Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Short Pirsig Presentation

This was a presentation for a literature class I took about a year ago. The subject was Modernism and time, and we were each asked to read a book on our own and relate the subject of the class to it. I took the easy way out and did Pirsig, but it allowed me to not only help some of the students handle the theoretical concepts we we're struggling with, but also focus some thoughts about Pirsig and his narrative.

The biggest insight into Pirsig the class allowed was in the genesis of his classic/romantic distinction. It was never a distinction, or set of concepts, that I'd encountered in philosophy, though obviously "classic" was typically a Greek reference and "Romanticism" was a movement (of poets, and possibly more) during the 19th century. Turns out, however, that it was a much applied set of concepts in early Modernism, in the beginnings of literary theory in T. E. Hulme, T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis at the beginning of the 20th century.

The below, then, was written for an audience with a basic acquaintance with that context, though it does little to elaborate it. It is basically a very short introduction to Pirsig (though it does hazard some conclusionary remarks) for an audience who knows nothing of him, but has an interest in modernism, narrative, and timeIt also has a very simple, outline style, since it was to be delivered orally (with the ability to respond to a possibly dynamic audience) and it included a handout of selections from ZMM.

For a little bit about what we were reading at the time, you might read my critical jaunts from that class on James ("James and Woolf"), Lewis ("Lewis and Ulysses"), and Eliot ("Eliot, Forster, and Experience").

*NOTE* The internal, handout links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


I. Part I
a. The book is basically autobiographical. We are confronted at the outset with an “Author’s Note”: which says, “What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact.” It is thus that we approach the book as a kind of memoir of a motorcycle trip of the author and his son Chris, with two friends, across the Midwest to San Francisco.

b. Things aren’t all that simple, however. Written entirely in the first-person, the narrator quickly let’s us know that he isn’t just going to be narrating the passing marshes and mountains. (first quote)

c. This should remind us of Eliot and Lewis, railing against romance and newness for the sake of newness. What I want to suggest is that Pirsig’s book suggests an answer to them, indeed on their own terms.

d. The problem the narrator takes up are embodied in his friends—they don’t like technology, but they can’t really explain it. Part I consists in the set-up of the problem. He links his friends with hippies, and people more like himself with the “squares” and says there is a dimensional gap between them. (second quote)

e. In fact, it doesn’t take him long to deploy the categories we’ve been using this whole class. (third quote)

f. The narrator begins using these categories to organize the problem and move towards answering it.

g. However, a little ways into Part I, we are introduced to a new character. Stopped for the night at a campsite, Chris, the narrator’s son, says that a friend of his, who’s Native American, believes in ghosts. The narrator says that that makes sense. When Chris asks if he believes in ghosts, the narrator replies yes: (fourth quote)

h. As the narrator is falling asleep, Chris presses him on whether he ever knew any ghosts. The narrator says that he did once know a ghost, someone “who spent all his whole life doing nothing but hunting for a ghost, and it was just a waste of time.” We learn that the ghost the narrator knew was named Phaedrus, and the ghost he chased was Reason.

i. As the narrative continues, by which I mean, as the narrator continues, he becomes more and more preoccupied with this ghost, Phaedrus. He admits that all of the ideas he has are really Phaedrus’, including his use of the distinction between classic and romantic. At first his descriptions of this ghost are quite enigmatic: are we to really believe that the narrator knows a ghost, no less with the titular name of a Platonic dialogue?

j. The climax of Part I of the book occurs when we learn that the narrator used to be Phaedrus. He says he “first discovered him by inference from a strange series of events.” The narrator says that he crashed on a bed in a back room at a party one weekend and then woke up in, surprisingly, a different room. His clothes were changed and he walked down a corridor in what looked like a hospital. (fifth quote)
II. Time
a. I’ve spent a lot of time on narrative exposition, and particularly Part I, because the narrative—and the particular way it is written—is an integral part of the conceptual story that the narrator is also attempting to relate.

b. The narrator through the rest of the book spends more and more time on relating Phaedrus’ past—his past. We learn that he finished his first year of college, studying biochem, when he was 15, and failed out of the university when he was 17 for being unable to move past the problem of scientifically validating the scientific method. We learn of his encounters with the Enlightenment philosophers, David Hume and Immanuel Kant, of his short stint at the Benares University. In Part III, we learn of his teaching of English at the University of Montana-Bozeman. Each step leads us further and further back, it turns out, into philosophical history, until Part IV where we reach his brief studies of ancient philosophy at the University of Chicago, where he—Phaedrus—met his fate.

