Notes on Reading “Articulating Reasons,” part 2

Before they slip the sieve of my aging memory, I want to complete my notes on the points in Brandom’s book that will be important to the book I’m working on.

I’ll sketch here a few more of the fundamental orienting assumptions Brandom outlines, but in a way that is meant mostly to emphasize what is of importance to the argument I will want to (eventually) make.

What is a concept? Against the standard “intensional” understanding, in which a concept is a specific set of real conditions in the world, the inferentialist approach is to understand the concept as a kind of doing, as a way of making explicit what kinds of commitments one is making in undertaking some kind of action.  This has implications for the concept of “truth,” and helps overcome the “true justified belief” idea of knowledge.  (This has always seemed to me to simply beg the question—since if you could know when something is “true,” you wouldn’t need to worry about justification or belief…and if you could know when something is actually “justified”, determining whether it is also “true” would be redundant.  I tried to raise this question in the one college philosophy course I ever took, but the professor could not grasp my point.  And no philosopher I have ever raised it with does either. Nonetheless, I persist in believing this is a fatal flaw of the TJB theory of knowledge.)

Instead, what we have in Brandom approach is the idea that we  begin from an “appropriate doing,” (I’m still unsure how we would know we have one…but that’s another concern) and then try to figure what kinds of inferences “preserve” the “good moves.”  This is a bit puzzling in the description here, but seems to suggest that instead of starting with a given, and using rules of proper inference (logic) to extend it, we start from the proper actions, and then consider as “true” the inferences that enable it.

Another key issue is “semantic holism versus atomism.” This is something I have considered essential to any understanding of how symbolic systems work since my first encounter with Lacan decades ago.  The point here is that, as Brandom puts it, “one  cannot have any concept unless one has many concepts.”  This seems to me to be supported by the discussion of what symbolic means in Deacon’s book The Symbolic Species.  No concept can be grasped separately from a whole set of concepts which it entails.  Lockean theories of language tend to work the other way around—and this Lockean approach is essentially a way of avoiding the problematic truth that we get our concepts not empirically but socially, in a language that is already made by others and which we simply must enter into the use of.

A final issue here is the inversion of the understanding of logic.  What Brandom has in mind here is what I always took to be the Hegelian logic. That is, instead of assuming we can use logic to prove the truth of a claim from incontrovertible premises, logic might instead work to draw out the implications of what we take to be those incontrovertible premises. Logic, then, is less Aristotelean than Socratic—working to push us to become aware of what we are assuming but may not be recognizing.

Two more major points, then, from two later chapters in the book. There are many other important points in this little book, but these two are what will be most important to the kind of argument I want to make.

The first is from chapter two, in which Brandom attempts to “offer an account of the willas a rational faculty of practical reasoning.”  Discussing Kant, Brandom argues that “Kant’s big idea” is that what distinguishes language-using humans from other kinds of creatures is that we can be responsible for our commitments.  The smallest thing we can be responsible for is a “judgement” understood to mean “predicating a general term of a singular one,” which is to say, we are responsible for our aesthetic construal of the world.  Normative language, which is to say language of “oughts,” of what we ought to do, is a matter of making explicit what entitles us to certain judgements (how we know we are categorizing singular terms correctly) and what this commits us to (what kind of actions in the world would take if we accept this categorization).

An important point to follow from this is that we do not need to accept the standard Humean take on our capacity to use reason.  That is, the almost universally assumed belief that we have certain desires inborn and out of our control, and then we employ “reason” to figure out how best to achieve those desires.

On this understanding of how reason works, reason can, potentially, operate to help instruct us in what we ought to desire. That is, reason tell us what to want, instead of merely helping us to get what we cannot help but want.

The argument here is subtle, but I think cogent.  Desires are not to be understood as the ultimate premise of all actions, but of the kinds of collateral commitments I am making if I am going to do something at all. Take Brandom’s example of opening an umbrella in the rain.  The standard assumption would be that there must be an ultimate desire to stay dry, which motivates the reasoning p rocess: if I open the umbrella, I will succeed in achieving my desire to stay dry.  But Brandom’s point is that the “desire” statement may simply function to “make explicit the inferential commitments that permit the transition” from “it is raining” to “I will open my umbrella.”  That is, we might have a desire to get wet, sometimes. The desire statement, then, is not the ultimate real cause, but simply an indication that I am committing myself, in following the norm of umbrella use, to the act of not getting wet. This assumes that we can do things for all kinds of reason, for practical reasons, and those reasons can be be changed and are not therefore necessarily primary in all acts of agency.

One final point for now, from chapter six, about the nature of objectivity.  This is crucial to any defense agains the ubiquitous postmodern ideology of absolute relativism.

