Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"Armchair Bullshit"

So says Leiter and Stanford Philosopher Josh Cohen about the recent Jay Bernstein blog post on the NYTimes "The Stone".

Evidently Cohen tweeted "Armchair bullshit, masquerading as philosophy" to describe the Bernstein piece. What an arrogant jerk. I myself have not been pleased with The Stone in many respects (esp. Critchley's weak inaugural effort), but the Bernstein piece was hardly armchair bullshit. On the contrary- it was accessible and made an interesting point about freedom and agency that hardly sees the light of day in the usual banter that litters the pages of the NYTimes.

Cohen's comment is completely out of line. And he of all people should talk. Check out this "blogging heads video". If you can stay awake during this basically useless conversation (lots of "Um, um, um... uh, uh, uh...." from Cohen), note the following. Cohen takes a tepid, conciliatory, kid-gloves approach with the "libertarian" and lends credence to the false claim that the (really terrible) Obama health care bill represents a step forward for reform efforts or, even less plausibly, toward something like single-payer. One would hardly know he was a philosopher, rather than, say, somebody's opinionated dad at a family cookout. In fact, it wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say that his whole take on the issue, to the extent that there's even anything like a "take" to be found in his long-winded musings in the video, is armchair-to-the-max.

Now, according to Leiter, the following two quotes evince the alleged stupidity of Bernstein's argument:
the passionate anger of the Tea Party movement, or, the flip-side of that anger, the ease with which it succumbs to the most egregious of fear-mongering falsehoods. What has gripped everyone’s attention is the exorbitant character of the anger Tea Party members express. Where do such anger and such passionate attachment to wildly fantastic beliefs come from?


My hypothesis is that what all the events precipitating the Tea Party movement share is that they demonstrated, emphatically and unconditionally, the depths of the absolute dependence of us all on government action, and in so doing they undermined the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency that are intrinsic parts of Americans’ collective self-understanding.
Is the first question illegitimate? If so, why? I'm not convinced that Leiter's throw-away comments about Marx and Lukacs show us why. And the Hegelian answer given in the second quote is hardly uncontroversial, but it's not obviously false. And neither is it masquerading as philosophy... it is a philosophical claim (if there ever was one!) about the metaphysics of agency that figures prominently in political philosophical debates. The Hegelian point is just that "agency is not exclusively a matter of the self-relation and self-determination of an individual but requires the right sort of engagement with and recognition by others" (quoted from Robert Pippin's recent CUP book on Hegel and agency). Is this obviously bullshit? Many of the so-called "communitarian" critiques of liberal political theory in the 1980s made arguments of a similar sort. Unless we are supposed take the (completely moronic) -position that all things Hegelian are ipso facto bullshit, what are we to say of Leiter and Cohen's comments?

Yes, Bernstein's argument is speculative. But in social/political analysis there is no way to avoid speculation of some sort or other: this is a crucial element of theory construction. To deny this would just be to endorse a positivist philosophy of social science that wears its incoherence on its sleeve.

Is it obviously false to suppose that the Tea-bagger's rage derives from the collapse of ubiquitous narratives in American political culture touting "personal responsibility" and "individual initiative"? I can't see why any reasonable person would say that it is. It is highly plausible to me that there is something about the tea-bagger rage that smacks of a deep frustration deriving from powerlessness (impotence?) and perceived lack of autonomy.

Many have written on the way in which conservatives often gender their arguments for or against state "intervention", suggesting on the one hand that independence from "government aid" is a sign of (male) strength and vigor, whereas "real men" don't need "handouts" from the "nanny state". (This, of course, doesn't exhaust the arguments that those on the Right give, but it this maneuver is a prominent feature of the way that many conservative arguments are framed). Now would it be implausible to draw from this common knowledge about our political culture the conclusion that the (mostly White, mostly old male) Tea-bagger movement is enraged (in part) over a perceived blow to their (bogus) conception of what it is to be an independent, male individual in the US? Is it not completely obvious now (esp. since the crisis) that the neoliberal dogmas about personal responsibility were really all just crap all along? Have not the bailouts of massive financial institutions evinced the bullshit individualism that props up the ideology of laissez-faire? Is not the belief that "I can do everything I need by myself if only the government would leave me alone" completely absurd in a highly-marketized society in which even the most ordinary facets of life are subjected to global capitalist market forces?!

Perhaps there are better analyses, perhaps the thesis should be provisional until more evidence is mobilized in support of it. But it's not bullshit.

1 comment:

dnw said...

I resent that the Times calls The Stone an "opinion" section, soliciting philosophers to opinionate on hot-button issues in the way that Sartre and other intellectuals were invited by French political leaders to expound on current events back in the 1940s. Calling it an "opinionater blog" risks single-handedly destroying the doing of philosophy. To philosophize is not to give an "expert" opinion on current events, nor is it to offer the sort of pseudo-critical sociology that offends everyone. Conversely, the blog becomes elitist when it asks the legitimate philosophical questions: what subjects are fit to be addressed in this forum? What is the proper role of philosophical intervention? These questions were posed by Nancy Bauer following reader’s outrage that she could criticize Lady Gag without presenting empirical evidence, as if this is what philosophers should do. The philosophical moment arises when it ceases to be an opinion blog, or when Bernstein starts Hegelising about the meeting point between politics and metaphysics within an ideology. The prompt “Let’s talk about American Independence” is the worst sort of armchair philosophy: Tell us, wise experts, about our society, it’s problems, and so on. The task of philosophy is to invent the problems.

So I give credit to Bernstein for formulating real philosophical problematics and NOT simply opinionating in the ways the Blog encourages: “take our hot-button issue and give your opinion because you’re a famous philosopher, etc.”

And shame on Cohen for his arrogance. Even if Bernstein’s piece were armchair bullshit, what then? Is rigorous, academic Hegelianism the point of a popular newspaper? If so, NYT should change it’s blog title to: THE STONE: TRUTH.