Sunday, March 20, 2005

Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

Read this book. It's one of the best intellectual histories I've ever read. I put it up there with Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being, I. F. Stone's The Trial of Socrates, and Carl Schorske's Fin-de-Siecle Vienna -- all very different books, but all worth reading.

Menand's book is a quadripartite biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Pierce, John Dewey, and William James. Actually, there's a fifth "pragmatist" biography treated here (a term that gets 440 pages of close scrutiny) -- that of the nation itself, as viewed through the intertwined lives of these four men (and a dozen or so other major characters).

What I know about nineteenth-century evolutionary theory, which obviously plays a large role here, is reported with complete fidelity and accuracy -- Menand knows his stuff in this little field that I know something about; hence, I trust his other conclusions on territory on which I don't have a firm footing. (That is the essence of the social basis for epistemological validity in action -- we all do it, but that we need not enter either the relativist whirlwind or the absolutist ice garden to have a more complicated, dynamic, situational theory of knowledge or of good government is our main debt to American Pragmatism. All we need to do is to give up our belief in idealized absolutes, and to realize, fully, as these men (except Pierce) seemed to do, that just because human ideas change over time and space -- the necessary outcome of human non-omniscience -- doesn't mean that the Word is the only reality of which we can be sure (postmodernism is philosophical absolutism by other means, always ignorning the boomerang effect of thorough-going -- that is, honest -- skepticism) or that any of the other associated solipsisms-masquerading-as-philosophies are worth much more than a glance. Those relativist/absolutist (which are they, actually? -- think on it!) notions play directly into the hands of the power elite, which has no problem with "reality" as such since they own and control it.)

We can consider ourselves separated from "the World" -- as long as we insist on clinging to Judeo-Christian views of the "human exceptionalism" (sound familiar?) -- as not some Cartesian mandate, but the necessary outcome of an obvious biological reality: organisms exist, live, and die; they concatenate into "cultures" or "societies" the precursors (or, more accurately, the "diversity of examples of which") we can clearly see in other animal species without falling into lazy, culturally attractive views of biological determinism. It just doesn't follow.

We can be forever limited (as individuals, perhaps as a species) in what we can know -- though we don't know the particular boundaries in advance all the time -- without therefore being unable to know anything with any degree of certainty. We must be happy with probabilistic knowledge; that's all we've got. This is why fundamentalism is so universally attractive and will never go away (without some world-level educational reform -- and even then!): they offer certainty. We do not.

We are organisms -- nothing special there -- and we exist in relation to other organisms and to the abiotic (though biotically altered) environment, and also in relation to the sociocultural environment our particular type of organism has created, contingently, over time. There are probably an infinite number (for all practial purposes) of infinitely (ditto) intepenetrating feedback loops among individual human organisms; their idiosyncratic developmental history (biologically understood); their evolutionary heritage; their education and social development; and the larger biotic, abiotic, and sociocultural contexts in which human life occurs.

Basically, there is no base. There are only complex feedback loops that need to be disentagled, if only slightly -- or cut Gordian-style; it depends on the specific case -- every so often. Al Qaida, "the base," vastly simplifies this view of life described above: all you need is a text and total submission to the text. That is the enemy, whether coming from Bin Laden, or John Aschcroft, or the Hindu Nationalist Party in India, to name three manifestations of the same anti-modern reaction we're currently enjoying so.

In any event, evolutionary reality does not lead in any logical or necessary way to socially sanctioned morality -- that's a form of the famous naturalistic fallacy. But it does throw a frame down on our free will. We have constrained, but not nonexistent, free will. We have some latitude in our choices, and the choices of humanity have been amazingly varied (this is the value of history; it's a kind of mental travel, with the same broadening effect, ideally). We have an imperfect language-ability and -corpus that, for obvious evolutionary reasons, had better correspond to such realities as "predators," or we wouldn't be here.

No, words do not map so easily to things, but they do map in more loose fashion, "corrupted" (if that's the word, and I do believe this word captures the distaste -- the philosopher's distaste -- for non-absolutes that underlies much of postmodernism) by the following facts:

>that people are not omniscient;
>that people have "interests" -- rational or not;
>that people, as another said, surely do make their own history (or language) but not in circumstances of their own choosing.

This is what Foucault left out, if I understood The Order of Things. (Question: why make your writing so impenetrable? Voltaire said totally radical things in clear language. Foucault reportedly returned to clear French prose in his later years, as he returned to the Greeks -- I haven't read this stuff, so I can't comment directly.)

