Working Outline

I’ve been considering creating a proposal to submit to publishers, although I can’t really think of a publisher who would be interested in this kind of book.  Nevertheless, I’ve written an outline of the book, which I hope give a general sense of what I’m trying to do here.  It’s long, but I’ll post the entire thing below.

My assumption, argued throughout the book, is that real human agency is necessarily dependent on a fairly sophisticated use of language, including written language.  I have come to believe that it is just not possible for those unwilling to think rigorously in concepts to ever become the kind of subject capable of real agency. So no truly popular account, dependent on entertaining presentation and rhetorical manipulation, can ever be of use in this project.

Nevertheless, I do hope that I can present my argument in a way accessible to those who have, because of the dismal state of our system of higher education, only begun to acquire real competence in the use of the written language.  That is, I hope to be not just accessible but maybe even enjoyable to those who find themselves in roughly the position I was in when I graduated from college.

I’ve so far written Part I, and am working on Part 2.  Since the second part consists of much shorter essays on various topics, I expect to post some them here as I proceed.

Submitted for your approval: the case of one Tom Pepper, foolishly attempting to inspire critical thought and meaningful action in a benighted species doomed to enter…the twilight zone.

What I Know So Far: sublime subjects and the failures of ideology

Introduction  Briefly outlines the main goal of the book: to offer a better understanding of the highly contested concept of ideology, in order to make it less difficult to imagine meaningful collective action for change.  The introduction is ostensibly addressed to my own children, on their graduation from college, as they face the daunting world we have left for them.

Chapter 1 Ideology, first attempt: A preliminary sketch of a positive and sympathetic reading of Althusser’s radical concept of ideology.  The argument is that this is the most widely misunderstood concept of the past century and getting a better sense of it will enable us to escape some of the persistent aporias in the current common-sense construal of the world.  The chapter addresses the most common misunderstandings of Althusser, but also explains that a more thorough understanding of this radical concept of ideology would require that we alter some of our fundamental assumptions about the world, and about thought itself.


Part I:  The Two Major Impediments The first major section of the book will outline what I take to be the two fundamental errors in our way of thinking the world. These errors are not particular to academic thought, but are ways of thinking that most of us employ in our every engagement with the world.  I offer a brief illustrative example of each of these errors, and a suggestion of an alternative structure for thought that can help us escape them.

ChapterThe Collapse: Presents the first of the major impediments to developing agency.  The argument is that we tend to collapse our ontology, assuming that all kinds of things that exist must exist in the same way.  Moreover, we tend to perform this collapse differently in different contexts, and so alternate between a materialist essentialism and an idealist relativism, according to which kind of ontology best suits the immediate end.  This habit of thought prevents us from seeing reality in a way which would allow for any kind of human agency.  I offer two examples to illustrate this tendency.

Reductionism:This section focuses on Richard Dawkins’s reductionism, to illustrate the way that this practice prevents our thinking about the kinds of things that are most important to our actual experience of the world.

Relativism: Using Richard Rorty as an example, I try to illustrate how selective relativism is a strategy to elide exactly those things it is in our human power to alter in the world, such as economic production and political systems.

Metaphysics of Dependent Origination:  Engaging Aristotle and the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, I outline an approach to metaphysics that allows for change without a lapse into the radical contingency that leads to inertia and apathy. The point is to determine those kinds of really existent things, things with causal powers, which we have the power to change, from those really existent things which we can respond to but cannot change.  I argue that this distinction is necessary to a useful understanding of ideology in the positive sense.


Chapter 3 Fear of Sociality: Presents the second major impediment.  The argument here is that we try to construct accounts of ourselves and our world that rule out human social practices as causal powers.  This leads to purely negative sense of ideology as oppression and error, and also prevents us from changing exactly those kinds of things that we have in our collective power to change.  Human suffering then becomes a natural occurrence we can only individually respond to, rather than collectively work to reduce.

Atomism(s): Addresses two kinds of atomism, Lockean and Romantic Expressivism, as complementary attempts to elide the causal power of social practices.  If we think of subjects as beginning outside of the social, as pre-given entities which then enter social relations, the possibilities for constructing social formations is limited in advance by the assumptions about what humans naturally are. The goal here is to demonstrate that these atomistic subjects are really the reified constructs of particular social practices, which are then misunderstood as following naturally from what they in fact precede.

