by Carl Dyke

I’m in a reverie about categories and coherence, brought on by my cold, a hot humid day, and no doubt “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato;” my thoughts stimulated and given spectral form by Dave Mazella’s point about the troubles with ‘Enlightenment’ as a category in his comments on the last post, and the great multiblog discussion of Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World (in which categories like Continental and Analytical philosophy, idealism, realism and anti-realism are being worked over). My feverish brain made this connection:

“For Weber, and contrary to a whole millennium of Christianity, we must refuse to make sense of the whole world and take that meaninglessness on us as far as we can. The world, for Weber, can ultimately not cohere; the danger that confronts us is that we will constantly be tempted to want to make it cohere.” Tracy Strong, “Weber and Freud: Vocation and Self-acknowledgement,” in Max Weber and his Contemporaries, ed. Wolfgang J. Mommsen and Jurgen Osterhammel (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1987), 473.

To me this is a beautiful quote. Tracy’s right about Weber, and Weber is right. But what are the dangers of this desire for coherence? Why ought we to resist its tempations? Well, categories make procrustean beds on which we chop and whittle off the stuff that doesn’t fit.

Stop yer wiggling, this wont hurt a bit.

Stop yer wiggling, this won't hurt a bit.

Reasonable people may differ on the value of what’s lost, and when the category in question is something momentous like ‘the nation’, ‘the race’ or ‘the Volk’ the macropolitics of categorical inclusion and exclusion get pretty consequential. Even the micropolitics of more local categorizations (I like this better as a verb than a noun, a doing than a being) can get ugly. Of course if we’re just talking about ‘Analytic philosophy’ or ‘the Enlightenment’ as scholarly shorthands maybe not much is at stake, although it’s worth remembering that until recently it was easy to talk about the whole intellectual history of the European 18th century without noting its and its earlier historians’ categorical exclusion of women and various non-European Others.

Then again, no categories at all means nothing is anything in particular, which can be fatally inconvenient. I can quibble about the exact contents of the category ‘food’. My cats and I will agree on excluding bark at all times, but they will include dead voles under all circumstances while I will do so only under rare ones. Humans too are made of meat but this means different things to my kitties and me. In any event when we get hungry there’d better be something in that category around.

See, they ran low on meat at the cat food factory, and the cemetery was right there, so, yknow, badabing.

See, they ran low on meat at the cat food factory, and the cemetery was right there, so, y'know, badabing.

Oh so anyway, what was my point? Hmm, lost it. Something about intellectual flexibility and moderation, I expect.


16 Comments to “Eureka!”

  1. But what are the dangers of this desire for coherence? Why ought we to resist its tempations?

    Financial panics, for example. See Nassim Nicholas Taleb The Black Swan. Also George Soros, who in The Open Society remarks that every good deal comes with a good story. The successful investor’s trick is knowing when it stops being a good story.

  2. Good call, John. Times have gotten tougher, and sure enough our gods have become more capricious.

  3. This (rather Nietzschean) sentiment feels true, if only partially true, to me. John has brought out the connection between categories and storytelling, and I think this is a good way to think about it, especially from the historian’s perspective. The desire to tell a coherent story, one that runs from beginning to end, seems as useful to me intellectually as the desire to break it down or elaborate it or multiply alternatives, which is the aspect of the understanding process limned by Weber and Freud. My point about “Enlightenment,” for example, is that it seems out of place, premature when used to understand primary sources produced during the 18th century, but says a lot about how subsequent writers tried to understand the significance of that “period.” [to use another hard to define category]

    There is also the specificity of categories within particular domains: literary criticism, I’d argue, cannot do without a category like “genre,” but it’s surprisingly difficult for other disciplines to see the usefulness of such a category for their own purposes (cf. Mark Salber Phillips on the genres of historiography, and the professional resistance to such meta-historiography). But as long as we recognize the socially-constructed, historically contingent nature of categories like “the novel,” which provide tacit “instructions for use” to would-be readers, than I think we can use it to talk about individual cases without lopping off limbs, Procrustes-style. It just becomes more grist for the generic mill: why should or shouldn’t we consider Tristram Shandy a typical novel? etc. etc.


  4. Responding to Dave’s remarks about “genre,” allow me to recommend a somewhat esoteric book, Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics: Omen of the World by Stephen Owen. In it Owen develops the idea that every genre presupposes its own art of readership. He observes that, while English romantic poetry invites the reader to read throughthe poem to some truth envisioned as lying behind it, Tang lyric assumes a reader for whom what the poet is saying is visible on the surface, because that reader, a classically educated Mandarin, knows precisely the allusions that the poet evokes. He will, for example, bring to a lyric by Du Fu describing the poet’s reaction to the reflection of the moon in the water as his boat passes a certain bend in the Yellow River precise geographical knowledge of where that bend is. He will also know that Du Fu is fleeing the sack of Chang-an by the rebel An Lu-shan, which gives what might otherwise seem a trite allusion to the evanescence of things a special and pointed significance.

  5. Dave and John, I feel very comfortable with this idea of narratives, categories, genres, periods as conventions elaborated and deployed for particular purposes by particular communities. I agree that “every genre presupposes its own art of readership,” but do they all “provide tacit ‘instructions for use’ to would-be readers” in the same way? If Tang lyric assumes a Mandarin reader, it also assumes a lengthy process of specialized education and a whole social structure that frees it of any embedded pedagogical apparatus and therefore allows it an exquisite refinement. In contrast, the philosophes sought to build the elaboration of a new conceptual universe into their work and as a result their stuff can read like blows to the head.