Now as a kind of one-way, politically motivated (and I'm usually sympathetic to the politics, but not always) flinging of skeptical acid in the face of the powers that be, postmodernism has been salutary. We always need arch-skeptics; we need our Diogenes-es to tell our Alexanders to get the hell out of their sun. However, no political movement to spread democracy that I know of has ever been based on a relativist view of morality...or, arguably, even on a probabilistic view of reality, to complicate my own viewpoint here expressed.

So, perhaps Lakoff (still unread) presents a way in which liberals, for lack of a better term, who tend to be a bit more fluid and flexible in their thought-styles and -processes, can mimic the absolutist language of the Right -- undoubtedly effective -- without giving up their probabilistic soul.

However, again, if my intuition is correct about Lakoff (and it might be way off, and, yes, I'll read the book), then my objection is Orwellian. The relationship between thought and words is not unidirectional; certain words constrain thought (yes, this is taken up by many postmodernists, and it's a good point, if not "original" -- which last "argument" postmodernism has taught us, rightly, is no good argument against postmodernism, or any other thing or idea: intertexuality is a real, and expected, feature of human thought), others potentiate it, and the reigning discourse tends to close off real-life options for many groups of people. That's why the discourse matters, because of its real-world effects when word is transformed into deed. Deeds matter, ultimately, more than words, whatever role words have in creating deeds (and it's no doubt a large one).

The danger, however, lies in becoming prisoners of Lakoff's proscribed anti-Republican frames, of reifying what should be situationally determined political language-tactics. Also, does Lakoff realize that he exists in a dynamic -- dare I say, dialectic? Surely, Luntz, et al, will retaliate, and I fear an ever-abstracting, ever-marketed "Battle of the Books" (or, more accurately, of "Slogans" -- indicative of our Marketing Age) occurring -- i.e., "language games" -- that divert necessary attention away from fighting the very kind of sloganeering and dumbing-down that is at the bottom of all our problems.

Yes, all -- education (of all kinds), elections, and issues of war and peace. That's why I'm quite interested in H.G. Frankfurt's On Bullshit -- that's the great cultural problem of our time. It's what allows smart, though ignorant, people to buy into Saddam's always quite carefully crafted "involvement" in 9/11. And the subsequent Iraq war, justified by an ever-abstracting series of "reasons" that (I assume) unwittingly replicate the kind of legalistic language games Clinton was backed into over Lewinsky ("It depends on what 'is' means...") that brought the Right to a foaming fury. They are peculiarly silent on the evolution from "weapons of mass destruction" to "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities" upon which they should be coming down as hard, if not harder, as they did on the infamous confusion over the verb "to be" by a smart man trying to avoid a right-wing coup based on exposing an illicit affair.

Bullshit, properly understood as neither lying nor telling the truth, is also what allows the completely cynical and dangerous notion that an external threat can only be fought by ending the American experiment here at home. As despots have ever believed. Frankfurt's fear of bullshit reminds me of that classic line from Lawrence of Arabia by Dryden, to Lawrence, after the latter finally realizes that he's been duping his Arab friends all along (right up to the Sykes-Picot agreement): [paraphrase] "Now, let's not have any displays of indignation. You knew, or at least half-knew. A man like me, who lies, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies [i.e., bullshits] has forgotten where he put it." That is a great and critical distinction that must be maintained for any hope of a future for our civilization (or, for a civilization) to be realized.

Truth exists, if only in a messy, non-idealized sense. If that's the introduction of a kind of metaphysics to the discussion, so be it. We have nonmetaphysical reasons (evolutionary, properly understood) for believing that we have been shaped to have at least partial access to the truth of mundane things, such as saber-toothed cats running towards us, from which we abstract more inferential knowledge of what lies unseen, what lies beyond our direct sensory powers. That's what modern science is all about: a move away from the "intuitive," recognized as an anthropomorphic bias, and the "absolute," recognized as a childish religious holdover, and a move toward observationally or experimentally determined data, often counterintuitive and unseen in mundane life, and a move toward the probabilistic nature of knowledge.

In any event, I, for one, don't want to add to the sum total of American bullshit. If (and note that all my comments on Lakoff are in the conditional mood -- I have not yet read him) Lakoff's no doubt well-meant application of his brand of cognitive linguistics to current politics ends up being a well-meaning suggestion that we, liberal/progressive/Democrats, add to the sum total of bullshit -- or even operate in that mode -- then it's ultimately self-defeating.