Complexity: Often held in conjunction with some version of atomism, the concept of holism or complexity theory offers an additional strategy for eliding the domain of social practices.  If all events are too complexly interrelated for us to ever determine a cause, we are left with only the limited ability to passively adjust our attitude toward an ineluctable reality.  This position is adopted whenever the atomistic position reaches the its limits in aporias and contradiction.

Recognition: Using the Hegelian concept of recognition, I attempt to suggest an alternative to the common-sense construal of the world which leads us to think in terms of atomism or complexity.  The argument here is that human subjects inherently begin as collectives, as groups of individuals engaged in the use of language and seeking to achieve something together than cannot be accomplished by a individual.  I adumbrate the argument of the later chapter on language here, and suggest that by reconsidering the fundamental unit of the subject as a collective we can separate actions that demonstrate agency from other kinds of events that are either determined or contingent.  Although this brief account is a bit cryptic, following on the arguments in the previous sections it is not difficult to make the case in  ordinary, even conversational, language.  Once we can do this, can think of agency differently but lucidly, we can begin to work toward constructing ideological practices that can motivate us while still being acknowledged as optional, as a collective choice.


Part II: Some Errors That Matter This part of the book consists of a series of short discussions of common misconceptions about how the world really is.  Dependent on the concepts produced in Part I, each of these misconceptions is reconsidered, to demonstrate how we can think differently about our everyday experience of life.  The goal is to enable a new understanding of how people can act, collectively, in the world, and so to prepare for the concluding reconceptualization of ideology.

Chapter 4 Language:Draws on the work of Robert Brandom to shift our commonsense understanding of language.  Only once we understand that language is not representative of some extra-linguistic concepts, but instead that it is a social practice of constituting our concepts, can we begin to understand the role of language in our ideologies, and so in making our world.  Central to this is the assertion that language does, pace the postmodern hegemony today, allow us to gain a correct understanding of how the world really is and works.

Chapter 5 Interpretation:  Following from the discussion of language, this chapter discusses the common misconceptions of interpretation.  Pace the common postmodern assumption that we are free to interpret signs in any way we choose, the argument here is that in fact symbolic systems limit and shape our construal of the world.  Interpretation comes into play only when some text or practice produces a meaning we do not want to accept; understanding this allows us to shift from the strategy of interpretation to the strategy of explanation.

Chapter 6 Realism:  Addressing the common misconception that we can never know anything correctly about the physical world, this chapter explains how realism is possible. Dependent on the concepts from Part I, we can see that knowing something for a reason does not mean that we know it incorrectly. Further, dependent on the discussions of language and interpretation, we can see that knowledge does not need to be complete to be correct.

Chapter 7Mind/Body: The argument here attempts to dissolve the perennial mind-body duality, by explaining how the mind and body are both dependently arisen (see Chapter 2).  Once we understand the causes and conditions on which mind arises, we can more easily escape the seductions of atomistic psychology and determinism.

Chapter 8  Free Will: Using the work of Michael Frede and others, explains how and why the idea of a free will arose, and the erroneous assumptions it depends upon.  Attempts to shift our conception of agency from its dependence on our will, producing instead an idea of agency which is enabled by our collective construction of a (more or less) correct understanding of our world.

Chapter 9  Money and Economics: The goal here is to denaturalize capitalism and the commodity form of money, demonstrating their historically limited existence.  This enables us to understand and overcome the limits on our ability to imagine a different, non-capitalist, social order.  The argument is that money is a social practice which works to reify a relation of dominance, and modern economic theory works to elide the importance of production to human life, focusing on distribution and consumption. Once we see money, and capitalism, as human social practices, we can begin to conceive of other ways we might meaningfully organize our production to meet human needs.

Chapter 10 The Unconscious and the Gaze: Introduces some key concepts of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory crucial to a correct understanding of the Althusserian concept of ideology.  In particular, I emphasize the importance of the gaze to our sense of meaning, and raise the possibility that we may find meaning without the assumption (whether explicit or implicit) of a Big Other.

