June 27, 2005

The universal and the popular

Mark S (no permalinks, but 12pm, 22 June, 2005 entry) responds to my Liddle piece. Here are a few thoughts in reply.

Popularity and the Good

My claim wasn't that values can never be popular - the very purpose of communism is to produce a correlation between the two. But the point is that there is no natural fit between the popular and the Good. The popular cannot be appealed to except as a fact, an 'is', and tells us nothing about what ought to be the case.

Empirical verification

The important thought to hold onto here is that ethical claims cannot be empirically verified, but that this is so much the worse for empirical verification.

In the British empiricist tradition that runs from Hume to Ayer, the impossibilityof verifying ethical statements entails the conclusion that they are meaningless. Since you will not be able to find the 'wrongness' of any act in the act itself, it is argued that 'wrongness' must belong only to our emotional disposition in respect of the act. So making an ethical judgement is not to issue a proposition but to make a noise - itself essentially nonsensical - expressing approbation or disapprobation, which is why Ayer's emotivist account of ethics is often referred to as the 'boo-hurray' theory. (The congruence of Liddle's opinionist theory with this Brit empiricist party line is in fact one of the points which legitimates the 'super-generalised “philosophical” extrapolation' from his remarks.)

But Mark's answer to my point about the unverifiability of ethics presupposes that the issue is meaning; that, in other words, I share Ayer's view. Mark says that the empirical verification of Anne Frank's claim that 'there is a spark of goodness in everyone' is as follows: 'even if we disagree with them, we understand what her words mean, and we agree in our general understanding: “there is a spark of goodness in anyone” is empirically true simply bcz everyone understands what this sentence means - the fact of general communicability confirms the claim...' This, in effect, was the Wittgensteinian answer to Ayer and emotivism.

Yet the issue is not, as it is for both Ayer and Wittgenstein, meaning. Yes, contra Ayer, Anne Frank's statement has a meaning. But does this mean that her claim has been verified? Only if you buy into a Wittgensteinian metaphysic which collapses everything into discourse (the many proponents of this ontology in the humanities who like to pretend that this is a 'radical' position might pause and ask themselves who of their colleagues don't accept this now?) The real alternative to both Ayer's positivism and Wittgenstein's linguo-sophistry is the idea that, yes, Frank's claim cannot be verified, but that does not render it meaningless or - what amounts to the same thing - a matter of empty linguistic protocol. No. Meaning is not the issue. The Kantian and Spinozist move - and this is what makes them rationalists and not empiricists - is to fully embrace the notion that the ethical and the empirical have no relation to one another. Ethics is based upon Reason, and Reason has nothing to do with what happens to be the case for a particular species of 'dying animals'..

This is one way, amongst many others, in which the rationalist Spinoza and Kant are set against the proto-postmodernist Nietzsche. Far from being scandalous and unthinkable, Nietzsche's claim that there is will and nothing but is in fact now blandly consensual. Nietzsche's cosmos of clashing wills is only Liddle's cosy world of compulsory-sceptical opinionism rendered in a Wagnerian register. What is resisted in both Nietzsche's embodied/ embedded perspectivism and his elitism is universalism. Nietzsche is constitutively elitist - he thinks that elitism is a necessary condition for 'greatness', that cultures collapse into mediocrity if they are not governed by a principle of inequality - whereas Kant and Spinoza's 'elitism' is merely contingent. They think that it just so happens to be the case that most human beings will not be capable of acting according to Reason. But that is a regrettable 'fact', with no consequences for Reason, which is indifferent to contingent happenstance. The further point is that it is only through the commitment to a Reason that is counter-factual that it is possible to be a universalist. Universalism demands the bringing of oneself into accordance with abstract principles, and this entails a complete unplugging from currently-existing communities and identifications.

Pragmatism and Faith

The surprising conclusion that this leads to is that faith, then, is not a question of 'hyper-individuated' will, but the name for the living out of a commitment to a principle that cannot be empirically grounded. But lack of empirical grounding does not mean that the faith is irrational; quite the opposite. Faith puts you on the side of the dogmatists, but why buy into the self-serving Sceptical and Critical disdain for dogmatism?

As for pragmatism, Zizek is right. The great benefit of Rorty is to expose the political toothlessness of much so-called radical thought:

'today's official opponents, deconstructionists versus Habermasians and so on, they really seem to hate each other. But if you look closely — this was the nice common-sense observation of Rorty — whenever you touch a concrete political problem, basically the political distinction between Habermas and Derrida, who, as you probably know, cannot stand each other, disappears. Both occupy the same Left-of-center place. Okay, Derrida may be a little bit more messianic, but even Habermas now, Habermas is even not immune against this "post-secular" threat. This is the attitude that I really hate, which is why I prefer the Pope.

You know, this post-secular crap, it goes like this: Of course we no longer have the ontological god, but it is an Otherness which is a mystery; a gap is opened, something is present in the mode of absence. It's always to come, it is never here, it's the mystery of otherness to be respected. You know, that kind of stuff, which fits perfectly. And they all share this. So the conclusion of Rorty is that philosophical oppositions today do not matter, that they are irrelevant, that when it comes to politics, we speak all the same language.

I have a more radical, pessimistic conclusion. They do matter, and this precisely proves that, although they are officially opponents, share a whole set of secret presuppositions, and this is what should we attack.'

Posted by mark at June 27, 2005 02:33 AM | TrackBack