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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Anti-Theory Thursday, or Reasons to Believe

Guest post by John McGowan

“It struck me kind of funny, kind of funny suddenly,
At the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe.”
--Bruce Springsteen

I don’t know how coherent this is going to be, but I want to use this post to think out loud about a puzzle that the lit crit folks among you will recognize as occupying the same swamp as Stanley Fish’s claim that theory has no consequences.  I have never understood Fish’s claim—and that incomprehension is my inspiration for the musings that follow.

The problem with Fish, in my view, is that he never tells us what “theory” is.  Take Michael’s description of structuralism on Tuesday.  The structuralist identifies (or uncovers) a pattern (or structure) that underlies each particular utterance.  This identification is “theoretical,” presumably, because

a) it claims generality (individual utterances are particular, even singular, but the structure is behind every one of those particular instances and is the same in each case)

and b) it claims explanatory power (the structure explains how it is that individual utterances are meaningful). 

The strong claim would be: no structure, no meaning.  A theory of this sort is “transcendental” in the Kantian sense; it describes the necessary conditions for (in this case) uttering and interpreting meaningful utterances.  If the necessity claim is strong enough (i.e. this is the only way things are or could be), then theory has no consequences in a trivial way.  Practice did not change when Newton identified the “law” of gravity.  Stones still fell when dropped and people still had to exert force to get a burden up a hill.  But, of course, having formulated the law of gravity enabled new kinds of interventions in the world. 

Similarly, Jakobson’s identification of the six dimensions of meaning spurred new interpretations of familiar poems. We don’t even have to decide whether Jakobson got it “right” or not.  His theory works as a heuristic even if it doesn’t actually exhaust the full and necessary ways that an utterance can mean.  Despite humans’ best attempt to be “reality-based,” different ideational lenses and the different vocabularies in which they are expressed, “light up” (to use Charles Taylor’s useful phrase, loosely translated from Heidegger) different aspects, different potentialities, within a reality that, in its richness and multiplicity, exceeds any single description or account of it.  Reality, so far as we know thus far, is inexhaustible—just like we were always told Shakespeare is.

I take it that Fish is denying, as a good pragmatist should, the transcendental claims of a certain kind of theory.  But his claim shouldn’t be that such theory has no consequences, but that it attempts to provide more than it can deliver.  We are just not very likely to come up with a theory of everything, one account that comprehensively sets out the necessary conditions for all human practice. Such accounts tend to be reductionist or to have blind spots—flaws that do have consequences such as those we are currently witnessing in Iraq (an intervention guided by a simplistic theory of what threatens America and of what ailed Iraqi society and a reductionist understanding of what could cure it of its troubles).  Intellectual and real history keeps surprising us; fallibilism seems the more prudent course.

At other times, however, Fish seems to associate theory with an even stronger claim.  He talks of theory’s pretensions to regulate or even generate practice.  In this case, to use structuralism as our example once more, the structure doesn’t simply provide the conditions of meaning, it actually produces meaning.  And it is true that Levi-Strauss seems, at times, to approach this kind of claim.  It would require, of course, the full-scale death of the author to insist that utterances are generated by the structure and not by the speaker.  But, as we know, in its heady heyday structuralism was willing to kill off the speaker and/or writer.  That heyday was short-lived, however, and Fish is attacking a straw man if he thinks “theory” always aims to establish a force behind practice that is doing all the heavy lifting.  And if such a theory had no consequences, it would be because it was false, not because of something peculiar about the relationship between theory and practice, something many of us had missed before enlightenment came in the form of Stanley Fish.

