Monday, 25 May 2009

Gordon Finlayson on Adorno and Habermas

We were very happy when we found - quite by chance - Gordon Finlayson's blog. It has been a long time and Gordon doubtless no longer remembers us, but we were lucky enough to be present at a party once where Gordon, wearing one of those very Continental-looking striped T-shirts (where the stripes run horizontally and alternate between a very dark blue, if I remember correctly, and white), was playing the guitar, and playing it well. He is now - we gather from the address on his blog - working at the University of Sussex.

What led us to his blog was a link on the Habermasians blog to Gordon's article on the foundations of Critical Theory (published in Telos in Jan 2009). We were keen to read it.
But it is an odd article, though, and we are not sure what to make of it. The last paragraph was a bit disturbing, especially the following sentence:

"Insofar as Habermas, the social theorist, eschews broadly moral reasons as the basis of critical social theory, he stands squarely in the tradition of first generation Frankfurt School critical theory."

I don't think Gordon set out to put Habermas and Adorno in the same bag, but the fact that he ended up doing that makes us less than enthusiastic.

Apparently, the main aim of the piece is to argue that Adorno (forgive me while I identify Adorno with "first generation Frankfurt School critical theory") does not rely on moral grounds when he develops a critical theory that has, amongst other things, clearly moral conclusions. Gordon says there are six reasons why Critical Theory needs to eschew moral grounds:

1 The experience of WWII showed that culture in general and morality in particular failed to provide any resistance to evil.

2 The distinctively moral discourse is a dubious one, being a coercive imposition of reason on sensibility.

3 A morality of principles tends to undermine a person's affective ties to other people and things, giving rise to a cold, authoritarian mentality.

4 In a bad society we can have no (untainted? independent?) conception of the good, which would be central to any moral theory.

To Adorno's own reasons for eschewing a moral foundation, Gordon adds two other considerations.

5 Moral criticism is only really appropriate when criticising deeds for which individuals can be held responsible, but Critical Theory is more concerned with systemic trends that exceed individual responsibility.

6 In a multicultural society with its endemic value pluralism, a (suitably thick) moral theory would be rejected as too parochial.

More important for Gordon is the dilemma that Critical Theory then seems to be faced with. Since Critical Theory has moral conclusions it must have moral foundations, but if it resorts to those it is guilty of a self-contradiction (given the disavowal of a moral theory as a ground).
Isn't that just a little too neat, though? For one thing, the talk of conclusions and grounds fits Adorno's thinking into a mould that just isn't his. Gordon notes Adorno's antipathy to logic, but insists on forcing him into the square holes labelled "ground" and "conclusion". For another thing, there is a certain amount of linguistic juggling going on here. When arguing that Critical Theory has moral "conclusions" Gordon uses one understanding of "moral": "I use the term ‘moral’ here in the broadest sense to refer to the domain of norms and values that relate to and flow from the deepest and most central questions concerning the life, character and actions of social agents, and their relations to the lives, character and actions of others." But when arguing that Critical Theory can and must do without moral grounds, the concept becomes more specific, and is either the principled Moralitat (sorry no umlaut) or the tradition-bound Sittlichkeit.

Ending his reconstruction of Adorno's position, Gordon says Adorno leaves his conclusions unsupported by anything other than the description of our historical situation, which is meant to make it clear why a "healthy" set of moral/ethical/normative concepts are just not available to us.

Habermas said such a position was unacceptable. Does Gordon agree? Yes, he does. We must have, he implies, a foundation, and it needs to be (for the six reasons given above) non-moral and yet be capable of leading to moral conclusions. Does Habermas come up with the goods? Unfortunately not. The discourse ethic is empty. It abstracts from the language and concerns of the lifeworld, which happens to be the only source of the moral norms and ethical values that might be used to criticise current social practice.

On a different reading, what is genuinely critical in Habermas's work is a "diagnosis of social pathologies", where the pathology can be identified without making any moral judgments. Society is "sick" and in need of a spell in rehab, but it is not morally bad (or at least the logically consistent critic doesn't want to say it is). Does gordon think this is a fruitful line of thinking? He is not convinced. But he is glad to see that, either way, the discourse ethic (which, it turns out, is not really ethical - not in a nice thick sense anyway) and the social pathology approach both involve eschewing moral grounds, which is what Adorno did, and that makes Habermas a good torch bearer for this proud tradition of social critique.