The crucial point here is that “the implicit representational dimension of the inferential contents of claims arises out of the difference in social perspectives between producers and consumers of reasons.”  What is most important for my overall argument here is that this assumes that we arrive an an “objective” understanding of the world not despite our  differences in assumptions and commitments, but exactly because of them.

The standard take on this problem is that we can never really communicate, since you begin from your implicit assumptions about the world and I begin from mine, and we each have different intentions…so that we never quite do understand one another, and in fact could not ever succeed in persuading one another to a change in position, since what would count as a “reason” is determined by our construal of the world, and so your reasons won’t be reasons for me.  This position is so common today that it often is simply assumed…but when a particularly damaging piece of evidence is offered against someone’s position, it is not at all uncommon today for them to state this position explicitly, and take it as an absolute refutation. The argument is common, and is often put in terms like  “I don’t take that argument seriously” or “postmodern theory teaches us that there is no objective truth” or something along these lines.  The proposer of the irrefutable argument or bit of evidence is then accused of claiming a “God’s eye view” or of being dictatorial or authoritarian.

This position offers an alternative.  Because what we do in language just is to ask for and give reasons for certain kinds of commitments, we can see the reasons someone else is committed to a certain way of acting in the world.  As part of these reasons for taking extra-linguistic action in the world, we often need to make reference to things, to “represent” things in the world.  (It is important here to remember that “representation” on this approach follows from the commitment to act—it is secondary, rather than primary as it would be in a Lockean epistemology).

I can almost always understand what thing in the world you are referring to, even if that thing in the world has a completely different “meaning” to me, because of my different set of concepts and my different intentions and commitments.  For me, what is crucial here is that we can then gain a sense of what our assumptions are only because there are other people with different ones. These assumptions may be fundamental, or simply perspectival—that is, we may share most of the same concepts and intentions, but have some minor difference in perceptual experience.  If there were nobody with a different set of assumptions, we would never recognize our assumptions as assumptions, and would have not hope of ever moving toward objectivity.  When we see that someone else conceives of a thing completely differently than we do, we see a way to separate out our assumptions from the object.  The point here is that, if we are thinking correctly, we should recognize that the only reason we can ever be persuaded to change our position on something is that we so often do encounter other language users whose positions are radically incompatible with our own.

If we could all accept his, and stop retreating behind the postmodern avoidance strategy as a way of clinging against all reason and evidence to our destructive intentions, we might have some hope of surviving as a species.

But that’s all on Brandom for now.  Next, I will probably try to post a part of the second chapter of the book I’m writing, in which I try to analyze smartphone use as an ideological practice—tricky to do, since I don’t own one and have never used on myself.  Or, perhaps, easier for me to do for exactly this reason.

I hope my notes on Brandom are clear and of some use to anyone reading this.  Any suggestions as to how to make these points in a more accessible manner will be appreciated.

Notes on reading “Articulating Reason,” part 1

Lately I’ve been looking to pragmatist philosophers to help me sort out the problem of language.  Clearly, I’ve always been an opponent of most American pragmatism—the reactionary politics and crypto-idealism of pragmatists from William James to Rorty is exasperating.  But there are some thinkers in this vein that take a fundamentally different approach, like Dewey and Sellars.  

What I find most useful about the inferential theory of language is the open assertion from the start of a fundamentally different set of founding assumptions about the nature of language and how its study should be pursued.  These seem to me to be all assumptions that are consonant with thinkers like Hegel or Lacan, but made much more explicitly. Brandom begins the book Articulating Reasons by laying them out in opposition to the more common assumptions with which philosophy of language has typically operated.  

I’m going to summarize some of them here, mostly to get them clear for when I will need them in later parts of my argument.  They seem to me to be simple points, but with enormous implications for a number of human pursuits from pedagogy to politics.  Although I may be wrong that these are “simple” points, since most people, including professional philosophers, seem unable to grasp them—but more on that later.

1). The first commitment Brandom outlines for us is the choice to focus on either the continuities or the discontinuities between “discursive and nondiscursive creatures.”  That is, do we assume that we humans are on a continuum or spectrum of communication that begins with chemical signals plants send and moves up through bees dances and through wolves’ growls up to human speech?  Or, do we assume that human speech is of a fundamentally different kind—that symbolic communication makes us unique among all sentient creatures that we know of?  I have always endorsed the latter, although it seems that the more widely held position is the former.  So most attempts to explain language begin with the study of the brain (ever since Locke, at least) and work up, or begin with a statement referring to the world and reduce down to the neural substrates of this behavior.  It seems to me clear enough on the evidence that no other species has had the capacity to alter its environment that symbolic communication has given us.  And certainly it should be clear enough how different proposing marriage is from the mating ritual of the stickleback fish.  Or how different the proposal for a new skyscraper is from a monkey’s use of a rock to open a nut.  

