Archive for January, 2008

28
Jan
08

The contemplative stance

After the last disappointing encounter with Debord, it is clear to me that I won’t make any progress on him without referring back to earlier Marxist literature that he presupposes a familiarity with. Thankfully, I have some familiarity with Georg LukacsHistory and Class Consciousness (HCC) in which Lukacs expounds upon many of the same concepts that Debord employs.

For example, take this earlier question raised by TSOTS 1:2

(TSOTS-1:2-B-?) “Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation.” What does this mean?

There are a number of parts of Debord’s sentence to unpack here. But I am confident that to get his full meaning, you’ve got to consider that “contemplation” is an important word in the Western Marxist lexicon, as it indicates an important idea in Lukacs’ highly influential critique of capitalism. For example, early in HCC Lukacs writes:

As labour is progressively rationalised and mechanised his lack of will is reinforced by the way in which his activity becomes less and less active and more and more contemplative. The contemplative stance adopted towards a process mechanically conforming to fixed laws and enacted independently of man’s consciousness and impervious to human intervention, i.e. a perfectly closed system, must likewise transform the basic categories of man’s immediate attitude to the world: it reduces space and time to a common denominator and degrades time to the dimension of space. (Georg Lukacs, HCC)

There’s a lot to this paragraph, but the part I want to focus on is the idea of the contemplative stance. The contemplative stance is the attitude one must adopt towards a part of reality–a system–which is closed to one’s input. In HCC, Lukacs claims that the bourgeois class in capitalist society tries to make and think about the world as a system closed in this way (more on this later, I hope), and as a result finds itself incapable of action. Debord’s use of “contemplation” is, it seems, the same as Lukacs’ usage.

27
Jan
08

Hill’s Defense of (T&W-3)

Recall from this post the following statement:

(T&W-3) Propositions have structure that parallels the logical structure of the sentences.

Hill notes that this is a strong claim and one that is not universally accepted (T&W, 3), but presents a defense of it in a footnote (127) . I will reproduce the argument he presents, verbatim in most places, but restructured slightly:

Premise 1: (T&W-127-A) When one uses the predicate “believes that S” to attribute a belief to someone, the embedded sentence S indicates the proposition that serves as the object of the belief.

Premise 2: (T&W-127-B) The proposition that S indicates when it occurs in the predicate “believes that S” is the same as the proposition that S expresses when it is used in other contexts.

  (T&W-127-A) and (T&W-127-B) imply:

Lemma 1: (T&W-127-C)  If predicates “believes that S” and “believes that S*” can be used to attribute different beliefs, then the propositions, then the propositions that are expressed by the sentences S and S* must be numerically distinct.

Premise 3: (T&W-127-D) If there are any logical differences between S and S* (including even differences in microstructure), then the predicates “believes that S” and “believes that S*” can be used to attribute1 different beliefs.

 (T&W-127-C) and (T&W-127-D) imply:

Lemma 2: (T&W-127-E) Propositions are distinct when the sentences that express them are different in point of logical form.

Premise 4: (T&W-127-F) The best explanation of (T&W-127-E) is the hypothesis (T&W-127-G) .

Theorem: (T&W-127-G) Propositions have internal logical structures that reflect the logical structures of the sentences used to express them.

Corollary:    (T&W-3) Propositions have structure that parallels the logical structure of the sentences.

 1 The original uses “express” instead of “attribute” here, but I have edited this for the sake of consistency.

26
Jan
08

The Society of the Spectacle, 1:2

The images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished. Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation. The specialization of images of the world is completed in the world of the autonomous image, where the liar has lied to himself. The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living. (TSOTS, 1:2)

WTF?

I have no idea what Debord is talking about. What should one do in this situation?

But since we are experimenting with methodology here, let’s try this: just as before we have kept a record of the propositions we have gleaned from our sources, let’s keep track of the questions our sources raise in a similar way. Here is my list for this section:

(TSOTS-1:2-A-?) “The images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished.” What does this mean?

(TSOTS-1:2-B-?) “Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation.” What does this mean?

(TSOTS-1:2-C-?) “The specialization of images of the world is completed in the world of the autonomous image, where the liar has lied to himself.” What does this mean?

(TSOTS-1:2-D-?) “The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living.” What does this mean?

This may not look like progress, but I am guessing this sort of record keeping may aid us in the future.

25
Jan
08

Propositional knowledge and beliefs

Our knowledge has a propositional structure; beliefs can be represented in the form of statements. I shall presuppose this concept of knowledge without further clarification…’ (TOCA, 8 )

Habermas is reluctant to elaborate on this presupposition. Thankfully, Christopher Hill, in Thought and World (T&W), isn’t:

When one has a belief, one is thereby related to a proposition. Thus, for example, if one believes that the universe is expanding, one stands in a certain psychological relation, the relation of believing, to the proposition that the universe is expanding. (T&W, 1)

Hill fleshes out what he means by “proposition” by making some assumptions about them:

…I will assume that that [propositions] have logical structure, and that concepts are their fundamental building blocks. ….
The assumption that propositions have logical structure should be stressed. It is intended in a very strong sense — specifically, as claiming that it is appropriate to view propositions as having constituent structures that parallel the logical structures of sentences. It is meant to entail, for example, that it is appropriate to regard the proposition Hannibal crossed the Alps and Caesar crossed the Rubicon as a complex structure consisting of two simpler propositions and a logical concept (the concept of conjunction). It is also meant to entail that it is appropriate to think of each of the simpler propositions as having an internal logical organization, an organization that can be expressed by saying that the proposition consists of two nominal concepts and a predicative concept that plays the role of a transitive verb. (T&W, 2-3)

