A.C. Douglas writes, not unreasonably:

Listen up!, son. Are you coming back to the cultural blogosphere any time soon, or not? I mean with like, you know, cultural postings, not that tiresome philosophic shit, on an at least biweekly (every two weeks) basis? If not, I’m gonna de-list your ass, much as I love you.

A.C., I suspect, is not alone in his sentiments. It is only fair to my dwindling readership that I explain exactly what I’m about.

I used to write a good deal about art, though not for a while, as A.C. intimates. I found that my supposedly devastating arguments, which never fail to convince me, never convince anyone else who didn’t agree with me to begin with. The culture bloggers, much as I love them, tend to begin in the middle of the argument insofar as they argue at all. I sympathize. Conclusions are fun and premises are such a drag.

A recent brouhaha over “literary value” illustrates the problem. Bachelor #1 wrinkles his nose at the notion that literature ought to deal in extra-literary considerations at all, arguing that if you want to make a political or ethical argument, you ought to write a treatise, not a novel. Which obliterates the distinction between “dealing in” and “making an argument.” One may as well say that the mechanic does not deal in physics when after all he is only repairing your brakes. Consider two sets. The first consists of all people who believe the novelist is exempt from ethical matters on the grounds that he is “doing literature.” The second consists of all people who believe the businessman is similarly exempt on the grounds that he is “doing business.” How large do you suppose the intersection is?

Bachelor #2 recognizes that there is at least one antecedent question — “what’s art for?” In fact there are many but I’ll settle for what I can get. He then asserts that art is no use at all, and throws us back on “a fascination with making use of its uselessness,” a formulation that I suspect contains a contradiction, though I cannot prove it offhand, since I suppose one could be “fascinated” with, say, time travel into the past. What I can say for sure is that it does not advance the argument.

Bachelor #3 asserts that he likes literature that “returns” him to the world, and criticism that returns him to literature. These prejudices can be justified but are not. They are simply aired. Bachelor #4 begins promisingly, accurately remarking that “as long as all I have to say in favor of my pleasure is ‘I like to read instead,’ then I cant very well complain about the fact that reading literature is a marginal activity.” Unfortunately that turns out to be all he has to say in its favor, and he soon derails himself in a jeremiad against reality television. All contestants retire to their respective corners and congratulate each other on a job well done.

I am not picking on any of these gentlemen. They are all highly intelligent and some of them have the good taste to read me into the bargain. Neither am I picking on the culturati in particular; the polibloggers are the same way, only more so and less politely. I’m not even picking on their arguments, really, although most of them are bad. I’m picking on their method. Everyone plunges in at a different stage of the argument, no one states his premises, and no minds are changed. What we have here is a terminal case of in medias res. As in software — I begin to think that everything is like software — raw brains profit you less than a correct approach.

That tiresome philosophic shit of mine is aiming toward a universal maximization function, a formula for all biological entities, human beings not least. It will explain, I hope, why people engage in art and a great deal else besides. The very short answer to the question of “literary value” is that it lets you explore state spaces on the cheap. (Bachelor #1, oddly, and against the main thrust of his argument, approaches the right answer when he writes of “the good that [literature] can do on a purely experiential level.”) But since I haven’t yet explained what a state space is, or what use it is to explore them, this would not be too enlightening. Which is why I have to wade through that tiresome philosophic shit.

My maximization function may be wrong. Very likely it will be. But its entire derivation will be public, and anyone who takes exception to its conclusions will be able and obliged to point out the flaw in its premises. I therefore beg A.C. Douglas’s further indulgence, and yours.

(Update: Bachelor #1, Daniel Green, misunderstands, I fear, my analogy between “doing literature” and “doing business.” He writes, “If the novelist is not exempt from the businessman’s charge to carry out his activities in an ethical way, this can only mean, given the terms of the comparison, that he should go about his own business in an upright way: do your own work and don’t steal from others; don’t hurt people (when real people are models) by portraying them unfairly; pay your typist a fair wage. Be nice to your agent. Thank your publisher.” I’m all for courtesy to agents and publishers; but such dealings are business, not literary, activities. My point was that ethics precede literature — and business, of course — in exactly the same way that physics precedes auto repair.)

