Language and Addictions

Learning to let thinking come and go, we can eventually understand a thought as a thought and a word as a word, and with this understanding we can find a measure of freedom from thoughts and words.

—Norman Fischer, “Beyond Language

Reading this morning’s “Daily Dharma,” just after reading a chapter of a book on relativism and Christian theology, has reemphasized for me the urgency of the project I’m working on.  The assumptions about what language is and how it works that guide how almost everyone in our culture construes the world are seriously troubling and disabling, and without addressing them in argument as well as in practice it won’t be possible for any of us to regain any kind of agency.  We’re doomed to lives of seeking ways to numb our minds while we work to destroy the Earth.  

Of course, almost nobody ever thinks at all about how language works.  And that’s the problem.  We don’t think about it at all, but the assumptions about it that have been produced by naive theories of language have so thoroughly trickled down into the very structure of our common-sense understanding. that they completely limit how we interact with one another and the world.  

My hope is that by making these assumptions more explicit, we might weaken their hold, and become slightly more able to engage in less debilitating practices.

I’ll make a brief attempt here, partly as a reminder to myself of one of the most important messages of the book I’m working on.  

I’ve just finished reading a very intelligent and engaging book by James K. A. Smith, who is usually referred to as a philosopher but seems to be primarily a theologian of the Calvinist or Reformed school, but with considerable influence from post-structuralist (he would say “postmodern”) thought.  The book is called Who’s Afraid of Relativism. To be clear up front, I fundamentally disagree with all of his conclusions…because I fundamentally disagree with his premise that, in his words, the “Absolute Being has bound himself covenantally to a people; otherwise we could never know him”(180).  That is, he assumes that there actually is a foundation for all knowledge (something he repeatedly denies the existence of throughout the book).  It is just that that foundation cannot come from reason or from experience, but only from the revealed truth of God.  Okay, fine, if you buy that…

One thing Smith makes clear in this book is the fundamental strategy of all pragmatisms and relativisms of the twentieth century.  That is, they make “relative” and deny any causal power or epistemological privilege to anything that is inconvenient to the one “foundational” truth that they don’t want to examine.  So, they are never fully “relativist” at all.  It is just that they allow for only those kinds of “reality” that don’t contradict or question their privileged truth. Anything that is in fact troubling for that “truth” is put in the “relative” category, and considered to be something that is no more that one opinion among others.  

For Smith, this ultimate truth is the Christian revelation of salvation and eternal life. For Rorty, it is global capitalism.  But since they share the need to mark off and insulate one particular ideological practice, Smith does an excellent job of explaining how Rorty’s pragmatism makes a perfect Christian ideology.  All we need do is alter the particular foundational truth we want to exclude from consideration.  For Rorty, economics has to be separated out from politics, because the latter is relative and we can change it while the former has the same status as laws of physics, and is just contingent, and something we need to adapt to.  For Smith, the thing that is unquestionable and that we need to adapt to is the revealed truth of Christ (although capitalist economics is also beyond our control, apparently).  

All of this just to offer a bit of context.  The main point here is the assumptions we make about language. And on this point I would absolutely agree with Smith.  He cites a book by George Lindbeck from the eighties, which is making an argument about the ideological (my term, not theirs) problem facing religion in late capitalism (again, my term not theirs).  As Smith summarizes it, Lindbeck is concerned that “a cultural-linguistic approach [to religion] is going to face an uphill battle in modernity: it says that religion is only a religion if it impinges upon that most cherished achievement of modernity—our autonomy”(160).  So what’s at stake here?

The dilemma is that, on any halfway-intelligent theory of what language is and how it works, we need to grasp that language constructs us, that it is what our “minds” are made up of, and that it is produced socially in a community which precedes us and which we enter into when we learn to speak. We adopt not just vocabulary and grammar, but an entire set of values and a construal of the world with the language of our community.  And to be a human is just to belong to such a community—anyone who does not belong to such a community is “just one more animal” (Smith is quoting Rorty here, who is quoting Hegel).  To have the power we do, uniquely as a species, to develop intentions and plans in symbolic systems and so gain a level of “freedom” or agency no other organism has, we just do need to be part of a community that produces this symbolic system together.  

