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.

And now a word from our sponsors…

December 31, 2007

Checking around to see if any wordpress blogs had similar tags, I found a couple of very nice sites that I’ve added to the blogroll here. One is Grundlegung, which has an interesting post on Brandom up right now that looks insightful, though a bit outside my specific interests in Brandom. Grundlegung led me further to Rough Theory, which looks great, and has a post I really need to read on Habermas and Brandom. And so do you:

UPDATE: Reading through the comments on the Rough Theory post above (which is a very nice overview of Habermas, Brandom, and their problematic intersection) led me to this citation for Analytic Philosophy and the Return of Hegelian Thought:

Some Signs of Things to Come

December 31, 2007

I’m back from vacation, and ready to write. I did send in our proposal for the Philosophy of Social Science Roundtable, requesting a receipt. I didn’t get one, so I’ll send the proposal on to the other two organizers. Whether accepted for that conference or not, though, I’m ready to write this sucker.

Continental Philosophy of Social Science continues to prove a thought-provoking book. I’ll blog some more on that soon. And I may have some responses to Brabsher and/or Mulbo and/or Obiwanky. [Listing these noms de blog this way reminds me of the line from Raising Arizona: “Hear that everybody? We’s using code names.”] Most of all, though, I want to sketch the main move I have in mind for the article at this point: suggesting a modified hermeneutic practice as the right method for integrating and synthesizing all of the varied approaches to studying human behavior that are coalescing here under the broad heading “social science,” including those approaches that focus narrowly on causal explanations of said behavior. That is to say, rather than opposing hermeneutics to the heirs of positivism, I would like to try to meld them together. I’ll explain what that might mean tomorrow.

And now, for no particular reason, two quotes from Mark Twain:

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” [Clearly Twain was writing well before the age of modern advertising.]


“I thoroughly disapprove of duels. If a man should challenge me, I would take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet place and kill him.”

[On the exam you will be asked to say whether this latter quote is more similar to (a) or (b) below, justifying your answer with your own humor taxonomy:

(a) Mine is a most peaceable disposition. My wishes are: a humble cottage with a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my window, and a few fine trees before my door; and if God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before their death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one’s enemies — but not before they have been hanged. — Heinrich Heine

(b) If you find that you have offended someone, walk a mile in their shoes. Then you will have a mile head start…and they won’t have any shoes. — Dutch proverb]

Another Brandon…

December 12, 2007

Email correspondance from Brandon Absher, PhD student at the University of Kentucky, and the latest inductee in the Schatzki Ring:

Greig and Brandon, I just finished reading the paper.  And, I’m very excited that you are considering these issues in the light you are.  Probably my most important thought about the paper is that it could lead into a piece on the Gadamer/ Habermas debate.  Chris Zurn is currently writing an encyclopedia entry on this issue and I read a lot of the material over the summer (with the intention of perhaps writing a paper on the topic).  Ultimately, Habermas consistently attacks Gadamer for a perceived conservatism.  His claim is that we require theories to offer understandings of oppression.  He models this approach on psychoanalytic theory.  The point of doing the theory is to develop therapeutic practices – ultimately understood in terms of the theories developed later in TCA I and II.  Personally, I’ve been VERY concerned about the relationship between science and practical life in Heidegger’s work.  Mostly, I share his belief that practical/existential/ethical life is foundational for any theoretical interpretation of the world.  On the other hand, I don’t want to be dragged into a form of irrationalism consonant with Heidegger’s own political commitments. My work: The first chapter of the dissertation as I’m now conceiving of it will challenge a currently (perhaps perennially) popular way of thinking about language.  The basic idea is that humans have “attitudes” toward represented “content” which are “expressed” in the form of marks, utterances, and other forms of signs. As I read W and H, they present a challenge to this view.  Most importantly understanding language isn’t about associating signs with content and attitudes, rather it’s about knowing how to get along in a practical context.  Signs don’t represent content and express “attitudes” (believing vs. wishing, etc.), instead they bring about a shared practical intelligibility – my warning about the wet floor brings the floor itself to view as having a certain place within our already shared practical world, there are certain things that I’m supposed to do with regard to this floor now or with regard to the utterance itself.  The second chapter is on the concept of context.  Basically, it works out the common theme of background understanding found in W and H and the necessity of shared background understanding in understanding the utterances, etc of another.  Here, drawing on the concept of meaning finitism worked out by David Bloor in his reading of W, I’m going to argue that W’s understanding of context as fluid, ambiguous, and ever-changing is preferable to what I see as Heidegger’s more closed interpretation of context (or background understanding).  There’s a tenuous third chapter on the relation of W and H to analytic theories of semantic “externalism”, but Ted’s a little uncertain about it.  The final chapter will be about the “articulation of intelligibility” and the role of language in this articulation.  This chapter will share substantial ground with your section on narrative, theory, and argumentation.  The basic idea is as follows: the warning in the example mentioned before draws on a shared practical intelligibility.  It brings the floor to light in a new way within our ongoing practice, but our larger sense of the situation and it’s relation to other situations remains unchanged.  Other types of discourse (or maybe other discursive moments or events) allow us to re-contextualize much larger regions of our life.  With Arendt in mind, I think primarily of political discourse – which corresponds in many ways to what you’re talking about under the head of “argument.”  Certain political discourses or political moments of discourse have the power of re-shaping our background understanding of the world within which we live.  Religious discourse is also important in this way – here I think less of Arendt and more of Heidegger’s treatment of poetry in the later work and of silence in the early work.  The best way of saying it, I think, is that much of our practical discourse operates within an already shared horizon and leaves that horizon basically untouched.  There are, however, (borrowing from Gadamer) horizon shifting and horizon fusing ways of speaking.  So that’s the basic idea.

