Starting afresh

February 27, 2019

A couple of big ‘life changes’ this year: I’m close to finishing my Ph.D., and I’ve moved with my family to Aotearoa New Zealand.

The process of doing the Ph.D. has in a lot of ways been less useful than I’d hoped in terms of getting me up to speed on contemporary economics – it has, however, given me a decent grounding in some elements of institutional economics and political economy, which I hope to draw on in future work.

It’s also made me somewhat sceptical about elements of the enterprise of academic research – which enterprise has many strengths, but also important weaknesses. I’m keen in the next however-many-years to do some work, if I can, that isn’t too constrained by academic genre conventions. Hopefully that will involve more blogging.

I’ll be wanting to spend a lot of attention in the next however-many-years on the rather daunting task of trying to get to grips with a whole new country’s history and institutions.

But I also want to make some time, if I can, for elements of the existing intellectual project – and this post is I guess yet another effort to pin down the trajectory of that project.

For me, for now, I think the thing I most want to focus on – painting with a broad brush here, obviously – is the relationship between liberal and radical generative principles of political-economic institutions and institution-design. I feel like, on the one hand, I’ve got a huge amount of work to do – getting to grips with even the basics of both a new country and big areas of this intellectual space. On the other hand, though, I feel like I’m now middle-aged, and need to accept that in a range of areas my intellectual apprenticeship is, for better or worse, over. I’ll be trying to “make a start” rather than “prepare to make a start” over the next few months and years.


February 22, 2013

Our actions have impacts, and before we take action we try to evaluate what impacts they will have. Will people be hurt by our actions? Will they be helped? Will our goals be furthered by a given action, or will they be hindered? What are the possible outcomes? What are the risks?

Before we take action we consider the great branching tree of possible future worlds, and try to evaluate which – if any – of the actions we could take will send us down a more desirable, less appalling path. We try to map the space of possibilities, evaluate the ways our own deeds can interact with that space, and, implicitly or overtly, we assign weights – of likelihood, and of preference – to different possible futures. We try to understand the world, so we can assess these weights appropriately: so we can map the possibilities accurately and well.

Sometimes — often — outcomes do not match our intentions. The world’s force may overwhelm our puny powers to change it. Our actions may have impact, but not in the ways we hoped. Most ‘tragically’ (in the sense, among others, that this is the formal structure that distinguishes tragedy as a literary form…) our actions may have the opposite effects of those desired: destroying that which we wished to nurture; advancing causes we wished to destroy. Our knowledge of the world was incomplete – we missevaluated the space of possibilities… or we evaluated it well enough, but an outlying possibility turned itself into reality, and the best-laid, most informed plans were undone. Part of what we evaluate, when we evaluate the space of possibilities, is how well we feel we know that space; how likely we are to be surprised.

Or we can refuse to consider the space of possibilities altogether – we can act on an internal sense of ethics; do what is ‘right’, in our eyes, regardless of consequence. The Brandomian metatheoretical apparatus I endorse has an account of such ethical judgements, in terms of the attribution of deontic statuses. To act ethically by some internally legible principle, without regard to consequence, on this account, is to act in such a way that one’s action will be approved by those judges (who are, perhaps, imagined) that one takes to be entitled to validly attribute such deontic statuses. In a sense, then, even this ‘inner ethical’ account is a consequentialist one, from a Brandomian perspective, but the consequences are attributions of deontic status (even if only your own attributions, to an imagined judge).

Of course, all ‘objective consequentialism’ can be re-embedded within an account of deontic attitudes, for a Brandomian phenomenalist approach. Thus, if we take the consequences of our actions to be the source of their justification, this is because we take the consequences of our actions to be the source of their justification – we, again, believe that those with the capacity to rightly judge our actions will judge them on the basis of an evaluation of those consequences.

So a Brandomian account need not be consequentialist in the broader sense – that objective consequences of our actions are the source of their justification. But it will always be consequentialist in a narrower sense – that the normative sanctions of deontic attitudes are the final source of ethical standing, and that sanctions are a real-world thing: consequences of actions. The latter narrow consequentialism becomes the former broader consequentialism if the perspectives we take to have the right to attribute deontic statuses only do so by means of their judgement of objective consequence.

Put more bluntly, without the Brandomian jargon (valuable though it is, in its precision): we think our deeds are good if others, whose thoughts and feelings we value, think they are good. Our ethics will depend on what judgements we value – and whose.*

Who are ‘we’, in this picture? Maybe an individual – the isolated bourgeois self, with its inner depths navigated an alienating world; or maybe a collectivity – of which there can be as many as there are social groupings available in this world of intricate loyalties and betrayals. Whether individual or collective, ‘we’ are divided against ourselves. But some groupings come more to the fore than others, due – in part – to ‘objective’ social factors. More on all that another day.

