Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Dialogue

Transforming Communication

I’ve cut and pasted the ASCP conference paper on Habermas and Brandom below the fold, for those interested. The process of preparing for this paper has been interesting, among other things, in shaking out certain “what the hell is going on there?” questions that L Magee and I both share in relation to Brandom’s work – while these questions, and our debates around them prior to the presentation, led us to recast slightly what we said at this event, the material posted below the fold doesn’t clearly indicate those areas where we have open and active questions about Brandom’s project: when both of us are back in Melbourne, we’ll hopefully have time to put a few of those issues up on the blog, through some follow-up posts on Making It Explicit.

This particular talk hugged very close to the terms of a debate between Habermas and Brandom, and also provided a lot of background information that might not be as useful to folks who regularly read things here. Some of this background material – particularly on Brandom – suffers from code switching problems: those are my fault, as I wrote those sections of the piece, and so I’ll apologise for trampling all over Brandom’s vocabulary (and, likely, his framework as well).

We are actually intending to develop a more polished and rigorous article out of this, so critical comments and questions would be extremely helpful, for those who have an interest in this sort of material. (Note that, as we had a generous 40 minute allocation for speaking, the piece is somewhat long!) Read more of this post

What in the hell…

did you make me do, Nate?

I’ll be blaming you when I’m not sleeping tonight… ;-P

What I’ve done here is what I sometimes also do with L Magee (who will, no doubt, be glowering at me for working on this, rather than on Brandom…) – which is to provide your comments in full, in blue text, with my responses interspersed in black. This probably isn’t the most systematic way to respond, but it hopefully increases the chances that I won’t completely drop a major point. A lot of the responses aren’t very adequate – sometimes intrinsically, because the questions are too complicated to deal with adequately without their own full treatment, sometimes extrinsically, because I’m a bit tired and, particularly toward the end, just felt increasingly fuzzy and unclear, and so cut some responses short, hoping I’ve at least written enough to justify claiming to have tossed the ball back into your court… ;-P

For those reading on: since this is a long response to a substantive post, I’ll put the whole thing below the fold. If you haven’t read Nate’s original post, do that first, as I chop his post into pieces in order to respond to it; he was responding to my conference talk here.

Also, I notice as I’m preparing to post this that a conversation has been going on over at what in the hell… on this – I’ll just flag briefly here that I haven’t read that conversation (I wrote this post offline, and am just cutting and pasting it into the blog), let alone addressed whatever it says – that conversation I will need to pick up on over the weekend because, having written this, I’m definitely grounded and not allowed to come out to play again until my homework’s done.

Below the fold for the conversation… (which, I should also add, is rather dramatically unedited – urk!!) Read more of this post

Impure Thought

Wildly Parenthetical has posted an evocative brief reflection, taking up initially from a comment about writing, from Phaedrus, but leading to a set of questions about memory – and the relational possibilities for forms of subjectivity:

Memory is thus presented as authentic, self-sufficient and almost a way of investing the thought within oneself rather than in an elsewhere place. The self-contained subject must not permit thought to pass to elsewhere, and certainly must not allow the thought to circulate to another, much less another inanimate object—pen, paper, ink upon page, pixels on screen—before returning for it will never be the same… and nor will you.

Never let there be another to show you who you are, to let you be who you are; heaven forbid. And if there is such another, destroy him, destroy her, burn the paper, smash the liquid crystal, until there is nothing but you left, you and a lonely, isolated knowledge. As if no other form of relation were ever possible…!

My associations on reading this – which may significantly overliteralise Wildly’s intent in writing it – went immediately to the ways in which my “own” work has been influenced in profound ways by my connections and contacts with others. I’ve so often been struck by the disjoint between the notion of academic production as an “original” and “individual” effort, and my experience of “my” work as always refracting interactions with others, perpetually deflected by the shock of interaction. So much of my current writing is shaped by the problems that condense and crystallise only from dialogue, the dislocated insights made possible by sliding into perspectives of whose existence I would never have learned, except through others. I view intellectual work – not as necessarily collective, in the sense of a consciously-shared joint project (although it might under certain circumstances be that, as well) – but as transcendent of individuals who generate, not a lonely, isolated knowledge, but a unique refraction of a shared experience that each can only partially and incompletely express.