  6. Carl,

    When you mentioned philosophic “blows to the head,” I assume you’re referring to Kant’s so-called “style.”

    I’d say that genre mediates expectations for potential readers/audiences, but that the exact contours of that group’s boundaries, and how its expectations are communicated/defined within a comunity, will depend on a number of factors. Print dissemination obviously affects the extent to which audiences can be predefined by writers, and we haven’t even talked about how rhetorical or performance practices affect face to face communications.

    But I do think that the social conventions you describe have to affect our view of the radical particularism endorsed by Strong: if we decide that everything is its own species, how do we communicate that insight in a language intelligible to others? So how does the particular get squared with your view of the communal uses of the conventional?

  7. Dave, this looks like a great question, along the lines of Wittgenstein’s ‘private language’ problem, but I’m not quite tracking why you think Strong is endorsing a radical particularism. Just as a general gesture, what I think is that local coherences from cellular functions to literary genres are constructed, negotiated, adopted, enforced etc. out of a whole series of relations; and although there are some characteristic ways that tends to happen, the details must always be discovered case by case. These are particular in their participants and conventions, but may or may not be radically so depending on how open to further relationality they are.

  8. Actually, the Wittgenstein notion that is most helpful here is the one of “boundaries for a purpose.” And, hell, I’ll throw in language games, too, while I’m at it. Carl, you got close to it on the question of bark and food; one might similarly consider whether cows are sacred or food.

    What “we” need to do, perhaps, is acknowledge that we must use boundaries/categories/words to communicate at all, while at least occasionally questioning the categories and what we (think we) know about them.

  9. Carl, when I reread your original post and comments, I realized that I’ve been aligning the categorical with the general, and opposing it to the local and the particular, but you’re right to suggest that without background categories it seems hard to identify particulars in the foreground. I think I was trying to make a similar point myself, but Narya’s Wittgenstein quote does it far more elegantly, with the formulation of “boundaries for a purpose,” the forms of language that allow us both to use certain kinds of language for the purposes of communication, but also question their precise boundaries. Your notion of local coherences that may (or may not) open out to further relationality also seems right to me. I don’t know the Strong text or the larger argument he’s trying to make, but it seems difficult to square the Weberean “refusal of coherence” with the Wittgensteinian notion of “boundaries” described by Narya. One scenario seems to leave out the communicative dimension that the other stresses. Or am I missing something?

  10. without background categories it seems hard to identify particulars in the foreground

    That said, isn’t the thrust of, for example, Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self or Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things a warning that those background categories are subject to change?

  11. Thanks Narya, that’s right on.

    Dave, I read Weber as the kind of modern who fed directly into the postmodern. For him the failure of coherence was something of an existential crisis rather than the occasion for irony and play it later became. On the one hand he was deeply steeped and emotionally invested in the old metanarratives of reason, virtue and nation; on the other hand he saw clearly how local, contingent and arbitrary those constructs are. What I like about Weber and his generation is that they stare full into that abyss and still think it’s worth trying to pull some stuff together, trying to reconstruct a sense of the good from scratch. That’s where the communication comes back in, as we pragmatically negotiate our categories and boundaries to find ways of living together that we can value. In fact, as it turns out this is what we’ve been doing all along, as John’s references show.

  12. At one point, I wrote a long paper comparing Wittgenstein & Weber in terms of the usefulness of either for doing social science. (It was a kind of prelude to my dissertation, actually.) Where Weber kind of (. . . fails is kind of strong, but we’ll go with lower-case) fails is that he wants to cling to Objectivity, because he can’t see a way around that and still have something strong enough to which he can cling, which is what Carl is alluding to, I think. LW, on the other hand, took that project to its logical conclusions, and then recognized that it was a flawed–and unnecessary–project.

  13. Narya, I think Weber’s gotten a bum rap on that, as has Durkheim. We keep back-reading them through the lens of positivism, but they were much more a part of the overcoming of it. Both had strong roots in Kant so knew better than to have any sort of strong Objectivity programme to start with. The question for them is not how to get Truth, but how to construct reliable knowledge. That’s still the question… anyway, totally agree that Wittgenstein is the welcome omega for positivism.

  14. Narya, what do you mean by “cling to Objectivity”? And why is this a failure?

  15. Carl, I like the idea of “pragmatic negotiation” as a form of communication, but I’m curious about which works of Weber’s you’d cite for this: e.g., “Science as a Vocation”? The caveat that I would add is that though Weber is highly conscious of the scholarly duty to maintain the standards that allow scholars to communicate with one another, I’m not sure he’s committed to any wider dissemination of one’s findings, or entry of scholars into broader conflicts, e.g., “Politics as a Vocation.” I completely agree about his commitment to some form of scholarly neo-stoicism, though.

  16. No you’re right, Dave, he was actively opposed to scholars as such entering broader conflicts (dissemination of findings was fine and he did loads of that), because in doing so they had to become partisans for values that come prior to conventional methodological consensus, and in doing so threatened the general value of their scholarly output. If you don’t value knowledge that’s demonstrably reliable on non-dogmatic grounds then I suppose he would say good luck with that.

    It’s worth remembering, though, that his own career included both scholarship and political work. He just didn’t think you could do both at once, because politics skew scholarship. Nowadays a lot of people would agree on the grounds that there are always politics, so scholarship is always skewed. Philosophically this is a more wittgensteiny position. I think Weber’s response would be something like, of course that’s the case, which is why scholars need a rigorous ethic and robust peer networks. There are no guarantees, but there’s also in principle no reason we can’t do ‘better’ with that rather than ‘worse’.

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