What about the substance of the judgements that guide action? Here we move from metatheory to theory – or at least from metametatheory to mere metatheory, if that is an improvement. In my mind – and I urge you to concur with me, bolstering our fragile community of agreement – those who rightly judge our actions judge them, in the main, on the basis of consequences. Consequences, in the broader sense, are the principal arbiter, the ‘in the last instance’ from which ethical evaluation principally derives. But those just judges of our imaginations – and, on occasion, of our reality – also have a sympathetic eye for the limits of human capacity; they, like us (since, for most of us, they are us) understand the constraints under which we operate – and while those constraints can never wholly eradicate the shame of an intention gone awry, or of a better impulse betrayed, they evoke pity and compassion in the eyes of those who judge our actions, and provoke dispensations of forgiveness. They know not what they do. The child is not blameworthy whose actions bring bad consequences; those acting under coercion are not blameworthy, for their actions are not their own. And those who act with greater understanding and responsibility, are still part of a web of possible consequences that is difficult to chart, and with limited capacity for their actions to hit home.

How do we navigate that branching tree of possibilities? How do we decide which actions are the right ones?


In recent months my reading time online has been preoccupied by political debates on the ‘left’, about the limits and virtues of ‘reformism’, ‘compromise’, ‘extremism’ and other such controversial values. Schematically (and I’m thinking about fights on twitter, now, to be clear) there are two broad positions that I see attack each other again and again: the ‘radical’ position, which sees the mainstream left as utterly complicit with the forces of reaction, and the ‘mainstream’ position, which sees the ‘radical’ position as a politics of posture – the performance of personal virtue, or ideological purity – rather than as oriented to any kind of realistic goal.

To be honest, my impulses, here, as readers may guess, usually lie with the ‘radical’ side of the fight. But ‘intellectually’ I find myself in a slightly different position, in that both ‘sides’ have more or less convinced me of the legitimacy of their critique of the other. (There are, of course, large, important, praiseworthy exceptions to almost everything I’m saying here – as I say, this is all very very schematic.) I’m persuaded, at this point, that significant portions of the self-identified radical left are centrally motivated by a desire for purity – a desire to escape the taint of compromise with the exercise of power (in the case of the critique that sees itself as always coming from the ‘margins’), or the taint of compromise involved in negotiating outcomes with others who do not fully share our politics (in the case of the authoritarians), or the taint of compromise with a degenerate bourgeois culture (in the case of the new fascist ‘left’), or some similar set of desires to separate self from tainted world. I’m also persuaded that most mainstream advocates of compromise – as mature, adult, realistic, sensible, worldly, considered, judicious, praiseworthy – are mostly just shills for power, whether they ‘mean’ to be or not. At best their imagination is limited – and I think culpably limited, given the privilege (and thus opportunity for education and reflection) typically associated with ‘mainstream’ status – by the limits of their social milieu; and those limits are in turn influenced by the sanctions against critical opinion effected by the power of the power elite. At (frequent) worst they’re just cynical propagandists. Or both, of course, and other things besides.

What to get out of these reflections? Well, firstly – though sort of incidentally – I’m increasingly persuaded that the ‘left-right’ way of thinking about political alignment is of sharply limited use; my remarks above could hardly be more schematic, but I want, in future, to spend much more time thinking and writing about political alignment in terms of substance – different substantive political goals; different organisational strategies; different motivating interests and affects; different social positions – these things can ‘fill out’ an attribution of political alignment much more usefully than any placement on a reified and often contradictory ‘left-right’ scale (that I still find myself using more often than not).

And, relatedly, I’ve basically convinced myself, as it were, at this point, that there is no intrinsic right answer to the questions ‘compromise or not?’, ‘revolution or reform?’, ‘work within the system, or aim to change it?’ etc. etc. – the questions that seem to guide these fierce debates I am a bystander to – these can only ever be answered contextually; and not just in the sense that (‘philosophically’ speaking) everything must be understood contextually, but in the much more concrete sense that these questions need to be evaluated afresh again and again, with changing circumstance.** I’m weary, for example, of complaints from the self-identified radical left, that charity workers, or social-democratic welfare programs, which save millions of lives and ameliorate suffering on a huge scale, serve “merely to prop up the system!”, etc. I see no reason to think that people with the in-principle commitment to total social and political transformation don’t end up with wholly reformist practical commitments very often indeed, because this is what – given their evaluation of the current state of the space of possibilities – they feel is most likely to be of concrete value, here and now. Nor do I see why intent should matter – if actions save lives and diminish pain, I’ll take them, regardless of ideological origin. At the same time, I see no reason at all to cater to the mainstream’s discomfort with ‘radical’ critique and contestation: the hatred directed at those who aim for more than the compromises currently advocated in the name of realism speaks – at best – to an intense narcissism, which cannot tolerate any sense that the ‘mainstream’ ‘left’s’ own compromises might not indisputably be the only rational and humane choice. At best. Putting aside more cynical and malign perspectives, of which there are plenty.

This ‘pox on both their houses’ attitude of mine is, of course, completely useless – its only real likely impact to insult people needlessly. That is not my intent; I am aiming just to think these things through, at my own snail pace, and, for some reason, in public.

Still, what I want to know – what I want to think about – is: what are our goals? What range of action is available to us? How does that range of action intersect with our goals? What are the likely outcomes of a given set of actions? How do we weight the possibilities, and how do we make our judgements on the basis of those weights? Interested in these questions both for myself, in my own ‘individual’ life, and as contributor to a set of collective enterprises.

