Friday, June 28, 2019

Frankfurt School on Religion

Habermas says that Adorno had only a negative dialectic. That's true enough. As I've noted before any true adherent of Marx could only have a negative dialectic. (Full disclosure: I'm not entirely convinced dialectic is a "thing". If we used to think one way and now we think another way does it necessarily follow that there was some process that took place?)

I suggested in the first class that the critique if Weber, an almost obsessive critique, we find in Habermas and in Alasdair MacIntyre serves as a way to mask something. That is, it helps these thinkers hide from themselves that they have broken with Marx. Up until someone might reasonably have said, that’s all very interesting but what has it to do with the subject matter of this course?

Moving very quickly. For Marx, the reification of consciousness was a purely negative matter. A false consciousness, that’s Engel’s term, arose when ideology provided a hermeneutic that masked the real, and less admirable materialist motives that underlay power structures. A revolutionary ideology could have no direct access to truth, that is to a hermeneutic that would describe reality as it was. This would only available after a revolution lead by a class of people, the proletariat, who had been stripped of all potential for this false consciousness by capitalism.

We forget but, for Marx, capitalism’s destructive force was ultimately a positive thing: 

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
And it’s worth nothing that Marx shares this position with both the liberal Pope Francis and anti-liberal Catholics such as Patrick Deneen. That is to say, they all agree that capitalism in a liberal democracy will result in the profaning of all that is holy. The difference is that Marx thinks this is a good result and Francis and Deneen think it a bad thing.

Marx remained firmly committed to praxis, the philosophy of the deed. Its as only when a class so freed by this destructive force that it was free of ideology came and then set up a new state based on nothing but its interests as a class, that a new ideology could come along. The

For Marx the goal was obliteration of religion. For Habermas, the goal seems to be the transforming of religion with something that resembles it in some key ways. Thus his belief in some sort of positive dialectic.

What is gained by calling the activity of discussing issues, changing our minds, coming up with new ideas a dialectic? 

Think of the starting point of Hegel's Master-Slave dialectic. There is conflict between two people. One submits and the other makes him their slave. But why does this happen? The weaker person could have chosen to fight to the death. The stronger could elect to always kill those he conquers. Why does a relationship get established? Is there a philosophical answer to this?

The same is true of any relationship. Two people are on a bus. They might or might not start a conversation. They might or might not agree to continue it once they get off the bus. They might or might not agree to meet at a future date. Why do they choose one and not another option? Is there any reason to believe that there is actually an answer to these issues.

Habermas says, “Mead offers only a vague description of the evolutionary point at which symbolically mediated interaction appears.” That doesn't surprise me. What surprises me is that Habermas seems to believe that anything more might be possible.

The sacred

 A few years ago there was a news story about a teenage girl who had a great love for big cats. Hoping to eventually have a career working with them she had started a job where she cared for them. She loved the cats and they seemed to trust her. One day, however, one of them (I think a tiger) killed her. 

The large cats showed the same behaviour pattern towards this girl that they do towards the young of other prey. If a young antelope wanders in amongst lions, the lions will ignore it until they are hungry. Then they kill it an eat it. The young are easy to kill so there is no need to act immediately.

The large cats don't reason this through. That said, what they do makes rational sense. Cats need protein. Teenage girls are a good source of protein and they are easy to kill if you're a large cat.

We humans, on the other hand, are appalled.  For us this is a horrific event. Something that shouldn't have happened.

That seems to me a good example of what the sacred does for someone like Durkheim/Habermas. It establishes a line where no logical reason for there to be a line. Friends aren't food even though, strictly speaking, they meet all the biological requirements to be food and a tiger, where she present, might well demonstrate this to us in terms we would never forget.

Thus the sacred provides a  binary distinction: you never eat other human beings because they are sacred. There is no rational ground for this. It would make more sense to say this is the rational ground for everything else.

