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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 on 07/28 at 10:30 AM
  1. Could something with as complex a history as Christianity really be seen (by philosophers or anyone else) as producing only one meta-ethic?  I think Christians divide themselves by how they see Jesus, and that perception produces very different meta-ethics.  Whether Jesus is primarily to be seen as a teacher, a martyr, the Son of God, the Messiah, the founder of a Church, one who rises again, or, simply, “Lord,” (the last example being the main tenet of American Christian fundamentalism) differs among Christian sects.  I think these visions produce vastly different meta-ethics; for example, liberal Quakers seem to value Jesus as a teacher, while conservative Protestants seem to hold that “Jesus is Lord.” Hence their vastly different belief systems and practices.

    I just read a book by George Lakoff, called Moral Politics, which holds that one’s ideal of family structure (and the vision of government suggested by that structure) produces one’s political views.  I suppose that one’s ideal family structure can in turn be produced by many things.

    Posted by  on  07/28  at  12:31 PM
  2. I suppose what I’m asking, as a non-philosopher, is, when does an ethic become a meta-ethic?

    Posted by  on  07/28  at  01:32 PM
  3. Hi Michael,

    Well, I’ve always liked Fish and James both, perhaps more strongly than I should.  But your concerns and misgivings are hard to ignore.  I’ve tasted them myself.

    For instance, I have grown to like the notion that a self-conscious (or fallibilist) attitude towards one’s beliefs has no effect on the beliefs themselves or on how strongly one holds them.  It has seemed a great answer to the age-old charge that if you abandoned the absolutist, God’s-eye view of truth or ethics, then all things were up for grabs –- that there was no way you could rely upon or stand up for anything. 

    The no-consequences view allows me to acknowledge that my beliefs are shot though with contingency and history and fallibility, but still say that I believe them with all my heart.  I treat them, in practice, as if they are true –- and my subscription or allegiance to those beliefs is not marred or lessened in the process.

    This also seems true to my experience –- and is not just a case of wishful thinking.  People with fallibilist or (Rorty’s) ironic attitudes towards their beliefs really do act as if their ideas are clear and true and universal.  Just ask them.  Democracy really is better than fascism; due process really is better than presumptive guilt.  We ironists do not hold our beliefs any more lightly than the next guy.

    And yet…and yet…there do seem to be practical consequences.  And this is something that’s bugged me from way back when, although it sounds a bit flippant.  If, as Fish claims, having an ironic or self-conscious attitude about your beliefs has no consequences about what you believe or how you act, then why are ironists and self-conscious believers so much more pleasant to be around?  Why are those the kinds of people we’d like to be and spend time with?

    Do Rortean ironists change their minds more readily when faced with counter-evidence than absolutists and unself-conscious folks?  Are they really more willing to adapt and admit to error?  As an empirical matter, I don’t know.  If I had to pick companions for this journey towards truth, though, I would much rather have ironists and self-conscious fallibilists along for the ride.

    But maybe that’s just because I’d get to pick all the restaurants.

    Yrs, Peter

    Posted by  on  07/28  at  01:53 PM
  4. Peter-- this one’s John, not me.  But thanks for the comment and the questions, which I’m happy to ponder for the next few days--

    Posted by  on  07/28  at  01:57 PM
  5. Oops.  I’m sorry, Michael and John.  I guess reading really is fundamental.

    Posted by  on  07/28  at  02:17 PM
  6. John:  “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.”

    My sense of human nature is just about the opposite.  I agree we have ample opportunity for having our habits challenged or revealed to us--even those who do not live in the cosmopolitan cities and academies, but only get this exposure through media.  But doesn’t it take an almost Herculean effort for most of us to overcome the pull of habit, custom, prejudice, and whatever biological substrate tugs us to and fro? 

    Perhaps we fancy ourselves more reflective, and more self-aware, and more self-critical than we actually are?  {John Barth makes this point humorously in “The End of the Road” when (if memory serves) a hyper-rational and self-aware character (Joe) is spied upon by his ‘friend’(Jacob) and Joe’s wife (Rennie) and is seen with his finger in his nose and his hand in his shorts.}

    Posted by  on  07/28  at  03:46 PM
  7. In my own personal development, I was trained to be a very narrow New Critic as an undergraduate. That seemed normal, natural, complete, and (as I later reflected) totally inadequate to write about Ezra Pound.

