Reading Terry Pinkard’s “Practice, Power, and Forms of Life: Sartre’s Appropriation of Hegel and Marx” (2022), part 5.

What follows is less than a book review and more than a book report – I hope. My plan is to convey a first impression, chapter-by-chapter, every week or so.

Ethics in Politics: Rules, Groups, and Functionalist Ethics.

A fully formed or fused group is a “statutory” group, formally deduced to articulated ends and binding its members to statuses that are functional for the group in terms of its ends. The ethics of such a group are expressed as the norms required to ensure its continued functioning, and the norms are expressed in the practices followed by the members of the group. The practices, however, “require the actors to do more than merely follow the rules” (58). The actors must fulfill the function assigned by the practice, but he or she has leeway as to how the function is fulfilled. The “feints, passes, and such [of a football player] are themselves not part of the rules, nor is the decision to take the shot rather than passing the ball to a teammate something that follows from the rules” (58). In Sartre’s words, “The action is irreducible: one cannot comprehend it unless one knows the rules of the game, but it can never be reduced to these rules” (58).

A perhaps more striking model is that of a “great actor” who brings his or her unique personal style to traditional roles, making them the actor’s own. The phenomenon suggests Richard Wollheim’s distinction between generic style and individual style. A generic style is like the style of New York City as opposed to Los Angeles, or Victorian as opposed to Modern architecture. An individual style is a pattern of features possessed by a unique personality, such that they are exhibited in all the different contexts and roles the individual occupies. A certain kind of actor – Humphrey Bogart, Jack Nicholson, Seymour Philip Hoffmann – is immediately identifiable no matter what role he or she is playing. Although one cannot comprehend a great actor’s performance unless one knows the conventions of dramatic performance, the performance is not reducible to those conventions. The same can be said for the roles assigned by social practices, at least to the extent that the agent frees itself from the practico-inert. Social agents exhibit “in their individual ways the practice that shows itself through them, and they are in turn transforming, however slightly, the practice itself” (59). Continue reading

Reading Terry Pinkard’s “Practice, Power, and Forms of Life: Sartre’s Appropriation of Hegel and Marx” (2022), part 4.

What follows is less than a book review and more than a book report – I hope. My plan is to convey a first impression, chapter-by-chapter, every week or so.

Actualized Freedom’s Fragility in the Myths of Self-Authorization.

Freedom, more specifically “fully actualized freedom,” is spontaneity – acting on new reasons – that has been “unhooked from exigency,” i.e. recurrent and habitual patterns of action. This happens when subjects are directly related to one another, so that what it makes sense to do or what one has reason to do is not shaped by their relations with “inert objects” (39). Subjects directly related to one another can, as a group, authorize their own actions because each recognizes all others and each is recognized by all.

Once such a group has formed it has a reason for maintaining itself, namely to maintain the freedom of self-authorization (and equality) as an “indeterminate good” (48). Self-authorization is “fragile,” however, because, being paradoxical and to that extent logically impossible, it is something of a myth (45, 47). Pinkard refers to the “paradox of democracy” (or autonomy):

the idea that a people authorizing itself, for example, to write a constitution cannot actually describe itself as an authoritative people capable of such an act until after “they” have written the constitution that creates and authorizes them as a people to do just that. (The United States Constitution, with its famous preamble beginning “We, the people …” is one of the paradigm cases.) (49.)

As an aside, I don’t see how the U.S. Constitution is paradoxical in this sense, for the people of the United States certainly existed, and were lawfully represented, when the Constitution of 1789 was being written, debated, and ratified. The United States of America was created in 1777 by the Articles of Confederation, which was an agreement among colonies or states that regarded themselves as sovereign to enter into a “Confederation and perpetual Union” of that name. Subsequently, it made sense to speak of the people of the United States, but strictly speaking the United States created by the Articles was not and did not claim to be the act of the people of the United States. The Articles do refer to “America” and could be said to allude to the American people, as the Declaration of Independence speaks for “one people” as opposed to another, but that’s not the same thing. Continue reading

Reading Terry Pinkard’s “Practice, Power, and Forms of Life: Sartre’s Appropriation of Hegel and Marx” (2022), part 3.

