A quick reality-check

Secular enlightenment- style rationalism and scientific empiricism (which go together) have been responsible for intellectual, social and material advances in the last 300 years or so that utterly blow away the advances achieved in the two thousand years before that. That is relevant to their truth, as well as to the regard we ought to give those who have different ways of thinking about the world, as contrasted with more reasonable forms of disagreement.

I think a small violation of my no-images rule won’t too brutally injure my aesthetic sense. Thus:

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11 Responses to “A quick reality-check”

  1. Daniel Says:

    Ah, the Grand Rationalist Meta-Narrative rears its head.

    American progressives utilized a similar narrative to enforce some pretty horrible ideas, plans, and acts. Sure, we reject them in hindsight, but it’s not irrelevant that similarly reductionistic and ahistorical notions of scientific progress facilitated some pretty horrible things. Just ask Carrie Buck.

    Though a blog comment is a format which renders it impossible to address the abundant evidence challenging the linear, simplistic notion of progress you seem to endorse here, I will simply suggest that post-Enlightenment Western history, especially as it relates to science, technology, and medicine, is more complicated by orders of magnitude than the broad conception you are endorsing. (More to the point, this complexity significantly undermines your claim here, which seems to me to be both ahistorical and reductionist).

  2. ben wolfson Says:

    The idea that XKCD, of all things, might not offend one’s aesthetic sense is baffling. XKCD is the doctrinaire know-nothingist of webcomics and the product of someone content with some questionable if flattering pieties himself.

  3. Paul Gowder Says:

    But the wonderful thing about the GRMN (which I endorse) is that it accounts for our critique of the prior misbehavior, even our own – it is from within the GRMN and its political wing (liberalism) that we can say how those practices were unjust. Likewise, the critique of the GRMN appeals to the sorts of evidence and reasoning that enlightenment rationalism justifies. Habermas is right: even talking coherently about this stuff presupposes agreement with it.

  4. Mike Says:

    What is great about GRMN is that when we disagree, we can know why. We can find the premises we disagree over, fight over their truth, or recognize that no rational agreement may be reached.

    No mystic can close his eyes and say that God told him to go to Iraq, and that will be the end of the discussion.

    On the other hand, the GRMN has become invaded with the religion of political correctness. So we are, quite simply, not allowed to discuss certain topics. Why not? Not because of any inherent truths or falsities, but because we just can’t. Liberal’s Space God said so.

    So we’ve just substituted one form of revelation for another. Which is why, contra Paul, I don’t view religious people are inherently inferior thinkers.

    If rationalists would truly say, “Hey, let’s examine the truth of any premise,” I’d feel differently. But, alas, that is not the case. It would therefore be unjust to discriminate against religious people for being deluded by divine revelations with rationalists are, too.

  5. Daniel Goldberg Says:

    The idea that talking coherently about anything at all presupposes some level of agreement is an idea that did not originate with Habermas.

    It does not follow from this basic conception of language, conceptual scheme, and meaning, however, that anything other than a rudimentary notion of sense is shared. It would be a silly argument indeed that moved from the premise that we have some common concepts to the conclusion that the conceptions we have about those concepts must also be shared.

    You’re not, I trust, co-opting your interlocutors’ professed opposition to your claim by asserting that they really do agree with it at a deep level and just don’t understand it?

    Because that would sound pretty dogmatic to me, not to mention . . . wait for it . . . uncivil!!

    ;)

    In all seriousness, if you’re going to endorse the GRMN, you really need to go read some history. It’s not good enough to be as brilliant as you are and simply bandy about GMNs that even the historians of SMT most friendly to rationalism would generally, I think, agree is badly oversimplified and reductionist.

  6. Paul Gowder Says:

    Daniel, the claim is deeper than that. Habermas (and Karl-Otto Apel) can be attributed with the idea that there are fairly extensive presuppositions that have to be granted in order to have communication oriented to reaching understanding, including normative propositions about truthfulness, presuppositions about how arguments are made, etc. This is a lot of the ground of discourse ethics. The claim is much stronger than, e.g., Davidsonian radical interpretation.

    In the present context, its application (which I wouldn’t directly attribute to Habermas, though I think he’d agree with it) is that arguing against enlightenment rationalism is done in the terms of enlightenment rationalism — that is, one presupposes a certain way of using evidence and reasoning to reach conclusions even in order to object to enlightenment rationalism, and that way of using evidence and reasoning to reach conclusions is the central proposition of enlightenment rationalism.

    If that constitutes “co-opting your interlocutors’ professed opposition to your claim by asserting that they really do agree with it at a deep level and just don’t understand it,” then guilty as charged.

    :-)

    What history do you want me to read, though? Believe it or not, I’m not as ahistorical as you think I am…

    (And of course an endorsement in a blog post is going to be oversimplified. That’s a vice of the medium, not of the person making use of it. I’d like to know what you mean by “reductionist,” though. As a methodological matter, I generally favor reductionism wherever possible, but we might not be using the term the same way.)

    (What’s SMT?)

  7. ben wolfson Says:

    The claim is much stronger than, e.g., Davidsonian radical interpretation.

    As well it should be, since different argument types can be acceptable at different times/communities. Does Habermas enumerate the presuppositions necessary to reach (I’m assuming mutual) understanding? Because that seems risky.

  8. Daniel Goldberg Says:

    I understand many disagree, but I admit to finding many of Habermas’s claims either fairly unoriginal or unpersuasive.

    one presupposes a certain way of using evidence and reasoning to reach conclusions even in order to object to enlightenment rationalism, and that way of using evidence and reasoning to reach conclusions is the central proposition of enlightenment rationalism.

    I’m not familiar enough with Habermas to assess your position that he would endorse this view — though from what I know of the hermeneutical tradition that informs his work, I’d be surprised if he would readily accept it.

    Regardless, I do think it is a bit presumptuous, and I also find it unconvincing — I really don’t see why arguing against, not just rationalism, but GRMNs requires utilizing the terms of a GRMN. I think such an interpretation fundamentally misconceives the nature of some of the more compelling non-pomo critiques of the GRMN project.

    What history do you want me to read, though? Believe it or not, I’m not as ahistorical as you think I am…

    Well, since you referred to scientific empiricism, I would start with Charles Rosenberg, who is no fan of the excesses of postmodernism, but whose work seriously undermines the legitimacy of a GRMN as to the history of medicine. Christopher Hamlin is amazing, and I’d also take a look at Simon Szreter’s work, especially as to the McKeown Thesis, which to my mind poses an extremely large challenge for the GRMN (because it shows that by far the largest improvement in life expectancy in recorded Western history had little to do with medicine in its contemporary versions).

    You’d want to read virtually everything about scientific racism and the eugenics movement in the U.S., which is an immense literature. Offhand, I’d suggest Martin Pernick, Alexandra Minna Stern, and Judith Walzer Leavitt.

    Though I’m more familiar with the history of medicine than the history of science, the history of objectivity seems important to assessing what the GRMN leaves out. That means Lorraine Daston’s work is crucial, and maybe Theodore Porter (history of quantification), and Peter Dear as well.

    These are just a handful, but there are many, many more. And one should never discount the importance of Foucault, who, despite his being coopted by many postmodernists, is, as Brian Leiter put it, a genuinely thoughtful and unique scholar. His “Birth of the Clinic” is a masterpiece. One cannot understand contemporary Western medicine without it.

    And of course an endorsement in a blog post is going to be oversimplified

    All the more reason to avoid making categorical and sweeping claims in them, then. History is never as simple as such narratives suggest, and if the blog format prevents one from doing justice to the complexity, knowingly endorsing such a problematic position in that format seems inadvisable.

    SMT = “science, medicine, and technology.”

    But there are also significant critiques of the GRMN and scientific empiricism within the philosophy of science, as you well know. Despite his bastardization, Kuhn’s work remains important on this point, and I’m also generally a big fan of Keller, Feyerabend, and Hacking. All of these scholars have produced work that to a greater or lesser extent undermines the GRMN as it applies to scientific empiricism in particular.

  9. Paul Gowder Says:

    quick replies:

    Mike, I think you overestimate the influence of political correctness on the reasoning process of, e.g., scientists, philosophers, etc. I don’t doubt that things like political correctness influence the media and other popular/mass sources of discourse, but there are many iconoclastic academics out there. Also, to some extent, political correctness represents an aggregated judgment: if proposition P is so well supported that it would require very heavy evidence to outweigh our collective experience with it, perhaps ~P ought to get some extra quantum of skepticism.

    Ben: I think that’s the most serious challenge to the whole performative contradiction wing of the “let’s defend the enlightenment” project, and the attempts to meet it (like Habermas’s constant appeals to Kohlberg, which pisses me off no end, and which I take to be an attempt to tie his version of communicative action to some kind of universal human development) are somewhat inadequate. BUT it still seems to be a good answer to critics from within the western tradition, that is, critics whose mode of argument does presuppose precisely the enlightenment-style reasoning that the arguments are supposed to be rejecting.

    Daniel: I will read through some of that stuff. A few quick notes, though.

    1) The history of scientific racism actually supports the progress story at the heart of the GRMN. Because bullshit justifications for racism, and for things like it (remember Aristotle’s natural slaves?) go back thousands of years… but only when the justifications became “scientific” did they become subject to refutation, and only then did they get refuted. The story of scientific racism is a story of victory for science and liberalism and all those other lovely enlightenment things.

    2) I totally fail to see how things like Kuhn’s work and the rest undermine the story of scientific empiricism. They certainly undermine the sort of facile story of how scientific progress works, but they hardly undermine the claim that it does work.

    3) Medicine is a particularly problematic field, I agree. But it’s particularly problematic because of its being intertwined with all sorts of social problems — racism, colonialism, the pathologizing of the unfamiliar and the dissenting… all the usual stuff. But a combination of the political and scientific wing of the enlightenment project — that is, rationalist approaches to science combined with rationalist approaches to politics — are what give us the tools to criticize and correct them.

  10. Daniel Goldberg Says:

    Paul,

    I attempted to post this comment earlier but stupid innerwebs ate it.

    Here’s what I think:

    The story of scientific racism is a story of victory for science and liberalism and all those other lovely enlightenment things..

    This is an odd interpretation and I disagree with it almost completely. Of course science didn’t invent racism, but there is little doubt that scientific modalities facilitated and fueled new and more all-encompassing varieties of racism, with catastrophic effects on the most vulnerable members of society. I don’t think your claim is plausible.

    Now, I actually think your broader claim is more plausible, viz., that rationalism and its ilk is well-suited to ridding the world of such social and moral ills. Now, I happen to disagree with that, but that is not for any inherent reason. I see no intrinsic barriers to developing a rich, contextualized rationalist moral theory that could be quite compelling — whether it would be practical is a different question.

    I am extremely fond of O’Neill and Sen’s work, for example, and both can fairly be located closer to the rationalist post-Enlightenment end of the spectrum.

    But note that this is an altogether different claim than the GRMN, IMO. While one could certainly believe in the reductionist, ahistorical GRMNs, one could also simultaneously believe that GRMNs have done a world of harm as well as good but that rationalism and scientific empiricism nevertheless is the most promising means to improving the world. I don’t necessarily agree with the latter claim, but it isn’t implausible. What I reject as implausible is the legitimacy of the GRMN.

    They certainly undermine the sort of facile story of how scientific progress works, but they hardly undermine the claim that it does work.

    Where did I argue that it doesn’t “work”? Although what it means to “work” is itself a concept that must be problematized (Rosenberg is particularly good on this). What I said is that the GRMN is silly because it is ridiculously oversimplified and ahistorical. As you note, Kuhn’s work, among many others, shows that narrative of science and progress are never as facile and as simple as they are often presented. That’s my beef with the GRMN — not that its ultimate conclusion is per se wrong, but that the senses in which it is valid and invalid require a great deal more analysis, complexity, and u-standing than purveyors of the GRMN typically perceive.

    Medicine is a particularly problematic field, I agree.

    I don’t think you can disentangle medicine from science so neatly. If medicine is a problematic field for the reasons you note, I can cite myriad examples where scientific practices are problematic for the same reasons. Know anything about the history of U.S.-sponsored scientific experiments on its soldiers? Scary, scary stuff. Ongoing, too.

  11. Paul Gowder Says:

    Oh, well, then, we don’t disagree so much — I agree with you that there’s an extremely simple version of the GRMN which is false… I was thinking of a less simple and direct and more “cunning of reason” kind of GRMN which is still a progress narrative hinging on the power of rationalism and empiricism and the sorts of questioning that go along with liberalism, and only that would I defend.

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