Sunday, May 14, 2023

Critique of Pure Experience: Some thoughts on R.A. Judy, Du Bois, and William James

In this post I engage R.A. Judy's Sentient Flesh, in particular his critique of ontology and para-ontology. He critiques William James' notion of pure experience, and argues instead for a generalized para-semiotics. I do my best to lay out his argument, and then briefly at the end argue why I think James' pure experience is an important concept to keep. 


Recently we began discussing what our departmental summer reading should be on (we are leaning towards Armond Towns' On Black Media Philosophy). Last summer we read R.A. Judy's 624 page book Sentient Flesh (Duke UP 2020), and talked about the parts of that book that have stayed with us. I realized there was an important intervention in American Pragmatism that Judy makes in that book I've wanted to address, but have not gotten around to. Here is my quick overview. 

A significant part of the book deals with readings of W.E.B. Du Bois. Among the discussion concerns Du Bois' famous discussion of double consciousness, and it's relationship to Du Bois' teacher, William James. Now in a long footnote to a 1994 article on Du Bois, Judy defends that Du Bois' notion of double consciousness is indeed inspired by James, arguing against the position taken by David Lewis in his biography of Du Bois. In the intervening years, Judy returns to relationship between James and Du Bois, but this time, he understands Du Bois as making an important corrective to James' work. First, let us turn to the summary of James' work from Judy: 

This account of the constituent elements of empirical self-consciousness sets James well on the course to what will become his radical empiricism and his postulating consciousness has no existence as an entity, as a primary substance of being in contrast to material things, out of which our thoughts of them are made. The point is not that thoughts don’t exist; undoubtedly they do, but there is “a function in experience that thoughts perform and for the performance of which ‘consciousness’ as a quality of being is invoked. The function is knowing, and ‘consciousness’ is supposed necessary to explain the fact that things not only are, but get reported, are known.” James is alluding to Kant’s Transcendental Deduction of the Critique of Pure Reason, which, pursuant to its agenda of discovering the requisite faculties thinking beings need to have cognizance of the world, distinguishes between thinking something and having even phenomenal knowledge of it. And by his account, if the fruit of Kant’s endeavor, “the transcendental ego,” undermined the soul and put the Cartesian body/soul bipolarity off balance, it then established as fact that experience is indefeasibly dualistic in structure, so that the fundamental Kantian proposition is epistemic dualism. [...]Contra the Kantian thesis of epistemic dualism, James’s radical empiricist thesis is that there is only one primal stuff or material in the world that constitutes everything, which he called “pure experience.” On this thesis—which aligns with the neutral monism James came to expose, holding that both conscious mental properties and physical properties are derived from a primal reality that is itself neither mental nor physical—knowing as a function of mind can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation toward one another into which portions of pure experience may enter. The relation itself is a part of pure experience; one of its terms becoming the subject or bearer of the knowledge, the knower, the other becomes the object known. A key task of Principles of Psychology is to demonstrate that there is no need for any knower other than the stream of thought itself, identified with continuous self-consciousness. As for the individualized self, it is part of the content of the world experienced, which James also called the “field of consciousness,” maintaining that it “comes at all times with our body as its centre, centre of vision, centre of action, centre of interest.” There lies in the body a systematization of things, of everything with reference to focused action and interest. As for the activity of thoughts and feelings, these also terminate in the activity of the body, “only through first arousing its activities can they begin to change those of the rest of the world.”  On this basis, James then offers the formulation that will be so crucial for Edmund Husserl in his own phenomenology and subsequently for Maurice Merleau-Ponty as well: “The body is the storm centre, the origin of co-ordinates, the constant place of stress in all that experience-train.” This means that “I” is primarily a noun of position, just like “this” and “here,” but not in the Kantian sense of merely a necessary logical, purely propositional and hence conceptual correlate for knowledge. The positioning of the self indexes a complexity—James’s term is “plurality”—of relations in experience that articulate the field of consciousness in their dynamic interactivity. (pp. 36-37).

This is a very generous read, and I think that Judy gets a lot of fundamental stakes correct. James' radical empiricism takes standard epistemological questions and transforms them into ontological questions, undermining dualities of subject and object, mind and body, self and other. Those dualisms become ways we divided up, ways we verify and validate, the pulsations of pure experience. But this experience is more than our understanding. A basic point here for James is that chaos created by the plenum of existence is norm to our ability to grasp truth. Pure experience always exceeds our understanding in it's too-muchness. The James of the Psychology famously tells us that the world is "one great blooming, buzzing confusion." In his Essays in Radical Empiricism, he tells us that only the newborn, people who have been punched too hard, people who've done drugs, or people with certain mystical practices can briefly capture pure experience. But for the rest of us, it is closed off. (One can't help but be reminded of the discussion of Deleuze and Guattari about how you can find your Body without Organs, ATP chapter 6, perhaps particularly the lists on p. 151). So pure experience is a force from outside that structures our perceptions of the world and undoes those structures. 


Now, Judy then makes a strange shift. Like many critics of James, Judy fundamentally does not buy the undermining of the subject/object and mind/body dichotomy, and ends up deciding which side James actually is a partisan of. So we are told, emphasis in original:

We can state this summarily as the proposition governing all James’s theorizing about consciousness: Access to phenomena lies in experience and the basis of the phenomena lies in the body. [...] When it comes to the foundations of the social self, James’s psychology falls into methodological individualism [...] which explains social phenomena as resulting from individual actions determined by the motivating intentional states of individual actors. (p. 38). 