My conundrum comes onto stage if we understand “theory” in yet another way (and this one also seems to be lurking in Fish at times).  Let’s take practice as “first-order” beliefs, desires, and actions, and associate “theory” with second-order reflection on those immediacies.  We desire, believe, and do a lot of things without articulating for ourselves or for others our reasons for those desires, beliefs, and actions—or even explicitly describing the content of those desires, beliefs, and actions. Does self-consciousness or reflection upon these immediacies have a revisionary effect?  Again, leave aside whether reflection’s descriptions accurately capture what is really going on in those immediacies.  Just consider whether the act of describing what we are doing and our reasons for doing it will have the effect—rather like Heisenberg’s observer—of altering the thing so described or justified.  Anyone who has seen a teenager on stage would side with the common-sense supposition that self-consciousness does have effects.  Certainly, the classical pragmatists believed that we begin in habit, but that habits are modified by the give-and-take with others who ask us to justify our actions, to explain ourselves, as well as by our own constant judging of ourselves vis-à-vis others who act and believe differently.  Under the plural conditions of modern societies, in which we constantly confront others who are different from ourselves, it is very hard to maintain habits unconsciously.  The possibility of doing and believing differently is always there in front of us, and self-consciousness, reflection, and explicit justification as a response to those differences are just about inevitable. 

Whether such self-consciousness is what “theory” means is neither here nor there.  I am not trying to legislate how we use the word.  I am, instead, trying to think about how certain intellectual efforts that are at least one step removed from immediate practice might influence subsequent practices.  I am, as is obvious by now, inclined to follow contemporary pragmatist Robert Brandom’s contention that it is in the “asking for and giving of reasons” that characterizes social life under pluralist conditions that we partake in such intellectual efforts—and that they do have effects.  Our self-understandings and our beliefs about appropriate actions and desires change under the pressure of having to account for ourselves.

But—here comes the puzzle—maybe that pragmatist view is way too optimistic.  Because it turns out that it is devilishly difficult to specify the connection between the second-order reflections and the first-order beliefs.  The example that really troubles me comes from moral philosophy.  That philosophy has been engaged, for quite some time now, in exploring what it calls “meta-ethics”—the large-scale claims that are trotted out as providing the reasons, the basis, for individual moral judgments.  There are various contenders in the field, but two of the most often discussed are Kantian deontology and Millian utilitarianism.  To which I will add, for the purposes of this explication, a theological (sometimes called “divine command”) meta-ethics. 

The problem arises because the meta-ethical positions radically underdetermine actual moral judgments.  Take capital punishment, for instance.  Is it justified or not?  The utilitarian might say that sacrificing one murderer’s life to prevent a future loss of many lives justifies capital punishment insofar as it has a deterrent effect on future would-be murderers.  Then it becomes a simple empirical question.  If capital punishment has the desired deterrent effect, then we should execute murderers.  (As a side-note: the entrenchment of belief often defies even overwhelming empirical evidence.  That Texas’s murder rate remains higher than Vermont’s and that we don’t know of a single instance of a person who moved from Texas to Vermont to commit murder without risking capital punishment has not stopped death penalty advocates from still making deterrence arguments.) But the utilitarian can reason in an entirely different fashion, working from the desire of victims—and of an outraged society—to see justice done, and their settled feeling that anything short of a death for a death leaves the accounts unbalanced.  The happiness (satisfaction) of the greatest number can justify putting the murderer to death.

Similarly, Kantian deontology would seem to rule out capital punishment in its insistence that we should never use another human being as a means, rather than an end.  Human life, in the Kantian scheme, seems to be sacred.  But a different reading—and one that Kant himself offers—takes capital punishment as justified because it is an instance of the condemned criminal legislating his demise himself in recognition of his violation of the law.  We honor the criminal’s autonomy by bestowing on him the penalty he deserves.

We only need look to Pope John Paul and Antonin Scalia to see how adherents to the same theological faith can come to different conclusions about the permissibility of capital punishment.  For the late Pope, only God had the right to bestow life or death.  For Scalia, God has designated his authority to the social order, but not to individuals; that is why the law can take life, but no citizen can. 

In short, the actual position one takes seems independent of the meta-ethics to which one appeals to articulate the reasons for taking that position.  The evidence rather strongly suggests that we have strong intuitive or immediate feelings about what is right and what is wrong—and we then construct intellectual justifications for those intuitions after the fact.  William James adopts this position in some places, notably in this passage from the closing pages of Varieties of Religious Experience.

“I need not discredit philosophy by laborious criticism of its arguments.  It will suffice if I show as a matter of history it fails to prove its pretension to be ‘objectively’ convincing.  In fact it does so fail.  I believe that the logical reason of man operates in this field of divinity exactly as it has always operated in love, or in patriotism, or in politics, or in any other of the wider affairs of life, in which our passions or our mystical intuitions fix our beliefs beforehand.  It finds arguments for our convictions, for it has to find them.  It amplifies and defines our faith, and dignifies it, and lends it words and plausibility.  It hardly ever engenders it; it cannot now secure it.”