c. The fascinating twist of the book is that we learn, through the narrator’s own obsessive preoccupation with Phaedrus, that Phaedrus isn’t the bad guy, as ghosts usually are, but the good guy. The climax of the narrative occurs when the narrator realizes that he’s the bad guy for being the conformist. (sixth quote)

d. So Phaedrus rises like a phoenix at the close of the book, but this poses a series of questions:
i. Phaedrus was committed to a hospital because he became obsessed with nothing but his own philosophical preoccupations. So how is it good that Phaedrus is back?

ii. We’ve always been looking through the narrator’s eyes, through Pirsig’s writing, so of course, when Phaedrus wins the psychic struggle, he says that he—Phaedrus—is the good guy. So why should we trust his pronouncement in the last lines “It’s going to get better. You can sort of tell these things.”?

iii. We can now see the narrator’s own Chautauqua, from the beginning, as Phaedrus raising his voice, scratching back to the surface. We see the narrator’s increasing preoccupation with Phaedrus as Phaedrus beginning to win. And not only that, the narrator being preoccupied with Phaedrus is concurrently a preoccupation with Phaedrus’ original problems, the ones that got him committed. So, again, is this a good thing?

iv. Worst of all, we must confront the fact, completely ignored by the narrator except for the brief admission designed as exculpation at the front of the book (first quote again), that as the narrator relates the entire story, time is passing—which means that as he goes on and on about classic and romantic, Kant and Plato, time is passing on the motorcycle with him essentially ignoring Chris. Might this not have been the problem to begin with? Dereliction of life?
e. I think the problem posed by Pirsig, and enunciated in terms of classic and romantic, is roughly the same problem that Eliot and Lewis, and Bergson and James for that matter, tangled with. It is a towering complex of interrelated ideas, ones that Pirsig is at pains to swish around in his story, but the simple problem is this: for classics, revering the romantic, the now of life, is the reduction of life to a series of unrelatable moments, as if the romantic sucks the marrow out of each moment, but then is left no ingredients to make a stew. For romantics, however, to revere the classic, the underlying abstract forms of life, is to remove oneself from life, to play in an imaginary world of ghosts without any sense of what’s going on around them.

f. Pirsig’s answer, embodied in the story, is that both are right, the extremes of either are dangerous. Time is the ultimate category that governs everything, whether it’s the past haunting us, our slanted recapitulation of that past, or the relinquishment of responsibility because we don’t want to think about the consequences of our actions—because thinking takes time. Pirsig’s answer is that only a balance will do in an individual life. Cultures may have to sway back and forth, between broadening the banks in search of novelty and digging into the trenches to clear out the silt, but individuals should learn balance and harmony.
Handout of Pirsig Selections

Relevant Statistics
Born in 1928 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Holds degrees in chemistry, philosophy, and journalism and also studied oriental philosophy at Benares Hindu University in India. He published ZMM in 1974, though only after having it rejected by 121 other publishers. It is constantly being republished, a new edition with afterword in ’84, a 20th Anniversity edition, a 25th with a new introduction, and a 30th just for kicks. It has been called the “most widely read philosophy book, ever.” Robert Redford attempted throughout the ‘80s to turn it into a movie. He is also the author of this book’s sequel, Lila—published in 1991, and the only other book he ever did publish. He is still alive, living on a boat, probably somewhere in the North Atlantic.

On Chautauquas (7-8)
Unless you’re fond of hollering you don’t make great conversations on a running cycle. …
What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua—that's the only name I can think of for it—like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. "What's new?" is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question "What is best?," a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and "best" was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for.

Two Realities (57)
What you've got here, really, are two realities, one of immediate artistic appearance and one of underlying scientific explanation, and they don't match and they don't fit and they don't really have much of anything to do with one another. That's quite a situation. You might say there's a little problem here.

On Classic and Romantic (70)
A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance. If you were to show an engine or a mechanical drawing or electronic schematic to a romantic it is unlikely he would see much of interest in it. It has no appeal because the reality he sees is its surface. Dull, complex lists of names, lines and numbers. Nothing interesting. But if you were to show the same blueprint or schematic or give the same description to a classical person he might look at it and then become fascinated by it because he sees that within the lines and shapes and symbols is a tremendous richness of underlying form.

The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. "Art" when it is opposed to "Science" is often romantic. It does not proceed by reason or by laws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition and esthetic conscience. In the northern European cultures the romantic mode is usually associated with femininity, but this is certainly not a necessary association.