I was puzzled, however, that Habermas quoted Durkheim to the effect that an absolute separation of sacred and profane as required. That seems dubious at best. The whole point of a sacred is to transform the profane. Profane comes from "fanum" meaning a sanctuary temple. To be pro-fanum literally means to be in front of the temple. 

There are people who act as if he sacred needs to be protected. Indeed, some people who regard themselves as traditionalist Catholics act as if Jesus needs constant protection. They are, to be blunt, wrong. 

In any case, Durkheim, assuming Habermas has read him correctly, seems to be operating on a rather impoverished understanding of sacredness.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Frankfurt School on religion

Habermas doesn't set forth his own view so much as he teases it out by criticizing the views of others. At first glance we might think he is dismissing Weber, Durkheim and Mead but, in truth, he is building his views on theirs. They are more than a foundation of his view, they constitute a significant portion of the superstructure as well. There are other philosophers whom he does use in a foundational role and these might escape our notice for they get relatively little notice. At the same time, they get little or no critical appraisal from Habermas. Does this mean that he largely accepts their views as authoritative? I don't think so.

We might roughly classify the way Habermas uses other philosophers into two streams. The largest of these streams is his analysis of what we might call analytic strategies. Last time we saw him read Weber as a source of analytic strategies and he evaluated these in terms of their coherence and effectiveness. There is, however, another use of other philosophers and that is more as the ground. Habermas is working in a post-Kantian mode. He doesn’t say much about this. The ground, after all, tends to be there and we are usually more interested in the structures built upon it.

A key figure in this ground is Charles Sanders Peirce. Habermas doesn’t have a whole lot to say about Peirce but his name keeps cropping up at key moments. He comes up twice in Volume one and five times in Volume 2 three of those five times in Volume 2 occur in the section where Habermas identifies where the analytic strategy of Mead is inadequate before moving on to Durkheim. And it is precisely here where religion enters the discussion.

What is Post-Kantian about Peirce? In rough terms, I would explain it as follows. Peirce accepts the Kantian notion that there are percepts and precepts and uses them in similar fashion. However, for Kant, reason is one thing. He can write a book and call it, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. The key point being that “religion” is singular. If we set out to understand religion within the limits of reason alone, everyone should come up with the same answer. If we ask whether there is a religion possible within the limits of reason alone, there is, for Kant, only two possible answers: 1) That there is none or 2) that there is one.

(What of Peirce? The answer there is complicated. His colleague William James thought it was possible to have several, possibly even many, religions that satisfied the requirements of reason. Peirce should be willing to accept that but he argued that ultimately our views should converge. On what grounds he argued that I have never been able to figure out. It seems a statement of faith to me.)

To return to the question of Peirce as post-Kantian, Peirce looked at non-Euclidian geometry and realized that Kant's assumption that the dictates of reason were universal would no longer do. The precepts that we have are not given and universal. They have to be invented and applied. Which precepts get applied will, as a consequence, be determined by how well they work. Peirce’s contemporary, Ernst Mach, argued that Newton’s Euclidean notions of space could not be generalized to subsume the notions of space from Non Euclidean geometry. And then Einstein came along and proved them both right.

And yet, when we drive a car, we are much better off operating in a Euclidean world.

And that raises a problem for these precepts tend to be normative. We acquire them socially. For example, in Ontario where I live, doctors as a child of 18 months to identify body parts. A child is expected to be able to point at and name two. Mothers teach this to children by singing a song called head and shoulders. The song is sung to the tune of London Bridge is Falling Down and she touches her head, shoulders, knees, toes, eyes, ears, mouth and nose while singing. At first, the child imitates the pattern along with her. The child has not known all along that she has knees and is just now learning the name for them. She is just learning a pattern. The business of attaching names to things comes well don the line. The first step is learn the pattern and that pattern is normative. If I point at my elbow when the song says ears, then I am wrong. Likewise, if I distinguish green and blue in different ways from everybody else in this room, that proves that I am green-blue colour blind. It does not establish that I see green and blue in different ways. A mother teaches these names with absolute authority. There is no question that she might be wrong.