Ah, we find, James is fundamentally committed to the body! Then he immediately contrasts this with Du Bois. "Du Bois avoids such entanglement, not by disregarding or trivializing the physiological, but by recognizing the experience of the body centering the “field of consciousness” is itself gained in accord with the symbolic order of the social." (p. 38). Thus: 
Du Bois’s usage of the phrase “double consciousness” describes a socially extended consciousness [...] While even the most minimal form of pre-reflective self- consciousness—as a constant feature, whether structural or functional, of conscious experience—may be present, whenever I am living through an experience, whenever I am consciously perceiving the world, it is never an event alone, never a moment reduced in isolation and fully disengaged from, or unaware of other perceiving minds. [...] Of course there is subjective experience, but it is always already social—social, not intersubjective, because none of these subjects, not even at the pre-reflective level, have come into being alone. (p. 40).


Part of the pay off, here, comes much later in the book, when Judy argues for a para-semiosis as opposed to a paraontology. The term paraontology comes from Nahum Chandler, and is further explored in the work of Fred Moten (pp. 319-320). But Judy finds the origins of paraontology not just with Chandler and Moten, but traces it to the work of Lacan, as well as the Nazi philosopher Heidegger, and the Nazi mathematician Becker. This section of Sentient Flesh, as throughout, is filled with long steelmanning of thinkers that Judy fundamentally disagrees with. It really is this intellectual generosity I find so compelling throughout his work. And I wish I could do the same here. However, I will say I am not sure I buy that the concept of paraontology has to be associated with Becker and Heidegger. I never fully understood that internal link of how their use of that term comes along with Chandler's and Moten's term. And more fundamentally, I just don't buy that the ontological analysis has to be Heidegger's ontological analysis. However, for Judy the disjunction here is key. As he goes on to explain: 

As a sign-instrument in the existential analysis of fundamental ontology, the primitive is not merely conspicuous, it is opaque. And it is not a passive opacity; that is to say, it is not merely a function of the limit of the ontological analytic in the way Heidegger casts it. Rather, the opacity is an effect of the primitive semiosis at work with the fetish. That semiosis presents to the ontological analytic as a sign indicating something is happening, is occurring, which the analytic can only glimpse at by way of the fetish but cannot grasp or comprehend into its ambit. We can say that the fetish-semiotics, in its workings, defies ontological analysis. This is not to suggest that it offers no ontological resistance, which seems to be how Heidegger construes its conspicuousness, as an ontic phenomenon that cannot be comprehended ontologically. Nor is it to suggest that fetish-semiosis resists ontological analysis. Rather, it is to say that it simply defies, or better put, “flies far away from” ontology. (p. 361, emphasis in the original). 

As we can see here, for Judy, the way out of the colonizing ontological analysis is not some sort of paraontological move, but rather, the key is to be found with the working of "fetish-semiosis" whose opacity flies far away from ontology. And while Glissant is not mentioned here with regards to opacity, we are told earlier that Glissant's process of creolization "instigates a semiosis" (p. 236), and that para-semiosis approximates Glissant's créolisation (p. 416). And in his confirmation of this semiotic opacity, we see Judy's doubling the same criticism he charged William James with. Paraontology has, for Judy, the same weakness of James' philosophy.
Native semiosis [] dismiss[ed...] either as utterly incomprehensible or, to the extent it is comprehensible, as an archaic and inferior mode of knowing and talking about the world. In this respect, the paraontological is inextricably bound to the ontological. And that project flounders before the fluid plasticity of the flesh, needing to fix it in a homeostasis of body taxonomics, in which different bodily types express different modalities of knowledge, arranged in a hierarchical line of civilization. Paraontology is all about the body because it is still invested in somehow adjusting the ontological project. And the ontological project is about the body because it cannot think with the flesh. (p. 375)

The paraontological, like the ontological, remains caught up with the body. And as long as the body is the site of understanding, as long we believe different bodies produce different "modalities of knowledge," there will be an on-going project of hierarchy. There will always be some bodies that are more legitimate than others, and some understandings that are more real than others. Against this, Judy wants to pursue a para-semiosis, which is connected to the flesh instead of the body. While the body is individualizing (such individualizing is really the entire point of the existential analytic of Heidegger), the flesh for Judy is always already social. Because it is always and only ever social, it is question not of ontology, but rather of semiosis, even para-semiosis. As Judy explains: 
being-in-flight-with-one-another apart from, which is what is meant by para-semiosis. [...] The para-semiosis of being-with- one-another in-flight means leaving-off ontology altogether, without much more thought. The hyphenated para-, the “beside,” does not merely denote parallel movement alongside of ontology. It is a dynamic constitutive besidedness; that is, being-in-besidedness, not as a bijective function; not being as the break- in, but in the break, à la Moten. Para-semiosis denotes the dynamic of differentiation operating in multiple multiplicities of semiosis that converge without synthesis. (p. 391, emphasis still in the original). 

Now, obviously, I want to return to William James. I am going to leave aside the discussion here between Judy, Chandler, and Moten (though it seems important). And I am no Du Bois scholar, like Judy and Chandler, so I am also going to bracket for now any interpretative disagreements about Du Bois. But there is still this issue about James. 


