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Markets and Discourses #4
Serialized treatise about Prosperity and Politics after the Libertarian Revolution
Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it. Karl Marx, Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, 1845
This treatise is not a philosophical treatise. However, the first section of the treatise is an effort in philosophical self-reflection. The guiding question here is: What are the most general orienting assumptions and principles that have guided the questions, answers, theoretical elaborations and practical propositions of this treatise? With such self-probing questions this treatise joins a very special discourse, the discourse of philosophy, and therefore must also explicitly connect up and engage with philosophy. If philosophy is a field or discipline at all, it is the most open and continuously self-transcending field; and yet there is unity or a ‘read thread’ that binds all that is philosophy together, recognisably, without ever succumbing to a singular definition.
What is philosophy today? Undoubtedly, philosophy is one of those concepts that resists unitary definition and comprises discursive phenomena that cannot be captured by a clear set of criteria specifying both necessary and sufficient conditions. Instead the phenomena under this concept are connected in accordance with Wittgenstein’s analogy of concepts with family resemblances, they constitute evolving fuzzy clusters via a network of similitudes, where each instance shares a number of features with many other but never with all other instances. We start to approach philosophy first with attempt to functionally differentiate sub-categories, i.e. different agendas for philosophy, the different contributions philosophy continues to make to human and societal progress.
Charles S. Peirce (1839 - 1914) described the function of philosophy as follows: “Its principal utility … is to furnish a Weltanschauung, or conception of the universe, as a basis for the special sciences.”[i] Wilfrid Sellars’ reflections on the philosophy of science sets the goal “to achieve a world picture with a maximum of ‘explanatory coherence’.”[ii] These formulations still stand and find resonance in contemporary ambitions. However, these ambitions are no longer connected with the intellectual “imperialism” of philosophy’s self-conception as ultimate grounding origin, and arbiter of all science and knowledge, as was articulated in the “heroic” phase of philosophy – German Idealism – represented in the ultra ambitious and pretentious works of Kant, Hegel and Fichte. Even in the early 20th century these pretensions of a philosophy towering above all science and practice as grounding master discipline were still alive in the potent movement of Logical Positivism, exemplified in the works of the young Wittgenstein and the young Carnap, e.g. in Carnap’s ‘The Logical Construction of the World’. About 50 years later Habermas reflected that “philosophy's position with regard to science … has been undermined by the movement of philosophical thought itself. Philosophy was dislodged from this position by philosophy.”[iii] Since then philosophy exists in a functionally differentiated rather than stratified universe of discourse. Philosophical contributions are coming either from professional philosophers (like Robert Brandom) or from original thinkers from other disciplines (like Niklas Luhmann). Here are some of philosophy’s most pertinent types of contribution (societal functions):
• Philosophy is conceptual creation. Philosophy is creative writing, delivering a highly original and suggestive abstract algebra of terms with open-ended potential applications, a multi-functional poetry geared towards theoretical inspiration. This characterisation of philosophy stems from Deleuze & Guattari and, apart from their own work, Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida might serve as exemplars for this aspect of philosophy.
• Philosophy is an exchange hub. Philosophy trades in new concepts and modes of theorizing coming out of the various sciences and critical theories. These concepts and modes of theorizing are collected, abstracted, generalised within philosophy and then disseminated back to all the sciences and intellectual endeavours. The work of Deleuze & Guattari can serve as paradigmatic example, as well as Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics, the General Systems Theory of Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Heinz von Foerster’s Second Order Cybernetics.
• Philosophy is speculative proto-science. Philosophers often operate on the speculative frontier of various sciences and at the speculative frontier of other function systems and their reflection theories. Rudolph Carnap might serve as an exemplar here, as well as, more recent, Daniel Dennett who is collaborating with cognitive science projects, as well as Bruno Latour who is collaborating on social science projects.
• Philosophy is rational reconstruction. This includes the rational reconstruction of science (philosophy of science) but rational reconstruction also pertains to normative institutions, or systems of norms, as in the philosophy of law (juris prudence), or ethics. A paradigmatic example is Juergen Habermas who characterizes his work as rational reconstruction, positing the reconstructing sciences as a special type, distinct from both formal and empirical sciences. Imre Lakatos might serve as another example.
