- Lyotard-lite - Lyotard, as gleaned only from the readings assigned thus far in the semester, and so clearly not in possession of his full faculties
- A tendentious Aristotelean
Scene 1: A Lyotardian Differend
after class, in the hall
TA: Lyotard-lite, can you tell me why a differend cannot be resolved by recourse to a higher reason that encompasses both plaintiff and defendant?
LL: Because all reason is local. Universal reason is a chimera.
TA: And why is that?
LL: Because, following Wittgenstein, the meaning of any word is its use in a specific, lived context.
TA: But isn’t Wittgenstein’s argument itself just such an instance of reason counting in all cases?
LL: Only on the surface. Wittgenstein handles the self-reference problem by recourse to “family resemblances”.
TA: But then isn’t the appeal to “resemblance” itself a universalizing appeal? And moreover one that forces us to consider what it is about things that warrants us, regardless of our language game, to recognize similarities? To ask what it is out there that answers to our repetition of a term? Aren’t we then stuck with the old problem of deciding between realism, conceptualism and nominalism?
LL: One might say that this problem arises from the deceptive use of metaphors, as in Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense.
TA: Which is to decide in favor of nominalism… But let’s agree to disagree on this one — I can accept that we are from different philosophical planets.
TA: But allow me to return to the first question another way. You say you cannot give a universally applicable argument for why a differend cannot be settled by a higher reason. Is this to say that there is no reason why I should adopt your view of the differend?
LL: But that is precisely what I mean by a differend! In insisting that only universal reason can expose the differend for what it is, you have monopolized the establishment procedures! You have conjured up a chimera — universal reason — and now you wish it to breathe fire on any who oppose its reality!
TA: So if you were to experience a burning sensation about now, to what might you attribute it, other than the beast before you?
LL: This is going nowhere.
TA: Agreed. Exeunt.
Scene 2a: An Aristotelian Differend
the student commons
LL: Oh, hello, TA, off to class?
TA: No. You?
LL: Ditto. Shall we go for a drink?
TA: Absolutely. You’ll probably like me more once the chimera inhibitors have kicked in.
LL: Mine or yours?
TA: A question worthy of research. Come, let us put the question to nature!
…later, at the bar…
TA: You know, a dollop of this reminds me of a crucial distinction my master used to make between universal reason — the very beast I am currently trying to drown — and universal certainty. The one does not imply the other, regardless what Descartes said.
LL: Drink may well be said to be an equivocator…but do continue.
TA: Well, one of Descartes’ mistakes was to deny the diversity of method, to insist that one method can settle all matters — from ethics to medicine (he sincerely expected his research to lead to his bodily immortality). And that this one method, because mathematical in nature, can expect utterly clarity and distinctness from its object.
LL: You say this as if it were news.
TA: My point is that you and I have an interesting area of agreement. Over and against Descartes, my master noted that each field of enquiry requires its own method as well as its own standards of clarity. He notes this in Metaphysics II, and again in his writings on ethics. It’s especially true when you move into ethics, he says, that you find many cases that are not decidable by a universal rule. If my memory serves me:
“Now fine and just actions” - that is, the entire subject of his Nichomachean Ethics - “admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion…We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, … for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits…” (NE I.3)
LL: You say this as if I had never read your “master”.
TA: My point is that you can, regardless of your stance on universal reason, recognize the need for situation-specific discernment--what Aristotelians call virtue prudence. If a case involves multiple axes of judgment, where focusing on only one axis favors the plaintiff and focusing on another favors the defendant, you don’t have to discard all hope of universal reason in order to judge the matter with sensitivity. Indeed, Aristotle identifies an entirely separate virtue, above and beyond that of justice, called equitability, that excels in just this: “And this is the nature of the equitable, a correction of law where it is defective owing to its universality. In fact this is the reason why all things are not determined by law, that about some things it is impossible to lay down a law, so that a decree is needed.” (NE, V.10)
LL: Well, there are any number of phrases I could link onto that. But I’ll pick the one that Aristotle himself did, the one that follows your quotation from Book I, chapter 3. What interests me is that Aristotle’s universal account of the virtues sits atop a very interesting differend all its own. It goes:
“Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable… And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend on time, but on his living, and pursuing each successive object, as passion directs. For to such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge brings no profit; but to those who desire and act in accordance with a rational principle knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit.”
TA: So where do you see the differend?
LL: Let’s say there are two guys, Virtuous Guy and Vicious Guy.
Virtuous Guy: Do you want to know how to be happy? Then cultivate the virtues!”
Vicious Guy: I’m already happy, thank you very much. Plus I don’t exactly appreciate the implication that I am ‘defective’.
Virtuous Guy: If you only had but a little experience with virtue, then you’d know how much more there is to learn, and have a chance of achieving it!
