Saturday, December 28, 2002

New Blog

This is a background weblog to my other public opinionweblog. It will have infrequent postings that explore the philosophical aspects of public policy broader cultural issues in more depth. Though this philosophical dimension is gestured to the public issues considered by public opinion they cannot be considered by that weblog.


Here is a little something from the archives of public opinion that was posted as part of the postmodernism debate.

Tuesday, November 05, 2002
Posted 18:07 by Gary
A Policy Note on Heidegger
John Quiggin says that he finds it hard to make sense of Heidegger on deconstructing a tradition. In having a go he says in a note, 'Heidegger and the Nazis' (Monday November 4, 2002), that:
' A complex philosophical or political proposition can't be assessed in isolation - it's necessary to examine both its underlying assumptions and its implications.'

This is true.(a quibble: I prefer 'argument' to 'proposition'). But in assessing the argument, assumptions, implications (not to mention the historical tradition these belong to ) it is not a case of standing outside in the street examining the scaffolding of a building. We are inside the building. Or inside language.

Consider neo-classical economics. It is a very sophisticated theoretical edifice that has been built up over a long time. It takes a lot of hard intellectual labour to work up an understanding of how markets work in a theoretical sense. We need to understand the language because economists now dominate the policy making table, are reluctant to let others into the policy room----eg. ecologists or CSIRO scientists----and many of them engage in gatekeeping operations. (The ABC Four Corners Program on the CSIRO report forecasting a range of possible outcomes for the year 2050 showed that). It is difficult to assess this tradition as a whole from the outside because those of us in the policy-making world are inside it. We live within its horizons so to speak, and the language of markets is the language of policy makers. We speak it as if it were our own. It is our own.

Yet we need to assess this [scientific] tradition because market instruments are being used as the key governance mechanisms to drive water reform across the Murray-Darling Basin. Big things are claimed for it by economists, and the policy makers go along with them, even accepting the claims as if they are shiny truths.

Many involved in water politics are sceptical. They reckon that the market will lead to the efficient allocation of scarce water resources, but they doubt that this efficiency will lead to effective environmental benefits. However, in assessing the way the processes or logic of a deregulated market shapes the conduct of irrigators, we have to work from within the economic tradition.

Crudely speaking, Heidegger argued that science depended up the metaphysical assumptions of a disengaged modern philosophy with its dualisms of subject/object, mind/body etc. If these are deeply embedded in economics, then they would be very hard to stand outside of. It would take a lot of work to dig our way out.

John Quiggin appears to say that we can stand outside a tradition. He says 'Heidegger's [Stone's] understanding of his own philosophical position led him to derive the implication "I should support the Nazis" [conservatives]. It seems clear that something is badly wrong in Heidegger's [Stone's] thought, but it is not immediately obvious what is wrong. There are two possible responses. If you believe that at least some of Heidegger's [Stone's] work contains valuable insights, you should try and isolate the problem, then salvage those points that are unaffected. If you are doubtful about the value of the entire enterprise, you are justified in concluding that the salvage job is unlikely to be worth the trouble.'

This is too neat and quick. It is looking at the enterprise as if were an object separate from me.

Stone was basically a spokesperson for the Treasury's free market tradition under the Hawke and Keating Labor Government and lead the push for dismantling Fortress Australia. We---another economist----can assess this or that argument of Stone about the value of free markets or globalisation, and acknowledge that his case for globalisation does or does not contain valuable insights that can be salvaged. But what economists don't do is dump their economic tradition as a whole. They work inside their 'home' sifting and building away as they construct and reconstruct their models of the economy. Few indeed are doubtful about the value of the entire enterprise.of economics as a social science. They may be doubtful of different schools and take economics in different directions, eg., Hayek; so we end up with have a family of schools in economics. But how can an economist dump the tradition that makes them an economist and still remain an economist? They don't. They question it from within.

