Friday, August 15, 2014

The Legacy of Group Thinking, III

“From Philosophy to Cultural Politics”

1.      This is something like a conclusion to “The Legacy of Group Thinking” and its addendum, "Probability, Community, and Criteria." Whereas the addendum was closer to a reworking of the same set of issues in the microcosm of two particular examples Bromwich uses in Politics by Other Means, this piece gets to the point of wanting to formulate an answer—what is the legacy of what Bromwich disparages as “group thinking”? Because if I’m right in the first two, then thinking should be more complex in relationship to group identification and one’s community of origin then Bromwich at times lets on. And moving toward that assessment raises the larger question that lurks in the background of discussion of “political correctness” and affirmative action policies—how do you change people?

Rorty gradually came to identify philosophy with what he called “cultural politics.” Rorty’s attack on what he referred to as the Cultural Left in Achieving Our Country—the tenured post-Civil Rights generation that transformed, in particular, English departments—cannot be understood properly until one makes the connection between his dismay over their abdication of money as an issue and his sense that all philosophy has ever really been is cultural politics. One way to see why Rorty entitled his last collection of essays Philosophy as Cultural Politics is a characterization I first encountered in Alan Malachowski’s book on Rorty. At the close of his introduction, he has a short section called “Philosophical Propaganda” that draws a parallel between Madhyamika Buddhism and the position Rorty had been trying to establish with the idea of “edifying philosophy” in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and his ostensible abjuration of argument in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. [1] The idea is that explicit, premise-matching-premise argument won’t get you far in debating deeply held commitments. The only thing to do is to try and explain why your own commitments are more attractive than your cultural opponents, which is kind of like propaganda. [2]

2.      There are two thoughts underneath this position about philosophy as cultural politics: 1) that any conceptual position, given enough time and ingenuity, can be made coherent with the rest of one’s beliefs; 2) we should make a distinction between long-term utopic dreaming and short-term political reform. Since the first, in particular, is contentious, I should like to give a little plausibility by outlining the kind of options that Rorty is thinking of. Let’s say argument/non-argument and long-term/short-term mark two axes. The different combinations would give us a box diagram like this

Short-term Long-term
Argument Political Debate Philosophical Debate
Non-argument Political Propaganda Philosophical Propaganda

This is helpful to have up front before thinking about Rorty’s point coherence, because it is linked to his thinking about argument. It importantly involves the conceptual point that a conclusion only follows as a consequence if one accepts the premises of an argument. One, then, is always free—argumentatively speaking—to reject the premises of the argument an opponent wields to wriggle free from a conclusion. Then the task is to make sure your rejection of the premise is consistent with all the other things you want to say. This sounds sophistical because one isn’t supposed to reject premises simply because one doesn’t like the conclusion. But I suspect it’s more complex than that given this problem: when are you supposed to know when to reject a premise? Do you just naturally know a false premise when you see it?

I suspect the latter is not the case, but it’s hard to spell out why without running into all kinds of philosophical choices. The main issue is that I don’t think people just walk around with a bag full of premises they endorse that they can then check against when confronting an argument. Inferential thought works via syllogisms with premises and conclusions, but thinking doesn’t. So I think a perfectly reasonable cue for “hearing a note of falseness” in an argument, as one might say, is reaching a conclusion you’re violently opposed to from premises that are innocuous. Like inferring from “Thomas Jefferson is the best” and “Thomas Jefferson was white” to “white people are the best”—it’s okay to get to the conclusion and think that something has gone awry.

3.      So, say something sounds wrong with Rorty’s conclusion in (1), and you withhold acceptance of the full point that, given enough time and ingenuity, any conceptual position can be made coherent with the rest of one’s beliefs—we don’t actually need the full point to see the point of having the four boxes. Let’s say that Philosophy is, broadly speaking, the attempt to make all of your beliefs coherent—to make them all explicit and laid out and systematized so there are no contradictions or tensions between beliefs. Reflecting on the point that Philosophical Debate in the European tradition has been going on for 2500+ years—somewhat arbitrarily marking it with the Ionians—with hardly a true death for any particular philosophy, it seems safe to concede that the attempt to make yourself coherent is a process more prone to the death of participants than positions.

