06 October 2008

In Which I Wonder if I am "Out of Touch"

Because I am free to read and comment on the use that has no link (and because I am putting off reading Von Mises) I reread Hauerwas's article on Macintyre from "First Things". I was particularly struck by this passage early on:

To understand MacIntyre takes work. Indeed, he intends for it to be a daunting and challenging task to understand him. I suspect he assumes most of his readers, possessed as they must be by the reading habits of modernity, cannot help but refuse to do the work necessary to understand him. Which is but another way to say, as he makes explicit in the last chapter of Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, that those who think they must think for themselves will need to undergo a transformation amounting to a conversion if they are to understand “that it is only by participation in a rational practice-based community that one becomes rational.”
I immediately thought "But that's a truism!"

Perhaps I have an inordinate acquaintance with philosophy of the Wittgenstein/Heidegger/Hegel/Haugeland/Brandom/McDowell/Davidson/Rorty/Gadamer/Sellars... sort, where that sort of claim looks totally reasonable and not like the sort of thing anyone would stumble over. (Though "rational practice-based" looks pleonastic to me.) I suppose there are tenured philosophers who would think something like that claim is false.

Hauerwas apparently thinks that "academics" have some problem with this sort of thought, as do people who "think they must think for themselves". (It's not clear to me why he thinks this; I gather it has something to do with "capitalism" and with the ghostly things Yoder got himself so exercised about. Hauerwas seems to have some wacky ideas about "academia" generally; I suspect his own presence might distort how he sees things. I doubt things are as they would be otherwise when Hauerwas is looking around.)

On "thinking for oneself" I side with Hegel: No one else can think for me, as no one else can eat or drink for me, so I don't need to worry about "thinking for myself". If I think at all, I think for myself. Trying to do something above and beyond thinking, so that I might "think for myself", is liable to be a hindrance to thinking. But there's no harm in saying that everyone should think for themself, if all that means is that they should think instead of just parroting what they recall hearing once-upon-a-time. Though even this sort of "unthoughtful" behavior requires that one has become acquainted with thinking, for one must have some facility in discriminating among all the things one might parrot. So the injunction to think (for oneself) is always really just the injunction to think some more. Which is rarely bad advice.

Hauerwas seems to associate "thinking for oneself" with thinking from some Olympian height, removed from other people and from the tawdry affairs of humanity generally. But this is silly. If I am to think for myself, I should do my thinking where I am. Which is down here in the muck of history, with everyone else, enmeshed in all sorts of practices and norms and cultures and language-games and etc. -- if anyone is in a position to think for themself outside of all this, they aren't me. I'm right here.

When I see this sort of rhetoric employed by the likes of Hauerwas, I worry that the denigration of "thinking for oneself" is going to slide into an affirmation of "not thinking for oneself" -- of accepting dogmatically some "base" to "start thinking from". It's not clear to me whether or not Hauerwas (or Barth, or Macintyre) are guilty of this charge (though I have my suspicions). But I think this use of the rhetoric is a real worry in any case. The idea that we need to establish or choose a starting-point for thought strikes me as an egregious error -- if we are in the market for looking at possible "starting points" then we're already thinking, and so we don't need to find a "starting point" to think from, since that point is already in the past. Dame Understanding invites us all to come as we are to the Hermeneutical Circle-Dance, to put the point clumsily.

(The right response to "Whose justice? Which rationality?" is, I think, the same as the answer to "Which conceptual scheme?" -- to quote Putnam, "You want I should use someone else's conceptual scheme?" The joke being, of course, that a "conceptual scheme" is supposed to be something which is Given, and so not something one could pick up or discard. And the same holds for "rationalities" -- I can shift my standards for what's rational or not as it seems just to me to do so, but I can't discard my rationality and take up "something else". Indeed, I was surprised when I found out that Macintyre's book really does seem to take its titular question seriously.)

On not reading Macintyre: I've tried to read several of his works. I don't like his style, so the going is hard. At one point, it occurred to me that Macintyre sounds like he's peddling some doctrine which depends on the scheme/content dogma. So I checked his indexes to see if he'd ever mentioned Davidson. He had, and his discussion of him was so inept that I haven't looked at him since. (I think it was in "Whose Justice? Which Rationality?" but the book's not searchable on Amazon, and I don't own a copy.) I figure if I ever manage to get through "After Virtue" it'll be because I have someone beside me that I can constantly gripe to, to ease the pain. (It was how I got through all the Barth I had to read. Read him the night before class, complain about him during and after class, repeat. The trick is to have someone to complain to who doesn't dislike whatever you're complaining about -- otherwise the whole game is rather masturbatory.)

On an unrelated thematically relevant point, I've finally started reading Micheal Thompson's stuff. So far I've made it through the introduction of "Life and Action", and about a quarter of the way through "The Representation of Life". Definitely interesting stuff, and definitely wish I'd gotten around to looking at this stuff earlier. I do suspect that Thompson might be the source for some of the odder form/content distinctions McDowell draws in "Avoiding the Myth of the Given"; Thompson stresses in the introduction the formal nature of his project. Though it's a formality which doesn't "disregard the particular characteristics of objects". Which is an odd sort of formality. (I doubt that the success of Thompson's work actually hinges on its being "formal" -- certainly nothing he's said so far has struck me as wrong, apart from his self-characterization of his project. I'll need to read more to get a grip on what's going on, I'm sure; these are early impressions.)

P.S.: Haugeland opened up registration for the "Being and Time" course again, so I am a formality away from enrollment in the course. Hooray~

P.P.S.: The syllabus for Finkelstein's "Later Wittgenstein" seminar is online (in the Chicago system). They read chunks of PI, chunks of The Claim of Reason, two McDowell essays, Diamond's "Realistic Spirit" essay, and various things from Zettel. Didn't look too world-shaking. But they read a lot more Cavell then I would've guessed.


Duck said...

After Virtue is kind of fun. He gets really worked up about expressivism. (Book was written a while back.) Interestingly Cavell goes over some of the same territory in The Claim of Reason, but with a different moral (no pun intended). And you must read this latter book if you haven't already.

J said...

Mo' better, the plebes should start by like refuting Carnap on verification, and the analytical and synthetic divide, or even Ayers, Carnap-lite, or say Russellian descriptions. For that matter, maybe Finkelstone should have his counterarguments posted online.

Define "thinking" (or point to 'er). Failing that you can always chant Hegelianisms......

Back to ye olde IHOP.

Daniel Lindquist said...

The IHOP is pretty awesome.

J said...
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