The charge that James is an individualist, that his philosophy remains tied too much to the individual, is a common charge, and I don't think an absurd one. Creating the common is never presupposed in the work of James, nor is it presumed that the common once made will stay. How we are to make the common in the chaos of pluralism is very much the challenge of William James, and I think even more so for those of us who are communication scholars (remembering always the etymology of communication from communicare, that is literally, to make common). But already we begin to see some of the differences of the ontological analysis of James from Heidegger. Heidegger is very much interested in how we individualize, and the enemy is Das Mann, the they. There is just nothing like that in James, whose ontology is filled, to steal the phrase from Judy, of multiple multiplicities (as we know, the unfinished work of James' academic philosophy was to be called The Many and the One, flipping the common phrase backwards). Furthermore, I think that Judy is right to flag the disagreement at the point of pure experience. It might seem strange to focus on something that James himself admits we have almost no direct connection to, why would it be so important? While I disagree strongly with the reading that conflates the pure experience with the body, I think he is right about the importance. Pure experience comes to answer questions about where novelty and creativity come from in the Jamesian pluriverse. It is again a force from the outside that exceeds any symbolic order. While the social matters for James, if everything is always already social, then we need an understanding of where newness comes from. If we cannot breath the experience of the outside, how do we keep a plurality? How do we not suffocate? Something exceeds the social, and from our "workshop of being, where we catch fact in the making" as James tells us in Pragmatism, it is possible to make the world otherwise. This is the promise of James' forerunners, as he explains in The Varieties of Religious Experience:
Like the single drops which sparkle in the sun as they are flung far ahead of the advancing edge of a wave-crest or a flood, they show the way and are forerunners. The world is not yet with them, so they often seem in the midst of the world’s affairs to be preposterous. Yet they are impregnators of the world, vivifiers and animators of potentialities of goodness which but for them would lie forever dormant.

Or as Octavia Butler put it in her epigraph of her unfinished novel The Parable of the Trickster, "There is nothing new under the sun. But there are new suns."  

Thursday, April 6, 2023

A girl, a goat, and the force of law: What a local story tells us about animal advocacy


Perhaps you have already heard the story, but a strange thing recently recently happened with a 9 year old girl and her goat, Cedar. As reported in the LA Times, a girl had spent nine months raising a goat through a 4-H program. When it came time to turn the goat over for slaughter, she didn't want to. The girl's mother removed the goat from the fair, and tried to settle this through civil means. The Shasta District Fair called the police, and the police got a no knock warrant, and then traveled more than five hundred miles to claim the goat. They then turned the goat over to the fair, who slaughtered him. The whole story is absurd, a kind of evil, horrific, reversal of a Disney story. 

Of course, why is this something more than just a local story of the Fair abusing it's power, and another story of police power run amok? Well, the incident raises several important questions. The first is simply, why were the cops ever involved? As many have pointed out, this is a civil matter over a contract dispute, not a criminal matter. So why did the local fair bring on the force of law? And second, why did the fair even care in the first place? The amount of money at stake is tiny, and the girl's mother had already promised to pay it anyway. Lastly, what do the answers to these questions have to do with the animal advocacy movement?


Both of these questions are addressed in part in a Vox article by Gabriel Rosenberg and Jan Dutkiewicz. Rosenberg has written a whole book on 4-H, which I keep meaning to read, but haven't. Maybe now I will. But I have read several of his articles, and taught a couple of them ("No Scrubs" and "How Meat Changed Sex". If you haven't read them, you should, because he is just a first rate animal agricultural historian and theorist). As they explain in their Vox article, 4-H serves an ideological, affective role:

Sociologists Colter Ellis and Leslie Irvine have argued that 4-H’s livestock projects implicitly teach young people how to manage the emotional dissonance that can result from sending a beloved companion animal to a grisly fate. The program’s cognitive and emotional socialization is consistent with broader strategies deployed in animal agriculture to justify what many workers may experience as the disturbing and even traumatic labor of slaughter, Ellis contends. Livestock projects systematically undercut and confound the basic moral intuitions youthful participants like Long’s daughter start with, teaching them that it’s natural and right to lovingly care for an animal companion and then slaughter it and sell it as meat for a tidy profit.

The affective regulation of 4-H is meant to also displace emotional reactions we might have towards other animals, such as mercy:

Philosopher Cora Diamond [...] has noted that mercy is the quality of recognizing the suffering of one over whom we wield power and choosing to treat them with compassion. To make mercilessness into a virtue, as such programs inherently do, propels violence against the vulnerable, whether animal or human, but it also strips people of what Diamond sees as our human moral capacity. Mercy emerges not because we are bound by some abstract inhuman rule, but the opposite — because we are exposed to the particular suffering of a creature in our power and moved by our consciences to spare them, as Long’s daughter was. Perhaps the county’s brutal response to a single girl’s act of mercy came in part because she reminded the adults around her that they were not metaphysically bound to cruelty to animals; they could choose mercy, but chose not to.

Of course, one could feel mercy to anyone who is suffering. What is going on with this relationship is more. As the NY Times reported in 2022:
She fed him twice a day and walked him everywhere, often on a leash, like a puppy, Ms. Long said in an interview on Thursday. The goat was afraid at first, having been taken from his herd, but he warmed up to the girl and ran up to greet her, Ms. Long said. So as the June 25 auction approached, the idea that Cedar would be sold — not as a creature but as 82 pounds of meat — began to horrify the girl.

This is clearly a form of care. The girl cared for Cedar, or as he was nicknamed, "Cedes." And this is exactly why so many animal ethicists have worked within the tradition of feminist ethics of care. It is because, as Lori Gruen has so often reminded us, empathy can entangle us with the other. It is obvious that most of us would become close to creatures we cared for, that it bonds us, entangles us, calls out to us. Just the simply affective contagion of one being becoming attuned to another is one that calls for care, calls for mercy, calls for the recognition of one creature to another.  So programs like the one under discussion by 4-H serves an important affective regulation, that must shape the caretaker into the future slaughter, or at least servant of the slaughter. 