Habermas says there is a kind of “social control” that serves “to integrate the individual and his action with reference to the organized social process of experience and behaviour in which he is implicated.” And that is fine so far as it goes. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? But there is a chicken and egg problem: How does an “organized social process of experience and behaviour” arise?
As I have emphasized, Mead reconstructs this developmental step only from the ontogenetic perspective of the growing child …” and he adds, “This methodological restriction is legitimate so long as he is dealing with the genesis of the self.” That’s not going to be enough because society precedes the individual.”The genetic primacy of society in relation to socialized individuals follows from the basic assumptions of the theory of socialization developed by Mead.
Here is how Habermas spells out the circle: “Oddly, Mead uses the generalized other, the phylogensis of which is to be explained, only in the role of explanans … Mead is moving in a circle: in order to explain the phylogenetic transition from symbolically mediated to normatively guided interactions. he resorts to something that figured in ontogenesis, even though the “ontogensis” of this "generalized other" cannot be explained without recourse to phylogenesis.

Religion, before we bring in Durkheim, is a thing that exists. A child can be raised and taught right and wrong in terms of this thing. A convert can enter into it. But we have no explanation of how it can be evaluated against other forms of “social control” that serves “to integrate the individual and his action with reference to the organized social process of experience and behaviour.” Inside the form of life, there is room for a critical stance but it’s not clear how we would work between forms of life.

I don't mean that we cannot criticize forms of life. That we do so is empirical fact. We might make a distinction between types of criticism. If I play a melody from Chopin I might be criticized for getting the notes wrong. In that case, the person making the criticism might point at the score and showing that, for example, I played F natural where I should have played F sharp. A second type of criticism might acknowledge that I followed the score correctly but still argue that I played it "wrong". The difference between the two is that there is no external authority that everyone accepts that can be pointed at.

This a problem that springs up over and over again in contemporary philosophy. Consider Sartre’s famous question of the young man who wants to choose between joining the resistance or staying how to care for his widowed mother. Sartre says, just choose. And it is true that once you have chosen one or the other a whole raft of norms come along. But there is this weird, friction-less universe outside the two choices where it feels like you are just leaping across a void. Sartre seems to have thought that place was where true freedom lived and pretty much nobody was convinced by that suggestion.

Still, we have to give the devil his due. When it comes to choosing between forms of life, there don’t seem to be any authoritative norms. There are authoritative people, much as the mother is an authority to the child. Further, these people are following a norm. The mother's effectiveness teaching depends on her using the same terms for body parts every time, There is no final authority, however, as to what language she should choose.

Wittgenstein had an answer to this that I accept but many others don't. That answer is in two steps: the first is to say that “explanations must come to an end somewhere.” That is to say, there is no ground for anything where it is not possible to ask how that ground is to be grounded. The second step is to point at human activities and say, “look around, this is what human beings are like.”

I’ll finish up for now by returning to the distinction between Peirce and William James I discussed at the top. For Peirce there was a real convergence on truth. As the slogan from the X Files had it, the truth is out there. We choose between different precepts based on whether they work and ultimately this working will converge on the truth. James, famously or infamously, said that we choose based on what works and that is the end of it. The truth may be out there or it may not but we have no way of knowing. Ultimately, I think Wittgenstein and James agree on this. Beginning with Bertrand Russel, that answer has scandalized philosophers and, I would note, Catholic theologians. In Veritatis Splendor John Paul II wrote the following, “the dangers of relativism, pragmatism and positivism.” Them is cusswords!

All of these rest on a claim that there is not, to put it in religious terms, a non-trivial difference between acting as if something were true and acting on the belief that it is true. Ultimately, Habermas is going to attribute a Peircean, as opposed a Frege-James-Wittgenstein account of truth.

