Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Euthyphro Goes to Frankfurt: A Reading Group Q&A

L Magee:

As mentioned earlier, the last tattered shreds of the Reading Group met in its new habitual abode. Gone are the sunny and airy vistas, the stainless steel surfaces, the brusque and athletic efficiency of service common to our former culinary haunts; replaced instead by various forms of infernal howling and dark lustful depravity. N Pepperell, it has to be said, led the way from easy-going but undoubtedly false Consciousness to our current position, wallowing in the deep recesses of self-reflexive Hegelian turpitude, in the dank bowels of our revered institution. But I – and I think back upon it with some regret – was an equally willing accomplice…

Turning to matters of barely greater relevance, N Pepperell and I, in mutual shock and fatigue with our respective workloads, quickly gave up any meaningful discussion of such trivialities as the actual text of Hegel – though, to be sure, our respective texts were for one brief moment brought out on the table, perhaps in the vain hope that they would be collected with our plates – and instead sought solace in a broad discussion of a number of concepts which have circled around our discussions, and indeed this blog, without ever quite becoming clear to me. Accordingly I placed myself in the position of the (barely feigned) naive student, and proceeded to interrogate the master…

One of N Pepperell’s ambitious – I won’t say “insane” – preoccupations seems to me to be the attempt to develop a historical, self-reflexive and immanent critical theory, drawing on Marx, Weber and Adorno, among others. In the nicest possible terms, I asked N Pepperell to clarify what exactly this might mean… What followed was a discussion which certainly brought me to moments of clarity at the time – but in the intervening passage of a day, has somewhat receded into the conceptual fog which usually surround such concepts for me. In an attempt to regain what has been lost, I will place a number of questions which I raised below the fold, to which N Pepperell may respond with the usual insight and perspicacity… If the following appears to be a crude form of interview, all the more audacious for being located on the interviewee’s own blog, I apologise in advance – this seemed the most useful way to capture the flavour of the conversation (without, hopefully, all of my customary circumlocutions).

N Pepperell:

I find myself fretting over the change that our new venue seems to have wrought in L Magee, my steadfast companion in many a past intellectual journey – now inadvertantly embarked with me on what, certainly from LM’s description, appears to have become a journey of a more spiritual sort. I find myself disconcerted by the way in which LM’s thoughts now turn so effortlessly, and dwell with such ease, on images of “dank bowels”… And was LM always so preoccupied with the “athletic efficiency” of the staff at our previous venue? Has LM’s gaze always lingered so longingly on the stainless steel? Have our new quarters only brought such lurking thoughts to the surface? Or instilled them anew?

I am tempted, if that is the right term, to defend my choice of venue – to ask LM what could possibly be more uplifting than to conduct our conversations (as we do each week) before a gigantic mural of the Garden of Eden, the better to inspire us to resist the infernal temptations that surround us. I hesitate, though, in the awareness that such a statement might cause LM to examine the mural more closely, to recognise that its interpretation of the scene contains certain… unconventional elements… Perhaps I should have thought more on this, as a possible causal factor for our more unconventional experiences of late. If, as I often say, subjects are the subjects of their objects, then what subjectivities are nurtured in such a place? Worse still, I have recently been drawn into consulting on elements of the environment itself – slowly transforming our meeting place into an externalised manifestation of my own alienated thoughts… Best leave this point aside, then, and not mention it to LM…

Better, instead, to search for some other form of spiritual renewal. Perhaps LM’s spirit might find itself refreshed by some kind of dialogue in the light and clarity of virtual space?

No sooner had I made such a suggestion, of course, than LM had claimed the position of Socrates: conceptual fog, naive student – believe none of this, dear readers! LM has claimed the commanding position in this discussion – leaving for me nothing but the role of some kind of hapless Euthyphro… Nothing for it, I suppose, but to accept my sad fate… Onward then, to the agora!


