From the “pen” of Robert Shields

February 21, 2008

See, here’s the reason Mac’s notion of practices won’t work:  There is no way to get to there.

Although it is easy to point to practices of the required level of complexity, and of sufficient depth and breadth to allow for the play of ontological and ethical content, and to retain a distinct continuity within development to allow for the establishment of  tradition projected upon the reproduction of its activities, values, ends, etc. in successive generations, it is difficult to see how such traditions might come to be (short of being lowered from an ideal realm), that is to say, how would a group of human beings decide they needed such a practice, plan such a practice, and then step inside such a practice.

That sentence is way to long (although if you add some swearing, it might give you an idea of how thoughts run through my mind before I edit myself).

Let’s talk stories:

In After Virtue, Mac speculates about a child taught to play chess through positive reinforcement. Each time the child makes a good move, he or she is given a piece of candy. To become a full practitioner (rather than what Lave would call a Legitimate Peripheral Participant, I suppose), the child eventually moves beyond playing for candy, and adopts the values internal to the game of chess.

Not a bad story, but it doesn’t entirely work. For a child approaching the game for the first time, chess is not like a Chinese box experiment. IT’s clear that a child has to be taught what each piece can do, and how one would win the game. However, the child does not have to be conditioned to consider pieces of wood or ivory to be Knights, Bishops, Kings and Queens; that is what children do. A child might have to be rewarded to convince him or her to stay with this game rather than just running off after 3 minutes, but the child does not have to be conditioned to accept the ontology of the game board and the pieces, or conditioned to understand the ends internal to a game. Children pick up games easily. Although these games are not as complex as chess–they do not, in other words, meet MacIntyre’s standards for practices–they do, in their primitive ways–do the things which chess does. Even the simple games of a child involve putting oneself into the game, accepting the internal logic, ontology and structure of each game, even if it is just accepting that stuffed animals are conscious and that one must feed them with mud pies. Ultimately, one can teach a child to play chess because playing games comes naturally for a child. Chess is simply a matter of developing that natural tendency in a different direction.

It is possible that we are just talking about a semantic difference here, and that Mac just means a specific level of practice that can ground the sort of moral discussion he is interested in. However, it seems that his account should, if it is to be considered complete, be able to provide a generating account–an examination of how practices come to be, and of how we come to be members of a practice. Even more importantly, his account raises the possibility that there could be cultures that do not have any social practices that meet the standards of being MacIntyrian Practices; would this imply that these cultures do not have the capacity for virtue, or merely that they–like Tic-tack-toe players–have an understanding of excellence, but no ability to theorize about it?

We human beings are creatures given to social practices in the same way we are creatures given to language. This does not directly contradict the core of what Mac is trying to say, but his refusal to accept primitive or simple practices puts him in a strange position. If humans did not naturally take to simple and proto-practices, they would not have the capacity for complex traditional practices. It seems that humans not only take to practices from the earliest stages of development, but that from these practices we also acquire the ability to distinguish excellence in practices, and to extrapolate from that excellence of life–what we would call virtue.


Ain’t it funny…

February 3, 2008

…how time slips away. I was shocked to realize that I hadn’t written here for a full month. School starting and getting ready for a job interview have proven more distracting than I realized.

My esteemed co-author and I have been talking more over the last ten days or so about our article (ah, and that was another slowing factor: we didn’t get into the Philosophy of Social Science Roundtable, but have decided to soldier on with this project nonetheless), and making some headway. What we’ve got, really, are some argumentative moments that I think we could stitch together now into a coherent piece. I think we’ll try to do that over the next couple of months, with the expectation (such has been our experience) that the project will change substantially another time or two in the process. Basically, in exploring each issue we find ourselves driven back into more fundamental concerns. Seems like philosophy probably should work that way, though it can be a little confusing even to the authors at times. So in this case, what began as a contribution to the naturalist vs. normativist debate on whether the concept of a norm has anything to contribute to social science and the philosophy of social science is turning into a disquisition on the relationship between how things make sense to human beings and how their behavior fits into the causal nexus of the physical universe, and further how social science and philosophy ought to make sense of that relationship. As I said, we’ll get some thoughts up sometime here in February.

