Friday, August 27, 2010

Martha Nussbaum, Sophistry About Conventions

Martha C. Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge; Essays on Philosophy and Literature, Oxford University Press, 1990.

Sophistry About Conventions

That is my initial unsorted reaction to Stanley Fish’s paper, much of which I found alarming. It will be evident that I am expressing two related worries—one about the content of some of the views expressed, the other about a way of proceeding in giving them expression. One about a loose and not fully earned extreme relativism and even subjectivism, the other about a disdain for rigor, patience, and clarity in some of the discourse articulating this subjectivism or relativism. (220)

For if one really believes that each person (or group) is the criterion of truth and/or that there is no salient distinction between rational persuasion and causal manipulation, one is not likely to have much respect for traditional philosophical ways of attending to validity and clarity. (220)

One fashionable one was the view that came to be called Protagorean subjectivism, though it is unlikely that Protagoras himself held it. This is the view that, given the variety and non-homogeneity of the deliverances of perception, and given the apparent absence of any “harder” criterion of adjudication, each person must be regarded as the criterion of truth. If the wind feels hot to A, it just is hot for A; if it feels cold to B, it just is cold to B; and nothing more can legitimately be said. A more radical version dropped the qualification “for A” and “for B”; its holders were thus forced to suspend the Principle of Noncontradiction. The wind is at one and the same time both hot and cold, just in case we can find two people to say so. (The view was not confined to cases like heat and cold, where its appeal is at least comprehensible; it was a quite general view about all assertions.) (221)

The Protagorean position implies that argument is not really argument; it removes the idea of a common truth concerning which we are striving to come into agreement. In its mild form it tells us that there are no arguments, only assertions of one’s views and perceptions. In its radical form it knocks a vital prop out from under all argument by doing away with non-contradiction. What, then, is going on when people purport to argue and to instruct? And why should we listen to a professional instructor? Gorgias provided one famous answer. What discourse really is, is a kind of drug, a tool for the casual manipulation of behavior. Like Stanley Fish, he (or his spokesperson Helen of Troy) asserts that there is no distinction between persuasion and force. It is all manipulation, and the ability to manipulate can be taught. (222)

The discovery that there is not a divine code fixed eternally independently of our existence and thought, the discovery that truth is to some extent or in some manner human and historical, certainly does not warrant the conclusion that every human truth is as good as every other and that such time-honored institutions as the search for truth and the rational criticism of arguments have no further role to play. (222)

Aristophanes, wise here as in so many things, provides a revealing example. A young man comes home from a day of sophistical education. He says to his father, “Dad, I can prove to you that sons ought to beat their fathers.” … So then I, being a human being, can perfectly well make my own new convention, that sons should beat their fathers in return for the beatings they received as children. … There is an important truth lurking—namely, that this son wants to beat his father. The argument appeals not because it is a good argument, which it plainly is not (for there are all sorts of good human grounds for preferring the old set of human institutions to this one), but because it is a handy, elegant justification for what this son want to do anyway. He doesn’t want truth, he just want power. This shows us something about him, not something about truth. It does not show us that truth is power, or that there is no such thing as the search for truth as distinct from the search for power. (222)

Aristotle… attempt to restore the search for truth (in all areas) to its place of honor is a good one for us to examine, since (as I have argued elsewhere) it relies on no idea of a reality “as it is,” given to us independently of all conceptualization; and yet it argues that within the “appearances,” that is, the world as perceived and interpreted by human beings, we can find all the truth we need, and much more that the sophists believe. (223)

To the extent to which it is appropriate to say of a principle or belief that it is optional for us, to that extent it is not deep in our lives. To the extent to which it is constitutive of our procedures of life and thought, to that extent it is not optional at all. Aristotle was, I believe, correct in thinking that among the primary jobs of philosophy, if not the primary one, is the sorting out of our beliefs and principles to see where they fall along this spectrum. And he was also correct in thinking that once this painstaking task was underway, we would discover that we get back just what the Protagorean and the Gorgian want to deny us, namely, full-blown notions of public truth, of rational justification, of objectivity. When we are confronted with a contradiction between two principles, we do not say, well then, since there’s no uninterpreted given, it’s all free play and any story has as good a claim as any other if it can be made persuasive. We try to resolve the contradiction first, of course. But if we cannot, we recall the very basic commitment we have to the Principle of Noncontradiction as necessary for all thought and discourse. Using this, then, as a regulative principle (refusing to assert the contradiction), we set ourselves to adjudicate between the competing principles, asking in each case what the cost would be of giving each up. and we opt for the one that “saves the greatest number and the most basic,” as Aristotle puts it, of our other beliefs. (225)

Let me take an example from contemporary ethical theory. John Rawls has advanced various arguments against Utilitarianism and in favor of his own principles of justice. One of them goes, roughly, like this. (I hope that I shall be forgiven for the oversimple and schematic character of this summary.) we first show that Utilitarianism is committed to a picture of the aggregation of desires that neglects or treats as ethically irrelevant the boundaries between separate persons. We then ask the Utilitarian whether he or she does not share with us a conception of the person that makes these boundaries highly relevant, indeed fundamental. If the Utilitarian agrees with our diagnosis, she agrees that there is an internal inconsistency in her position, which can be resolved by her giving up whichever of the conflicting principles (either the conception of the person or the Utilitarian principle) appears less deep or fundamental. Rawls bets that most Utilitarians will find the conception of the person to be more fundamental and thus that the two of them will decide to agree on the principles of justice. /
Here is an example of rational argument, or rational justification, that in no way relies on an uninterpreted given; it can be said to yield, in a perfect recognizable sense, ethical truth. It is altogether different from mere rhetorical manipulation because it proceeds by the patient clarification of alternatives and by the detection of incoherence and contradiction. (226)

As we ask, concerning any belief, what its depth is for us (let us say, the belief in the incommensurability of ethical values, or the beliefs about persons mentioned above), we need to be imagining vividly what a life would look like both with and without that belief, allowing ourselves, in imagination and emotion, to get a sense of what the cost for us would be if we gave it up. (227)

My comments are addressed to what seemed to me to be some general problems with the arguments concerning truth and convention that were used at the conference—but especially to Stanley Fish’s arguments in his paper, entitled “Anti-Professionalism.” Fish argues that the only criterion of truth we have for judgments made in a given profession is the prevailing (currently dominant) view of things among practicing members of the profession. “Prevailing” is explicitly denied all normative epistemological content: it is a descriptive term having to do with such things as power, prestige, and income. According to Fish, there is, in any case, no significant distinction to be found between persuasion and manipulation, or even violence. (228)


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home