Beginning from this assumption is fundamental to recognizing  that we can change our behaviors intentionally in ways that animals cannot.  The desire to reject this (to me) obvious truth about humans is part of the global capitalist neoliberal attempt to avoid addressing social problems at a social level.  

2)  The second choice to be made is between what  Brandom refers to as “Platonism or pragmatism.”  The question here is whether the fundamental nature of human thought is to be understood as knowing that or as knowing how.  This one seems to be difficult for most people—since it seems obvious that to know is to have some kind of propositional knowledge about the world outside the knowing mind.  But I would follow Brandom here in beginning from the assumption that the origin of thought is in knowing how to accomplish something, a knowing how that occurs first outside of the symbolic system; knowing that occurs only after we begin to try to make our know how, what we might call our phronesis, explicit in communication with others. The propositional knowledge about what the world is really like is not primarily, but a consequence of our attempt to communicate, and improve, our phronesis (my term—Brandom refers uses the expression “know-how”).

This is certainly a point on which Brandom’s argument has changed my position.  I used to be firmly of the position that all thinking occurs only in language, that there is no outside to language.  And I would still argue that human subjects occur only in language.  But I would agree with Brandom that the capacity to respond to external objects as objects is a precondition for all language.  

Without understanding that knowing, even in language, is more a matter of knowing how to take an action than of how the world is in itself, we also cannot arrive at any understanding of how humans can have agency. If we believe that to have agency we must act  from a correct conceptual  “mirror” of the world, then obviously we can never begin at all.  We are then left with the now ubiquitous understanding of humans as simply “wet machines” which respond automatically to stimuli, often in unproductive ways.

3). “Is mind or language the fundamental locus of intentionality?”  Another crucial assumption we need to make explicit. As Brandom explains, in the history of philosophy it has usually been assumed that language has a “merely instrumental role in communicating to others thoughts already full-formed in a prior mental arena within the individual.”  His argument, on the other hand, is that language use is necessary to the formation of concepts, that a concept is produced only in the act of communication between individuals, not within the individual, and that it makes no sense to speak of “intentions” outside of the kinds of claims that are made about the world in language.  This one I will need to run by some readers, I think, because it has seemed so obviously true to me for so long, that I am often at a loss to understand exactly why it is incomprehensible to so many people.  Brandom spends less time on this than on some of the other issues he outlines for us, and so seems to think it needs less arguing for—and it is clear enough, I suppose…so why do most people still assume the opposite is the case?  In composition theory, for instance, the underlying assumption that thoughts occur outside of language and are then encoded in a language is so thoroughly taken as given that  composition theorists never seem to even feel the need to address the problem of language.  That is, they are so convinced that it is not a problem at all, that they don’t think about it—and so composition instruction is notoriously ineffective, repeatedly cycling through the same three “approaches” under new names every time they figure out the latest one doesn’t work any better with a new label.  What might it take to make this concept explicit to, say, someone whose job is to design a composition course for college freshmen?

4). One last issue for this entry, then.  Is concept use representational or is it expressive?  The usual understanding is that concepts function aesthetically; that is, they are general categories that function to collect specific instances of objects in the world.  They are, then, “representations” of reality, with the word “apple” pointing to a concept of “appleness” of which any given instance is a close-enough match.  (I’m setting aside here the platonic notion of forms, and the interested “third man problem” it raises.) A concept, then, is meant to capture the essential features of the thing in the world, and so to “represent” it.  What Brandom argues is that such “representations” come later, are a secondary effect of the primary goal of language, which is “expressive.”

Brandom wants to distinguish his use of the term expressive from a Romantic notion.  The Romantic idea would be that one has an emotion or intuition which is then (somewhat indirectly and inadequately) expressed in a gesture or in language.  What Brandom is interested in is an almost opposite use of the term expressive, in which what we have first is a commitment to some kind of action in the world, and then we try to “express” the assumptions and consequences of that action symbolically through language.  The point here is that language makes clear what in action or phronesis is not yet explicit. The Romantic notion of expression would insist that the expression makes something less clear—as would the standard notion of representation.  So language is seen as eternally inadequate, and a limitation on and hindrance of thought.  Brandom’s position would lead us to see language as in improvement on (not thought—since that occurs only in language—but) our ability to act in the world.  Asking for and giving reasons is not a falling away from authenticity into the sterile realm of rationality, but the development of true agency.  

What the introduction to this book does is to exemplify what inferentialism is about: the goal of making explicit the assumptions and consequences we are committing ourselves to whenever we begin to use concepts.   The postmodern relativism that seems to have convinced most people that this cannot be done has robbed us of our agency, and is on course to doom the human species to a painful extinction.  Convincing people to change the way they think about reasons—to break out what is often called the “Humean condition”, in which we can never act for a reason, in which our motives are determined and reason is purely instrumental, seems to be a crucial goal if we are concerned for our children’s well-being.  

