Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Reflexive Connections

Tom from Grundlegung has returned from much too long an absence (I’ve missed your voice around these parts!), to join the ongoing discussion of self-reflexivity. Tom points to some of the connections between the two senses of self-reflexivity the rest of us have been trying to distinguish during this conversation. I’m glad someone has written on this, as I had been worrying that, in trying to make clear in this conversation what I mean by “self-reflexive theory“, I was making distinctions that were also occluding the potential to generate these sorts of connections. Tom’s piece both provides his take on the strategic intentions of the positions being distinguished, and then explores one avenue through which one might also get “back” from the notion of “theoretical self-reflexivity” (or “reflexivity”, as I think we are now calling this concept by local convention) to some of the issues Alexei and Gabriel have raised in relation to the more common understanding of the term “self-reflexivity”. Tom argues:

To begin: when NP discusses ‘reflexivity’ then the term is deployed at a meta-theoretic level where it describes a condition of adequacy for theories that can explain how the context interpenetrative with a set of practices (paradigmatically a social field, such as one inclusive of capitalist relations of production) provides both the ground for the reproduction of those practices whilst containing an opening for a change or development (specifically, emancipatory change) in those practices. As I read this general line of thought, the aim is to determine a normative stance — some standards for assessment — that do not float freely of the object of critique; rather, they are to be rooted immanently in their objects. (Hegel attacks the contrasting pure ‘oughts’ in both his earliest works like The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate as well as his last ones, such as the Preface to the Philosophy of Right.)

A reflexive theory is one that will be able to explain its own role as an element within its analytic field, specifically the way that the very formation of the theory opens up new avenues for critical practice. Non-reflexive theories are thus those prone to forget their own contribution to their explanandum; so while they may be quite competent in characterising the mechanisms or functions that contribute to the reproduction of a set of practices, they ignore the fact that the very attempt to grasp this reproduction of practices, especially if the analytical theory is an especially insightful one that allows us to come to a good understanding of this reproduction, can intensify or disrupt the process of reproduction of practices. A fully reflexive theory will not only proclaim its membership of its own analytic field but will be able to demonstrate how it itself opens (and perhaps closes) critical potentialities. That is, it can show how its analysis of its object (the fact of its analysis, not just its content) does or does not provide a basis for specific changes in our practices — changes that were not even latently potential ones without the formulation of the theory. (In light of Sinthome’s posts on the materiality of writing, I am tempted to say ‘how it provides a material basis for practice.’) This will allow it to avoid an abstract negation that dismisses its object as inadequate without furthermore showing how this inadequacy may be overcome by building upon such things as the very realisation and attendant explanation of why the object is inadequate.

Logically speaking, a reflexive relation is simply one that something bears to itself (e.g. ‘tired cliché’ is a tired cliché). Thus, the meta-theoretic sense of ‘reflexive’ describes a theory that applies to itself. The other sense of ‘reflexive’ that has been in play over at Now-Times is one of self-reflexivity: the relation that the self has to itself. It might appear that there is only a linguistic similarity here then, for initially there seems to be no reason to suppose that the self’s relation to itself has anything much to do with a theory’s relation to itself.

Yet, I take it that the Kantian insistence on self-reflexivity as a condition for knowledge — that I must be able to relate to myself as a condition of entering into cognitive relations with the world — extends to normativity in general; that is, I must be able to relate to myself in a certain way if it is to be intelligible that I am legitimately appraisable for my actions in and attitudes towards the world. Furthermore, the way that I must so relate to myself is of the same form as the meta-theoretic notion of reflexivity. To see meta-theoretic reflexivity as a condition for an adequate critical theory — thereby a norm-bearing and not merely descriptive one — is to suppose that a theory must understand its own capacity to enable new determinate interventions with respect to its objects. A parallel move is, I think, to be found at the heart of the subject. So, a meta-theoretically reflexive critical theory is a structure of beliefs that theorises itself as a condition of its own normative claims being authoritative; where I take it that subject (qua minimally rational agent) is something that understands itself to have the power to determine itself insofar as it can be responsive to purported norms — introducing a possible tension between what it is possible we should do and what we might in fact do — as a condition of its activities being actually norm-governed (and thereby both potentially intentional and also rationally defensible and thereby be themselves authoritative).