Vicious Guy: So let me get this straight. I’m supposed to take a taste of this ‘virtue’ thing, in order to know that it’s good to take a taste of it, and this in order to know I should taste more and have the ability to do so?
Virtuous Guy: Exactly.
Vicious Guy: Substitute narcotics for virtue: from where I am standing, there is no way to distinguish between your eudaimonia and heroin addiction.
Virtuous Guy: But if you just had some experience of what you were missing!
Vicious Guy: Does my own experience, then, count for nothing?
TA: And so?
LL: And so…Virtuous Guy is acting unjustly in silencing Vicious Guy’s way of being. They have incommensurable claims to what happiness is, but Virtuous Guy refuses to admit plurality, and subjects Vicious Guy to this…this…eudaimonic colonialism.
TA: And so Virtuous Guy had just better keep quiet about the life that consists of more than just going from one sensory distraction to the next. Virtuous guy had better keep such things to himself as — how do you put it? — “reflection”, “wasting the time”, “philosophy”, the pursuit of knowledge that does not lead to profit… Does this mean that you, Lyotard-lite, are in fact vicious in promoting reflection and the rest?
LL: Of course wasting the time has its place, and…
TA: And moreover, since justice itself a virtue, doesn’t this mean that Virtuous Guy lacks virtue, while Vicious Guy, in not universalizing his understanding of happiness, has virtue? Or are there — oh just maybe! — virtues aside from keeping your hands off of someone, and vices apart from admonishing someone to avoid something they’d do well to avoid?
LL: But your analysis succeeds only within a pre-adopted framework of Virtue Ethics. And apparently it’s not enough for you to personally cultivate virtue without imposing it on everyone else.
LLL And what’s more, you promised me I’d like you more once the chimera inhibitors kicked in.
TA: Which is just to say that they haven’t. Another round?
TA: But you are right, you know.
LL: In what?
TA: That the virtuous life rests atop a differend. And I’d say that one of the great tragedies of poverty — and I’m thinking particularly of cultural poverty — is that one may never be given the foothold they need to make growth in virtue possible.
LL: …given the pre-adopted framework of Virtue Ethics.
LL: Well, I do hope this works. Though I have a feeling that was dich nicht umbringt, gibt mir Ärger.
TA: You’re not accusing me of bad faith, are you?
LL: I also have a feeling that none of what you have read by me so far addresses what’s coming up. So I shall now respond to you only with the phrase of silence — but be assured it is neither the silence of the incompetent nor of the disinterested. Agreed?
TA: Agreed. And so I shall make myself bold and to capitalize on your silence. Behold as I proceed to unmask your sense of justice as a tacit anthropology, a universally valid rational account of what it is to be human. And that it bears striking resemblance to both Aristotle’s zoon logon echon — man as rational animal, and zoon politikon — man as political animal.
Scene 2.b: A Lyotardian Anthropology?
TA: So, what can we make of it that one can pursue justice and inflict wrongs, and had better do the former? Where a wrong involves silencing the specific language which constitutes the wronged? And silencing is a form of violence? What image of man/woman/anthroposhomomensch emerges this minimal situation?
For one, the person is that which is (1) worthy of justice, (2) capable of justice and (3) obligated to pursue justice, which in turn requires that he is (4) obligated to consider what counts as just in any given situation. And this in turn requires a some rational capacity, without which he could not reason about the just. And, given that he has obligations at all, (5) a capacity to act in accordance with his deliberations.
So far, that is, we have something approaching the zoon logon echon, Aristotle’s “rational animal”.
Now, the above obligations place him on a moral landscape, shared with others, in which it is not possible not to act. Because we are constituted by our language, we are relational, and so “contact is necessary…it is necessary to link onto a phrase that happens (be it by a silence, which is a phrase)…” (Differend, para. 40) Just as you are doing now.
And so now we have something approaching the zoon politikon, Aristotle’s “political animal”.
…more drinks arrive…
Now, what does it mean that he had better pursue justice and avoid wrongs? Is it inherently good? Or pragmatically good? And if it is inherently good for him to pursue x and avoid y, to be morally and rationally oriented, then he would have to have this capacity in the first place, right? And to say he has and ought to cultivate this capacity, to say that this capacity and his good converge, does this not endow him with a telos? (This, of course, requiring that justice and wrong are mutually exclusive, that is, never applicable to the same aspect of the same situation in the same sense at the same time — if I may presume to slip in another universal here in the form of the Principle of Contradiction.) Are we not now wading into Aristotle’s metaphysical biology?
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that I am still on track. Here’s an interesting connundrum: doesn’t this rational and universally valid anthropology I have descried beneath your sense of justice, in claiming omnicompetence, tend toward the very sort of terror that motivates you to write about justice in the first place? That is, isn’t your sense of justice self-defeating?
