Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What is the Meaning of Philosophy for Politics?

In Plato’s Theaetetus Protagoras insisted that one should not persuade the other of what is true in relation to what is false because no one has ever succeeded in doing so and most of all because truth in itself is not the issue in political discussions, debates, and deliberations. But there is one thing that Protagoras wanted to persuade people about, namely improvement. From the point of view of ancient Greek politics, this is all that can be done: We can strive to achieve a better situation, which inevitably will require further improvement. But if nothing but improvements can be hoped for, then “truth” or the “good” have no place in this progress because they presuppose final achievements, accomplishments, and results. The point of Protagoras is that one should never persuade people of what is good—only of the need for improvement.

According to the late American philosopher Richard Rorty, while philosophy has anything to do with truth, it has nothing to do with politics motivated solely by search for improvements, as Protagoras explained. The metaphysical or Platonic image of philosophy as a reflection of eternal problems that continuously assail the human mind is not adequate anymore because there are no fundamental philosophical essences left after the deconstruction of metaphysics. If culture is subject to continuous social changes, philosophy can solve those particular problems by interpreting and suggesting further developments and applications. This is why, as Rorty recalls, a philosopher like John Dewey had “abandoned the idea that one can say how things really are, as opposed to how they might best be described in order to meet some particular human need.”(1) Rorty, just as Dewey, was in agreement with the deconstructors of “metaphysics of presence” that included Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger, because they showed how objectivity is more a matter of intersubjective consensus among human beings than an accurate representation of something nonhuman. These deconstructors of metaphysics freed human beings from disagreement since they showed that the resolution of disagreement cannot appeal to the way the world really is since there is no single reality but a multiplicity of realities that depend on different needs. The resolution, explains Rorty, can only be “political: one must use democratic institutions and procedures to conciliate these various needs, and thereby widen the range of consensus about how things are.”(2)

It is in Rorty’s neopragmatic thought that we will find the meaning of philosophy for politics after the deconstruction of metaphysics because his analyses are not a part of but, rather, the outcome of this deconstruction. If the last great deconstructor of metaphysics, Derrida, showed us how conceptual distinctions such as objective-subjective, true-false, man-woman, faith-knowledge, are only the beginnings and the end points of a ladder we must throw away, Rorty indicated what to do with such ladder. Questioning whether the justifications these deconstructors use to confirm their thesis are metaphysical is, on the other hand, a way of falling back into metaphysics because there is no natural order capable of justifying their beliefs, nor is there any meta-way beyond argumentation that may justify justifications. Searching for these criteria is not very useful for justification in itself because philosophy has always been characterized by the compromises on concrete and particular issues, from which it is impossible to deduct a general verification-rule. After the deconstruction of metaphysics we may stop asking what is real and what is not since “only if we drop the whole idea of ‘correspondence with reality’ can we avoid pseudo-problems.” If reality does not present itself, but it is us that linguistically give meaning to the world, the justification of knowledge will not depend on the permanent conditions of knowledge since justification is a social phenomenon, rather than a relation between knowledge and reality. Knowledge, after deconstruction, is not the possession of an essence, but a right—the right between arguments upon which it is relatively easy to obtain a non-enforced agreement, in other words, “the ability to get agreement by using persuasion rather than force.”

Having said this, it is clear that the so-called “free Socratic exchange of public opinions” does not rely on the Platonic idea of a universal possible agreement since truth, understood as a previous order, is irrelevant for the correct functioning of democracies. While intellectuals, regardless of their ideological position, believe that political actions demand nonpolitical (that is, philosophical) foundations, they will continue to express a desire for the philosophical authorities these principles depend upon. But requiring a philosophical or religious prologue to politics means that “Philosophy” is in itself the search for such an authority, a research where “reason” has the same function that God once had, when “philosophy is [really] an attempt to see how ‘things, in the largest sense of the term, hang together.”(3) Also, what justifies a conception of justice is not its adequacy to a philosophical or religious order that is given, but rather its congruency with that understanding of our traditions which is rooted in the private and public life we are all immersed in. As Hans-Georg Gadamer once said “the difficulty lies not in our not knowing the truth, or the politician not knowing the truth, or his not needing to know the truth. Here Rorty is correct – anyone who engages in politics can’t simply desire the true or the good exactly – it’s undoubtedly correct to say that he orients his own action and conduct with a view to the pragmatic. One can’t simply dispense with what the good politician would have or should have been able to understand, or what he has personally been able to observe in the practical situation. On the contrary, we see that this farsighted discernment of the politician is very often what is decisive in life praxis – much like it is with the businessman.”(4)


(1) R. Rorty, Achieving Our Country (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press 1998, 34).
(2) R. Rorty, Achieving Our Country, 35.
(3) R. Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996, 114).
(4) Hans-Georg Gadamer, A Century of Philosophy, (with R. Dottori) New York London: Continuum, 2000, 43

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    1. CommentedJeremy Horne

      Similar to Bell's "End of Ideology", we have the demise of absolutism and the search for "The Truth" via metaphysics. Those well read have moved past this debate and a serious consideration of what is real. Of course, if we are to take the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy seriously, we seem to know more about what metaphysics is not than what it is.