Just a small note, before opening with LM’s first question below, that I’m mildly terrified of publishing this particular piece, as it really does reflect all the sloppiness of thinking and presentation that characterise my in-person discussions… I’m informal on the blog, but not generally this fast and loose… That said, I think perhaps there is some value in preserving a bit of the style in which these kinds of concepts get tossed around in discussion – precisely in order to rotate the concepts around and look at them from different angles, so that it becomes easier to make a decision about whether they should be tossed out or rethought from the bottom up.

So, although I think it’s worth a warning in advance that I may quite rapidly move away from many of the positions and formulations I outline below, I’ll let the content stand – written, as it was, in one go, without any attempt at structural or conceptual organisation, and with the intention of trying to remember some of what I intended to say when LM posed very similar questions in our discussion earlier this week (I use the phrase “intended to say” because, in spite of LM’s kind words above about the moment of clarity achieved through our discussions, in reality I was unusually scattered and unfocussed this week, and I can’t help but suspect LM has asked to follow up in this way, in part, to give me an opportunity to make at least a little bit more sense… While I appreciate the opportunity, I unfortunately can’t promise that I am prepared to make good…). I’ll also apologise as I’ve published this without time for a proper proofing to catch small errors – perhaps LM might clean up any typographical or formatting errors that make it through…

What motivates the aim to develop an immanent theory over a transcendental one? Why must a critical position show itself to be explained in the same terms as what it criticises? Why not, for instance, posit God, nature or something else as a normative ideal against which to measure a particular historical moment or social situation?

This is one of the questions that Hegel alludes to early on in Phenomenology: the idea that, if you just start off saying “I’m going to do an immanent theory – unlike all those dogmatists who posit a priori stances”, etc. – you’ve basically just demonstrated that you’re a dogmatist too… ;-P To be consistent, the position of immanence actually has to fall out of the theoretical argument itself – so that, really, you can only know that an immanent position is the best “standpoint”, as the result of a (fairly elaborate) argument, that would try to show that you can only make sense of certain important things if you work from an immanent standpoint.

So a stylistically or presentationally consistent immanent theory wouldn’t declare itself as such, but would just unfold an argument through the categories available within a particular context, gradually unfolding its analysis so that it becomes clear that a concept such as immanence is actually required to make sense of all the categories. Hegel – quite rightly – doesn’t trust his readers to “get” that kind of argument, so he adopts a kind of bifurcated presentational strategy, where some elements are quite consistently immanently voiced, while other elements are full of, effectively, stage whispers and stage directions – hints to the reader about what he intends to do, so the reader won’t lose patience or become confused at the strategic intent of the sections that are more immanently voiced.

So, to address your question more directly: there is no way to make an a priori case that a critical position must account for itself using the same kinds of analytical categories that it uses to make sense of its environment. It’s entirely possible to posit God, physical nature, human nature, or similar as a normative standpoint – and, in fact, when I’m discussing these issues in a context where I can’t unfold a lengthy argument about the value of immanent theory (where, as a matter of practicality, I effectively have to assert immanence and ask my interlocutors to “trust me on this one”… ;-P), I’ll almost always mention that, if people are happy positing a God, or nature, or some other transcendental standpoint, then they won’t have to answer the sorts of questions I think I have to answer. If I have an opportunity to discuss the issue over a longer period of time, I’ll then explain why I think appeals to transcendental standpoints provide particularly poor means of answering certain kinds of questions – but it generally takes longer to make this kind of case, than it does just to set out – dogmatically, as Hegel would say – that certain specific standards of proof and argument begin to apply, once you begin operating within an immanent framework.

What begins to motivate thinking about an immanent theory, in a contemporary social theoretic context, is usually a recognition that the object of analysis – social institutions, normative ideals, collective practices, etc. – has actually changed over time. The point of a non-immanent concept is, generally, that it can be universal or timeless or transcend contexts. When you try to use a non-immanent concept to explain something that changes over time (and people do this all the time, of course) the form of reasoning is necessarily reductive – you are dismissing or deliberately ignoring qualitatively specific elements of your object, in order to assimilate that object into something more generic. This form of reductionist reasoning is quite valid – and quite useful – for many practical purposes, so I would have no blanket criticism that would rule out the use of reductive forms of thought for all purposes.