Aaron Haspel | Posted October 12, 2004 @ 2:51 PM | Alpha Theory

18 Responses to “The Disconsolation of Philosophy: Interlude”

  1. 1 1. Sam

    This I like, though I can’t explain why.;-)

    To quibble, though: maybe what you’re perceiving as "arguments that start in the middle" are really nondiscursive rather than discursive (in the Aristotelian sense), in which case there is no "middle."

    I didn’t think about it at the time, but it seems that I was unconsciously imitating Auden’s style in the essays in "The Dyer’s Hand," in which he presents his prejudices, as you say, without supporting argument. It’s a style of argument that attempts to convince by force of insight and by pithiness. Another term for this style is "aphoristic" and Nietzsche is the usual example.


  2. 2 2. Jim Valliant

    Holy Totalism, Batman! You are "…aiming toward a universal maximization function, a formula for all biological entities, human beings not least. It will explain, I hope, why people engage in art and a great deal else besides. The very short answer to the question of ‘literary value’ is that it lets you explore state spaces on the cheap." (?!?!) You know, Aaron, if you really do do this little thing, you will be called a "totalitarian" in your politics by the Hayek/Popper crowd (how else could one have such vast and integrated "system"?)

    I’m just dying to see how you do it!! All biology, including human behavior, EXPLAINED without ever recognizing volition or teleology?! And art, TOO?! Without repairing to psychology? This is truly historic, my friend, even if the effort is unsuccessful!


  3. 3 3. Dan Green

    I didn’t misunderstand your analogy. It’s a false analogy. Creating fictional worlds through literature has nothing to do with ethical or unethical business practices. And I don’t agree that ethics precedes literature.


  4. 4 4. Jim Valliant

    Ethics MUST come before literary analysis. Literary values are VALUES and cannot be severed from the rest of our value-considerations. All literature assumes some set of ethical principles, and these are operative in that literature whether any writer realizes this fact or not. While not all literature refers to business ethics as such, the underlying ethics which informs business ethics (or any other kind of ethics) is always in play. This cannot be avoided. It can be evaded but not avoided.


  5. 5 5. Dan Green

    Nonsense. To say "these are operative in that literature whether any writer realizes this fact or not" is to say nothing noteworthy, merely that writers are human beings like all of us.


  6. 6 6. Jim Valliant

    Bingo! Now consider the consequences of the fact that ethics is inescapable for ALL human beings. For instance, this is most acutely so when human beings express their values, when they tell stories of human value pursuit, when they condense their values (by means of the words and phrases most evocative of their emotions) into a poem. Why, it’s all about values! Obvious, yes, but also a basic fact, and something that cannot be ignored with impunity.


  7. 7 7. Dan Green

    Human beings express their values when they do everything. This is trivial, equivalent to saying they are alive and not yet dead. Values are expressed in the act of writing novels no more than in the act of going to work.


  8. 8 8. Matt McIntosh

    "You know, Aaron, if you really do do this little thing, you will be called a "totalitarian" in your politics by the Hayek/Popper crowd (how else could one have such vast and integrated "system"?)"

    I consider myself part of the Popper/Hayek crowd, but I’m not about to start throwing accusations of totalitarianism at Aaron. Just because a philosophy is vast and fully-integrated doesn’t make it totalitarian (at least not any moreso than Objectivism!). Besides, I’ve been reading Aaron long enough to know him better than that.

    So far I haven’t seen anything to argue with in this series of posts, and in fact I think it could have the makings of an interesting book if Aaron were so inclined. Even if he turns out to be wrong, this will no doubt give us all something to think about and be a valuable contribution to philosophy (in a very Popperian sense).