Excerpts from Sherrat’s Continental Philosophy of Social Science

December 9, 2007

Yvonne Sherrat’s 2006 volume Continental Philosophy of Social Science: Hermeneutics, Genealogy, and Critical Theory from Greece to the Twenty-First Century has some passages the resonate interestingly with the naturalist-normativist debate. The core of her position is that the continental philosophies of social science are distinct from their analytic counterparts principally in having a humanitist orientation rather than a natural scientific one.

“…humanists hold that knowledge works through transmission. Understanding and knowledge are composed by the accumulation of voices handed down from the centuries. This contrasts with science’s ‘creative destruction’ approach where voices from the past are seen as holding false meanings, which need to be destroyed in order to allow new, objective knowledge to flourish…progress for humanists would be the accumluation of the knowledge from the past, not the transcendence or destruction of it. Science meanwhile holds the idea that the past contains undeveloped, primitive and indeed often false forms of knowledge” (p. 9).


“…humanism…holds a distinct notion of meaning from science. The human world is substantively meaningful for humanists and this includes the idea of ethical, aesthetic and even spiritual meanings…Society thus for humanists would be an intrinsically purpose-laden, ethically, aesthetically and spiritually valuable entity. This contrasts with a scientific notion of meaning, which is purely technical and pertains only to bare empirical facts. All other forms of human meaning are external, and maybe ‘tacked’ on as an ethical, aesthetic or indeed subjective addition” (p. 9)

This is a nice way of framing the issue, albeit one that might be too “supernaturalist” for at least some of the normativists (this seems very close to what Rouse himself says, at little less so to Risjord’s position, still less to Steuber’s). Let’s use this frame to look again at what’s at stake in the naturalist-normativist debate. The focuse for all participants seems to be on clarifying and grounding proper methodologies for the social sciences. It’s not clear to me that the naturalists consider it a criterion for this project that the resulting methods and implied ontologies be even consistent with other programs (scientific, philosophical, and “folk”) for understanding and explaining human behavior. I have in mind here, for instance, the broad sorts of conversations and disputes concerning right behavior (many of which occur in Western cultures under the headings “ethics” and “politics”) that seem to be part of the natural history of the human species across cultures, as well as the institutional practices of law-making, law enforcement, and trials that play such vital and prominent roles in most contemporary societies. In each sort of case not only do the people involved make normative claims, the clarification, justification, and rejection of such claims seems integral both to the specification of what sort of actions these people are engaged in and to the carrying out of those actions. But what can the naturalists say about such claims?

It seems to me that TRH simply don’t take such questions up. Perhaps they strike them as unscientific, and perhaps they are. It strikes me as essential to the task of philosophy, however, at least as I understand it, that such questions be addressed, if only to lead to a reductivist answer, i.e. that the discourses of ethics and the law are epiphenomenal to the flow of natural causality, a sort of illusion of social reason. TRH seem to feel that they’ve got RSR stuck on the horns of their dilemma, demanding that RSR clarify whether normativity is or is not causal — either way, the naturalists win. But TRH’s embrace of this dilemma seems to me to lead to absurdity.

So, perhaps the task here is simply to frame things so that this dilemma for the naturalists is made perfectly clear. I suspect that, forced to choose, they accept the epiphenomenalist charge, and like lies, this testimony will make baby Jesus cry. But forcing the issue this way seems to be the best way to advance the discussion. Otherwise, we’re just fighting on the naturalists’ chosen turf, and I question whether it’s the right turf.