one should have the honesty to say: what I said was false, i.e. not true, i.e. not warranted.

Counter to Derrida, I maintain the notion of reference. Of course, we never know objectively whether what we say refers to anything ‘real’ ‘out there’ that is ‘present’ to us. But in daily language the intention to refer is there. We  could not deal with the world or each other without it. ‘Walk the dog’ without reference? ‘Take a chair’ without reference?

The thing is this. We should allow for reference that fails and varies between people and circumstances. In this blog I tried to work this out by also adopting the notion of ‘sense’, next to reference, as the way in which reference is decided. I proposed that this is done on the basis of a repertoire of associations gathered along one’s life path, hence different from those of others. And which from them is picked out to decide reference is triggered by the context. ‘Framing’ that is called in psychology. In item 34 in this blog I tried to elucidate this with the notion of ‘scripts’.

Difference of sense for different people, yielding differences in cognition, in what I called ‘cognitive distance’, is indispensable for individual identity and for change of knowledge and meaning in communication. Here I preserve and connect difference and dynamics as two key elements of postmodernism.

However, all this does leave a vestige of relativism. Views may be ‘incommensurable’, lacking shared meanings for debate, despite tenacious efforts at mutual understanding, using all the force of metaphor, images and joint practice that one can muster.

Next, the issue of the subject. Being embedded in the world, the subject does not disappear. Being socially constituted need not entail that it has no independence. What is constructed socially is individualised, and provides the basis for action, for taking a stand and responsibility. The condition that personal identity is multiple, opaque and variable does not make it disappear.

Zizek discusses the postmodern loss of social order (the ‘symbolic order’) by which limits and directions were taken for granted. Freedom from those creates disorientation, which evokes a groping for new certainties. I will not discuss that here.

The unworldliness of absolute, strict and fixed universals need not require a rejection of universals in any form (see item 222 for forms of universality). I go along with the postmodern view that the particular precedes the universal and trumps it morally, but that need not imply the eclipse of universals. Here also, the relation between the two is dynamic. Universals arise as contingent generalizations by which we abstract from experience to guide practice that leads to new experience that shifts the universal.

In sum, I employ the dynamic streak from postmodernism to save it from its mistakes.

However, while change is fundamental, I recognize the need for stability, in alternation with change. I will develop that in a later series of items.

Monday, December 21, 2015

234. What is postmodernism?

What ‘postmodernism’ means is contested. ‘Postmodernity’ is our present society. In one sense, postmodernism is a cultural response to that. In art and architecture it means a mixing of styles. It can also mean a focus on appearance rather than fact, the superficial rather than what may lie behind it, opinion rather than argument. Most widely, it entails a loss of old certainties, and of social, spiritual and intellectual order. According to Lyotard, the horrors of totalitarianism in the 20th century have created suspicion of ‘grand narratives’. Postmodernism recoils from absolutes and universals into relativism and particulars.

Here I look at philosophical notions of the subject, identity, rationality, knowledge, truth and meaning.    

Postmodernism criticizes, and to some extent reverses modernism. Modernism is born from the thought of Descartes and the Enlightenment. Its core, I propose, is threefold. First, the idea of a Cartesian subject or self, as a spectator viewing the world, the object, from outside, separated from it. Second, the idea that the self is rational and autonomous. Third, that rationality, in knowledge and moral judgement, has a foundation in indubitable, universal and fixed methods and ideas.

Analytical philosophy adds the notion, in its theory of language, of meaning as reference: words refer to things present in reality, and correct reference is the criterion of truth. 

Postmodernism, then, is characterized by opposition to these points. There are four main themes. First, the subject, the self, cannot be separated from the object, is part of the world (‘thrown into it’, Heidegger says), constituted by being in that world, and this constitution forms its view of it. The self is socially and culturally constituted, not autonomous. Identity, individual and cultural, is opaque, plural and subject to change. Second, universality, in ethics and knowledge, is rejected in favour of the diverse, singular, individual. Meaning is context-dependent, pluralistic. Third, rationality is discounted, sometimes dwindling to nothing, and free will is limited or absent. Fourth, all metaphysics of substance, objects in reality, fixed truths and identities, is rejected in favour of open-endedness, in ongoing flux.

More or less postmodern philosophers are Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze, Rorty, and Toulmin. However, they did not all share all the above characteristics, nor did they accept the term ‘postmodernism’ for their thought.