Chapter 11 Concepts of Reason:In our common-sense construal of the world, we use a limited and reductive definition of reason as instrumental and quantitative. That is to say, we normally think of reason as a calculation of how to best achieve some previously determined desire.  The argument here is that we can expand our idea of what reason means, so that we can include as a function of reason the discovery of what we ought to desire, and even the construction of new kinds of desire that can in no way be predicted from evolution, biology, or physical laws.

Chapter 12 Emotion and Intuition: Historicizes these concepts in order to denaturalize them.  The argument here is that the concept of emotion is created concomitantly with capitalism in order to naturalize certain kinds of desire, and limit the domain of thought.  Intuition, as we usually understand it, is the mistaken assumption that our socially produced assumptions and behaviors are expressions of our deepest human nature. The goal here is not to reject emotion or intuition, but to recognize their construction in our ideological practices.


Part III:  Moving ForwardThis section attempts to make some suggestions for moving toward social activism.  Beginning with a better account of the concept of ideology, which depends on the arguments made in Part II, I explain that once we realize the need to produce, not escape, ideologies, we can finally begin to make progress in resisting the neoliberal capitalism that is fast destroying the world.

Chapter 13  Ideology, second attempt:  Returning to the discussion of ideology in Chapter 1, we can now get a more useful account of what exactly is meant by the “imaginary relations to the relations of production.”  We can also begin to see the necessary distinction between the way ideology happens to operate in global capitalism (structured by fantasy and dependent on the gaze of a Big Other), and the way it might operate (structured by explanation and dependent on recognition).  This can help avoid the troubling attempt to escape ideology, and allow for the more productive attempt to construct it with conscious intention.

Chapter 14 Aesthetics without Romanticism: Aesthetics is still generally understood as a matter of taste, either hopelessly subjective or, if objective, only explicable as evolutionary predispositions.  The task of this chapter is to explain that aesthetics is fundamentally the practice in which we produce and reproduce ideologies.  Once this is understood, we can find ways to engage in aesthetics that escapes the Romantic goals of emotional expression and the obfuscations of symbol.  We can replace this form of cultural practice with an aesthetic devoted to making explicit the implicit assumptions and commitments of our daily lives.

Chapter 15 Overcoming Alienation: Finally, drawing on the Bertell Olman’s classic book on the Marxist conept of alienation, as well as Kierkegaard’s TheSickness Unto Death, we will explore the way ideologies can be alienating, and the psychical immiseration this causes.  We will consider the possibility and difficulties of producing ideologies that avoid alienation.


Conclusion: What I Don’t Know Yet  This short concluding section is framed as a challenge. I present two tasks I have not yet succeeded in accomplishing, and ask the reader to consider ways to accomplish them proceeding from the concept of ideology produced in this book.

Chapter 16  Problems of Ideological Interpellation: Perhaps the greatest challenge facing any real radical movement will be to find ways to interpellate individuals into an ideological practice that promises no fantasy escape from effort and negotiation for meaning.  Can a generation raised in global neoliberalism possibly commit to a practice with no illusions that it is necessitated by human nature, evolution, or God?  Can they commit to an ideology knowing that it is simply their last best hope to save the world?

Chapter 17  Finding Meaning in Struggle: Most ideologies of the past two millennia have depended on a fantasy of finally achieving some state of imaginary plenitude, of freedom from all effort, and of endless pleasure.  I conclude by asking if perhaps a generation raised to expect nothing but stress, anxiety, and uncertainty might be well suited to find meaning not in dreams of passive comfort, but in struggle for meaningful change.



Maintaining the Divide

I was going to post my working outline of the entire book at this point, but I decided instead to write something about one particular problem that has plagued my thinking for years.

This is the idea that we must abandon the rigid fact/value distinction.  The idea is widespread in what is now commonly called “postmodernism,” but it goes back at least as far as Nietzsche, and so is at least a part of modernism, if not of Romanticism or enlightenment thought.  I am often stunned by how very often I come across this claim, and the bizarre errors it seems to lead otherwise intelligent thinkers into as they try to accommodate it, never questioning its validity.