Of course, my interest in or preoccupation with the politics of compromise, here, may in part be a consequence of my own shifting social position, and its demands. But not altogether, I think.

In any case – in my intellectual work – which is what this blog is for – I am mostly interested, when it comes to politics, in goals, not strategy or tactics. So I can continue to ruminate on these things somewhat idly while I pursue the intellectual project I’ve got going on here; these thoughts have no real consequences for the intellectual project I’m committed to. ***

* The bluntness brings a lack of precision here; but the crass point is worth making, and the more subtle version has already, I think, been articulated elsewhere on this blog.

** I’m aware, of course, that these remarks provide nothing that is new, and may already taken as given by many – though not, I am confident, all – of those participating in such arguments.

*** Though that intellectual project will remain on the backburner, as it has been, for months.

Blog Hiatus

June 19, 2011

With apologies, I’ve decided to put the blog into hiatus for a while. I’ve been really enjoying and valuing the conversations I’ve been participating in here and elsewhere – and I aim to continue those conversations that are presently in progress, as it were, although it may take me a little while to reply to people. Nevertheless, I think my time will, for some time, be better spent on tasks other than blogging.

Though there are real-world obligations I need to attend to, this isn’t a decision that’s entirely external to the content of the blog. I’ve been working for a long time now on how to understand the kinds of phenomena I was discussing in my most recent series of posts. Those posts, I feel, successfully articulate the central concepts of the theory of practice I endorse. That is to say, they fulfil the principal task I set myself as the first part of my broader project – at least to my own satisfaction.

Now there’s a world of difference between fulfilling an intellectual task to one’s own satisfaction, and fulfilling it to anyone else’s satisfaction. One of the things I’ve learned in my participation in this online community of intellectual discussion, is that the work of articulation and persuasion is the bulk of the work involved in intellectual practice (although the work of articulation can often involve a solidification and, at times, a transformation of conceptual content, and so cannot be fully separated from the work of thought).

I have a lot more to do, in other words, in the elaboration and detailed articulation of the practice-theoretic perspective I advocate. I’ll aim to continue that work when I start blogging here again – along with other things. However, this theoretical perspective is also something that I’ve been wanting to nail down, to my own satisfaction, for a long time, for other reasons, and before attempting various other tasks. Now that I’ve done that, I’m going to shift personal focus towards some non-intellectual matters. At the moment I’m thinking of spending a year or so away from blogging, but that’s a rather arbitrary guess.

I’m sad about this – I’ll miss blogging and, especially, interacting with people in this online community, very much. At the same time, I think this is a good decision.

In lieu of new content I thought I’d link to the bloggers I’ve found most value in reading or interacting with over the last few years. Which of these you’ll enjoy depends on why you read the blog, but they all intersect with the work done here in one way or another.

Dead Voles – Carl Dyke and company
Deontologistics – Pete Wolfendale
Ktismatics – John Doyle
Limited, Inc. – Roger Gathman
The Luxemburgist – Reid Kane’s political blog
Planomenology – Reid Kane’s philosophy blog
Qlipoth – multiple authors
Rough Theory – N Pepperell
What In The Hell – Nate H

I’m also going to link again to Martin Jolly’s most recent music, because it is remarkable, and not enough people have clicked through.

Thank you for reading. 🙂

Terrible Things

May 29, 2011

One thing that this general picture helps us account for – if we need to – is how people do such terrible things. There was a funny piece in The Onion on this theme not long ago (prompted, I think, by the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords):

As more details emerged of Friday’s horrible but relatively commonplace manifestation of human nature in Brandon, SD, citizens nationwide somehow managed to enter a state of shock, apparently struggling to comprehend an act that, throughout history, has happened thousands upon thousands of times.

In the wake of the tragedy, Americans have expressed a deep sense of bewilderment, though it is unclear why, given that events just like the one Friday have taken place frequently throughout their lifetimes.

I too am often puzzled by the “how could anyone do such a thing?” response that is frequently elicited by heinous – or, indeed, impolite – acts. I don’t, however, exactly endorse a concept of ‘human nature’ as the source of these various enormities – except in the (legitimate) sense that human nature is highly variable, with a range of capacities that can be activated or inculcated by circumstance, and clearly a wide range of the behaviours of which humans are capable are horrifying. (In this respect it’s certainly possible to say something like “human beings are sufficiently biologically primed towards violence that violence will always be a feature of human society” [which is surely true if anything is] without taking this to be a claim about human nature except in a probabilistic sense, which is all we need from the concept.)

It’s common, however, to think of one particular range of human behaviours as requiring more explanation than another, because some behaviours are innate, and some are the product of contingent socialisation: for example, people sometimes argue that we’re basically evil fuckers who can be socialised into behaving somewhat tolerably; or, contrariwise, other people argue that we’re basically fluffy bunnies who can be warped by circumstance into unpleasantness.