Habermas and Brandom, Facts and Norms

Update: This piece has subsequently been revised into a conference paper. The revised version is available online, and the comments section there includes a very good discussion and debate about the conference paper. We recommend that readers interested in this piece, consult the revised version and the subsequent discussion to see the further development of the thoughts originally outlined here.

Habermas and Brandom, Facts and Norms

In spite of the obvious difficulties of joint-authoring a paper with a fictional collaborator, NP and I have decided to submit a presentation for the upcoming Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy conference entitled Dialogues in Place. This comes on the back of a welcome return to the Reading Group, which has been in temporary hiatus. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a position to blog or comment here, but notwithstanding… NP has exhorted invited me to initiate a discussion around some aspects of our proposed presentation. The conference itself

will focus on the conception of dialogue
in philosophy, but with particular emphasis on the opening
up of philosophical dialogue between traditions and cultures
especially between east and west and on the way the happening
of dialogue in place sheds light on both the nature of dialogue
as well as on the place in which such dialogic engagement
takes place.

Our own presentation is somewhat tangential to these concerns, but closely enough related: it aims to examine the work of Habermas and Brandom in relation to the question of normative ideals. The purpose of the following discussion is to outline, in suitably rough and tentative fashion, some thoughts in relation to a recent interchange between Habermas and Brandom, following on from the publication of Brandom’s Making It Explicit. Signficant caveat lector: both NP and I are still slowly progressing through the substantive portions of Making It Explicit, and the following remarks should be interpreted in the light of an as-yet incomplete reading of Brandom’s work. I’ll start with an overview of the exchange, and an all-too-brief synopsis of Brandom’s account, followed by a break-down of Habermas’ objections and Brandom’s replies.

Read more of this post

To What End

The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning. If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think that you would have the courage to write it? What is true for writing and for a love relationship is true also for life. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don’t know what will be the end.

~ Michel Foucault

(1982) “Truth, Power, Self: An Interview”, in L.H. Martin (1988) Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, London: Tavistock, p. 9-15.

What is this strange thing about writing that requires courage? Where is the risk? Why is this task so fraught?

“It’s the problem with reading so many primary sources,” L Magee suggests the other day, when we discuss this issue, “You think you have to be that good.”

I mention that I am relatively good with situational pieces – the context is known, and bounded. It’s developing the boundaries that is difficult for me – deciding when it’s okay to stop. LM shares this worry: “I say to myself, how can I possibly write on this, when I haven’t read…” I wince, as LM manages to list some works I also don’t know – I feel the boundaries pushing farther back. Involuntarily, I remember ZaPaper discussing how research is fractal: no matter how much you drill down, things never seem to become less complex – if you don’t rein things in, ZaPaper argues, “One ends up investigating everything and writing nothing”.

In my conversation with LM, I change the topic quickly to get my mind off of all the works we have convinced one another we must read (I’m actually embarrassed to list the things LM and I are planning to read together this term – embarrassed because it’s simply absurd, the number of works – the number of fields – we are frantically trying to cover, in our quest to feel vaguely adequate to the problems we are posing. I’m reminded of Scott Eric Kaufman’s search for complete world knowledge – I think that’s a fairly good description of what we’re telling one another we’ll manage to cover in the next six months…).

I offer that I do better when I have a specific audience in mind, when I have some idea what concepts are shared, and what concepts need to be developed and explained in detail. “Write for me, then,” LM volunteers, “Let me be your audience – then you’ll know to keep things simple, break things down.”

LM is being modest – as if I haven’t received the most thorough criticism of my work in our conversations – I hardly need to be simple in our discussions.

The issue, though, isn’t really audience, or situation – or even background – these are all deflections from the core challenge, which concerns the question or problem. Writing begins in earnest for me when I’ve decided what the core problem will be. Knowing the audience or the situation makes this easier, because the universe of possible problems that interest me can be narrowed to the much smaller set of problems that jointly interest me and specific interlocutors, or that intersect with some specific situation. But the core issue is still defining the problem.

