Saturday, August 27, 2016

278. Talking to the natives

How can one talk to the natives? How to understand people who are native to a different culture or tradition, rooted in a different language game concerning life, humanity, reason, society, or justice?

Here I return to the theory of language and meaning that I used in this blog. There, I employ the notions of reference and sense, but with a twist. In reference one intends to refer with words to some thing or some class of objects. I rendered the notion of sense as the way in which one arrives at reference, at identifying something as an individual or as belonging to a class.

An underlying problem is that of realism. We aim to refer to things in the world but we cannot know them as they are in themselves. Our concepts are constructions that are realistic only in the sense that they arise from success experienced in coping with the world. Thus, people coping in different conditions conceptualize the world differently.

Reference is social and sense is individual. We achieve common reference from sharing practices, mutually correcting language use, in a shared language game. Sense consists in features one associates with things, collected from experience along one’s individual life trajectory. So, while reference is largely shared, underlying sense varies between people  even within a community.

Commonality of meaning, in shared reference and overlapping sense, decreases with differences between traditions and the contexts of their development. This can yield incommensurability: reference that mutually does not make sense.

Now I bring in another part of this theory of language. Concepts arise in generalization from individual cases and abstraction from specific contexts. In the process, they lose specificity, richness of detail. To apply the concept, richness of specific context needs to be added again. Then meanings move from the general to the specific in connections between words in the structures of sentences in action contexts. Meaning of the parts depends on the meaning of the whole. Meanings are not the same between different contexts. Intersubjectivity, in common reference, is preserved when contexts of application are shared. Nothing works better for mutual understanding than shared projects.

Even within a culture, meanings shift in their application, moving from one context to another. In this blog I analysed that in terms of the ‘hermeneutic circle’ (in items ….), and I will not repeat that here. I have indicated poetry as the most salient case of upsetting, cutting adrift, twisting or shifting established reference in surprising constructions of sense.

Given all this, then, how can one talk with a native from a different tradition?

Read what he/she says as you would read a poem. If you do not grasp intended reference (‘what is he talking about’), delve for underlying sense: what connotations does it carry along? And see how that moves with context. See how the hermeneutic wheel turns there, in moving from context to context.

As I indicated in the preceding item in this blog, that is greatly helped by participating in practices in the native context. There, what is tacit or hidden in sense is likely to shine through.

In trying to embed your own concepts, abstractions, in local context, witness how they fail to fit, and glimpse how native concepts work better, arising from local contexts.

Then, in trying to build up communication, use metaphor that fits local practice, trying to explain one’s concepts in terms of those of the native.

Be careful with judging the native before you have done all this.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

277. In search of a supergame

In foregoing items in this blog I used the notion of a ‘language game’. How are such games related to each other? I talked of ‘stepping from a language game into a wider one’. Baseball and soccer are games in wider class of ball games. This suggests a hierarchy of games, which may suggest some game ‘at the top’, which all games obey. I do think there are nested games, but I do not think there is a hierarchy of all games, governed by some supergame at the top.

Some crucial language games are those concerning justice and ethics. They are rivals. One, the dominant one in western societies, is liberal individualism, with its utility ethics, looking only at outcomes of actions, effected in markets. An older one is Aristotelian virtue ethics and corresponding practical wisdom, aimed at a notion of ‘the good life’ in the social context of a specific community (‘polis’). Another is theological, based on some moral sense granted by God (Augustine, Hutcheson). Yet another one is based on rationally adopted duties that apply universally, regardless of interests (Kant).

Can these rival views be reconciled, compared or judged from the perspective of some wider, encompassing language game? Or are there, at best, some family resemblances?

In this blog I have adopted the notion of ‘warranted assertibility’, rather than ‘truth’, and the warrant depends on the perspective. I have employed a pragmatic perspective by which ideas and actions are evaluated on the basis of the extent that they ‘work’, logically, empirically, and practically. Does this offer the basis for evaluating rival views of justice and ethics? Those will generally share a respect for some form of logic. Empirical performance depends on facts, but those are interpretations based on conceptualizations connected to the perspective one holds. Practical performance in action depends on evaluation criteria that are also part of the adopted perspective: producing utility, conducive to the good life, obedience to God.

