Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Navigating differences: de/con/structive

In a comment a couple of posts ago, dy0genes writes:
One strength that a religious life gives is a sense of certitude. Religions solve real problems for people, give them answers and directions that they need. Many also develop a sort of tunnel vision in which they cannot see any other way of life as being capable of answering those questions....This type of bias ...extends to any deviation from the "one true path". ...I take quiet pleasure in seeing their shock that my children are happy, well adjusted and getting along just fine without their "necessary" principles....They assume that my life must be hollow and full of secret despair. How could my children be so loved if I could accept that we must eventually part? How could I be happy without their community or certainty? Why don't I need to be forgiven and saved? I know they will never have answers to THESE questions. The best revenge is to live well and show that godlessness is not a terrible fate. Only by living well can I show that godlessness is not nihilism full of angst and gnashing of teeth.
As I read these finely written remarks, my responses dovetailed in my mind with some reflections on the sometimes snippy comments on blogs (I'm mainly speaking of philosophy blogs), as well as other polemical engagements. I have written a few of these myself, and I don't hold that conflict has no place in philosophy (after all, Empedocles would say it's half the story of the cosmos itself). But I notice in my own responses to various philosophers that I am constantly resonating with their own constructive arguments, while I wince at the swipes they take at others. The more acerbic they become, the more I lose interest. A thinker can be as different form me in spirit (say, for instance, as "reductionist") as they please, if they are constructively so, and still hold my interest; sometimes, indeed, the more different, the better. It's when they begin to try dismantling the opposition that I start to get antsy.

Doubtless this says more about me than it does about the pursuit of the life of the mind. I am dispositionally conciliatory, perhaps to a fault, and don't enjoy arguing except in certain circumstances. (In this, if in little else, I am like Deleuze, who seems to have preferred to just change the subject.) My own bent is towards synthesis, even at the risk of mere eclecticism. I have some justifications for this which I believe to be well-grounded in integrity as well as pragmatism, but I may merely have made a virtue of my prejudices. Nonetheless, I far prefer to see what I can make of a thinker's projects, than to rip it apart, or dismiss it as just the thinking of so-and-so from 50 years ago, redone in the latest style.

This has some relevance to some recent hoopla (again) on the way to conduct disputes; on how ones tone comes across, and so on. All the cautions I read out there (I'm thinking most recently of a clash of opinions on Levi Bryant's blog, but fill in the blank with whatever the latest argument was) are well taken. I'd go so far as to say that in many ways philosophy feels to me to oscillate between being somewhat conflict-avoidant, and all too trigger-happy. What needs to be embraced are controversial topics, not condemnatory tactics.

This means that I get a good deal out of reading very disparate things. In the past week, for instance, I have been reading Hermes Trismegistus (whoever that was); Meillassoux (again); the Platform Sutra; St. Thomas Aquinas; and Pascal Boyer. It is obvious from the word go that these guys aren't going to agree about things. That isn't the point. The point is to be able to make within the theater of one's own soul a place where they can speak to each other. One still must decide, tentatively, where one comes down oneself, but if one is honest, this is an open-ended and corrigible process.

My attempt to re-invigorate the word metalepsis is a conscious effort to give warrant for a kind of perspectivism for modes of life. There is a blinkered way of seeing (or rather not-seeing), described quite well in dy0genes' comment, an incapacity to imagine that things could be otherwise, that one could live in any other way-- or, at best (since empirically, human beings live in many other ways), a presumption that all these other ways must somehow long for "what we have."

While I don't believe, with Sam Harris, that science is in any position to abolish the is-ought gap (and I can only describe my reaction to the notion that it could as incredulity), I nonetheless think he's right to suggest a topological metaphor for possible optimum ways of being human, with multiple peaks and valleys. (I also think science is obviously strongly relevant to how such mapping might be attempted; I just don't think it can get us there. But that's a different argument). This plurality of possibilities is axiomatic for me. Ever since I had the epiphany that I did not believe that Jesus was coming back soon, I've known it was possible to inhabit at least two different worlds. Whether this was true or false, it was not possible for me to believe otherwise. God would have to save me some other way.