Here’s a version of this idea, from Raymond Geuss’s discussion of Nietzsche in his recent book Changing the Subject:

This now common philosophical view which Nietzsche rejects is one that is deeply committed to a series of sharp distinctions—between “truth” and “(mere) opinion”, “fact” and”interpretation”, “science” and “uncontrolled belief formation”, and “knowledge” and “speculation”.  It is also committed to the view that without continual surveillance of the border and sharp enforcement of these dichotomous distinctions, there can be nothing but cognitive chaos in our world. The structure of enquiry, constatation, hypothesis formation, confirmation and evaluation that constitutes “science” must in particular also be kept rigidly distinct from the domain of the emotions, all voluntative phenomenon, and the “interpretation” of results (e.g., in the light of human needs and interests).  “Truth” and “the will” belong to different domains entirely, and only confusion can result from failing to keep the “truth” insulated and hermetically closed off from all forms of volition and evaluation. (184).

Let me reiterate that this is the position that Nietzsche rejects. However, it is the position for which I have been arguing, essentially all my life.  Geuss is quick to point out that for Nietzsche there are, “of course, ‘facts’, but no ‘facts’ that were inherently and absolutely devoid of all interpretation” (185). The difficulty of reconciling these facts, which are supposedly beyond refute, with the idea that there can be no such thing as a concept of ‘truth,’ that all facts are shot-through with interpretation, has baffled many philosophical projects.

My position has long been that there are in fact no perceptionsthat are not shot through with interpretation.  But it must not be assumed that it therefore follows that we cannot arrive at any correct knowledge of things.  We can, because we are language-using animals, develop practices in which we prescind from our interpretive additions to our perceptions, and can in fact get things right, understand what a thing is in itself—or, at least, we can come ever closer to doing so.

We can do this because the really important distinction here is not between the thing “in itself” and the thing “for us,” as most post-Kantian philosophy would assume.  The important distinction is between things that are what they are independent of us, which I would call mind independent or Mi,and things which exist only because of our thoughts and actions, which I would call mind dependent  or Md kinds of things.  Some things just are what they are regardless of what we think of them; these would include things like stars and oxygen and geological formations.  Other things only are what they are because of what we think of them; these would include things like nations and artworks and friendship.

Now, either of these kinds of things, Mi or Md, is a thing we can be right about, can have true knowledge about.  But we can only begin to have correct knowledge about such things once we have recognized the absolute need to make such distinctions.  If we assume that the method that allows us to arrive at correct knowledge of how polio is spread or how oxygen combines with other elements will also allow us to arrive at correct knowledge of what is good art or what causes depression, then we will wind up assuming that in fact there is never any such thing as knowledge at all, that all we have are a few superficial “facts” and our interpretations of them.  My point is that we can have true knowledge of how polio is spread and of what causes the symptoms of depression only once we recognize that they are not the of the same ontological kind.  One will occur regardless of what we think, the other is dependent on our cultural construal of the world.  Therefore we will need different methods of investigation to arrive at knowledge of them, to prescind from our interpretations of them.

Both are things that really exist in the world, though. And we can have real knowledge about both kinds of things.  Our knowledge may be produced, always, for some culturally-determined reason, but that doesn’t mean the knowledge is wrong. That does mean, of course, that there is a danger that it may be wrong; we may be willing to deceive ourselves about the real essential nature of a thing if that deception is to our benefit. As Victorians were willing to misrepresent evolution to help justify the impoverishment of industrial workers, or drug companies are willing to misrepresent depression to help them sell profitable but ineffective medication.  This surely is something we need to be careful of. But we can’t begin to be careful of this potential source of error until we first STOP conflating Mi and Md kinds of things, and STOP believing that there can really be no such thing as objectively correct knowledge about things in the world.

This has always seemed obvious to me.  However, as a graduate student first in English and then in clinical psychology, I repeatedly found it impossible to make this point clear to most of the people I discussed it with.  So perhaps I won’t be able to do it here, either.