This kind of reduction, though, tends to be associated with ontological, rather than with simply pragmatic, claims: so, people perceive that the universal or general elements to which an object is reduced are the “essence” of that object, while other elements are less essential. You then get questions about how one can decide what’s essential, and what is mere appearance – and this often leads into a kind of scepticism we’ve discussed in the reading group in relation to Weber: the feeling that, really, there is no standpoint from which one could make a decision on such things, so the choice is essentially arbitrary (or pragmatic). So one of the things Hegel, for example, is trying to do is to make the case that, actually, things aren’t anywhere near as arbitrary as they seem – that it’s not an accident that we experience some choices as arbitrary, but that this experience doesn’t actually mean that things are random. I’m not saying this very clearly – and I know I’ve promised to post on this issue (Sarapen mentioned the other day that, where his blog used to be the thing he did to procrastinate on his work, he has now reached the point where he finds himself procrastinating on his blog – I think I’m at that point, as well… ;-P). But for the moment I want to leave this kind of philosophy-eye view of the problem to one side, since your question was really about critical theory specifically, and why immanence is particularly important in that context.

First, of course, there are critical theoretic approaches that aren’t immanent: that, for example, criticise existing society against a notion of human nature – or, for that matter, against religious ideals. So, in a sense, when I toss around the term “critical theory” in a casual way, I’m using it as an informal shorthand for a particular kind of critical theory: specifically, a theory that operates in a secular framework (which is more or less what “materialism” means, in its original sense), and that also tends to think that at least the historically specific elements of contemporary societies and contemporary forms of subjectivity must be explained in historical and social terms. One core goal of this kind of critical theory is to provide a secular explanation for an object of analysis that changes over time. If the object changes, and yet we try to explain the object with reference to categories that are themselves understood to be timeless or transcendent, then we know from the outset that we’re engaging in a form of reduction – specifically, a form of reduction that will abstract away from whatever changes. The problem is, since we’re talking about critical theory here – theory oriented to exploring what might make change possible – it’s not terribly helpful to engage in a form of analysis that abstracts away from whatever is temporally specific… So, since the object of analysis is perceived as an historical object, and the goal of the analysis is to cast light on further potentials for historical change, there’s a need for the categories of analysis themselves to be historical categories – otherwise, it’s a bit difficult to see how the theory can grasp the things it claims to want to understand…

That said, I don’t actually believe most approaches to critical theory have come terribly close to this ideal. I think that many approaches – including some that set out with a strong commitment to producing a thoroughly historical theory – in practice only apply their historical sensibilities to half the equation: they’re happy to historicise the thing they want to criticise; considerably less happy to historicise the ideals in the name of which they criticise that thing. Tacit notions of nature (including quite complex notions of historically-emergent nature) tend to be the actual grounds for the normative standpoints of most critical theories. In this sense, they fall short of the Hegelian ideal and are arguably not terribly consistent with their own stated argumentative standards. More importantly, though, this one-sidedness (I personally think) tends to lead to a lack of appreciation for the generative role played by our current context as an incubator for progressive ideals and practices – which can both drive theories into a more pessmistic direction (more on this in response to your question below), as well as leading to positions that the current context would need to be smashed, rather than preserved through the fulfillment of the potentials it has generated…