Clichés and Practices

January 3, 2008

At my dissertation defense one of the committee members asked me what the relationship was between a cultural prohibition such as, “Thou shalt not kill” and that culture’s actual practices of killing and conspicuously not killing. This led to what my friend Robert Shields calls a “shot in the head moment.” I froze, then finally babbled something. After a couple of years studying the relationship between words and practices, I knew just enough to know not only that I had no good answer for that question, but that it would take me years to come up with one.

I still don’t have one, but I have some more ideas now. (So, thanks teach.  That was an inspiring question.) One example struck me this morning. For no particular reason the phrase, “The customer is always right” popped into my head.

It’s very easy and common to move back and forth between a catch phrase like this and a facile analysis of the culture to which it belongs. One time at a local Chinese restaurant I overheard a white patron giving to his family what I understood to be a rendition of the sermon he had just heard, the gist of which was a condemnation of a contemporary youth culture whose members like to mouth the phrase, “It’s all good.” There followed a semi-elaborate genealogy of that phrase intended to show that someone inclined to say, “It’s all good” surely has no moral standards, i.e. has no real conception of good vs. evil. I’ve found that it’s not considered good manners to argue with the table next to you at Chinese restaurants, so I didn’t speak up. I wanted to ask some questions, though, as my initial reaction was to find this whole bit rather racist, if fairly subtly. In any case, this instance comes to my mind when I try to remember that the links between phrases and practices can be more difficult to discern than we typically think.

With that said, “The customer is always right” really wonderfully captures at least the stereotyped version of American consumer culture. It’s great to imagine the apochryphal origin of this phrase: an employee has had a disagreement with a customer, and appeals to the boss to settle who is right; the boss responds, “The customer is always right.” How evocative! To say this another way: the boss is saying, “We will not play that game. In your other relationships it may matter who is right and who is wrong. But in these practices, we do not determine whether the customer is justified in his wishes or even his purported facts. Qua customer he transcends those categories. Now go put the butter on his milk duds.” [This is a Simpsons reference I have made. “Swim, my pretties.]

It is so easy to wax grand sociological about such a phrase. What could better capture the rule of money said to drive the American ethos? Why does the customer transcend rightness and wrongness? Not because he shops by divine right, but because he has money, which he is willing to give to the business if his desires, however ridiculous, are met. Contrast this with French and German stores in which “the customer is always ignored,” in whose countries the cultural legacy of a different sort of class structure is often said to linger. Such insights, though they charm me, too, are clearly the making of yet another lame article in some political periodical.

The thing is, I think phrases such as, “The customer is always right” are important, and do have effects. And understanding this cliché/praxis relationship could be helpful in working out some of the hermeneutic issues we’ve been pondering. But how to sort this out?

Two Stories Integrating Explanation and Interpretation

January 3, 2008

An English professor friend told me this story a few years ago. He was teaching Hamlet for the fifth day in a row, when a Nursing student declared with considerable conviction that she had determined that Hamlet was suffering from a vitamin deficiency. This seems to me a fairly humerous example of causal explanation intruding on hermeneutic engagement (but perhaps not illegitimately so — though I can’t really see what vitamins add to our understanding of Hamlet).

For a quite different case: at the Collaboration conference I attended last November in the Twin Cities, Vanderbilt Nursing professor Jeanette Norden spoke compellingly about some of her efforts to promote personal (i.e. ethical) development in her students. Among other approaches, she typically requires her neurobiology students to read a text that does not obviously apply to the subject matter, leaving it up to the students to discover meaning in the text’s conjunction with the class. One such book was by a medical professional who survived a Nazi concentration camp. Her book detailed the dietary intake of the inmates and catalogued their suffering. Norden’s students eventually saw a connection between this suffering and the neurobiological consequences of the inmates’ extremely restricted diets, which in turn led these students to consider (a) the horrible consequences of starvation in many poor countries in Africa and (b) some concrete steps that they as Vanderbilt students might take to do something about (a).