Some postmodernists are more radical than others. For Derrida there is no knowledge, just texts. For him the ‘presence’ of objects in reference is an illusion. The idea that one can start thought and judgement with a clean slate, without prejudice, bias or interest, is an illusion. Knowledge is not objective. Ideas and expressions hide underlying, unspoken interests and positions or aspirations of power (Nietzsche, Foucault). There is no truth or it is contingent, multiple, and open-ended.

Open-endedness of ideas and truth was a feature already of Montaigne’s philosophy, and it connects postmodernism with pragmatism. Words as tools rather than bearers of truth connect with pragmatism and with Wittgenstein.

Attempts are made to unravel unspoken pre-conceptions, to delve underlying logics, forces, motives, powers or conditions of discourse. With Nietzsche this is called ‘genealogy’, with Foucault ‘archaeology’, and with Derrida ‘deconstruction’.

Words entail conceptualization, interpretation. They are seldom literal descriptions. Language is predominantly metaphorical. According to Nietzsche language consists of mobile metaphors. There is not one single true interpretation, of nature or books, no single truth underlying texts. The meaning of a word depends on that of other words (Saussure), in some context of action, constituting a ‘language game’ (Wittgenstein). Outside the game meanings are lost or changed. The example is chess. Away from the board a piece of chess loses its meaning.
Postmodernism is justified in its criticism of the Enlightenment, but it goes overboard. It has been accused (e.g. by Zizek) of abolishing the subject, which yields loss of agency.[i] In the surrender of illusions of certainty and loss of truth, arguments are surrendered to opinion, and responsibility evaporates in irony. Society turns into a shouting match in an arena of exhibition.

[i] I doubt the validity of this accusation. The agent is indeed in danger of disappearing, in the view that it is constituted culturally, by which individuality might disappear, but on the other hand Postmodernism also emphasizes differentiation, and hence individuality.

Friday, December 18, 2015

233. Constructive alienation

The notion of alienation is best known from the work of Marx. It mostly has a negative connotation of not being able to express and be oneself, and to be accepted, in work or communication. This has three elements.

First, not getting the opportunity to express oneself. Second, not being heard or understood. Third, not being accepted for what one claims to be.

Concerning the third, whatever one claims to be, to deserve in position and recognition, is to be ratified by whatever categories apply in the established ‘symbolic order’ (to use that term from Lacan and Zizek). One may claim to be a philosopher but this is recognized only when one has a degree in that field or publications that have been well received professionally or by the wider public. Zizek called such lack of recognition and legitimation a ‘second death’, a symbolic death, next to physical death of the body.

Here, alienation is that ‘I am not perceived or credited to be what I feel I am’. On one extreme, as an outsider one may hardly be recognised at all, hardly have symbolic presence. On another extreme, as a celebrity one may have too much symbolic presence, distorting what I feel I am.  

However, perfect expression, being fully and faithfully present in the symbolic order, could apply only if one assumes that there is a given, coherent, unified, original self to be expressed.

In philosophy since David Hume, later also in Marx, and in postmodern philosophy, that notion of the subject is waived. The subject is seen as multiple, often incoherent, sometimes even inconsistent, and in flux. It is constituted by action and communicative interaction, from response from others. Thus imperfection of expression is inherently problematic because there is no autonomous self to express. Nevertheless, imperfect expression is still a cause of feeling forlorn.

Alienation, not being fully understood and accepted, is the price one pays for having an identity. One cannot have an identity without some degree of difference or distance to others.  

Alienation is also inherent in the constitution of the self. This was recognized by Marx, and is called ‘constitutive alienation’. As I have argued in this blog, one needs opposition from the other to develop a self, to have any chance of correcting one’s myopia and prejudice, to gain freedom from it. Imperfect expression may call forth correction or enrichment by the response from others. It then becomes imperfection on the move, in the ongoing making of the self.

In preceding items in this blog I discussed Alfred Hirschman’s notions of ‘voice’, ‘exit’ and ‘loyalty’. Voice is needed to maintain and repair relationships when they run into trouble, as they mostly do, rather than fleeing from them, in exit. In the present analysis, voice assumes a deeper value, as constitutive of the self.

Then, the issue is not so much an issue of autonomy, the opportunity to express a given self, but of automorphism, the opportunity to form the self.