At the moment, I’m balancing across a few core problems, and have been writing at a level of abstraction high enough that I could keep all of these problems suspended at once. This was useful, very useful, for a period. But now I need to move back to something ever so slightly more concrete (realising that this term only ever applies in a slightly ironic way to my work), which will force me to leave some of these problems to the side for a time. As a step in this direction, over the next couple of months LM and I will be working on a proto-collaborative project from time to time, starting with a set of reflections on The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, and tentatively organised around the question “Is There a Logic of the Social Sciences?”

Ironically, this topic picks up on the very earliest theoretical question I addressed on the blog: whether it is viable or productive to seek to understand the emergence of the social sciences, and the relationship between the social and the natural sciences, with reference to some kind of strong ontological distinction between forms of human practice, or the properties of social and natural worlds as objects of knowledge. When I first addressed this issue here, I contested the validity of this kind of theoretical move, but left (as an exercise for the writer… ;-P) what a developed alternative might look like. We’ll see whether this collaborative dialogue allows me to pick up on some of these issues in a more adequate way – and how the question comes to be refracted when translated into a more interactive exchange.

I should note by way of apology that I pulled an unintentional bait-and-switch to get LM on board with this vision of a collaborative project. We’ve been talking about doing some form of collaborative writing for some time, but have both been too busy to undertake anything more involved than what we’ve attempted from time to time on the blog. Now that our schedules are lightening a bit, we returned to the issue of collaborative writing with a more serious intent. I suggested an upcoming (low key) conference, LM suggested something around The Positivist Dispute, and I proposed that perhaps we could look into the competing meanings of “the critical tradition”, as this concept was central to this debate. All well and good, and so we shared dinner and a nice conversation around what we might write, and then, just when all seemed settled and we were wandering into the subway station to go home, I was suddenly hit with the concept and burst out, “You know of course what we could do instead? We could also look at the whole notion of the logic of the social sciences – maybe title the presentation is there a logic of the social sciences?”

LM blanched, and reminded me that I had recently been lamenting that, when I present, people tell me I am… er… scary: did I really think, LM wanted to know, that presenting on this particular question would assist me in overcoming that perception? I found myself rationalising – oh, it won’t be that big of a deal – no one will show for the presentation, really, because the topic is just too abstruse – if people do show, it’ll just seem like a discussin of a dead debate, etc. LM seemed sceptical, and began to list people that would be likely to attend. I suspect I’m too tempted by the topic, by the problem, to let other concerns get in the way… This reaction no doubt has something to do with what tends to happen when I present… So here we are – at least for the moment – having decided to open a discussion on the blog, and then see what develops from here that we might (or might not) turn into a presentation in a couple of months.

Note that we haven’t settled on any particular order or schedule for posts. I’ll try to write something over the weekend to get things started – most likely focussing solely on Popper and Adorno’s original contributions to the debate, and exploring how the competing notions of critique yield different concepts of the social sciences. We don’t have any specific plans for what will fall out of this discussion – whether it might yield some kind of joint presentation, duelling presentations from competing stances, or a decision that the topic isn’t productive for what we each want to write at the moment – these decisions will emerge over time. Hopefully we’ll both find it productive for our current writing, not knowing how all of this will end…

Whereof We Cannot Speak

N Pepperell: I’m sure that regular readers of this blog will sympathise with the notion that “what the hell does NP mean” is a somewhat popular game locally, with the reading group members in particular often dedicating more time than my project likely deserves to piecing together what I’m trying to say and whether I’m making any sense. In this collective process of trying to make sense of my work – a process in which I’m all too often involved on a par with the others, rather than as someone with a clear concept of what I am trying to do – L Magee has proven exceptionally generous, providing detailed critical feedback on fragmentary writings, and workshopping concepts with patience and critical curiosity that I view as a kind of radical advance of faith that there might actually be something “there”, something “to” this theoretical project, if only one could work out what lies underneath my often confusing or ill-formed presentation.