What Lindbeck is concerned about is that most people in modern capitalist society don’t get this, and think that to participate in a community that seeks to change the way you see the world, and so change who and what you are, is the worst kind of oppression.  They believe they have absolute autonomy, and so only look for a community that “resonates” with their own interior feelings and thoughts.  The problem is, they have failed to realize that those deepest interior thoughts and feelings are just as socially constructed, by the particular culture you are part of.  

That is to say, they get it exactly backwards!  To follow your supposedly “autonomous” thoughts and feelings is to be absolutely un-free.  Because you are constructed by some practices you did not choose, and worse, don’t even know are constructing you!  To choose to enter into a community that demands you begin to see the world in their way is actually to be infinitely more free.  You have chosen this community for a reason (that we can act on reasons is a point that needs defending—but see the post on Brandom and his book).  But more importantly, this practice is the only thing that gives you power to act in the world, to change the world instead of merely responding to it.  

This difference is, I think, at the root of my difference with Glenn at Speculative Non-buddhism.  HIs Laruellean position assumes a kind of autonomy, and access to the the world prior to social construction, that I believe naively mistakes certain capitalist concepts for non-conceptual truth.  There is an assumption then that anyone, like me, who believe we must consent to the decision (in all senses of this term) of the group—must even agree to the groups terms on how we can debate such decisions—is a kind of oppressive tyrant.  But this is a terrible mistake—because if you don’t think you are consenting to this you still are without knowing it!  The only difference, an important one, is whether we KNOW that we are consenting to such a decision.  Deleuzian (or Laruellean) fantasies of radical freedom are just that…fantasies.

We need to abandon the fantasy of “autonomy”, which is really just the sign of absolute interpellation into the existing dominant or hegemonic ideology.  We need to participate in communities intentionally, but fully, with commitment.  I would agree with Smith on this—just not on the claim that the Christian community is the only real option we have.

So, when we once again hear the nonsense about being free from thoughts and words—a statement so obviously wrong and ridiculous only the true moron could believe it—what is really bothering someone like Fischer is the possibility that we might begin to question the capitalist construal of the world so important to his affluent clients, and his own income.  

But there’s another concern that is more immediate, raised for me by a recent comment on my post on smartphones.  

Christopher suggests that he had to install Instagram on his phone, because without it he could not maintain “precious friendships and social support.”  He then goes on to explain that he cannot get through the day without using a mind-altering opiate-like substance.  The connection here is, as always, missed.  How really beneficial are these friendships and this social support if they leave one so anxious, depressed and miserable that one cannot survive them without addictive drugs?  

I have kids, and I work with young people, and I will say that Christopher is not at all unusual here.  They all desperately “need” these activities to give their lives meaning, but the kind of “meaning” they get from them leaves them so miserable they cannot imagine surviving without mind-altering substances.  This is no different from my own addiction to alcohol years ago.  For decades, I “needed” to engage in certain practices to give my life meaning, but then “needed” to drink to be able to endure the “meaningful” life I was living.  

The true nature of the situation is obvious to an outsider, though.  It is a mistake to assume that those friendships and that kind of social support is a “need” that the phone helps one to meet.  Instead, it is important to realize that the practices engaged in on a smartphone produce the need for exactly the kinds of superficial misery-producing relationships (always understood as deep and precious etc.) that can only be survived by addicting oneself to drugs or medications. 

My own solution is to become the modern equivalent of a hermit. Really. One cannot go off into the wilderness and live off the land, since every square inch of Earth is private property and producing your own food is illegal in most places anyway.  One needs to work to live.  But it is possible to work minimally, engage with people only in person, and not own a phone.  There is so much to learn from books, and so much satisfaction in thinking deeply and extensively about things, that you’ll hardly miss your fifty or sixty close personal Instagram friends.

So, Christopher, if you’re still reading: you asked “Can you blame us though?  It’s hard out there.”  I would answer, yes, I can blame you.  Instead of responding by numbing your mind and looking for comfort, you could always work to make it less hard out there!  When you’re busy doing that, you might not need the drugs!