If we go to Volume one p. 276
The idea of truth can get from the concept of normative validity only the impersonality—supratemporal—of an idealized agreement, of an intersubjectivity related to an ideal communication community. This moment of a “harmony of minds” is added to that of a “harmony with the nature of things.” The authority standing behind knowledge does not coincide with moral authority. Rather, the concept of truth combines the objectivity of experience with a claim to the inter-subjective validity of a corresponding descriptive statement, the idea of a correspondence of sentences to facts with the concept of an idealized consensus. It is only from this combination that we get the concept of a criticizable validity claim.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Objective truth?

What do I really believe? Shouldn't I just know? No. Our mind doesn't work that way. We have tod discover our own beliefs just as e discover the beliefs of others. Often we only think we believe what are really a set of tribal  beliefs we pick up from others around us.

And then we read something that sticks in our mental esophagus and refuses to budge:
These films portray fundamental conservative values that make America great. They promote liberty, objective truth, family, patriotism, and the recognition that evil exists and must be fought.
I understand how people come to say and believe those things.  That said, I think there are mistakes in that position.

Conservatism vs liberalism

The first is that it is fundamental liberal values or, more accurately, an outgrowth of Whig values that made America great. American conservatism is a recent phenomena.

The problem is that both "liberalism" and "conservatism" are a slippery concepts. I was just reading an essay of Ronald Dworkin's from 1978 in which he discussed a new kind of liberalism that he thought was coming into being at that time. what is interesting is not what Dworkin thought was new liberalism in 1978 but what he thought was old liberalism.
Liberals were for greater economic equality, for internationalism, for freedom of speech and against censorship, for greater equality between the races and against segregation, for a sharp separation of church and state, for greater procedural protection for accused criminals, for decriminalization of 'morals' offenses, particularly drug offenses and consensual sexual offenses involving only adults, and for an aggressive use of central government power to achieve all these goals.
To which one can only say, Yikes!

It's telling, if not downright terrifying, that the word "liberty" appears nowhere in that definition. The first value Dworkin lists is "equality" and it shows up again and again in the list. That combined with "internationalism" shows just how successful efforts to quietly infiltrate and subordinate liberalism to socialist goals had been.

The next issue is that modifier "sharp". It should be enough to say, "for separation of church and state." Somewhere along the line that had become using the state to crush religion by shrinking its field of operation to something purely private.

Finally, there is the terrifying, "an aggressive use of central government power to achieve all these goals." There is nothing even vaguely liberal about that. Any real liberal would instantly recognize that as opening the door to incremental authoritarianism and loudly denounce it.

From the late 1950s, when it first came into existence, up until the 1990s, American conservatism was about opposing those pseudo-liberal developments.

"Objective truth"

This, of course, comes from Ayn Rand. It's an attempt to turn the clock back to a time before Kant. Again, it's easy to see why this notion can seem appealing but it's not an American value.

"Evil exists and must be fought"

On level, yes, this is true. But there are real problems with thinking of life as a battle between stark choices of good or evil. There are a whole lot of gradations of good and bad out there.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Frankfurt School on Religion cont'd

More than a month has gone by since my preliminary post on the subject.

My principal concern then was "What is criticism good for?" Another way of asking the question is to ask how far did the Frankfurt School get from Enlightenment rationality? Drastically simplified, the Frankfurt School worried that Enlightenment rationality reduced rationality to functionality and tended, as a consequence, to be exploitative. If politics, for example, is about what works then how is that different from controlling people?

That's a fine and understandable point. However, the thing about Enlightenment rationality is that it tends to focus on what is measurable. That is to say, it connects criticism with consistent results. Criticism, on the other hand, focuses on the internal logic of what is criticized. From that perspective, it would seem to follow that because an existing practice has internal tensions it must be possible to create a new one that is better. I'm not sure that is true.

What I propose to do in this post is to look at an approach to irrationality, to systemic bias, in Marx and map it onto the concepts of ideal validity and empirical validity that Habermas identifies in Weber. Why I am doing this will, I hope become clear as I go along.

