Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Age of Science and Politics

I think I need to restart this blog. I need to consider, again, the particular problems of poetry and philosophy and the place they meet, namely, the imagination. Ezra Pound began his ABC of Reading by announcing that “We live in an age of science and abundance,” a statement which is probably more true than is commonly recognized. All things considered, it is surprising that we seem to be living in an “age of austerity”. As Pound was fond of pointing out, whatever local scarcity we may experience in the supply of particular goods and services, the problem is not one of production, but distribution.

We also, I would point out, live in age of science and politics, rather than an age of philosophy and poetry. (William Carlos Williams was concerned that we might be living in an "age of philosophy and science”. Things have gotten worse.) While the word “science” continues to be held in general esteem in the popular mind, politics is only generally celebrated in the highly idealized form that travels under the banner of “democracy”. (Here at the Pangrammaticon, we think of distinctly “modern” politics as being broadly democratic, and modern science as being largely experimental.) But there can be no question that the quality of our lives is determined by the quantities that our scientific and democratic processes produce.

While scientific processes make discoveries and political processes make decisions, and thereby determine the content of our perceptions and our actions respectively, we cannot deny that, as contexts in which our lives go on, politics also shapes our desires just as surely as science shapes our beliefs. This formative influence is experienced as a kind of pressure to believe certain things in certain ways, and to desire certain people in certain ways. It is both thought and felt by us.

Yesterday something occurred to me, and this is what has caused me to take this blog out of retirement. Imagine if all your beliefs were scientifically correct and all your desires were politically correct. Now, the record of both science and politics over the past century or so by no means suggest that this tantamount to imagining that all your beliefs are true, nor that all your desires are just. (Truth is to knowledge as justice is to power.) So one will imagine, actually, only that one's beliefs and one's desires are constantly evolving according to the progress that science and politics are making, and that one is, as it were, “keeping up” with these “Joneses”.

That is, I am asking you to imagine that all your beliefs are supported only by the methods of modern science, and all your desires are supported only the mandates of modern politics. When the scientists change their mind, your beliefs change. When the politicians have a change of heart, your desires follow suit. It is not so much that you are scientifically and politically correct but that you have to be. When “progress” is made, you will simply experience a kind of difficulty in sustaining your presently held beliefs about, say, the global climate, or your desires, say, about the local women. There will be a kind of pressure. That pressure will be what it is like to be alive in the age of science and politics.

And that pressure, that difficulty, from now on, is what this blog is about. The instruments we use to gauge it are called “concepts” and “emotions”, and the arts by which we engage with it are called philosophy and poetry. It is their grammar that we are trying to understand. The effort will involve all the usage in the world.


Presskorn said...

Resurrection is, in this case though not always, good news! Cheers! I'm looking forward to this. Yet, I want to challenge you right from the beginning:-)

I think the "pressure"-metaphor is too one-sided and apt to create misunderstanding. Surely, Durkheim was right to notice that "let fait sociaux" - which in an instance of pangrammatical neatness translates in both "social act" and "social fact" - exert normative pressure on individuals, i.e. on *us*.

Yet, this is too one-sided - as if science and politics, Kantianly speaking, were merely matters of receptivity and not of spontaniety. Science and politics are not just stuff that *happens* to me, outside of my control. Sure, science and politics both contain an imperative of compliance, but that compliance is also something that I, in many cases, take freely upon myself. My intuition of compliance, i.e. my fidelity to, ideas of science and politics can, in spite of being reliant on tradition, even be turned against science and politics as exercised in the mainstream. A blog called RSL have recently - in a series of posts on scientific journalism - exemplified how such obstinate fidelity to the ideas of rigorous science and democratic politics can be used freely and critically. Science and politics are enabling as well as constraining and "pressure" seems an inapt word to capture this.

Presskorn said...

That is, "pressure" reminds me a little too much of legal positivism, which Hart phrases in the following way:

“… all talk of rules, and the corresponding words like ‘must’, ‘ought’, and ‘should’, is
fraught with a confusion which perhaps enhances their importance in men’s eyes
but has no rational basis. We merely think, so such critics claim, that there is
something in the rule which binds us to do certain things and guides or justifies us
in doing them, but this is an illusion even if it is a useful one. All that there is, over
and above the clear ascertainable facts of group behaviour and predictable reaction
to deviation, are our own powerful ‘feelings’ of compulsion to behave in accordance
with the rule and to act against those who do not.” (Hart, The Concept of Law (1994), p. 11)

I read - perhaps wrongly - read your "pressure" as what Hart here calls "powerful ‘feelings’ of compulsion". But Hart as goes on to say (and as Witt on rules showed before him), this view is mistaken.

Thomas said...

Thanks for this, Thomas. You are right that pressure is vague here. (In my defense, I did say "a kind of pressure", leaving its exact nature open. And you are right about spontaneity.

In the past, I have said that receptivity is to knowledge as capacity is power. The object is given immediately in intuition, and the subject is taken immediately in institution. Accordingly, perhaps complicity is to power what spontaneity is to knowledge.

That is, there, there always something underdetermined in the representation, something that we contribute to experience in order for there be anything like knowledge or power. Though the object is given, it must also be taken, and though the subject is taken, we must also give in to it.

For this reason, it also occurred to me recently that epistemology is prescriptive and ethics (perhaps surprisingly) is always descriptive. Indeed, the normative force of epistemology makes it almost an ethics of knowledge. Similarly, ethics is an epistemology of power.

That's how they hook into each other, how they are joined, how they are articulated. (Imprecise metaphors again, perhaps.)

Lots of work to do. It's really only just beginning.

Presskorn said...

This should be highly interesting. For some time, I've summed my phd thesis by saying that it argues that social science is (ought to be?) descriptive ethics. To describe the relation you denote as "pressure", I speak of norms.

PS: The pangrammatical resistance to very category of a "social science" is, in my estimation, nothing but the awkvard surprise that there is such a thing as 'descriptive ethics'; a concept which seems - from a specifically "modern" but also prejudiced point of view - to be bordering on contradiction.

Andrew Shields said...

I just got around to reading this. Shortly after you posted it, my class on verse novels discussed "Justice," the first chapter of Anne Carson's "Autobiography of Red", which you can read here:

In particular, we considered these two lines:

Geryon had no doubt 'stupid' was correct. But when justice is done
the world drops away.

Anyway, I thought of that passage when I read a parenthetical comment in your post: "Truth is to knowledge as justice is to power." [Aside: not that you have an extra "as" in there after "truth".]

Thomas said...

Thanks, fixed it. Will read Carson soon.