But, on the other hand, if in this anthropological image we also find the capacity for the virtue of equitability, which as explained above, excels in those cases of justice where universals are not available, why would we knowingly forgo that virtue, along with the anthropology which illuminates it?
LL: You are doing me much violence…
TA: And returning to the beginning of my anthropology, might I have been too hasty in calling it an “anthropology”? Don’t we have to determine precisely who, even what, is worthy of this much-vaunted justice? The healthy, the handicap, the senile, the comatose, embryos, animals, “the paradigm of the victim”? Plants? The environment? And is this at all possible without recourse to a rational scheme? And then: don’t we have to do more then just identify who and what is worthy of justice? Don’t we also have to say why, lest we end up acting justly only to those we happen to like, so long as we happen to like them? Yes, why should anything at all be worthy of justice? And why these things and not those? Now there are some demanding questions!
…more drinks arrive… and the time passes… and yet more drinks arrive…
Scene 3: At the door
LL: Are you sure you’re alright to drive home?
TA: Fie! I do this all the time!
LL: I thought you were all virtuous and everything!
TA: Silly goose! You don’t have to actually be virtuous to argue Virtue Ethics!
LL: Then that would make you … let’s see, hmm … a hypocrite, right?
TA: Chalk it up to akrasia…
LL: “Harrumph”, as you say.
TA: Let me go one further and argue that you cannot be virtuous, if you are to argue Virtue Ethics!
LL: This I’ve got to hear.
TA: No, really. There is a real distinction to be drawn here. One guy promotes virtue, while personally failing in in it. I contend that it is impossible not to fail, given that one necessarily starts at the beginning and moves toward an asymptotic telos. So at any given point in his development, he is still not “there”, he is still lacking in some regard. And for me, tonight, this regard just happens to be an indifference to possible vehicular manslaughter.
LL: I like you even less now!
TA: And on the other hand, there is the guy who promotes virtue, while never intending to cultivate it in the first place. Now this guy is the hypocrite, not the viator who tries and fails.
LL: Why does this sound like sophistry?
TA: Wait a minute…you’re not trying to silence me, are you?
LL: Just trying to make sure we all get home alive…
TA: No, you’re clobbering my Virtue Ethics with an appeal to Utilitarianism. You are muzzling me! In everything I have read by you, the act of silencing someone appears as the one capital sin. But now it would appear as if silencing were not the only sin, nor the worst sin. In this case, it sounds like it is not even a sin at all! Who’s the hypocrite now?!
LL: …pure sophistry…
TA: …do we not here again discover that your true concern is not with silence, but with physical violence? As it is in The Differend, which you open with a reference to gas chambers? I mean, it’s not just that those victims did not have the means to describe their physical suffering, but that they physically suffered as they did in the first place, right?
LL: Never argue with a drunk Aristotelian, and especially with a drunk and tendentious one…
TA: In fact, I submit it to you, Lyotard-lite, that your entire philosophical life has consisted in acts of silencing!
LL: You are reckless…
TA: Let me explain. As you would have it, the subject is a plurality. There is not just one unified Lyotard-lite, but many.
LL: So far, so good.
TA: Now, judging by your rich set of philosophical references in The Differend, it is clear that at some point you sat down to muscle your way through the entire Platonic corpus, and again Kant’s critical system. And that you returned to these texts time and again.
TA: Now, who can possibly perform these feats — for feats they are — without hearing a little voice time and again saying, “come, let us drift off in thought about tomorrow’s party”, or “isn’t it about time for a snack?”, and the like.
LL: That happens…
TA: And the mere fact that you finished each of these massive texts in question testifies to the fact that you successfully silenced each of these rival voices, right?
LL: You are very reckless…
TA: Well, since I don’t seem to care at all about anything anyways, permit me to unmask the inglorious motives behind your whole-hearted adoption of “language games”.
LL: I’m calling the cab…
TA: The whole “language games” thing — you’ve got yours and I’ve got mine — is very easy to learn. It demands none of the rigor required in facing up the problem of universals, the persistence of identity over time, and the rest. And yet it comes across as so sophisticated and magnanimous. And then: it can be invoked to avoid any personal conflict, any moral demand or any truth claim you find inconvenient. And lastly: you can invoke it to avoid taking risks, say, of having to defend your claims, of being called intolerant or arrogant or downright stupid. It’s the ideal camouflage to run with the herd!
LL: Look, the first thing you need is to get in the cab and go home. Then a good nights sleep. And then you will need to carefully consider the rest of my writings listed for discussion in Phil 721.
TA: But permit me one very last question.
LL: What’s that?
TA: Can you spot me $50?