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