The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by laws—which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behavior. In the European cultures it is primarily a masculine mode and the fields of science, law and medicine are unattractive to women largely for this reason. Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic. The dirt, the grease, the mastery of underlying form required all give it such a negative romantic appeal that women never go near it.

On Ghosts (36)
"Laws of nature are human inventions, like ghosts. Laws of logic, of mathematics are also human inventions, like ghosts. The whole blessed thing is a human invention, including the idea that it isn't a human invention. The world has no existence whatsoever outside the human imagination. It's all a ghost, and in antiquity was so recognized as a ghost, the whole blessed world we live in. It's run by ghosts. We see what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. Isaac Newton is a very good ghost. One of the best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past. Ghosts and more ghosts. Ghosts trying to find their place among the living."

On Phaedrus (87-8)
It took me more than a week to deduce from the evidence around me that everything before my waking up was a dream and everything afterward was reality. There was no basis for distinguishing the two other than the growing pile of new events that seemed to argue against the drunk experience. Little things appeared, like the locked door, the outside of which I could never remember seeing. And a slip of paper from the probate court telling me that some person was committed as insane. Did they mean me?

It was explained to me finally that "You have a new personality now." But this statement was no explanation at all. It puzzled me more than ever since I had no awareness at all of any "old" personality. If they had said, "You are a new personality," it would have been much clearer. That would have fitted. They had made the mistake of thinking of a personality as some sort of possession, like a suit of clothes, which a person wears. But apart from a personality what is there? Some bones and flesh. A collection of legal statistics, perhaps, but surely no person. The bones and flesh and legal statistics are the garments worn by the personality, not the other way around.

But who was the old personality whom they had known and presumed I was a continuation of?

This was my first inkling of the existence of Phædrus, many years ago. In the days and weeks and years that have followed, I've learned much more.

On Phaedrus and the Narrator (412)
What I am is a heretic who's recanted, and thereby in everyone's eyes saved his soul. Everyone's eyes but one, who knows deep down inside that all he has saved is his skin.

I survive mainly by pleasing others. You do that to get out. To get out you figure out what they want you to say and then you say it with as much skill and originality as possible and then, if they're convinced, you get out. If I hadn't turned on him [Phaedrus] I'd still be there, but he was true to what he believed right to the end. That's the difference between us, and Chris knows it. And that's the reason why sometimes I feel he's the reality and I'm the ghost.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Spatial Model of Belief Change

I have three major goals in this discursus: 1) to explicate Robert Brandom’s technical vocabulary, 2) elaborate a spatial model of belief, and 3) apply that model to two different problem areas—A) Rorty’s Public/Private distinction and B) the Reason/Faith distinction (held in common by theists and atheists alike, two groups I specifically define as holding that distinction).

I. Logic and Making Beliefs Explicit

Brandom’s magnum opus without a doubt is his massive Making It Explicit. In that book, he develops in great detail an alternative philosophy of language (and much else) to replace the traditional representationalism that has been the paradigm of most philosophical work for the last 400 years, if not longer. Whereas Brandom’s teacher, Richard Rorty, spent most of his time making representationalism as a replaceable paradigm apparent, Brandom has done what Rorty only ever suggested and pointed in the direction of—developing an alternative.

I have not read that book, nor would I probably understand much of it if I tried, but thankfully Brandom has written an introduction to his systematic redescription of traditional philosophy, which he calls inferentialism, Articulating Reasons. Another helpful thing about Brandom is that he writes in such a way (befitting Rorty’s heir) where learning his philosophy is pretty much like simply “getting the hang of” a new way of speaking and thinking. He is also a brilliant expositer for what would otherwise be a tremendously difficult task—replacing one edifice with another. Since getting the hang of Brandom’s philosophy is synonymous with getting the hang of a new technical apparatus, one finds the tools he uses on almost every page, so there aren’t usually better or worse places to draw one’s attention to in Articulating Reasons, and for that reason I will mainly explicate Brandom without much reference to particular places in his text (most of the tools and orientations I will be referring to, however, come from chapter five, “A Social Route from Reasoning to Representing”).

Brandom is a pragmatist, and as such he wishes to follow out the Deweyan suggestion that we take thought to be a kind of practice. When you are thinking you are doing something, and Brandom wishes to describe what it is we are doing. One of the obstacles to viewing thinking as a kind of doing is the idea that our minds are passive mirrors upon reality and that whatever thinking is, we do it naturally. Brandom suggests, however, that thinking is like riding a bicycle—it is a social practice that we learn.

