Tag Archives: marshall mcluhan

Philosophically vicious

While I think there is a conceptual difference between doing philosophy and being a proper philosopher, I admit that people act as if they are substantially linked. In particular, when someone wants to accuse their intellectual arch-nemesis of being a non-philosopher, they will marshal a reliable collection of taunts or insults. The drama that ensues is usually tedious and not worth dwelling on, except for the fact that the insults that self-described philosophers level against each other actually tells us something about what they value most about philosophy. (And also, I suppose, because there is a small cottage industry in philosophy that is now dedicated to the conceptual analysis of naughty words. Recall Frankfurt on Bullshit, McGinn on Mindfucking, and Aaron James on Assholes.)

If you want to insult a self-described philosopher, you have to point to their vices. A vice is just a lonely virtue — the thing that makes traits virtuous is that they come in clusters. For example, if you have the gift of insight, but lack any other intellectual virtues, then you are a dogmatist.

As far as I can tell, ‘being philosophical’ involves the manifestation of two kinds of virtues: the right intentions (insightful belief, humble commitments), and the right reflective methods (rationality in thought, cooperation in conversation). One should expect that being philosophical means you should be able to manifest at least some of right intentions and at least some of the right ways. The aspiring philosopher must manifest the right intentions, but their work cannot be all about good intentions. By the same token, the aspirant must manifest some facility with the right methods, but the whole of their work cannot be confined to reflective methods. Philosophers actually have to help us do something, understand something.

In theory, some insults are grotesque offenses to the philosophical mind. No aspiring philosopher should want to be found guilty of being a dogmatist, worry-wart, puzzle-solver, or sycophant; if the definition of ‘philosopher’ ever countenances such habits of mind, then I will finally know that I have lost all sense of what the word means. There is a non-trivial possibility that I have never known what philosophy is, but I am comforted by the fact that I appear to be in good company. Recall the Gellner-Ryle spat, where variations on all four accusations show up in print. First, Russell admonishes Ryle for running the risk of turning Mind into “the mutual admiration organ of a coterie” (sycophancy); then GRG Mure of Oxford accuses practitioners of the OLP movement as being “long self-immunized to criticism” (dogmatism); and later Arnold Kaufner (Michigan) alludes to the possibility that the Oxford group as guilty of “precious cleverness” and “genteel subtlety” (puzzle-solvers) and “ritualistic caution” (worry-warts).

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The problem with these sorts of insults is that they are so broad that when they are used by institutional peers the words will probably have no force. These insults mark out properties of persons which would be obvious if they were true, and hence would not usually even need to be asserted. Between institutional peers, the barb of an insult is most effective to the extent that it conforms to the facts, and the extent to which the assertion actually reveals something informative about those facts. People fall more in love with the subtler insults, ones that are grounded in the truth and in a potentially surprising way. The more intemperate and thoughtless your insults, the less people need to pay attention to you.*

Most readers are aware of the fact that during the 20th century there was a distinction between analytic philosophy and continental metaphysics. This distinction was based on innumerable factors, including substantive disagreements over particular viewpoints, and wide disagreement over who counted as an authority in philosophy. And that’s fine. But whatever the initial causes of the divide, it persisted in part because each side was able to caricature the other side as unphilosophical in one of the above ways. For analytic philosophers, continental metaphysicians were seen as romantic malcontents. (Recall Russell on existentialism: “It is from a mood of feeling oppressed that existentialism stages its rebellion against rationalism… The rationalist sees his freedom in a knowledge of how nature works; the existentialist finds it in an indulgence of his moods.”) Meanwhile, continental philosophers thought of analytic philosophers as methodology-obsessed and science-craven. (My use of the past tense is strategic but fanciful.)

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Some people (let’s call them romantics) talk about philosophy as if it described the expression of deep and serious thoughts on some profound issue. The romantic approach to philosophy likes to think that the primary point of philosophy is to play with ideas, to enjoy the freedom to think. Arguments are not conceived as tools, but as a canvas, and the fruit of the argument comes from weaving out authentic interconnections. The artisan delights in the avant garde, and enjoys seeing what an experimental attitude towards philosophy might bring about.