Example: When Kerry beat around the bush (pun intended) about the Iraq war, he played perfectly into the hands of the GOP, who portrayed him as indecisive and slippery. Kerry should have come back, hard, with a lesson in reality for the nation: things are complex. Knee-jerk reactions, especially those based on rigid ideological theories or on fundamentalist religion, are exceedingly dangerous and wrong-headed. I realized that he tried, and media/government collusion (all too obvious now, post-VNRs) accounts for much of the failure for him to get his message out. Not to mention the almost certain fact that 2004 was stolen, as was 2000. In any event, I think people could have understood that, had the message gotten out; it's a truism of every-day life.

That the message didn't get out (or out enough to counteract widespread voting fraud) is not a weakness of the message. It is rather the very point of not kowtowing to the Bullshit Machine. That machine is what defeated Kerry -- note that even in the ridiculous confines of the "debates," Kerry gained 10 points on Bush (depending on what polls you believe) simply for stating the truth as plainly as possible. Dean raised $50m dollars in small donations because he did not dumb down or use market-speak with his audience. I realize he's a big fan of Lakoff -- a wise move to look into Lakoff if you're DNC chair -- and if Dean's reuse of Lakoff, whether true to the source or not, yields the holy grail of reversing the false consciousness of much of White America, then yippie-do. I'll take it.

The GOP is eminently beatable, but they require a candidate with courage to beat them, as the most damaging "frame" the GOP has created for "liberals/Democrats/progressives" is that they're, basically, "gay" -- not real men. Courage doesn't have to be bullying; it's the opposite of bullying, which is all Bush offers. Bush actually strikes me as terribly afraid of everything, like most bullies. Courage comes from within, and can't be packaged or created or massaged. You can't fool all of the people all of the time.

"The people," by the way, who often get bandied about on this and other well-meaning blogs "as though we own them," to quote Citizen Kane, aren't nearly as stupid as upper-middle-class, Ivy-League-educated bloggers such as ourselves would sometimes like to think. They are simply, and purposely, kept ignorant. The answer to curing ignorance is not duping them with anti-GOP marketing slogans (that's politics-as-usual, in all places and all times, I should think), but rather by appealing to their sense of reason and common sense, as it seems Robert Reich is attempting to do, and as Thomas Paine did so well in the Revolutionary period.

I fear that Cooper, from the left, has found a true weakness in Lakoff -- or at least in Lakoff's ideas' celebrity-riven redeployment that's currently occuring: it's essentially top-down elitist. It smacks of class-patronization. It reminds me of the famous cartoon that appeared in Punch, the English Victorian satirical journal, after the Origin was published. An upper-class woman says (I'm paraphrasing), "Well, that's quite interesting and no doubt true, but for God's sake don't let the lower classes hear of it!" That whiff of noblesse oblige (or philosophe oblige) will be quite obvious to our audience, who aren't idiots. That, ironically, is bad marketing.

I would prefer to fight against sloganeering or word-engineering and get out and simply tell the truth, as we see it. Let's face it, the New Testament, and REALITY, are on our side. The GOP has to play (ironically) postmodern wordsmith/arch-marketer to sell snake oil. We don't.

Here's a good example of the type of marketing we should have. Yes, I realized it's as studied as any other campaign, but look at the effects and intuit the respect for its audience. Have you seen that ad for a new vacuum cleaner? The guy, who may be an actor, but sure seems like the actual inventor, states, in calm (and, yes, authoritatively British-English) tones what was wrong with every-day vacuums, and then what he did about it. Now, he says, he's got a better vacuum cleaner. Subtext: are you rationially convinced to find out more? Call this number and find out. More power to him; and note how he doesn't ally vacuuming to either gender-difference fantasies, sexual gratification, or any of the other awful tropes peddled and reified by Madison Avenue. Sure, "anti-ads" may be yet another marketing scheme, but not all marketing schemes are equal, espeically in how they treat their audiences.