I should also mention that a consistent immanent approach to critical theory can’t just assert as a stance, e.g., that a secular theory is the way to go, or that historical objects must be apprehended historically, or any of the other stage direction sorts of positions I’ve mentioned in passing above: a fully consistent immanent critical theory would have to explain these forms of subjectivity just as it explains its other critical ideals (for these concepts do function as normative ideals, grounding critical judgments of other intellectual – and social – movements). The problem is, of course, that it’s presentationally impossible to keep all of these conceptual balls in the air at one time – you can’t always be offering the meta-analysis of how each term you use has been properly grounded, etc. You’d never actually get around to saying anything… ;-P So my approach has been to use a combination of stage directions, combined with a very open and explicit acknowledgement that, in a particular text or conversation, I’m not actually providing sufficient justification to persuade anyone not already tempted by the framework I’m outlining. Then, depending on the concept, I might be able to point to some other work that has carried out some kind of grounding in a more adequate form, or I might need to say that this is work that remains to be done. There is a necessary caveat emptor warning that needs to accompany presentations of this kind of theory, at this point – unless someone is prepared to believe that Hegel or Marx has adequately carried out an immanent explanation to their satisfaction…

It seems to me that once a theory brings itself to be self-reflexive – seeing this as one of the things it as a social theory must do – a likely (perhaps not inevitable) result is to wallow in a kind of relativism entailed in seeing itself as just another determined moment, one among others. This weakens if not negates its critical impact. Or alternatively, the theory can proceed to criticise without being quite able to account for its right to criticise – I see Adorno, at least in the accessible ‘Culture Industry’ version of him, working in this way, without considering what sorts of alternatives could practically exist. This is I assume one facet of what you talk about in relation to theoretical pessimism. What, outside circular critiques and theoretical pessimism, are the possibilities for a self-reflexive form of critical theory?

When I was doing my previous postgrad degree, I used to get criticised fairly often for being arrogant, where what provoked the criticism was not any actual argument I was trying to make, but the questions I was asking. My response then used to be: how can a question possibly be arrogant? You ask questions after my own heart… ;-P The answer to this question would, in a sense, be a fully developed critical theory – which I don’t have, and wouldn’t be able produce here in any event… ;-P

But my intuition is that critique tends to fall into these dichotomous circles – self-undermining relativism vs the reach outside of context for normative ideals – because context itself is not being thought in a sufficiently complex way. The original Marxist notion of critique was that our context (depending on the strain of Marxism, perhaps all contexts) was characterised by one fundamental contradiction: between the forces and relations of production. The forces of production – the historical learnings embodied in technology and in social organisation, as well as the persons who did the actual producing – were understood to be progressive forces, generating potentials and driving history toward the realisation of these potentials. The relations of production – class hierarchies of various sorts – held back these potentials, until the point at which a revolutionary transformation overthrew those relations and opened historical space in which newer, more adequate social relations could be instituted. And so the cycle continued until, the theory held, we get to the contradiction within capitalism between the forces of production – which suggested the potential for socialised production under collective control – which were held in check by the irrationalities of class domination grounded in the social relations imposed by the market. Within this framework, critique aligned itself with one dimension in this conflict – and justified this alignment on the grounds that history was trending this way in any event, so the normative ideals pointed to something “objective”, even though this objectivity had yet to be historically realised.

I can go through a bit of the intellectual history of why this approach to critique comes to be viewed as problematic, if anyone wants, in a follow-up comment. For the moment, though, I’ll just take this as read, and say that, in some ways, critique has never fully recovered from the collapse of this particular approach to explaining an immanent normative standpoint. (I actually think it can be demonstrated that this approach wasn’t, in fact, immanent, but I’ll leave that to one side for the moment, as well…) So we still need, I think, a good articulation of how to conceptualise critique when we don’t intend to reach outside our context.

I don’t have a fully developed position, but my intuition is that a position lies in taking quite seriously some of the ideas contained in a passage I often quote from Benjamin:

‘One of the most remarkable characteristics of human nature,’ writes Lotze, ‘is, alongside so much selfishness in specific instances, the freedom from envy which the present displays toward the future.’ Reflection shows us that our image of happiness is thoroughly colored by the time to which the course of our own existence has assigned us. The kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to, women who could have given themselves to us. In other words, our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. The same applies to our view of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. Historical materialists are aware of that.