If we are assessing the economic arguments about the value of water trading for shaping the conduct of irrigator's conduct towards a more sustainable way of doing things, then we do not care about the personality of this or that economist ( eg., John Stone or Graeme Samuel), their politics which we may violently disagree with, or their moral failings as human beings. We are interested in the flaws in the argument eg the public benefit test in competition policy. But we are also interested in the tradition (the systematic body of economic thought itself) which stands behind the arguments that are put forward by neo-liberal politicians and economists. We are interested in the tradition because of the possible ecological benefits of governing through the market . And we pose a question: 'how can privatising the commons and introducing water trading produce ecological benefits?

So in John Quiggin's terms we 'play the ball, not the man'. And we can agree with John's following statement that ' the validity or otherwise of a philosophical [economic] argument should not depend in any way on the credibility of the person who makes it. This claim would rule out the argument "Heidegger's [Stone's] theories led him to become a Nazi, [conservative] so they must be wrong". But they would also rule out any sort of argument from authority. That is, except for purposes of academic courtesy it would be wrong to mention the source of particular arguments let alone to make claims of the form "Heidegger (Samuel] put forward this proposition and therefore it deserves to be taken seriously", which in practice are made all the time.'

Am I picking a fight with John in saying this? Is John Quiggin trying to pick a fight with somebody willing to defend Martin Heidegger as Don Arthur suggests in his 'Turtles miss the global economic train - Jacques Derrida lost in Adelaide suburb - the phenomenological John Quiggin', on Monday 3rd November? I'm not sure. (I am not defending the man, his intentions or his politics). We seem to have a consensus.

Let me then push things beyond this consensus. As we know, Heidegger called into question the value of the entire enterprise of modern science and philosophy (including economics) because of the way it enframed reality as a resource to be controlled and manipulated for human use. Policy makers work inside this enframing and they came to think of themselves within this tradition (eg., as human capital), using instrumental reason to conquer inland Australia for economic growth. They think they are the movers and shakers using their machines and technology as tools to build their dams in the Snowy Mountains and turn the Snowy inland to create prosperity. But they end up being shaped, driven and controlled by the growth machine of developmentalism, which thanks to jone Stone & Co is now propelled by competition in the global market. They find themselves propelled along by the forces of the global market place to become ever more efficient, ever more productive, so as to sell ever more exports to create ever more profits. And they know they are ripping the guts out the country. They don't like it.

If we cannot take this developmentalism off like an old suit or some smelly socks, then what can we do? Heidegger suggests that we find those marginal practices and ways of viewing our relationship within nature that are buried within the broad economic tradition; these can open up to different ways of doing things. This is a dwelling on the earth and it is a practice that conserves and saves the earth. Today we call this living sustainably.

I am defending the central deconstructive thrust of Heidegger's philosophy, its return to, and recovery of the everyday world we inhabit as a counter to the abstract, modern scientific tradition (utility machines in a clockwork mechanism) and a concern to live sustainably on the earth. Am I picking a fight with John Quiggin?

And more on postmodernism
This is taken from the archives of public opinion

Sunday, December 08, 2002
Posted 16:20 by Gary
Martha Nussbaum, Michel Foucault, Power

This piece picks up on the second article that Tim Dunlop linked in his post Pomo RIP (28th November). The article The Professor of Parody is by Martha Nussbaum, who just happened to be in Australia at ANU working on this years Tanner Lectures on Human Value called, Beyond the Social Contract:Toward Global Justice.

What caught my eye with Nussbaum's review of the work of the postmodern feminist Judith Butler were her passing comments on Michel Foucault. I had intended to pick up on these. Fortunately the academic Oz bloggers who commented on Tim Dunlop's post were also critical of Foucault. Since the ideas were not discussed there I will take some up and see what happens.