It’s different for Politics. Whereas Philosophy is about Thoughts hooking up to other Thoughts, Politics is about Thoughts hooking up to Actions. Democratic politics has a terminus—whatever agreed-upon point at which debate ends, and people vote for one action over another, with the stipulation that everyone in the debate abides by the vote. Of course, as we know, you don’t have to agree with the action, but the institutional apparatus has been empowered to act. Debate might be taken up again, at a later point, to act differently—but this simply marks the difference between Thought and Action. Action is radically contextual in a way that Thought is not. Whereas it might always have been, and always will be, true that the United States should not have entered Iraq under the always false auspices of weapons of mass destruction, it’s not true that you can just sit around and wait for all the facts to be turned in before you act—just look at Philosophy. If you waited around to get all of your philosophical ducks in a row, you’d never do anything.

The claim that Action is radically contextual in a way that Thought is not should, indeed, seem contrary to pragmatism, which teaches that thoughts are themselves actions, and therefore always contextual. And the point can be made from a different direction as well, since conclusions are only binding in the context of endorsed premises. But this claim seems to be what underlies Rorty’s distinction between short-term and long-term, which I think is ultimately the thought that underlies the rejection of Peircean, truth-is-at-the-end-of-inquiry pragmatism. Perhaps truth is only there, but by Peircean strictures that means absolutely nothing since it couldn’t possibly make a difference to how we act. [3]

4.      But what if you need to believe that truth is at the end of inquiry to reach the truth at the end of inquiry? Who would know the answer to this but those at the end of inquiry? I think this is the really difficult question that binds short- and long-term together, and it is why Rorty characterizes Philosophy as cultural politics. Philosophy in the long-term, Philosophical Propaganda, is like prophecy—it’s about spelling out a vision of future possibility. Philosophy in the short-term, Philosophical Debate, is system-building and making sure the details of the vision can be produced and fit together. But the system and the details can only be worked out if you choose a vision—so how do you do that? This choice is why William James, in “The Will to Believe,” described faith in terms of a hypothesis—you fill in the if, and hope then the living of the if works out in some manner. James’s great argument was that everyone makes the choice whether it’s self-conscious or not. Living a life means living out a choice of if, a vision of life, a movement toward a possible future. Because Philosophical Debate is dependent on philosophical vision, Philosophy is more about the long-term: don’t ask for pragmatic consequences now because, like theoretical physics, we won’t know what those might be until far into the future.

But a choice we must make. We have to decide now what if to start working and acting on, and that’s the tough problem, and what cultural politics is about. Politics is first of all, unlike Philosophy, about the first-person plural, not the first-person singular. You don’t need to wait around for everyone to agree with you before moving on and pulling out more philosophical consequences from the philosophical position you’ve taken—but in Politics, you need enough people on board. Additionally, Political Debate is about deciding what action we should take now about some short-term problem that needs a solution—and because the problem is narrow, local, and particular argumentative debate is the obvious form to use. On short-term problems, all we have are our current assumptions and values, since that’s what we currently are, so let’s try and work through what those assumptions and values should make us choose to do. The great long-term problem, on the other hand, is What assumptions and values should we have? What we should we be? Propaganda, in the sense I’m using it, outlines assumptions and values. If long-term is about the future and should and short-term is about the present and is, then Political Propaganda is rightly regarded as dangerous because all it does is use fear that our current values are at risk somehow—for why else would you tell people about the values they already know they have?

5.      Sometimes, perhaps though, that is something you need to do—it’s hard to be a progressive in America and not think that people have forgotten what it means to be an American. And that’s why this form of propaganda (style dimension) and philosophy (temporal dimension) is cultural politics. It’s about what future culture you want to persuade everyone to think we should all try to work to achieve. It’s visionary but tied to action; it’s debatable but hard to debate. Rorty thought that you just have to keep nudging people—but how do you do that to have an effect on the world? If two people with different values and assumptions technically beg the question over each other if in debate, then what does persuasive nudging look like?

6.      In the United States, persuasive nudging often takes the form of law. Lawyer up and sue, or shove a new piece of legislation through a broken-backed Congress. It seems like this mode began to really assert itself after the Civil War, as the federal government tried to fix racism with Reconstruction, the South fought back, and the moral energies of Abolitionism got redirected into the Temperance movement, culminating in Prohibition. Americans are known the world over for being litigious, and Judith Shklar gives a good explanation for why: rights in America seem inherently legal. Shklar suggests that the development of Abolitionism preceding the Civil War developed with it “a doctrine of justice which can be summed up in the expression equal protection of the laws, that is, in the demand that laws be applied equally to all, … which finally became, in modern times, the foundation of civil rights, that is, the idea of equal liberty for all citizens.” [4] Shklar calls this a “liberalism of rights,” and “even though one still believes in natural rights in the United States, one knows perfectly that despite the Declaration of Independence they are not self-evident. They are constitutional rights, and the courts decide what they mean in practice. … Equal protection of the laws … [should be understood] as the political and legal realization of the idea of natural rights” (121).