For James, pace Springsteen, it is neither surprising nor “funny” that we find reasons to believe.  We always already have beliefs (a fundamental pragmatist assertion found also in Peirce and Wittgenstein) and the reasons are formulated later on in order to rationalize (in a sense of that term that bears a family resemblance to Freud’s use of it) those beliefs to one’s self and others.  If this is Fish’s position, then he is offering a theory (a general account) that asserts that our second-order reflections and articulated reasons exist to rationalize our settled beliefs and practices—and thus cannot change those beliefs and practices because they, not the reflections, are the motor driving the whole operation.  This appears to me a highly pessimistic conclusion because it not only renders beliefs highly resistant to change but it also shrouds their formation in obscurity.  Something happened to give us this belief (this “passion or mystical intuition” in the passage from James); something equally mysterious, equally beyond our power to summon or influence, will have to happen if our belief is to change.  All of our self-consciousness, all of our reflections, all of our philosophical sophistication and elaborate meta-ethics, are froth on the ocean of our already settled convictions. 

I suspect that the fault here lies in the all-or-nothing position assumed by James and Fish.  We need a more dialectical understanding of the interaction between first-order beliefs and second-order reflections.  But we also need a much more concrete and convincing model of how that dialectic works, of how a meta-ethics actually does shape convictions.  Because what we have at the moment is the lazy assumption that being a Christian is a vital fact about and a real influence on one’s moral beliefs and actions without any evidence that such is the case since Christians run the full gamut from pacifists to holy crusaders, from socialists to laissez-faire capitalists.  The simple assertion that our individual judgments about specific moral issues just follow logically from our meta-ethical convictions simply doesn’t account for the fact that two people who agree in their meta-ethics will disagree in their judgments.

I want to conclude inconclusively by noting one counter-example and one alternative to what looks like fatalism about our beliefs and practices.  The counter-example is the rule of law.  Think of the notion that every accused should be presumed innocent until proven guilty and is entitled not just to his day in court but to a defense attorney.  Such an arrangement—the alienation of direct retribution and punishment from those harmed to the state and the establishment of a delaying process that renders what to the victim seems like obvious wrong a dubious matter to be investigated—could never be a first-order intuition or passion.  It is an arrangement that deliberately sets out to confound our immediate reactions.  Yet this principle of delay, examination, and impersonal justice manages to become a deeply held conviction for many, although hardly all.  Practices suggested by reflection may not be entirely without resources in a contest with immediate intuitions. (This counter-example probably speaks more directly to Fish’s “there’s no such thing as principle” argument than to his “theory has no consequences” argument.  I don’t know for sure, however, because while those two arguments are obviously related to one another, I can’t figure out what’s the relevant difference—if there is one—between a “principle” and a “theory” in Fish’s work.  Only if there is a relevant difference would we be dealing with two arguments, not just one argument phrased in two different ways.)

Pragmatism also offers an alternative to reflection for the revision of belief: experience.  Novelties in the world and unexpected consequences that follow from acting on one’s beliefs can lead one to reconsider her convictions.  Pragmatism suggests holding one’s beliefs a tad lightly (fallibilism) and highly values the flexibility to abandon them when events suggest their inadequacy.  As I have already suggested, pragmatism holds that any belief is likely to be partial in every sense of that word, so we should expect to find the world and events constantly outstripping what we were prepared to have occur.

Holding beliefs lightly also means we might be able to think of our beliefs more as projective, as trying to shape the future to our needs and purposes, than as reflective of an already settled reality that we either get right or get wrong.  James always emphasized that pragmatism was more oriented toward the future, toward what we could possibly achieve, than toward the past, toward determinative antecedents.  This attitude is summed up neatly in the following dialogue from Nicholas Mosley’s novel Inventing God (London: Secker & Warburg, 2003):

“Did he believe that or did he just say it?
“He believed it in the way that he said one should believe things.”
“Which was what?”
“Try it and see.”

Posted by John McGowan on 07/28 at 10:30 AM
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