Two main pictures fundamental to Brandom’s view are from Quine and Sellars. From Quine we get the picture of the self (our minds) as a web of beliefs. Beliefs, however, are wont to be viewed as little static items that hang out unchanging if we aren’t careful. Following the pragmatist apotheosis of Bain, then, we can begin our analysis by construing beliefs as habits of action. For our purposes, which will eventually be to display belief change and the scope of rationality, there is a particular habit of action, called reasoning, that we want to understand. For that purpose, Sellars’ own spatial model, the space of reasons, comes in handy. This is the space in which we can say that we remain rational, for it is within this space that we play, in Sellars’ phrase, the “game of giving and asking for reasons.”

It is the explication of precisely what is involved in this game that Brandom is primarily involved in. I’ve previously reserved the “space of reasons,” or rationality, for Sellars’ picture (for reasons to become apparent later), but for Davidsonian reasons (which I will not go into), describing the space of reasons will be the same as describing how language functions. Thus, we get this description from Brandom:
“Specifically linguistic practices are those in which some performances are accorded the significance of assertions or claimings—the undertakings of inferentially articulated (and so propositionally contentful) commitments. Mastering such linguistic practices is a matter of learning how to keep score on the inferentially articulated commitments and entitlements [emphasis mine—MK] of various interlocutors, oneself included. Understanding a speech act—grasping its discursive significance—is being able to attribute the right commitments in response. This is knowing how it changes the score of what the performer and the audience are committed and entitled to.” (164-165)
What follows is an attempt to unpack part of the preceding, dense paragraph.

The basic idea is that Brandom redescribes a belief (a term he amusingly says he does not officially believe in) even further from Bain’s definition of a habit of action. A belief, for Brandom, is a kind of commitment. When you assert a belief, you are committing yourself to the content of that belief. If you say, “I believe in God,” you are committing yourself to the consequences of believing in God—which is to say, you are committing yourself to act accordingly. And because of the pragmatist housing of thinking under the broader category of doing, part of the habits of action you are committing yourself to are habits of speech/thinking. To put it another way, saying belief is a kind of commitment is to make sense out of the form, “If you say X, you can’t say Y.”

As an example:

P1) Bob believes in God.
P2) God created the world and all of its inhabitants within seven days.
P3) Biological evolution created homo sapiens over millions of years.

P1 states that Bob is committed to his inability to believe in P3. If Bob does happen to believe in evolution, then a friend of Bob’s, Carrie, could point out to Bob that, according to the scorecard she’s keeping of his commitments, he’s not entitled to believe in evolution—he has broken the rules of the game (called “rationality”).

It is a common happening of the world that people aren’t always fully aware of cognitive dissonances in their web of beliefs, and that these can be pointed out. Because we have so many beliefs that we could be aware of, it is quite possible that Bob had simply never been confronted with the fact that he cannot believe both P2 and P3. On Mondays through Fridays, Bob works as an evolutionary biologist attempting to discover when homo erectus gave way to homo sapien. On Sunday, Bob nods approvingly when the preacher reads from Genesis. Bob didn’t notice anything wrong until Carrie said one day, “You know, Bob—if God created the world, including people, in seven days, then there’s no way evolution could be true.”

What Carrie has just done is make explicit and an implicit tension in Bob’s web of beliefs. Every belief in our web gets its definition by its relationship to every other belief in our web (and implicit relationships are just as much a real relationship as explicit, even if they look invisible to the naked mind’s eye). The tool that was used by Carrie to make the tension explicit to Bob was logic (specifically the logical connective known as the “conditional”). Traditionally, logic has been understood as a canon of right reasoning, but for Brandom it is an auxiliary vocabulary of explication—it helps nonlogical vocabularies (like talk about rocks, or God) go from implicit to explicit relationships.

To sum up the pieces of Brandom’s vocabulary I’ve been deploying: beliefs are like point-masses in a web. As point-masses, beliefs have no definition outside of their relation to other points. This is to say that to know what a belief is (whether for others or yourself) is to know both what else that belief allows you to do/say (your entitlements) and what allows you to say it (your commitments). Logic helps you make explicit what other beliefs you are allowed to have and what beliefs you are committed to keeping.