In the first bit of the passage that I have selected, Nussbaum says that postmodernism is more insidious that provincialism:

"Something more insidious than provincialism has come to prominence in the American academy. It is the virtually complete turning from the material side of life, toward a type of verbal and symbolic politics that makes only the flimsiest of connections with the real situation of real women.

Feminist thinkers of the new symbolic type would appear to believe that the way to do feminist politics is to use words in a subversive way, in academic publications of lofty obscurity and disdainful abstractness. These symbolic gestures, it is believed, are themselves a form of political resistance; and so one need not engage with messy things such as legislatures and movements in order to act daringly. The new feminism, moreover, instructs its members that there is little room for large-scale social change, and maybe no room at all. We are all, more or less, prisoners of the structures of power that have defined our identity as women; we can never change those structures in a large-scale way, and we can never escape from them. All that we can hope to do is to find spaces within the structures of power in which to parody them, to poke fun at them, to transgress them in speech. And so symbolic verbal politics, in addition to being offered as a type of real politics, is held to be the only politics that is really possible."

After describing this threat to the American academy Nussbaum then traces these postmodern ideas back to the French poststructuralism in general, and to the work of Michel Foucault in particular. She says:

"These developments owe much to the recent prominence of French postmodernist thought. Many young feminists, whatever their concrete affiliations with this or that French thinker, have been influenced by the extremely French idea that the intellectual does politics by speaking seditiously, and that this is a significant type of political action. Many have also derived from the writings of Michel Foucault (rightly or wrongly) the fatalistic idea that we are prisoners of an all-enveloping structure of power, and that real-life reform movements usually end up serving power in new and insidious ways."

Well I would say wrongly, since Foucault's thesis that we are involved in networks of knowledge/power also involves acts of resistance as a form of countervailing power. Thus as a member of academic philosophy in a a regional university in the grip of provincialism, I was working within the disciplinary knowledge/power of analytic philosophy that worked to ensure that I became an analytic philosopher. And it was an enormous amount of pressure. I resisted this pressure and the formation of my self/comportment/identityas a philosopher. I did so through acts of resistance that eventually involved turning to continental philosophy, and then using its ideas to engage in a critique of analytic philosophy. So the ' fatalistic idea that we are prisoners of an all-enveloping structure of power' does not apply due to resistance.

What I was engaged in was fighting one kind of philosophy with another kind of philosophy within an academic philosophy institution. So Nussbaum's claim is appropriate when she says:

"We are all, more or less, prisoners of the structures of power that have defined our identity as women; we can never change those structures in a large-scale way, and we can never escape from them. All that we can hope to do is to find spaces within the structures of power in which to parody them, to poke fun at them, to transgress them in speech. And so symbolic verbal politics, in addition to being offered as a type of real politics, is held to be the only politics that is really possible."

Now this is pretty unfair. My identity as a philosophy was tied to the knowledge/power of analytic philosophy (I as anti-analytic philosopher); I could never change the network of power of analytic philosophy across Australian universities in a large-scale way;and I could never escape from this network of power if I was to work as a philosopher in an Australian university. All I could do was to find a space within this power network to work differently, and I chose to do this by developing tools and ideas from continental philosophy to transgress the limits of analytic philosophy. And that's all I could be expected to do as a Ph.D student. A life of political activism in reforming the institution of philosophy (along the lines of Maoism) was not going to get me a Ph.D., and I needed that to have any credibility within the philosophy institution.

Nussbaum is unfair because what else is academic life but fighting ideas with ideas? So what is Nussbaum suggesting? That we scholars engage in trade union politics to protect the staff from the negative impacts of economic reforms instead of doing scholarship---reading the Greeks to recover different kinds of philosophy to the scientific one propounded by the analytic school? She cannot be serious. And she is not. She has engaged in the same enterprise of finding alternative ways of doing philosophy in her book, The Therapy of Desire. Nussbaum does not like a literary philosophy that works in terms of the weapons of parody and poking fun--the weapons deployed by Richard Rorty to deflate the pretensions of serious, analytic philosophers to be the master thinkers. And Richard Rorty was very good at it because the analytic philosophers were stung into response.