But 150 years on, Americans are tired, so tired of the constant legal battles, and grandstanding, and high-handing, by Congress and the Supreme Court. Rorty once lamented how the Rehnquist Court was destroying the reputation of the last branch of government that could claim to be more than just naked politics, but when you look from the other direction—and at how Rorty talks about legal pragmatism—it can be hard to muster a distinction between the activism of the Warren court of the Civil Rights era and the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts of the renascent right-wing. [5] I have to believe it can be done—I hope it can be done—but I couldn’t tell you how to do it off the top of my head. It’s this difficulty, telling the difference, that fuels the attrition to everyone’s psyches.

7.      What became pilloried as political correctness codes was an outburst of this fatigue. Leftish stand-up comics, in particular, had an easy time tapping into a common reservoir of exasperation. [6] Bromwich opens Politics by Other Means with an example of code-enforcement that does seem over the top. [7] A college student—what we would now call a “bro”—put several Penthouse centerfold pictures on his dorm room door. The dorm supervisor cited him for “lewd and indecent behavior,” calling the centerfolds “degrading and abusive to women.” The bro fought back, saying it was a free speech issue. Bromwich’s reading of the case, as usual, is acute—he points out that “the usual standard of moral surveillance enforceable today in America” was the bro, by his actions, having “established that he was a vulgar young man.” Indeed, and Bromwich terms the active dorm supervisor’s charge a mark of “rhetorically upping the ante,” a common tactic for the new, explicit and codified standard of moral surveillance.

Bromwich thinks we should stop short of saying that the pictures themselves, or the bro’s act of hanging them on his door, are degrading and abusive. I think he might be right. Bromwich calls the old standard of moral surveillance manners:
Thus far, we may seem to have been occupied in the realm of manners: such debates go on in any culture, over what people think it is proper to advertise or to restrict, to endorse or to reprobate. But when the stakes for approval are high enough, the subject matter of such debate can incite the energy necessary for devising explicit codes of conduct: prescriptive, and not merely general and negative, guidelines that aim to control what can and cannot be said. (8)
I think Bromwich is right to call this a matter of manners, and I think he is right later when he says, “Manners are in this sense more than the costume or outward expression of morals. They are themselves a source of morality” (146). But I think Bromwich is wrong about the case, and about the (for Bromwich, future) legacy of the Cultural Left on America. Should the dorm’s RA be allowed to force the bro to take down the Penthouse centerfolds? Sure—why not? It’s gross to have to look at that in public. Bromwich says the supervisors weren’t speaking for the same community that let’s newsstands sell Penthouse on the street, but he elides the crucial difference—if you can’t walk around the street with your dick in your hand, then you shouldn’t be allowed to show a gaping vagina either.

If you were offended by my language just then, all that tells you is that I’m right—your sense of propriety was stung by the image my words painted. [8] But was my language abusive? Was the way I put my point inherently an abuse of women? That I have more difficulty in seeing. As the true heir of the Carlin tradition, Louis CK, said, “There are a lot of words, they’re not bad words, but some people start using them a lot to hurt other people and then they become bad.” [9] Intention, I think, can and should matter, though at the same time it isn’t a universal exculpatory method. The problem underneath the charge of abuse is sadism. And I think Rorty is right, in Achieving Our Country, that the Cultural Left has made the public arena less casually sadistic. “Especially among college graduates, the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two-thirds of the century. … The adoption of attitudes which the Right sneers at as ‘politically correct’ has made America a far more civilized society than it was thirty years ago” (81, writing in 1998).

8.      What Shklar calls “legalism” may indeed have had a role in helping to break apart the crust of propriety that it then needs to compensate for—but the problem is that the manners weren’t working for whole classes of citizens in the first place. And since words are tied to thoughts and thoughts to actions, it’s hard not to think that our manners of speaking help create the milieu in which terrible actions take place. [10] But we still can’t legislate manners. People can’t be locked up for being assholes. So how do you change people?

