Saturday, September 06, 2003

Various, from my recent email exchange with Scott Martens, with some additional comments.

I have a problem with the culture of debate as it now exists. In a democracy it makes sense to hold some things a priori, and to be willing to use coercion to those ends. To make incredibly complex structures to avoid offending people ends up offending logic. Ronald Dworkin's latest book tries to create such a system for economics and equality. K.A. Appiah's very positive review in the NYRB made it sound absurd, since it revolves apparently around a point system(!) with numbers varying according to wealth and ability. It sounds both restrictive AND baroque. Why not just argue for a wealth cap? Why is economic freedom so important? What's the point beyond ideology?
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Talking about 'culture' is like writing about language, you can't talk about it without using it. This sort of dilemma leaves room for a lot of hot air and quite literally talk is cheap. But on the other hand, to pretend that there is no dilemma causes its own problems. Science can leap-frog over the problem of interpersonal communications, but it is not a useful paradigm for judging our behavior. Simply put, science does not equal justice.


Courtroom debate is one part logic and 2 parts bullshit, it's where idealism meets seduction or where the rubber meets the road, depending on your point of view. Yet since we take it seriously out of necessity, we have developed philosophical structures around it. If we study the process itself, with all it's imprecision, absurdity and corruption, we'll find a better paradigm for a logic of communication than if we try to find an 'artificial' ideal to apply over it.
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One of the problems with radical argumentation is that it has tended to make radicality -which is an artificial state- a normative one, or to pretend that it is or should be normative, as the practicioners of scientific argumentation tends to do the same. I suppose I'm still fighting the 'Two Cultures' fight except that I don't take the culture of science very seriously. I take science seriously, but that is not the same thing.
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I agree with affirmative action as policy, without thinking that it's particularly constitutional. I defend it because there was/is no way that a majority would accept a nationally funded system of education. But defending it in abstract terms, torturing logic to make it constitutional, rather than defending it as coercive but necessary, has resulted in a view of it as normative that is as perverse as Dworkin's manipulations.

Rhetoric, literature and law are all linked closely. We do not communicate in science, but in language. And if science does not equal justice, then there is also no way of creating a 'scientific' justice, which is in a sense what intellectuals attempt when they create their theories of it. I think I'll stop saying this now since I've been pushing it so much, but I think we should go back to the theory and history of rhetoric. Much of conservative legal theory is based on assumptions that can be shown as demonstrably false if one stops arguing about how law should change and merely studies how it already has. If the train has always been in motion, how can you argue that it 'should be' made to stop?


Many of the arguments Scott Martens makes, there are valid counter arguments. Does language have an intrinsic value?  Does this?

Andrea del Sarto, Portrait of a Young Man,
1517-18, National Gallery, UK
Is it worth killing for? Notwithstanding my earlier comments about 'museification,' is it worth the risk of shipping this painting half way around the world so that children who would otherwise never see it might be able to do so? There is a huge debate these days, with the popularity of 'Blockbuster' exhibitions. And there is no scientific answer to such a question because it is a question about what we value.

Marx was a narrative artist as well as an intellectual. He made a rhetorical argument for a science that others actually tried to invent, in doing so destroying the flexibility -and the elision- that made his work as beautiful but still useful as it was.
Legal argument is a sloppy dialectic, moving towards an ideal of absolute justice as impossible to achieve as 'scientific' history.
Science tries to solve problems. It aims at the center of a target. That's an inappropriate strategy for any non-scientific subject.
The center always moves.
I like it that way.
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Every argument 'from' or 'about' the normative begins with subjective localized experience. All communication does. But once you decide that the desired process and result is a system of democratic values, than prescriptivism to further that goal is perfectly appropriate.

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