We can escape from the disciplinary power of a philosophy institution by stepping outside the university and into the legislature to locate philosophy within political life as the Romans did. But that is stepping from one knowledge/power network into another one and into different modes of resistance. Yet we still are engaged in a battle of ideas as well as getting the numbers.

So Nussbaum is misleading here. Why is she?

UPDATE:Because she is defending her liberal humanism. And to do so she will block Foucault's power network thesis in terms of it lacking any ethical depth. Consider the following remark:

"Try teaching Foucault at a contemporary law school, as I have, and you will quickly find that subversion takes many forms, not all of them congenial to Butler and her allies. As a perceptive libertarian student said to me, Why can't I use these ideas to resist the tax structure, or the antidiscrimination laws, or perhaps even to join the militias? Others, less fond of liberty, might engage in the subversive performances of making fun of feminist remarks in class, or ripping down the posters of the lesbian and gay law students' association. These things happen. They are parodic and subversive. Why, then, aren't they daring and good?"

It's a good question. This is where ethics would come into play. And Nussbaum knows a lot about ethics. It is her forte. She continues:

"Well, there are good answers to those questions, but you won't find them in Foucault, or in Butler. Answering them requires discussing which liberties and opportunities human beings ought to have, and what it is for social institutions to treat human beings as ends rather than as means--in short, a normative theory of social justice and human dignity. It is one thing to say that we should be humble about our universal norms, and willing to learn from the experience of oppressed people. It is quite another thing to say that we don't need any norms at all. Foucault, unlike Butler, at least showed signs in his late work of grappling with this problem; and all his writing is animated by a fierce sense of the texture of social oppression and the harm that it does.'

So how did the late Foucault grapple with this ? What did his ethical turn back to the Greeks result in? Well we won't find the answer in Nussbaum. She has the scholarly knowledge of Greek ethics to tell us what he was trying to do. But she is determined to keep Foucault outside the gate. So she blocks. Foucault dumps norms. Period. Nussbaum say:

"But let there be no mistake: for Butler, as for Foucault, subversion is subversion, and it can in principle go in any direction....For every friend of Butler, eager to engage in subversive performances that proclaim the repressiveness of heterosexual gender norms, there are dozens who would like to engage in subversive performances that flout the norms of tax compliance, of non-discrimination, of decent treatment of one's fellow students."

No attempt is made to engage with Foucault's ethical notion of care for self and creating the self as if it were work of art.' Norms are involved here, not of social justice, but involving a reworking of ' human dignity'. This is a poststructuralist turn to ethics through a return and re-reading of the Greeks. How does this transgress the limits of the univeral norms of liberal humanism?

You have to look elsewhere, since Nussbaum wants to leave us with a Foucault ensared in postmodern nihilism. Hence the negative reaction to Foucault. The ethical dimension is obliterated.

These are notes but they do indicate the gatekeeping that takes place in academia.

A book Review from the Archives

Sunday, October 20, 2002

Posted 12:02 by Gary

My involvement in political life means that I am unable to read as many books as I would like to these days. All I can usually do is scan books quickly.

I am currently 'reading' a book by Robert Kirkman called, Skeptical Environmentalism: The Limits of Philosophy and Science,(Indiana University Press, Bloomington 2002).

This text is primarily concerned with the more basic principles (ie.metaphysics) that inform the work of many academic environmental philosophers, rather than debates over concrete matters of policy, such as the issues pertaining to the Murray-Darling Basin. Being a sceptic (a Humean mitigated sceptic) Kirkman seeks to raise doubts about environmental philosophy, especially its speculative project that seeks to construct an ecological world view (or metaphysics). The core of this metaphysics holds that the natural world is relational; that humans have a moral obligation to respect and preserve the relational order of nature; and that widespread acceptance of these claims is the key to solving the environmental crisis.