Rorty’s moral sentimentalism fills in this hole, but it’s an abstract fill. When the issue of argumentation comes up in relationship to morals, Rorty occasionally transmuted it into the question: How do you answer the Nazi? There is no knockdown argument to answer the Nazi with, Rorty said, but whereas I don’t know how to argue down a consistent, committed, and clever Nazi without begging the question, I do have some ideas on how to convert him—tell him sad stories of mothers having children torn away, Jewish mothers like your Nazi mother.

But this is tougher than it seems. For one, we aren’t dealing with Nazis all the time. So the tools of conversion aren’t all the time obvious. What’s the analogue for anti-choice protestors? Worse, since what we’re talking about is commitment conversion of all kinds, what’s the analogue for climate deniers? Another problem is cynicism—if everyone’s trying to change your mind all the time, what stops the heart from hardening? The difference between having your heartstrings tugged and being manipulated is hard to tell. It’s impossible, I dare say, to watch Sarah McLachlan’s dog PSA, the one with “Angel”—you know what I’m talking about—without getting a little sick at its heavy-handedness. Reaching for pathos all the time can produce the opposite effect intended.

9.      Even worse is an argument of Stanley Fish’s in The Trouble with Principle. In a sort of capstone chapter, “Beliefs about Belief,” Fish articulates a pragmatist model of the self. For the pragmatist, the self is a Quinean web of beliefs in which any particular belief is the sum of its relations to the other beliefs—like a dot on a graph, which is nothing but its spatial coordinates. The main argument Fish pursues in that chapter is that one’s belief about belief—one’s theory or model of the self and its constitution—has no effect on your beliefs. [11] The subargument is that every belief will have internal to it a reason for its own revision. Since Fish agrees that beliefs aren’t discrete marbles in a bag, the “beliefs” here are largely invisible to us. They are us so we’re constantly acting out of them, but we aren’t self-consciously aware of their every dimension all of the time. (Think about it: if a belief is a spatial node, then there are an infinite number of potential relations to know about.)

To concretize his argument, Fish gives an example of a former white supremacist telling his story of conversion. One day the supreme supremacist was rattling off all the people that would be carted off, and on the list were a number of “defectives,” including people with cleft palates. It so happens that the now suddenly former white supremacist has a daughter with a cleft palate, so that was that, and off he goes to write an exposé. Fish draws two morals from the story. The first is my point about the Nazi conversion: it’s so particular, how do you make any generalizations about how to change beliefs? It’s the second, though, that makes belief change mysterious:
[I]t needn’t have turned out as it did. It would have been perfectly possible for the devoted father to have said to himself, “Well, I really love Mary, but the cause is the cause and I guess she’ll have to go.” After all, remember Abraham and Isaac and the demands of faith. It is only in retrospect that we can construct a cause-and-effect account of how this or that change of mind came about, and that account will tell us nothing about what might happen next time. (282) [12]
Whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, right? The flipside of course is that you won’t know if you’re going to die until you live, or become a murderer until God quickly tells you it was a sick joke. We won’t ever know whether our beliefs are strong and stable or precarious and weak until testing day—and the problem is that the only way to be sure that a belief is currently strong is to continually test it. [13] But we’re now sure that that’s probably sadomasochistic—I must constantly be tempted to be sure I can resist temptation! That’s just to say evil must exist so that I can be good.

Fish must be right about the retrospective nature of knowing the mechanisms of belief change, but does that mean there’s nothing to be generalized about how to change people’s beliefs? Fish’s mystery-mongering overshoots the mark in its correctness because what we’re interested in is the via media.

10.      To help focus this final area, and pull together a number of threads from “The Legacy of Group Thinking” series, I find it helpful to think about a story David Sedaris tells. I’m going to quote a bit of it, but Sedaris is not only one of the finest comedic writers working today, he’s also a considerable wisdom-writer. In the larger story, “Something for Everyone” in Naked, Sedaris works as a housepainter for an anti-Semitic Lithuanian named Uta.
Jews and Jewesses were a big thorn in Uta’s side. She tried explaining it to me once, but I found the story difficult to follow after hearing the date 1527. According to Uta, Adolf Hitler was completely misunderstood, “as most great thinkers frequently are.”…