II. A Spatial Model of Belief Change

Part of what upsets people with Rorty’s argumentation (which becomes more and more pronounced as the years wile by) is that he seems to take positions, and make argumentative choices, for eristic reasons—“I would lose this debate if I didn’t take this position” (i.e. “if I didn’t take this position, I would have to agree with you—and abandon other positions”). Eristic reasons have traditionally been ruled illegal (i.e. sophistic) because they flout truth: one shouldn’t simply argue to gain ephemeral superiority over a transitory opponent, let alone take a position simply because you don’t want to agree with them—one should only take the best position available. However, part of Rorty’s philosophical point (which his practice mirrors) is that eristic reasons are legitimate reasons (though not the only kind of reasons).

The reason for this is the same reason that it’s tough to tell the difference between Sophistic eristic and Socratic dialectic. The Sophists were said to be simply scoring points on the opponents standing in front of them, but that’s what Socrates looked like he was doing, too. The positions exhibited by the characters in the dialogues take the shape they do because of the positions and intercessions of the others. This is to say, both exhibit argumentation spatially, as positions, where moving on the X-axis shifts—whether you know it or not explicitly yet—your relationship to Q (that’s what the “and abandon other positions” clause, usually hidden in people’s understanding of what Rorty means, conveys).

Fig. 1 pretty much represents the spatial model of belief that Quine thought of with his web of belief. In addition to the panrelational quality of beliefs, on the spatial model we can also represent the tenability of a belief by the length of the line between the different points. We can think of the lines as like rubber bands and if a line gets too long, it becomes easier and easier to snap. Facing belief change is sometimes done consciously, but even unconsciously it can be represented as a series of choices, various alternatives of what might happen given increased untenability.

With Fig. 1, say you are faced with A and B:

A) you believe P and Q.

B) you are either 1) confronted through persuasion with believing R instead of P or 2) suddenly find yourself believing R instead of P (through sensation or other dramatic life event, like death of a loved one)

C) What do you do?
1) believe R and stop believing Q

2) forced with the loss of Q, reverse course to P

Both (1) and (2) are simple rankings of importance. In (1), you concluded explicitly on reflection (or we are to assume you must have thought, given exhibited unconscious belief dumping) that R was more important to you than Q, and vice versa in (2).
3) augment Q to Q´

By way of example, if Q is belief in God, you might change your relationship to God (in this case illustrated by the changing spatial inhabitation of your beliefs caused by the shift from P to R) without considering yourself to have shifted beliefs.

4) leave QR implicit, and thus unacknowledged and unfaced

This (illustrated by the dotted line) is the psychological option—which is not an explicit option (for if it was, it wouldn’t be the option it says it is)—that Brandom’s notions of logic helping make beliefs explicit sheds light on formally (which is to say explicitly). Beliefs, for Brandom, are not rocks you pick up and carry with you in a bag that you can inspect at a moment’s notice. Beliefs, following the pragmatists, are habits of action, which is to say for Brandom habits of linguistic articulation. And unlike rocks, habits aren’t something you can just look at and inspect—you can really only get a good look at them while in the act of performance. Adding a new belief isn’t like adding a new piece to a puzzle, where you can kind of glance over the whole puzzle notice clashing colors. Belief tension is more like playing different sports: it isn’t apparent any of the skills you learn playing various sports would clash with each other—until you try hitting a baseball and swinging a golf club. (Or think of Happy Gilmore’s importation of hockey habits into golf.)

The explicit way you articulate a belief shapes exactly what the belief is, which is to say there’s nothing exact about anybody’s web of beliefs because I know of no one who articulates themselves in exactly the same way, even if seemingly talking about the same thing they did the day before. Part of this is memory and part of it is actually being in slightly different contexts (and so causing you to call up slightly different words to articulate just what you think). Either way, though, to say that Q is the same belief from moment of expression to moment of expression becomes a slightly trickier affair, even without the trouble of P and R.

I don’t want to meditate on this difficulty in the isolated belief (which Brandom accepts full, slightly paradoxical, responsibility for in his work), but simply massage it for now by remarking, 1) remember that there’s no such thing as an isolated belief and 2) since beliefs are all hooked up to each other, like in a web, just ponder on how webs billow in the wind with sometimes great flexibility without losing their, shall we say, identity. I bring up the billowy nature of belief simply to make explicit the often lost possibility that it makes quite a lot of sense that people sometimes don’t face up to tensions in their web until some distance after the fact of belief change, like Bob and God in Part 1. Tensions don’t arise until they are made explicit, which can be done by yourself (if you are reflective person), by others (if you are making an ass of yourself and people are sick of your hypocrisy), or by situations (if you find yourself suddenly wanting to say two contradictory things). Since beliefs are habits of articulation, all thinking is an activity, and like all activities, can be practiced.