Instead of thinking that I’ve failed to make dozens of new friends because I won’t text or do Instagram, I think I’ve lost most (not quite all) my old friends from seven or eight years ago to a horrible and deadly addiction.  It might be lonely, but not terribly so.  And I’d rather live this way than join them in their new addiction, at the risk of possibly needing to return to my old one.  

Ontological Collapse

My last post was of a particular example I used in my chapter attempting to produce a preliminary definition of ideology.  The idea was to give an example of an ideological practice that is both enjoyable enough to be enthusiastically participated in without any coercion at all and at the same time the cause of suffering not for others but for those who are participating in it.  It is easy enough to find ideological practices we participate in because they bring us enjoyment (romantic love or baseball, for instance); it is also easy to find ideological practices we participate in because they only bring suffering to others (slavery or investing in the stock market, for instance).  The goal was to demonstrate that it is conceivable to produce practices in which individuals enthusiastically produce their own suffering. As an alcoholic, this didn’t seem unlikely to me, but many other people seem to think such a practice would never succeed.  The responses I got on this example were enormously helpful, and I’ve attempted to incorporate the advice in my rewrite.

Now I want to move on to consideration of the next section of the book, in which I attempt to remove some conceptual obstacles to a more complete understanding of ideology, one that moves beyond the preliminary sketch I start with. Here is the introduction to that section:

 

We’ve had some preliminary discussion of the concept of ideology, but at this point there may seem to be several weak points in Althusser’s highly contested theory.  As I’ve said, almost nobody quite understands what Althusser meant, and as a result most critiques of his theory are simply pointing out errors in a misunderstanding of the concept: unable to grasp what is being argued for, most people will create a mistaken but easier to comprehend version and then proceed to point out the obvious errors in their own misconceptions.  We want to avoid that here, but it isn’t easy.
The reason it isn’t easy is that fully understanding this concept requires altering some of the most deeply held common assumptions of our world today.  Not just abandoning misconceptions, but actually replacing them with more adequate concepts of how things actually are.  The problem is sort of like building a Gothic arch.  All of the stones in an arch need the keystone in place to be held up, so the keystone is the crucial piece locking all the supporting voussoirs in place.  The paradox here is obvious: we cannot place the keystone first, but the supporting stones cannot hold up without it. So we need to construct a bit of scaffolding, inadequate and temporary, to hold up these concepts until they are all in place. That is the difficulty of writing this book, and why it requires a sympathetic reader.
So far, we have a rough scaffolding in place, as a substitute for the complete understanding of the concept of ideology we will, I hope, be able to develop when we return to it at the end of our efforts.
Now it is time to put some of these concepts in place.  Or, more precisely, to remove our inadequate concepts, the fundamental errors imbedded in our common sense, by replacing them with better (although not necessarily newer) ways of understanding reality.
I will begin with the one I mentioned at the end of the previous chapter: the idea that we cannot be motivated by anything that is not beyond our own capacity to change. That is, all our actions must be produced by some ineluctable cause, to which we can respond (somehow) but which we can never choose.  We cannot pick our motivations, only how we fulfill them.
The fundamental conceptual mistake supporting this assumption is so universal that I have only rarely seen it even mentioned.  I refer to it as the Ontological Collapse. Obscure term, I know, so let me explain.
What I mean by this is quite simple.  I am using the term “ontology” to refer to the study of what ultimately exists.  What are the fundamental kinds of things that can exist?  By “collapse,” I mean the tendency, in Western thought this goes back as far as we have written records, to assume that there can be only one kind of fundamental thing. That is, we assume, to put it crudely, that everything that is “really real” exists in the same way. Therefore anything that doesn’t “exist” in this way is not “really real,” but a mere effect, epiphenomenon, or illusion.  We “collapse” reality into one kind of thing, and then endlessly and repeatedly run into insoluble paradoxes and contradictions.  My argument is that this is because there is more than one kind of thing in reality; there is more than one way in which things can be real!
Our tendency, in Western thought, has been to cycle back and forth between idealism and materialism, ever since Plato and Aristotle.  The simple and obvious way to see this debate is between Plato’s idea that what is real consists of ideal forms and any material manifestation of a thing is a poor copy, and Aristotle’s idea that what is real is matter and its appearance as different things follows some determinate causal laws.   But I don’t want to follow this model, and not only because it involves a drastic oversimplification and misrepresentation of both Greek philosophers.
Instead, I want to examine the two ways in which we commonly instantiate the collapse today. These are two ways of thinking that, although radically opposed, many people today will hold simultaneously (or, perhaps, alternately, calling on whichever one seems best suited to a particular situation). Only once we have explored these two common assumptions, and discovered their limitations and contradictions, can we then set out to replace them with a more adequate understanding of ontology.
I am referring to reductionism and relativism.  These are not often set up as opposites, since their respective opposites would seem to be something like “holism” and “foundationalism”; however, I will try to show that reductivism and relativism both result from a shared conceptual mistake.
You may initially think you fall into neither of these two camps. Certainly you aren’t one of those vulgar reductionists who believe that everything was completely determined at the point of the big bang; and you couldn’t be like the extreme relativist who believes that the efficacy of antibiotics depends completely on our belief that they will work.  At least, if you are going to be able to follow what I will write in this section, I hope you are not one of these fools.
Nevertheless, for most of us, each of these positions are fundamental to our everyday conceptions of the world, in at least some limited way. So I will attempt to offer a (very) brief critique of each, to indicate what kinds of errors we need to avoid making. I’m hoping that once you see the errors in the limited examples I offer, you will begin to see them throughout most of how we (as a culture) tend to think of things today. You will be able to see through the mistakes of the multitude of versions of these two errors that inform our construal of the world.
I will use only what I take to be widely popular examples of reductionism and relativism, produced by respected and successful academics. But don’t worry, each of them has produced many popular books advancing their positions, and you can find a multitude of their talks on YouTube.  There’s no homework assignment here!
When I get to the third chapter in this section, however, you may need to do a little extra reading!