The NY Times ends with this heartbreaking question:
Ms. Long did not learn about Cedar’s slaughter until a week or so after the seizure, and she did not tell her daughter until several weeks after that, when she kept asking to see the goat. When Ms. Long told the girl, she ran down the hall, jumped in her bed, slipped under the covers and cried, Ms. Long said.
“She asked, ‘Why did they do that?’”
To that question, Rosenberg and Dutkiewicz  give us an answer in their Vox article, "If an exception is made to spare one animal’s life, the whole ideology is undermined." 
In the past, I have called the condition of animals in the factory farm as deading life. We can understand this as the inverse of the living dead--beings who should be dead, but are somehow still alive. Instead, in deading life, we have beings who should be alive, but are somehow already dead. This is an intensification of Cicero's claim that pigs were given life as a kind of salt, that is, as a was of preserving them until they can be eaten. Thus, the factory farm and industrial slaughter understands the animal as a corpse, backwards. This is why the Ag Daily's response to this incident is to stress, over and over again beginning with the title, "It’s important to understand that market livestock’s ‘end game’ is the dinner table." The idea that these animals are somehow already dead, and their life is but salt until the barbecue, is an essential part of this ideology. The being of animals is meat, not a fellow creature. Therefore, we are told by the Ag Daily editorial, "these animals had a clear purpose from the beginning, and it’s our job to understand that purpose, and to ensure that our kids do too." It is this challenge that causes the Fair to send cops to go kidnap a single goat. This is why large agriculture companies have pushed for prosecution of activists who rescued animals that were going to suffer to death and would not cost the company anything (see here, and here). The point is the not the economics or the law, but rather, the maintenance of the ideological apparatuses and affective institutions that prop up the ontology of deading life. 
About four years ago, Vasile Stănescu posted on this blog a long exploration about the so-called failures of traditional animal advocacy. You should read it all. His argument is that the failures are overstated, and there is good reason to believe that direct advocacy about animals is working. However, many leaders with the animal advocacy movement has become despondent about the success of these advocacies, so they have turned to promoting things like alternative proteans and in vitro meat. And while Vas and I have some nuanced disagreements about these things, I think his overarching point is correct: We are not going to be able to trick people into creating a vegan world. While having food that competes with animal corpses on taste and price might be a useful tool (and I probably think a more useful tool than Vas does), it's not going to be sufficient. If sending cops after a little girl's goat should teach us anything, it should teach us how entrenched this ideology is going to be, and it should teach us how hard people who believe in it are going to fight a vegan world. We will not get to that world through some sort of trickery of consumer products alone, but will require us to fight the ideological apparatuses and the affective institutions that keep us from feeling and staying in the entanglements with other animals. The project is one of building institutions (not just political, but aesthetic, ethical, cultural, and affective) to extend our sympathies. What are the institutions, practices, and artifices we can create to overcome these limitations? What are the affects and the abstractions, the precepts and the concepts, we can multiply and circulate? What are the communities we can build and nurture? How do we create a matrix that allows us to change and transform the vectors of desire? These are questions about what beings we are to become, what worlds we are to make.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Empiricism: A far too basic primer

"Never interpret; experience, experiment." -Gilles Deleuze

Speculative pragmatism or speculative empiricism seems to have had a moment (maybe is still having a moment). It is best understood as something like an intercontinental inquiry, beginning with the works of William James and Henri Bergson, then including Jean Wahl, Alfred North Whitehead, Gilles Deleuze, Isabelle Stengers, Brian Massumi, and the various people working in their wake. As such, I’ve been reading a lot of random articles and chapters that engage William James and radical empiricism. And it is really shocking the number of articles that just seem to get basic terminology wrong (the worse was that article attacking “radical empiricism” and yet never cites James, and clearly has no idea what radical empiricism is). Anyway, if you planning to write in this area, here are some basic definitions that would help to know. The four terms are empiricism, rationalism, radical empiricism, and neutral monism. The funny thing is when I finished writing the part below, I went to check some stuff on Wiki and SEP, and all of this was there. So, no one really needs this. But still! It’s worth knowing some of the basic terminology. 

(1) Let’s start, obviously, with empiricism. It has something to do with experience. Perhaps also experiment. The term comes from a school of Ancient Greek physicians, who opposed the Dogmatic School. The Empiric’s believed that the knowledge that they needed to treat the body would come from experience and dissection of bodies. The Dogmatic School stressed reason. It might be interesting to see how much the field of empiricism has a reoccurring connection to medical science. William James, a college dropout, only ever earned one degree, an MD. However, when philosophers use the term empiricism without qualifier, they are usually referencing the school of thought that includes Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, George Berkeley, David Hume, and John Locke. Like their Greek medical forerunners, they are all variously emphasizing that knowledge comes first from experience. And while it is true that we often call things empirical sciences, and that these thinkers were promotors of the empirical sciences (that focused on experiments) it is important to note, empiricism doesn’t have anything in particular to do with science. Or at least, it is not a synonym for science. It is possible that much of science is empirical, but empiricism is primarily about experience as such. Indeed, the rationalists also supported the empirical sciences. 

(2) If the ancient empiric’s were in opposition to the dogmatists, we have tended to contrast the empiricists of modern philosophy to the rationalists. One of the most common mistakes I see is a tendency to treat empiricism and rationalism as being coterminous with each other, when the normal way of treating these subjects is to see them being in tension. The sort of b-flat understanding of both would be that the empiricist believes we access knowledge through experience, while the rationalist believes that we access knowledge through reason. Indeed, the usual way of talking about this sort of thing is to compare the British empiricists (Francis Bacon, Hume, Locke, etc.) with the continental rationalists (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, etc.). Now, obviously this story of reason versus experience is far too neat and tidy, and the separation here is not in reality that clear. But one should at least know that usually there is an understood tension between rationalism and empiricism, and these terms are not synonyms for each other. And yet I see this confusion again and again. (I assume it has something to do with critiques of modern or instrumental rationality and the connection there to the physical sciences, and I guess empiricism again. So people assume that a discussion of empiricism and of reason are discussing the same things). Another confusion, that is far more plausible, is confusing rationality and empiricism as synonyms for that other split in modern philosophy between idealism and materialism. But again, this isn't completely right. Berkeley, for example, was both an idealist and an empiricist. The way this is usually understood is that rationalism and empiricism are epistemological problems--how do we know the world--and idealism and materialism are metaphysical or ontological problems--what kind of stuff is the world. But these separations are never really that neat, either. When Deleuze names his project transcendental empiricism, we are supposed to hear it in tension with Kant’s project of transcendental idealism. Nor is it the case that empiricism is clearly an epistemological project. The way James is read by most of us doing speculative pragmatism or speculative empiricism is that his project of radical empiricism is mostly a metaphysical project. 