Of course, this requires attention from others, not just to listen to what one has to say, but being open to it, even if it sounds eccentric, giving it the benefit of the doubt, and next also to oppose or correct it, not only allowing for expression but also yielding impression. One not only needs to join but also to have a rejoinder. This appears to be increasingly lacking in large areas of modern work, due to increased flexibilization, as I discussed earlier, in item 211 of this blog. Perhaps this resembles what Marx called the ‘commodification of work’.

So, by constructive alienation I mean two things: alienation as a basis for construction of the self, and alienation from the sources of such construction. If one is robbed of opportunities for the dialectic of expression and construction one is alienated from construction.

That occurs when after sending a message one receives no evidence that it has been read, or when there is no response, no rejoinder. This happens often in communication via the Internet. Sending a message is a bid for symbolic recognition, and lack of response yields alienation. For lack of response one is also alienated from the sources of the construction of the self.  Thus, proliferation of messaging yields proliferation of alienation. We call this the communication revolution. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

232. Will robots have voice?

What will happen when robots take on more and more tasks, with increasing intelligence? What if a robot is opinionated, its views going against the established order, or against the will of its maker or owner?
Presently, an intellectual, scientist, or worker on a shop floor with contrary views cannot easily be silenced, in democracies. But robots may be simply switched off, or re-programmed to conform.

What will this do to people, if with regard to robots they no longer need to defend their views, and can bend the views of robots to their own? Would people then prefer to consort with robots rather than people, for the ease and comfort of it? Would that make them more self-involved, narcissistic even, turning robots into mirrors?

In this blog I argued that one needs the opposition form the other to detect one’s own myopia, to nourish a flourishing life. This is needed, I argued, to achieve the highest form of freedom, which includes freedom from the bias of the self.

If robots are self-learning, by adapting their intelligence to what is successful, more rigorously and perfectly than humans, will this be a source of contrariness, defiance? People have a variety of sources of experience, in jobs, families, friendship, sports, travel and chance encounters, to feed their cognition and morality. Will robots have access to such diversity of experience? Will the owner of the robot, having invested in it, be willing to grant it unproductive time, in a range of private activities?

Next to his notions of ‘exit’ and ‘voice’, Albert Hirschman recognized the possibility of ‘loyalty’, which is acceptance, surrender to a faulty relationship.

Robots may undergo forced exit, being switched off, or may be programmed for loyalty. Will they be allowed to raise voice, or even be programmed for it? Or will they ever be self-generative enough to grasp voice, or even to impose loyalty on people? How moral will they be? And how would they acquire morality? I discussed that in item 179 of this blog.

Monday, December 7, 2015

231. The temptation of exit

Trust and fruitful relationships require a commitment to ‘voice’, the effort to acknowledge problems in a relationship, view them soberly and approach them constructively and reasonably, and to solve them together, in give and take.

It requires an effort at mutual understanding. Crossing what in this blog I have called ‘cognitive distance’, differences in views, perspective, norms and knowledge, trying to understand and be understood. That requires adequate ‘absorptive capacity’, ability to understand, from experience and knowledge, skills of empathy, imagining oneself in the shoes of the other, and skill of expression, with the use of metaphor to phrase one’s views in terms familiar to the other. It requires trust in giving space to the other, running the risk that the other employs that space to one’s detriment.

That makes voice difficult, full of effort, and risky. It is easier to 'exit': walk out, break the relationship, and be done with it. Differences in perspective, views and knowledge can be fruitful but also bothersome.

When uncertain, averse to risk, or mistrustful, one may go for pre-emptive exit: getting out before the other does. One may be hesitant to invest in a relationship with a high risk of loss. This may apply, in particular, to love relationships, in fear of getting hurt, and ‘wasting one’s best years’. Having been cheated or deserted a lot, one will stand more ready to cut losses and flee.

According to Alain Badiou[i] and Simon Critchley[ii] love is not comfort and contentment but ongoing effort. It strikes a gap in the self, to receive a gift over which one has no power, and giving something over which one also has no power. It is a conquering of the impossible. It is easier not to engage in it.

Also, the grass may seem greener on the other side of the hill, tempting exit to gain more.

Lacking self-confidence, feeling vulnerable, one may be on the look-out for negative signs, tempted to give a negative interpretation to harmless, even well-intended acts.