      What is missing in Zabala's essay is the contradistinction to "The Truth" [I take the liberty of capitalize the word, a proper noun designating a particular thing]: truth. There is still the quest for what is true and real (as opposed to what is fantasy, or "false") in the same manner scientists search for their truths, but there is a replacement mechanism, as Thomas Kuhn described. One truth replaces another with new discoveries. We see this in cosmology with the very much alive debate as to whether the universe is analog or digital.

      In one's inquiry of whatever type, s/he starts by positing what I'd call a "relative absolute" and, in the manner similar to a physicist, treating a reference frame. The same is done in deductive logic proofs in drawing an assumption line. There is no reason this cannot be done a la metaphysics.

      If we say that metaphysics includes the consideration of what is beyond phenomenological, we may actually wind up a metaphysical assertion as being real, as in the case of Democritus. Until the advent of John Dalton in 1803, or so, discussions of atoms as the most basic substance remained in the realm of metaphysics. Now, we go even beyond that with Planck scale. All of these developments have occurred in a relative absolutist style, where new developments reshape or even displace the old information.

      Throwing in the old saw about objectivity is somewhat disingenuous, as the variants of conceptions are well known and don't seem to impede philosophical inquiry. Neither has the problem of verification from an absolutist standpoint impeded the physicists, as Heisenberg, Church, Godel, and the rest are quite well known. The search for what is real in whatever form continues unabashed by the calls for what amounts to intellectual anarchy. One does not have to be entrapped by the likes of Feyerabend but needs to recognize that relativity applies also to philosophy. Relativity, here too, hasn't stopped scientific quests for what is real, either.

      The last sentence is nothing short of outrageous, invoking Gadamer to compare the philosopher to a businessperson. Reducing philosophers to such a pedestrian and demeaning role seems to be more projection than astute commentary. Perhaps Zabala cannot find meaning in his discipline, just as political scientists were questioning whether there was any worth in their field in the early 1970s. Maybe he is better to peddling and filling out an accountant's spreadsheet.

    2. CommentedNathan Coppedge

      Clearly there is yet another inroad to metaphysics through idealism, which is often the answer to the individual journey which evolves from pursuing what you call "the relation between knowledge and reality".

      I see what you are saying politically, and it is a clear message. But we should not say simply because metaphysics is radical for the politician that it is meaningless for the everyday person. According to meta-consumerism, metaphysics is exactly what the daily consumer needs: a puffy label with a lot of emotional significance. If politicians reject this in private is not a concern for most people, maybe it isn't even a safe topic for politicians.

      We shouldn't rely on the blushing and guilt of the traditions to construe that the traditions are annihilated---it is still possible that no one has seen metaphysics clearly without being an orator or writer of philosophy. So clearly it can be understood that the motivation found in Aristotle and in Derrida is the same substance---and therefore a meaningless difference. At that point we can look at it substantively, and say that Derrida is being a reactionary, and Aristotle had something to say.

      Just because we have become unproductive in metaphysics does not mean that metaphysics should be tossed away. Where there was once magic there is now irrationalism which seems real and tangible. To some philosophers such as Derrida it might be the same thing. To Aristotle metaphysics was not a concern of problems as much as ideas, in the context of his mentor. It would seem inevitable that metaphysics could be saved---there could be another idea. That idea is not as clear to the people of today as it once was.

      To some degree the humanity of problems is still present in philosophy in its greatest ideas---we can see the liar emerging in this shift of requirements for a new concept of metaphysics. But that is not to say that the liar doesn't exist. We are playing children's games because we are unconscious of the feeble good intentions of the most rigorous philosophy. What do they have: ideas. So where ideas are not found (in my case, I do not find ideas in Derrida, and for some Aristotle's ideas consist of logic and science, case in point my class on the Ultimate Nature of the Universe, which focused on Aristotle and science). Where ideas are not found we must conclude that we are "not being scientific" or "we are not being moral" or "we are not being meaningful" when we are being undiscerning many of these expressions are interchangeable.

      Metaphysics, in real point of definition, is something that cannot be surpassed. It is something to lean on, which finds confidence in all forms of meaning. Abandoning meaning might involve greater assumptions than abandoning pragmatics. Even people having fun without rules can find meaning. But pragmatics is always a controlled condition, a sense of "asking a question" a sense of entailment. Surely the playful sense of irrationalism and idealism would be more welcome than a scientist attempting to interpret life as language. Someone of the world's tricksters is playing with us in this realization. Science just ISN'T language right now---not to most of us. And that's where metaphysics fails. Like someone trying to buy a magic kit. But the magic is still available, in the form of madness and playfulness.

      In some sense it's just Life reminding us to not be dry with our words. Is that so difficult? Sometimes the future of reason is irrationalism, only because it needs to stretch and have a nice day.

      [What I call irrationalism is also dimensional philosophy:]

    3. CommentedClaudia Carmen de Sierra Lepori

      My mother language is not english but I could understand prefectly your analisis. I will keep it for my filosofy class and exam. This one goes to my personal failes.

      Se que usted escribe para un determinado nivel intelectual,pero como buen filosofo siempre es bueno un poquito mas simple le llega más a todos y las ideas son mas fáciles de que corran-trasmitan en la sociedad y no queden en una élite, a veces lo menos es más. El articulo ya lo tengo en mis archivos personales y me gusto pero es para quien entiende de metafísica, metalenguaje, etc y esos no son conceptos que todo el mundo maneje por mas lógica que use.