Monday, April 26, 2010

Event: After Capitalism? [Updated with reactions]

This Thursday, 29 April, 2010; Salle 422, 2910 Boul. Édouard-Montpetit
  • 13 h - 14 h Pierre-Yves Néron, CRÉUM : Public Capitalism
  • 14 h - 15 h Pablo Gilabert, Concordia University : Socialism
  • 15 h - 15 h 15 : Pause café
  • 15 h 15 - 16 h 30 David Casassas, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona : Property-owning Democracy
Info here. Poster here.


A really nice event. About 20 lightyears from my way of approaching political philosophical problems, though. Whatever -- it's normative political theory. I don't do normative political theory. But it was also -- except, perhaps, for some of Casassas' paper -- ideal political theory. And I just can't get my head to go into that space at all. For me, political theory always departs from some very robust sense of the presently given human condition, and, because of this, I can never make heads nor tails of the leap to talking about a just society in abstraction from the concrete situation.

For example: Does the just society have neighbors? Does it have borders? If so, do these facts have any impact on what it means to be a just society? A just society has citizens; does it also have non-citizen residents? Does a just society engage in foreign trade, or does it produce all it needs? Either way, what does a just society produce? What does it need? Do trade relations or production relations ahve any impact on what it means to be a just society? Are its neighbors friendly or hostile? Does this matter for justice? Does a just society have a history? Is this history a history of justice? Does this history have any impact on the institutions of the basic structure? I just don't know how to bracket these questions in order to consider a just social order "in itself."

(Hell, even Plato didn't bracket these questions; the consideration that really gets the construction of the city in speech undrway in the Republic is the consideration that the city will be one of many, will have neighbors, and must be prepared to defend itself against them.)

Anyway, a very nice event anyway...

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Two links

I'd like to say more about both of these at some point, but...


the entire run of Cahiers pour l'Analyse, the locus classicus of '60s poststructuralism, is now on-line.

Friday, April 23, 2010

"Accelerate the Contradictions": Notes Towards a History

A correspondent asked me about the origin and history of the phrase "accelerate the contradictions." Here's what I managed to dig up:

It is one of the less common of several variant phrases: "heighten (or sharpen, or develop) the contradictions"; "accelerate (or heighten, or develop) the crisis"; etc. (I chose it because I like how it sounds.)

The earliest use of any of these variants that I know of is by Marx in his "1844 manuscripts." Discussing the development of English political economy after Adam Smith, Marx writes:
It is therefore another great achievement of modern English political economy to have declared rent of land to be the difference in the interest yielded by the worst and the best land under cultivation; to have [exposed] the landowner's romantic illusions – his alleged social importance and the identity of his interest with the interest of society, a view still maintained by Adam Smith after the Physiocrats; and to [have] anticipated and prepared the movement of the real world which will transform the landowner into an ordinary, prosaic capitalist, and thus simplify and sharpen the contradiction [between capital and labour] and hasten its resolution. Land as land, and rent as rent, have lost their distinction of rank and become insignificant capital and interest – or rather, capital and interest that signify only money.
There is also a passage in Hegel's Logic (paragraph 961) that clearly has all of the elements:
Intelligent reflection, to mention this here, consists, on the contrary, in grasping and asserting contradiction. Even though it does not express the Notion of things and their relationships and has for its material and content only the determinations of ordinary thinking, it does bring these into a relation that contains their contradiction and allows their Notion to show or shine through the contradiction. Thinking reason, however, sharpens, so to say, the blunt difference of diverse terms, the mere manifoldness of pictorial thinking, into essential difference, into opposition. Only when the manifold terms have been driven to the point of contradiction to they become active and lively towards one another, receiving in contradiction the negativity which is the indwelling pulsation of self-movement and spontaneous activity.
Neither of these texts, however, employ the phrase in the sense it came to have in 20th century Marxism -- promoting revolution by making the current state of things more intolerable. Rosa Luxemburg comes closer in Reform or Revolution (1900):
In other words, when evaluated from the angle of their final effect on capitalist economy, cartels and trusts fail as “means of adaptation.” They fail to attenuate the contradictions of capitalism. On the contrary, they appear to be an instrument of greater anarchy. They encourage the further development of the internal contradictions of capitalism. They accelerate the coming of a general decline of capitalism.
As had August Bebel before her in Woman and Socialism (1879):
Since one industry furnishes the raw material to another and one depends upon the other, the ills that befall one must affect the others. The circle of those affected widens. Many obligations that had been entered upon in the hope of prolonged favorable conditions cannot be met, and heighten the crisis that grows worse from month to month.
But these texts don't suggest accelerating or heightening contradictions as a revolutionary strategy, but only as part of the process of capitalist development.

Lenin comes closer, in "The Heritage We Renounce" (1897):
The enlightener believes in the present course of social development, because he fails to observe its inherent contradictions. The Narodnik fears the present course of social development, because he is already aware of these contradictions. The “disciple” [of dialectical materialism] believes in the present course of social development, because he sees the only earnest hope of a better future in the full development of these contradictions. The first and last trends therefore strive to support, accelerate, facilitate development along the present path, to remove all obstacles which hamper this development and retard it.
So maybe the folk wisdom that attributes the strategy of accelerating the contradictions to Leninism is more or less correct!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Philosophy among the humanities

I usually try to avoid commenting on these sorts of things, but I'm feeling surly this morning...