 

The first chapter in this section, then, sets out to use Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene to demonstrate the basic conceptual structure of reductionism.  I won’t spell out this entire argument here, but it is similar to the argument I’ve made about Thomas Metzinger’s “Self-Model Theory” here: Metzinger essay

What I want to outline right now is the structure of this reductive strategy in the abstract.

First, the attempt is made to assert that certain kinds of things do not “really” exist, in the sense that they have no separate existence or causal power.  They are merely epiphenomena or illusions or errors, but the “real” entity is something somehow more material, and we can translate these illusory things into those more real things. That is, we can explain how those apparent entities are really effects of the thing that is real and causal.  The obvious example here is reducing the mind to the brain.

Second, that thing that is asserted not to exist is required in within the theory in order to make sense of any of the phenomena the theory is supposed to account for.  The classic example of this is Hume’s attempt to produce a thoroughly empiricist model of the human subject, and his need to assume the existence of a non-material and unified “self” to make the explanation coherent.

Third, the theory then gets caught in a cycle, continually working to deny that it is in fact assuming casual powers for what it is asserting does not have them.  Hume, of course, did not go this step—and remained baffled by how we could account for moral behavior in a strictly empiricist world.

The result is that something is excluded from consideration.  Usually (always?) what is excluded is some real causal social practice, such as the economic system in which people produce what they need, or the political system which subjugates some individuals to others by creating different kinds of subjects (some of which are fully real and others of which are not).  The important point here is that some social practice with real causal powers must disappear from consideration, so thoroughly and naturally that when someone tries to introduce it into the conversation the response seems easy and obvious: that’s just not what we’re discussing here.  This produces the mistaken belief that this social practice does not have any causal effect in the phenomena being discusses. Again, a good example would be Hume’s inability to consider that capitalist economics could in any way be causal in producing our supposedly innate moral values.

 

As I said, I’m using Dawkins as an example, but this could be done with any of the hundreds of versions of reductionism popular today, from Wright’s absurd evolutionary psychology to the Churchlands to best-selling books like Thinking Fast and Slow and the ubiquitous neuro-cognitive cult taking over university departments today.

What I’m concerned about here is whether this outline, in the abstract, of the general form of the reductivist instantiation of the ontological collapse is clear enough. Would it be possible for the average college grad to take this model, with just a few examples as guidance, and extend it to a critique of the many other forms of reductionism we encounter today?