• Philosophy is maximizing coherence in belief systems. Philosophy operates at the frontier of scientific unification and more generally working towards the integration and systematization of our beliefs (reflective equilibrium). This characterization stems from Wilfrid Sellars and a paradigmatic case is the work of Rudolph Carnap, and more recently perhaps Roy Bhaskar.
• Philosophy still connects up with activism, often enough. The role of philosophy in political activism is to give, over and above theoretical orientation, a sense of profound significance of the endeavour, commensurate with the often existential investment that activism represents. Murray Rothbard is a paradigmatic case, as well as Hardt & Negri, and David Graeber.
Arguably, since its inception in Pre-Socratic Greece, the point of philosophy was always to interpret and to change the world. The former is a means towards the latter. However, as in all instances of a division of labour, and the more so, the more long-lasting and routinized this division becomes, the parts of this division that start out as a mere means take on the character of an end-in-itself, at least for those entrusted with these respective parts. This is only problematic, if the environment and the underlying means-ends rationality is unstable, requiring adjustments in each part of the division in view of the whole and final purpose. Under conditions of stability, means might and probably should become ends. This reduces complexity, reliefs the cognitive burden, and enhances motivation in each part. However, when it comes to the world historical process, at least since 1800, the presumed stability is ever only temporary and the reliance on this sense of stability and routine division of labour is treacherous. At least since 1800, philosophers should have worried about the practical relevance of their production of “knowledge”. In turn, as history accelerates, activists come to realise the increasing irrelevance of traditional philosophy and themselves become original philosophers. Marx, a philosopher, confronted this condition by becoming an engaged activist himself, re-shaping and probing philosophy within this engagement. Lenin and Rothbard were activists who generated philosophical treatises as part of their arsenal.
In all professions, disciplines and specialist knowledges the most advanced proponents in each discipline consistently find themselves rehearsing and potentially challenging philosophy. Philosophical discourse is entered in the attempt to address and work through the most general questions of conceptualisation and method in a field, in relation to the purposes pursuit within this field. Such fundamental questions arise, again and again, in any research or systematic activity. These questions, posed from the different vantage points of the different disciplines, meet and learn from each other in philosophy. Further, philosophy is engaged when the knowledge quests and practical aims drive the pursuit beyond disciplinary boundaries towards a totalising account. In fact, any innovative and rigorous specialized inquiry, as it pushes into practice, will eventually have to move beyond provisionally useful but ultimately arbitrary disciplinary boundaries and, at least tendentially, will have to recuperate, synthesize and advance the systematic totality of knowledges, experiences and practises.
Philosophy is here, first of all, examined as a historico-empirical discursive phenomenon and then theorized within the overarching theory of society elaborated here. At the same time, this treatise must inevitably take up a position within this discourse, or rather take up, mediate and connect various positions. The author takes pride in scanning and absorbing many perspectives and positions, trying hard to discern and give credit to the respective rational kernel in all the divergent contributions to the key controversies engaged here. Marx had repeatedly scorned intellectual eclecticism, demanding a coherent theoretical edifice that represents and critiques ‘total social reproduction’. This treatise too aspires to both totality and coherence. However, it is the conviction of the author that a highly eclectic formation process is the only way to build up a totalising edifice. Many, many perspectives, from myriads of authors, each focussing and conceptualising different aspects and factors of the total social process, must be taken up and integrated. The description that emerges will be complex, and this will inevitably be reflected in the terminological apparatus. However, this apparatus, and the principles, hypotheses and theses formulated with it, must in the end form a coherent system. This requires that the chaotic plethora of mutually incompatible terminologies coming from the eclectic manifold of the myriads of authors the treatise engages with, from philosophy and from the social sciences in the broadest sense, must be systematized. Economist and Nobel Prize laureate Jean Tirole argues that “anthropology, law, economics, history, philosophy, psychology, political science, and sociology are really one discipline, because their subjects of study are the same: the same people, groups, and organizations.”[iv] (Such a task of translation and integration itself raises deep questions coming from the philosophy of language.)