She left to run a few errands, and I started bubbling the paint off the kitchen door. While working I listened to the radio, a local AM station that broadcast old serials and comedy programs every Saturday. I enjoyed both Suspense and The Shadow but when The Life of Riley began, I found my mind beginning to wander. William Bendix plays the sort of predictable, good-natured idiot guaranteed to get his finger stuck in a bowling ball the night of the big fellowship dinner. He’s a garden-variety doofus who seemed to set some sort of standard for generations of succeeding television programs featuring overstuffed closets and family dogs who snatch the holiday turkey off the table while everyone’s eyes are closed in prayer. In real life you’d beat a dog senseless for pulling a stunt like that, but instead, these are the sort of characters who sit down to a meal of frankfurters and stuffing, pretending they’ve learned the true meaning of Thanksgiving. This was a world where people were enlightened by a single word or deed. Lessons were learned and lives were changed over the course of twenty-three minutes. Even as a child I had trouble accepting the concept of such rapid spiritual growth. If it were that easy to change people, surely I would be sitting upon a padded velvet throne before a nation of willing servants. Who didn’t want to change people? When Uta spoke of the Jews, I’d done nothing more than stare down at my feet. I could have named countless Jews who didn’t fit her bill, but that wouldn’t have changed her opinion, as her mind had been made up a long time ago. The most you could do with a woman like Uta was to change the subject to a medical mishap, hoping that a good turn to the stomach might shut her up for a while.

I once worked as a runner on a construction site and lost my job when the head carpenter, a fully grown man with a Sir Lancelot haircut, discovered I was a homosexual. We’d gotten along fine all summer, but the moment I questioned his thirst for beating up transsexual prostitutes, he came at me with a hammer. The foreman had let me go as gently as possible, explaining that if he ever hired an all-girl crew, I’d be the first person he called. For a long time afterward I thought of this head carpenter, always placing him a position of grave, physical danger. The walls of his cell were closing in. A train was headed for his bound-and-gagged body. A bomb was set to go off and only one person could save him. “But first you have to take it all back,” I imagined myself saying. “And this time you have to say it like you really, really mean it.” I fantasized about it for a few months and then moved on to something else. My hands tend to be full enough dealing with people who hate me for who I am. Concentrate too hard on the millions who hate you for what you are and you’re likely to turn into one of those unkempt, sloppy dressers who sag beneath the weight of the two hundred political buttons they wear pinned to their coats and knapsacks. I haven’t got the slightest idea how to change people, but still I keep a long list of prospective candidates just in case I should ever figure it out. (213-215)
When the white supremacist heard “cleft palette,” his life changed, irrevocably, but we do know precisely what Sedaris means here in being skeptical of such rapid spiritual growth. The hope for a silver bullet is what stymies much political action because problems in life are often more complex than something that has a single, quickly applied remedy.

But what should we do, then? What I like most about juxtaposing Sedaris’s story with Fish’s is the space of agreement they share over change. Fish has argued for years, most recently in Save the World on Your Own Time (2008), that teachers should focus on their discipline and not try to affect moral or political change in their students—there’s no way to judge the latter, and its unlikely to happen anyway, so focus on your job. What I find disturbing about Fish’s argument about teaching—though the space of agreement he shares with Bromwich in Politics by Other Means would have surprised Bromwich, and I agree with Bromwich—is that it seems antithetical to the idea of a liberal education. A liberal education is about spiritual growth, not a body of knowledge. What I like about facing Sedaris to Fish is the irony introduced: Sedaris is professedly lazy, greedy, and egocentric, a tried and true navel-gazer. Just look at the passage: I don’t think it’s a mistake that Sedaris’s emblem for turning from political action is aesthetic. And when he fantasized about the single word? The prize wasn’t “world peace” but “an army of sycophants.”

These are vintage Sedarisian moments, and his wisdom is of a distinctively 19th-century kind: the horrors of egotism. His humor is almost entirely self-deprecatory, and his inability to act gets him in trouble at the end of this particular story. The complexity of the scene lies in one of the reasons why we laugh at his joke about the political pins—is that doing any real work at political change? The person he’s pointing at is the poseur, wearing the equally aesthetic garb of politics. We know those kinds of people. (Well, if you don’t, hang out at colleges or non-Starbuckian coffee houses more.) They are, in fact, the parallel of the target of Bromwich and Rorty’s barbs at the Academic-Cultural Left who, in David Hollinger’s phrase, “gave at the office.”

11.      How do we change people? How do we persuade people to let go of deeply held beliefs, particularly if you can’t legislate them with law or education? Sedaris’s moment of “say it like you really, really mean it” matches not only the skepticism of Bromwich about “political correctness,” but Fish’s skepticism about Rorty’s optimism at increased civility. I think Rorty’s right, it has gotten better and partly because of the efforts of the Cultural Left, but Fish is also right in There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech when he says that racism has just gone underground.