My response in brief (because too much has been written already):

1 Anything that puts Hab and Adorno in the same bag is, prima facie, unpleasant.
2 What Adorno says, the way he says it, and our interest in reading the stuff (despite the tremendous effort required) just don't make sense unless we begin (or find somewhere pretty damn close to the beginning) concerns that have something moral/ethical/normative about them (concerns that certainly fit into the very general concept of "moral" that Gordon postulates, despite concept postulation being anathema in Frankfurt).

3 The insistence on logical consistency and the idea that Adorno might actually be a closet functionalist reduce thinking to theory. Adorno is a great thinker about the limits of rationality - the irrationality of rationality - not because of value pluralism but because of the entwinement of reason with the domination of nature. You get to a point - don't you? - where you see the need (psychological, social, political, historical) to loosen the grip of reason. Reason is put, once more, in the dock, and is found guilty. Of course, we can't just drop reason, because there is no alternative. But we can keep turning reason against itself to recall and keep in mind the injustice being done to the real substrate of life. To insist on the unreflective forms of systematising reason is to insist that the sad story of domination continue (even if the purported aim is to develop a "critique" of society).

4 Do we need grounds? Gordon seems to assume we do. Personally I feel quite happy without them. What I see in the Dialectic of Enlightenment is the best description yet of how fucked up we are. It is a description that chimes with my own sense of being out of joint and my own initial hunch that society went off the rails somewhere down the line. The description includes values - nature being the most prominent - and I can accept such a value-laden description without thinking that a grave abuse of logical propriety is being commited in mixing fact and value; and I accept it without thinking: "Hey, where's the argument for the principle that nature is a value? What's the Reason for thinking that nature is a value? And doesn't science tell us that nature is just a bunch of facts, and how do you get from that to those lofty values?" There is a sense in which questions like this keep us trapped within the circuit of self-agrandising, instrumental rationality. The point, though, is, without giving up on reason and without giving up on the historical project of liberation of which the development of rationality is so much a part, to see that reason risks denying the very real grounds (not premises) of a more fulfilling life and a more rational society.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Leiter on Nietzsche's Skepticism

Brian Leiter has written a piece about Nietzsche's moral skepticism (and thanks to Unabgeschlossenheit for putting us onto it). It is an odd combination of some very conscientious Nietzsche scholarship, and a lot of theorizing which causes this particular sympathetic reader of Nietzsche to take offense. With some philosophers (I would cite Heidegger or Derrida, since my sympathies are not with them) one tires of reading secondary texts which teeter on the edge of parody as they parrot the pseudo-poeticisms about the clearing, for instance, in order (supposedly) to clear up what Heidegger was on about. One wants someone - someone like Leiter perhaps - to come along and make it plain for us unpoetic types what the hell Heidegger was on about and whether there is actually anything substantial at the core of his thinking or whether it is all just a cry of pain at the absence of God. What one doesn't want, however, is a long academic thesis about whether Heidegger or Nietzsche were skeptics about the existence of moral facts. Rather than clear anything up, that just obscures things further by forcing one set of ideas into a theoretical framework in which they just don't belong.

But let us be scholarly for a moment (despite the unpleasant sensation that that arouses). What is wrong with the talk of moral facts that Leiter uses (and it is not just his discourse, of course)? Perhaps we are not sufficiently familiar with this discourse, and perhaps that is why it strikes us as odd that Leiter can talk so bluntly about moral facts when so much about that talk seems questionable. Leiter does not say that there are moral facts, but the discourse assumes that there might be, and Leiter goes on to reconstruct one possible argument for being skeptical about their existence: the argument from the universal disagreement in the field of moral philosophy.

What would a moral fact be? But that question only makes sense within a larger attempt to understand the phenomenon of morality. What is morality? Leiter's talk of moral facts implies that morality is either a cognition of something objective or simply a projection of the speaker's feelings. This either/or seems to imply that if morality isn't objective then moral talk is just a lot of hot air (with perhaps the further consequence that any moral critique of existing power structures is a priori untenable, which is definitely not what Nietzsche believed).