(3) The radical of radical empiricism seem to also confuse people. It is not a political label, nor is it a distancing or critical label. Radical here is meant as “thoroughgoing, or extreme” (from for what the term was used as in the late 1800s). One might say one could call it hyper empiricism. The argument James is making here is that the previous empiricisms were not empirical enough, he is not saying that he is making a leftist empiricism, or rupturing his views from the empirical project. The famous way of understanding this from William James is his lines from “The World of Pure Experience,” “To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced. For such a philosophy, the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as 'real' as anything else in the system” (emphasis in original). So, relations are as real as the object you are relating to (the beauty or horror of an artwork is as real as the artwork itself). This is principally a metaphysical claim. As Barry Allen puts it in his book Empiricisms, “Radical empiricism is not an epistemology, not even a radical epistemology; instead it returns empiricism to ontology. The modes of being are experimental, not semantic. We do not know with finality how many different beings exist or even what the modes of existence are” (p. 305). As James pithily put it from "The Place of Affectional Facts", “There is no thought-stuff different from thing-stuff.” Our relations to the world is not a mere psychic addition to what is real, our relations to the world is part and parcel of reality. This is how James is both a neutral monist and a pluralist. 

(4) Neutral Monist is a term coined by Bertand Russell, so it is not a phrase that James uses about himself. But it is a common way of discussing both James and radical empiricism. In debates about mind versus bodies, or idealism versus materialism, the neutral monist refuses to take sides (that’s the neutral part). Consciousness is the same sort of stuff as bodies, and neither of them are inherently material or ideal (that’s the monism). And James does say that thought-stuff and thing-stuff are the same thing, they are all experience. Buuuut, this is where things get weird. As James clarifies in "Does 'Consciousness' Exist", “there is no general stuff of which experience at large is made. There are as many stuffs as there are ‘natures’ in the things experienced.” It might be better to understand James as a neutral pluralist. Yes both thought-stuff and thing-stuff are made of the same thing (experience), and they are equally real, but really, experience is not one thing, but every thing, all the things, and as such, always more. 

Sunday, September 25, 2022

The Sophist Socrates and Other Heresies

 I've been teaching Classical Rhetoric this semester, and I have become convinced of something I have long believed. Not just convinced, but really discovered that for anyone who studies this stuff, it seems to be an obvious truth (so obvious in the literature, I almost decided not to write this post).  Namely, that Socrates was a sophist. 


What is the evidence of this? 
(1)Well, first, the term itself was widely and generally used. In Aristides Orations 46 he tells us that sophist was "a general term," and tells us that Solon, Pythagorus,  Socrates, even Plato, were called sophists. The term itself seemed to have meant something like sage, and applied to all sorts of people, including rhapsodes and other poets, learned leaders, prophets and seers, philosophers, and the like. But it also had an ambiguous meaning, in which the term could both be used as a compliment or an insult. Edward Schiappa tells us to think of term like "intellectual" today, and Robin Reames tells us to think of the term like "elite." So it just wouldn't be that surprising that Socrates was seen as a sophist. I mean, it would be weird if he wasn't. But if you need other evidence. 
(2) Famously Socrates is a sophist in Aristophanes' The Clouds, who runs his own Thinkery. I have seen people call this depiction a mistake, unfair, and inaccurate. While it is clear there are plenty of inaccuracies (Socrates did not charge for lessons, and he was not particularly interested in the cosmos) it doesn't seem to be a mistake, but rather a representation that was widely agreed upon. 
(3) In the Protagoras, we can see Socrates acting like a sophist. And in Plato's The Apology, Socrates is actively defending himself from being seen a sophist. 
(4) In Xenophon's Memorabilia he writes, "Now Critias bore a grudge against Socrates for this; and when he was one of the Thirty and was drafting laws with Charicles, he bore it in mind. He inserted a clause which made it illegal “to teach the art of words.” It was a calculated insult to Socrates, whom he saw no means of attacking, except by imputing to him the practice constantly attributed to philosophers, and so making him unpopular." Now it is clear that Xenophon disagrees that Socrates teaches the art of words (logôn technê), but it is also clear that it was widely understood that he did. 

Okay, so there is ample evidence that Socrates was considered a sophist. That he, along with the other Athenian born sophist Antiphon, were put to death partially because they were sophists. That indeed, it would have been weird if Socrates was not considered a sophist. But I haven't proved he was a sophist, because I have been using the term generally. But I have not defined it, and then tried to show that Socrates matches that definition. Which raises the next question: If Socrates was so widely seen as a sophist at the time, why do we tend to see him as an anti-sophist now? 