"Two different worlds? But which is the real one?!" Could there be some "fact of the matter?" The question certainly is important when we come to practical issues. Could it possibly be that homosexuality and meth addiction are somehow, "spiritually," analogous? Or, say, abortion and genocide? Some of these questions are easier to laugh at from the outside than others, and in fact I am far from shrugging them off. It is possible that in some revelatory next life, there will be more reasons forthcoming to consider. But in this life, my gut faith (again, what I can't dismiss and still be me) is that the Enlightenment got this one right: tolerance. This answer is no panacea (it does not give some failsafe for dealing with religious minorities, or indeed abortion), but it does wonders for the working-out of questions like "but how can you possibly be happy living that way?" The answer is not discursive, but in praxis.

There are important differences between my conservative religious relatives' disagreement with me (I have them, just like dy0genes), and philosophers sharpshooting at each other, but my allergic reaction to both feels the same. I am interested (not automatically persuaded, but open to hearing about) anyone's positive positions, and this is far from a polite nodding and smiling, nor of keeping everything comparative and saying "thanks for sharing." I genuinely hold that these things matter. I am not so much interested, though, in why the other guy must be wrong. I don't say that one must eschew talking about falsehood, but the more one focuses on this, the less useful I find the engagement.

Leaving it here, all "theoretical," will not solve everything. This final point may seem to stretch my argument well beyond the philosophical or even religious context of the beginning of this post, but I see these considerations as progressing step by step. If I (or they) happen to want to not immunize my/their kid, leaving each other alone doesn't suffice. Or, suppose, if I want to home school? Live off the grid? Not eat genetically-engineered crops? Live in a whites-only neighborhood? Assert that the Apollo moon landings, the 9/11 attacks, the Holocaust, is a historical fraud? There are limits to pluralism, and I don't mean to minimize these. But to hope to find them workable when we get to them, we need (I think) not to start with them.


  1. Interesting thoughts, Skholiast. I would definitely say that my own tendencies lie further in the "trigger-happy" direction. It's a tendency I've tried to curb on the blog, because I want to provide a welcoming forum and not scare people off. But I tend to get most excited about ideas when I find something to disagree with; indeed my test for whether I understand a difficult philosophical text has often been whether I can find someone who disagrees with it.

    I've thought about disagreement recently wrt Thill's most recent posts on my blog. His tone is often pretty combative; but that does a fair bit to spur discussion, as the posts he's been involved with have been my most-commented ever. So I'm fairly happy with that, since I think his more recent posts, though clearly aggressive, did not cross the line into insult the way the first ones did.

  2. Amod,

    I tend to go back and forth about this, and it is not always easy to separate my predilections from my more reasoned conclusions. But I am fairly sure -- at the risk of being a good deal more "politically correct" (as they still say, I think) than is my wont-- tht if I start with "poppycock!" or "No, no, NO!" or "you're wrong, and here's why", not only does the conversation not get anywhere, I don't get anywhere. I absolutely hold that the disagreements (between philosophies, between religions, between one and the other, between political positions, and on and on) have to be addressed and that this addressing is where the real work of understanding gets done. But how to get to the divergencies?

    I like your rule of thumb about whether you understand a position-- can you point to someone who disagrees with it? (I think you once said that asking what Ayn Rand (who I likewise take seriously as a philosopher, though I can't say I find her deep) might think was a useful first step in this process, and I see why-- she was nothing if not opinionated). This semi-Popperian test -- what does it take to call the philosophical position into question?-- seems a very useful heuristic.

    I must say that some of my best friendships are those in which there are loud and table-thumping debates; but I have a strong Hegelian methodological itch which spurs me to always try "transcend-&-include," a la Wilber. However, content-wise I am strongly disposed (as you will have noticed) against assertions that downplay particularity; this makes me suspicious of final syntheses like the beautiful oases glimmering on the horizon of the Aufhebung. I suppose this is partly why Harman's object-oriented philosophy laregely appeals to me. There is a respect for particulars there that is nearly unsurpassed, but also (at least as I spin it) even a sort of platonism.

    Whatever you are doing on LOAW is working, because you, at least, come off as sincerely interested in understanding, not in winning the argument.