New Philosophy for a New Millennium

(A series of notes prepared as part of an informal research

 project between 2000 and 2005)

By Mike Holliday


Section 5: In Lieu of a Conclusion ...

In this final section, rather than providing a conclusion that simply serves to repeat the earlier discussion, I want to briefly consider two topics that have not yet been emphasized.

Firstly, I want to touch on the domain that includes the cultural, the social, and the historical, which has thus far been conspicuous largely by its absence. This may appear somewhat strange, since it is almost a sine qua non of twentieth century criticisms of modernism that the social and the historical are emphasized in contradistinction to the analytical and the material. I noted as much in my introduction and said that I would largely take such criticism as read. But one of my main concerns was to avoid a danger that is inherent in postmodern commentaries: namely that they may implicitly incorporate some of the questionable assumptions of the positions against which they argue - a case of antagonistic stances sharing a common problematic.1 My starting point was therefore not the social, the cultural, or the historical as such. Instead, I wanted to develop a dialectic from within the analytic and material, and hence to reveal underlying problems that might affect philosophizing in a wider range of domains. I hoped that this might contribute to the breakdown of the impasse that I referred to in my introduction, thereby helping avoid a difficulty referred to by Tarnas (1991, p. 409), namely that emerging trends of thought tend to be rapidly undercut by the critical and deconstructive approaches of postmodern intellectual life, with the result that existing assumptions can continue to remain entrenched in the wider mindset.

In a sense, therefore, a consideration of the cultural etc. lies on the far side of the present text. Nevertheless, I believe it is possible to briefly indicate the direction that might be taken. If we reject any 'view from nowhere', and accept that all descriptions must in some sense be incomplete and bound by context, then we are surely led to an appreciation of just what it is that is right about the notion of the 'other' or the 'excluded' in postmodernist thinking, for example Derrida's radical alterity, or Lyotard's différend.2 But this notion of that which is excluded, but which must somehow be taken into account, applies not just to our theoretical analyses, but also to our own actions as particular, embodied individuals. As Brian Cantwell Smith explains in The Origin of Objects, we ourselves are part of the world, and therefore the limitations applicable to our individuation of objects must apply equally to our decisions, commitments, and politics. For Smith, the attempt to reconcile different, apparently incongruent, interests and concerns in the social and political spheres reflects the more general metaphysical picture whereby subjects and objects are constituted from, or (better) wrested from, the flux. Smith's is a participatory metaphysics, and participation implies commitment; we must live within the ambiguity of the world, and pay the price by accepting that our categorizations and decisions must, of necessity, do an injustice to that which they leave out of account. Decisions and commitments are therefore ultimately made by those who are actively involved, rather than by those who are standing outside and not participating. However, the possibilities for active involvement and ongoing decision-making help to counteract the limitations caused by the fact that in accepting one description or interpretation, we must (of necessity) thereby exclude the alternatives (see Smith 1996, pp. 334-343):

Abstraction involves loss.  ... [But located, particular action supplies] the raw materials for owning up to and taking responsibility for the violence that one has ... thought or said or done. ... For part of assuming responsibility for a commitment to a given registration is to take responsibility for the ways and extent to which the abstraction on which it is based does an injustice to the (potentially inexpressible) particularities of the circumstances out of which it is extracted, and into which it is subsequently injected.3

So we might feel that we ought to evaluate a given situation in a particular way (e.g. socially, or legally), but find that acting thereon appears to preclude the possibility of evaluating the situation on a different basis (e.g. aesthetically, or ethically) and acting on that basis. But I take it that one aspect of what Smith is saying is that if we evaluate a situation in a particular way and thereby effectively commit ourselves to a specific action, there is nevertheless a whole range of additional actions that are available to us that are not in a practical sense incompatible with the original action, and some of these potential actions may be able to take into account what was necessarily ignored when we initially acted on the basis of our first evaluation. Smith's existential point is that once we accept that no one viewpoint is the true one, we thereby must be committed to taking responsibility for attempting to 'repair the damage' that accepting one viewpoint must do. The danger is that we confuse (i) the fact that we have to choose a basis for deciding on an action, with (ii) believing that the basis we have chosen is the only correct basis for evaluating all related actions, and thereby refuse to take responsibility for what is excluded by our initial restricted perspective.