There are five more such issues to discuss just to get through the introduction to this book.  All of them have, it seems to me, enormous practical implications.  Part of my goal later on will have to be to demonstrate how to put this way of construing the world to use in solving real world problems.  

Thoughts on OOO

In the vein of posting my notes as I work on a longer project, here are some thoughts on Object Oriented Ontology.  I am not going to be writing the section that discusses this issue for several months yet, so this is mostly meant as a reminder to myself.

Over the holidays, a friend asked me what I thought of OOO, and sent me a link to a YouTube video in which Graham Harman has a conversation with Slavoj Zizek ( there are several very inarticulate and dull introductions before the discussion begins, about 17 minutes in). Harman was impressively patient with Zizek’s uncontrollable rudeness, monopolizing the time and constantly interrupting.  Still, what he said when he did get a chance to speak seemed consonant with what I had read of OOO.  In the course of the discussion, he mentioned that he was writing a new book as an introduction to his philosophical position.  It is modestly subtitled “A New Theory of Everything.”  I read it, then reread some sections, and thought I should write up some notes to remind me late exactly what I found so troubling about this “theory.” I posted it to Amazon as a review—I’ll copy it here.

A well-written and useful book. For those of us who’ve been hearing about OOO for a few years now, and couldn’t quite get what it was all about, this book should clear things up.
On the positive side, it is great to see that there is some movement attempting to resume metaphysics, and get out of the dismal swamp of reductivism and extreme relativism. When we forget that “objects” really do have essences and structures that are more than just their enabling conditions, we forfeit any real hope of agency.
However, I’m not convinced at all that OOO is really going to overcome the reductivist-relativist problem.
For one thing, it is quite clearly just another form of Romanticism, recycling the same approach with new terminology and pretending to ground-breaking novelty. I mean, it’s not just the laments about the barren meaninglessness of reductive science, and not just the idea that all knowledge of reality is ultimately sublime aesthetics. Although this is enough to see this is nothing new, right? Of course, Harman seems blissfully unaware of the history of aesthetics, and so believes that his idea that the aesthetic experience is the presentation of the unpresentability of the thing-in-itself is a radically new idea. It’s just the Romantic sublime. And we’ve known for decades (centuries?) that such aesthetic experiences are really just the mistaking of culturally-produced meanings for the object’s own deep essence. Such “sublime” effects are the misrecognition of ideology for deep ontology…and sure, they give us a “thrill” and all, but they don’t help us out of the trap of empiricism.
What’s even more strikingly Romantic is the section on “Society and Politics,” which is mostly made up of a discussion of the American Civil War. The war is discussed as an “object,” in the OOO sense. But what we can talk about, in OOO, is generals and battles and the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation. What is ruled out is discussion of the effects of economic practices or of the struggles and practices of masses of oppressed people. I can see, I suppose, why OOO might function as a useful heuristic, calling attention to feature of a thing we might otherwise miss. But it also seems designed to discourage attention to things Harman would rather not think about—like oppression, poverty, human struggles, and most of all capitalism.
The one thing that gets him irate is the suggestion that we humans might be able to work to make the world a better place. As he says in a YouTube video made just when he was finishing this book, he has no patience for “whining about capitalism”; after all, it is, he says, the same old complaint for hundreds of years now—with no imagination at all. Hmm, why would this be?
He does rely on some clever sophistry…in fact, relies on it a bit too much. As when he says that any suggestion that human thought is a different kind of thing than a non-human object is tantamount to dividing ontology in half, and insisting that human thought makes up half of all existing reality. Well, no, it isn’t. One thing can be different from all others without therefore counting as half of all things.
And many of his claims are just assertions of the form “OOO says that,” with no real convincing argument why we should believe what this personified entity tells us. Not all claims are mere assertions—he makes arguments for some of them. But why, for example, should we accept that an “object” can have only five or six “symbiotic” objects that constitute it? How do they arrive at that number? And why should we believe that humans can have no effect on politics, only objects like catastrophes or technology can (he insists on this, but doesn’t make a case for it).
The goal seems to be to insist, like Romanticism (see, for instance, Schopenhauer) that we shouldn’t bother to act in the world, and all we can do is have profound sublime aesthetic experiences. Haven’t we heard the call to aestheticize politics enough in the last two centuries?
I would suppose that any thinking person reading this book will be spared the time trying to engage with other OOO texts. So as an introduction, it seems to me exemplary.

I thought I’d expand here on a couple of points concerning aesthetics.