The congruence between Habermas’ brief characterization of the propositional nature of beliefs (“beliefs can be represented in the form of statements”) and Hill’s characterization of the nature of propositions makes it tempting to conflate the two positions; so tempting, in fact, that I’m going to do it until it gets me into trouble. One of the purposes of this blog is to trace the extraction of a philosophical theory from the various sources that it draws from in a disciplined way. To this end, I will list some of the positions that have come up (at least under a cursory interpretation of the sources) so far below:

(T&W-1) When one has a belief, one is related in a certain way (the relation of believing) to a proposition.
(T&W-2) Concepts are the fundamental building blocks of propositions.
(T&W-3) Propositions have structure that parallels the logical structure of the sentences.

(TOCA-8-A) Beliefs can be represented in the form of statements.

24
Jan
08

Beginning without foundations

We have to bear in mind that philosophical thought, which has surrendered the relation to totality, also loses its self-sufficiency. To the goal of formally analyzing the conditions of rationality, we can tie neither ontological hopes for substantive theories of nature, history, society, and so forth, nor transcendental-philosophical hopes for an aprioristic reconstruction of the equipment of the nonempirical species subject, of consciousness in general. All attempts at discovering ultimate foundations … have broken down. In this situation, the way is opening to a new constellation in the relationship of philosophy and the sciences. (TOCA, 2)

In Habermas’ introduction to The Theory of Communicative Action, he pronounces that an old conception of philosophy has failed. Under this conception, the philosophy is intellectually primary. It provides the grounds on and means with which we can build an ontological or transcendental theory; this latter theory in turn provides the grounds and means for natural and social sciences. All knowledge stems from basic philosophical knowledge.

When this foundationalist approach fails, as Habermas claims it has, how can we recover? One option is that we declare the entire project of the search for truth to be a failure. This is skepticism or nihilism.

But for the purposes of the inquiry of this blog, let us proceed instead with a more hopeful course. Rather than denying ourselves access to the world for lack of grounds, we can instead be more risky and promiscuous in our choice of grounds. We can tentatively hold the claims from a wide variety of sources–philosophy, psychology, social theory, methodologies of every stripe–as unproblematic, and see where the force of their arguments takes us. If a starting point leads to a contradiction or is confronted with a compelling argument against it, then we can always revise our position on the fly.

Of course, this fallibilist and anti-foundationalist methodology applies to itself.

21
Jan
08

The Society of the Spectacle, 1:1

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. (TSOTS, 1:1)

Debord has packaged The Society of the Spectacle (TSOTS for short here) in a long series of of roughly paragraph-or-two length sections, which happens to be the perfect length for a blog quotation plus commentary. There isn’t a lot to go on with this one. Having looked ahead, I can say that this passage prefigures some of what is to come. But coming into this cold, I can’t say I know what he means by “spectacle” at this point, which is clearly the key term.

What I can say is that the Wikipedia article on the book says it’s a Marxist text, and so it should be no surprise that his first words about the means of production. Moreover, Debord is saying that their are some terrible metaphysical consequences to the economic conditions of his time. “Representation” is a philosophically loaded word; for a long time philosophy has struggled with the idea that what we perceive is not the world as it really exists, but merely representations of it. The theory says: we have a kind of mental theatre of images–an image of a horse, say–which we have access to, and it is by virtue of these representations that we come to know what lies outside our minds–actual horses.

The problem is that when we try to use this kind of model of perception, we always wind up plunging ourselves into skepticism about the world. Who is to say the images of horses we see indicate the existence of an actual horse in the world? Couldn’t we just be a brain in a vat?

An alternative, then, is to say that our world isn’t mediated by representation. Rather, it is directly lived.

If this reading of Debord is correct, then saying that “everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation” is a heavy condemnation of the conditions that have brought on this predicament–i.e. capitalist conditions, in Debord’s view.

21
Jan
08

What I am reading, and how I will read it

One purpose for this blog: it is a space where I can interrogate philosophical texts in a thorough, public, and disciplined way.

There are two books that I have begun recently that I intend to give special attention to here. The first is Jürgen Habermas’ The Theory of Communicative Action. I think I have a good idea about what to expect from this book, and I suspect that the positions Habermas expresses in his opus will be very compatible with many that I already have (partially because my own current views have been informed by some other works by Habermas, as well as some secondary readings). On the other hand, after reading just a little bit of the first chapter, I have some disagreements with some of Habermas’ basic presuppositions. Some time in the near future, I’ll explain those complaints.

At this point, I admire Habermas from afar, so to speak. I haven’t read much by him, but I hear that his theory is a grand synthesis of many other intellectual traditions–including Marxism, analytic philosophy of language, American pragmatism, sociology, and so on. I appreciate this interdisciplinary approach and humbly hope to work in a similarly open way here. I also hope to justify this methodology in some future post.

The second book is Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. Whereas I’ve taken up Habermas expecting him to resonate, Debord is a wild card for me. I have picked him up hoping he will take a position that I will find very challenging.

In both cases, I intend to post responses to my recent reading in a systematic and, initially, linear way.