Michael Oakeshott on Conversation

The word “conversation” combines the Latin con- or com- meaning “with, together” with versare or vertere meaning “to turn, bend” to form conversation, meaning literally “to turn together” or cooperate and more specifically “to live, dwell with, keep company with,” and from the 14th century “general course of actions or habits, way of conducting oneself in the world.” In the mid-16th century, the English conversation is used to mean “informal exchange of thoughts and sentiments by spoken words,” but Cicero already used conversatio to indicate private conversation among friends as opposed to public oratory. Oratory was formal and rule-governed whereas conversation obeyed conventions of politeness but not strict rules. Conversation was important in ancient Athens and Rome and was revived by Renaissance humanism because the ability to speak well with anyone was a mark of worldliness and sophistication. Politely exploring differences such that the conversation itself was more important than any of its participants was a model for moderate political life as the alternative to revolution and anarchy. This idea was central to civic humanism and civic republicanism.

Michael Oakeshott’s view of conversation is in line with this tradition. (See his “The Place of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind.”) Conversation, he says, is what “distinguishes the civilized man from the barbarian.” The barbarian promotes his point of view and only his point of view, which is narrowly practical and concerned with survival and power. The civilized person is interested in the good things life has to offer beyond mere survival and other purely practical matters. He or she also understands that the search for good things shouldn’t depend on radically changing our conditions of existence. Carried too far, that would force one to live exclusively for the future and make it impossible to enjoy the present. A civilized person, Oakeshott says, “[a]ccepts the unavoidable conditions of life and makes the best of them.” One way of making the best of them is learning from one another about the good things life has to offer beyond mere survival. Conversation is the form this takes.

The qualities of conversation and the virtues of the conversationalist flow from its purpose. You mustn’t be exclusively or overly concerned with practical matters, and in particular you mustn’t insist that your personal practical concerns dominate the conversation (these are sure signs of barbarism). A conversation is personal: the words spoken are those of a speaker who takes personal responsibility for them and what they imply. The partners to a conversation must trust and respect one another (or at least act as if they do). They approach a theme in a variety of ways, informally trying out illustrations and hypotheses. They have no expectation that they will fully express themselves and come to a complete understanding of the topic or of one another, much less agree with one another. They don’t expect others to endorse their views and are prepared to fail to persuade, but they must also be willing to change their minds when it is reasonable to do so. Continue reading

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

What would Hegel think about hyperrealism as an art form?

The short answer is that Hegel would find hyperrealism too conceptual, too ironic, and too grotesque to convey the truth about the wholeness and unity of human life. A longer answer follows.

There are various ways to unify and reconcile what seems contrary, contradictory, or out of place. Unification takes place in philosophy, which understands the process as an act of thought. It takes place in religion, where unification is accomplished by the universal love of God. And it takes place as art, which exhibits unity in the form of sensuous objects produced by creative activity. The ideal work exhibits beauty, and its ultimate expression is the individual human being in his or her integrity, agency, and self-confidence.

This is best seen in classical art.

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

What Political Theory Is

A short definition is that political theory is an attempt to give a comprehensive and impartial account of the nature of political life – its character, purpose, and value.

A more elaborate answer might start as follows: A political theory is an argument about the nature of political life that is theoretical in scope, or character, or intention.

We can can go quite far with this definition. Plato in the Republic, Augustine in The City of God, Hobbes in Leviathan, Rousseau in The Social Contract, Hegel in the Philosophy of Right, Rawls in A Theory of Justice, and Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia all offer political theories in the sense stipulated: they offer theoretical arguments about the nature of politics or public life, or their foundations.

The definition is unsatisfying, however, because all it does is reformulate the terms of the question. One who hears that a political theory is an argument about the nature of political life that is theoretical in scope or character is still left wondering what might be meant by “political life,” and what makes an argument about political life “theoretical.” To fill out the definition, more must be said about “political life” and “theory.”

We can begin to do so by drawing out the meanings of the two key words in the definition, “political” and “theory.” Both words derive from ancient Greek: “political” comes from the ancient Greek polis (πόλις), “theory” from the ancient Greek theoria (θεωρία).

Polis originally meant “city” or “community” or “state.” The word “political,” then, refers to matters that pertain to the polis. Put differently, the term “political” refers to matters that are public in character: the very large range of issues, concerns, or controversies that members of a community recognize as common concerns because they call for deliberation oriented towards a decision to be taken or a policy to be adopted for the sake of the community as a whole.

In ancient Greek, the word polis also suggests an association dedicated to protecting a singular and distinctive way of life against threats (for example, the threat of being defeated and enslaved by an invading army). (Linguists trace the Greek polis to the Indo-European root pele-, meaning a fortified high place or citadel capable of being defended against attack.) Polis, then, does not pertain to just any kind of society or social grouping, but rather to an association dedicated to preserving and defending a distinctive way of life, distinguishable from other ways of life. Preserving and defending a distinctive way of life demands judgment, deliberation, and decision from those who have a stake in it. Continue reading

Under the veil of ignorance, what society should you wish for?

The answer depends on how risk-averse you are.

The problem is to identify the arrangement that maximizes the minimum share of the society’s resources. An unequal distribution of wealth would be to everyone’s advantage if the least advantaged person in the distribution were better off than the least advantaged person in any other possible distribution.

In the case of a benefit to the least well off that requires a sacrifice by those in the middle, a risk-averse person behind the veil of ignorance would choose the benefit on the grounds that he or she might end up being the worst off on the other side of the veil. But a less risk-averse person might figure that the chances of winding up at the bottom are low, and decide that withholding the benefit was a reasonable gamble. Continue reading

Guest Post by Charles Lewis – Rorty as Thersites: A Bibliographical Note

Abstract: In this note Charles Lewis draws attention to an item missing from bibliographies of Richard Rorty, namely a satirical article published under the pseudonym “Thersites Minor” in the journal MLN. The article illustrates Rorty’s amused interest in the antics of contemporary literary theorists.

There is an item that seems to be absent from current bibliographies of the work of Richard Rorty — namely a short article published in the MLN Comparative Literature issue for 1979. The reason, no doubt, is that it was published under a pseudonym — and indeed an appropriate one given Rorty’s satirical intent. It might be regarded as a scurrilous annex to the essay on Derrida that he had published the year before, one that parodies the tortured style of some of the latest literary theorists.

I have found only two references to the article, both of them apparently oblivious as to its true author. One is in a review of Charles Segal’s book Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides’ Bacchae, where Carl A. Rubino notes that Segal “chooses a notable series of short texts to head each of his chapters: […] evocative passages culled from Plato, Hölderlin [etc.],” while adding in a footnote:

For a satiric view of ‘liminal quotations’ and other excesses of contemporary criticism, see Thersites Minor, ‘How to be a New [sic] Critic: Metonymic Mumblings or a Generative Grammar [sic] of Apposite Apothegms’ […]. It is a pleasure to report that Segal generally avoids the excesses targeted there.

The article is also included in UC Irvine’s Critical Theory Offprint Collection, MS.C.007 (1939–1994), Box 15, catalogued (amusingly enough) as “Minor, Thersites, undated; Physical Description: 1 item”; on the other hand, three items for “Rorty, Richard” are listed under Box 18.

How do I know that the article is by Rorty? Continue reading

Heidegger on Technology: Metaphysical Not Political

Heidegger is interested in the essence of technology, which he insists is quite different from technological instruments themselves. The essence of technology is the technological understanding of Being, which is exhibited in the overall character of our shared practices for treating things, events, and others in the world as a whole.

Heidegger calls this enframing: the disposition to regard things as disposable resources that play assigned roles in an all-inclusive, impersonal, automatically functioning system.

The very essence of this disposition consists in understanding the world causally, as a system of objects obeying uniform causal laws. Human action too is understood along this line, as a means to cause desired states of affairs in the world. All this, Heidegger says, is rooted in the will to dominate beings and to render the world transparent, predictable, and manipulable. The will to dominate obscures a more important role of human beings, namely to be receivers of understandings of Being.

Heidegger’s concept of the essence of technology is relevant to his larger account of the history of the meaning of Being, according to which, almost from the very beginning, the West concentrated on entities and the causal laws that explained their behavior. This led us to “forget” the more significant question of what it means that entities exist in the first place. The final result – the “end” of the history of Being – is an understanding of Being from which the question of meaning is entirely excluded, in favor of the control of functional processes. The criterion for truth is now technological: knowledge is an element of the ability to function optimally as part of the system as a whole. Continue reading

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.

The Blond Beast, Parsed.

In some passages, it seems pretty clear that Nietzsche’s “blond beast” is a lion. In others, Nietzsche is referring to the Aryan “conquering races.” Here are the passages with the first kind of blond beast:

At the center of all these noble races the beast of prey, the splendid blond beast avidly prowling around for spoil and victory; this hidden center needs release from time to time, the beast must out again, must return to the wild – Roman, Arabian, Germanic, Japanese nobility, Homeric heroes, Scandinavian Vikings – in this requirement they are all alike.

One may be quite justified in continuing to fear the blond beast at the core of all noble races and in being on one’s guard against it.

The above quotations are from the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay §11.

Another instance is in the Second Essay §17:

I used the word “state”: it is obvious who is meant by this – some pack of blond beasts of prey, a conqueror and master race which, organized for war and with the ability to organize, unhesitatingly lays its terrible claws upon a populace perhaps tremendously superior in numbers but still formless and nomad. That is after all how the “state” began on earth: I think that sentimentalism which would have it begin with a “contract” has been disposed of.

The point is that the civilization of the “noble races” of antiquity was a rather thin veneer under which the predatory nature of these peoples was concealed. It couldn’t be permanently concealed, and it occasionally expressed itself openly as an unrestrained will to conquer. This is the real origin of the state: it was an instrument of domination, not a mutual aid society as social contract theorists liked to imagine. Continue reading