How do we change people? Some we try and find the commitments we share in common, what we think is best about ourselves, like our kindness, and try and get them to apply it to areas they aren’t used to, like economics. Argument can work here, but activating those commitments often is the effect of storytelling and other indirect methods. Philosophical propaganda, cultural politics, I think is done best with a mix of honest reflection on the outer limits of your own ideas with as much imaginative, intellectual sympathy for the ideas you find backwards. Never pretend, never condescend, never manipulate or pose—just think as hard as you can and try to get others to think as hard as they can. That’s the Emersonian pose of the American Scholar, avoidant of “group thinking” as Bromwich defined it and attracted to the difficulties of true interchange with ones fellows, what Emerson called thinking in circles.

Some we try to reach and talk to. Some can be changed, though you might never know it; some simply need to be understood, though they won’t think you do. Some we just need to outlive. [14]


[1] Rorty indirectly endorsed Malachowski’s point years later in his reply to Jaroslav Peregrin’s essay in Rorty’s entry in the Library of Living Philosophers. He approved of Peregrin’s citation of Wittgenstein’s claim that he was “in a sense making propaganda for one style of thinking as opposed to another” (PRR 247).

[2] A lot has hinged on just what “attractiveness” is supposed to mean here.

[3] Ironically, both of these thoughts are stated clearly in Peirce’s “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” The pragmatic maxim for meaning is at the end of section two: “Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” And then half way through section four, Peirce says, “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is the way I would explain reality.” Though many pragmatists, including Rorty, have been lulled into defending a version of Peircean explanations of truth, Rorty came to think of this as like explaining why opium puts people to sleep with “because it has dormitive power. And rocks fall because they have falling power, and helium balloons rise because they have rising power, etc., etc.” Molière’s trope is a favorite of Rorty and other philosopher’s for disposing of the non-explanation explanation. For a defense of pragmatism that rejects the Peircean view using Robert Brandom’s sophisticated notion of a “pragmatically mediated semantic relation,” see my “Better and the Best.” One might consider how the relationship between the possible and the actual functions there and how it functions at important moments in the “Legacy” series—see section 9.

[4] Shklar, Redeeming American Political Thought, 117

[5] For Rorty’s legal pragmatism, see his two essays on law in Philosophy and Social Hope. It’s fairly typical, I think, for us on the left to have a pretty dim view of the neoconservative judges’ respect for the law as an independent body from politics. It’s hard to not see a pattern in five Catholic judges—five!—continually chipping away at Roe v. Wade. It’s hard to read Chief Justice Roberts’s decision in the abortion clinic buffer zone case of McCullen v. Coakley, as when he essentially describes yellers of “baby murderer” as petitioners not protestors and writes that “petitioners wish to converse with their fellow citizens about an important subject on the public streets and sidewalks…. If all that the women can see and hear are vociferous opponents of abortion, then the buffer zones have effectively stifled the petitioners’ message”—to read that and not think Roberts either is an idiot, lives in a cave, or is barely trying to cover his opinion about abortion. However, David Cole’s recent article, “The Anti-Court Court” in the New York Review of Books (Aug. 14, 2014), is an interesting antidote to this gut reaction. Reviewing several recent books on the Roberts Court, the consensus is that “simple partisan politics cannot explain the Court’s results.” Indeed, particularly illuminating is the conclusion of a book about Scalia—that Scalia, despite his acerbic and powerful pen, has in fact been one of the most impotent of Justices.

[6] The best of these, as in most things comedic, is George Carlin: “When it comes to changing the language, I think [feminists] make some good points. Because we do think in language. And so the quality of our thoughts and ideas can only be as good as the quality of our language. So maybe some of this patriarchal shit ought to go away. I think ‘spokesman’ ought to be ‘spokesperson.’ I think ‘chairman’ ought to be ‘chairperson.’ I think ‘mankind’ ought to be ‘humankind.’ But they take it too far, they take themselves too seriously, they exaggerate. They want me to call that thing in the street a ‘personhole cover.’ I think that's taking it a little bit too far!” (Doin’ It Again, 1990) Carlin’s premise is why he is one of the premier philosopher comedians, as well as a tremendous close reader of our cultural habits.

[7] Most of the story happens on 4-6.