The American philosopher Joseph Margolis (1995) takes a similar approach in his suggestion that it is possible to adopt a morality that derives from our life experiences, but which does not pretend to be a universal prescription for deciding what is 'right' and what is 'wrong' in every circumstance. Such a morality would be 'a "rationalization" of a practical or existential vision that ... is, on legitimative grounds, rationally unable to invalidate all divergent, incompatible, even actively conflicting visions on the part of others' (Margolis 1995, p. 293). Margolis's understanding of our moral existence parallels Putnam's rejection of a single description of reality. The lack of a 'view from nowhere' puts the emphasis back on an individual's actions, life choices, and so on, and away from universal visions of right and wrong (of whatever type) that are then all too frequently hypostatized into 'good' and 'evil'. Adopting a morality along the lines suggested by Margolis would entail possessing an understanding of (but not agreement with) those whose situation, background, society, or conceptual understanding leads them to a morality that is incongruent with our own. But this understanding would not be based on a higher-level evaluation to the effect that 'pluralism' is an absolute moral good, but would instead be derived from a comprehension of the impossibility of justifying in an absolute manner any single description or evaluation to the exclusion of all others. 

The second area that I want to comment on is that of legitimization. I particularly want to stress the importance of distinguishing between (i) the idea expressed throughout these notes that there is no single 'true' description of reality and therefore that no one conceptual scheme can accommodate all viewpoints; and (ii) the view that all attempts at legitimation are illicit (see Margolis 1995, pp. 305-306).4 The latter position seems to be that of someone who still believes that the correct standard of legitimation is an absolute one, yet who holds that such a standard cannot in fact be met. But legitimative discourse (i.e. the discussion of the reasons for holding the views that we have - what it is that we believe justifies us in maintaining those views) is part and parcel of everyday life; there is, therefore, no reason for believing that agreeing to (i) must lead us to accept (ii). As Margolis (1995, p. 40) has argued, it seems perfectly acceptable to maintain that there can be:

'principles' but not 'first principles,' cognitive 'sources' but not privileged 'foundations,' 'uniformities' but not necessarily exceptionless 'universals,' 'natures' but not 'essences,' and so on.

Similarly, Brian Cantwell Smith (1995, pp. 106-108) argues that the fact that there is no sense to the notion of Objectivity - 'the mythological idea that there is an attainable or coherent form of knowledge that is independent of any bias, interest, position, perspective' - does not mean that we cannot claim that someone is being objective (lower case) in a particular situation.

The concept of legitimation is what Margolis terms a second-order artifact of human culture, one that arises when we ask questions concerning the right use of our first-order concepts such as knowledge or reality (Margolis 1995, pp. 15-17). Legitimation is not therefore some Platonic form of 'The Rational' which determines what we must accept, but is rather fully immersed in the particularity and turbulence of our everyday life. It is for this reason, rather than because it fails to meet some transcendent standard, that it makes sense to suggest that any legitimation can only be provisional. Yet precisely for the same reason, 'the ... legitimation of what to take as truth, knowledge, reality, confirmation, and the like increases in importance as the hazards of life and inquiry increase' (Margolis 1995, p. 78).

To confuse 'being objective' with 'Objectivity', 'making progress' with 'Progress', and so on, is to succumb to the temptation to hypostatize our everyday activities of discussion, argumentation, and evaluation. We can, as individuals, talk about what is right, or what is wrong, and give reasons why we believe we should or should not act in various ways, without thereby committing ourselves to some overarching and unquestionable legitimization of what we believe. Such activity is simply part of our everyday behavior as the social, emotional, and thinking creatures that we happen to be; we do not need any transcendent justification or legitimization to back up our involvement in such activities. We might try and express this by the phrase all legitimization is immanent, and not transcendent. Indeed, expanding this to all meaning is immanent, and not transcendent may serve as the key conclusion to be drawn from this entire philosophical investigation.