Several years ago here I wrote two blog posts defending the sophists, and arguing that they were engaged in a pluralistic metaphysical project (you can see them here and here. Robin Reames also has an interesting article contending Protagoras was devoted to a project of becoming, which you can read here). The terms I used in those posts--eristic, antilogy, and dialectic--were all invented by Plato. In the 90s, Thomas Cole and Edward Schiappa sought to show (among other things) that rhetoric was also a term invented by Plato (see Cole's The Origins of Rhetoric in Ancient Greece and Schiappa's Protagoras and Logos). You can read their arguments yourself to decide if they are convincing, but it seems clear at least to me that the term rhetoric (a) was an invention of 4th century BCE, not 5th, and (b) really fits into how Plato worded words. If so, it is Plato's Gorgias that this term is first introduced (interestingly, the work carries a second title, Peri rhêtorikês--Concerning Rhetoric--and it is at least possible this second title originates with Plato). Why does it matter? Well first, the usual claim that the sophists were ones who taught rhetoric, as opposed to the philosophers, would certainly not have been understood during the time period of the Older Sophists, because the word rhetoric was not in use. They did teach logos, but of course, so did Socrates. So what was at stake was a move by Plato to distinguish what he was doing (and Socrates) from other intellectual schools. (The exact relationship of Plato to rhetoric is certainly complex, and I highly suggest Reames' nuanced treatment in Seeming and Being).  As Schiappa argues Plato was engaged in a project of dissociation. Long excerpt coming: 

As Charles L. Stevenson has noted, many of Plato's dialogues can be described as promulgating persuasive definitions: "The purport of the definition is to alter the descriptive meaning of the term, usually by giving it greater precision within the boundaries of its customary vagueness; but the definition does not make any substantial change in the term's emotive meaning." One of the rhetorical objectives of the dialogues was to dissociate the usual or "commonsense" usage of a term such as "knowledge," "justice," or "sophist" from what Plato believed should be the correct usage. Thus, by giving the terms "sophist" and "philosopher" more precise technical meanings and portraying his characters as more or less attractive-depending on the objective of the dialogue-Plato provided a favorable emotive and technical meaning for "philosophers" and a negative emotive and technical meaning for "sophists." [...] Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca have suggested that rhetors rarely offer dissociations in isolation. Rather, "the philosopher will establish a system that will lead essentially to the relating of the various philosophical pairs with each other." (Protagoras and Logos, p. 8). 

So, Plato's dialogues on the sophists is an attempt at dissociation, to take something that would have been grouped together in the reader's head, and show that they are actually distinct. Our understanding of Socrates as opposed to the other sophists is not because of how far apart he was from them, but because of how close he was. To put it in less generous terms, Plato was engaged in a branding campaign. And branding campaigns requires us to know why the competition is different and worse. This becomes obvious when you realize the goal here is not just to rescue his teacher from bad reputation of the sophists, but to help promote the Academy against his rival, Isocrates. It is, for example, regularly assumed that the target of the Phaedrus was Isocrates, who used written down speeches to help teach. Indeed, Isocrates never claimed to teach rhetoric and instead called what he taught philosophia, which one assumes had to infuriate Plato. it makes sense that a discipline that still involves argumentation, thought experiments, technical and precise distinctions, requires that a regular claim that they are not sophists! And while branding requires making precise distinctions between things that seem alike, it does not necessarily mean the branding is a lie or incorrect. Those distinctions might matter, and it very well could be that all the distinctions that Plato marshals to make Socrates different from the other Older Sophists are exactly the key and important distinctions. But for us, we should remember that the teaching of logos was not seen as a rival of philosophy, and that those trying to adhere to such strict distinctions might be trying to sell us something. 

Saturday, April 9, 2022

The Varieties of William James Scholarship

I started reading James after I finished the rough draft of my dissertation, but before I defended. No one had ever taught me James in any class, and seldom brought up his name. I had no close friends in school who worked on James or the American Pragmatists. I basically started reading James because of the Whitehead resurgence created by Stengers & Co. Because of this, what little secondary literature I knew about James was either from French thinkers, or what could be understood as French-influenced Deleuzians. So it is only after I had been reading and thinking alongside James for a few years that I started to understand his reputation in other intellectual circles, including standard American philosophy ones. Some, like the persistent charge that sees James as a Dale Carnegie figure are completely baffling. One of the things that attracted me to William James is how he frequently makes central depression, sickliness, and failure as parts of the human condition that we need philosophy for. Philosophy is an existential enterprise to make life livable. His work often serves as a rejoinder by the attempts to gas-light us in the world around us, and instead to affirm our experience. James, more than most, is the thinker that has connected the metaphysical to our lived reality. Other charges, like that he is a subjectivist, I disagree with, but I get where it is coming from, and it is a serious claim. Then there is the emphasis that is normal in the French and French inspired readings that are not as common in the American and Anglo-American interpretation of James. Most particularly is that James' pluralism tends to be emphasized (indeed, Jean Wahl basically saw the question of pluralism as the question of American and British philosophy), and the rest of his work is often seen as an engagement with his pluralism. His radical empiricism is often interpreted in ways that relate heavily to both Bergson and Whitehead's critique of a bifurcation of nature (I was basically lost the first time I read a Jamesian explaining radical empiricism in a way that was clearly not Bergsonian and Whiteheadian). Lastly, of course, there are the turf wars between various schools of classical American Pragmatists. There are the Piercians who believe that James is basically not a real philosopher but a stylist, and a deeply sloppy thinker. And the Deweyians in political theory and especially communication theory, who believe that James is an important precursor to the mature understandings of Dewey. (though in general my personal experience with Piercians and Deweyians is not this way). Basically, there is no thinker I have invested my time in that running across the common interpretative framing is a source of constant surprise. But I am always surprised by the secondary literature on James. So here is a little primer on the secondary readings that really have shaped my understanding of William James. In order to not be here forever, I am going to do 10 things, 5 books and 5 articles or chapters. Though I am going to cheat a little.

My initiation into William James

1. Isabelle Stengers- "William James: An Ethics of Thought"(2009): This is one of the first, if not the first, things I ever read on William James. I was busy consuming all the random things by Stengers I could read. I often joke that I finally came to the conclusion that I wouldn't ever be good enough in French to be considered a Deleuze scholar, so I thought, What about this Whitehead guy that everyone is talking about? But then I went and tried to read Process and Reality. That book is hard. Anyway, much like Goldilocks, discovering William James was just right.

