Colleagues may I think be interested in a controversial book review of mine, just out in PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS.
Have a read, and do comment here with your reactions. I’m interested.
Author Archives: Rupert Read
Colleagues may I think be interested in a controversial book review of mine, just out in PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS.
Those interested in the post-NightWaves (http://rupertsread.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/me-on-radio3-on-science.html ) debate raging on Twitter on this topic, may wish check out my ‘Rupert Read’ twitterstream (https://twitter.com/RupertRead ). In any case, here, for those interested, and between teaching (and so in very brief), are some more thoughts — in more than 140 characters, on this important topic…:
[Note: if you haven't heard the programme, I suggest you do that first, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01r5ps2; go 35 minutes in.]
I see no reason to quarrel with Keith Laws’s claim that psychologists selectively handle, frame etc their data in order to present novel positive findings and that this way of doing their work is systemic and fits well with journals’, editors’ and reviewers’ worrying desire for novelty for the sake of it, etc. . So there is some bedrock agreement between Laws and I. But I am unsure as to whether Laws appreciates what the real – deep — differences are between psychology and disciplines like geology, astronomy and physics. And does he really have a good understanding of how such sciences operate, or is he wedded to a simplistic picture, namely a Popperian one? If one is making the claim that Psychology, it if adopted a ‘rigorously’ Falsificationist methodology, would be more like other sciences, then it would be helpful to be confident that other sciences had adopted such a methodology themselves! And I have zero such confidence, for reason I will explain.
It seems to me that Laws treats truth as the sole scientific virtue much as Rawls does justice with regards to institutions (see the opening of Rawls’s A THEORY OF JUSTICE – as critiqued by me for instance here: http://rupertread.fastmail.co.uk/Wittgenstein%20vs%20Rawls.doc (paper published in the Proceedings of the Kirchberg Wittgenstein Colloquium, a few years back)). Rejecting a theory as false can be called finding a truth, but is it an interesting, significant truth or is it a mere triviality? There is nothing scientific in piling up truth upon truth. More needs to be said about the content of psychology, about its problems and its concepts. As I pointed up in the programme: Kuhn would suggest that improved qualitative understanding is what serious scientific advance is about, and that Popperian Falsificationism is an almost-complete misunderstanding of how real science actually works (Because all theories are born refuted; because if science were as Popper insisted it should be, then it would (ironically) be more like much philosophy or ‘social science’ than real science (because scientists would always be tearing everything up and starting all over again, rather than progressing); because Popper missed the massive phenomenon of ‘normal science’; & crucially because science needs to be based in a shared qualitative understanding of science based normally in a widely-accepted breakthrough).
Roughly: Does psychology have a ‘paradigm’? It looks in fact that it has too many (viz.: psychologIES), or none, rather than one. (For explication, see the relevant chapters of my and Sharrock’s KUHN (Polity, 2002), and our shortly-forthcoming piece in Kindi’s edited collection marking the 50th anniversary of Kuhn’s STRUCTURE, on social/human ‘science’ vs. natural science. Cf. also what I said in my NightWaves appearance on the 50th anniversary of the STRUCTURE: http://rupertsread.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/me-on-radio3-on-science.html ).
Sure enough, Laws demonstrates that the formal requirements of statistical method are not adhered to in psychology and that in cases where they are they might still leave room for gerrymandering (Why they do so in my view takes us partly back to psychology’s concepts and partly back to the comparison to other sciences/disciplines – as I mentioned in my first remarks in the programme). But suppose these problems were in fact solved through enforced replication. Would psychology fare any better? Granted its house would be orderly in a sense, but would it be closer to being a science? My suggestion is that things might, ironically, then be even worse: because psychology would then look more like the scientific image of science, while not actually being any closer to being or being able to be the kind of discipline that Kuhn talks about, when he talks – on the basis, recall, of extensive work as a historian of science – of the nature of actual sciences. (For more detail on why, see my and Sharrock’s KUHN, and also (and especially) my recent WITTGENSTEIN AMONG THE SCIENCES. In particular, Part 2 of the latter dissects some claims on the part of psychologists to match what (in Part 1 of the book) I argue real science is: roughly, Kuhnian puzzle-solving within a research tradition, in a field that is not one that we construct and inhabit just by virtue (following here Schutz and Garfinkel and Wittgenstein) of being competent social actors. (Cf. on this also my, Hutchinson’s and Sharrock’s THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SOCIAL SCIENCE.).)
If psychology were indeed a Popperian-style science it wouldn’t be a very good science – the operations which are designed to replicate (sic.!) the procedures of ‘genuine sciences’ are only pale imitations of their originals and the attempt to deliver ‘scientific achievements’ by means of ‘[allegedly] scientific procedures’ doesn’t yield any genuinely powerful findings, just vast and sprawling literatures and vast and weak databases. For, of course, wearing the outer trappings of science doesn’t make something into a science. But: psychology doesn’t need to be one – better understanding doesn’t only come from science. To think that it does is scientism.
My kind (and also Laws’s kind) of criticisms of our modern pseudo-sciences are regularly issued (and equally regularly disregarded) by the practitioners and methodologists and observers of those pseudo-sciences. To put the point polemically: Established Psychology is one of those juggernauts that Wittgenstein didn’t like, and rightly so. (See again the 4 programmes archived at http://rupertsread.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/me-on-radio3-on-science.html for my take on this, especially the NIGHTWAVES special on Wittgenstein and my recent discussion with Glaser on scientism and ‘Enlightenment’.)