As I say, it’s presumably true that some dispositions are going to be statistically more common than others – probabilistically more likely – in some given circumstance, given the make-up of the human organism. But that fact in itself shouldn’t lead us to any conclusions about essential human nature versus contingency. We certainly shouldn’t think – as is common – that the dispositions and habits of thought we have been socialised into, and therefore regard as normative in the ‘should’ sense, are therefore normative in the probabilistic (or essentialist) sense. This parochialism is the enemy of any adequate social theory. What we regard as obviously right isn’t obviously right because it’s a core feature of the human self that has been sadly obscured by pathological socialisation. Our own norms are as contingent as anyone else’s, and require no more or less in the way of social-theoretic explanation w/r/t their source.

So – we think what we think because (very loosely) we participate in a positive-feedback loop of valuation and validation w/r/t our norms. It is, obviously, very very easy for positive-feedback loops to be created around basically any norm at all. The problem of “how could people do such a hideous thing?” simply isn’t a problem from this p.o.v. People do such hideous things because they think it’s a good idea, and they think it’s a good idea, most often, because people around them also think it’s a good idea, and the community as a whole participates in a positive feedback loop of mutual validation. This is far from the only way that norms can get constructed – as I’ve already said, it’s possible for the relevant feedback-loops to be largely internal to the organism (through, for example, the projection of a fantasised approving judge), or entirely non-conscious. But it’s obvious how this sort of thing works, and it really shouldn’t surprise anyone that the most monstrous deeds can be perpetrated by groups of people who can approve of each others’ actions (or individuals who are capable of imagining others who do). This is exactly the same process by which good deeds get done and good norms get created. The only difference (which is not a difference in any explanatory sense) is whether we in fact approve of the normative dynamic in question (or whether we should approve of it).

One further aspect of all this is that the “under-such-and-such-a-circumstance I could have been a Nazi!” thing, which evidently produces such a vertiginous sensation in many people, such that it must either be rejected by the positing of a core self invulnerable to such transformation, or is taken to ‘problematise’ even the mildest assertion of ethical propriety, rather loses its force. The self is intrinsically a social thing, as I’ve been saying. To say that you might have been a Nazi, then, is in fact to speak of another self, who shares certain common properties with you. This doesn’t mean that the claim is illegitimate – it might be made, for example, to highlight the similarity between the actually-existing self and the historically imagined (but, perhaps, condemned) alternative self. And, of course, there are plenty of people running around today with fascist politics, such that the claim that they would be Nazis given half the chance requires very little in the way of imaginative counterfactual projection. But if the claim is simply that, given vastly different socio-historical circumstances of socialisation, a vastly different self would emerge, this is pretty much tautologous, on my view, and shouldn’t be found either shocking or profound.

What all this does mean, of course (and again this should be news to no one), is that the conditions that make the self matter. Part of our politico-ethical responsibility is to make the circumstances that make good selves – and the selves thereby made can, perhaps, continue the reproduction of positive, rather than harmful (as we take them to be), circumstances of socialisation.


May 28, 2011

{Post four of four}

So – building on the things I’ve just recently said below, I now want to talk, in a personal manner, about some experiences and dispositions of thought that have distressed me, and that sometimes continue to distress me, albeit not as intensely.  The apparatus I’ve been elaborating helps me to think about these experiences, and I think to address them.  I’m thinking of a sort of shifting between social-perspectival locations – imagined social-perspectival locations, many of them fantasised – without being able to settle on any given set or subset or one as providing an adequate perspective, and without being able to settle on a location that would provide even a criterion for choosing between these different locations.  A paralysing internal frenzy of possible judgements and sources of action.  With of course relatively stable dispositions beneath it – but uncertainty as to whether to endorse or deplore those dispositions – and then the attempt to shut down this inner frenzy by simply shutting down the movement of imagined identification, which can itself be highly debilitating, this shutting down, because it shuts down also so many essential faculties – the occupying of multiple social-perspectival locations in fantasy or through empathy being essential (as Brandom suggests) for the functioning of thought.

This dynamic is particularly debilitating for making solid judgements, decisions, taking determined action.  But I think the apparatus I’m outlining provides, not of course any specific resolution to this issue, but a metatheoretical account of what the situation is, and what kind of thing any given solution – any given consistent occupancy of a specific set of social-perspectival locations – would be.  And of course this is already to a large extent operative in practice – these remarks are part of a process of explicitation, even though that process of explicitation is also (self-)transformative.