2. Kennan Ferguson- William James: Politics in the Pluriverse (2007). I'm not really sure how I came across this book. I had read and taught Kennan's "I <3 My Dog," and I read his book on William James around the same time I read Stengers. Indeed, really, Stengers and Ferguson were my initiation into William James.

My understanding of James' Politics

3. Deborah J. Coon- "One Moment in the World's Salvation: Anarchism and the Radicalization of William James" (1996). This essay is a classic, and for good reason. There is a tendency to see William James as apolitical. Indeed, for many of his immediate promotors after his death, there was a desire to make him apolitical so he was more acceptable. And many Deweyians were happy to see James' politics as something that was expressed in the more mature works of Dewey. But as Coon and later Livingston argue, James was radicalized by anti-imperialism. Indeed, his politics were first and foremost against imperialism, against bigness in business and government and metaphysics. Coon follows this up, with an argument of seeing James influenced by the anarchist tradition. Indeed, there is a way to see James' individualism as being deeply connected to his anarchism.

4. Alexander Livingston- Damn Great Empires! William James and the Politics of Pragmatism (2016). Like Coon, Livingston is interested in articulating James' own politics, and is directly inspired by his anti-imperialism. Livingston shows how the anti-imperialism is woven throughout James' pluralism and pragmatism. He also has a fascinating chapter on the rhetoric of William James on toughness. It is something that has always bothered me, and Livingston manages to have real insight into what is going on there. It's also just a well-written book. It is the first non-fiction book I read after my first son was born, and I was too exhausted to get into much.

Connecting James to contemporary theory.

5. Brian Massumi's "Too-Blue: Color-Patch for an Expanded Empiricism" (2000). I originally read it in his Parables for the Virtual (which I just saw has gotten the 20th anniversary treatment). Massumi connects James to the study of affect. And here is where I will just completely cheat, because there is a wealth of great works on William James and affect. There is Donovan Schaefer's "The Wild Experiment" (which is also the title of his forthcoming book), Shannon Sullivan's "James and Feminist Philosophy of Emotion," (from Feminist Interpretations of William James), and Vinciane Despret's chapter on William James from her Our Emotional Makeup. But I want to draw your attention to two articles in particular, Lauren Guilmette's "Teresa Brennan, William James, and the Energetic Demands of Ethics" and Kate Stanley's "Affect and Emotion: James, Dewey, Tomkins, Damasio, Massumi, Spinoza." In these articles, William James is tied into a tradition of embodied affect studies from Tomkins and Brennan, where he is usually associated more with the Deleuzian strain of affect studies because of Massumi's connections.

6. David Lapoujade- William James: Empiricism and Pragmatism (2020). Lapoudade's first version of this book came out in French in 1997, and then again in 2007. His work is in the background of all the Stengers and Latour uptake of William James. Lapoujade would go on to write books on Bergson, Deleuze, and most recently, Souriau. And so you get a sense of the sort of intellectual trajectory that he sees James starting. It's an important book for connecting James to thinkers of French pluralism like Deleuze.

Connecting James to lived experiences.

7. Paul Stob- ""Terministic Screens," Social Constructionism, and the Language of Experience: Kenneth Burke's Utilization of William James (2008)". Stob has a great book on William James' rhetoric entitled William James and the Art of Popular Statement, but I want to focus on this earlier work by Stob. In this essay Stob connects William James' psychological work to Kenneth Burke's famous terministic screens. In short, just as James understands the too muchness of the world (the "blooming, buzzing confusion") and the psychological need to choose and ignore parts of the world, Burke makes a similar point with rhetoric. That use rhetoric to choose and ignore parts of the world, because the world is too much for representation and understanding (something like this is going on in Whitehead's short work Symbolism).

8. Hilary and Ruth Anna Putnam- Pragmatism as a Way of Life: The Lasting Legacy of William James and John Dewey (2017). This is a collection of essays from Hilary Putnam and Ruth Anna, some co-authored, over the course of their career, on pragmatism (and mostly William James). Ruth Anna Putnam is a serious scholar of William James, and both Putnams are trying to understand pragmatism as a kind of existential philosophy, connected to our lived experiences and our decisions about what sort of beings and world we want to make. It briefly confused, and I tried to read some other analytic thinkers on James. I'm sure there are other good things out there, but without knowing how to look for it, I was mostly wasting my time. But while not every essay here is worth it, most of the essays are good to very good.

Recent things I have read on James

9. Erin McKenna "What Makes the Lives of Lifestock Significant?" in Pragmatism Applied: William James and the Challenges of Contemporary Life (2019). McKenna has frequently written on the overlap of pragmatism and animal philosophy (though I tend to associate her more with Dewey). Her most recent book is Livestock: Food, Fiber, and Friends. But in this essay she surveys William James' somewhat ambigious relationships to other animals, focusing particularly on some asides in James' "What Makes a Life Significant?" From James, “When you and I, for instance, realize how many innocent beasts have had to suffer in cattle-cars and slaughter-pens and lay down their lives that we might grow up, all fattened and clad, to sit together here in comfort and carry on this discourse, it does, indeed, put our relation to the universe in a more solemn light.”

10. Martin Savransky - Around the Day in Eighty Worlds: Politics of the Pluriverse (2021). Here Savransky draws upon James to develop a pluralistic realism. It very much continues the project of his previous book, The Adventure of Relevance, but this one centers the work of James even more. I think it's great if you want to get a sense why Jamesian pluralism matters for social analysis.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Reading A Thousand Plateaus

 Today would have been Deleuze's 97th birthday. Here is a short homage of him I wrote several years ago. Today I also got in a new copy of A Thousand Plateaus. I got my first copy, and until now my only copy, May of 2001. So, that copy is now old enough to drink. And it is falling apart, tons of notes and underlinings. It has seen things. Cameron Kunzelman told me that the Bloomsbury editions were nice sizes, good font size, etc. (actually, seems he told the world!) So I ordered one from the UK, and waited for it to randomly appear. Today is the day! I got the new copy because I decided I wanted to read the book again from cover to cover. Despite being a book that has inspired me a lot, I haven't read it cover to cover since early in grad school. There are chapters I return to again and again, and a few I have barely touched. So, I am going to move through it. Nothing special, about a chapter a week. My goal right now is to post reflections and impressions on each chapter as I go through. Maybe you will want to read along. 