  9. 9 9. Jim Valliant

    Mr. Green,

    Since all humans do express their values all of the time, and since this fact is terribly obvious, simple, and even banal, as I agree, then why don’t all writers and critics agree with that fact? Why do some actually act and write as if there is no such things as ethics, or that they shouldn’t have to care? It’s like ignoring the air we breath, true, but it happens regularly, as Aaron has repeatedly observed.

    Mr. McIntosh,

    I have argued many times with those who would not take issue with any of the particular positions within a "big" or "rationalistic" philosophical system, but who argued all night that ANY totalist/rationalist construct of the world, one embracing an "objective" ethics, politics (and esthetics!?), necessarily implies both moral and political authoritarianism, with detailed citations to Prof. Hayek. It is clear that Hayek presumptively distrusted ANY such "rationalistic" construct, and may have advised us to wait for the slow march of evolution to even test its merits (and possibly even its "truth.")


  10. 10 10. Matt McIntosh

    Well, I can’t vouch for what other Hayekians have said, but that’s not what I get from his work. Hayek emphasized the limits of individual knowledge, and he was quite right in pointing out that authoritarian command-and-control structures are tragically inept at imposing their plans on complex systems like economies. Naturally, any successful political philosophy is going to have to take this into account.

    I don’t see any necessary logical connection between a broad, integrated philosopy with political authoritarianism, though. The two certainly can go hand in hand, but there’s no reason I can see that they must. A philosophy can be very comprehensive and still allow for a lage degree of individual choice.

    If Aaron has really thought all of this through, he’ll probably have already taken all of this into account. But it’s a bit early to say at this point, so let’s just sit back and see where he goes next.


  11. 11 11. Dan Green

    "Why do some actually act and write as if there is no such things as ethics, or that they shouldn’t have to care? It’s like ignoring the air we breath, true, but it happens regularly, as Aaron has repeatedly observed."

    I’m pretty sure I don’t know what this means. Could you give me an example of a notable writer who writes "as if there is no such thing as ethics"?


  12. 12 12. Dan

    Jim,

    You’ll have to elaborate.


  13. 13 13. Rodney

    Can’t we all just get along.


  14. 14 14. Jim Valliant

    Mr. McIntosh,

    Yep, and even agreed.

    Dan,

    Do volitional choices ever determine a story’s outcome for Papa? Impotence, rage, jealousy, despair, senseless struggles with big fish, almost hopeless idealistic activity, success, (more likely) failure, or death in the afternoon, does any of it flow from any of the (very limited) ethical decision-making even depicted? It’s one’s grit in the face of circumstances beyond one’s control, one’s "grace under pressure," not any outcome, that is metaphysicaly significant for him, right? It’s almost Kantian. ‘Least, that’s my read…


  15. 15 15. Dan Green

    "It’s one’s grit in the face of circumstances beyond one’s control, one’s "grace under pressure,""

    This sounds like an ethical outlook to me.


  16. 16 16. Jim Valliant

    Sounds like a psychological outlook which substitutes for an ethical one, to me.


  17. 17 17. Dan Green

    It’s a guide as to how one ought to live. How can it not be "ethical"? You might not agree with it, but it’s an ethics nonetheless.


  18. 18 18. Eddie Thomas

    Aaron,

    Your post reminds me of the sentiments of early moderns like Francis Bacon and Descartes who were simply fatigued from what they perceived as endless philosophical debating. Given their level of success at ending those debates, I wish you luck.

    Perhaps your arguments with others, however, have value even when your interlocutors are not persuaded. It probably sharpens your understanding of your own position, for example. Furthermore, there are those like myself who benefit a great deal even though we have little to add. We should remember that Socrates persuaded very few of those he had direct conversation with, but he persuaded many others who were just looking on.


Add a Comment

Basic HTML acceptable. Two-link limit per comment.