    I reflected that the processes I used in reading weren’t able to do everything I asked them to do. How does that moment fit within these models?

    Fish, it seems, would need to posit that I already had a historicist framework latent in my psyche that had simply never before had expression--or that, had I not possessed that latent framework, then New Criticism would have sufficed for the rest of my days.

    A more plausible explanation, to my mind (irony intended), is that reality showed me a weakness in the framework I had been using. I then cast about for alternatives, and had the fortune to be exposed to several “theoretical” approaches at around that time. For several years, I tried out various approaches, and ended up with a set of practices that blended several of them. My practice changed as a result of the theoretical work of others; if that is not a consequence, then education as a whole has no consequences.

    Fish’s claim that fallbilism has no consequences may bear out in selected moments of epistemological stability, but I think that position ignores the very real changes that people experience over the course of their lives. And, like Peter, I’d rather be with people who are capable of change when necessary than those who smash into brick walls again and again because their own theory told them there wasn’t a wall there.

    Posted by  on  07/28  at  03:56 PM
  8. Fish should keep in mind two things. Firstly, I think he should heed Sartre’s maxim that existence preceeds essence (Existentialism is a Humanism). What is it about us that is natural or inherent? How can we account for our beliefs? Secondly, James and Fish seem to beg the question. Recall Marx’s labor theory of value. By proposing labor as a way of understanding value, Marx can explain how exchnage takes place to begin with, and he avoids attributing value to, well, value. It’s not that things are valued because they are valued, it’s that our material activity (labor)is a condition for the very notion of exchange. To reduce belief and action to mere intuitions for which no explanation is provided makes little sense, and is analogous to asserting that I give you a dollar and you give me a book because, dammit, I want the book and you want the dollar. I’ve only logiced in a circle. I’m not advocating Marxism explicitly or exclusively, but for Marx, the labor theory of value is a way of penetrating the social mystification of capital; similarly, theory in general however functions as a way of understanding what seems to need no explaining. Fish’s account of things borders on pure anti-intellectualism, and IT’S consequences are complacency.

    Posted by  on  07/28  at  07:24 PM
  9. Betsy: that way madness (aka Protestantism) lies.  The point of a meta-ethic is that it is supposed to supply general principles, the source for and an explanation of the authority of those principles, and (perhaps) a decision procedure which then gets you from the principles to judgments about individual cases. (In other words, a meta-ethics is content-free.  The ten commandments are an ethics; that the commandments have authority because they come from God is a meta-ethics.) The worry is that one already has the judgments and then just constructs a meta-ethic after the fact to justify those judgments.  If I argue that my God isn’t the kind who would countenance capital punishment, it seems like God is constructed to fit my views, not that my views reflect God’s commandments.  A meta-ethics is supposed to combat subjectivism, arbitrariness, and give you a way to distinguish “correct” moral judgments from “incorrect” ones.  The worry is that it’s all hokum. 

    Which brings us to BB: Yes, we might very well be guilty of smug complacency when we name ourselves as flexible, reflective, open-minded etc.  The baseline does seem to be resistance to change and confidence in one’s own immediate judgments and beliefs.  That’s why it seems important to get a good account of how (in some cases at least, even if not in very many) change in one’s opinions does occur. My pragmatist hunch is tht we change through social interaction, through having to explain ourselves when someone says: “you asshole, why did you do that?” We have to give some reasons (or excuses)--and those reasons (or excuses) have to be plausible to ourselves as well as to our interlocutor. (A plug: J. L. Austin’s essay “A Plea for Excuses” is, in my opinion, the most important work in moral philosophy in the past 80 years.  It’s also a hoot.  I highly recommend it.) And I think Will puts Fish’s difficulties in explaining change very nicely.  As for whether Rortarian (what is the adjective form for Rorty?)ironists change their beliefs more easily, I suspect not (their commitment to irony is pretty resistant to revision).  But I do suspect that they are less likely to be outraged at the discovery that other people have different beliefs.