All the types/functions of philosophy distinguished above feed into the formation of this treatise, and within each type there are several approaches or positions that could be discussed. However, this is not the approach taken in this section on philosophical preliminaries. Instead the focus here will be on epistemological and methodological questions, although first a few fundamental premises will be laid out and argued for that might be regarded as “metaphysical”: On Freedom, evolution, and human nature. Philosophical reflections will keep recurring throughout the substantive sections of this treatise, on history, society, economy, psychology, morality etc.
To the extent that it is possible at all to summarize the philosophical orientation or ‘position’ adopted here in a single label, this treatise adopts the philosophy of pragmatism as its paramount orientation. Philosophical pragmatism was first articulated in the late 19th century by Charles Sanders Peirce, who inspired a group of committed followers - William James, John Dewey, George Herbert Mead - who, together with Peirce, carried this approach forward to establish a potent philosophical movement in early 20th century America. In a lecture at Harvard in 1903 Peirce presents his ‘maxim of pragmatism’ by quoting his own 1878 article on ‘How to Make Our Ideas Clear’ as follows: "Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object."[v] In 1905 Peirce summed up his ‘doctrine of pragmatism’ as follows: “The theory that a conception, that is, the rational purport of a word or other expression, lies exclusively in its conceivable bearing upon the conduct of life.”[vi]
The insights of pragmatism eventually spread globally, and more importantly, nearly all philosophical schools around the (Western) world came to realize, often independently, the same insights and came to adopt equivalent philosophical orientations. By the end of the 1970s this “pragmatist convergence” within philosophy, a convergence that also bridged the conspicuous schism between Anglo-saxon versus Continental philosophy, had become clear enough to be explicitly stated by the German philosopher Karl-Otto Apel.[vii] This nearly universal convergence with respect to the pragmatist outlook and self-understanding of philosophy might be judged both surprising and comforting: Centuries of irreconcilable and thus seemingly fruitless disputes without any sign of progress had undermined the credibility of all philosophical discourse, especially in the context of the increasingly stark contrast with the progress of the empirical sciences where dispute after dispute was resolved to allow progress to move forward at pace. Finally, philosophy too had made real progress through the watershed advance towards pragmatism, through what also might be termed the ‘linguistic-pragmatic turn’ (not to be equated with the earlier ‘linguistic turn’). All that had been written before this watershed seemed now immature, even naïve, and prone to serious intellectual blunders. The fortune of this progress of philosophy, unfortunately, implies that this positioning via the label and badge of pragmatism can no longer function as much of a differentiator. Most (if not altogether all) philosophers - with the recent exception of the protagonists of ‘speculative realism’ - take the insights of pragmatism for granted now. All the philosophers referred to in the typology above arrived at pragmatism, explicitly, or implicitly.
Pragmatism clips philosophy’s wings, and grounds all idle flights of fancy. It recognizes that language evolved in practical circumstances, subject to the selection pressures and criteria of success imposed by practical life. In a most succinct nutshell pragmatism teaches that ‘truth is success’, that the very meaning of all thinking and theorizing resides in its (potential) implications for (potential) practical interventions, that all concepts and propositions must mark differences that make a (practical) difference, that without embeddedness within, or relevance for, practical contexts language, including philosophical discourse, is meaningless, simply ‘runs idle’. Pragmatism is an attitude not only a doctrine: Its an attitude of impatience with philosophical speculation that has no, not even the vaguest, broadest or even preliminary context of consequential application in view. This impatience, however, should not be pushed too far. Philosophical thinking often needs some breathing space. Philosophy should encompass margins where the strictures of pragmatism are temporarily (but not permanently) relaxed, to allow associations, metaphors and analogies to probe conceptual trajectories for later instrumentalization, perhaps eventually only effected by other, more immediately goal oriented philosophers or scientists. In the terms of the typology of philosophical functions sketched above, it is the first type of doing philosophy - philosophy as ‘conceptual creation’ or as ‘conceptual poetry geared towards theoretical inspiration’ – where tolerance and patience is required. However, to be sure, even the most paradigmatic exemplars of this type of philosophy – Deleuze and Guattari – are fully committed to the insights of pragmatism. They explicitly displace the real and relevant (multiple, diverse) meanings of their work into its future utilisation. The author of ‘Markets nad Discourses’ has also received inspiration from these philosophies. However, this treatise is a site where these philosophical inspirations are instrumentally redeemed rather than continued.