Now, I don't mind, and I've even encouraged, wrapping our core beliefs in democracy and separation of powers in a New Testament "shell program" -- again, historically, no successful reform movement has occurred without pietistic roots (not just words; roots in the real social-relational world). However, returning to a tactic that has worked in the past -- that has proven legs -- is a far cry from removing our terrible problems and challenges from the unfortunately iron-clad, and thus quite resistant to reshaping, World of Things (and their relative ownership) to the ever-flexible World of Words. I don't want to see Dean's wave break on the shoals of language games. (Why do you think the Republicans decry "postmodernism" from the right? -- it's a guilty move; they actually DO what they accuse (sometimes rightly) postmodernists of doing, playing "language games" and corroding the value of Truth...another example of their mastery of "the bigger the lie"/Goebbels theory of government.)

Anyway, my initial issues with Lakoff may only be a revelation of my own intellectual biases; we shall see when I finally get to Moral Politics. Till then, maybe my larger points can form the basis of some reaction from those who have read this book. Feel free to set me straight. :)

4 Thoughts:

Blogger pawlr said...

Never has a writer written so eloquently and in depth about a writer (Lakoff) whose works he hasn't read .. ha ha - finally read this post; I was scared of it before.

Nice one.. I think once you get to Moral Politics, your Orwellian concerns about Lakoff are a little overdramatic.. Lakoff for me is just basic rhetoric. He's basically advocating nothing more dramatic than the following example. Say you tell me that "you don't eat meat because you're concerned about your health," and I replied that "if you're that concerned about your health, you should look into eating red meat because your body evolved to include meat as part of its diet". Whether or not my reply is true or false (that's another discussion) I would be making an appeal to a foundational goal of yours (good health) in order to change your behavior. A political example would be this:

Lets say you're a Republican who is arguing for an invasion of Iraq based on reasons of "national security". Lakoff is saying that we have to accept this moral priority in others for a goal of "national secuirty" and just reframe a counter argument in much the same way as I did in my appeal to your moral priority of "good health" in the earlier example I provided. So I might accept your prioritization of "national security" and say, "Well if you care a lot about national security, you should probably be against an invasion of Iraq, because it would make us less secure, and here's why.. etc. etc." Lakoff's main advice to the left is to accept the moral heirarchy of republican concerns, and reframe arguments to make appeals to those priorities. The language stuff (devising linguistic constructions that boil down these rhetorical devices) is just a further alchemy based on that classical rhetorical device.

Lakoff addresses the Orwellian questions you raise directly in "Elephant" as well - there's a big difference between naming something "the clear skies initiative" (Orwellian) and referring to "the right to choose" (framing). The test of Orwellianism is whether the turn of phrase is objectively different as to misrepresent the policy in real-world terms.

And frankly Cooper's criticism of Lakoff is pretty far off - he probably hasn't even read him either, from what I can tell :). Its hard for me to see that there's much "top-down" about Lakoff - he simply acknowledges that reality won't speak for itself; people have to articulate reality. If that means we need to become a nation of lawyers and strategic thinkers, all the better. Maybe Cooper just has an axe to grind with Berkeley professors or something - probably bought some bad weed from them once.

Anyway, good post and curse you for lengthining my own reading list.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005 2:11:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Hey, Paul: Absolutely, I need to read Moral Politics, and I will once we move to RI next month. However, in the meantime, I posted about it in the conditional, with the express acknowledgement that that post may express only my intellectual biases. Anyway, thanks for reading and responding!

I guess my issue with what you say (your re-presentation of Lakoff, to get all Pomo on you), is that you set the truth-value of a statement completely aside: for you, it's another issue subordinate to that of rhetoric, which has never, historically, been much of an accurate or reliable pathway to truth, you'll agree.

By accepting the GOP "megaframe" for all debates, we basically give up and play by their rules. Like racists, they have an answer for everything -- we've seen 30 years' worth of it. By shifting terms and reshuffling ideas around their mental construct/frames/paradigms/epistemes/whatever, you are actually reifying their basic rhetorical points -- and, you seem to be adopting their casual acquiantance with the truth ("that's another discussion"). That's exactly the discussion I want to have, and exactly what's wrong with this country (and Marketing, in general). The truth-value matters tremendously, and I, for one, am not ready to throw in the towel on Truth just yet.

In other words, according to your representation of Lakoff (and what I write is always provisional, obviously -- I will read the book), we must accept that "National Security" is a critical frame. Kerry did that and lost.

Many smart people out there (that is, informed) realize that to whatever extent terrorism is a threat, not only has the Bush admin done next to nothing about it, but also the GOP wins on "national security" hands down every time.