Norden’s story has no direct relevance to the naturalist vs. normativist debate, and yet I think the way that human stories and concerns mix with causal explanation here might serve as an example of the way we might integrate these divergent accounts of ourselves so as to make ourselves more human in the process.

The Hermeneutics of T-Shirts

January 3, 2008

I don’t have Continental Philosophy of Social Science with me, but Sherrat mentions a critic of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz who charged that Geertz’s method was not a true hermeneutics because he was “interpreting” practices, not texts, and only actual texts allow legitimate hermeneutic treatment. This is a crucial issue, of course. If only texts can be interpreted, then Being and Time and its intellectual descendents (Geertz among them) are wrong in claiming that everyday behavior is always already interpreted. Obviously where one stands on the relationship between praxis, texts, and interpretation will go a long way in determining how one takes the struggle between interpretation and explanation in the social sciences, which itself is one facet of the naturalists vs. normativists debate we’ve been discussing here. In particular, restricting hermeneutics to texts in a strict sense would disallow the much broader use of hermeneutics I would like to advocate as a synthesizer of interpretive and explanatory accounts of human life.

To give some substance to that suggested use, I’ll offer an example I encountered at the YMCA yesterday. A young woman had on a shirt that said, “Fondy ain’t afraid of no ghosts.” I can come up with some reasonable interpretations pretty fast, and so can you, I would assume. Who among us has forgotten how good bustin’ makes us feel? I suspect that even those not familiar with Fond du Lac, Wisconsin might guess that “Fondy” refers to a school. As for “ghosts,” I’m not sure of the reference. I would guess another local sports team, though I can’t think of one pertinent.

In any case, though, the question is whether this T-shirt is the proper object of intepretation. I would say it is. Does that commit me to the claim that it’s a text? Well, that leads to the question of what a text is. Two ideas: textuality is linked to explicitness (i.e. articulation in language) and to complex organization (with the book as a paradigm example).

For the record, I don’t think one can only (legitimately) interpret texts; I don’t think texts have to have complex organization (in order to merit being interpreted as texts); and I think that paradigm texts (the sort that, say, Gadamer seems to have primarily in mind) nevertheless merit rather different sorts of interpretation than other sorts of texts and non-texts (typically, practices).

A Quiz

January 1, 2008

From Albert-Lásló Barabási’s Linked (a fascinating book on network theory that I probably shouldn’t be reading…but it’s still vacation, and I can’t seem to help myself), a quote from the Hungarian mathematician and early network theorist Paul Erdös (quoting fellow Hungarian network theorist Alfréd Rényi):”A mathematician is a machine that turns coffee into theorems.”

So finish this sentence: “A philosopher is a machine that turns _____ into _____.”

Hermeneutics, not Erotetics

December 31, 2007

After writing the outline I presented in the last post, I was reading Sherrat’s Continental Philosophy of Social Science and had the following thought, which might focus the whole essay: what I like most about Risjord’s approach is that he is trying to provide a methodology that would allow social scientists and philosophers alike to make flexible use of the various sorts of research that we all perform on ourselves and each other — intentional, causal, and otherwise. It struck me near the end of the hermeneutics section of Sherrat’s book that, though this goes against some tenets of the hermeneutic tradition, I see no reason why hermeneutics could not provide just such a methodology. That is to say, in interpreting others’ behavior (and my own), I attempt to make sense of that behavior as a unified whole, synthesizing the various components by moving back and forth from part to whole. Traditionally this approach has confined itself to synthesizing those components that are meaningful to those being interpreted, but that need not be the case. And in practice, of course, contemporary human beings do actually perform just the sort of synthesis I’m talking about, though typically not systematically or even very carefully. That is, in trying to make sense of ourselves and each other, we mix together disparate sorts of analysis and anecdote. For instance, if someone is acting irritable we might explain her behavior by noting that she has been ill, that this is the time of year that her child died, or that the pressures on women in her profession are much greater than those on men, and furthermore that the same behavior from a man in her position would not even be considered an outburst. The “logic of everyday ethnography” can be extraordinarily heterogeneous.

The question is, Can hermeneutics do this work rigorously?