    Posted by mcgowan  on  07/28  at  08:15 PM
  10. Dear Michael,

    You must not cancel theory tuesday or anti-theory thursdays, they are both great! (Especially the latter.) On an only partially related note, I was wondering if you could comment on Martha Nussbaum’s essay “The Professor of Parody”—a commentary (ok, an attack, really) on Judith Butler and her work.  An online version is available at: http://www.eyedea.ch/archiv/texte/the_professor_of_parody.html

    Posted by  on  07/28  at  08:21 PM
  11. (Same question posed to John of course; but I address the mighty “blog owner” first simply because he stands in a great power relation to us, namely he obtains the ability to sustain or cancel Theory Tuesday).

    Posted by  on  07/28  at  08:23 PM
  12. My pragmatist hunch is tht we change through social interaction

    It was for that reason that I recently only half-jokingly argued that New Yorkers are smarter than other people, because the number and variety of social interactions that we have is so much greater (in two senses) than for most Americans.  It’s also a pretty good argument for the importance of a diverse student body and faculty to education.

    Posted by  on  07/28  at  08:58 PM
  13. One thing that complicates any division of theory and practice is the fact that theory is always already practice.  That is, theory is something that must be *done*, not that simply *is*.  It has to not only be thought, but also written, taught, made into a “school of thought,” etc.  These are real actions in a real world--and they take some serious energy (both figuratively and literally).  This formulation is reflected in Mailloux’s pragmatist assertaion that rhetorical hermeneutics uses rhetoric to practice theory by doing history.

    So, to say theory has no consequences is to be just plain wrong:  theory, as something that is done, *is* a consequence, and, like all consequences, it has consequences of its own.

    I know we theory types tend to shy away from more experimental, empirical research, but communicationist Bibb Latane actually has some interesting things to say about how people develop social attitudes, beliefs, values, and practices.  His theory of “dynamic social impact” goes a long way toward explaining, or at least providing a way into, questions about how people located in different social spaces, but who claim membership in the same institutions (like Scalia and the Pope) can still “act” very differently, ethically speaking. 

    Thanks for a good post, John.

    Posted by  on  07/29  at  10:21 AM
  14. Just a quick note (and you will all, I’m sure, notice and enjoy the deconstructible slippage between the fish and the Fish): The William James quotation Michael uses (hi, Michael!) reminds me of one of my favorite passages from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: “I believe I have omitted mentioning that, in my first voyage from Boston, being becalm’d off Block Island, our people set about catching cod, and hauled up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion consider’d, with my master Tryon, the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter. All this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc’d some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then thought I, “If you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you.” So I din’d upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

    So convenient a thing indeed. And now I’m off to read all those theorists I avoided in graduate school, down the road from Duke but (at least in 1988) in a whole different world--


    Posted by  on  07/29  at  02:41 PM
  15. I wonder whether the real problem is the way the issue is framed. That is to say, it is clearly a hermeneutic problem (theory as a second order reflection on first order immediacies and a subsequent question as to whether or not “self-consciousness or reflection upon these immediacies” has “a revisionary effect") yet indicates no reciprocity in its operation, despite the implicit assumption of some prior operation. Further, the context within which such a division might be meaningful lacks any substance.  Yet it haunts the problematic, returning as a mythic intuition whose capacity for change is seemingly the plaything of chance. This, it seems to me, begs the question of whether or not anything happened to raise an issue, any issue, in the first place. In this sense, the concern with meta-ethic appears as a straw man in as far as ethos, as a community standard, is always grounded if in fact it is to be an ethos at all. In any event, I’ve never understood how one could think it possible to separate the ethical theory/thought from its practice as without that it would be pretty much meaningless, if not utterly unintelligible, for precisely the reasons Lance outlines. So maybe this isn’t the question to be asking or at least not the way to be asking it. Perhaps we might better put it as: under what conditions, if any, does a division between theory and practice (or insert your favorite subject-object dualism) become meaningful?

    Posted by  on  07/29  at  05:56 PM
  16. Fish’s famous essay “Consequences” cites Knapp&Michaels’s definition of theory ("special project in literary criticism: the attemp to govern interpretations of particular texts by appealing to an account of interpretation in general") and shortly after that, Fish writes that “the definition is correct”. This is the meaning of theory so far as the orignial “theory has no consequences"-claim is concerned.