III. What Are Private Beliefs?

There would seem to be a 5th option, based on Rorty’s work, which would be to:
5) make Q and R not connect

Rorty’s notion of a public/private distinction seems to suggest that we can make beliefs not connect to each other (as when he suggests that we keep God and poetry out of politics), but under this model, it is understood that all beliefs are connected in some fashion. If it’s a belief, it’s a dot, and every dot has a spatial distance from every other dot.

Rorty’s been criticized in several different fashions on this score, some saying it’s impossible to keep beliefs out of each other’s way, some that he’s suggesting something like lying to yourself (an explicit (4)). If the former means “all beliefs are connected,” then yes it’s impossible, and then the latter collapses into the impossibility of the former (you can’t lie to yourself, at least not explicitly). But if the former is not construed that way, it is difficult on its face to see why we can’t keep our beliefs out of each other’s way. Does my belief that “God loves me” get in the way of my belief that “peanut butter is brown”?

What, however, if my belief was that “God loves me because peanut butter is purple.” Then there is a tension if I encounter peanut butter (unless my friends don’t let me open my PB&J sandwiches, and I just see the jelly trickle). What Brandom’s vocabulary helps us see, however, is that these two God beliefs are actually different because actually articulated differently. Articulation counts, big time. Further, we see that Rorty’s suggestion is itself about connections between beliefs, though it typically composes itself by saying it’s not (“God has nothing to do with democracy”). And here we see that Rorty’s strategy is (3).

It might be useful to see that Fig. 4 and Fig. 7 are both useful ways of describing the same change in belief, depending on perspective or attitude. In one regard, “Q to Q´” highlights the similarity between believing in God before and after disconnecting it from your democratic citizenship. One does this facing a community, so that if your membership in a community is at stake, you could suggest that it is a minor alteration within the pale, not a drastic shift beyond it (one might do this with belief in God or disbelief in a war). In the other regard, “Q to S” highlights the fact that in the previous, “Q” and “Q´” are actually different beliefs, and therefore occupy different spatial positions, and therefore have different consequences to your other beliefs.

IV. Faith and Reason

One thing I dispensed with early is the notion that Reason was a thing that could tell you anything, as in the phrase, "What does reason tell you?" There isn’t a faculty called “reason,” but there is an activity called “reasoning.” But, if we follow Brandom’s vocabulary for thinking of thinking, what do we do about faith, that traditional opponent to reason. What do we do about the person who says, “I believe in God based on faith, not a reason.” I do want to puncture the haughtiness of atheists, but we still must say something about it. The first thing to do is to realize that faith iseven if denied—a reason to believe, and so is an articulated reason. But that’s just a baby step: what kind of reason, what kind of seemingly homogenous, infinitely deployable reason is faith?

I think what we need to say about faith is similar to what Kant said about the transcendental ego—it’s that little “I think” that trails implicitly after every sentence. Now, in the case at hand, the reason known as Faith is something like a guardian angel attached to a belief. Remembering that beliefs are habits of articulation, a person is sometimes taught (as all beliefs are learned habits) that if asked for X’s commitments, to reply singularly with “Faith.” In other words, a person just simply learns that “faith” is the only commitment to some beliefs (though the entitlements are everlasting).

This is a fairly simple representation, but it doesn’t quite do full justice. While the above may be true for many simpler kinds of beliefs that some believers have, what are we to do with theology, or any of the sometimes massively articulated creeds of various religions? I think what we get is something like Fig. 9.

Remembering that a line is nothing more than an infinite number of point-masses, we might think of Faith as the shield that protects religious discourse from the entreaties of other discourses. In a way, this is very similar to Rorty’s public/private distinction. We could easily conceive it that way (see Fig. 10).

I’m not quite sure how to wind our way out of it, of what to say about dissimilarities between the two. One might be that the public/private distinction, while itself possibly based on faith (the faith of it succeeding, which is to say hope), is not itself a faith-shield. While the faith-shield in Fig. 9 is something like the ass-end of the outermost beliefs, showing off their commitments to incomers, mooning everyone else with their immunity, the public-shield isn’t exactly a commitment, but a prohibition, a stay-the-eff-out.