What follows is less than a book review and more than a book report – I hope. My plan is to convey a first impression, chapter-by-chapter, every week or so.

Practical Identities, Singular and General: Differing Conceptions of “We.”

Spontaneous action, individual or common, has a tragic dimension. Sophocles’ Oedipus is the archetype: although he did not intend to kill his father, marry his mother, and bring the plague upon Thebes, that that is what he turned out to be is as horrifying to him as to anyone, and he accepts blame for the pollution he has caused. As Pinkard observes, “[i]t is not merely the thought that things turn out differently than we might have thought, but the realization that this different outcome turned out to be included in our ends after all and that we ourselves were responsible for these unanticipated results” (33). Although the case of Oedipus is singular, Sartre ascribes the consciousness of “who we turned out to be” to collective action as well.

Collective action may take one of several forms. One is a kind of “togetherness,” which characterizes a group of individuals who share an aim, who understand one another as sharing an aim, but are somehow not engaged with one another in sharing that aim (they are “without any real sharing of the aim” [my emphasis]” (35). A real aim, I take it, would be a reason for action that reaches beyond the “inert” purpose that in fact unites them. Sartre’s term for this is “seriality.” Being one of a series seems to mean being aware that one counts as a member of a set – and no more than that. Thus, the individuals on the corner of 34th and Vine count as members of the set of people waiting for a certain bus, but they perceive no reasons for action, no potential for spontaneity, beyond what they have done often in the past and expect to do often in the future. Given their equivalence as mere members of a set, counting as such owing to a single easily-acquired property, no individual is necessary to the group and each is dispensable or “superfluous.”

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A Brief Note on Philosophy and Rhetoric

In What Philosophers Know (2007), Garry Gutting showed that Quine didn’t demonstrate the truth of his arguments against the two dogmas of empiricism, analyticity and reductionism. Indeed, he hardly argued his case at all:

Quine’s holism, along with his related naturalism and pragmatism, seems supported by nothing more than persuasive rhetoric. His presentation is impressive as a philosophical manifesto or program, but not as a cogent argument for a conclusion. (P. 30.)

Other philosophers agree. Richard Creath says that “there is no explicit argument…. We are left to conclude that the elegance and coherence of his positive views are intended by Quine to be the argument” (p. 30).

Tyler Burdge recognizes that Quine makes arguments, but that those “against the second dogma are unsound” and that “the metaphors, slogans, and observations invoked to recommend them do not … make them cogent.” Quine’s holism “is not argued anywhere in depth,” and “the view rides on the waves of assertion and metaphor” (p. 29).

Gutting adds that “Quine’s critique of the analytic-synthetic distinction is based on unjustified controversial assumptions,” in particular those of Skinnerian behaviorism (p. 22).

This doesn’t mean that Quine’s arguments weren’t important. Gutting quotes Gilbert Hartman: “few philosophers were converted to Quinian skepticism about the distinction at first, but there followed an intense exploration, in which numerous attempts to defend the distinction proved ineffective” (p. 25). The exploration showed that “analytic” could not be defined without using concepts such as “necessary” and “self-contradictory,” but it didn’t show that there was no valid analytic-synthetic distinction.

The episode says something about the philosophical enterprise: it isn’t all about making conclusive arguments. Sometimes philosophy can move forward when someone draws attention to a problem in a way that makes looking into it seem exciting, rewarding, or otherwise attractive. A philosopher can paint a picture of a problem without making an argument, and a good picture can set the stage for argument. Philosophy and rhetoric aren’t necessarily the enemies that Plato made them out to be.

Reading Terry Pinkard’s “Practice, Power, and Forms of Life: Sartre’s Appropriation of Hegel and Marx” (2022), part 2.

What follows is less than a book review and more than a book report – I hope. My plan is to convey a first impression, chapter-by-chapter, every week or so.

Spontaneity’s Limits: Tragic Counter-Finality.