How does anyone choose what practices, what judgements, what social-perspectival locations, they should participate in and endorse?  Again, the specific answer for any given individual or group will of course be different (and individually analysable).  But I think a quite general metatheoretical answer can be supplied, that I advise adopting.  Brandom’s account of material inference, and the social practice of asking for and giving reasons, explains what kind of thing we’re doing when we choose to occupy or endorse a specific set of social-perspectival locations.  I think this account can explain (and provide the metatheoretical resources required to legitimate) both the ‘blind’ following of a rule that allies us with a specific set of social-perspectival locations without us knowing why, or why this alliance is the right one, and the rational process of contestation that allows us in principle to justify any given social-perspectival location or alliance.  And – although Brandom himself doesn’t do a very good job of this – his apparatus also allows us to give an account of the irrational processes of persuasion and coercive force that are also centrally determining of what social-perspectival locations we occupy.  In fact – and I will elaborate on this in much more detail in future posts – Brandom’s meta-theoretical apparatus should be silent on the question of whether any given reason for judgement or action is a ‘real’ reason – a good reason – including the ‘reason’ of violent coercion.  Brandom himself doesn’t seem fully to recognise this implication (as I take it to be) of his work (and I will argue that this is connected, yet again, to his linguistic exceptionalism).  That is, Brandom doesn’t seem always or fully to recognise just how little can be settled by his metatheoretical apparatus – just how much his work returns us to implicitly or explicitly political processes of contestation, for the settling of issues that centrally preoccupy him.  The ‘rationalism’ that Brandom’s metatheoretical apparatus commits us to is an extremely weak rationalism.  It is a rationalism, though – and, importantly, it can be used to give an account of the specific practices out of which a stronger rationalism – of the sort that Brandom himself evidently wants to endorse – can be built.

But I am getting ahead of myself – all this is preparatory, and is by way of introducing my next long series of posts on Brandom, in which I will aim to explicate and interpret Brandom’s account of the social practice of asking for and giving reasons, and the role I believe this account should play within any Brandomian social theory that takes practice as foundational.

{Post three of four}

So, continuing backwards through the errors I listed earlier, consider the idea that the aspects of self that should be used to push with (against other aspects of self, or against circumstance) should be truly internal to the self – innate – core.

I don’t want to be unfair to my earlier self here [and, to be clear, the ‘earlier self’ I’m engaging with is one from prior to my online presence – I don’t take myself with be arguing with the author of ‘Praxis’.]  On the one hand I don’t find it at all implausible that there are important aspects of self that are ‘core’, in the sense of being biologically coded in such a way that they are not vulnerable to transformation via experience.  On the other hand, my earlier self’s position was not as naive as might appear but was (rather) uncertain, or self-consciously contradictory.  My earlier self was interested in tracing the origins and guiding principles of normative demands through the vicissitudes of the instincts that produced them, in order to locate simpler demands that underlay these – a discourse on desire in the psychoanalytic sense.  At the same time, my earlier self was aware of the facts that a) the transformations that instincts undergo as biologically simple impulses interact with a complex social field (itself made out of such impulses) and are impacted by that interaction, are real transformations – the fact that a normative demand can (perhaps) be analysed into the complex interaction of simple ‘instinctual’ components does not in itself debunk the normative demand.  (Nor did Freud think this, I should add.)  At the same time b) there is some sense (and what sense, exactly, my earlier self always had a hard time articulating) in which these instinctual demands, when taken as demands, are themselves socially constituted.  How to understand this ‘social constitution’ in a way that was not metaphysically idealist, and yet, also, not biologically essentialist, was a problem that my earlier self had some difficulty navigating.  (And, to put it mildly, the metaphysical inclinations of psychoanalytic theory – which was the principle intellectual resource I was making us of to try to understand these questions at that time – didn’t help.)

I believe I can now provide a much better and more detailed account of all of this.  In particular, there are two ways in which an apparently ‘simple’ impulse can be understood as socially constituted.  In the first place, the nature of the disposition itself can simply be influenced by social interaction — this is true for many dispositions that are classically (and falsely) thematised as ‘natural’.  [I’m not, for example, unsympathetic to the idea that there are strongly socially uninfluenced aspects to individuals’ sexualities – but even if this is the case, the socialisation of the human organism is sufficiently impactful that surely any given individual sexual behaviour beyond at least the very youngest infancy is going to be partly socially produced in some sense.]  This is obvious, though.  The more important point is that putting all this aside, and taking no stance at all on the origins of any given biological disposition, Brandom’s apparatus (which I of course endorse) makes clear to us that to the extent that any practice is taken as normative, this must be because it is taken as normative – in other words, the property of being-normative is not innate, but is only ever socially granted.  A discourse on desire in the psychoanalytic sense is intrinsically a discourse about normative practices.  Desires, drives, investments (cathexes), tell us what we should do (even if that ‘should’ is contradicted – and, potentially, suppressed – by other components of the psychic economy).  And this ‘should’ can only ever come from the drive in question being part of a larger social set of practices.  In principle (as I’ve said before) this larger set of practices could be restricted to the internal dynamics of a single organism – but in practice, if we are dealing with human desire and human dispositions, the larger set of practices will be social in the regular sense – that is, composed of the interacting practices of a number of different human organisms.  In this sense, even if in no other, desire is always already social.

Now if we connect this idea up to the understanding of the content of commitments that I’ve recently articulated, we can see that to the extent that a desire is a desire – to the extent that a disposition is normative (again, I take these to be different ways of talking about the same set of social-psychic phenomena), I take it that a desire also involves a normative commitment (because desire is inherently (even if implicitly) intentional, and intentionality is incomprehensible without the idea of commitment – even if that commitment is one that we simultaneously disavow or sublate).  And, as we have seen, the implicit normative content of a normative practice can only be understood from another social-perspectival location — and there is always the possibility of multiple competing social-perspectival locations providing rival accounts of the implicit content of any given normative disposition.