In Marx’s account of ideology we find a very profound analysis of the problems of systemic bias. Indeed, I would argue that Marx clearly identified a problem that many others have failed to recognize. The problem is that irrationality, and bias is a form of irrationality, cannot be overcome by rationality. I can overcome error by being careful in my reasoning or submitting it to others to criticize as I am doing now. But we can’t overcome systemic bias that way. Marx famously states the problem in the Theses on Feuerbach with the question, “Who will teach the teachers?” If we are all subject to a systemic bias, then the teacher is every  bit as much biased as the student. And what applies to the classroom will apply equally to individual psychology. There is no stance I can take that will allow me to criticize my own beliefs. There is no meta-language that won’t also be subject to the same system bias.

If we live then in a world where our political, moral and, most importantly for this course, religious language is merely ideology that conceals the real material nature of human relationships, how can there be a genuine revolution? The question was raised last class, wouldn’t any revolution reflect only the biased views of the people leading the revolution? And that was Marx’s critique of the English, American and French revolutions. These were bourgeois revolutions and succeeded only in replacing a distorted ideology that favoured the aristocracy with a distorted ideology that favoured the bourgeoisie.

Why would a communist revolution be any different? The answer to that, for Marx, was that capitalism put the proletariat into a special situation. That their condition was so alienating that they were in a  position to see matters clearly. Not so clearly, and this is vital, not so clearly that they could conceive of a new system that could replace capitalism. Rather, they might come to be in a position where they could see that they shared interests as a class and then, as a class, they might foment revolution and following the revolution, create the conditions that would make it possible to construct a new social order. Not construct the order immediately, but merely create the conditions where it would finally be possible to see clearly, to see without systemic bias and, therefore, construct a just society. I’ll come back to this.

This is sometimes described as a conditional prediction. Marx would be guilty of determinism if he had said revolution were inevitable. But, the argument goes, he did not. Much as I might say that this paper will catch fire if if is raised to a certain temperature in the presence of oxygen, Marx outlined a series of conditions under which revolution might follow. Roughly there were three: 1) that capitalism would be subject to continued crises, 2) that the proletariat would become poorer in absolute terms and finally, 3) that the proletariat would develop class consciousness, that is begin to think of themselves as a class with shared interests rather than as an aggregate of individuals who just happened to earn their livings by selling their labour. For some left socialists in 1920s Germany, it looked like the first two conditions had been met but the third wasn’t. At their peak the left socialist parties didn’t quite get fifteen percent of the vote. And that was at their peak.

Marx writes about a "revolutionary ideology". How does that work given the limits to rationality he has recognized? What I’d like to suggest is that it fits under the category of ideal validity that Habermas finds in Weber but that it is limited in a  way that is not the case for Habermas/Weber. That limitation is that, for Marx, those who would seek to encourage revolution, or to encourage class consciousness in the proletariat, cannot point at any post-revolution social justice for system bias will only reproduce sublimated forms of the current moral ideology, that is to say another religion in the same sense that Feuerbach criticized the Christian Holy Family as a magnification and projection of actual families into the heavens thus setting up a standard that real families cannot meet and, because their own value is taken from them and projected into this sphere, impoverishing actual families. (I'm a Catholic Christian but I acknowledge that there is something profoundly correct about Feuerbach's critique.)

A revolutionary ideology, therefore, could only highlight contradictions within the existing bourgeois ideology.

What, then, would correspond to empirical validity? There is something in Marx but it’s an anticipatory validity. The proletariat cannot see what is beyond the veil. Their special clarity regards what is wrong with the current ideology. As I mentioned above, the new order cannot follow directly from the revolution. There has to be an intervening stage called the dictatorship of the proletariat where that class, pursuing its own interests zealously and without regard for anything but its own self-interest as a class will create the conditions where a new social order could be constructed that would be free from distortion by ideology.