Jason Stanley, a philosopher at Rutgers, has an article in Inside Higher Ed bemoaning the fact that philosophy is alienated from the rest of the humanities. This is a distillation of various complaints Stanley has aired in recent years on Brian Leiter's blog (which writings can be perused here). He forwards three bits of evidence for this sorry state of affairs:
  1. Philosophers don't win the big prizes in the humanities -- MacArthur grants, Guggenheim fellowships, ACLS New Faculty fellowships -- at the same rate as historians and other humanists. (The numbers with which he backs this up are questionable.)
  2. "Most American humanists are unclear about how the debates of philosophers are supposed to fit into the overall project of the humanities. We are ignored at dinner parties, and considered arrogant and perhaps uncouth." (I'm not sure why Mr. Stanley's unpopularity at dinner parties is an interesting topic for IHE.)
  3. "To add insult to injury, the name of our profession is liberally bestowed on those teaching in completely different departments." (By which he means, horror of horrors, that "Many academics use the term "philosopher" not as a description of the people working on the set of problems that occupy our time [i.e., the time of academic philosophers like Mr. Stanley], but rather as a certain kind of honorific [for anyone] who constructs some kind of admirable general theory about a discipline.")
As is clear from these rather odd complaints, the title of Stanley's piece ("The Crisis of Philosophy") is misleading. The crisis of philosophy is not a crisis in philosophy. Professional philosophy in the Anglo-American world is doing just great, thank you very much. The crisis of philosophy is rather a crisis in the humanities. As Stanley makes clear by his insistence that Nietzsche and Zizek are the outside of a line of continuity running from Aristotle through Spinoza and Kant and up to Saul Kripke and David Lewis, and his further contention that the six MacArthur fellows in philosophy (Rorty, Scanlon, Cavell, P. Churchland, Kolakowski, and Shklar -- he ignores the six philosophers who have won MacArthurs under other headings [Vlastos, Cartwright, Kristeller, Fox Keller, Hawkins, and Moses]) are "an odd group," the real complaint is that humanists don't pay attention to or honor the sort of philosophy that Stanley considers central to the profession.

That may be. But I think it is weird for Stanley to complain about it, or to think that this is a defect in the humanities. Does the work of Lewis or Kripke or Frege have any relevance for your average humanist? As Stanley admits elsewhere, the philosophers he knows tend not to be humanists themselves, or to have "wisdom and insight about the human condition." He explicitly includes moral philosophers in this judgment. As he writes:
It's clear to me why (say) someone working in metaphysics is not likely to have more insight into the human condition than the average mortal. It's because many people working in metaphysics are captured principally by the problem of working out the consistencies of an abstract problem space with only dubious connections to how we live our lives. Moral philosophers tend as a whole to be exactly the same as metaphysicians, except they have chosen a somewhat different problem space to explore the logical relations between theses.
What is there for a humanist to take interest in here? Why should the logical relations among theses in a problem space be of any concern to a historian, anthropologist, or student of literature?

My own feeling is that the way in which many philosophers -- and, in particular, your run-of-the-mill, mainstream, analytic philosophers -- pose their problems and lay out the theses to be examined is utterly disconnected from anything that is a recognizable part of my day to day life. The problems defined by previous generations of (mainstream academic) philosophers have spawned partial solutions which have given rise to sub-problems which have been formalized in various ways and this continuous process has resulted in a rather arid and extremely technical set of "problem spaces" that do not seem to an outsider to hold any potential for yielding "wisdom and insight about the human condition." Now I don't necessarily have a problem with that; taking anything seriously for very long is bound to give rise to technical and obscure issues. But it is truly bizarre to complain that humanists don't appreciate the inner workings of professionalized philosophy.

Less bizarre but more problematic is Stanley's penchant for speaking on behalf of "we" philosophers. (Leiter does this all the time, too.) On the one hand, Stanley wants to insist that mainstream analytic philosophy is absolutely open and diverse because, for example, it "clearly does not place any limits upon the conclusions that can be defended in its journals." On the other hand, this very formulation maintains the substantive notion that philosophy is all about a neutral and universal methodology (a set of logical and argumentative tools) that is merely applied to different ends. I look at the history of philosophy, and at the current crop of professional academic philosophers, and I don't see a "we." I see a host of fundamental disagreements, not so much about conclusions as about what sort of activity philosophy is in the first place. Aristotle and Hobbes did not agree about a neutral methodology while disagreeing about conclusions. Same goes for Heidegger and Lewis. That's what I like about philosophy -- nothing can be taken for granted, it's open conflict on all possible fronts, including meta-fronts and meta-meta-fronts.

In other posts, Stanley is much more open to these sorts of issues. What he seems consistently to elide is the difference between philosophy as a profession -- as an academic specialization or "discipline" -- and philosophy as this possibility of open conflict on all fronts. Despite his claim, philosophy is not the oldest discipline, because it is not a discipline at all. Philosophy has only very intermittently been captured by the academy. It happened for a while in Medieval Europe. It happened for a while in Enlightenment Germany. It has been the rule during the 20th century. There is no reason to expect that it will remain the rule for very long.

Stanley and Leiter systematically confuse the academic profession of philosophy (within which they, unlike me, occupy elite positions within the mainstream) with philosophy as such (within which they are, like me, just johnny-come-lately epigones and amateurs). When they say "we philosophers" they are speaking as elite academic professionals but think they are speaking as philosophers as such. And when Stanley complains about humanists lack of concern for the former, he has no one to blame but himself.