While being nearly universally taken for granted now in the domain of professional philosophy, the insights of philosophical pragmatism cannot be universally presupposed with respect to the audience addressed in this treatise, nor in the broader intellectual life of world society. It thus makes sense to emphasize these insights here, to alert about the ‘meaning illusion’, the treacherous sense of understanding often only apparently meaningful talk, and to spread a vigilant scepticism with respect to theory and to offer a criterion for probing whether talk can guide action or remains mere talk.
A heuristic of patience and tolerance in philosophical engagement is nearly always an advisable approach, but there are surely also cases where patience runs out rather fast, deservedly. Speculative realism might serve as illustration here. The fact that pragmatism is now being taken for granted rather than explicitly emphasised in philosophical discourse might be an explanation for the recent surprising emergence of a Deleuze-inspired philosophical movement – speculative realism - that seems to have fallen back behind pragmatism and the linguistic-pragmatic turn, not by explicitly denying or refuting pragmatism, but by blissfully indulging in a naive trust in the seemingly inherent power of words and sentences to convey meaning, even if abstracted, stretched and cut loose from all pragmatic contextualisation, an aimless and adrift ‘pure philosophy’. While the regression of speculative realism serves here merely as illustration and warning, without being of real concern here - after all its protagonists failed to get a foothold in any of the major institutions of academic philosophy - the lack of full penetration of the insights of pragmatism within the broader intellectual world is a concern that calls for a repeated explicit emphasis of pragmatism. It also must be noted here that the mere understanding and acknowledgment of the insights of pragmatism and the linguistic-pragmatic turn is no guarantee that the necessary loops of probing reflection are always remembered to be put to work to prevent the always all too easy relapse into the meaning illusion. Indeed, even seemingly innocuous moves like the handling of the category of causality, and even logic itself, might be subjected to a comparative functional-pragmatic probing - a rather counterintuitive, straining reflection effort - as we can experience in the writings of Niklas Luhmann, applying the more abstract work of innovative logicians like Gotthardt Guenther or George Spencer Brown. We do not always need to go to these depths. It suffices to heed the pragmatist heuristic for philosophical and theoretical work: always try to drive your abstract concepts and general propositions towards concrete applications, probing the pragmatic difference a distinction or theoretical choice might, should or will make. In this treatise this heuristic is facilitated by the self-imposed discipline of deriving a poignant, practice guiding thesis within every chapter.
[i] Charles S. Peirce, On Phenomenology (1903), in: The Essential Peirce – Selected Philosophical Writings, Volume 2 (1893 – 1913), Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN 1998, pp. 146-147
[ii] Wilfrid Sellars, Science, Perception, and Reality, Ridgeview Publishing Digital, Austin Texas 1963/1991
[iii] Juergen Habermas (1971) Knowledge and Human Interests, translated by J. Schapiro. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 4
[iv] Tirole, Jean. Economics for the Common Good (pp. 122-123). Princeton University Press.
[v] Charles S. Peirce, How to Make Our Ideas Clear (1878), in: The Essential Peirce - Selected Philosophical Writings, Volume 1 (1867-1893), Indiana University Press, Bloomington 1992, p.132
[vi] Charles S. Peirce, What Pragmatism Is, in: The Monist, Vol.15, April 1905, pp. 161-181
[vii] Apel, Karl-Otto, Understanding and Explanation – A Transcendental-Pragmatic Perspective, MIT Press, Cambridge MA 1984 (German original 1979)