It is impossible for me to express adequately the value of this kind of patient critical attention to work at best in pre-draft form. Even against the background of LM’s consistent generosity, however, I was stunned and deeply humbled to receive the extended critical commentary I’ve spliced below, in which LM attempts to translate into a more systematic form the main points from the Counter-Factual Immanence post, as well as from some of the conversations we’ve held in person around this piece of writing. This kind of detailed critical response provides me with an invaluable sense of how some of the points I’m making are being heard – and therefore an opportunity to clarify (and refine) what I’m attempting to say. I’ve asked LM’s permission to reproduce the extended commentary here. On the main page, I’ve left LM’s comments to stand on their own, so that readers can get a sense for how this extraordinary response reads in its own terms. Below the fold, I’ve reproduced LM’s observations once again, but with my own clarifications and responses interpellated into LM’s text.

L Magee:

NP’s argument in pseudo-propositional form (“Counter-Factual Immanence for Dummies”)

1. “Critical theory” is the attempt to articulate a theory of the social, as well as a position from which the social can be critically appraised.

1.1. As a tradition, it develops from Hegel and Marx, through Durkheim and Weber, to find its most explicit articulation in the first generation Frankfurt school (Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse).

1.2. Habermas deviates the Frankfurt School with a resurrection of particular Enlightenment ideals and a more optimistic, rationalistic and “problem solving” approach to the problems engendered by capitalism and modernity.

2. “Immanence” is an aim of critical theory to explain both the observed object and the observing subject within the theory. Phrased otherwise: the critical or normative outlook deployed by critical theory must be explained via the same categorial framework as the object of criticism, if theory is to avoid performative contradiction and asymmetricality.

3. Purely descriptive theories – Weber, Bloor – aim to describe the object without normative standpoints, and can therefore claim “immanence”. However normativity is retained tacitly; its’ lack of explication results in such performative contradiction.

4. Positive theories – variants of Marxism, Mannheim – can posit normative standpoints which are generated by the same conditions as the object of critique. For variants of Marxism, forces of production are generative of both criticised “dimensions of social context” – domination, exploitation, alienation – and the critical standpoints. For Mannheim, historical points contain potentials which theory and practice can fail to realise – and theory can point to this failure normatively without contradiction (there may be other contradictions between the descriptive and normative “modes” within Mannheim’s own account).

5. Positive theories nevertheless suffer from the failure to account for enough of the social context they critique. Consequently historical efforts to implement the positive elements of such theories fail to satisfy the utopian aspirations of such theory, and in fact frequently result in a sacrifice of the positive dimensions of the social context.

5.1. Critical theory arises from such failures:

5.1.1. It retains the aim of positive theory towards immanence. Critique must therefore be determinate.

5.1.2. It refutes the “positive” aspect of theory, by stating critique must also be negating – to negate the dominating impulses which were not sufficiently explicated under positive theory.

5.1.3. Critique is thus theorised as determinate negation.

6. Critical theory must, as an attempt to account for social context broadly, engage in discussion with theories and philosophies of particular and distinctive features of that context. Within modernity, science is one such feature.

6.1. Popper radicalises classical theories of science as teleologically oriented towards what is. What characterises science is its critical tradition. Criticism does not verify; it falsifies. Science therefore progresses, not towards truth, but towards precision, through endless falsification.

6.2. Critical theory (Adorno) posits that this critical capacity is suggestive of the existence of counter-factualism within the context that engenders it. Popper’s view of science is largely commensurable with critical theoretic formulations, which view critique as negation. However it fails to explain how negation is derived from the very context that allows itself to be criticised – it is therefore not articulated as determinate negation. (Popper himself cares little about whether his critical standards are commensurable within a historicising tradition like Marxist-engendered critical theory).

6.3. To explain critique as determinate negation, deductive reasoning – still the standard of critical reasoning for Popper – is insufficient. Dialectical reasoning is required. Nevertheless, for Adorno, even dialectics fails to quite account for the objectivity – within social contexts – of critical capacity. What is it about social contexts which determines the tension between the is – the factual existens – and the ought – the counter-factual that is equally determined by context? [I find this paragraph particularly hard or unclear; on the one hand, it sounds like a radicalisation of a perfectively normal, and long-observed feature of societies – that they produce conditions for their own change; on the other it suggests that dialectics is required but still insufficient. Surely this is simply aporetic – neither positivist nor dialectical reasoning is sufficient – so what then can be said of the grounds for Adorno’s own normative standpoint? It seems a grandiose incoherence, as expressed here… If so, it is not clear why you would care to use Adorno as a useful launching pad for theoretical speculation.]