Let's take objectivity first. Here and there Leiter seems to suggest that objectivity is (or ought to be) as objective as it was for Plato for whom the Ideas are “pure, clear, unmixed—not infected withhuman flesh and color, and a lot of other mortal nonsense”. What we seem to have lost sight of here is the history of our discourse. Unlike Plato we are only too aware of how historical and therefore how opaque our discourse is. We are only too aware that our language is (as it was for Nietzsche) human, all too human. And so there is no way back to a Platonic concept of objectivity (for which language would have to be a perfectly transparent window on the world). Some kind of historical relativism is inevitable. And it's inevitability is evident in Leiter's article, for the way he sets up the problem only makes sense if you begin from an acceptance that the world is what it is for science: either there are facts to be known by one kind of science or there are feelings to be explained by another branch of science, and philosophy presumably decides which phenomena belong in which scientific pigeon hole.

What about feelings? There is something terribly unsubtle in the talk of the projection/expression of feelings that Leiter buys into. Nietzsche has an interesting history of how the bad conscience comes into being. It is a long and tortuous process. This historical and psychological complexity is completely glossed over by the reduction of morality to a projection of feelings. That kind of reductive talk implies (it seems to me) a kind of shrug of the shoulders: I feel this way, but, heck, I guess you feel differently and I guess that's just moral relativism, so let's live and let live. There is a phenomenon here in serious need of a diagnosis, when morality can be talked about with such a shrug of the shoulders; as there is when talk of morality can centre on idle chatter about flaming pussies.

So what of the either/or? For an old Hegelian-Marxist it is tempting to criticize this for being a tad undialiectical. Morality cannot just be feelings, but it cannot just be the stuff Leiter wants to call facts. Instead of the flaming pussy let's take a more pertinent phenomenon: sin. There is no sin without a historically evolved religious discourse maintained by a community that talks of sin and judges the immoral actions of its members, and judges them harshly. But that discourse will cease to have any currency if people do not feel that their actions and those of other are sinful. There is a unity here of history, language, thought and feeling which cannot come into view if we insist at the outset that morality must either be facts or feelings. Those of us who see in theocracy nothing but a dead hand know by its absence how important feeling must be to morality.

Enough on the either/or. Let me comment on why I prefer to read Nietzsche than Mr Leiter. Nietzsche has a burning sense of what is timely. I may disagree with his interpretation of what the epoch needs, but I appreciate that keeness to respond to the historical situation, and respond to it morally (leaving aside for now the difficulty with the word "morality"). We, too, live at a time when there is much of a moral nature to think about. In the West morality is excluded from so much of the public sphere as culture is handed over to commerce. It is almost tempting to talk about this as a form of repression, and then to see the Taliban as the return of the repressed, to whom the response is naked aggression. When thinking about morality, don't we have to begin from some understanding of what morality has become historically - from some understanding of how we (and that is a very historical we) are to narrate that history - and from some response to the present crisis? Philosophy, on this reading, does not begin from wonder (and certainly not from idle academic curiosity) but from a sense of unease - a sense that society is not a whole of which we are contented parts, but rather that it is fragmented. Philosophy should at least help us to delineate the lines of that fragmentation insofar as this touches on the most basic categories of our thinking, even if it cannot come up with a blueprint for a happier whole. However much I disagree with the details, I appreciate that this what Nietzsche addresses. He does criticize a Platonic theory of value, but not because it is a nice topic for an academic paper, but because it is a necessary prelude to a critique of a social self-delusion - a delusion bound up with a negation of what we feel (of what we FEEL) ought to be affirmed.

To put it another way. I like moral thinking to be not just thinking about morality but thinking that is itself moral - thinking that aims to be an intervention with moral purport in a situation (like ours) that cries out for a moral response. In such a context it strikes me that idle talk of flaming pussies is reprehensible.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Post-Modernism as Anti-Humanism? A Response to Reiner Schurmann

Back in 1979 Reiner Schurmann wrote an article entitled "Anti-Humanism: Reflections of the Turn Towards the Post-Modern Epoch." In it he purported to see in philosophy the signs of a move to a new epoch in which the human subject is no longer at the centre. Prior to this there was a "humanistic epochal economy" as Schurmann calls it, but the philosophies of Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger (the three he focuses on in the article) signal its expiration. Beneath the title of the article, a quote from Foucault's "Order of Things" sums up the main idea: "Man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end."