Where Popper can be useful, as Nassim Taleb reminds us, is in a different way to that proposed by Laws and assumed by worryingly-many psychologists: Namely, in undercutting the pretensions of ‘social/human science’ to be able to model and predict the future. In opening our minds instead to the necessary presence in the human world of ‘black swans’.
A valuable exercise would be to follow the procedure of Lucas and of ‘Goodhart’s Law’ (implicit in 2.4 of my WITTGENSTEIN AMONG THE SCIE NCES, and cf. http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=4367 ) and to look into the extent to which it is conceptually absurd to think of Psychology as a timeless body of knowledge, because of the extent of its historicity and of absorption of any teaching it has into what we know and do (and thus adaptation of our expectations etc, and undercutting of that teaching). What has been done for Economics needs doing for Psychology too, before the latter results in some analogue caused by the latter of the credit crunch/crash… . And hereabouts, as I pointed out in the programme (and on twitter), is then another severe limit on the extent to which Psychology is in principle scientifisable: The nature of human learning, and the way in which Psychology feeds back into our society, makes Psychology constitutively ill-suited to being genuinely scientific in nature and outcome (because psychology is inherently unpredictable; by which I mean: there are inherent limits on its predictability, limits far deeper than those present in (e.g.) quantum phenomena. Limits analogous to those sketched by Taleb vis a vis Economics.).
Ironically: the more impact Psychology has, the less like a science – the less like chemistry or astronomy, etc. – it can be. Psychology cannot be scientific because our psychology plays a dance with it (psychological subjects inherently resist (or sometimes, sadly, welcome – but again, actively) objectification – see on this Michel Henry’s BARBARISM, and Merleau-Ponty’s magnificent manifesto of anti-psychologism, THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF PERCEPTION), while in actual sciences there is a more simple dialectic of subject and object.
I could go on, talking for instance about why Psychology just ain’t in the head; but this is I hope sufficient for now, to indicate the bases of my disquiet, and to provide some sources.
In sum and in short, then: Laws’s are familiar problems to anyone who thinks about rather than buys into professionalised social/human science including psychology, and it is helpful of him to have raised them, and pointed out ways in which Psychology does not live up to its main corporate (Popperian) self-image. But this tells us nothing about whether such a self-image is actually desirable. Law’s paper doesn’t address the serious question – what does all this (i.e. what Laws tells us) actually tell us about the aggregate value of that vast multitude of studies already out there? I would hazard that that value is, unfortunately, far lower than most Psychologists would like us to believe. Laws and his friends are too concerned with the processing of Psychological work, and not concerned enough with the content of what’s being processed.
[With thanks to Wes Sharrock and Leonidas Tsilipakos for input.]
The controversy over Julie Burchill’s unpleasant headline-grabbing article on some ‘trans’-activists’ attacks on her mate Suzanne Moore rumbles on in the blogosphere, as the Observer promise to look into whether or not to have Burchill write future columns for them: http://liberalconspiracy.org/2013/01/13/libdem-mp-lynne-featherstone-says-julie-burchill-should-be-sacked/
I aim here to essay some philosophical and political reflections on this matter. My take on the controversy includes this: Burchill is Burchill. She is (and arguably always has been) a controversialist who lives off creating outrage. Her column was deliberately unpleasant; the Observer should have reined it in, or spiked it. But, leaving Burchill’s agent provocateur-ism to one side now: I have some sympathy with Suzanne Moore, Bea Campbell (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jan/31/julie-bindel-transgender-nus ), Julie Bindel and even Germaine Greer over this issue: The way they have at times been targeted and criticised is unpleasant. There IS a Feminist case against some of the discourse of the trans lobby. I hope that point doesn’t get lost in the anti-Burchill clamour.
Readers of this site will be aware that I am by no means an uncritical admirer of Julie Bindel: http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=2962 . And, as a Feminist-identified man, my own taste in Feminism is different in some important respects to that of the above-named group: I generally favour a Radical Feminism attuned closely to the critiques of ‘essentialism’ that Jane Flax, Nancy Fraser and others pioneered.
BUT to be a critic of gender essentialism is one thing; to seek to dissolve the category of ‘woman’ altogether, in favour of a sort of ‘opt-in’ version of what it is to be a woman, quite another. As Richard Rorty used to argue: ‘woman’ is an experiential category and a political category. It has, I would submit (and here I am simply echoing mainstream Feminist ideas) a material basis in lived experience including bodily experience, and it has a political reality and a political point. As both Rorty and Carol Gilligan rightly hold: so long as there is patriarchy, so long as there is oppression of women, then there is likely to be a ‘different voice’, there is certainly a need for Feminism: and Feminism starts with women being allowed to define themselves and to carve out spaces for themselves.
Trans women will say that they are exactly that: women being allowed to define themselves. But you can see the impasse here: If women find themselves being told by some with male genitalia etc. that they are obliged to accept the latter as women, because they ‘define’ themselves as so, that is hardly a knock-down argument. Take an analogy: Imagine that some people regard themselves within themselves as disabled, as missing a limb. Are disabled people obliged to regard those people as already part of the disabled community? I would suggest: obviously not. (And note: this is NOT even a philosopher’s made-up example. Tragically, there are people who want to have one or more limbs amputated, who want to become disabled: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/neurophilosophy/2012/may/30/1 )
The identity of the group of women starts from clear cases. The existence of grey areas does nothing to challenge this. (For detailed argument to this conclusion, through a broadly-Wittgensteinian discussion of the sorites and vagueness, see Chapter 6 of my new book, discussed here: http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=6272 ). It is not reasonable, it is not feasible, for those wanting entry to any group to act as if they have already magically gained such entry just by virtue of wanting entry. I will discuss this point in more detail, below.
