Sunday, December 18, 2011

We, Passionate Beings

Having resolved (more or less) to abandon my last hopes of becoming a professional philosopher (i.e., someone whose job it is to philosophize), I feel comfortable reacting immediately to the passing remarks made by philosophers on their way to larger points of great, indeed, unfathomable, profundity. Robert Brandom's monumental Making It Explicit is a book I've so far left unread on my shelf out of the kind of professional humility I'm alluding to. The problem is that I begin to disagree with him over the inaugural gestures he makes on the first few pages. After begining his argument with the question of what "we" might mean, he offers the following answer, already on page 4:

What is it we do that is so special? The answer to be explored here—a traditional one, to be sure—is that we are distinguished by capacities that are broadly cognitive. Our transactions with other things, and with each other, in a special and characteristic sense mean something to us, they have a conceptual content for us, we understand them in one way rather than another. It is the demarcational strategy that underlies the classical identification of us as reasonable beings. Reason is as nothing to the beasts of the field. We are the ones on whom reasons are binding, who are subject to the peculiar force of the better reason.

Later on, he'll talk about us as "discursive beings whose characteristic activities are applying concepts, giving and asking for reasons, taking-true and making-true" (46). I don't actually disagree with this characterization; rather, I disagree with the one-sided emphasis on reason over passion. We can call this simply a philosophical bias. It is the "we" of a philosopher who doesn't know his place in the larger scheme of things. It is true (in a manner of speaking) that we "have our being in a space structured by norms". But norms, I will insist, do not fall back on reasons. I'll try to say something specifically about norms (and institutions) in later posts. Right now, I just want to suggest that we're as passionate in our being as we are reasonable. Or perhaps that we become as much as we are (indeed, that we are what we become).

Riffing explicitly, then, on Brandom's question, I want to say we are distinguished by capacities that are as broadly affective as they are cognitive. Our transactions with other things, and especially with each other, do in a special and characteristic sense mean something to us, but in large part because they have an emotional context: we obey them in one way rather than another, even when we do not understand them. My demarcational strategy, then, identifies us as passionate beings as well as reasonable ones, or perhaps more precisely as reasonable beings who are passionately becoming. Passion is as nothing to the beasts of the field. We are the ones on whom passions are binding*, who are subject to the peculiar force of the larger passion.

Indeed, it is precisely more accurate to say we are subject to passion, even though many of the things around us may well become the objects of reason. As I work through Brandom's "normative pragmatics" I will not be denying what Cavell called "the claim of reason". I will only be trying to measure this claim against the counterveiling force of passion.

*"Indeed, his passion would be general." (Hamlet, Quarto I, Scene 7)


Andrew Shields said...

Many people espouse "feeling" over "thought." One popular way to put it is that one should "follow one's heart." Such people are unable to understand — or feel — how the process of reasoning something through is permeated by intense feelings. Nor do they apparently feel — or understand — how the process of intense feeling is itself permeated by intense thinking. For them, all thinkers are the absent-minded professor of stereotype; they fail to see what I, the son of a professor, have seen all my life: academics are extremely passionate people.

Thomas said...

Espousal is one thing; actual competence is another. I think Brandom would grant that professional reasoners are "passionate" about what they do. I'm sure his hagiographers talk about how passionate he is about language and philosophy.

My beef is not so much with the espousal of values. It's with the actual precision that people cultivate in either their reasons or the passions. Precision in thought is clarity. Precision in feeling is intensity. Most people pursue either clarity or intensity, even when they are willing to grant your basic point that thought and feeling go together.

Brandom articulates his reasons (makes them explicit) not his passions. So it's a lopsided view of language ... even if he grants his specialized focus.

My proposal is to be as precise about your emotions as you are about your concepts.

Andrew Shields said...

So what emotions are behind that proposal? :-)

Andrew Shields said...

This post on "Science-Based Medicine" reminded me of your post on reason and passion:

Dr. Gorski's interplay of passion and reason drives his writing, of course, but it's how he has to deal with the critique of his (supposed lack of) compassion that made me think of your points.

Note how he is being accused of being "unfeeling" because he is insisting on reason, a misrepresentation connected to my first comment.

In any case, I found it interesting to be reading Gorski's post in your terms.

Presskorn said...

Isn't Brandom quoted favourably somewhere in your dissertation?

Anayway, MIE is one of my favourite books & my dissertation was on normativity, so I look forward to some posts on that...

To defend him briefly, you seem to ignore that on page 46, he is explicitly (no pun intended) trying to name the distinctive characteristic of a *discursive* being. Unless one suffers from Derridean paranoia, this does not amount a one-sided emphasis or to a denial of passion in neither discursive or non-discursive beings.

PS: Apropos emphasis, however, notice how Brandoms style suffers from what I would call "arguing by italics" - I tend to suffer from this illness as well. Or is it an illness? Perhaps RSL could comment on that...

PPS: He has bit more to say about passion and desire in the unpublished manuscripts of his long-awaited magnum opus on Hegel, The Sprit of Trust.

PPPS: But Cavell is definitely better on saying "we"... I never understood that first bit in MIE...

Thomas said...

It was my impression that Brandom is saying that "discourse" is precisely characteristic of "us". We are discursive beings, and he then cashes this discursivity out in terms of conceptual content. But discourse also depends (like I say) on emotional context. It has a characteristic passion, just as certainly as it is characterized by reason.

My objection is that Brandom seems to leave passion implicit. He seems to think that our hearts are inarticulate and that our minds, in some important sense, are the articulate parts of us. He presumes that concepts shape discourse and that emotions are somehow external to it. I suspect he would let the beasts "feel" but not "think".

I will grant beasts both faculties, in a manner of speaking, in proportion precisely to their articulateness. But I will not recognize something as "one of us" if it does not show passion.

Thomas said...

@Andrew: I have to admit that the enormous intelligence that doctors demonstrate ... their conceptual articulateness, if you will ... does seem entirely detached from their compassion. I'm not saying they don't have compassion; but they do seem much more articulate about their reasons for particular treatments. This lopsidedness is, in fact, given medicine a bad name, because even those who might be cured by some treatment are estranged from their own (for lack of a better word) souls in the process.

There's a good article in the New Yorker about the "placebo effect", which deals with some of these issues. It can't keep being about molecular biology, one of the doctors argues. Our health depends on the articulation of passions too (I'd add).

Presskorn said...

All right, so you want to see discursivity as (equally?) dependent on conceptual content and emotional context. But I don’t see how this is a criticism of Brandoms normative pragmatics specifically. Didn’t Kant make this mistake too, then? Didn’t Foucault? etc. etc.

Thomas said...

This would not be the first time that I've been right about something that Kant and Foucault were wrong about. In fact, the Pangrammaticon is corrective precisely to their errors.

Yes, they argued that discourse is "characteristically reasonable". We're simply not. It's an idea that should be dismissed on the face of it, just like Descartes' "I could pretend I had no body." No, he couldn't.

Presskorn said...

My point was not to name Kant or Foucault as authorities. My point was merely to question in what sense the error of primarily associating "discursivity" with "conceptual content" (if this indeed any sort of error) could be ascribed *specifically* to Brandom. In what sense, is it a critique of Brandom *specifically*? Why, as it were, is Brandom an interesting target for this critique?

Thomas said...

You're certainly right about that. I think many of the "problems" I deal with here at the Pangrammaticon have a long tradition. That's because they are problems of, fundamentally, grammar. (You can't just invent a grammar.) So Brandom is cultivating a long-standing bias. It is supported, no doubt, by what Wittgenstein called a "one-side diet" of examples. I think I'm picking on Brandom because he's one of the most respected products of that tradition.