    Posted by  on  07/31  at  04:50 AM
  17. "Myth No. 3: All critics are frustrated writers. It might be more accurate to say that all writers are frustrated writers. Frustration goes with the territory, whether you write criticism, novels or graffiti. No writer’s work measures up except, on occasion, in retrospect—when it becomes the very standard that your new work isn’t measuring up to.”

    <a href=
    J. K. Rowling critic would be dead if recent e-mails were really fire-breathing dragons,
    by David Kipen
    Tuesday, July 26, 2005</a>
    San Francisco Chronicle

    By the way, is it just me and my antique PC, or is the font hrad to read, being too small?

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/31  at  03:01 PM
  18. By theory Fish means a general account of what meaning is or how its made that attempts to theorize meaning apart from its production by intentional agents.  By saying it has no consequences, he means not only that theory is superfluous to interpretation, but that even when we think we’re using it, we’re not, because an interpretation must always be premised on the assumption that the meaning whatever’s being interpreted is the same thing as the intention of the authoring agent.  Thus we are always interpreting only intentions.

    He has in his targets here I think something like de Man’s argument that the Yeats poem stages a stroboscopic oscillation between dancer and dance that is genuinely undecidable.  That may be true of the Yeats poem, Fish would say, but we a theory of the grammatization of rhetoric is absolutely superfluous to saying it (and indeed de Man does credit Yeats himself with a deconstructive insight in that essay).

    Its important to note, too, I think, that Fish may not necessarily be targeting other structuralists or post-structuralists.  You could think of a political unconscious as an ‘intentioning’ structure.  Intention need not be the intention of an author.  Fish’s argument might be said to leave certain hermeneutics of suspicion unscathed, insofar as they themselves posit some kind of intentionality.

    Posted by  on  08/01  at  10:43 PM
  19. You may find that a lot of major philosophers don’t use the term ‘meta-ethics’ as you’ve used it here.

    There are three broad divisions in modern Anglophone ethics: meta-ethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics.

    Meta-ethics is really a branch of metaphysics, as applied to ethics. It asks: what is the status of ethical claims? Are they attempts to describe facts (i.e. is there such a thing as an ethical fact)? Are they just attempts to coax someone into doing something you want them to do? Is there some middle ground?

    Applied ethics is discussion of cases and policies, very close to real-world decision making.

    And normative ethics discusses the big theories: utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, etc. etc.

    Posted by  on  08/07  at  12:05 AM
  20. OT:

    The Happy Birthday to little Seder List.

    (time capsule. 9.8.2005)

    “Angel” by Jimi Hendrix


    “Hello, How Are You?” by Technicolor vs. James Figurine


    “Be Careful What You Wish For” by Gaby La La


    “Evolution Revolution Love” by Tricky


    “arch carrier (atolyth remix)” by Authecre


    “Quen a Virgen ben servir” Tim Rayborn

    http://magnatune.com/artists/music/Medieval/Tim Rayborn/The Path Beyond/

    “Diddle My Skittle” by Peaches


    “Show me your heart” by Need New Body


    “Horses” by Rovo


    “Sirius” by Pelican


    “The Buffalo Song” by Bellini


    “Avocet (Panorama Mix)” by Electric Birds


    Nataraja” by Cherberus Shoal


    “Apathy” by MLK


    “Kinoshita” by Fridge


    “Journey To A Star” by Lemongrass


    “play delicate, desire quiet” by Grace Cathedral Park


    “Glue to the World” by Four Tet

    http://www.insound.com/mp3/searchmp3.cfm?searchby=Four Tet

    “we have all the time in the world” by louis armstrong


    “Moment In The Sun” by Clem Snide


    “Who’d Stop The Rain” by Dressy Bessy



    note: this is a time capsule for lil’ Seder. Hope you like it if you ever find it on the internet archive sometimes in the distant future. It’s the most cutting edge music circa the day you were born. Cheers from Majority Report Listener.

    Posted by  on  08/09  at  10:27 PM





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