Spontaneity is a form of agency that’s dependent on the presence of others. In its basic form, this doesn’t necessarily imply acting with others, or collective action; it takes the form of acting on new reasons whether individually or collectively. I take it that what counts as a reason for action is to be broadly construed. It isn’t only a matter of inferences from principles, for example; a reason to act could take the form of an imaginative redescription of the possibilities latent in a situation. Whatever its form, a reason specifies a purpose: action is intelligible only teleologically, for only a purpose can draw together a sequence of acts such that they are understood as one action. This is the “finality” of action. Spontaneity, then, characterizes acts by which agents commit themselves to purposes other than those to which they were previously committed, at either the individual or the collective level.

The problem with individual spontaneity is that it can be rendered “inert” – meaning, I take it, that it can fail to manifest itself, either by being “frozen into routinized or institutionalized forms” or by “outright oppression or by means of a dominating ideology” (30). Under these circumstances, collective action – “a spontaneity that is possible only in the spontaneity of others, in which each serves as the mediating third party to any other two” (30) – is required to alter the institutional conditions responsible for the inertia. The new purpose is now attributed to what Pinkard, following Wittgenstein at this point rather than Sartre, calls a “form of life,” i.e. “a way of being together” or, in Sartre’s own terms, a “praxis.”

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Reading Terry Pinkard’s “Practice, Power, and Forms of Life: Sartre’s Appropriation of Hegel and Marx” (2022).

What follows is less than a book review and more than a book report – I hope. My plan is to convey a first impression, chapter-by-chapter, every week or so.

Preface and Chapter 1: Spontaneity and Inertia.

Harry Frankfurt: “It is far from easy to explicate the difference between being active and being passive, and in fact philosophers have for some time generally neglected the task.” (“Identification and Externality,” in The Importance of What We Care About.) But Pinkard is taking it on with the help not only of Sartre but also that of Marx, Hegel, and Heidegger, whose thought Pinkard argues is essential to the concept of practical action presented in the Critique of Dialectical Reason.

Sartre’s motive in writing the Critique has typically been regarded as political, but Pinkard is interested in the more purely philosophical problems that Sartre felt the need to confront. Unsurprisingly, Hegel and Marx loomed large, but so did the later Heidegger, and they all led Sartre to “rethink … the positions he had staked out early in his career … on meaning and practice” (xi.) More specifically, he was led to move from the standpoint of individual self-conscious subjectivity to that of “a kind of mutual self-relation of agents,” corresponding to Hegel’s transition in the Phenomenology from self-consciousness to spirit, i.e. “the I that is a We, and the We that is an I” (xiv-xv.) This required Sartre to overcome the “dualism between the active and the passive” so as to conceive action otherwise than in terms of “which part produced the other part, or where the ‘meaning’ came from” (xv).

Sartre’s aim in Critique of Dialectical Reason was not only to articulate and overcome the difference between being active (“spontaneity”) and being passive (“inertia”) but also, and relatedly, to establish the concept of a reflexive agent with the ability to take the initiative and innovate – a being in possession of what Hannah Arendt called the faculty of “natality.” Such an agent is understood to be “self-moving” (as opposed to the “inert,” or nature),  “attuned” to a background context, and “embodied,” hence subject to needs for natural or external goods. Continue reading

Søren Kierkegaard and Hubert Dreyfus on Social Media

Back in 1997, UC Berkeley philosopher Hubert L. Dreyfus offered a diagnosis of the World Wide Web that, in retrospect, predicted with virtually 100 percent accuracy our socially networked democracy’s current predicament. Remarkably, he did this by applying to the Web as it was then an analysis of “the Press” and “the Public” worked out by Søren Kierkegaard in 1846. (See Kierkegaard’s The Present Age.)

Like so many of his colleagues and friends, I was interested in what Bert had to say about anything, and heard him present these views at the time. They eventually appeared in 2001 his On the Internet, which was revised and expanded in 2007 – still too early to understand the impact of social media. Although the book was well-reviewed, it didn’t (so far as I knew) elicit a sustained response, and as the years went by Bert’s reworking of Kierkegaard’s analysis slipped my mind. Recently, though, almost by accident, I ran into the transcript of a lecture he gave on the topic.

