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!


  1. Thanks Phil, this clears things a lot (to the point that naming the object of your criticism isn't necessary ; but it speaks to a larger attitude, or method, in philosophy, that is not restricted to a specific person, I think). T. Blake's dichotomy between synchronic and diachronic ontologies does a similar job to criticize what you refer to as "realism" (which we could call General Metaphysics, maybe ?).
    To play my own fiddle for a moment, I guess the issue I would have with this sort of criticism, would be that both its insistence for necessity of thinking the place of the philosopher within their ontology as something more than an afterthought, and the prioritization of an "interventionist" practice of philosophy, do not erase either the possibility, or the need, for a global or general approach to Reality. On the contrary (and this is the crux of my difficulty with Latour's project), thinking that such an approach is to be abandoned, runs the risk of promoting a certain kind of ontology (one that is entirely defendable ; a Deleuze- and Whitehead- inspired one, in Latour's case), whilst enshrining it and refusing to address it as such under the guise of the locality of problems.
    For instance (this is partly a half-baked objection, about which, "of course, I might be wrong"), you say "there be any pretence of timeless truths" ; but why can't we refer to mathematical truths as timeless ? they seem largely time-indifferent. We don't *have to* do so, it's obviously tied to specific debates within philosophy of mathematics that I'm largely incompetent about, but it seems this precise local possibility would deserve to be discussed, and I fear an interventionist philosophy would fail to address such possibilities appropriately.
    I guess my general worry with this is that a pluralism that does not include a general or global *striving*, that does not attempts to see the furthest implications of the sum of its theoretical commitments, would be a purely negative pluralism. We need to sketch, even concerning open cases, in order, not to "solve" them (therein would lie the classical metaphysician's fault), but to see how they relate to other cases, open or closed.
    Your criticism of a "realist pluralism" is on point, and I think it can be reconciled, somehow, with my concern for the sketching of general (or even absolute) statements. How so ? my guess would be that the "realist pluralist" 's fault lies in its attempts to conflate general truth with context-free truths, whilst generality would need to emerge from the work (the practice ?) of linking local truths with each other.

  2. I'm glad that all those words clarified rather than obscured!

    I think the argument you set up in contradistinction to mine is a productive one. Certainly, the question of mathematics is crucial. I'm not sure that I have any informed or defensible opinion on that but there certainly are well developed arguments for a constructivist approach to mathematical truths.

    With regard to a 'global or general approach to Reality' -- I guess the Deleuzo-Stengerian counterargument would be 'why?'; why do we need that, what is the problem motivates it?

    I don't disagree that such a thing may be necessary but the specific problem, the specific motivation that such a project would respond to is unclear to me. And I do think that it needs a specific problem to respond to in order to be a meaningful or worthwhile endeavour.

    So, what is the problématique that demands a 'global or general approach to Reality'? Is there one?

  3. As to the "Why" question, I guess my point is that there is no evading it : if you proclaim not to have or present a general approach, then either you have a general approach that is only unavowed or implicit (Latour's case) or even unconscious, or you are delegating to another instance the task of formulating this general view. In any case, it is going to be done, by someone.
    Now, you certainly do not have to say that it is philosophy's task to articulate such an approach. Many collectives dispense without the specific tools of philosophy as we know it ; or maybe cosmopolitics *is* the way to go, and the procedure through which the general view is going to be formulated. But pretending it is possible to bypass entirely such a step is perplexing, because it runs the risk of forbidding to even articulate the issues that would arise between the specific approaches, as they would violate the requirement of particularism. So if I had to formulate a specific problematic for the general, philosophic, or speculative view, it would be that it attempts to explicit or formulate, experimentally the implications that are borne out of the various commitments, to see what the many worlds of pluralism look like and how they can be linked or constructed in various ways.
    If there was a motto to be proposed in contrast to "I might be wrong", it may be the classic hollywood trailer opening : "In a world..." : what does it mean, the philosopher asks, to live in a world where X happens ? What does it imply, opens, or closes ?

  4. I like that, "In a world..."!

    So, it seems to me that there are a couple of dimensions to what you're arguing here.

    1: It is essentially a transcendental argument; or, rather, an argument for transcendental arguments: whenever one encounters an empirical case or event, no matter how specific and particular it is, one is always presupposing certain consistencies, continuities, stabilities with regard to matter, time, space, causality, and so on (a 'general approach'). These metaphysical assumptions are implicit within experience. Experience itself is thus incomplete in that there are always undercurrents of unthought lurking beneath it. Philosophy is, therefore, the discipline that critically uncovers the implicit and underlying conceptual continuities within experience, the assumptions that actors themselves are more or less oblivious to; or, philosophy is the discipline that attempts to construct alternative metaphysical schemas as completely as possible (these are two sides of the same coin).

    2: There is a privileging of continuity over change. A 'general approach' or 'worldview' is, of course, not necessarily an unchanging one; it is gradually modified as it is 'tested' against events. However, continuity is the rule and change the exception. This contrasts strongly with what I have argued for, specifically: an assemblage of thoughts concepts that is always reconstructed, reassembled, gathered anew for each new event. Here it is continuity that must be explained as no substance subtends the shifting between events. Concepts recur, no act of thought ever begins from scratch (least of all the completely derivative thoughts that I am articulating here!), but, in this version, it is the recurrence itself that is remarkable.

    If I am to keep myself consistent with what I've said previously then I mustn't worry about which of our arguments are 'right' but instead relate them back to a problem. So, what is the problem? It seems to me that the 'what's left out,' or 'what's lacking' for you is a few things: explicitness, continuity and then a sense of the 'big picture.'

  5. On the second point, I don't think that there's any problem understanding consistency or continuity. Instead of saying that Latour has a 'general approach' one can say that he goes back again and again to many of the same concepts for his evental reconstructions. In his terms, the appearance of a 'general approach' is an effect of habit. This is subtly but importantly different to what you're saying (having a habitually consistent 'toolkit' is not quite the same thing as having a substantially continuous 'approach').

    On the first point regarding explicitness, that's trickier. Of course, I'm not taking issue with the examination of presuppositions or the rendering explicit of the implicit as such. Without these activities there'd be no philosophy, perhaps no thought of any kind! The problem is when these are raised from being local methods to being global objectives. This turns the whole apparatus of thought on its head (or its feet, depending on your perspective). Likewise, I don't think that privileging discontinuity over continuity is inherently superior on anything like a moral level but, again, it completely changes the operation that is put into movement; it is a serious pragmatic difference.

    Then, on the third point regarding the 'big picture,' in the terms of AIME to speak of "In a world..." is to speak through [fic] rather than [pre] -- and this seems to me to be a far more elegant and useful solution than a return to 'realism' in the sense that I've been criticising in the past few days. "In a world..." is an entirely legitimate utterance but it doesn't seem to occur primarily within the philosophical mode of action (at least not on its own). It's perfectly possible for a philosopher (or anyone else) to engage in scenography, in scene-setting, in world-sketching, and this may be an important part of their wider craft; however, it is distinct from the strictly philosophical operation. The effect of holism that this speech act engenders should not be rejected out of hand but nor should it be the taken for granted basis of thinking, in my view. Again, one must be more pragmatic than that.

    In other words, I'm not sure what the event-reassembly-intervention conceptual nexus that I am arguing for is really lacking. Critique in the sense of unearthing illicit presuppositions is still possible but it's always a local act undertaken in response to a particular problem, not a general, global commitment. Continuity isn't an issue. And then the poeticism of world-creation is a slightly separate thing.