At any rate, it is an error I still see frequently repeated, with absurd consequences. Let me offer one concrete example which I came across recently, in the book Retrieving Reality by Dreyfus and Taylor.  Toward the end of the book, they discuss the matter of whether a thing actually has any kind of objective essence of its own, separate from what we think of it, and conclude that in order to save realism we will have to admit that it does not.  They use the example of gold.  We might think that it is in one sense objectively true of gold that its defining feature, what makes it gold, is that it is the element with the atomic weight of 79.  This, they think, is a mistake.  Because “any property of gold, even, for instance, where it was mined, could be picked out as essential by some culture” (151), and there is no objective way to decide such disagreements.  On their account of what they call “plural realism,” it might just be true that “the Egyptians might well have revealed properties of gold only accessible through their religious practices.”

The point here is that Taylor and Dreyfus will not maintain the distinction between Mi and Md , and so the only way they can find to save realism at all is to allow that it is perfectly likely that “all attempts fail to bring the different ways of interrogating reality into a single mode of questioning that yields as unified picture or theory (so they stay plural)”(154).

To me, this seems obviously absurd.  Let me state, as clearly as I am able, why.

It seems clear enough to me that this is a conflation of the ideological purpose for which we use gold, and the thing in itself as it exists outside of any ideological purpose.  There are certain things that gold can do because of its physical properties, and we may want to make use of different things it can do in different cultural practices. Maybe that fact that it does not tarnish or oxidize is important, or its tendency to turn purple when mixed with certain other elements. But none of these uses are essential to the gold itself.  We clearly can arrive at clear and correct scientific knowledge of what makes gold different from other kinds of matter, even though we may want this knowledge for a number of different ideological reasons.

Once we sort out the reason we want to know about gold from the nature of the gold, we realize we can in fact gain correct knowledge about both kinds of things: both what the gold is in itself, and how the culture we are engaged in operates.  But we need to maintain exactly the kind of rigid division Nietzsche thinks we must abandon.

I would suggest that Nietzsche is partly motivated by the troubling tendency to privilege the “fact” side of the equation over the “value” side.  By the idea, which is still common today, that we can get rid of “values” altogether and live completely in a realm of facts; that, in fact, those who do so are superior human beings.  This, of course, is another absurdity.  We cannot possibly exist in the world without some intention, and once we have an intention we have ideology.  Ideologies just are how we organize our collective behavior in order to continue to reproduce what we need to survive.  We may be able to do this in many ways—in that sense, there may be multiple, or plural, “realities”—but that doesn’t mean that the Mi reality in which we have to do this will alter as a result.

If we don’t stop making this fundamental error, we will continue to wind up in the dead end Nietzsche arrived at.  Here, again, is Geuss’s account of where Nietzsche winds up:

Life is seeing through illusions which we cannot then get rid of.  There is no stable point to this process of generation of illusion, seeing through illusion, attempted disillusionment, failure to detach oneself even from illusions one thinks one has seen through, generation of new and “improved” illusions, and so on.  To live is to participate in this process, to continue with it.  We are desperate to get out, to stop the wheel, but that is not possible in this life. (190)

This, then, is where we wind up if we fail to maintain the fact/value distinction.  We come to think we are hopelessly trapped in “illusion,” desperate to “get out” but resigned to our unpleasant fate.  But if we recognize that our “values,” our ideologies, are not illusions, then we don’t need to live in this kind of hopeless despair.  We can recognize that our ideologies are in fact produced by us, but that doesn’t make them “illusions,” and they aren’t things we need necessarily try to escape from—unless, of course, they are in fact making us miserable and we want to change them.

Nietzsche’s collapse of all things into one ontological category leads, always, to this kind of disempowerment.  The only thing that can save us, give us back some kind of agency, is to recognize that there are both Mi and Md kinds of things.   That only the latter are up to us. And that we can fully commit to and enjoy our ideological practices.  That, in fact, only ideological practices give us the collective power to make us of Mi reality in any way.  Illusions may be a trap, but ideologies are the source of our agency. To fail to make this distinction is the worst mistake we can make.

Yet, it seems to me, most philosophers… in fact most people…make exactly this error all the time.  It seems obvious to me.  But for some reason nobody has ever been able to explain to me, my position seems obviously wrong to everyone I’ve ever tried to discuss it with.  None of them ever have said why, though.  They just shrug and say something like “I don’t think so.” Okay, so, anybody: What am I missing, here?