This is strengthened by the psychological phenomenon of ‘loss aversion’: more weight is attached, with stronger emotions, to potential loss than to potential gain. In a ‘loss frame’ people may fall into emotional extremes. Even businessmen have been known to litigate in revenge, at great cost, without the slightest chance of success.  

Third parties may help, in a ‘heart to heart’ with a good friend, perhaps, or consultation with a professional intermediary, dousing flames of fear and emotion, defusing foregone conclusions, recognizing the facts, showing the positive, checking out suspicions.

In sum, voice is hard, and fragile. It takes courage, commitment and perseverance.

And when, finally, a decision to exit is taken, with good reasons, the question becomes how to conduct it.

One form of exit is the ambush: prepare exit on the sly, and spring it by surprise, dropping the bomb, leaving the other in confusion and distress. That minimizes the opportunity for the other to block or obstruct the exit. It is a tempting form of exit.

But it also catapults the other in a loss frame that may trigger extremes of revenge, in conflict, litigation, slander and destruction of reputation.

The other option is a voice mode of exit. Here one alerts the other in time, helps to unravel the relationship, giving support in exit, and some form of compensation, perhaps, and help in finding an alternative. Here also, third parties may help as intermediaries.

Are the dedication to voice, and the skills needed, resisting the temptations of exit, sufficiently part of education? 

[i] Alain Badiou, 2009, Eloge d’amour, Flammarion.
[ii] Simon Critchley, 2010, How to stop living and start worrying, Polity.

Friday, December 4, 2015

230. The virtue of distinction

In classical Greek, next to eros, passionate love, and philia, loving friendship, there is agape, generalized, undifferentiated love for one’s neighbour. The latter became a paramount value in Christianity, seeing people equal as creatures of God. Nietzsche, and following him several others (e.g. Onfray), rejected this, opting for variety and distinction. Achieving distinction and making a distinction between people one deals with.

For making distinction, maintaining emotional distance to people, Onfray recalls Schopenhauer’s parable of the hedgehogs. In winter they are cold and want to creep close to each other for warmth. But then they prick each other and move out again. So they move in and out until they find a distance with maximum warmth with minimum pricks.

Onfray proceeds to use the notion of concentric circles.[i] In the innermost circle loved ones, eros and philia, with whom one has a sense of shared destiny, or identifies with, in mutual dedication, sharing, and altruism. In the second circle acquaintances one associates with regularly, socially and in work, with forbearance and empathy. Next, a circle of people one meets and deals with superficially, haphazardly and incidentally. Then, a circle of anonymous people one is indifferent to. Finally, a circle with enemies or people one despises, or hates, and avoids.

The closer the circle, the more one needs to maintain and nourish the relationship. For this, the innermost circle especially needs to have a limited number, five or so, to achieve this quality and closeness of relationship. With Internet, a large number of ‘friends’ on Facebook, impossible to all attend to closely, this quality is bound to deteriorate.

I have two qualifications to make. First, while fairness, altruism  and reciprocity apply more for closer circles, justice should apply to all. Second, even towards more distant circles one should remain open to the other, for pleasant or constructive surprise, even when perhaps also guarding against threat. Open to strange beliefs and their possible warrant, and open to debatable ethics. This basic openness and respect remain from Levinassian ethics.   

For achieving distinction, there is the notion of virtú, with classical and Nietzschean virtues of excellence, courage, strength, agency, creation, and putting up a fight when challenged or constrained.

Here, autonomy is sought even while the self is socially constructed. Achieving distinction meets openness in making distinction, in the opportunity from openness to others to improve or transform oneself.

Machiavelli extended the notion of virtú with leadership, effective use of power, in conduct of the prince or war-leader, acting for reasons of state, ruthlessly when needed, including actions that by any other morality would be seen as outright evil. There is debate on whether this was intended as a normative statement of how a ‘prince’ should behave, or no more than a descriptive statement of actual conduct.

What is my answer to Machiavelli? I do grant that on the collective level of the state morally bad actions may be needed to survive. But one should be prepared to give arguments for them, for each specific case, in front of a tribunal, again and again, in terms of necessity (there were no alternatives) and proportionality (to the threat that was inflicted). That is part of what I called ‘debatable ethics’.

[i] Michel Onfray, La sculpture de soi; La morale esthétique, Grasset, 1993.