A real Democratic candidate would have been a muckraker, exposing VNRs, and VNR-like corruption, in our society, being strongly anti-war, and showing, with precision how companies close to the WH profit off of this war. As is the case in all wars. A real candidate could have broken down the myths we live by.

I do not want to accept the moral hierarchy of Republican concerns. They are, mostly not my own, nor are they the concerns of (in many cases) a majority of Americans (e.g., abortion rights). Accepting their hierarchy or frames or whatever is accepting the terms of the oppressor, AND it reifies their vision of "reality", which is vision with a capital "V" -- whether neocon or fundy wacko.

That's exactly what needs to stop. Only Edwards stepped outside the GOP/conservative discourse to actually discuss poverty. Not a Lakoffian move, is it?

Question: How does one disprove, in principle, Lakoff's views? Where's the old-school Popperian falsifiability test?

On avoiding Orwell -- I see your point. But doesn't that undermine your earlier point that truth value is "another discussion"? It would seem you/Lakoff think the exact opposite: rhetoric must be formed by reality. I would complete this by saying "...by reality, regardless of whether that piece of rhetoric hangs on the GOP megaframe or not).

Funny, a Pomo would scream at this book, as described by you (I know, just in a quick post -- no biggie): accepting the ruling discourse boundaries is exactly what (most) Pomos DON'T want to do; they're simply too acidic in their skepticism, and unfairly nonreflexive about it. But the not-accepting-the-reigning-discourse point is right on the money.

Finally, yes, people have to use Words to discuss Things. That doesn't mean that Things don't exist, whatever the loose connection between Things and Words. Language has evolved to be able to encompass more and more of reality -- in some areas of science, it just hasn't caught up. Example: intentionality is so built into a human-uttered language that non-intentional, non-teleological processes like evolution are very hard to encapsulate. Genesis isn't.

Cooper: Can't speak for it's accuracy till I read the book, but I have to say that regardless of it's accuracy about Lakoff per se (or his re-purposers), he makes general points and general warnings that ought to be taken up and heeded, in my view.

Thanks for reading and responding! :)

Wednesday, March 23, 2005 8:35:00 AM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Doug - I think we fundamentally agree - and I feel I was a little slipshod in my reply to your post.

Employing Lakoff to engage Republicans does NOT mean that we should accept the republican heirarchy of positions and values. It means instead, recognizing those priorities and engaging them as a means to pull them towards your own deeply held frames. You know, the Truth.

Lakoff's assumption (and this is where the elitist label makes me laugh) is that 90% of conservatives are regular people, compassionate, open to the Truth, and generally reasonable. The other 10% or so are the Luntz-types--actively engaging in language deception.

To actually converse with people you have to respect them enough to "start where they are" and try to interact with them as thinking beings. As someone with conservative parents who I'm constantly arguing with, I know that I'm never going to get them to rearrange their value systems through direct confrontation. However, where I have had some success is in opening up their economy of thought by showing them how the Republicans in power actually DON'T match up with those value schemes.

"Adopting a frame" then is only a starting point for conversation. You won't get anywhere if you slavishly pander to people, and that's not what its about.. its just a pragmatic means to get your foot in the door. It doesn't even do any disrepect to the Truth, because fundamentally you're not even lying, unless you don't believe what you're saying, at which point you shouldn't speak at all.

I agree with you Kerry lost because he adopted the Republican priority frame of "national security". But Kerry was never "employing Lakoff", in fact, Lakoff's ideas weren't really used much at all by the Dems. Lakoff criticized Kerry often during the campaign, mostly on exactly those "national security" issues. Kerry generally failed to reframe as Lakoff suggested, in fact, Lakoff thought he was running his campaign precisely the wrong way. Appearing in front of a banner that read "The War on Terror", saluting at the nomination, etc.

The hypothetical muckraking candidate you describe would have been more successful, I agree. Lets hope they go that route in '08.

Oh and one more thing - don't make too much of that "that's another discussion" comment - I just meant I didn't want to go off on a tangent about the merits of vegetarianism.

keep it comin'.. I got time, i'm on vacation until Monday :)

Wednesday, March 23, 2005 9:56:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Hi, Paul:

Despite my post above on being surprised at Lakoff's book's lightness (thus far), I do think that a general rhetorical gift for starting the conversation where the others (or Other) are and using reasoned argument (without beign argumentative) from there is fine.

I'm interested to see where Lakoff takes his thesis in the next 3/4 of the book....

Monday, March 28, 2005 3:37:00 AM  

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