So to take a desire as possessing content means treating of not just the simple biological disposition, but also a much larger and more complex social system, from a location or locations within that system from which this attribution can be made.  And the ‘simplicity’ of the simple desire (the base impulse that – at least in some versions of psychoanalytic theory – grounds the psychic edifice) is really no such simplicity, but also involves the many implicitly normative practices that enable the attribution of this content (and the same is of course true of all of these practices in turn).

How we understand the ‘core’ of the self, then – and, indeed (since there is – on Brandom’s account – nothing to normative content beyond the attribution of normative content) what that ‘core’ of the self even is, cannot be understood except from within a larger social space.  In this quite strong sense, the self is socially constituted, even if (as is unlikely) the actual ‘core’ dispositions we’re dealing with are unaffected by lifelong social experience.

All we need now, however, is for the self’s dispositions to be affected by what the self understands the content of its dispositions to be [note that all of the above would still be the case even without this additional assumption – but the assumption is, I believe, correct], and this process of attribution of normative content can be formative of the self in an still stronger sense – in the original, obvious sense given above.  I am talking about, in the first place, empathy – the understanding and formation of the self by the self seeing its self through the minds of others – and I think that this is, indeed, a powerfully formative aspect of socialisation.  It should be noted, as well, however, that although I just wrote of ‘seeing’ through the ‘minds’ of others, this kind of formative process need not be conscious – and need not be empathic.  The consciously psychological processes I’m talking about here are only one kind of normative social practice – we know for a fact that there are other kinds and, as I will eventually argue, these can be formative of the self in structurally parallel ways.

Sticking with the more overtly psychological aspects of this account for now, this account gives us several distinct ways in which the content of the self is formed by what the self is taken to be.  This is a mirrored taking.  The self ‘sees’ itself through the normative attitudes of others.  And how it ‘sees’ itself is formative (in the two distinct senses given above) not just of what it takes itself to be, but of what it is.

My earlier self aimed to understand this dynamic through psychoanalytic theory (which theory has obviously significantly influenced how I’ve articulated the position above).  He understood this process as, fundamentally, about desire, and the social constitution of desire.  I no longer give desire this foundational role.  Desiring-dispositions are only one set of dispositions among others associated with the human organism, although they are important.  But my earlier self was not wrong to think about desire – and love – in these broad terms, I think. Two aspects of the standard thematisation of love – the desiring-disposition and the inhabiting of another heart and mind – are connected in this account, and shown as mutually implicating.  And, on the Brandomian account, of course, the inhabiting of others’ perspectives, in whatever sense, is a practice without which no other normative practice would be possible.

In addition to all this, this account explains, I think, why my earlier self was wrong to see circumstances as determining in quite the strong way he did.  For the self is formed by the social sphere.  But this social sphere is not just the social sphere the self finds itself in and happens to experience, but also, within that sphere, the social-perspectival locations that the self chooses to identify with, and how.  The self is made by whose attitudes it experiences itself through – or, more properly, what practices it interacts with itself via.  The self can – to some greater or lesser extent, depending, of course, on objective circumstances – choose what other social-perspectival locations it chooses predominantly to inhabit, and to endorse as sources of legitimate judgement – and this choice is formative in the ways I’ve just articulated. We choose what we love, and who.  We choose what communities we identify ourself with, and how.  We choose whose practices become part of our own.  This is, as I now see it, the rational core of my earlier self’s wrestling with the psychoanalytic concept of libidinal investment.  And in this way the self is made, my love – belonging not just to itself, but to you.

{Post two of four}

If not these errors, then what?

Well, each of these errors contains its own legitimacy – something that pursuing them made clearer and tangible, and that I can now use to build something stronger and truer.

Moving backwards, from the idea that the core dispositions that guide one’s actions should be unwitting – this finds its truth in the Brandomian insight that norms are implicit before they are explicit, that the practice of explicitation is itself dependent on the deployment of countless implicitly normative practices, and that no matter how committed we are to the Enlightenment project of explicitation, it is, in fact, impossible – for practical, rather than intrinsic, reasons (but on the pragmatist approach I’m advocating all reasons are practical rather than intrinsic) – to make all the norms that guide our actions explicit: there is not enough time in the day; in our lives; in the world.

So I was wrong, I think, to believe that the process of explicitation would destroy the implict norms that guided my actions (this can be true, of course, if the bringing-to-light of that which was formerly implicit reveals an incompatibility – or horror – of normative practice, such that the self is driven to reject some norm, now that the incompatibiliy is visible. This can happen – often happens – is one of the reasons why the process of explicitation is, in many circumstances, desirable – but this is not in itself a reason to reject the process of explicitation. Believing that it was – and this, I think, was the implicit norm guiding my earlier self’s ethico-intellectual practice – is itself a norm I now advise rejecting.) Perhaps I will say more on this at a later date.