Mike Holliday (July 2005)

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[1] Stephen Toulmin (1990, pp. 172-173) comments on the tendency for postmodernist thinkers to share a common problematic with their predecessors: 'If such critics as Lyotard see the absence of a foundational system as substituting "absurdity" for "rationality", this objection shows only that their attack on Cartesianism shares Descartes' prejudice in favour of "systems".' This is the reason, suggests Toulmin, why postmodernist thinkers emphasize deconstruction: they conclude that there is no alternative, since they mistakenly believe that all views are equally absurd and invalid.

Hilary Putnam (1992, pp. 23, 28;  1995, p. 300) has made a similar criticism of Richard Rorty. In his introduction to Words & Life, James Conant explains Putnam's objection as follows:

Rorty continues to allow the metaphysical realist to hold the concept of representation hostage to certain ('metaphysically inflated') demands and then - despairing of a satisfying outcome to the metaphysical realist's demands - gives up on the ordinary concept along with its metaphysically sublimed counterpart (in Putnam 1995, pp. xxxi-xxxii).

[2] This significance of the 'other' or 'excluded' in late twentieth century thinking is well described in a passage from Joseph Margolis (1995, p. 156):

It is, of course, Derrida's principal objective - in his notorious deconstructions - to ... show, just how, for any would-be totalized scheme ..., some unanticipatable conceptual supplément is always possible, can always be counted on to subvert the claim. This single theme - 'radical alterity' (in Derrida's phrase), the excluded but not yet specified différend (Lyotard's neologism), the inchoate l'autre or l'autrui (of Levinas and French feminism), and the like - is ... the essential theme of contemporary poststructuralism, which opposes 'totalizing' in every form and assimilates all instances of cognitive privilege to that philosophical 'offense.' L'autre (or l'autrui) is what ... is always omitted, neglected, marginalized, disadvantaged, or the like.

[3] Smith's views here show some interesting similarities with those of Jean-Francois Lyotard in The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (1988). Lyotard's definition (1988, p. xi) of a differend is:

a case of conflict, between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgment applicable to both arguments. One side's legitimacy does not imply the other's lack of legitimacy. However, applying a single rule of judgment to both in order to settle their differend as though it were merely a litigation would wrong (at least) one of them (and both of them if neither side admits this rule).

It is necessary, says Lyotard (1988, p. 13), to attempt to give expression to a voice that might be silenced due to the existence of a differend by finding new idioms, or other means of expressing ourselves. Politics as a domain is implied by the differend itself, by our having to work with the multiplicity of genres: 'One's responsibility before thought consists ... in detecting differends and finding the (impossible) idiom for phrasing them. This is what a philosopher does. An intellectual is someone who helps forget differends, by advocating a given genre, whichever one it may be ..., for the sake of political hegemony' (Lyotard 1988, p. 142). Lyotard emphasizes, as does Smith, the impossibility of acting as if one was not a participant to a situation, and the necessity for commitment and for taking responsibility for the effects of one's actions and words: every decision and every choice of argument silences numerous alternatives, and therefore the decision on how to link a phrase is always a political choice (see Malpas 2003, pp. 65-66). Of course, in emphasizing this similarity between Smith and Lyotard, I do not intend to thereby confirm (or indeed to reject) Lyotard's specific criticisms of modernity and what might be termed 'Western capitalist hegemony'.

[4] The thesis that 'legitimization is always illicit' is one that some might claim is a typical characteristic of the postmodern. However, I am not sure that any major philosopher actually subscribes to this thesis. In any case, I am not interested in whether, or in what way, Derrida, Lyotard, or Rorty (to name three of whom the accusation might plausibly be made) held all legitimization to be illicit; each of them have stimulating and important points to make. My concern is rather to counter a possible and tendentious type of argument that seems to consist of not much more than the accusation that, since one's opponent makes some form of evaluation (moral, aesthetic, rational, or whatever), they must at best be mistaken, and at worst guilty of some form of imperialistic hegemony in trying to force their views on everyone else.