First, the necessity of objects. Good old-fashioned Aristotelian metaphysics would suggest that it is essential to recognize that there are objects that have a tendency to go on being what they are, even in resistance to the causes and conditions that gave rise to them.  This is an essential point that Postmodern discourses try hard to avoid recognizing.  If everything is just part of one enormous net of causation, then in fact there is no way to account for the existence of anything at all—and certainly no way to account for agency.  However, objects have causal powers, emergent powers, exactly because they are no longer so easily influenced by external conditions.  We can imagine the difference between a molecule of H2O in a body of water, and an ice cube, as a rough analogy.  The molecule is completely part of the fluid flow, affected by the surrounding air currents or any objects the water encounters, but the ice acquires its own momentum and exerts an influence on the currents.  Not a perfect analogy, but good enough for now.

There is a tendency toward extreme relationalism or contextualism in most conservative philosophical positions, attempting to maintain a passive resignation to the status quo.  I’m reminded of the debate in American philosophical aesthetics in the 1930s, between John Dewey and Stephen Pepper.  Pepper advocated strong contextualism, and took the position that the focus in aesthetics must be on the adequate conditions of reception—in short, the task was to train all students to truly love Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, etc. (these are his examples). Dewey suggested that a work of art might become an object, having properties beyond the situation of reception and so exerting an influence—that is, works of art might effect a change in the structure of our construal of the world.  Clearly, Stephen Pepper, a Harvard grad who went on to serve as the chair of philosophy at Berkeley, was a staunch conservative—the contextualism (Pepper’s term for it) which we might today call postmodern relativism was, for him, obviously a conservative position.

I would say that it is so today. That the extreme form of constructivism/relativism that attempts (it never does succeed) to deny the existence of any enduring objects with emergent powers and agency is always the most extremely conservative stance. Nobody is a better global capitalist than a Rorty fan, right?

So I was puzzled by Harman’s focus on aesthetics. Why would someone so obviously archly-conservative, economically and politically, as the OOO folks are, advocate the possibility of there being actual aesthetic objects in the strong sense of object?  Wouldn’t it leave open the possibility that there might some reason for and possibility of challenging capitalism?  Perhaps, I thought, the contextualist-metaphysical split isn’t so neatly a conservative-progressive split after all?

It turns out, though, that Harman doesn’t really accept the existence of aesthetic objects after all. He simply asserts that aesthetics must be redefined to mean the use of metaphors, and focuses on one example: “the cypress is like the ghost of a dead flame.”  He hardly mentions anything we would typically consider aesthetic objects (a few are mentioned in passing), and never recognizes the original meaning of the term itself: the study of the relationship between physical experiences and ideas, or between the concrete particularity of a sensation and the abstract generalization of a concept.  And metaphor, after all, is a necessary feature of all language—so what he is doing here is effectively not producing a theory of aesthetics, but a theory of language.

In this theory of language, there are not objects at all.  Harman makes this explicit in his discussion of how this metaphor works:  Because “the real cypress is just as absent from the metaphor as it is from thought and perception, there is nonetheless one real object that is never absent from our experience of art: namely we ourselves. Yes, it is we ourselves who stand in for the absent cypress and support its freshly anointed flame qualities” (83). The point is that in any aesthetic experience “that does not bore us”(83) all objects are by definition inaccessible to use, and we find in ourselves the “quality of flame” or whatever other quality is needed by the metaphor.  How exactly we contain all these qualities is not exactly clear—it seems a kind of Romantic expansion of the subject, until it just does contain all qualities just waiting to be experienced.

So, OOO turns out to be a traditional Romanic Subject oriented philosophy after all.  If you’ve read any earlier OOO texts, you probably got that sense already—and were likely confused and exasperated by the consistent assumption of one position while asserting another.  (An experience not unlike the one imbeciles like me tend to have with Western Buddhism.)

In concluding, I will just mention that there seems to me to be a promising alternative to the usual conservative anodyne offered by philosophy in a book I’ve been working through slowly. Robert Brandom’s Articulating Reasons, which I found after I saw it mentioned in a footnote of an essay I read, seems to me to offer a much needed correction to many of the crippling misconceptions we suffer under in most of our contemporary discourses about language, subjectivity, agency, and reason.  I expect my next couple of entries will be about this book—although probably not critical so much as an attempt to work through the presentation of inferentialism in Brandon’s book.  So far, I see no real ground to disagree with him, and the book has changed my thinking on some important points (a rare occurrence at my age, unfortunately).

So, fellow imbeciles, thoughts on OOO?  Or is it best left alone?

Why the Buddhist Blog Title?

This project has little to do with Buddhism as most people think of it.

But it is essentially Buddhist as I understand Buddhism.

So although I plan to use it to think through some points necessary to a book I’m writing that will barely mention Buddhist thought directly, I see no reason not to use my old blog.  Anyway, it was there and waiting so it saved me creating a new one.

To sketch out briefly my take on Buddhism, I would say that Buddhism began as a critique and rejection of the practices reproducing the existing relations of production.  The maintaining of the household fire, for instance, and the use of sacrifice as the means of organizing food production and distribution, were clearly both important to maintaining and reproducing a particular way of meeting human needs.  They were, then, ideological practices. So, Buddhism began as a rejection of the naturalness of these practices, and opened up the possibility of alternatives for organizing human society.  It may be true that Buddhism has rarely served that purpose since, but it has occasionally done so.