I’m not sure where this exactly plays out, but I do think that Brandom’s vocabulary helps us better understand what we are dealing with. We are dealing with people who think—just people who think a certain way. And it isn’t at all clear that us non-religious types, who out of force of habit exclude religious types from their “we’s” and “us’s” when talking about them, don’t ourselves have certain habits of thought similar to their’s with faith. I think that’s why Rorty talked so much about hope and ethnocentrism—what we do around here: both are conversation-stoppers, similar to faith, but it isn’t clear how, or why, one should continue a conversation on certain topics (like why yo’ moms so fat).

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Reading Academically

For some reason, they never teach you in high school there are different ways of reading. The trouble really starts, though, when they typically fail to mention this fact in college, too. Oh sure, you might take a class where they’ll distinguish between giving a Marxist reading, or feminist or deconstructive reading, but the verb switch says it all—when did reading become something you give?

It is a commonplace in post-English class social events, organized by outgoing students who could never pass up the opportunity to meet new drinking partners, that much of the discussion, should it revolve around the class, typically be aimed at how difficult it was to read the assignments, even if they’d already read them before. What is usually left out, because every undergrad class will be a hodgepodge of majors and req-seekers, is why this occurs. More interesting than that, even, is the fact that most English majors don’t even like what’s happening to them through the class (though they do typically know it has something to do with the writing—the “giving”). The crown jewel in this anecdotal survey, however, is my chance encounter with a former grad student in UW-Madison’s English Department, one of the top programs in the country. When I asked her why she was “former,” she said that it was destroying her love of literature. Why on earth would literary critics destroy a person’s love of literature?

I don’t think they’re doing it on purpose, but it would certainly help matters if they became a bit more honest and said up front that the loving of literature swings free from what they do professionally. To make matters worse, even if we leave aside those who do professionally what they don’t love (which occurs in every profession), we might also reflect on the difficulty we all have in expressing our own, often incommunicable love to other people. So when a professor earnestly fails in this expression and accidentally tramps down on the potential of others, we shouldn’t be that surprised. The professors we remember best from college are those who were eminently successful in expressing their love, typically through the performance of that love, which we call the lecture.

An undergraduate (even high school) English class has two primary functions: 1) Exposure and 2) Exploration. The first function is simply the exposure of different books. To succeed in this function, one does not have to have any particular way of reading in mind. You just shove books in front of peoples’ faces. To explore a book, however, requires a specific way of reading in mind. When one sits down to explore a book on paper, you aren’t writing a book report—we already know what the book says, we want to know what it means. You are not writing a book report. (This is a distinction easy to maintain for non-assertoric prose, but difficult for assertoric—why would someone making an argument say something other than what he means? Why, indeed. Though on the one hand assertoric prose has proven quite handily that the distinction founders as a theory, it has also shown how it can be used heuristically on itself, no less than non-assertoric, too.) In what follows, I will try and draw the most basic distinction between two different ways of reading, between reading academically and not.

I’d like to begin by literally describing how I read—we might describe the difference between academic reading and not by saying it’s the difference between reading with a pen and reading without. The first thing I do when I start reading is to begin underlining words and phrases (and starring passages) that pop out. Since one typically doesn’t know what meaning is being created by the text yet, you won’t know ahead of time what the important things are that you’ll need to remember later. So you have to trust your instincts—odd, interesting, anything that seems like it might become important or significant later.

The first step is underlining, which we do to aid our memory, for the exploration of a text doesn’t really begin when your eyes meet the page, but when your fingers strike the keyboard. The second step to move you towards that moment is writing down things that it occurs to you to say. Write short off-hand stuff in the margins, but keep a notebook around for longer occurrences of thought. When you are actively engaging a text for exploratory purposes, things to say about a text will occur to you as you go along. If you don’t write them down, you’ll forget them and these are the first keys to the text you have.

If underlining and writing down things it occurs to you to say are two practical steps to academic reading, then the first conceptual step is to treat these sayings you are writing down as claimings. Treat things you want to say about a text as claims or assertions. As claims/assertions, they have a certain structure. All claims sit in a web of other claims—every assertion sits in a web of inferential relationships with every other assertion. When we take a claim as an atom on a linear line (ignoring for the moment that a web extends 360°, or worse, is 3-D), we can sort out two parts of its structure with other claims. Every claim has an arrow that points backwards down the line towards its commitments and an arrow that points forwards towards its entitlements. When you make a claim, you are committing yourself to certain other claims and likewise entitling yourself to still more.