So, while they do share elements, in some family resemblance, they differ on fundamental points. In contrast with all others, liberalism is not oriented towards any notion of the good life. It claims to be neutral with regard to morality and goodness, leaving those up to individuals to choose for themselves. Citizens have preferences from whatever conception of the good life that they may have, and markets serve to allow them to pursue those preferences. So, goodness is not only lacking as a guide, it is ruled out of consideration.

Theological and Aristotelian perspectives differ fundamentally in adopting or not faith in a providential God. In Aristotelian ethics practical reason guides action, while according to David Hume ‘reason is the slave of the passions’.

If there is no overarching supergame, is there still any way in which rival views can rationally criticize each other, or are they irredeemably ‘incommensurable’?

Alasdair MacIntyre develops the following argument.[i]  First of all it is important to realize that perspectives of justice are historical, as traditions that form and change in specific social settings and cultures. While in a static view differences between perspectives are irreconcilable, without any ‘master game’ to adjudicate between them, in a dynamic view of how they develop there may be a way for them to learn from each other.

Traditions adapt in time as experience accrues and conditions change, though they maintain some ‘core’ of fundamental principles. Can they also mutate into some hybrid, some body of ‘novel combinations’, by some dialectical process of conflicts and their resolution? That would require some beginnings of a common language.

One may try to understand a rival perspective and then look critically from that perspective at comparative performance. Does the rival succeed where one’s own view fails, perhaps? This requires tolerance for ambiguity, paradox and discrepancies of meaning, trying out things even if they seem nonsensical in one’s own view. From a pragmatic perspective such attempt would require immersion in the foreign culture, in its practices and its language, preferably in the form of a common project with the ‘natives’. Mutual dependence in trying to succeed with the project provides an incentive for sharing. Sharing successes and failures one may gather insight in the relative merits of the different perspectives.

This fits well with the dialectical ‘cycle of discovery’ that I presented in this blog (items 31, 138). There, the basic logic is as follows. Try to implement your existing view in a novel, foreign context, to discover where it fails while a local practice succeeds. Next, make hybrids from elements from one’s own and from the other’s context and experiment with them. This mixing of apparent incommensurables will yield anomalies of meanings that do not fit together. Nevertheless the hybrid yields a basis for exploring the potential of novel elements. That may lead to an ‘accommodation’ to a novel, more coherent synthesis. But the outcome is not a universal, fixed supergame, and will itself be replaced in due course. A paralympic game, you might say. Imperfection on the move.

Could such a procedure perhaps lead to a novel synthesis of, say, liberal and Aristotelian justice and ethics? That is what I have tried to do in a proposal for radical change in economic theory.[ii]      

[i] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose justice? Whose rationality?, University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.
[ii] Bart Nooteboom, How markets work and fail, and what to make of them, Edward Elgar, 2014, paperback 2015.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

276. Habermas and Lyotard

As before, here I make use of the work of Richard Rorty, in this case his discussion of Habermas, Lyotard, and Foucault.[i]

I greatly appreciate Habermas’ commitment, against the tides of relativism, to maintain the Enlightenment ideal of rational criticism. He did this from the perspective of ‘communicative action’ as a basis for reaching social consensus. This was an improvement on the ideal of individual rationality from the Enlightenment in turning it into social rationality.

In this blog (item 270) I also, in the line of Habermas, deplored what I called the present unravelling of rationality. And like Habermas I take a discursive view of knowledge and ethics. Indeed, many years ago I was inspired to this by Habermas’s work, among others.[ii]  However, I disagree with the claims and assumptions that Habermas makes.

I pick up Rorty’s account of a clash of views between Habermas and Lyotard. To make a long story short, I summarize the debate as follows.

Habermas proposed the ‘narrative’ of communicative action, where in discourse people should and could achieve consensus, in debates of social criticism that are ‘herrschaftsfrei’, without imposition of power.

Inspired by the horrors caused by ‘great narratives’ such as those of the French Revolution, Nazism, and communism, Lyotard claimed that we should suspect and renounce such ‘grand narratives.’

Habermas claimed that if you do that you lose standards for judgement, in democratic, bourgeois values, and take out rationality and the basis for the liberal society that has served us well.

So, who is right?

At this point I have two questions to Lyotard:
-          What is the narrative from which to suspect narratives?
-          How suspicious is that one?

And here is my view:
1.      You need to assume something, take it for granted, as a basis for judging anything. Like it or not,
this is your narrative.
2.      Past narratives have indeed failed, run into perversions and disasters.
3.      It is rational to allow for the possibility that your present best narrative will turn out to fail. It is not rational to disregard that. Try to avoid the illusion of a-historical legitimation.

