Saturday, September 25, 2010

note-taking. posted elsewhere
A few points.
First, when Alva Noë writes: "Natural science … is not discontinuous with broader human concerns" is he claiming to be a scientist? And if so, are you agreeing? For any number of reasons I hope not in both cases, but it's not clear.

From there my comments are on language and goals of this discussion, because it's obvious that you're trying to find a "right" or "true" answer to problems that in the end will always be political: how and when can we be justified in defining others in ways other than they would define themselves. I think that's a dangerous question and especially dangerous if philosophical questions such as this are thought of as scientific ones, whether we're dealing with the relations of Terry Sciavo to her parents and husband or the relations of the female body to the feminized body. There's a sense here in which you are trying to make the private and personal into the public. I find that both distasteful and illogical.

Questions of law are most most often a matter not of ideal truth but problem solving, and if given the option to search for "truth" its best not to take it. Courts may be often a bit removed from direct politics but they're never separate from it and they should tread lightly when they can.

"[I]t was never a third-party decision, but a matter of respecting Terri Schiavo's wishes."
Those wishes as described by others, including memories of her reaction to something on TV years before. Others had different recollections.

To Michael Schiavo his wife was dead. To his wife's parents she was alive. But obviously in some ways she was still alive for her husband as well, because he was still fighting for "her"; he wasn't fighting for "it". Or was he fighting for himself?

Terry Schiavo left no living will, no legal document describing her wishes. The question regarding the state is whether it should be forced to define life and death, or just the lesser (and less political) problem of law. The best decision would have been to punt and tell Michael Schiavo to except the meaning of his own words, that his "wife" was in fact already dead, and give her parents care of the remains. By the end of the case I became convinced I was more sure she was dead than he was.

The French "left" come out of an older tradition with origins not only in the left as such but in the 18th C. anti-bourgeois (aristocratic) right. The Continental tradition in philosophy also acknowledges its connections to wider cultural activity, seeing philosophy as a form of intellectual reflection not only on but within culture, so that traditions, or habits, or forms of thought, psychologies (or neuroses) are seen in various degrees as constraining if not binding. European critique is often a critique among other things of the assumptions of democracy. The Anglo-American tradition on the other hand originates in the bourgeoisie, and the anti-democratic elements come not from a consideration of culture but from a disdain for the irrationalism of the public. So we get arguments for a democracy guided not inevitably by habit and meconnaissance but by unelected experts.

Against both these Chomsky is a radical democrat with an ideological faith in the power of human self-awareness and direction. But his politics are as faith-based as his nativism. I remember a scene in a documentary about Chomsky with someone telling a story about him as a child, watching schoolmates picking on a fat kid, unable or so he claimed to understand why they could make fun of someone for something over which he had no control. The narrator was is awe: beyond moral condemnation Chomsky expressed incomprehension, as if this was a mark intellectual superiority. All it means is that his anti-empiricism started early. The story is absurd. Humanism is defined by a sympathetic understanding -awareness not approval- of how and why others behave as they do. Chomsky's programmatic rationalism is anti-humanist. He'll be remembered mostly for his empiricism, as a first rate political journalist.
Chomsky's political and linguistic philosophies have the same foundation in the Hebraic belief in the separation of human from animal life; of our being not only the most intelligent animals, but something other than animal. He literally will not accept anything less. It's a noble dogma but it's a dogma and his view of human behavior (nature or culture) is stunted as a result. His is a kind of rational actor theory, with rationality in the majority being blocked or misdirected by specific actors. I called him a first rate political journalist but he's more simply a good reporter of fact. Politics is also psychology, and that's beyond him.

I think it's important in a more general sense that we move away from ideas as such and into a more descriptive model of engagement. Grammar is not language, and language has a moral aspect -in its use- that grammar lacks. The story from Chomsky's childhood if it's true, and it makes sense that it would be, describes someone divorced from the empiricism of daily social interaction, who can read ideas but not people, who can understand and follow laws but not negotiate the gaps between them. And those gaps more than law define interactions in everyday life. You'll never have a successful anarchism, or a successful politics of any kind without engaging that.

I'm not just throwing bombs. I think academics should write well for the same reason I think architects should know how to lay bricks. Arguments from intent and claims of authorial reliability are wishful thinking. Outside of the natural sciences -and to a smaller degree even there- our supposedly "technical" works will always be read by others against the grain, according to their own understandings. Our grandchildren will be among them. History will not judge us as we judge ourselves; that's guaranteed. What we do describes the present more than the past or any timeless reality, but the works of dead novelists describe the behavior of those living now more than the works of living philosophers do. And that's a problem.

Philosophers search for "truth", or style themselves after scientists as conceptual-object-mongers. Lawyers represent paying clients; they're professional storytellers. And yet they're central to our system of "justice". Lawyers, like architects are guildsmen, operating explicitly within the communicative and the social. Their importance is not understood.
I'm a guildsman. If my arguments come from "outside" philosophy, that's why.

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