The task I am undertaking here is questioning and hopefully denaturalizing our own way of life, and therefore I am hoping to point out the sociality of many practices we usually take to be natural, to not be up to us.

I won’t often be discussing Buddhism directly, but I want to preempt a complaint I often heard in the past (see my contribution to the book Cruel Theory|Sublime Practice). That is the complaint that I am not being an “authentic” Buddhist, that I am somehow refusing to fully accept the true otherness of Buddhist concepts when I use them in conjunction with Western philosophy. That somehow this is imperialist and an offensive form of cultural appropriation, in violation of the modern Western law of multiculturalism.  And so I should pursue my work without mention of Buddhism at all, using only Western philosophical concepts.

There are two ways this accusation is usually made. The first is that I don’t address the one true revealed Buddhism, but some distortion of it made by Nagarjuna, or Shinran, or some Western translator of Buddhism. This I take to be the Moron’s approach (see previous post), and one not worth seriously addressing.

The second is the accusation that there is an unbridgeable gulf between Eastern and Western culture, and to use Eastern concepts to address Western problems (sometimes, but not often, this is put in terms of ancient versus modern problems) is an evil act of distortion and oppression of someone else’s culture.  This I will respond to here, briefly…and then not again on this blog.

To begin, it is ridiculously naïve to assume that Buddhist practice is now or ever was anything other than an ideological practice.  To assume that it would be possible to fully adopt an ideological practice of one form of social production while living in another is patently absurd.  A practice meant to enable a transformation from Heian to Kamakura Japan, for instance, certainly cannot be put into practice in contemporary American/global capitalism.  To think that is could, or should, is shockingly historically naïve—yet I have heard the claim from many professors of Buddhism that to do otherwise is somehow offensively imperialist.

All Buddhism, just like all Western philosophy or literature, should begin by recognizing the social and historical problem a particular concept or practice was meant to address. We do this all the time with Western thought—see, for instance, Seaford’s book Money and the Early Greek Mind, or the classic by M.I. Finley, The Ancient Economy.  Both of these books try to demonstrate how very alien ancient Greek concepts are to our way of construing the world.  Yet we would never consider it an act of cultural oppression to make use of Plato or Aristotle in our thinking through a problem today.

We would, however, never want to try to reproduce the slave mode of production in which Aristotle thought—and to do so, to live our lives as slave owners in a slave culture, would be the only way to fully “inhabit” Aristotelian thought, to “feel” his concepts as naturally as we do our own.  Just like living in a horrendously oppressive and violently misogynistic society would be the only way to fully “inhabit” the way of being in the world produced by Tibetan Buddhism.  We certainly don’t want to do these things.

So, the point is, all Buddhism should bemodernist Buddhism. Any kind of Buddhism pretending to be anything else is sadly confused and deluded. The goal of Buddhism is to reproduce, or re-produce, the existing relations of production. We can always only do that with the relations of production we currently inhabit.

So yes, my version of Buddhism is yet another re-interpretation, not reproducing “authentically” the intent of the original practices. Because to reproduce them would be stupid. We don’t have a Brahmin hegemony to displace right now, and mimicking practices meant to do that would be sublimely foolish.

And we don’t need to be “culturally sensitive” to others, any more than we need to have our own culture revered and reified.  There is a subtle, always unnoticed, assumption, universal among university professors of Buddhism, that somehow the ideological practices in which some culture is reproduced are beyond reproach or criticism, somehow in the very genes or souls (take your pick) of the practitioners, and must be protected from the harsh glare of critique. But if you try to point this out to them, they will passionately, even angrily, deny the assumption…then go right on making it. This is a subtle form of racism, assuming that members of other cultures cannot survive the kind of rigorous critique and demands for transformation we subject our own culture to all the time. It assumes that while we freely choose our culture with our superior intellects, no non-Western culture (or Western subculture for that matter) has this capacity. Their cultures are assumed to be more of the nature of an animal’s instinctive behavior.

If Buddhist concepts are to be treated with the same respect as Western concepts, without the patronizing assumption that they are somehow essentialist expressions of the deep nature of Eastern people—the assumption that Easterners are in some sense a different species from us—then the only way to show that respect is to treat Buddhist thought no differently from ancient Greek thought.  Both are startlingly alien to us, but from both we can learn something that can help us respond to our current problem.

And that, after all, is what I want to do here.  To respond to a real human crisis threatening to extinguish the human race.  I don’t want to respond to it by foolishly reproducing the ideological practices suitable to a thoroughly different historical situation.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn lessons from ways of responding to other kinds of real social problems.