I was wrong, I now think, to believe that the process of explicitation would destroy the implicit norms that guided my actions. But I was not wrong to think that relying on wholly implicit norms — on impulses that come, unbidden and untraceably, from with the self, or from the communities or divinities we posit as guardians and guides — can be followed, justly, without knowing why the truths we find in them are true. It is part of the structure of Brandom’s account of normativity that we can be justified in thinking something, justified in doing something, without knowing why we are justified. It is not necessary to be able to give exhaustive reasons – or, in principle, any reasons at all, beyond the bare fact of our experience of this normative demand [though c.f. my as-yet-unwritten remarks on the reason of no reason] – for the simple reason that to do so for all of the normative demands one follows would be literally impossible.

One relies, instead, on a framework of implicit norms that one can rely upon… implicitly. This may be (often is) a community of tacit validation and shared doxa. But it is important to see that in Brandom’s account one need not rely on such a tacit doxic acceptance of implicit normative standards in order to gain that legitimacy-without-knowledge-of-the-reasons-for-legitimacy. Quite the contrary – it is central to Brandom’s project that he be able to give an account of how a whole community can be wrong – that ethical legitimacy not be tied to dominant practice in the way that has historically compromised pragmatist philosophies, and made them, potentially at least, agents of power.

Thus all we need to do is posit the possibility of a stance – a judger – who rightly judges our actions right, for reasons they know but that we do not – to open the possibility of the legitimacy of whatever actions we undertake – however contrarian, however psychotic. This does not make the actions that we believe to be thereby justified actually justified – they may be evil – but Brandom’s system does not tether ethical legitimacy to the dominant practice of any given community, nor does it require that we be able to give the reasons why our actions are right. More strongly – Brandom’s system does not in principle require that we be able to give the reasons why our actions are right, for us be able rightly to know that they are right. (Pete Wolfendale has given some of the formal reasons for this position in his discussion of the – rather less ethically fraught – KK principle, here.) (See also chapter 3 of Articulating Reasons, which also gives some of the required conditions for and limitations of this situation.)

All this is to say that for all the strong rationalism of Brandom’s system, it is capable of supporting the legitimacy of a position that some would regard as strongly irrationalist — the idea that we can and do act on normative demands that we cannot adequately articulate, cannot coherently justify, cannot fully understand – and that we can be and are right in doing so. In my opinion some position of this sort is essential for any credible account of human normative behaviour – because this kind of action is a feature of all our lives.

Self; Errors

May 28, 2011

{Post one of four}

Training. One is socialised into a space – and then one is stuck in that space, not, or not only, because of objective pressures to remain there, but also because one cannot think beyond it. There are different versions of this – a single homogeneous absorbing Social, or a specific Social for a specific socialisation. The second is what used to distress me – the idea that the source of real legitimacy, the environment that would produce appropriate deeds, was elsewhere, and that I would never be able to find my way to it because the starting set-up was not one that would allow me to think in such a way, to act in such a way, to accomplish such deeds.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong or irrational about this idea. One can, indeed, be socialised in such a way that certain dispositions of self are unlikely or impossible. We are most of us just stuck with some deplorable disposition or other, most likely. But there are also many different aspects of self, each aspect with many different possible implications, depending on whose judgements we take as legitimate regarding them. And one can deploy aspects of self against each other – socialisation is not homogeneous, one can leverage some practice or disposition against some other practice or disposition, and transform the self as one goes.

When I was a younger man, I had little faith in the ability of the self to transform itself. I felt that dispositions were formed by circumstance, which came from outside, and that transformations of the self would therefore only come from transformations of circumstance. It seems to me now, though, that the leveraging of aspects of self against aspects of self can be, at times, a (to me) surprisingly internal affair. The human organism’s capacity for self-monitoring, self-training, and thereby, self-transformation, is, potentially, considerable. Conditional on circumstance, it goes without saying. I’m not making a very strong claim here – objective circumstances count more than anything. But I think my earlier self was wrong to see circumstances as quite as internally determining and encompassing as he did – or, rather, (put right), he was right to see circumstances as entirely determining and encompassing – for there is nothing to the self beyond the body’s biological (and contingently evolved) existence in a particular socio-historical context – but he was wrong to see this determining context as determining in a single, given, way, because the context and the self are both multiple and can be pushed in different directions, with different consequences.

One of the other things my earlier self thought, at times, though – and this is wrong too – was that the aspects of self that should be used to push with (push against other aspects of self, I mean, or against circumstance) should be truly internal to the self – innate – core. (I was interested in seeing if psychoanalytic theory could get me to something like this for quite some time.) One of the things that Brandom’s apparatus, if correct, makes clear, I think, is the specific way in which the self is thoroughly social – a fairly banal (and non-hypostatised) way, albeit also a complex one. In leveraging aspects of self against aspects of self, one is necessarily deploying a judgement of propriety (where ‘propriety’ is understood in very broad terms – this doesn’t rule out self-conscious evil, for example) that can only emerge from a more broadly social system of judgement. That is also to say that I think Brandom is as good as his word in extracting and elaborating the rational core of Wittgenstein’s remarks on rule-following and sociality – which were another preoccupation of mine, as a younger man.

