Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

What Am I Trying to Do?

I received an email query about my conference paper which, among other things, asked:

can I ask what problem did you think you were addressing. is it the problem foundationalists worry about ie., how do we reliably/certainly ground our critique and/or our transformative practice??

I thought it was worth reproducing the question and part of my answer here (I’ll leave aside for the moment that it’s probably not a fantastic sign if my paper didn’t communicate what problem I was addressing… ;-P This isn’t the reader’s fault, but mine…). I took the question – perhaps incorrectly – as a question not solely about what I was trying to do in this specific paper, but about what I am trying to do overall – how this and other bits of work fit into a broader intellectual framework. I don’t think the answer I gave was complete, and I’m not going to expand it further here at the present time, but I thought it was still worth posting my response:

I’ve sort of shoe-horned the piece into the conference framework, which means that the introduction doesn’t provide the best way “in” to the topics I’m discussing. To step back from the paper in a life-project sort of way:

(1) I do have an interest in the issue of how we “ground” knowledge, but my intuition – if I can figure out a good language for discussing this, which is what I’m trying to play with a bit in the paper – is that this doesn’t require a move to foundationalism. My sense is that, if we think a bit more seriously about certain dimensions of recent historical experience, we’ll find that – at least at the Kantian/Habermasian level of very abstract categories of perception and experience – we can identify widely-shared historical experiences that handily explain why certain forms of perception and thought are so widespread now – even when the historical record suggests to us that earlier societies did not perceive the world in the same way.

Some historical theories, of course, try to do this sort of thing – but my sense is that they tend simultaneously to be too concrete – focussing on kinds of practices that empirically just do vary more widely than the forms of perception and thought the theories are trying to explain – and, at the same time, try to explain far more than can be explained through this kind of theory. I do think we have a level of quite broadly distributed historical experience that exerts a noticeable influence over what we do, and that getting a handle on this level of historical experience might be useful in a Habermasian/understanding-why-certain-political-ideals-resonate-widely kind of way – but theorising this (although I think it’s an important thing to do, and will cast light on specific dimensions of contemporary experience) also leaves an enormous amount unexplained – and this limitation needs to be explicitly acknowledged within the theory…

(2) I also have an interest in intellectual and social “fads” – these historical moments where certain topics suddenly become very exciting, and where the flaws of earlier forms of thought suddenly become very visible and easy to perceive. Again, my intuition – and here, too, I’m searching for a good vocabulary to describe what I’m after – is that these fads often have something to do with very tacit shifts in social practice which, since we don’t “think” with part of ourselves and “do” with another part, also involve small shifts in our concepts and perceptions. Concepts and perceptions, though, are portable – once we stumble across them, we tend to have a go at applying them to a whole range of other practices and experiences – and the more we do this sort of thing, the more plausible the new concepts and forms of perception become – because we’re effectively terraforming our social environment in their image…

(3) I have an interest in the way in which these sorts of issues make it easier for us to make certain kinds of fundamental mistakes (the sorts of mistakes we find so easy to perceive in the works of previous generations – missing obvious empirical and analytical objections to particular bodies of thought).

(4) Finally, I have an interest – which I’m currently trying to explore through a piece on Adorno – in the psychological consequences of the tension between potentials suggested by a very abstract level of historical experience, and more concrete restrictions on practice…

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