History, theory and pragmatism

by CarlD

I just figured out what’s bothering me about the new philosophy. As an intellectual and cultural historian I’ve run across lots of different ways of thinking about things. My job is to make sense of these ‘objects’ or ‘assemblages’, not just in terms of their internal logic but as coherent expressions of and participants in contexts. You can probably be many good things without taking context seriously; historian is not one of them.

Accordingly, the truth of claims, beliefs, theories, philosophies and so on is not my primary objective. People in context always like the truthiness of their ideas; out of context, not so much. Once I got properly disciplined, (mostly) stopped chasing neat thought-butterflies like a puppy and started seeing ideas as assembled objects operating within and dependent upon larger context assemblages, truth (or value, to shift frame a little) in the larger sense became a nonsensical question. I’ve said these things various times before.

Far be it from me to exclude the possibility of a universal, contextless truth. One may be just around the corner, or just discovered two blogs over, or there already in the Bible, Qu’ran, Gita, Large Hadron Collider. The standards for identifying it as such would also need to be universal and contextless, of course. History would have to end. I’d be ok with that; history is confusing.

Yeah, I’m simpleminded, I may need some reeducation, but in the meantime since I’m not buying the big truth claims what I want to know about any given way of thinking is what it’s for more locally: what work it gets done, in what context. Pragmatic questions.

Among the various things ideas may be for, what they’re nearly always for is constituting discourse communities, conversations and like minds. For ideas in the present, then, that I don’t have a professional obligation to backtrack through all their assembled agendas and contexts, the questions for me are first: whether they’re getting anything done I see a need to get done; and second, whether I find the conversation and/or conversants compelling. In the case of the new philosophy I’m solid on the latter, which is why I’ve been engaging with it. But I’m really shaky on the former, which is why I keep feeling so dissatisfied. What the hell is this stuff for?

UPDATE: Find an enlightening response from Larval Subjects here. As I had hoped, the effort is thoughtfully targeted and it is indeed work that needs doing.

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8 Comments to “History, theory and pragmatism”

  1. Wow. Is “truthiness” gaining currency as a legitimate academic term? Insert emoticon “wink”.

  2. Oh yeah. No lesser authority than Stephen Colbert says so, and who am I to refuse a perch on the shoulders of such a giant?

  3. Carl: “Among the various things ideas may be for, what they’re nearly always for is constituting discourse communities, conversations and like minds. For ideas in the present, then, that I don’t have a professional obligation to backtrack through all their assembled agendas and contexts, the questions for me are first: whether they’re getting anything done I see a need to get done; and second, whether I find the conversation and/or conversants compelling. In the case of the new philosophy I’m solid on the latter, which is why I’ve been engaging with it. But I’m really shaky on the former, which is why I keep feeling so dissatisfied. What the hell is this stuff for?”

    Kvond: I find this one of the most honest engagements with a new philosophy and its adherents that I have encountered. Much appreciated.

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/

  4. Kvond, you’re too kind. I’ve enjoyed your commentary on other blogs and hope you’ll visit here often. And thanks for the link to your place.

  5. Btw Kvond, I thought you, like Mikhail, made a number of excellent points at Larval Subjects about how philosophy as a conversation with its history should work, and your observation that a theory based on distinctions should be prepared to make them was coherent and appropriate. That said, one of the things I admire about LS is that he has figured out who he’s talking to, and he doesn’t allow himself to be sidetracked more than so much from that conversation. I think that’s an instance of productive reduction and while there’s certainly an easy point to be scored there given the way his philosophical gestures seem to forbid that move, in a more practical sense I see the strategic value of focus.

  6. Carl,

    I certainly see that in the development of a theory there are needed and respectable questions of thresholds, horizons to be made of inside and outside. This does not mean that readers of a theory should automatically follow these imposed restrictions when seeking to learn the value of that philosophy is for themselves. That is, if someone is merely speaking to a pre-defined audience, and you are not one of them (unqualified by any number of measures) it does not mean that you should reamain silent, or fail to lift criticism. If for no other reason, when those who are not part of the pre-formed audience of a thinker begin to think themselves, and engage assertions, others too, who are not of “that audience” (many of them silent readers) also gain something, anchor points for their own connection and creative possibilities for that thought. In other words, a thinker does not always know the value of their thought.

  7. Kvond, I agree with all of this, including the nicely deconstructive point at the end. But I’m much less committed to the project of using words as strategies of stabilization and control than are most philosophers. It seems to me that Larval’s effort is really quite a stretch, because he’s adapting / translating / retrofitting an approach to the world and knowledge of it that is really quite anti-philosophical, in just this sense of foregoing the kinds of always-premature conceptual closure that yield certainty in favor of a more open, plural, dynamic and fundamentally investigatory praxis.

    Good for him, I say, and for us. He’s already dramatically more interesting to talk with. But because he’s stretching, he’s momentarily out of balance and not in a good posture to react to conceptual project(ile)s from odd trajectories.

  8. Carl,

    I like this diagnosis very much.

    I suppose what is troubling is that this is very much the same kind of projective growth of thought that I engage in, attempting to synthesize as many position (antequarian and otherwise) as possible. The similiarity of our projects (at least in terms of Becoming), does not lead to positive communication in most instances. I could be though as simple a thing as, I am not a professional philosopher, that is, I do not earn my bread through the authority of my views, nor by my implicit authority views to others who have to learn from me. In a sense, this position of the professional philosopher is often it seems a debilitating one, an undue pressure to be correct and justified in all that you say about philosophy. This works at tremendous tension with the desire to be genuinely creative, to be what Graham calls “the intellectual gambler”. I could be all wrong about this, and internet thought processes (not just discussions, but fingertip access to detailed summations of argumed positions and a great variety of texts) are making way for the para-academic pursuit of philosophy. Perhaps so. In any case, these borders are yet to be worked out.

    All the same, thanks for the reasoned interpretation.

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