Finally, another confusion, as I now see it, that performed a powerfully leveraging function in my earlier thoughts and days, was the idea that because core socialisation produced unwitting or unconscious dispositions, the core dispositions that guide one’s actions should be unwitting, or opaque to the self’s reflective gaze, and that thought directed at the origins and justification of one’s motive impulses could at best only miss the point, and at worst destroy a genuine source of justified action by exposing it to the crippling bright white light of consciousness. This confusion in particular – a romantic one – was stymieing for me for quite a time, I think.

Brandom and Ethics

March 26, 2011

A few posts back I emphasised that we shouldn’t understand ‘normativity’ as specifically related to ethics – ethical norms are just one species of norm. Which norms we judge to be ethical ones and which ones we don’t is itself a normative question – one that different communities of practice will answer in different ways. (And, of course, the category of ‘ethics’ as we understand it is not a historically constant one). All that said, I want to talk a bit about questions that at least partly fall under the scope of ‘ethical theory’. Again, I’ve never studied the philosophy of ethics (the bits and pieces I’ve looked at in the field always struck me as sort of wacky, though that doesn’t mean much), so this is all relatively amateur. It also probably falls in the ‘personal blogging’ rather than the ‘actual proper theory’ category, so you may have to bear with me.

So: what can we get out of Brandom’s work in relation to ethical theory? (As I say, this stuff is not carefully thought- or worked-through.) One obvious answer to that is a secular account of the sources of normativity. It’s not uncommon for people to assert that the source of norms must be, basically, magical in some way. Brandom’s work shows how it’s possible to give an account of normativity – an account that is not relativist, or nihilist, and that does not fall victim to the might-makes-right issues attendant on the set of theoretical positions that Brandom calls ‘regularism’ – that explains norms entirely in terms of social practices (broadly defined), which can themselves in principle be understood naturalistically. Brandom’s theory doesn’t require us to understand normativity this way: if we believe our norms find their origin in the divine, there’s nothing Brandom’s work can do to refute the idea. But Brandom’s work does show that we don’t need a supernatural or non-naturalistic understanding of norms in order to be entitled to an idea of normative objectivity – life will not lose all meaning if there turns out to be no God. In this respect Brandom’s work falls squarely in the “I have no need of that hypothesis” tradition of secular theory.

More than this, though, Brandom’s work gives us a very detailed, micrological account of the actual practices by which norms are instituted. I want to explore, in a somewhat scattered way, some of the things this account can tell us about ethical (or, I guess, meta-ethical) matters. I guess I’ll start a new post to begin.

The Soul Is Not A Smithy

December 20, 2010

Now, if I can get self-indulgent for a while, I want to write briefly about David Foster Wallace, whose work (novels, essays and short stories) I was very keen on in my early twenties and continue to admire, though more ambivalently. One of Wallace’s big preoccupations was the contamination of ethical seriousness or authenticity by satisfaction taken in the perception of others’ perception of one’s self as ethical. E.g., from his essay on Joseph Frank’s literary biography of Dostoevsky:

Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to ‘’’seem’’ like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking?

Or from the start of the story Good Old Neon, in which the dead narrator explains the reasons for his suicide:

My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people. Mostly to be liked or admired. It’s a little more complicated than that, maybe. But when to come right down to it it’s to be liked, loved. Admired, approved of, applauded, whatever.

Or indeed from the extremely problematic essay on John McCain that appeared in Rolling Stone during the 2000 presidential primaries [I don’t have a copy to hand], in which McCain’s straight-talking maverick honesty is contrasted with politicians who say only what’s in their political interest.

I don’t want to write at any length about David Foster Wallace, here, but I think he serves as a useful example, at least, of a reasonably common attitude: one that contrasts genuinely ethical actions with those that are prompted, instead, by the ‘social conditioning’ of others’ approval. I believe Brandom’s work gives an extremely detailed and carefully worked-through explanation of exactly why that attitude is wrong. It makes no sense to contrast actions that are undertaken for genuinely ethical reasons with actions that are undertaken simply because the actor seeks the approval of a specific social circle or perspective. There is nothing to normativity beyond the possibility of such social-perspectival approval and disapproval (and the practices via which such approval and disapproval operates – I’ll obviously discuss this further in future posts). Brandom’s account of ‘normative phenomenalism’ demonstrates that normativity can – and I believe should – be understood in practice-theoretic, social-perspectival terms, without positing anything else as an additional explanatory factor.

This suggests, to me at least, that Wallace’s work’s visceral anguish at the difficulty of locating a source of ethical action that can be understood as something other than, in some more-or-less complicated and mediated sense, oriented towards admiration, approval or love, is to be explained by the fact that no such source could possibly ever be located – and Wallace’s work’s anguish’s basis is thus to be located in the conviction or expectation that such a source is possible, together with a recognition that no actual empirical ethical action examined can be found to meet this criteria. This attitude produces, in Wallace’s work, two poles: on the one hand a horrified pain at the apparent lack of ethical authenticity in our actions; on the other hand a leap to a transcendent religious standpoint that can validate our ethical actions without their normative source being found in social approval. I believe that both of these poles (which complement each other) are wrong, and can be rejected.