Does this now mean that whatever narrative you now have is relativist, context-dependent?

You hold a narrative as you hold an hypothesis in science: for as long as it ‘works’, while keeping an open eye for its limits and failures. You try to apply it as widely as you can, as purportedly universal, until you run into its failures. That requires that you keep an open mind, as much as you can, to objections that arise from novel contexts, novel perspectives. In other words, the narrative is universal in its ambition, context-dependent in its revision.

That, I propose, entails the rationality of communicative action and rationality that Habermas pleads for, but cannot and need not be presented as a claim of truth outside of time, of history.

By the way, it is not just by critical communication, but also by observing how narratives of others fare in implementation.

In an earlier criticism of Habermas in this blog (item 117), I argued that discourse without power play is an illusion. People always exert power and counter-power, to some extent and in some fashion. And remember that power can also be positive, in creating new options and more room for others to choose.

So in conclusion, the following:
-          Habermas is right in arguing the need for a guiding narrative, and in taking the perspective of communicative action, but mistaken in claiming its unhistorical, indubitable legitimation, and in assuming communication without power play.
-          Lyotard is right in being suspicious of grand narratives, but not in rejecting all narrative. Some narrative is needed as something to go on, even if temporarily and subject to ongoing communicative interaction.

I think this comes close to Rorty’s view.

To reject all narratives is as silly as rejecting all theory and science. To accept narratives as absolute and inviolable is as silly as accepting that for any theory.

[i] Richard Rorty, ‘Habermas and Lyotard on postmodernity’, in Essays on Heidegger and others, Cambridge U. Press, 1991.
[ii] Like Habermas, I was inspired by the work of Jean Piaget.

Monday, August 8, 2016

275. Science and politics: how different are they?

If there is no ultimate, universal, fixed ground for any science, as argued in preceding items in this blog, does this mean that there is no great difference between science and politics? Richard Rorty claimed that: ‘ .. no interesting epistemological differences between the aims and procedures of scientists and that of politics’[i].

I disagree. To make a long story short, I would say that the procedure of science is to argue rigorously inside some language game, while in politics, in a democracy at least, the aim is to achieve some agreement across a variety of language games, and that cannot be rigorous and scientific. Ambiguity and shift of meaning is part of the game. It is more a matter of practical wisdom than of analytical rigor.

Hence the frequent failure of attempts to make policy making scientific, as happened in the delegation of much economic policy to economic scientists, for example.

I connect this difference to that made by Pascal between the ‘ spirit of geometry’ and the ‘spirit of finesse’[ii]. As he formulated it: the spirit of geometry is difficult, at first, since one has to switch one’s regard away from the complexity, the richness and variability of the world we are in, in the turn of abstraction. But then it becomes easy, to argue rigorously, in step with the march of logic or math. The spirit of finesse, by contrast, is easy, at first, because one keeps looking at the world in all its complexity, but then it becomes difficult to argue without error while maintaining that complexity.

In contrast with Descartes, I do not think that the spirit of geometry has access to rock-bottom foundations of truth in the form of self-evident ‘distinct ideas’. I do think it helps to clarify arguments and check their consistency. 

Take economics. It uses mathematics but the virtue of that, in my view, is not that it yields workable models, but that it allows one to detect errors of argument. But then, to work in application to policy making one needs to revert to the spirit of finesse.

Politics, more like literature than like science, needs to allow for differences and for shifts in perspective, meanings, assumptions, aims, in what people variously think, value and want.

If pragmatism means ‘anything goes that works’, then whether and how it is supposed to work is very different between science and politics.

In science, to work is to be consistent with established theoretical and methodological assumptions, and with what are accepted as facts.

In politics, to work, in a democracy, is to be feasible in the field of political forces and to appeal to a sufficient part of the electorate. Whether it is logically and factually coherent is of secondary importance, alas. In politics this may work, not in science. However, this is no reason not to try to make arguments for policy as consistent and informed as possible.

An authoritarian regime may impose a single language game, with aims, conduct, meanings and values settled centrally, and enforced on all. That is what makes it totalitarian. Some people love it.

It does not thereby become like science. In contrast with science it is not aimed at truth seeking and openness of conduct given established method, but at conformance.   

[i] Richard Rorty, 1991, Essays on Heidegger and others, Cambridge University Press, p. 172.
[ii] In his Pensées.