Kierkegaard, Bert began, was skeptical of what political philosophers and theorists of democracy call the public sphere. The public “took an interest in everything but were not committed to anything. [Kierkegaard] attributed this growing cultivation of curiosity and the consequent failure to distinguish the important from the trivial to the Press. Its new massive distribution of desituated information, he held, was making every sort of information immediately available to anyone, thereby producing an anonymous, detached spectator.” Continue reading

Michael Shellenberger, “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities”

When I finished Michael Shellenberger’s provocatively-titled 400-page book, I was astonished to realize it had taken me only a few sessions over a couple of days to do so. It was, in other words, a page-turner. Clearly, something about it resonated with me. I started the book because, as a resident of Berkeley for over 30 years, I’ve long wondered why, in a city run by self-styled “radicals” and “progressives,” the quality of public space has steadily and dramatically declined. Berkeley’s problems, and the arrangement of political forces, are like San Francisco’s, so perhaps, I thought, what explains the latter will apply to the former.

Shellenberger characterizes the decline of public space in the Bay Area as “the breakdown of civilization on America’s West Coast.” In support of this thesis, he cites the rise in San Francisco’s drug overdose deaths from 19 per 100,000 people in 2014 to 81 in 100,000 in 2020; the 16.2% rise of unsheltered homeless from 2007 to 2020; the practice of mob looting – crowds who ransack stores, seemingly without fear of arrest or prosecution; the proliferation of encampments of drug addicts and alcoholics; open-air drug markets; and the ubiquitous presence of human excrement in the streets and on the sidewalks.

More significant than the public defecation, however (which is becoming more and more common in downtown Berkeley), is how easily residents adjust to the practice. No one, it seems, believes anything can, will, or even should be done about it. We discuss deviant behavior is if we were discussing the weather – a storm, a heat wave, and a soiled sidewalk may be unpleasant, but nothing is called for beyond trying to avoid them. Continue reading

Plato’s “Totalitarian” State

I spent a few months re-reading Plato’s Republic with two friends, one a mathematician and the other a writer of fiction. I’ll write in due course about the mathematical and literary issues that arose; they were the most interesting topics we found. But it was necessary at first to get past some political hurdles. One of them was what might be called the ghost of Karl Popper and his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies.

In it Popper associates fascism and totalitarianism – ideologies that yield what he calls “closed societies” – with some ideas that are ultimately traceable to Plato (and to an extent to Aristotle, whom Popper also subjects to a lot of criticism): holism, essentialsm, and historicism.

Holism, roughly, is the idea that the whole is prior to the parts, that the parts depend on the whole, and that the function of the parts is to constitute the whole. As applied to political theory, this means that state is prior to the individuals in it and that the latter exist to serve the former.

According to Popper, this doctrine is expressed in Plato’s concept of justice, namely a well-functioning state. In Plato’s ideal city, everyone contributes to the state in ways to which they are best suited.

Essentialism is the idea that knowledge consists of an understanding of the unchanging and often hidden reality that is responsible for what we seem to observe in the empirical world. This is Plato’s idea of the Forms, which are discovered by rational inquiry not empirical observation. Continue reading

Remembering George Spencer-Brown

George Spencer-Brown’s The Laws of Form (1969) made a big impression of me when I encountered it a half-century ago.

What I got from the book on a first reading was the idea that the most elementary form of thought consists in drawing a distinction.

[A] distinction is drawn by arranging a boundary with separate sides so that a point on one side cannot reach the other side without crossing the boundary. For example, in a plane space a circle draws a distinction.

In drawing a distinction, one also does several other things: one indicates the spaces, states, or contents on either side of the boundary, attributes different values to what is indicated, establishes the possibility of indicating the values by naming them, and establishes the possibility of crossing from one side of the boundary to the other.

Now, it is possible to draw a “first distinction” only because something is distinguishable. For example, the plane surface on which one draws a circle is itself already distinguished from other surfaces. Were it not, it would not be possible to isolate the surface on which one arranges a boundary, or to establish its value.

In other words, a distinction has always already been drawn.

At least, for we mortals. The very first distinction must have been drawn by God. And that is indeed what the Bible seems to indicate: “And God separated the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening, and there was morning: a first day.” A distinction is drawn (“God separates”), values are attributed (“light” and “darkness”), values are named (“Day” and “Night”), and boundaries are crossed (“there was evening, and there was morning”). God creates by drawing distinctions. And as we were made in His image, so do we. Continue reading