I probably shouldn’t use this, because Benjamin writes in such a cryptic way – and this passage is very dense, combining as it does a commentary on what I would call our critical standpoint, with a (related) commentary on how we perceive history. I take Benjamin to be pointing, though, to something parallel to Marx’s line about how humanity only sets itself problems it can solve – that things only come to be experienced as problematic when we perceive that something can be done about them: I take Benjamin to be suggesting that what we desire – what we miss – what we experience as lacking from our lives – can be experienced this way only because we have an experiential basis for knowing that it need not be lacking. (Benjamin then engages in a complex series of reflections on how we often project the ideals derived from this process back into history, rather than recognising the contemporary basis for our critique – I agree with this dimension of his argument, but will leave it aside for present purposes…)

So, this won’t really answer your question, but my very preliminary response is that I sense a way to get around the relativism vs. pessimism dichotomy by being a bit more… generous – a bit less comprehensively hostile – to our present social context, exploring the ways in which it has generated enormous potentials, which are available to be fulfilled and redeemed. Critical ideals grounded in such potentials can be immanent and yet also non-relativistic, as the critic can make judgements about intellectual and social movements, and about the current organisation of our social life, based on the standard of how well these things allow us to redeem potentials we have generated in alienated form. There’s then a much more complex set of analyses to be done about how to understand these potentials – I tend, following Habermas (now that’s something you’ll rarely hear me say!), to view potentials quite abstractly, and to conceptualise them in terms of counter-factual ideals and forms of subjectivity, rather than in terms of existing concrete social institutions. But this position is quite difficult to explain without a lot of background work…

Despite the obvious idealism inherent in Hegel’s position, his critique is also avowedly immanent – rather than proceeding from first principles taken to be self-evident or postulates, the dialectic attempts to gather up various apparently contradictory positions, to demonstrate how these are in fact related to a greater whole, which must nonetheless move through these positions to assume its proper form. Given the end of this movement is ultimately Absolute Knowing, ie. in idealism of the strongest kind, why does this form of reasoning continue to resonate with critical theory?

The short answer is that it doesn’t resonate – not with very many approaches to critical theory these days. There was a massive reaction against Hegel, which has relaxed a bit fairly recently (as a dimension, I suspect, of a broader social and cultural shift in the ’90s), but many critical theoretic traditions would see themselves as critics of Hegel. There are gradations, of course: the model, as you’ve described it, of trying to gather up contradictory positions to demonstrate that they share common assumptions, is a form of critique that has remained very popular in German theory in particular – but this isn’t always articulated with reference to some greater whole: you can also have a form of this argument, for example, that just demonstrates the shared assumptions of the positions being rejected, in order, for example, to show that a common critique can be applied to both. This argumentative strategy doesn’t necessarily and intrinsically require a view from the standpoint of totality.

But your more fundamental question, I take it, is aimed at me. 🙂 You’re asking, in effect, how I think I could appropriate an approach that aims to position competing positions in a social field, and make normative judgments about those positions, without claiming that my normative judgment expresses the standpoint of the totality (or the direction in which history is trending, or the perspective of the universal subject, or similar). I don’t have a complete answer – even on a procedural, “here’s what it would require” level – as you’d know from our discussion the other day. My intuition is that slightly different things would be involved, for slightly different forms of judgment – that it matters, for example, whether I’m trying to ground a judgment that something is “utopian” (unrealisable in practice), or a judgment that something falls below what we know to be possible (unjust), or a judgment that something violates standards that we have reason to expect would be shared in our context, etc.

The first step would be to provide an explanation for why certain concepts have become readily available to thought in our historical moment. From our discussion the other day, you know that I think of this probabilistically: in other words, that I don’t think the argument needs to take the form that people must think in certain ways, or that they cannot think in others. I think we’re essentially talking about getting a better understanding for why the experience of living in a particular social environment, experiencing and interacting with certain dimensions of that environment, makes it reasonably likely that you’d run into individuals who perceive and think about that environment in specific ways.