That last claim is almost impossibly compressed here. To give a basic hint of what I have in mind, I want to claim that it is a necessary condition for the possibility of a norm being authoritative with respect to a certain activity that the person engaged in that activity can (but not necessarily does, as in constructivism) take themselves to be subject to the authority of that norm. The central consideration here being that it is the possibility of so taking oneself, endowed as we are with the critical faculties of rational agents to contextualise our activities against the background of standards which we can then endeavour to pursue, that is important. It is this capacity to view our activities against a backdrop of norms that fall short of rigid determinations of what we will in fact do that provides a partial ground for norms being actually intelligibly in play at all.

Tom situates these… er… reflections in the context of his own work, which, as he describes:

is coalescing around the compatibility of various broadly Kantian accounts of autonomy and their compatibility with post-Sellarsian understandings of how we can be ‘objectively’ accountable to an ‘external’ world that can exert a normative force on our practices.

Fantastic stuff – go see the original!

I suspect this conversation may also have reached the point where we may need a running tally of contributions. On some level, this conversation has been running between Larval Subjects and this blog for some time now. In its recent incarnation, however, I think the “excuse” for the discussion began with a very brief post here on theoretical pessimism. Sinthome then initiated the conversation proper, with a beautiful post over at Larval Subjects titled “Problems of Self-Reflexivity”, which used Sartre to develop some of my fragmentary points on theoretical pessimism into a potent set of reflections on how to grasp the potential for rupture within a social field. This post provoked a vibrant discussion, which eventually led Alexei over at Now-Times to chime in with “On the Concept of Reflection”, which tried to situate the discussion on the terrain of the conditions of possibility for the self-reflexive subject. I responded with the post “Self-Reflexivity Beyond the Self”, which tried to describe a bit better how I use the term “self-reflexive” to capture a property of a social field, while Gabriel Gottlieb posted a set of reflections of Fichte and the concept of self-reflexivity over at Self and World, arguing that Fichte might provide a means to do what both Alexei and I were trying to do. Alexei then followed up with more reflections on Fichte, which explored the issue of a self-reflexive process that generates products that are also producers, reacting back on the process itself. Fantastic discussions have ranged across all of these blogs – making this one of the most productive and generative cross-blog discussions I’ve seen (of course, I’m biased on this topic… ;-P).

Updated to add: Nate from the fantastic What in the hell…, who has been in this fray in the comments here and at Larval Subjects, has now chimed in back at home, with a set of reflections on the connections – and lack of connections – of this kind of theoretical work and the work of organisation, and between argument, and conviction.

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7 responses to “Reflexive Connections

  1. Pingback: Gee, Officer Krupke: Disillusionment with Reflexivity « The Kugelmass Episodes

  2. Pingback: Some Remarks on Self-Reflexivity and Rough Theory « Larval Subjects .

  3. Pingback: Roughtheory.org » Reflex Reflux

  4. Pingback: Roughtheory.org » Quick Reflexes

  5. Adam Leeds September 4, 2007 at 6:01 am

    Great discussions like this one make me think there is a gap in our technology.

    What I want is a metasite that only tracks conversations. It would represent the posts (including comments) relevant for any conversation sorted by time posted and post responded to, much like a threaded forum or mailing list. Does this exist? Can anyone make it?

    Does anyone have a good workaround they’ve been using to keep track of this sort of thing?

  6. Pingback: Roughtheory.org » Tracking Conversations?

  7. Pingback: My First Week (of Bureaucracy) in Freiburg « Now-Times

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