Rather than focus on claims in general further (which has all been hacked off pieces of Robert Brandom’s technical vocabulary), I would like to unpack this structure more by immediately applying it as my theory of academic reading. One way to take what is meant by commitments and entitlements is the simple, understood fact that every claim needs justification and that every claim has a point. If you couldn’t justify your assertion, nobody would believe you, and if you didn’t have a point in saying it, nobody would be very interested in listening to you. In the theory of academic reading, then, commitments are justification (i.e. evidence) and entitlements are enablements (i.e. interpretations). What you said about the text needs to be justified, but it also enables you to say something more.

When you sit down to write about a text, then, you already have a bunch of stuff to do. All of the sayings you wrote down in your notebook or as marginalia need to now be treated as claims, which means you have work to do. Every claim needs to be justified, which means you’ll need to find evidence from the text (so-called “quotations”) and every claim needs to have a point in being made—there has to be a larger goal. Your initial sayings about a text should be thought of as middle-sized claims. Looking backwards, these need smaller claimings to justify it. Just as we learn from philosophers that there is no such thing as a naked hunk of reality that is not under a description, so our English teachers have been trying to teach us to never introduce a quotation from a text without glossing it, without explaining what you think that hunk of text means. The text’s “sayings” only hook up to each other. Your gloss, however, is a small-sized claim that hooks up with your other claims—it refers to the quotation and shapes it for your purposes. So every piece of evidence is a small-sized claim about a text, ones that could, by the very nature of claims, continue to have commitments articulated, but for the sake of getting on with life, are hopefully justified in not having more said. This means that you are banking on the fact that your auditor also takes the claim to be small. Many instructive arguments have ensued when someone has shown that another’s small-sized claim isn’t as small as they thought.

Many times the hardest part in writing about a text, however, isn’t the small- or middle-sized claims, but the large point you are supposed to be developing in making the smaller ones. This is something that takes a lot of experience, but instructors would do well in helping their students to attain this experience by not telling their students to never say something new in the conclusion. If you think back to the five-paragraph model of writing that I think every American student was taught, you’ll remember that the first paragraph was your introduction, the middle three your argument, and the last your conclusion. You are taught, typically, that your conclusion should never say anything new, but rather recapitulate what you think you just did. This traps you, however, into only saying the smallest thing you think you can get away with, lest you risk getting a bad grade. This leaves you bereft of the experience of experimenting with larger claims, of never thinking about what this might further lead to or yield.

What we should rather do is think of the intro, with its thesis statement, as the middle-sized claim, the three middle paragraphs as the smaller claims, and the conclusion as your suggestion towards a larger claim. So, in my case, we might split up my introduction (“academic reading is one kind of reading”), my middle paragraphs (“writing with a pen,” “sayings as claimings,” “commitments/entitlements”), and my conclusion (“academic reading is really a writing”). Clearly, only a little bit of investigation would show that what has come previously doesn’t quite fit this little schematic, nor even the theory I presented, but the schematic and theory are only aids toward better writing. It sometimes helps, when one gets stuck in the process of writing (as almost always inevitably happens on topics of even slight complexity), to have a form in mind that one can recur to to help spur the writing again. The goal is always better writing, and having in mind the infinity of directions the writing might take sometimes crushes the effort to write, something a form to place on top of it might sometimes make more manageable.

Which leads me to my conclusion: academic reading is really a writing. It is a kind of reading that enables writing. What I think is important about this claim is that you are not committed to this kind of reading as the only or best kind. The only way to move from my claim about academic reading to a claim of superiority or singularity is with additional premises. What follows from this is that anger and bad feelings about literary criticism are misplaced when applied to the discipline qua discipline. Perhaps quite well justified animus is appropriate, not towards the way of reading itself, but towards the additional (often hidden and unconscious) premises snobbish lit crits would have to use in their argument (which is usually just a bald, haughty assertion, when even spoken aloud at all). Or just get pissed at the prof. But what they’re doing, if only injustice to, shouldn’t share responsibility.

It would be somewhat analogous to a political party asserting that governments suck at doing things, and then when they take control (based on such arguments, no less) and subsequently screw everything up, then saying, “See? Governments suck at doing stuff!” No—you suck at doing stuff. Governments qua governments are fine (for what they are). We should be able to separate the institutions from the operators, and perhaps the political party with the self-fulfilling prophecy of sucking should be the focus of the ire of the audience who is the object of that kind of G-sucks rhetoric.