Sunday, January 9, 2022

The Truth Is Not Out There: William James and the verification of truth

Over at his blog, Michael Huemer has a recent post dealing with, among other things, pragmatism and its conception of truth. I don't know Huemer's work in general, but I am familiar with his writings on ethical vegetarianism and veganism, but most likely some of his other work might provide better background here. So I am going into this ignorant of any of his arguments about epistemology or metaphysics, sadly. 

Okay, so Huemer argues that pragmatists like William James and Piecer get the concept of truth wrong. He argues that concept of truth is trivial, and that is basically the correspondence theory of truth. So, as he points out in a pervious blog post:

The correct theory of truth is the correspondence theory: truth is correspondence with reality. I.e., if a sentence or belief represents the world to be a certain way, and the world is actually that way, then the sentence/belief is true. If the world isn’t that way, the sentence/belief is false.
I think this is trivial, but somehow people have managed to have big debates about it.

This leads him to point on the first blog post I linked to,

Some smart and important philosophers have held what I would describe as complete non-starter theories about “truth”. (These theories are so far off that I refuse to recognize them as actually being about truth; hence the quotation marks.) For example, “truth is what is useful”. [...] Sometimes people say things. When you say things, sometimes stuff is the way that you say it is. Other times, it isn’t. When stuff is the way that you say it is, we call your statements “true”. When stuff is not the way that you say it is, we call your statements “false”. For instance, if you say that all cats are green, then your statement is “true” if and only if all cats are green.

So let's talk about William James. First of all, James agrees. Sorta. As he says in ch. 6 of Pragmatism:

Truth, as any dictionary will tell you, is a property of certain of our ideas. It means their 'agreement,' as falsity means their disagreement, with 'reality.' Pragmatists and intellectualists both accept this definition as a matter of course. They begin to quarrel only after the question is raised as to what may precisely be meant by the term 'agreement,' and what by the term 'reality,' when reality is taken as something for our ideas to agree with. .

Okay, so we agree that reality and our ideas have to be in agreement, but, uhm, we are actually going to disagree about all those terms and how we do that. So, James argues a little further down in the same chapter his famous claim that truth is verification and validation:

The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as.
This thesis is what I have to defend. The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its veri-fication. Its validity is the process of its valid-ation.  

So when Huemer says your statement that all cats are green if, and only if, all cats are actually green, we have to take a step back and figure out what it means to say something is green in reality? Remember this?

Is the dress blue and black or white and gold? The correspondence theory of truth might say something like: if you went and saw this dress in the original, it is clearly white and gold, so it is true to say it is white and gold, and false to say it is blue and black. But, to paraphrase Magritte, ceci n'est pas une robe. The question is not what color is the original dress itself, but what color is the dress in this picture. Is color in the eye of the beholder? Does it belong solely to the image? Is color produced through some sort of interpretative community? The pragmatist, under the right conditions, could accept the as true that this image of the dress is white and gold, or blue and black, or even both. The condition for the answer requires us to first decide what processes of verification and validation we are engaging in. James again:

Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. "Grant an idea or belief to be true," it says, "what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false?

Now when we get to issues of verification, or what beliefs make different, we are no longer according to Huemer, really talking about truth.

Another possibility is that people confuse the idea of the meaning of “truth” with the idea of a criterion for telling when something is true. Hence you get coherence or ideal inquiry theories of truth.
I’m fine with asking these other questions. “What beliefs do you approve of?” and “How can you tell when something is true?” are better discussion questions than “What is truth?” But you shouldn’t just reinterpret the latter question as meaning one of the former. Making huge confusions like this just makes it hard to get the right answers to anything. If you want to answer one of the more profound questions, instead of claiming to be giving an account of truth, just say, “Look, the nature of truth is a boring question. Instead, let’s talk about what beliefs one should approve of …”

But for the Jamesian pragmatist believes if you don't answer what we are corresponding to in the correspondence theory of truth, the whole thing is question begging. Let me give one of my favorite examples, the placebo. Does a placebo work? As I argued in that previous post, if you are a patient, and you are given the placebo, and the placebo works, in what way can we say that the placebo didn't make you feel better? Did that not happen in reality? Is that not true? But what if you are working to create a drug trial, there is another mode and experience of the placebo. Another process of verification and validation. Then, of course, we can say the placebo does not work, it does not treat. So the mode within which you are engaging the placebo matters dramatically about whether it is true, or not. This why James says that truth happens to an idea, that it is an event. We can't simply say, is an idea true or false until we also say under which processes of verification. Let's take a different example. We are beset by various problems that large parts of both our country and the world are simply in denial about. And it is common in certain Democratic discusses of global warming or covid to say something like, we should do what the science tells us. This statement is baffling, because it basically combines at least two different processes of verification. Science, including perhaps social sciences, can tell us things like how big of a potential problem we are facing, what are some of the possible solutions, maybe what some of the solutions are. What science cannot do is to tell us what to do, how much risk we should take, what trade offs we are okay with. You can affirm these second set of questions are about truth without undermining the first set of truths (the scientific ones), because are just dealing with two different processes of verification and validation. This is why James might something like (though not exactly) usefulness matters to truth. Usefulness is one of the ways we can figure out what process of verification we are engaging in. James' committed pluralism is on full display here. This not a position where anything gets to be true, but there are as many truths as there are processes of verification. The Truth Is Not Out There