6.4. Habermas embraces the diagnosis of critical theory of capitalism and modernity, but combines speech theory, a revived form of rationalism and a theory of communication as the grounds for the production of counter-factual within a social context which nevertheless has far from ideal “dimensions”.

7. Immanence, and by extension, self-reflexivity, are not therefore simply the ideal aims of a systematic exposition which retains symmetry and non-contradictory properties. The presence of these concepts as aims of critical theory is in fact suggestive of the broader social context which engenders them. [Assuming this is an adequate re-articulation: I’m not sure why it follows. Could they not instead be the kinds of ‘aleatory’ characteristics, produces by perverse individuals, and therefore in no great sense ‘determinate’? What justifies the claim that “these concepts actually provide important substantive clues about the nature of our context – about what our context is”. This, at worst (I know you say ‘incompletely’) begins to sound like over-determination – the very presence of certain concepts at certain times suggests those concepts matter for an explanation of the times. What, then, about: schizophrenia, trace, differance, episteme, discursive formations, mirror phases, base and superstructure, simulacra and a host of other conceptual terms? What do these say, if anything, about their engendering context?]

7.1. Failure to adequately conceptualise “immanence” – qua concept which resonates within a social context – and immanence, as an embedded property of the conceptualising theory leads back to the aporetic moment of Frankfurt School critical theory.

7.2. A consequence: all concrete social institutions can be radically understood as strained between tensions between the descriptive and the normative, the factual and the counter-factual, the is and the ought.

7.3. Counter-factuals – which now include immanence and self-reflexivity – are therefore embedded within social contexts as more than philosophical idealisms, but as partially constitutive of collective practices.

7.4. Immanence and self-reflexivity can therefore be understood as historically derived categories, rather than features of logical systems and theories. Goal-oriented theories – liberatory, emancipatory – which conceive only of the concrete social dimensions, without considering the counter-factuals which are partially constitutive of the social context – will potentially repeat the same failures of positive theories (and possibly not). [My sense is that, thus expressed, ‘immanence’ and ‘self-reflexivity’ look reified – conceptualised as things rather than properties, to put it one way. It is hard for me to see how collective practices can be immanent and self-reflexive, in other words adjectivally, in the non-trivial way you seem to be trying to get at here. But I may be misunderstanding this].

7.5. Without adequate articulation of immanence and self-reflexivity, which sees these concepts embedded within theory in order to arrive at symmetry without positing extra-contextual standpoints – the negativity of theory risks being misunderstood as “pure”. What is “pure” is what remains when determination is stripped away, therefore what is asocial and natural.

7.6. By foregrounding immanence and self-reflexivity as historically grounded and counter-factual ideals that are as much determined by context as any object of criticism, what is conceived as “natural” can be brought back under the microscope of critical theory as “social”, if operational at a level of abstraction which is hard to “see”.

7.7. Since it is social, it is something which can be criticised and potentially transformed by theory, which can therefore overcome the aporias of previous critical theoretic efforts, do away with the normative contractions of descriptive theory and result in more critically-aware transformations of social context than positive theory, which failed to see it replicated the very dimensions of context it sought to do away with.

N Pepperell: So now my responses below the fold… Read more of this post

Immanently Yours…

The wealth of material supplied by N Pepperell acts as a sure caution to intrepid guests, not to overstep their mark by way of tongue-in-cheek introductions and open-ended questions – particularly leading into holidays of national fervour… Not only does this lead to an avoidance of patriotic duty – long afternoons, barbeques and cricket under these antipodean skies – it ensures guilt-laden indigestion as well, as the reader attempts to sift through the subtle responses provided. All this, despite the assurances to the contrary from their author, made through various comments of fatigue, vagueness, distractedness and an invariably heavy workload… The embarrassment of riches which followed is all the more generous in consequence.

The intricate nature of the responses have suggested further comment to an already lengthy post would make comprehension difficult – so I’ve created a separate post with the first question and response below. I’ve followed with some additional comments in blue.

L Magee: 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?

