Wednesday, 20 August 2014

On speculation, commitment and humility in philosophy

In response to my last post Elmorus writes:
You nail on the head the central issue behind the compulsion towards generic, inhuman-striving, realism (to which I feel very close, to be honest). I would object, not to the core of your argument, which I would need to process further, but to the identification of epistemological humility with the philosophical position, or tendency, that you describe as realist : are not the idealist or the anti-realist just as susceptible to such a positioning ("we cannot be sure of the great outside, contingency is the core of our condition, etc.")? Lee Braver convincingly argued in this sense at the start of his article on Continental Realism, which would suggest to me that the gesture of humility that you describe is part of a wider, more general stance related to philosophical practice itself...
This raises a very fair and important point: what on earth do I mean by 'realism' here? It's true that I'm being vague and declining to name names -- i.e. to attach the label to a definite, actual proposition. I'm declining to do this not because I want to be coy or elusive but because naming names should impose a commitment to (at least attempt to) do interpretive justice to those arguments that are thus specified. That's a difficult thing to do. Refusing to name names grants a certain liberty inasmuch as one can gesture towards generalities (or perhaps virtualities) that cannot defend themselves (and don't have egos to be defended, anyway). This is a prerogative that most philosophers (or would-be philosophers) grant themselves. However, it can lead to vagueries -- in this case, 'realism.'

Certainly, the tendencies that I am remarking on are not unique to 'realists' (whoever they are). 'Realism' as something singular doesn't exist. Some objective idealisms may well fit 'realism' as I'm describing it.

Let's define 'realism' here not with reference to any group, sect or movement but simply relate it to the issue, namely: what commits us to think and what pathways do these commitments set us on?

A realist here is someone who claims to take their obligation to thought from the need to represent (or: explain, describe, articulate -- whichever) the real (how things are, reality) 'as it is,' 'whether you like it or not,' 'regardless of political commitments,' and so on.

The real demands representation (etc.) because it is the real. Such a demand is automatically validated by the very essence of that which concerns it. And, more importantly, only the real can demand representation because anything that deserves thoughtful consideration is always already subsumed within the real, by definition. (This is why realists are so bad at taking criticism: they've always already brought anything worth thinking about within their purview; anything left out is, by definition, unthinkably worthless.)

The alternative to realism in this precise and limited sense is neither anti-realism nor idealism (I am refusing these 'opposing camps' -- I don't want to articulate the opposite of anything); the alternative could well be called 'realism' too but in order to adopt that term its meaning must be transformed.

The argument with regard to a philosophy being able to think itself as an event in its own world (and thus refusing to countenance the possibility of its truth claims transcending its own occurrence) is bound up with this contrast that I'm stumblingly trying to articulate. This refusal of self-transcendence with regard to truth is part and parcel of an approach to philosophy that refuses to take 'reality' in any singular or totalised sense as its referent (not even 'speculatively'). It is not, I think, a matter of humility.

The contrast I'm trying to get at here is not to do with modesty or humility in terms of the scope or scale of thought, it's to do with what motivates and obligates it. And if thought is not obligated by the need to represent the real then it must be obligated by the need to deal with concrete problems. 'The real' must therefore be replaced with 'the situation.'

If the situation demands immodesty in some sense then immodest we must be. But demand is the important word here -- the addition of this word excludes the possibility of the automatic validation of a research project by virtue of the essence of the thing researched; it establishes the necessity of a trial of validation in each and every case (something that this vulgar 'realism' can never comprehend, much less undertake).

How and why are demands, requirements, specifications placed upon thought? -- that is the question. The realist can say, for example, that 'galaxies are real; as a realist I'm obliged to think the real, therefore I must think galaxies.' The real is its own justification. This is what I am trying to criticise.

The 'realist' approach, as I have described it, is always tending towards the über-thesis, the systematic account of everything. That's the regulative ideal that is enabled by that old get-out-of-jail-free card 'of course, I might be wrong.' In this sense realism shares a deep kinship with the old 'universal historians' like Arnold Toynbee; it shares an in-built will to totality, to ever greater and more encompassing synthesis. Indeed, such directedness towards the absolute (however unachievable the project may be 'in practice') is what makes the project worthwhile, according to this mindset.

An interventionist approach, by contrast, is perfectly willing to think on any scale of space or time as the situation demands. But such an act of thought is always related to a concrete and limited demand, not to a will to think everything because everything is real and only the real in its totality can obligate thought. The thinking of things like galaxies isn't auto-validated by the mere fact that they're there. We must have some further, additional impetus in order to approach such entities (and perhaps we have this impetus, but it isn't guaranteed a priori).

So, in short, it's not at all a question of humility but of commitment. The 'realist' feels committed to think the real in general not so much because they are lacking humility but because, for them, 'the real' is the only thing that can obligate thought, or the only thing that can issue demands worth responding to. The interventionist, by contrast, refuses to heed demands made in the name of 'the real' or any equivalent term not so much because of humility or les bonnes manières but because that whole approach is entirely incompatible with thinking the situation, the case, the issue, the problématique.

Philosophy always flirts with hubris -- and rightly so. It is not a matter of 'hubris versus humility' but a question of 'hubris, to what end'?

Let's misuse Wittgenstein's famous line: 'The world is everything that is the case.' A realist feels committed to take as their world that which is the established case -- that is, to think the world as a totality of, in a quasi-juridical sense, closed cases. The interventionist, by contrast, understands the world as a thronging mass of open cases -- and the obligation to think this demands a very different approach, it demands a philosophy that recognises a fundamental indeterminacy with regard to the broader contours of the world precisely because the world is not a collection of closed cases but rather open ones. There can be no question of thinking the totality in this instance, nor can there be any pretence of timeless truths, whether they are given the caveat of 'I might be wrong' or not.

To put it another way, being 'right' or 'wrong' is not of particular concern to the interventionist because their objective never consists of sketching (however skilfully) the outlines of the totality of closed cases. Instead, success and failure for the interventionist are always relative to particular open cases, all of which are replete with reality in themselves but none of which license the attempt to sketch the real in its totality -- not even the attempt.

This is the contrast: the realist might freely admit the impossibility of sketching totality 'in practice'; the interventionist (or realist-deserving-of-the-name) must reject not only the possibility of this 'in practice' but also 'in principle' -- and, still further, the very attempt to do so.

Open cases cannot be sketched, no matter how preliminarily or speculatively. Their shape is indeterminable prior to an inventive, interventive encounter -- and this requires a great degree of time and attention; it defies the metaphysicist's generalism.

Humility doesn't come into it, in my view. Our risky speculations have no intrinsic boundaries. They are certainly not hemmed in by good manners or modesty. We should reject the absolutism of 'realism' for far more pragmatic reasons than our own sense of shame. It is not for the modesty of our own egos that we refuse to sketch the absolute, it is because of the nefarious consequences of that only apparently innocent project.

It is a clash of objectivities. For the realist, objectivity connotes 'objects' qua closed cases. For the interventionist objectivity connotes 'objectives' -- the objective being different in every situation as it is always addressing a different open case (the totality never becomes an issue and is therefore never a legitimate horizon for thought).

These entirely distinct philosophies can be articulated with similar vocabularies but they should never be confused. Their similarities will only ever be entirely superficial.

I don't know how much sense I am making to others but it makes some sense to me.

To throw one final spanner in the works: yes, this is about pluralism, again. The 'realist' pluralism and what I have called here the 'interventionist' pluralism might seem superficially similar but they have little in common 'under the hood,' as it were.

If I am to make any of this stick I'll have to name names eventually but that's a commitment that I'm not yet prepared to accept!