Anyone accusing me, or anyone else, of failing to fully think the otherness of Buddhism is just pathetically attached to the delusion that Buddhism is some kind of special entity completely different to any other kind of human discourse or practice that has ever existed anywhere.  Such accusations will easily find a home on many Buddhist blogs and websites—so post them there.  Here, I will simply recognize that you are a moron (again, see previous post) and silently delete the comment.  I’m only interested in hearing from fellow imbeciles.

Similarly, if anyone wants to suggest that I am misrepresenting any concept in the history of Western thought, don’t waste your time.  We don’t live in the same world as Aristotle or Spinoza or Kierkegaard, and so while we can understand their concepts we can only ever use them differently than they did, in response to our own situation.

It is a bad situation. There is great chaos under heaven, but unfortunately in our case that doesn’t make the situation excellent.  My generation has failed miserably, sold our children’s future for gadgets and cars and McMansions and fat 401Ks.  It’s time to begin thinking about how to undo some of the damage we have done.

Being “Authentically Buddhist” is just another way to avoid this responsibility until it is too late.

The goal here is to be able to subject whatever cultural practices we encounter to critique.  The distinction to be made, I would argue, is not between “authentic” and “Western appropriation,” but between those adoptions of Buddhist concepts meant to help reify and naturalize our particular capitalist assumptions of the world, and those meant to denaturalize them.  We don’t, of course, need to abandon any practice we recognize as socially created, despite popular opinion to the contrary. We can very well be strongly attached to and motivated by practices we know full well are completely arbitrary.  The real puzzle is how to become more attached to and motivated by practices that are in our best interest, and how to abandon those that are not. This, I am suggesting, is a problem of the aesthetics of ideology—something I’m going to try to make clear over the next year of reading and writing.

Now that I’ve set this aside, I won’t discuss it again. I will simply proceed to writing up my notes and thoughts along the way, as a way of thinking out loud about the book I am writing.

(Next up will be a brief discussion of OOO.)

On Being an Imbecile

In the introduction to Less Than Nothing, Slavoj Zizek distinguishes three kinds of stupidity.  

There is the moron, who stupidly assumes the unquestionable truth of “common sense,” even when it is contradicted by his every experience.  Zizek’s example of this is the sidekick of the classical detective, who is ready to assume the impossible happened rather than question his assumptions about how the world operates.  I would suggest another example: the psychologist, who is blindly sure that any diagnosis listed in the DSM must be a universally experienced disorder with a “bio-psycho-social” cause, even when no actual person quite fits any such diagnosis, and many fit none at all.  The moron is anyone who continues to try desperately to fit the world to the categories and rules of hegemonic discourses, ignoring or distorting whatever doesn’t seem to be accounted for.  

Then there is the idiot, who too easily sees right through social conventions, takes every expression literally, and looks for some absolute ground to guide his actions.  Zizek’s example here is the child in the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” pointing out the absurdity of social conventions.  I would suggest that a better example would be the modern cult of reductionism, hoping desperately to find some biological determination for all human behavior, whether in the brain or in evolutionary biology, to avoid at all costs the possibility that human social practices are the reasons for much of what we do—that many of our behaviors might not be determined at all.  The idiot is unable to grasp the reality of the social, to even begin to understand why it might be desirable.  

But in between these is the imbecile, who sees that the common-sense version of reality is flawed and contradictory, but nonetheless sees its function, cannot escape recognizing the need for a social conventions, even while he sees that they are often at odds with reality.  Like the idiot, the imbecile can see that there are real material causes at work in the world, but like the moron he knows that they are not enough.  Zizek suggests Wittgenstein and Lacan as examples of imbeciles.  I would suggest Socrates or Marx.  But I would agree that being an imbecile is a goal worth striving for.

So my goal here will be to inhabit the role of the imbecile, unwilling to completely accept any socially constructed discourse, but also unable to pretend that there is any possibility that we can account for our existence without granting the realm of the social the status of reality, including real causal powers.  Often, I would say, causal powers that can be greater than those of mere brains and evolved tendencies.  

I’m going to do this in order to attempt to produce a tentative theory of interpellation. That is, beginning from the awareness that we are ideological animals by nature, I will try to consider how it is that we might become successfully interpellated into new and more productive ideologies, without falling into the foolish illusion that we can ever escape ideology, even for a moment, and inhabit a position of purely scientific objectivity.  This mistake is one danger of taking on the role of the imbecile.

Another danger is that of falling into yet another kind of stupidity, for which I don’t have a good name yet (suggestions would be appreciated).  While the imbecile, exactly because of his stupid lack of full immersion in any discourse, because of his incomplete or incorrect grasp of the rules and concepts at work, is able to maintain some kind of agency in the world, there is position quite close to imbecility which exactly works hard at abandoning all hope of agency completely.  