[8] I’ll concede—it’s not the only thing it tells you. I have to admit that I have a lot of flexibility when it comes to “watching my language,” as one is told by one’s parents, and am not the kind of person who swears for the principle of the thing—as if my sense of what’s right is the only thing that counts. I’m about to mention sadism, and violating people’s proprieties on purpose is also a kind of sadistic thrill. (Louis CK makes this noise in most of his routines, saying something he calls “terrible” or “the worst.” Why? As he says in, I think, Hilarious, he just likes making the audience uncomfortable.) I’ll also add that I have difficulty with the word “offended” in all of these contexts. I have a hard time saying why, but I have trouble using it to describe something I’ve ever felt. I can be grossed out, made uncomfortable, or horrified at bigotry—but offended? It’s just not part of my emotive lexicon. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s a concept that’s outdated, part of a puritanical interpretation of manners that should be an artifact of pre-democratic days. But I don’t know.

[9] This is from the beginning of Chewed Up (2008), in a bit that is probably the culmination of Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words. One should also see it in the context of CK’s later reflection during the poker game scene in episode two of the first season of Louie.

[10] A recent example I heard on the radio is the conviction of Theodore Wafer for the murder of Renisha McBride. Wafer, on the stand, argued that he was in fear of his life when he opened the front door of his house and shot the unarmed McBride with a shotgun. He said, “I drew first, that’s how I see it.” We can’t make necessary or sufficient causal connections between the idioms we use and the actions we take, but I find this disturbing and telling. Our self-image does have something to do with how we behave.

[11] This is a corollary of the type of stance Rorty took in relation to philosophy, that philosophical theses, like the philosophical problems they are directed toward, are not natural, insofar as that means “universal and inescapable to the mind.” Once one drops the notion that some problems have the potential to arise for any particular mind simply by reflecting, it is a short step to dropping the idea that people have implicit metaphysical theses operative in their daily lives, simply by existing. Once one takes these steps, the relationship between philosophical activity and other activities becomes much more complex. However, this is a deep problem, inasmuch as it was already hard to tell the relationship between the mind/body problem and cooking eggs, so what we’re being told here is equally hard to tell.

For example, Fish is technically wrong that beliefs about belief have no effect on beliefs for the simple reason of his own argument. Fish says that any particular belief only has particular mechanisms for its change, and no general explanation of mechanics is going to affect a particular mechanism, just as the theory of gravity didn’t affect how rocks fell (see especially 280). As Fish suggests, though, the activity of “general explanation” is its own particular activity with particular mechanisms that connect to each other, just as Newton’s theory didn’t affect rocks but did affect Aristotle. So what Fish needs is to argue that one peculiar set of particulars cannot be connected to other sets of particulars. He could do that, but notice he’d no longer be explaining—and thus taking the external view like Newton and rocks—but intervening into how people put together particular beliefs with particular beliefs, an internal view like Newton’s argument with Aristotelians. If a person did believe that Platonism about the self required them to believe in God (for whatever reason), then if Fish converted them to pragmatism it would threaten their belief in God. Fish could wave around his hands and say, “Naw, there’s actually no connection!” but if it is also the case that the only reason they believed in God was the Platonism (as hard as that is to imagine), then it’s just hand waving—the damage has been done if the person can’t find another reason for belief in God. That’s why the relationship between pragmatism and life is complex and Rorty ends up being a little more right than Fish about it. (See, e.g., Fish’s criticisms of Rorty in “Almost Pragmatism: The Jurisprudence of Richard Posner, Richard Rorty, and Ronald Dworkin” in There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech.)

[12] Dave Chappelle has a brilliant version of this in the premiere episode of Chappelle’s Show.

[13] Compare my discussion of Bromwich’s use of this problem in section 2 of “Legacy, II” and its relationship to probability in section 4.

[14] That’s what keeps me up at nights—the premise of the movie Idiocracy. Unfortunately just a passable movie overall, considering the premises for the jokes themselves are all funny, the first five minutes are really quite good and chilling in their likelihood: what if the jocks outbreed the nerds? Poor Luke Wilson wakes up from a deep freeze to wander a desert hellscape in which they water plants with Gatorade because the Gatorade slogan tells them it’s the best at quenching thirst. And aren’t the plants thirsty? The great punchline of the movie is when Wilson finally convinces them to use water to save the planet from starvation. The only explanation they’ll understand for how the water does this? Magic.

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