N Pepperell: 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…

L Magee: The concept of immanence is certainly clarified here – thank you. I’m interested in following up on several implications for an immanent critique in what you’ve described. Firstly, it seems that it would be necessary to follow Hegel in demonstrating immanence – not in terms of the categories, and certainly not in terms of the result, but in how the critique would unfold, from a range of dogmatic “immanently voiced” positions through to its conclusions. The form of this critique is necessarily a difficult one for someone to follow, who is “not already tempted by the framework” – sympathetic perhaps in virtue of the result, the reputation of the thinker, the necessity to master his or her thought, and so on. Contrastingly, the normal form of an argument – take certain principles as a priori and proceed from there – is much easier (perhaps because of our collective early schooling in deductive reasoning, but still…). Of course, it should be more difficult to demonstrate that the “certain principles” are themselves not ahistorical truths but grounded in a particular history, that so are other principles of other arguments, including those of the current argument. However this is a lot of work for anyone to do before even getting to the meat of the argument, and seems to cede ground, as a rhetorical strategy, to a so-called transcendental critique, made on the basis of God, human nature, etc.. So long as your “interlocutors” will “trust [you] on this”, that’s fine – but I wonder in other contexts how an immanent critique could ever convince anyone not, as you say, predisposed beforehand? Indeed I wonder whether this difficulty results in a convenient and pragmatic reduction from immanence precisely to the very sort of positions being critiqued, ensuring a new form of “high-brow” vs “low-brow” version of any successful immanent critique – a cognoscenti who understand and interpret the critique into a set of dogmatic statements for those who can’t or won’t follow it. Granted, this is a less of a problem for the critique itself, and more of a problem for how to interpret and respond to it.

Secondly, I think your comments about “work” are telling in this regard – a critique is in this sense less a point of view taken in relation to a particular object, but an ongoing work into how particular points of view get to be taken with regard to an object at given times. As work, it can build on previous work, refine it, augment it, critique it and so on, according to the historical conditions which permit certain aspects of the work become more (and less) clear. In turn, later work may perform the same set of operations, with the assumption there are always “workers” sympathetic to this form of critique. It is at this juncture that I would see the distinction between the “philosophy eye-view” and “critical theory”; philosophy, at least classically (and also in its modern mode of formal logic), has great trouble reconciling its temporal contingency – why these thoughts, at this time? – with the universals it seeks to deliver. Conversely critical theory has the problem of explaining how the historical itself is anything more than a category dreamt up a at a given moment in history, as likely to likely to disappear once its utility has been exhausted. (Of course this dichotomy leads some to the apparently implausible, if highly praiseworthy, project of historical universals…). The notion of “work” as either the production of final account of some particular problem, or a continued effort towards a critique of a given idea or institution in terms of its historical traces presents, at least to me, a useful one for conceptualising these positions.

Finally, I wonder how an immanent critique might proceed without the sort of underlying metaphor or model of organic growth which Hegel uses. This metaphor is at the heart of the Phenomenology, which explains apparent oppositions as evolving moments in the organism – Spirit – under study. Under other critiques, this metaphor itself is heavily historicised – your talk, for instance, describes “capitalism as a form of social life that perpetuates pressures for economic growth” [my emphasis]. What seems to underly this is the idea that capitalism understands itself as naturalised, as a form of organism destinated to grow (via economic rather than biological means). For Hegel’s critique, the result nicely ties up with eventual maturing of the object; if criticism removes or replaces this metaphor, it has to devise other means for delivering its result – not as the product of organic growth, necessarily, but by some other process. What else, if anything, can be used to explain social and ideological movement and change? How does critique avoid, on the one hand, being entrenched in the back-and-forth movement of dogmatic inquiry, and on the other, repeating the progression towards some sort of holistic teleological meta-critique?

I realise both the initial and subsequent questions are somewhat presumptuous and out-of-order, given the context from which they spring (and the time it takes to provide any meaningful reply…). They are in part an attempt to grapple with how to interpret Hegel in a modern context, and an effort to bring to the fore the difficulties I have with understanding other modern interpretations – including those suggested at in these posts. So, some apologies in advance with the naivety in which these thoughts are voiced – truly, not those of one in any sort of “commanding position”. They of course do not demand or expect, either, the rich kinds of responses brought forth previously…

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!

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