I introduce this book into the Oz blogosphere because it offers an evaluation and critique of environmental philosophy that transgresses the standard position held by many of the dogmatic defenders of a fundamentalist Enlightenment. This position conventionally holds that environmentalism is a new religion that is hostile to science (ie natural science and economics). Hence it is against reason. For a crude version of this thesis see the Oz blogger Aaron Oakley who wrote on Monday, October 7, 2002:

"I am a Perth-Based scientist. I used to be a member of the Wilderness Society (In the late 1980's). Through what I learnt as a science student in the early 90's, I came to realise that the Green movement had abandoned science and reason in favour of hysteria. The greens were more interested in poisoning public opinion than getting to the truth. Thus, the Greens would use any argument, no matter how badly thought out, to sway the masses."
"Welcome to! Here we will examine all the schmucks who abuse science for political purposes (Greenies, politicians, etc)." "

Here environmentalism as a religion has been reduced to hysteria. Others reduce it to nonsense. This does not allow much space in the public forum to have a public debate in civil society. The public sphere ( ie., a network of communication/dialogue, information and points of view) is no longer considered a sounding board for problems that need to be solved in liberal democracy and to furnish them with possible solutions.

In contrast, the philosophy book by Kirkman does recognize what environmental philosophers do, namely to identify and then critique the destructive way of thinking that is culturally embodied in our conventional, instrumental relationship to nature. This way of thinking says Kirkman has generally been identified as the mechanistic view of nature traditionally that is associated with Descartes and Newton and a reductionist natural science. This view is seen to reduce the non-human world to a mere collection of isolated physical entities with no value or purpose of their own. The speculative project of environmental philosophy, says Kirkman, seeks to replace this metaphysics with an ecological/organic one centred around relatedness.

Kirkman argues that this speculative project should be abandoned as speculative nature philosophy (eg. that of Hegel) spins a cobweb of concepts that bears little relation to reality. Hence it has severe limitations. ( In passing Kirkman is unfair to Hegel as the latter was philosophically engaging with the key concepts of the mechanistic metaphysics of the natural sciences of his time, and arguing for an organic metaphysics. Hegel not does do away with science. He philosophically engages with it through an immanent critique.

An organic metaphysics came with the development of an ecological science at the end of the nineteenth century. Kirkman is good on tracing the metaphysical debates within this science as ecologists endeavoured to work out what an organic metaphysics could actually mean and refine their concepts. However, those workign on speculative philosophical project simply pick, choose and appropriate the bits that suit them. However, science may one day show that the natural world is fundamentally relational and that an organic metaphysics may not be firmly grounded in reality, ie true. This uncertainity about the correct metaphysics places limits to relying on ecological science, or drawing conclusion from the sciences.

Kirkman's scepticism seeks to transform this speculative project in order to open environmentalism up to more promising directions eg. environmentalism as advocacy. Philosophers have an important role to play in the public discussion of environmental problems-these problems have cultural, moral and political dimensions- and philosophers can act to expose the illusions at the core of our currrent self-understanding. It should take a practical stance by taking a more direct engagement with concrete philosophical problems. They can do this by acting as advocates for one point of view (whatever that is) and by participating in public deliberation as mediators and facilitators. In the latter role they can clarify the terms of public discussion and debate, raise important questions, and point out the limits and consequences of various arguments.

This is a useful and clearly written book. ( I have not deal with the moral obligation to respect and preserve the environment. Another Interlude perhaps). Its conception of philsophy in public life as advocacy captures what I have been trying to do in political life, and the way I have deployed the tools of philosophy in public debate over the River Murray.

It would be a pity if this text were not widely read. It shows our political masters in Canberra that though the disciplines of humanities cannot increase the wealth of our nation though the innovative application of high-tech research, they are useful in terms of the fostering the public good of enabling a civilised liberal society.