While the imbecile will recognize that that material dependence on conditions is in the nature of things, this other position will see any such dependence as oppressive.  That is, while the imbecile will maintain a distinction between dependence and determination, there is a danger of falling into the error of conflating the two, and so rejecting reality completely in favor of pure fantasy.  I have heard from such people often. They usually accuse me of being a tyrant, dictator, oppressor, etc., if I insist that one must accept what is unquestionably true.  There seems to be a fear that if it is not open to one’s own construction, then it is a form of oppression.  Such people have often responded to my arguments in this form (but never quite these words): I cannot refute your arguments logically, nor can I offer a single instance of factual occurrence that contradicts your position; nevertheless, I cannot believe something just because it makes sense and is demonstrably and empirically true—to demand that I do so is authoritarian!  This may seem like a fairly childish position, but it is surprisingly common.  One imagines a primitive society in which someone is trying to explain that every time we bury these seeds in the ground, in a few months we have an abundant source of food. And others insisting that it is constraining, unreasonable and oppressive to ask us to follow your “rules” and plant seeds—that suggests we cannot control the production of food with our freely-chosen rituals and chants!  We may starve come fall, but at least we’ll have freely chosen our practices, not had them dictated to us by your “reality.”  Sounds absurd, perhaps, but arguments like this are made all the time these days, usually with the added complaint that the proffered account of reality “just doesn’t resonate with me.”

Probably the best example of this other kind of stupidity can be seen in the recent scandal in the discipline of psychology.  When a group of researchers took 100 frequently cited studies and attempted to replicate them, they found they could not replicate 65 of them.  The response was that these researchers are being rude, obnoxious, and dictatorial, demanding that just because someone makes a claim that they have scientifically proven something they ought to actually have some scientific proof. There was an outcry from many psychologists, pointing out that these researchers were often not tenured professors, and that they didn’t understand the “culture of psychology.”  There was even a call to fire the editor of one prestigious psychology journal for demanding that any study submitted for publication must include actual data to support its “scientific” claims.  The entire discipline, it seems, is horrified at the very idea that in order to claim something has been scientifically proven it must actually be demonstrably true about reality; psychology, after all, is just a matter of what one knows at an intuitive level is true.  (The same response, of course, occurs whenever someone points out that all the “scientific evidence” for the efficacy of mindfulness is just crap—these evil oppressors are demanding proof, but the mindfulnistas just know it really works, they need no evidence beyond its power to “resonate” with them, and make them money.)

The imbecile cannot abandon the obviousness of plain facts about the world, which will tend to hit us over the head whether they resonate with us or not.  On the other hand, the imbecile is also never confident in any particular social practice, always questioning its limitations. The danger here is of falling into the error of assuming that therefore all social practices, every discourse, is nothing but its limitations, nothing but a ruse or delusion.  Someone making this error will assume they are operating somehow free of all social discourses, in some radically original approach to the world that escapes the constraints of the social.  This error may seem a little more common, to those no longer duped by the kind of Romantic nonsense advocated by Deleuze, so popular for the last couple decades but now fortunately falling out of favor.  But while it may be falling out of favor, it is not yet gone.  I would suggest it is just being carried on in other terms these days—radically original terms, of course.  

Perhaps the best term I can find for this particular kind of stupidity is the postmodernist.  A role that is close enough to the imbecile for the two to be frequently confused, but also a role that it is seductively easy for the imbecile to fall into.  Caught between attack from the moron, who cannot grasp that the existence of  a term in his discourse doesn’t prove there is a thing that term actually names, and from the idiot, who obsessively insists that only the deepest layer of materiality is “really real,” it is too tempting to abandon the tightrope of imbecility and fall into the net of the postmodern.  Ironically, the defenders of bad science in the psychology scandal often accuse their critics of being “postmodern,” because they use intellectual methods (such as logical reasoning and the scientific method) to critique flawed studies.  I can’t count the number of times I have read the phrase “Pepper uses postmodernism to prove his position” in discussions of my writing.  The ultimate postmodern strategy, it seems, is to accuse one’s opponent of being postmodern! 

I’ll be trying, as I post my thoughts on ideology and interpellation, aesthetics, agency, social constructionism, and many other related topics, to avoid falling into this error.  Mostly, I suppose, by simply refusing to engage, on this blog, with the morons and idiots.  I doubt there are many interested readers of something like this, but then there aren’t many capitalist subjects who are neither morons nor idiots!  So, for now, I’ll just be recording my thoughts here, for when I need them as I work my way through the probably unpublishable book I’m writing.  

Comments are welcome, but all comments will be moderated—see the “A Blog for Buddhists Who Can Handle the Truh” page for my guidelines for comments.  As Steve Martin used to say in his stand-up routine, I can do this act alone…I often do! But responses from fellow imbeciles would be appreciated.