So: Burchill has almost certainly done Moore et al a disservice. But the questions that Bindel, Moore et al have raised about the relationship of trans-sexualism to Feminism / to women remain genuine questions – they shouldn’t be tarred with Burchill’s brush. The point of MY intervention is just to seek to help ensure that we don’t miss the nuances of this difficult debate between Bindel & Moore & some other Feminists on the one hand and some trans-activists on the other, in the hurly-burly of this ‘political panic’ of attacks on Burchill for her attacks on transgender people.
So, two important points:
1) That there is a genuine, complicated question within Feminism about whether trans-women can or should in every or all respects be regarded straightforwardly as women (They don’t have periods, they don’t experience menopause; they chose to be (to become) women rather than having been brought up gendered female; etc. etc). It is complicated. Does feeling psychologically as if you are a woman and making certain changes to your body as a consequence make you a woman? Or first, a more basic question: Is it enough, in order to BE a woman, to psychically identify as one? To this second question, we must surely answer: no. (It it were, then it would presumably be enough to be disabled to psychically identify as disabled; it would be enough to be black to psychically identify as black; etc.)
At this point, it may be helpful to introduce another element to the discussion. To use the term that has in the course of this spat made the journey from academia to the blogosphere, identities are intersectional: many aspects make up our identities and this is what intersectionality as an approach tries to emphasise. One’s social class, one’s gender, one’s sexuality, one’s ethnicity, one’s political and moral commitments all intersect in such a way as to create one’s identity. Talking of intersectionality, as some already have, should alert us to the different intersecting identities that a trans-woman and non-trans-woman have, and therefore guard against endless arguments over real identity.
Are the trans-activists who pushed Moore off Twitter saying that women have no right to a say on who gets to be a woman?? Or again: Should non-trans-women similarly have the absolute right to define once and for all the term woman?? We should see that our identities are complexes of many different intersecting aspects, and recognise that just as these bring us close to those who share similar aspects they might also distance us from others, including the very people whose identity we might wish to share.
And this means that, as well as a symmetry, there is an asymmetry here: Women do not have an absolute once and for all right to define who they are. But they are do have more of a say than others as to who they are (and who they are not / who are not they), right now. Our individualist age would be taking a step into utter absurdity, if it were to say that any individual by virtue of feeling a certain way can magic themselves into any group-identity.
Do the mass of women who did not go through the process of sex-reassignment — ordinary women, so-called ‘cissexuals’ — have no right to point out some differences between themselves and trans-women? I think they surely do have such a right, including the right to point to a broad mass of broadly (albeit not universally) shared, overlapping experiences that they tend to share. Hopefully, they will have the heart to recognise the difficulties specific to the trans experience, and the feeling of commonality that the transsexual has with women. But hopefully too, those gendered male who wish to transition to female-hood will recognise that they are seeking to join a group with specific experiences some of which they have not shared, a historically-oppressed group, a group which has fought hard for the right to have spaces where women can organise together, clear of the male gaze, etc. .
It is not essentialist to point out the difference between being gendered female one’s who life and being gendered female as a result of a choice. It is not essentialist to point out certain material differences between men and women: the only question is what SIGNFICANCE to attribute to those differences. (Feminism of course argues that patriarchal societies tend to attach a wrong and excessive significance to those differences.) Does a man choosing to seek to become a member of an oppressed group (women) have the right to demand full unequivocal membership of that group and then speak as part of it without any possibility of objection? It is complicated, but it is at the very least not at all self-evident that one ought to answer that question with a Yes.
(2) While Burchill is an unpleasant controversialist who tries to create outrage, and while nothing that I write here should be interpreted as a defence of what SHE has said, there has also without doubt been some real and I think in part quite unwarranted unpleasantness from one very vocal section of the trans community against anyone, including some prominent Feminists, who dares to say out loud anything resembling (1).
Now, some trans-activists would say that what I have just written is in any case misleading, in that it makes being a transgender seem a ‘choice’ like any other, when the lived experience of trans people is that they have no choice about their gender-identification being opposite to the sexual identity they are assigned on the basis of their biology. Saying that there is no choice about making the trans-ition is, however, misleading: i) It suggests a new essentialism, which Foucaultians and some Queer Theorists would object to; it suggests that psyche is destiny (that if you are ‘a woman in a man’s body’ then you are really a woman) and, ironically, leaves no room for human experimentation or novel self-definition (i.e. for the flexibility of being able to resist society’s binarism, the insistence that you are either a man or a woman — trans-women insist on the latter, for themselves –, by creating genuinely new sexual identities); ii) It cannot make sense of the experience of another important minority that tends to get ignored in these debates: those who feel profoundly ill at ease in their bodies gender-wise and yet do NOT choose to seek to pass as women, do NOT undergo sex-reassignment surgery, etc.
The issue that concerns Bindel etc, is whether it is good and practical Feminist politics to completely unqualifiedly open the ranks of women to some former men. I am nervous about men or trans-women insisting that it goes without saying that it IS.
When I made some brief remarks similar to the above on Facebook recently, I was accused of bordering on gender essentialism. I would point out in this connection that it is ironic to be accused of borderline gender essentialism, when what the Trans activists in question are in some cases arguing for is the right to be taken for a woman with no questions asked ONCE SEX RE-ASSIGNMENT SURGERY ETC HAS HAPPENED. For surely no-one seriously claims that simply feeling like a woman is enough to make one one, for the reasons I gave above; but it appears that the hardline Trans position is that having the surgery etc certainly IS. But: that amounts to believing that anatomy is identity / destiny – but that you can change your anatomy, and so change your identity / destiny. This is pretty clearly a neo-essentialism, it seems to me.
Notice furthermore that there is something deeply and viciously paradoxical about the idea that simply feeling like a woman is enough to make one one. For what is it that one feels like, if one feels like a woman? It can’t be that the feeling of feeling like a woman is in and of itself a complete, self-validating, ‘private’ experience, of an individual (to see why not, Wittgenstein’s anti-private-language considerations are helpful); the experience must have some content. Obviously, what the content of the experience is, and necessarily so, is: feeling like one of ‘those’. Like one of those humans who has a body of a certain kind/shape, who perhaps dresses in certain ways, etc. (Thus some Feminists are understandably nervous that some trans-women may identify women by reference to an ideal of femininity that Feminism itself, rightly, puts into question). In other words, feeling like a woman / feeling like one is a woman is necessarily defined by reference to the pre-existing class of women. This point makes it clear that trans-women are dependent on the pre-existing category of women – on (ordinary) women, in other words. In simple terms: Being a trans-woman is necessarily in part based on the idea of being someone who in some sense on at present is not. This already guarantees that the feeling that one is one of them – a woman – is not sufficient. Because such an identity-claim is precisely a claim that goes beyond / differs from what one currently is. (It is, as we might put it, a desire-claim concerning oneself, as much as an identity-claim.) And such a claim is logically dependent on the pre-existence of the group that one identifies with. It is that pre-existence that underlies the asymmetry I pointed up, above.
Now, what I am saying might be countered by saying this: Surely the ideal of feminism would be that gender identity is irrelevant when it comes to the rights, opportunities and roles available to a person? In that case, denying trans women ‘full’ womanhood is illogical, as doing so uses gender as a basis for discrimination. This may not be an ideal world but the only way to move towards one, it might be argued, is to remain true to such ideals.
In reply, I would say this: Yes, that certainly is the ideal of much feminism – but it remains an UNREALIZED ideal. Until it is realised, it is premature to criticise Feminists for retaining the category of ‘woman’. If women want all/only-women spaces, etc., then, in a still-patriarchal society, they should certainly be allowed to create them. It is not true that to move toward an ideal world we have to pretend that we are already in one.
The picture is of course in reality even more complex, however, than I have so far allowed. Trans-women typically cannot actually get the surgery they want until they have been living as a woman for years. The most common process is for a trans woman to “come out” as trans and start to live as a woman long before they have surgery, if they even have surgery at all. Many don’t ever have the surgery for various reasons, including because it comes with a great many complications and the results are not always satisfactory. While there are of course different positions the general trans position is that surgery is just one part of a greater process, and, some would say, not necessarily even an essential or the most important part.
Recognising this complexity however creates only additional difficulties for the simplistic case made by some trans-activists. It creates, to be precise, a dilemma for them. Either one says that only post-op trans-sexuals should have a right to be treated as women without question: in which case, as implied earlier, it appears to be the trans-activist who is being essentialist, by attributing gender identity to anatomy (plus hormones etc), and merely adding that anatomy is malleable. Such a position puts a stark dividing line within the trans-community between pre-op (or non-op) on the one hand and post-op on the other. Or one says that all self-identifying women (i.e. pre-op trans-sexuals too) should have a right to be treated as women without question: in which case, it really must be asked, do you really not see ANY good argument for women to exclude from women-only spaces people who have male genitalia, etc? Can you really not see how some women might find it problematic to be told that they simply must let such people in on equal terms?
To move towards conclusion: A key problem for both sides in this debate is not having truly taken on board the point that identity is not a simple but a complex; hence they both end up arguing over something which is merely one aspect of the complex and by extension they commit themselves to the very essentialism they all argue they are against.
I think the real culprit here may then be a profound – a hyper- — individualism in our society, a kind of psychical consumerism of identity-politics that makes it seem as though any claim to identity is self-validating and must be accepted, and a wearing of victimhood as a badge such that one’s victimhood is supposed to prevent any criticism of one’s psychologically-based claims to identity. In tandem with this, ironically, lies a deep-set and enduring power of essentialist gender stereotypes and of biologism; a deep-set cultural assumption that one’s body ought to reflect gender stereotypes and ought to take on one of two supposedly-biologically-pre-set formations.
I will never rest until all oppression is ended. But the oppressed (and of course that is virtually all of us, in one way or another) must also seek to step out of the victim-role; to boldly fight for themselves, and to work in coalition to make this world a place where all of us can and will flourish; rather than to seek to vie as to who is more oppressed.
In this context, is it too much to hope, to hope that a little reflective philosophy such as I have essayed here may shed a little light on the matter? That tempers might calm enough to think things through as I have sought to do here? I hope not…
For, unlike Julie Burchill, I have the greatest of sympathy for trans-sexuals, a small minority who remain deeply misunderstood today, and who are probably in very many cases worse oppressed than many (non-trans) women. I hope that our society grows in its acceptance of such complicated sexual identities. I reject transphobia completely and out of hand.
But: I think that Feminists have a right to point out that there can in some cases be a prima facie tension between the desire to become a woman and the full recognition of the still-often-stark oppression of women, much of the time, in much of the world. And, more important (because more pressing): it is just plain wrong for any victim-group to use its victim-status as a tool with which to beat other victims of oppression. Whenever a trans-activist bullies a Feminist (or of course, equally, vice versa), Feminism dies a little – and trans-women need Feminism badly. Because, if they don’t know all there is to know about the oppression of women before they become one, I am reliably informed (by a transsexual acquaintance) that they often get to know a lot more about it afterward…
[Thanks to those who gave me comments on an earlier version of this piece. Please note that, in this piece, I am, obviously, discussing only male-to-female transsexualism. That’s complicated enough, without also addressing the reverse case, let alone hermaphroditism, etc.]
My new book, ‘A Wittgensteinian way with paradoxes’, out today https://rowman.com/ISBN/9780739168967, is an attempt to look at why and how philosophers, including oneself – and using the word “philosophers” in the broadest sense possible, to refer to anyone who is doing philosophy, whether or no they know it – get stuck in paradoxes, how they can be helped to get unstuck, and how, once philosophers’ paradoxes are dissolved, the actual power of paradox to help our thinking and acting and our reconciliation to the peculiarities of our life-world, can start to be unleashed. Paradoxes often indicate an a poria in our thinking, a hovering, a nonsensical desire to say things that are uncotenable. But not always. If we get clearer about when they (/we)do, then we can start to get clearer about when they don’t, or needn’t.
Let me sketch briefly here my latest thoughts (since even the book went to press, six months ago) on what the book concerns and hopes to accomplish, by focussing in on a few of the key chapters.
In Chapter 1 of the book, I offer a radically revisionist take on ‘Logicism’, the view, often wrongly ascribed to the early Wittgenstein, that arithmetic can be derived from logic. I seek to defuse Russell’s paradox, by arguing that it doesn’t have to be seen as undermining Frege’s system, provided that one takes that system in a way different from the way that Frege himself inclined to taking it. I use Frege’s own arguments against Kerry to undermine the felt-necessity of that inclination.
Consider in this context the following wonderful passage from Wittgenstein’s Remarks on the foundations of mathematics:
“Is there such a thing…as the right logical calculus, only without the contradictions?
Could it be said, e.g., that while Russell’s Theory of Types avoids the contradiction, still Russell’s calculus is not THE universal logical calculus but perhaps an artificially restricted, mutilated one? Could it be said that the pure, universal logical calculus has yet to be found? //
…The formalization of logic did not work out satisfactorily. But what was the attempt
made for at all? (What was it useful for?) Did not this need, and the idea that it must be capable of satisfaction, arise from a lack of clarity in another place?
The question “what was it useful for?” was a quite essential question. For the calculus was not invented for some practical purpose, but in order ‘to give arithmetic a foundation’. But who says that arithmetic is logic, or what has to be done with logic to make it in some sense into a substructure for arithmetic? If we had e.g. been led to attempt this by aesthetic considerations, who says that it can succeed? (Who says that this English poem can be translated into German to our satisfaction?!) (Even if it is clear that there is in some sense a translation of any English sentence into German.)”
Chapter 2 brings up to date my thoughts on the paradoxes of time-travel, explored here on an earlier occasion: http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=3239; thanks to those who commented then, for strengthening my thinking on this topic.
Chapter 3 of the book, I take on the philosophical linguistics of Noam Chomsky. After first allowing certain of Chomsky’s insights into Wittgensteinian philosophy, and his appropriate scepticism as to human science – take for instance this lovely quote from him, which I have just discovered today: “As soon as questions of will or decision or reason or choice arise, human science is at a loss.” – I then criticise Chomsky on the grounds, roughly, that he doesn’t in my view adequately see the sense in which (as argued for instance in my THE NEW WITTGENSTEIN) there cannot be any such thing as having an external point of view on language.
Towards the end of the book, having addressed and defused various ‘philosophers paradoxes’, I look towards possible and actual ways in which paradoxes can be positively beneficial, and in which their continuing need not be conceived of by philosophers as something needing rectifying or eliminating. For example, consider the (itself somewhat paradoxical) category of ‘fictitious history’. This category is crucial to understanding what the latter Wittgenstein is quite often up to. Through offering us fictitious histories, Wittgenstein frees our minds from constriction by unwitting and/or dogmatic assumptions that imprison us. He offers us alternative possibilities (as the later Gordon Baker, in particular, stressed). Now think in this connection of what Nietzsche does in a book like The genealogy of morality (the subject, alongside Wittgenstein, of chapter 10 of my book). What is it that he does (especially in the second essay of the Genealogy) but offer a potentially-fictitious history of punishment and of morality? The point isn’t whether his account is true or not; the point is that something like it might be true; and that punctures our complacency in morality as we have inherited it. This then frees us up for the amazing and beautifully-paradoxical operation that Nietzsche undertakes in the third essay of the Genealogy: destroying ‘ascetic’ morality from within.
The last lines of the book should give you a flavour of my overall purpose in it:
“I hope this book might help play some role in the search for a truer intellectual freedom. An intellectual freedom genuinely at home in our thoroughly social and embodied nature. In our lives that are so empty of what philosophers typically call ‘paradoxes’ – and yet nonetheless, sometimes, so full of paradox.”
If readers of this blog get to read the book, I would love to know what they (you) think of it.
It’s 50 years this year since the publication of one of the biggest-selling philosophy books of all time, and in my opinion one of the major works of philosophy of the last century, Kuhn’s STRUCTURE.
(It’s also btw the 90th anniversary of Kuhn’s birth, this year.)
I went on Radio 3′s NIGHT WAVES to discuss STRUCTURE at 50, recently. Have a listen again here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01kkp42 (16 minutes in).
There are all sorts of books and conferences coming out / happening to celebrate the anniversary.
One of my contributions is this [see link below] much smaller offering: a review of an interesting recent book on Kuhn’s philosophy, which argues (I don’t really agree, as you’ll see) that Kuhn’s post-STRUCTURE writings are much better. The review will be appearing in the BJPS. If you are interested in Kuhn, you might be interested in this. The link here goes to the ‘full-length’ version. The version that will appear in BJPS will be much shorter, and further-edited.
So: suggestions of changes welcome!
Here it is: http://rupertread.fastmail.co.uk/Critical%20notice%20of%20Wray%20on%20Kuhn.doc [NB This link downloads a copy of the file onto your machine.]
This review btw is co-authored by me and Jessica Woolley, a student of mine. So she gets at least half the credit for this. (But not, please, half the blame, if any!
So, it’s (bread-and-)circuses time ‘at last’: Time to forget about solidarity with the Arab Awakening, to forget about the collapsing Euro, to forget about our day-by-day smashing of biodiversity and destruction of a liveable atmosphere; time also to forget about your own life, to forget about DOING anything, and instead to start sitting on your backside more; it’s time, once you are firmly sat, to project everything (jingoistically, of course) onto a specially-selected bunch of others, flown in with no cost or carbon spared.
It’s time to stop being and start SPECTATING.
Let the pointless ogling begin…
Yep: it’s the 2012 Olympic ‘Games’. . .
Let’s start, briefly, with the ‘greenest games ever’ (sic. – or: Pass the sick-bag, someone…). Can’t we, in this day and age, figure out better ways of spreading joy that don’t spread so much misery among our descendants? That is what they are going to receive from us, mostly: misery, courtesy of climate chaos (of which we have experienced a small taste here in Britain, this ‘summer’). Misery which is being contributed to by all this Olympic construction, travel, and so on.
I can hear one or two of you groaning already. “Why does he have to be such a killjoy?” Well, forgive me if I’m being curmudgeonly. It is probably because my potatoes, that I’ve just got back from seeking to harvest, have blight. (Why do they have blight? Because of this dreadful ‘summer’. (Why this dreadful ‘summer’? Probably because of incipient manmade climate chaos. (Why this manmade climate chaos? Because of excessive GHG / carbon emissions. – Which brings us back to the insane amount of flying, among other things, that our species is currently indulging in…including to make possible spectacles such as the Olympics…)))
Now let’s move onto the concept of sport itself. I have serious reservations about modern spectator ‘sport’. I think it isn’t really…sport any more. It is a kind of madly-over-rewarded professional body-machinisation and semi-prostitution. Goto http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=5156 for more detail…
It is true that at times of ‘great sporting events’, there is often some temporary boost to the numbers of people taking part in those sports. Is that a good instrumental grounds on which to defend all this spectating and getting-on-your-backside? Not really: Because imagine what we could do if, instead of saying to people “Sit still and watch these amazing geniuses [read: boring overpaid professional obsessives] perform!”, we truly encouraged everyone to BE, to participate, to DO… Imagine if as a culture we devoted the same energy and money to getting people active as we currently do to pacifying them… Imagine if we sought to enliven people’s own lives, rather than make them absurdly identify with others who in fact they cannot hope to emulate…
Or, as I think it should now be termed, ‘sport’. When referring to these professional capers, we should always put the scare-quotes in place… (As Confucius would have it: the most important task for a public intellectual is the rectification of names. The name of ‘sport’ has now been thoroughly turned on its head. We need to recover the old meaning (As in ‘What sport we had!’ Or ‘Now that was sporting!’).)
Let me be very clear, so that there is no misunderstanding of what I am saying here: I have nothing against sport (as opposed to: against ‘sport’). What I like is PARTICIPATION; what I don’t like is mere spectatorship. I like cycling – much more than I like WATCHING cycling, for example. I like playing table-tennis once in a while. I think our world would be far happier and healthier if we played sport, rather than watching ‘sport’.
And of course I am not just criticising the Olympics; not at all. On the contrary: the problem is rampant across ‘sport’. The trouble with soccer, nowadays, for instance, is that soccer is infected with the same cancer of professionalism as everyone else, as all major ‘sports’. Soccer teams don’t really represent their local town any more. They [players, and teams] are just bought by the highest capitalist bidder.
It’s time to end ‘sport’ — and bring back sport. Reflecting on what is wrong with these Olympics (see for instance http://www.opendemocracy.net/amal-de-chickera/games-have-begun-opportunity-missed & http://www.redpepper.org.uk/the-neoliberal-games/?utm_source=Pepperista&utm_campaign=955a1a4a9c-96035f6d2dc1a0ab8d89ff1b8516f23b&utm_medium=email ) is an ideal time to start to do so…
But don’t just sit there! Don’t even just write comments on what I’ve written… Don’t just exchange a TV screen for a computer screen… (And if you do write comments, then do be a bit…playful…)
Rather, get out there, into the wonderful outdoors, and play.
A famous article by Ronald Dworkin asked, ‘Equality of what?’ It isn’t enough to claim that one is an egalitarian: one has to say in respect of WHAT one wants people to be equal.
Now, I’m not _entirely_ convinced of Dworkin’s point. It seems to me that it is pretty clear that there is a reason why we are restrictive in our application of the term ‘egalitarian’. We don’t apply it to people who believe in equality merely in some verbal form (say, ‘equality of opporunity’). The term ‘egalitarian’ has, one might say, a _substantive_ and restrictive meaning: It applies only to a certain range of goals in terms of which we are prepared to regard someone as actually being serious about aiming for equality: perhaps equality of material outcome, equality of welfare, and a few others.
But even if I am right in not outright endorsing Dworkin, the restricted version of his claim, that I have just endorsed, is already enough to license one to conclude that simply saying ‘I’m an egalitarian’ is not enough. One has, at minimum, to distinguish, for instance, between equality of outcome and equality of welfare. To that extent at least, I think it is clear that the question ‘Equality of what?’ must be answered.
A somewhat similar point applies, I believe, to sustainability. And, to my knowledge, this point hasn’t been made before (Please correct me if I’m wrong, readers!). It is not enough to be in favour of sustainability. One _has_ to be clear _what_ one is in favour of sustaining.
And again, only certain meanings, certain specifications of that ‘what’ deserve to be counted as actually amounting to something worth, substantively, calling ‘sustainability’, at all. ‘Sustainable growth’, for instance, is not one of them, for reasons made clear by Herman Daly, and recently, by Tim Jackson. Likewise, ‘sustainable aviation’.
For something to actually count as sustainability at all, we must ask, ‘What are you seeking to sustain?’; and only certain answers to that question will leave it plausible that one is actually someone who takes (anything that is actually going to be actually worth calling) sustainability seriously. Such answers might be: a just and ecologically-viable society, or: an ecologically-viable society; etc. As we might put it: it has actually to be _possible_ (and _plausible_) for something to be indefinitely sustainable, for it to qualify as a candidate for what can be sustainable. This oughtn’t to surprise us…
I am worried that the very term ‘sustainability’ actually tends somewhat to push one away from understanding this point (If you are interested in my reasons, goto http://blogs.bournemouth.ac.uk/environmental-change/2011/03/08/the-conference-in-audio-2/ and scroll down to ‘Plenary Session’ – the Q & A, as well as my talk here on sustainability, is well worth listening to too. In very brief: I think that the term ‘sustainable’ and its cognates makes us inclined to think that whatever we put as the next word, whatever is the ‘what’ that we are seeking do sustainably, might in principle be sustainable. But this, I’ve suggested, isn’t true.)
But we can’t get away from the fact that the term ‘sustainable’ is an important term in our public lexicon, today. It isn’t going to be overcome or improved upon overnight. And so: part of what is needed in order to reclaim the term ‘sustainable’ by its abuse at the hands of corporates, and in Rio Plus 20, and in the mouths of our Government, and so on, is that, whenever one hears the term, one ought to ask: “But sustainability of _what_?”
As our climate-damaged sport-saturated ‘summer’ continues, it’s worth taking a moment perhaps to reflect on the concept of ‘sport’, and what it means today.
Take recent Wimbledon tennis finalist Andy Murray, for instance. Murray said on Radio 4 in the run-up to that final that he only enjoys winning, not playing / taking part – he regards tennis purely as a job. If so, he is a tennis player for the age of faceless soulless capitalism: an obscenely-over-rewarded workman.
Of course, perhaps he is just providing some much-needed honesty about the true grind, pressure and hard work that lies beneath the surface mythology of tennis’s beauty, art, and passion that sports commentators like to celebrate. Tennis, after all, is a fundamentally competitive game and professional players have to want to win: to do this requires commitment, hard slog and training as a full-time job.
Perhaps so. And I admire Murray’s honesty, at least, in his remarks on Radio 4. But his lack of social inhibition about what that honesty reveals makes his attitude if anything all the more scary. He thinks that there is nothing wrong with being a joyless winning-is-ALL-that-matters professional. Such attitudes ought to be an object of societal scorn, they ought to be cast away with derision. Instead, they are increasingly ruling us. This is rather terrifying and depressing. Tennis ceases to be a sport any more, in any meaningful sense whatsoever: it becomes merely a job.
And this is a job which is part of a wider, exploitative picture: the obscene pay of such top celebrity sportspeople contributes to the grotesque inequality of our society. The rewards they get buy our time on the cheap.
But most of all, it exploits the young minds who are corrupted by the relentless love of money, victory and nothing else. The case of pop stars is similar – their earnings (the top ones) are absurd and obscene, too. But there is one difference that makes their situation very slightly less objectionable: They don’t get paid for winning a ‘sport’.
In another, earlier, interview Murray also claimed, ‘My body feels like a machine.’ These words will be of interest to a philosopher like Merleau-Ponty, or Zygmunt Bauman. They are a confession of a way of living the body and of experiencing oneself as an industrial object, and a commodity, which is critiqued beautifully also by a philosophical neurologist like Iain McGilchrist (see my piece at http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=3398 ). They reveal the ethos of an activity that goes beyond inspiring youngsters to work hard to achieve high aspirations. Rather it fills youngsters with the idea that it is OK and admirable to be alienated from your own body; that winning is all that matters; that joy is unimportant.
To avoid misunderstanding: I am taking Murray here as an example of wider-spread attitudes and problems. I might have equally taken the Williams sisters, or Tiger Woods, or for that matter many of China’s atheletes. To avoid a more important misunderstanding: I am not attacking Murray or any of these other individuals as individuals. There is much to be said for the view that these sportspeople are victims of their families, trainers and fans, and symptoms of much deeper societal ills.
But to step out of the victim role requires action, not ongoing connivance and collaboration. If sportspeople have a miserable time and feel joyless then they should quit and do a different job, just like people in the real world… but then in the real world people are rarely aiming to win millions at a time or getting paid just to wear a branded shirt.
If Andy Murray and his ilk really want our sympathy, then then could get it easily, and create history: by denouncing their ‘sports’ as vampirical, as absurd caricatures of the noble enterprises they once might have been, and quitting.
…Finally; why am I so bothered by all this? Well, possibly because the likes of Murray are a bad influence on my students, too. And by that I mean I know the occasional student who goes to uni and just wants the grade. ” There’s my grade. That’s me sorted. I’ve passed the test, I’ve won the competition; what else matters?” In such a scenario: obviously not the love of wisdom…
[[Thanks to Ruth Makoff, Tom Greaves, Denise Smith, Lee Hyde, and Tim Jones, for thoughts that contributed to this piece.]]
What would John Rawls’s view be of the cutting of the 50p tax rate? He is often called an ‘egalitarian’ political philosopher; so presumably he would be against the reduction of this tax rate on the very rich?
Not so fast. Have a listen to this item from the TODAY programme, yesterday on Budget morning:
About 90 seconds in, ultra-rich businessman John Caudwell makes a quasi-Rawlsian argument. He says: “What’s best for the country enables the Government to look after the poorest members of society”.
This TODAY interview with John Caudwell, Caudwell’s making of a difference-principle-style argument, suggests once again that Rawls’s political philosophy, which supposedly undergirds the thinking of ‘lefties’ (it is explicitly backed by many including allegedly Obama, Purnell, Stuart White, etc), is actually compatible with extremes of inequality as manifested for instance in the abolition of the 50p tax rate.
Now, it might be responded: what’s wrong with that: IF it can be shown that the tax take goes UP from this group as a whole then it could be a valid move, on Rawlsian grounds. This response shows I think the bankruptcy of the claim sometimes made that Rawlsian thinking is ‘egalitarian’. You can hardly pretend that abolishing the 50p tax rate is egalitarian!
Rawls’s philosophy is at best ‘prioritarian’; it is utterly inegalitarian. Caudwell’s stance shows this.
Anyway: even if the tax take did / does go up, as a result of the abolition of the 50p rate, then it would still be a bad thing to do, to abolish it. Because we would still be creating a more unequal society; and moreover encouraging people to work themselves to death (high tax rates are a good thing inasmuch as they discourage the culture of overwork which grips societies like ours).
Rawlsian liberals don’t like to hear this sort of thing. Witness the furious reaction when I put forward this view before:
But, when one listens to a man like Caudwell making a quasi-Rawlsian argument, then things are pretty clear: We need to do better than Rawls. We ought to be egalitarians. It is pretty sickening if the best that the ‘Left’ can do is back a political philosopher whose thinking is compatible with the still-higher extremes of inequality which George Osborne is now creating.
My new book, WITTGENSTEIN AMONG THE SCIENCES, is out today. I am feeling pretty excited; it looks GREAT. Have a look, here: http://ashgate.com/default.aspx?page=637&calcTitle=1&title_id=11016&edition_id=14506
What is the book about? I would describe it as a broadly post-Schutzian attempt to understand the nature of science, through working through and from the work of Wittgensteinians such as Kuhn and Winch. One of the aspects of it that may be of especial/broader interest is that I seek to inform policy-debates around science through it: e.g. to argue that science-policy ought to be relatively free of government direction, unlike technology-policy which should be subject to tight social constraints. In Part 2 of the book, I seek to employ Wittgensteinian thinking to help in the practical business of understanding the nature of psychopathology. Including the pscyhopathology of unrestrained economism… That is: I argue for instance that, while Friedman’s celebtrated monetary treatise on the U.S. economy and the Great Depression put the latter down in significant part to a failure of monetary policy to make enough money available, one key factor behind the 2007-now economic and financial crisis is a dubious thingifying attitude to money that was _encouraged_ by Friedmanian monetarism and that can be implicitly seen writ large in Friedman’s famous and hugely-influential article, “The methodology of positive economics”.
Enough tasters. See what you think. Let me know here?
(There is an ebook version available, btw.)
Thanks to everyone who helped me with the book, especially my editor Simon Summers. I’d like to mention particularly that the book was also greatly influenced by Wes Sharrock (a Winchian genius) and Bojana Mladenovic (whose work on Kuhn I bow to, which is not the kind of thing I say very often!).