Now, there are two big points to make here. The first, as I noted above, is that this empirical validity is only anticipated. And that is quite a jump, to say that because we can point out tensions, contradictions and injustices, even brutal injustices, in the current system that there must be an alternative that does not suffer from these shortcomings. That is a religious claim, not an empirical one. We hear it often enough, I think every progressive politician has said at some that, “there must be a better way!” But there is no reason that follows. Not empirically. If, like Simone Weil and Raymond Aron, we are going to suggest that Marxism the opiate of the intellectuals, this is where we will aim our artillery. There is something mystical, religious even about this promise. It is a view not unlike what we find in the First letter of John:
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
As I read him, Habermas sees more than this strictly negative role for ideal validation in the rationalization of society. He is working towards a notion of rationality that can create the conditions for a legitimate social order and not just a distorted ideology. As a consequence, his view of religion will also change for religion, even an illusory religion has a role to play on the side of ideal validation. This opens the possibilities for religion that simply do not exist in Marx.

A final remark 

As I understand them, both Adorno and Marcuse denied that the objective conditions for revolution existed in the 1920s and they certainly didn’t think they existed in 1968. Therefore, for them, what needed to explained was not why the proletariat had failed to do what it was supposed to do. What needed to be explained was why the socialists of the 1920s and the students of 1968 falsely came to believe that revolutions possible when to quote Marcuse, it was not only no a revolutionary situation, it was not even a pre-revolutionary situation.

Monday, June 3, 2019

"... whatever works best to get the outcome they want."

That telling phrase shows up in Ann Althouse's discussion of Clarence Thomas. She's responding to a Ross Douthat piece that argues that "in any other area" the left would argue that a general trend that led to a consistent pattern favouring white births and disfavouring black births was racist.

Try to forget what side of the argument you are on for a moment. That's what Althouse does. She tries to consider only the dynamics of the argument.

She opens her analysis with three sentences that I'm not sure I understand. Individually, I understand them well enough. It's what they do together that puzzles me.

Here is the first:
There is this idea in constitutional law that you need to pick one approach to interpretation and use it consistently, across all the issues, and that's what keeps you deciding cases according to law and not policy preferences.
"There is this idea," I take to mean, there is a position that some people argue and it goes like this. By phrasing it that way, I think Althouse is signalling that this is not her position. I now expect her to take a critical position in the next sentence, which is as follows:
An argument can sound completely cogent, but if it's not the kind of argument you always make, it's a lawyer's argument, not a judge's reasoning. 
And that is followed by this key argument:
Of course "the left" are political actors, entitled to make their lawyer's arguments, and they may not be embarrassed to find themselves switching approaches to constitutional law to use whatever works best to get the outcome they want.
So systemic racism just a lawyer's argument. Ponder that.

The phrase "they may not be embarrassed" is concealing a lot here. Let's try to spell out what is being concealed.

Lawyers argue on behalf of clients. They don't have ends of their own beyond representing their client as well as best they can.  Philosophically speaking, this is a Weberian universe where reason is used to decide means and not the choice of ends. A certain kind of liberalism follows from that: a liberalism that, as Ronald Dworkin, insists the state not take a position as to what constitutes the good life. The state will take a position about actions of individuals that might impinge on the right of individuals to pursue the good life as they see fit.

Okay, now let us consider systemic racism. A systemic position that affects actual, living people is then racist. This remains true even if none of the individuals involve are conscious of acting with racist motives or conscious of being acted upon in a racist manner. The left accepts that as a legitimate argument. Why wouldn't they accept it with regards to abortion?

One possibility, and it's the one Althouse suggests, is that they just don't care whether they are being consistent. They just want what they want. The problem here is that this suggests they don't actually have an argument for what they want, that the political ends they choose are merely tribal. And maybe they are.

But circle back to racism for a moment. The left's insistence on eliminating systemic racism has always been that this is an end worth pursuing. They typically do not admit to be using this as a strategy to achieve other ends. The implication of Althouse's argument is that this is what they are indeed doing. And if that is true it is also reasonable to infer from their response to Clarence Thomas that they do not particularly care about system racism. They only care about these other ends; ends that are, not incidentally, unstated.