But no matter how deep you think your beliefs are, no matter how humble you are in adopting them, and no matter how sincere you are in expressing them, you owe it to your readers to show how you could be wrong. As interesting as your deep thoughts may be, if your philosophy of life can’t be assessed in public, and if you take no part in that ongoing assessment, then it is not a part of your work as a philosopher and you’re not acting like much of a philosopher when you do it. Good intentions and deep insights are not enough to acquit a writer of using obscure jargon and dubious inferences. Anthony Kenny knew and collaborated with Jacques Derrida as a young man, but his final judgment on Derrida’s work is both fair and decisive: Derrida’s M.O. was to “introduce new terms whose effect is to confuse ideas that are perfectly distinct”.

Sometimes, people are unfairly targeted as romantics when in retrospect they ought to have been given a fair shake. Marshall McLuhan is one of the most famous Canadian intellectuals from the 20th century, and his work has undeniable insight and natural modesty. He is owed due credit as a futurist and media theorist, and I am sure philosophers could learn quite a lot from his work. But while I leave it to others to determine whether or not he was a proper philosopher, I expect few would. Certainly, today’s professional philosophers do not. Max Black (anticipating Harry Frankfurt) referred to McLuhan as one of his generation’s humbuggers. All the same, I cannot help but point out that McLuhan seems to have been philosophizing, at least in the generous historical sense that I am working with. While there is no attempt at rigor, there was usually a reasonable chain of inferences and engagement in a wider Humanities-wide conversation. Of course, his dictum “The medium is the message” was obtuse — but even so, the point he was trying to make was comparably interesting.

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What holds for one extreme also holds for the other. If you say that philosophy is all about method – if, in other words, you are a scholastic intellectual technician– then it is hard to see how you could make any but the most perfunctory gestures to truth or understanding. When you ask someone who is obsessed with methodology why they do philosophy, they will explain to you the importance of trading of reasons for reasons, and how the rules of the philosophical game work. They will not answer a direct question, like “What consequence does this intellectual puzzle have to our lives?”. Instead, the inquiry will be treated as intrinsically valuable in the worst possible sense of the phrase. The technician is interested in getting to the heart of the ‘rules of chmess‘ thing once and for all, and we are unaffected by the effort.

Don’t be too hard on the technician. In all likelihood, the methods-obsessed soul has been appropriately traumatized by the most odious aspects of the philosophical culture, by pointless dogmatists and contrarians. You can hardly blame them for retreating to the safety and surety of intellectual Sudoku, any more than you can blame hobbits for keeping to the Shire.

The approach from method faces an additional burden, in that it does its part in stamping out philosophy as a distinctive and productive part of the Humanities. So, critics of modern analytic philosophy can ask the philosopher to show that reasoning from the armchair is both intellectually productive and distinctively non-scientific. Of course, it is now well-known that armchair methods are not always as productive as they seem. But it is also not obvious that armchair methods are distinctively philosophical. For, contrary to empiricist prejudices, quite a lot of good science could not be done unless we used some kind of aprioristic methods — be that in the form of mathematics, metaphysics, or modelling. Hence, in order to say something distinctive about philosophy, we have to talk about a productive and interesting part of the philosophical tradition that would be tough to sell as science. At least in the broader historical picture, intentional virtues are part of the philosopher’s real estate.

It is much more difficult to mention an example of a technician, in part because they are seldom remembered or celebrated after passing on. People bother to remember McLuhan, even if he was not even wrong, because it turns out that he had a thing to say and it was important that he said it. In contrast, empty refinements of method and their application to irrelevant and inconsequential subjects is not even ‘not even wrong’ — it is not even bullshit.

– BLSN

* Notice: this lesson only applies when it comes to exchanges between institutional peers. It is quite a different story if there are differences in power-relations, as John Kerry learned in 2004.