From here, you can begin talking about how to ground judgments, the easiest of which would probably be about forms of perception and thought that can be shown to be self-contradictory in some way, or forms of thought that are clearly directed at a specific end, where you can demonstrate, with respect to a better understanding of the context, that this is not the end that will result from those practices. This is useful – particularly for judgments within more academic contexts – but the most important forms of judgment, particularly in relation to normative ideals, are much more complex: I may be able to show, for example, that there are elements of our social context that will continue to suggest to people that all humans can be equal – and I may be able to suggest that the ideals of equality thus inculcated will make it very likely that regimes that try to deny this ideal, will encounter steady pressures and periodic outbursts seeking a fuller realisation of this ideal. But by itself, this can fall into a kind of crass pragmatic argument – suggesting, perhaps, the need to accommodate some bare minimum of rights on some kind of social hygenic grounds of minimising unrest – a sort of Durkheimian calculus of the tolerable level of social disaffection. A more powerful argument, I suspect, would result from something that looked more intensively into internal subjective tensions that result from our experience of unrealised social potentials – something along the lines of what I think Adorno was seeking to do. But my thoughts on this really need systematic reflection…

I have an ongoing confusion about the concept of ‘determination’ in both Hegel and subsequent critical theory. For example, it remains ambiguous to me as to whether the course charted in the Phenomenology is a necessary one for Consciousness, or only one among others – which having been commenced, acquires a determinate form in its subsequent progression. What relation does this concept of ‘determination’ have for critical theory, and how does theory avoid the circuitous path alluded to above, of explaining its own existence as well as everything else as being pre-determinated – and thereby losing any critical agency (since its effect are also equally pre-determinated)?

My sense is that the phrase “determination” has been flattened considerably by the English associations to terms like “pre-determination” – suggesting that arguments about how things can be “determined” are automatically arguments about causation. My sense is that, in someone like Hegel, the concept of “determination” carries two valences, neither of which are strictly causal: one relates to the concept of “necessity” (which might be logical necessity, rather than causal necessity); the other relates to something like “qualitative specificity”. I take Hegel’s main concern to be ensuring that his theory “determines” concepts in the specific sense of grasping their qualitative specificity, as opposed to more reductive forms of analysis that abstract away from this specificity. I’ll bracket for the moment the issue of “necessity” in Hegel, as I’m still grappling with the sense in which he means this concept myself.

When I talk about “determination” in relation to my own work, I’m never talking about causal determination – I’m talking about qualitative specificity. Issues of causation are separable from this – and my personal inclination is actually to view causation as quite complex and multi-faceted. I’ve been experimenting recently with how to think about the potential impacts of very small changes in social practice, which, since we don’t “do” with part of ourselves, and “think” with another, always necessarily also entail small changes to the practices of thought. I’ve wondered about the role such small changes might play in “priming” us, in familiarising us with particular ways of thinking – and thus rendering us more receptive than we might otherwise be to similar practices and forms of thought, so that we find ourselves suddenly “recognising” or experiencing a resonance with some new concept, without understanding why the concept appeals. It’s very easy, in such a circumstance, to achieve a kind of “snowball effect”, where we suddenly terraform large aspects of the social world, because each aspect we transform makes us receptive to further transformations in similar directions. This is of course a very abstract and general point – it needs to be wedded with an understanding of the kinds of pressures for change and transformation in our specific social context that provide the grist for our changing experiences… My thinking on all of this is very preliminary…

Note: I’ve evidently buried LM in so much incomprehensible prose, that the discussion is being taken up, in parts, in another post – or perhaps posts. To see where things go from here, go to LM’s next post “Immanently Yours”.

One response to “Euthyphro Goes to Frankfurt: A Reading Group Q&A

  1. Pingback: » Lending My Coffee Shop a Hand

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: