Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Attn: Peter Hacker

Today I saw something on an Amazon page that made me just about fall out of my chair laughing. Unfortunately, this puts me in a dilemma. I can just reproduce it without comment, but then only about five people will understand why I thought it was funny. Or I can explain it, killing the humor entirely. You already know what I'm going to do, so let me get to it. (In my defense let me say that I was eventually going to talk about this stuff anyway, and this seems like a good spur.)

I begin my explanation thus. In recent years there has raged in the scholarly teapot of Wittgenstein interpretation a bitter tempest indeed. Like many twentieth-century philosophers, including especially his logical-positivist followers, the early Wittgenstein rejected "metaphysical" questions as nonsensical pseudo-propositions. This much is clear; but how exactly does his argument go, and what exactly is it supposed to do? This is an important question even if one's main concern is with the later Wittgenstein, as it affects one's account of the continuity, or lack thereof, in the transition to the later view.

Nowadays, "metaphysical" is not the dismissive term it once was, at least to my ear. Any time you're talking about objectivity or truth or reality or reference or any kind of mind-world relation, you're "doing metaphysics"; and of course this is something everyone has to do, even if what you say about these things is that we should reconstrue them completely in order, well, not to "do metaphysics" in (what continues to be) the "bad" sense (for philosophers of certain persuasions, including but not limited to mine). What sense that is we can infer from the famous lines by Hilaire Belloc, who extols (extols, mind you) those Dons
With hearts of gold and lungs of bronze,
Who shout and bang and roar and bawl
The Absolute across the hall ["Lines to a Don"]
... as opposed, that is, for the record, to the dyspeptic nobody who "dared attack [Belloc's] Chesterton." Dyspeptic or not, those of us who reject "metaphysics" in this sense are put off less by shouting and banging (or, again, with truth and objectivity properly construed) than with what Kant called the "push to the unconditioned," i.e. positing (and attempting to describe, by means of a priori philosophical reflection) an Absolute Reality underlying or "grounding" or transcending the ("mere") contingency of our worldly experience.

Even after Kant's attempt to cut metaphysics down to size, in Russell's time the halls of Cambridge still rang with such bawling, e.g., in the voices of the British Hegelians and their followers (not sure which of them were at Cambridge exactly, but we speak here of the likes of McTaggart, Bradley, and T. H. Green). To Russell, the refugee from Hegelianism, this was all pretentious nonsense; but how can you prove that something is nonsense? It seems, as Kant had noted, that in order to draw a line between sense and nonsense one would have to be able to think both sides, which is supposedly just what one can't do (which leads Kant to take a different tack in his rejection of "transcendental illusion" – but we're not here to talk about Kant).

Russell's "young engineer" Wittgenstein took on this task with a vengeance. Convinced by Russell and Frege that "whatever can be said at all can be said clearly," in the Tractatus Wittgenstein lays out a theory of meaning and reference which delineates, from within as it were, the limits of intelligibility (c.f. the preface: "it will therefore only be in language that the limit can be drawn, and what lies on the other side will simply be nonsense" (p. 3)). The book ends with the famous pronouncement that "whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent."

Here's where the trouble begins. For one standard translation (i.e. of Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darĂ¼ber muss man schweigen) reads instead: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." This translation of the enigmatic sentence implies that even if language can describe only the world of empirical contingency, there are mystical truths which transcend our language – truths beyond its reach, yet no less real and pressing for all that. The point of saying this, presumably, is that when metaphysics tries to articulate these truths, it necessarily fails, so it should stop trying; yet, again, they remain truths all the same. On this reading, Wittgenstein is saying that metaphysics is nonsense (non-sense), but it's "substantial" nonsense, not gibberish: it gestures at important truths beyond the reach of our cognition (they're there all right, but we must "pass over" them in silence). Indeed, Wittgenstein explicitly and repeatedly (although not so much in the Tractatus itself) proclaims his conviction that the "ethical" (by which he means concern with value) is intensely important for him, and it is not the ethical itself, but only philosophical pseudo-inquiry thereinto that he rejects.

One side of the scholarly controversy accepts this reading, but the other side regards it as committing Wittgenstein to exactly that which (on this alternate reading) he was concerned, in the closing sections of the Tractatus, to reject: the idea of ("ethical" propositions as) "substantial" nonsense, as opposed to mere gibberish. Instead, say these "New Wittgensteinians" (led by Cora Diamond and James Conant), nothing "transcends" our language in this sense: there's what we can say, and that's it. "Beyond" language there lies nothing over which we must (perhaps wistfully) pass in silence, and sentences which purport to describe "the transcendent" (in this sense) are nothing but mere nonsense: "the essence of any entity resides in its substantial form" is no different from "karvo sotok skebanzulane." It's not that they (necessarily) fail to capture the thought at which they aim, but instead that there is no thought there in the first place to be captured. There's sense and there's nonsense. The former describes the world; the latter does nothing except sow confusion (sense talks; nonsense walks). If that were all there were to it, this reading would leave Wittgenstein sounding like a positivist (and of course the Vienna Circle positivists took themselves to be avid Wittgensteinians, with the Tractatus as their bible); but of course there's plenty more, most of which we won't get into. (Short version: there's no reason to see this "Jacobin" view of nonsense as, for example, in any way downplaying Wittgenstein's sense of the importance of ethics.)

Our concern here is the characteristic metaphilosophical strategy Diamond et. al. find in the closing passages of the Tractatus. Statement 6 gives "the general form of a proposition," and in the subsequent commentary Wittgenstein explains how we can see the propositions of logic as tautologies without content, and thus as saying nothing about the world. This means that (6.13) "[l]ogic is not a body of doctrine, but a mirror-image of the world. Logic is transcendental." 6.42 tells us that "it is impossible for there to be propositions of ethics. Propositions can express nothing that is higher."

So far, there's no reason to think anything is amiss with the traditional interpretation. Wittgenstein is summing up his conclusions about the limits of language and the status of ethical pseudo-propositions. Even as late as 6.522, he says that "[t]here are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical." A mere half-page later comes the fateful statement 7, and the book is over.

So why do the NWs read the Tractatus in the way they do? Consider what Wittgenstein has to say about philosophy. 4.003 reads: "Most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical." This is just what we might expect him to say, given his rejection of "metaphysics." But isn't the Tractatus itself a work of philosophy? After all, it's hardly a work of natural science (or any other worldly inquiry). But this means that since the propositions of the Tractatus itself do not simply (as a proposition must, if it is to have a sense) picture states of affairs in the world, they too must lack sense. If so, then they can't be true; and if they're not true, then what good are they?

The threat of self-refutation looms. Let's pursue it a little further. At 4.112, Wittgenstein tells us that philosophy is (or should be) "not a body of doctrine but an activity." 4.114 elaborates, in familiar terms: "It must set limits to what can be thought; and in doing so, to what cannot be thought" – which is of course what the Tractatus says it's doing. That the Tractatus is not a body of doctrine might mean that it doesn't matter that its propositions can't be true, as their importance lies not in what they say, but in what they do. But if they don't say anything – if they are utter nonsense, the equivalent of "karvo sotok skebanzulane" – then how could they do anything, except puzzle you? After all, this applies even to (pseudo-) statements like 4.112, philosophical as they are. That something is meant as an "elucidation" (4.112) rather than as a statement of doctrine cannot save it from meaninglessness. It looks like the strategic retreat from doctrine to elucidation cannot help.

The last few remarks of the book (except for 7) are comments on 6.5, which reads: "When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it." So where there can be no "answer," there can be no question either – leaving no unanswered questions. The trick, then, is to see this – to overcome our feeling of dissatisfaction with the actual, intelligible questions available to us (answered or not).
6.52: We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course then there are no questions left, and this itself is the answer.
We must move from seeing the world in one way to seeing it in another – from seeing it as concealing something essential behind the appearances, to seeing it as it is, i.e., as complete in itself, even if not fully known, given the existence of unanswered yet intelligible empirical questions. When we do this we will cease to scratch where we come to understand that it cannot really itch. But then comes 6.522 (quoted above), in which, as if anticipating the subsequent positivist misunderstanding of what he is doing, Wittgenstein affirms the "mystical" and its importance. We must not confuse hard-won understanding with tendentious and unconvincing behaviorist denial (i.e., of such things as "itches").

So now we know where we're supposed to end up. But how to get there? Even the statements which tell us our goal are still unintelligible by their own lights. As already suggested, the answer has to do with the difference between philosophy-as-doctrine (i.e., as argument) and philosophy-as-elucidation. We think of philosophical arguments as "moving" or "taking" us from one "place" (the premises) to another (the conclusion), by means of the license (or force) provided by logical (deductive) inference. But all they really do, as we shouldn't even need Wittgenstein's analysis of the sense of propositions to tell us, is bring out the implications of what we were already committed to in believing the premises (which of course we then leave in place). In adding a new belief, we merely come to see a new detail in what was already present; or perhaps we find that our commitment to these premises requires that we give up (as unwarranted) some other belief less firmly entrenched than they. In either case (as well as in cases of empirical or inductive inferences) we see our resulting view as an elaboration or correction of our doctrines, such that they now do better what they were already doing: mirroring reality. Thus is philosophical progress made.

But Wittgenstein explicitly denies that this is what he is doing (i.e., what "philosophy [as opposed to science] does"). By doing so even as early as 4.112 (i.e., not simply springing it on us at the end), he has carefully maneuvered us into a position where seeing what he is doing and understanding how he is doing it (that is, how to understand the self-referential nature of his procedure) is the same thing. And to see this is to see how the self-reference of his claims, while it does indeed result in their undermining as claims, is nothing to be feared, but instead holds the key to understanding. We're used to thinking of self-reference in terms of things like the Liar (and the supposed cure for these things, Russell's "theory of types"), i.e., as manifested in sentences like "this sentence is false" – a strict contradiction (for Wittgenstein's response to Russell see 3.331-2). That's not what we're talking about here.

The problem is this. The (sentences of the) Tractatus tell us that certain forms of words have no sense (are nonsense). Yet they themselves seem to be of that very form. This would be a strict contradiction only if – as in "this sentence is false" – we read them as assertions. But they themselves, taken together (not each by itself, as the Liar), tell us not to do that. Of course we still have a puzzle – a tension between what the sentences (seem to) say and what that which they (seem to) say tells us, about whether that appearance of sense is misleading – but a puzzle is not yet a contradiction. (The "puzzle" of the Liar is that it is a (seemingly sensible) contradiction.)

Turn back again to what the sentences in question say/seem to say. We are to move from seeing the world in one way to seeing it in another, even while recognizing that nothing has changed. It was something we felt to be missing that we must learn to see as – not present, of course, but not "missing" either. What we are actually looking at – (the truth about) the world – remains unchanged. The change is in ourselves, not the world (and not our knowledge of the world). When we see this once, we can see it again (whichever way we see it first). Just as we move from seeing the truth about the world as (empirical/scientific propositions plus philosophical/ethical/transcendent propositions) to (empirical/scientific propositions only), we move from seeing philosophy-as-establishment-of-doctrine to philosophy-as-elucidation. It is obvious how the latter two are different; indeed, most philosophers see the latter as some kind of nihilism and not philosophy at all. But how (as they must be if the parallel is to hold) are they the same? How is the change in ourselves and not in philosophy?

To ask is to answer. The former, while it seemed to move us from one place to another (by forcing on us a belief we didn't already have), actually left us (in simply revealing what was already implicit in the premises) with a new understanding of the status quo ante. The latter, on the other hand, in dealing only with nonsense, seemed instead to leave everything in place, while actually moving us from one way of seeing to another. When we put it like this, the answer jumps out at us: in each case the change is in us and not the (truth about the) world. Let's see how Wittgenstein himself puts it, in the decisive proposition, immediately preceding 7. If 6.54 works, 7 will then strike us in just the right way: as summing up the book – as telegraphed in the Preface, no less – but as not saying anything at all. After all, unlike most "philosophical propositions," it is openly tautologous: what we cannot speak about, we cannot speak about (duh). It is when we do not understand that we look behind or underneath it for some deep meaning – which is of course the point of the entire book. So, finally, here is 6.54:
My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.
Wittgenstein has not mentioned "elucidations" since 4.112 (and the only other reference is 3.263, which in retrospect can be seen to make the same familiar point, only at a different level; (intelligible) propositions "elucidate" the elementary propositions which (conceptually speaking) make them up – but they can only work that way unless if they only say what we already know). We cannot understand what is nonsensical, and Wittgenstein does not intend us to try. Instead we are to understand him. We do so by moving from reading the book's propositions as doctrine to seeing them as nonsensical. That is, we can recognize them as nonsensical when we understand how they can be nonsensical and still have the same effect on us as if (per impossibile) they weren't. After all, they've been telling us for some time that they must be nonsensical (i.e., qua philosophical); the question was how this could be. But we don't do this by simply changing our beliefs about the propositions, as if changing our judgment of the truth-value of these propositions are nonsensical from "false" to "true". Instead, in reading them as doctrine, we use them on ourselves, so that we are then able to see them differently. We "throw away the ladder" only when we have already climbed up it; we do not jump down again once we see it as not really having been able to support our weight (so that we have no "right" to be where we are).

Yet once the propositions have been "transcended," Wittgenstein tells us, we will then be able to "see the world aright." We know now, though, what this can only mean. It's not that we now see the truth where before we were ignorant or mistaken (i.e. our views are "right"). We saw the truth already (that is, to the same extent that we do now, given our continuing non-omniscience about empirical matters); what we now do is understand that that's what we're doing, and that that's all there is to do. That is, now we see rightly what has not changed.

This is tricky, so let me say it again. Before we read the Tractatus, we saw our knowledge of the world as incomplete, and not only in the sense in which it always must be (given our permanent non-omniscience). We wanted answers to our deep questions about (I can't resist) Life, the Universe, and Everything. So we read the book; but it doesn't really give us an answer to our question. It led us on, implying that something in the nature of logic and language and meaning would tell us how to do metaphysics properly, as Kant does (or tries to); but then right at the end it pulls the rug out from under you. Nothing has changed; all we learn is what we already knew. But things are supposed to look different. So we look again.

We look again at ... what? At the only thing we can look at, because it's the only thing there is: the world. If we have understood what (Wittgenstein's) philosophy has done, we will be able to overcome the lingering feeling that something is missing, both in it and in our knowledge, in their joint failure to tell us what we thought we wanted to know, about "the transcendent" or whatever. That is, what is indeed missing from even a complete description of the world is not to be found in a further description of a transcendent reality, to be supplied by "metaphysics" (for this is what it seemed that we needed), but is instead that which we can now see to be implicit in the very idea of a description of the world (i.e. the facts). Keeping in mind its fundamental importance (rather than dismissing it as positivists do), we must now learn to look for it (if that's even how we still want to say what we're doing) in a different way: by seeing the (one and only) world differently. That is, seeing it rightly ("aright") – which of course means that if we see "only" the entire truth about the world, we won't have seen the world "rightly" at all.

Now after all the heavy technical weather of the preceding pages, this moral (that we need to learn to see the world "rightly") may, like that tautological final sentence, seem like not much help. But this is of course Wittgenstein's own verdict as well. Return to the preface:
[t]he truth of the thoughts that are here communicated seems to me unassailable and definitive. [... and the] second thing in which the value of this work consists is that it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved.
Yet if we don't learn to see the world rightly – or, that is, if we continue to look for "ultimate reality" either in (i.e. as constituted by) the facts about the world or beyond them, then everything we do do, in philosophy or not, will be futile. So even if "little is achieved" in one sense, it's still something that has to be done – or we will continue to search blind alleys for an "answer" which does not and cannot exist.

So, does this mean the "New Wittgensteinians" are right? Not so fast. While the NWs have performed an important service in focusing our attention on the metaphilosophical strategy of the Tractatus as manifested/addressed in 6.5 through 7 (especially 6.54), the battle is far from over. As the traditionalists, led by Peter Hacker, point out, there's plenty of evidence, within the Tractatus as well as in other writings, from before, during, and (importantly) after the period when he was working on the book, that Wittgenstein intended his admittedly nonsensical propositions to communicate several centrally important yet unfortunately incommunicable truths (incommunicable because of what they themselves say about language) – rendering this admission of nonsense disturbingly paradoxical once again. In his contribution to Crary and Read (The New Wittgenstein), sportingly appended to the other contributions as "a dissenting voice" to the NW view, Hacker begins and ends, as we might expect, by stressing 6.522 as an undeniable commitment to the idea of "substantive nonsense" – nonsense that reaches at something transcendent and (necessarily) fails to do so. This renders the threat of self-refutation not merely apparent, but actual – and fatal. Realizing this is what eventually led Wittgenstein to change his views.

My own view ... will be the subject of some other post. Now that I have made it impossible to do so, let us finally laugh together at the knee-slapping irony of the following. It's an excerpt from a reader review at Amazon.com. The book in question is The Sokal Hoax, which is a collection of writing about (drum roll) ... the Sokal hoax, including the original article, the unveiling of its hoaxitudinal nature in Lingua Franca, and part of the subsequent donnybrook. As does a good deal of the book itself, most of the reader reviews chortle at the postmodern folly which was Sokal's target, but some are unamused. The review in question actually seems to be reviewing not The Sokal Hoax at all, but Sokal's later collab with Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense, with which our reviewer is unimpressed. He decries the method whereby they "cut and paste some random excerpt" of the target writer (say Deleuze) in the hope that out of context, sans explanation, it will look ridiculous – which proves nothing.

You can see where this is going. To show that turnabout is fair play, our reviewer picks a random excerpt of some supposedly rigorously logical analytic-philosophy writing to see how we like it:
Let us apply this operation to a random writer who penned the following statement:

"The elementary proposition consists of names.
Since we cannot give the number of names with
different meanings, we cannot give the composition
of the elementary proposition. Our fundamental
principle is that every question which can be decided
at all by logic can be decided off-hand."

This excerpt -- which any man in the street will tell you is just as nonsensical as any of the excerpts Sokal cuts and pastes from other authors -- was written by Ludwig Wittgenstein in the _Tracticus Logico-Philosophicus_. According to the Sokal/Dawkins argument, this proves that the _Tracticus_ it complete and total nonsense, and that anybody who claims Wittgenstein writes anything more than meaningless gibberish is simply lying.
Isn't that great??

Speaking of "cutting and pasting," that's what I did here – so "sic" the whole thing ("Tracticus"? "Dawkins?"). This is glorious on so many levels. That it sounds like an excerpt from a parody article which some joker tried to sneak into Crary and Read is rich enough, but the implicit idea that self-appointed science 'n' rationality defenders like Sokal et al would be at all reluctant to put Wittgenstein, of all people, in the same category (re: nonsense) as Derrida: priceless. The reviewer thinks that the verdict of the "man on the street" about these lines – that they are "nonsensical" – is a reductio of Sokal & Bricmont's method; but they would turn the tables on him and agree with that verdict ... for the wrong reason! And to top it off, so would Wittgenstein himself, for another reason still! And what that reason is is itself a hot topic of debate in the Wittgenstein community! You can't make this stuff up. Or at least I hope you can't.

For the record, our man may be taking a few liberties here. That is, that excerpt seems to be a bit more random than he lets on. I don't have a machine-searchable text of the Tractatus, and I didn't search exhaustively by hand, but I can't find that selection in my copy, at least as is. The first sentence is from 4.22 (although Pears & McGuinness have "An" rather than "The"). I can't find the other two sentences at all, although they do sound like things the early Wittgenstein would say, esp. the third one (depending on what "off-hand" means).

Monday, February 19, 2007

Amor veritatis

Today's Philosophers' Carnival has a Valentine's Day theme. That strikes me as (*cough*) rather last week, but I imagine a Presidents' Day theme could get ugly. Anyway, check it out!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

S & M

Alan Sokal (of Sokal Incident fame) and science journalist and blogger Chris Mooney (hereinafter S & M (heh heh)) have a new op-ed out, and as usual, I'm late to the party. Things happen so quickly in Blogistan; people have hashed it out and moved on before I've even got my socks on (darn these webbed feet). Here's what they say:
In the 1990s, conservatives such as Dinesh D'Souza, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Roger Kimball wrote best-selling jeremiads attacking postmodernist academics who, they insisted, were taking over American universities and subverting the standards of scholarship. Although much exaggerated, this contained a grain of truth. Some self-described leftist academics did seem determined to reduce the real world to mere "discourse." No worldview, they insisted, could be considered objectively more valid or factual than any other. Even the findings of science were described as reflecting societal conditions and struggles for power and dominance rather than something true about the nature of the world.
I read those jeremiads when they came out. Let's not run these people together. Himmelfarb and Kimball are conservative, well-read non-philosophers worried about what they see as nihilism, while D'Souza is a hack (q.v. his recent book). Himmelfarb seems more concerned with resuscitating "Victorian morality" (which she defends as much more subtle than the farcical prudery and hypocrisy we currently tend to associate with that term) than with science and objectivity, but Kimball's salvos (e.g. Tenured Radicals, but also Experiments Against Reality) are well-described as "much exaggerated" but "contain[ing] a grain of truth."

But what exactly is this grain of truth? I'll skip over the thumbnail description of what "some self-described leftist academics" do, and the famous Sokal Incident and its moral, save to note that the issue as described is not specifically one about empirical science, but instead a properly philosophical question: what does "objectivity" mean for discursive creatures like ourselves? If it turned out that several squabbling cousins were traveling sub rosa under that name on the same passport, might it not be important to sort them out, on pain of undetected conceptual confusion? (Yes, I used quotation marks there; but they're mention quotes, not "scare" quotes (or, as the Brits say, "shudder" quotes). Calm down.) For now let us simply resolve to distinguish the outrage to common sense provoked by answering this question in a radically nihilistic way, on the one hand, with that provoked by asking it at all, on the other.

In describing the motivation for Sokal's hoax, S & M reveal their main concern, and the subject of their message for us today (okay, last week):
Sokal took on his postmodernist colleagues because he feared that the rejection of a rigorous, evidence-based standard for assessing claims of purported fact would disarm us not only in the face of quack medical remedies or alleged paranormal occurrences, but also when confronted by distortions of scientific information having major public-policy implications. A classic example is the tobacco industry's well-documented campaign to sow doubts about the health risks of smoking. Another is the interminable push by religious fundamentalists to undermine the teaching of evolution in American schools [...] A stance of postmodernist relativism — or, on the part of the media, of giving "equal time" to unequally substantiated viewpoints — weakens us in the face of such strategic campaigns to undercut well-established knowledge.
Here's one grain of truth, then. Whatever we say about objectivity had better leave enough of our justificatory practices in place for us to be able to see them as valid, i.e., as worth continuing, even if they do need to be modified in some way (which they may not). This follows from the distinction between scientific practice and philosophical reflection. Science (the relevant example, but of course it's not the only one) can't tell us about its own relation to the objective world qua objective, as this is a philosophical issue – although naturally there is a continuum between metaphysics/epistemology through philosophy of science to theoretically minded scientists.

On the other hand (subject to the same caveat), philosophy can't tell science how to run its own shop. That is, it can't dictate the proper practices of its object discipline, nor invalidate current ones; only practitioners themselves can do that. We may borrow a distinction from ethics here: philosophy's demands on scientific practice, if it even makes any at all, are not categorical ("you must do this on pain of incoherence"), but hypothetical ("if you want to do that, as you say you do, then you must do either this, or this, or something else if you can think of anything, in order to overcome this problem. Or you can just be stubborn, but don't be surprised if people start rolling their eyes when you start talking like that again, even if they do still buy from you."). So Sokal is right to demand that "a rigorous, evidence-based standard for assessing claims of purported fact" be retained. That just is scientific practice. Rejecting it on grounds of philosophical concerns would be to kill the patient.

But now some more caveats (they may go down easier if I space them out a bit). First, not every (utterance or inscription of an) indicative sentence is an assertion; not every assertion is a "claim of purported fact"; not every such claim is appropriately investigated scientifically; and not everything worth calling "scientific" is transparently recognizable as such in alien contexts of inquiry. More significantly, though, that particular scientific claims or procedures are "rigorous" and even "evidence-based" are judgments internal to scientific practice, and not an a priori reason to prefer its deliverances to those of other practices, which have their own conceptions of such things, as appropriate to their own concerns. Naturally [*sigh*] to say anything like this will sound to the likes of Sokal as relativism, but all that shows is that he needs to get out more. Of course you can try to generalize (that's why it makes sense to speak of different "conceptions" of rigor in the first place, i.e., rather than something else entirely), but only on irretrievably metaphysical-realist assumptions will a free-floating endorsement of "rigor" amount to more than a platitudinous reminder to, um, "be careful and don't just make stuff up" (rather than the seemingly intended "be more scientific").

But it turns out that that platitude is what S & M are actually endorsing. The op-ed is a collaborative effort, but as with other collaborations, each brings his own concerns to the table. From Sokal's 1990's-era concern with attacks on science from the postmodern left, we turn to Mooney's contemporary thesis of the "war on science" (q.v. his recent book). Here (in the op-ed) we read that:
the abuse of science has lately materialized in an even more disturbing form, this time within the corridors of our own government. Driven by the Bush administration and its congressional allies, the new American "science wars" have reached an alarming stage.
[Update: formatting error corrected]

The rest of the op-ed gives S & M's answer to the resulting question: "How and why did the science wars move out of academia and reemerge in Washington, with political poles reversed?" That answer, in brief, is that since the 1990's, on the one hand, Republicans took power, making them prey to their own worst impulses (power corrupts, you know), as enabled by the weakening of science's prestige among the public due in part to the attacks of postmodernists. At the same time,
the focus on the academic left's undermining of science following the Sokal hoax was generating worthwhile debates and even real soul-searching ... [with the result that] pronouncements of extreme relativism have subsided significantly in recent years, [which] frees up defenders of science to combat the enemy on our other flank.
Even if one has not read The Republican War on Science, the details of Mooney's charge are familiar: unscrupulous business interests and moralistic religious dogmatists ignore, distort, suppress, or actively subvert properly disinterested scientific inquiry into how things are. We thus need Congressional oversight, whistle-blower protection, and, more generally, a return (or a start) to demanding careful critical analysis instead of "a lazy 'on the one hand, on the other hand' approach." The authors end by urging that we "take steps now to restore reality-based government."

In general, this attitude is perfectly congenial. I also prefer scruple to venality and skulduggery, and (as we have already determined) careful is indeed better than lazy; and I assume Mooney would be careful enough himself to agree that that an ideologue or PR rep or wild-eyed crank believes something does not entail its falsity. But this is not my concern today, which is the premise that science, as the cultural manifestation of mere sanity, is engaged in a struggle ("science wars") with the forces of unreason, a continuous battle which has recently taken on a new shape, the difference being that it is the "extreme right" rather than the "extreme left" leading the dark horde. S & M allow that the new face of the enemy is much more dangerous, having real-world implications as it does, than the old, which was merely a bunch of academic hot air. But the differences are more important than that, and the authors' assimilation of the two into the forces of "anti-science" shifts attention away from what it is which they actually assume about the good guys.

Who are the "good guys" in this fight with "anti-science" forces? "Science," I guess. But who and what is that? So far we have only platitudes. One common suggestion is that the good guys are the "reality-based community." Well, I'm tired of hearing about the "reality-based community." It sounds good at first (our opponents are fantasists), but it turns out to be just another platitude (albeit standing in for something much more contentious about scientific modernism as a worldview). The original reference was a New York Times Magazine article in which a Bush administration spokesman dismisses punditocratic criticism (i.e., as "reality-based") by saying something like "we create our own reality" – to which the natural response is that this is the same kind of anti-scientific metaphysical hooey that new-agers aver, the idea apparently being that if we close our eyes to global warming (or the dangers of smoking, or whatever) and tap our heels three times, it will go away; and of course if we want to go to war we can just make stuff up. But while the locutions are unfortunate, in context the point makes (at least a little) more sense. Imagine the situation reversed. Hillary becomes president and embarks on an ambitious domestic agenda (health care, etc.). The wingnuts go bananas, but since Congress remains in Democratic hands (remember, this is a thought experiment), they can't do anything but carp; and of course they've got no ideas themselves, just "it'll hurt corporate profits" and "that's [*gasp*] socialism!". Surely the administration response could very well be a peeved/smug version of "we're in charge now, and we act as we see fit, getting things done, but all you guys can do is passively react to what we've already accomplished." So while it was funny for a while – as well as, of course, a pointed criticism of administration attitudes toward criticism – to tie these attitudes, via that unfortunate crack about the r-b. c., to an irresponsible attitude toward how things actually stand, it's getting tiresome as rhetoric, especially when standing in for actual argument. (Much like "proud member of the Immoral Minority," if you remember that one.) End of mini-rant.

But let's get back to the supposed "anti-science" coalition. As I've already mentioned, S & M grant the difference between the "extreme left" and the "extreme right" (that's why it's a coalition). But the connection between them is obscure, and seems to me to amount to little more than different expressions of the idea that one should not believe something just because the person who said it has a lab coat on. Even the "extreme right" itself strikes me as a fairly diverse lot. Religious fundamentalists fear that modernism will erode moral authority, while oilmen fear that global warming will result in what they, in an apparent attempt at redundancy, call "unnecessary regulation" (as opposed, that is, to ocean-front property in Kentucky). Both of these groups have resorted to unscrupulous obfuscation and sowing of doubt, as well as self-serving appeals to diversity ("teach the controversy" being only the most blatant), which they (perhaps rightly) see as a liberal sacred cow. (David Horowitz comes to mind here as well, as a particularly transparent example of appropriating the rhetoric of diversity for perverse ends.)

Apart from using similar rhetoric when it suits them, neither of these regrettable trends has anything to do with the "extreme left" suggestion that the very idea of objectivity is something from which we (or at least the working class) needs to be liberated (or whatever). After all, the problem with relativism (postmodern or not) is that with the very idea of objectivity goes the very idea of unscrupulous deception, which is precisely what S & M accuse the "extreme right" of doing. That is, the latter are not denying objective reality, they're misrepresenting it – sometimes deliberately, sometimes not. Even when creationists sound like relativists, demanding that we "teach the controversy," this doesn't betray a relativist attitude, but instead, as they themselves put it, the thin end of a "Wedge". They don't actually believe that when people disagree, we should teach all points of view. If they were in charge, they would teach what they see as the truth, and only that. Just like we do now, and rightly so.

This has nothing to do with liberating the oppressed from patriarchal chains of "logic" and "rationality." This is a common conflation, encouraged by irresponsible rhetoric about the "reality-based community." In fact, here the ("non-extreme"?) left sounds a lot like the right (Kimball et. al.). Just as the latter claimed that 9/11 proved postmodernism wrong and restored "moral clarity" (i.e., that moral realism is correct), the former trot out the purported lies of the Bush administration to demonstrate "the importance of truth" (i.e., that metaphysical realism is correct).

But (and here's my main point, which I imagine must seem to be at some distance from the political concerns of S & M – but they're the ones who demand that we be careful in our claims) you don't have to be a postmodern relativist to reject both moral and (especially) metaphysical realism; and (partly because) you don't have to be a realist to preserve important senses of objectivity and truth. I'll defer talk about the Sokal hoax and what it shows; but a few lines from the op-ed deserve comment. Here's something we've already seen:
Some self-described leftist academics did seem determined to reduce the real world to mere "discourse." No worldview, they insisted, could be considered objectively more valid or factual than any other. Even the findings of science were described as reflecting societal conditions and struggles for power and dominance rather than something true about the nature of the world.
Except for "reduce," "mere," and "rather than," this sounds to me like pure common sense. Naturally it depends on what you mean by "worldview" (and of course "objective," which I have already claimed to have several distinct senses). But neither am I a "leftist academic," self-described or otherwise.

About the hoax:
Asserting up front that "physical 'reality' [note the scare quotes] … is at bottom a social and linguistic construct," Sokal averred that the latest conceptions of quantum gravity support deconstructive literary theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, "postmodernist epistemology" and, of course, progressive politics. The cultural-studies journal Social Text ate it up. [snarky comment in brackets in original]
The same goes for what Sokal (or at least the implied author of his article) asserted: not what I would say (why "at bottom"?), but at least it's not realism. The dreaded "scare quotes" (ooh, self-reference!) seem natural here, as it is indeed the term "reality" which we are discussing (together with its referent). But it's fine to leave them off too. As for what he averred, I couldn't say. At best, the connection would be indirect – perhaps removing an obstacle to understanding, rather than actually providing evidence. I've already discussed this point. If I don't even want to hear it about the philosophical problem of "free will" from quantum physicists (i.e., over and above the actual science), which I do not, then why should I listen to them about other non-scientific things (especially if I don't even care about them in the first place)?

The bottom line:
In truth, there was nothing wrong with inventing science studies; the error was to leap from the valid observation that science arises in a social context to the extreme conclusion that it is nothing more than politics in disguise.
Oh, thanks so much. Here's my reply: in truth, there's nothing wrong with pointing out that platitudes are true; the error is to leap from this valid observation to the extreme conclusion that (typical) philosophical realism is even defensible, let alone true (let alone obviously so).

Naturally I have more to say about this, but I'll let you go for now. And of course they have more to say too. Mooney is blameless here, if a bit too eager to reach for the eye-catching headline ("science wars make strange bedfellows!"), but since the hoax Sokal has shown an eager willingness to dig himself deeper. The most serious attempt at defending (not his conduct, but) his views you may read here (but check out the rest of his papers on his excellent website, here). This is a paper credited to Sokal and his collaborator Jean Bricmont, authors of Impostures Intellectuelles / Fashionable Nonsense, defending realism in philosophy. Bricmont is a philosopher, which accounts for the apparent familiarity displayed here with some of the philosophical literature, but the substance is nothing more than a purified version of the same tiresome, thick-headed, realist boilerplate already familiar (seriously, it could have been written twenty-five years ago; imagine Richard Boyd ca. 1980). In fact the philosophical context makes it worse, as in other, more informal fora Sokal generally comes off as very open to dialogue, if a bit slow on the uptake (no offense: I'm not so clear on Riccati-Bessel functions myself – or on Derridean jouissance either, for that matter).

I might also make a few excuses for Bricmont while I'm at it. Apparently analytic philosophers in France feel a bit beleaguered, what with all the post-structuralism and whatnot; so the apparent philosophical rigor (there's that word again) of science and logic look more like a lifeline than they do to those of us who grew up on the stuff. So naturally people like him (others include Jacques Bouveresse and Pascal Engel) are a bit sensitive. And of course not everything they say is false. I just got a book (more like a pamphlet really; 79 small pages of big print – what a rip!) with a back-and-forth between Engel and Rorty, in which they talk past each other for, well, not that long really, but the whole book at least. Yet out of context, a lot of Engel's sentences wouldn't be out of place in my own criticism of Rorty. But read the linked paper by B/S (oh, stop it); the title, if the direct link doesn't work, is "Defense of a modest scientific realism." More on which later, I imagine.

Monday, February 05, 2007

At long last ...

... the blogroll, she has been updated. Some dead links pruned, and new stuff added. Check it out! (Inevitably, I have omitted someone I should really link to; feel free to remind me/suggest something.)