The primary idea which has had its day is that of the subject as a point of origin. Epistemologically, the humanist idea is evident both in Plato and Descartes for whom knowledge can be based on clear and distinct ideas available to the private reflection of the subject. For the anti-humanist, knowledge rests on a historically shifting order of things - a transient order that the individual is subject to, not the origin of.

A similar shift occurs in the conception of the practical subject. As Schurmann puts it, the individual "even less appears as history-making, as a person responsible for his doings, as the initiator of a new order of things - in one phrase, as a moral agent."

Now there is definitely a shift in philosophy away from transcendental subjectivity, but to lump Marx and Nietzsche and Heidegger in the same bag and call them anti-humanists is just too much to swallow. Take Marx: one of the key quotes Schurmann relies upon includes the following comment about the proletariat being a class which "suffers the total loss of humanity and which can only redeem itself by a total redemption of humanity." Clearly, when Marx criticises idealist notions of human subjectivity he does so for the sake of developing a theory to assist the redemption of humanity. Hardly anti-humanism.

Similarly with Nietzsche. On Schurmann's reading, Nietsche affirms "the radical fluidity of inorganic, organic, social and cultural forces, all treated as equal so long as one of them does not impose its temporary order upon the others." He makes it sound as if for Nietzsche human being dissolves completely into a play of forces. Is this so? Admittedly, Nietzsche does recall feeling himself to be "6,000 feet beyond man and time" (while out walking in the countryside in 1881) but does he not mean "beyond the motley humanity of the town square down in the valley" as opposed to "beyond humanity as such"? And was the point of thinking on his feet while walking across the hillsides not to gain a more lively sense of himself - a self more aware of its humanity than the Cartesian subject locked in darkness, imagining itself to be mere thought? Again and again, Nietzsche tries to point to a new type of man - and Zarathustra is meant to be the paragon. As he puts it a few pages after the quote that Schurmann lifts from Ecce Homo: he holds up "the ideal of a human, superhuman well-being and benevolence that will often appear inhuman - for example when it confronts all earthly seriousness so far, all solenmity in gesture, word, tone, eye, morality, and task so far, as if it were their most incarnate and involuntary parody - and in spite of all of this, it is perhaps only with him that great seriousness really begins, that the real question mark is posed for the first time, that the destiny of the soul changes, the hand moves forward, the tragedy begins."

Is there not an opposition to a certain kind - certain kinds - of humanity in the name the name of a better kind of humanity? This is blotted out completely by the term "anti-humanism".

What irritates most of all is Schurmann's apathy - his quiescent fatalism. He refers back to the Stoics in glowing terms, saying that the post-modern anti-humanists manifest the same wise equanimity. He also says that understanding "always comes ... once the battle is over. What gives rise to thinking thus totally escapes our grips." "Totally"! Now this might be true of Heidegger, but surely not Marx and Nietzsche. Doesn't Nietzsche's genealogy of morals aim to come to some kind of grip with the past in order to have a more confident attitude towards the present and the future? And there is a struggle here - hardly equanimity - one that arises out of a disgust with the present and a concern for the future. Similar traits are evident in Marx, although the focus is on property relations and the commodity form instead of psychology. And if Marx ends up being something of an economic determinist it is only because he thinks he can see a crisis brewing - a crisis which is perceived to offer a tremendous opportunity for humanity at last to realise its highest potential. This hardly amounts to equanimity.

What is most repugnant is this equanimity. It reminds us of Richard Rorty, who we saw on stage describing the liberal imaginary and shrugging his shoulders nonchalantly, brushing off our objections that there were things about that fragmentary and contradictory status quo that we couldn't just affirm with equanimity. If equanimity is the prevailing mood of post-modernism, we reject post-modernism. Although there is no simple humanism that we can fall back on, it looks to us as if this talk of anti-humanism, which initially looks like a bold negation, ends up implicitly affirming a world order that is, in fact, anti-human. In a sense, it is because anti-humanism is true that it must be rejected as false - the standpoint of the latter truth being some remnant of humanity that we are still aware of.