Sunday, January 12, 2014

Haacking Away at Vacuity

I always enjoy reading Susan Haack.  She is so eminently sensible, she gives me hope for pragmatism and philosophy of the kind I feel when reading the classical pragmatists and relieves the despair I feel when reading those who are called neo-pragmatists.  The former were sensible as well, while the latter are it seems to me purveyors of piffle, fomenting the futile, facilitating that fallacious fellowship of arcane academicians who revel in relativism.  Nattering nabobs of negativism, I would say, if someone less than admirable had not already said it.  Good stuff if not from a good person.

"Sensible" is good word, and to be called sensible is a compliment, even in the case of a philosopher.  It means reasonable, rational, practical, sagacious, sound, shrewd.  Alan Sokal is not alone, it seems, in castigating those who evidently lurk Snape-like in the halls of Academia, whispering that there is no such thing as truth, that science is just a kind of social negotiation or narrative no more worthy of respect than a chant, that we're all mere puppets of our culture, class, upbringing, whatever (though its doubtful any of them can achieve the sublime bitchiness Alan Rickman can so effortlessly deploy). 

That there is no such thing as "Truth" (with a capital "T") has been fairly well established, I believe, if by that we mean some kind of Absolute Truth residing somewhere outside our far less than perfect world.  But there are those who have led themselves to believe that there is no way to establish even little "t" truth, perhaps because they are as much victims of the quest for certainty as those who laved in the font of the big "T." 

The tendency to lash out at science is to a certain extent understandable, especially in those poor teachers of the humanities who have been compelled to hear the hard sciences lauded while their forays into literary criticism, history, philosophy have been denigrated.  And to a certain extent science has been given too much praise, even far too much for its own good.  And doubtless we're all influenced by power, and society, and elites, and culture and religion, and class.  That is to say, it is doubtless that we're all human.

But as Haack points out this fact, of such significance to those who seem to doubt there are matters of fact, doesn't mean that we're incapable of making good judgments, conclusions and inferences, well founded and sound--sensible, in fact--in science and in other matters.  It isn't an easy thing to do, and we must struggle not to be unduly influenced by those factors which can impair our judgment, but we can do it and have done it.  Protesting that we can't and haven't simply cuts the legs out of any inquiry, including those involved in making the protests.

I wonder if the difficulty involved in thinking along with the futility of seeking absolute certainty have resulted in the wave of the vacuous which overwhelms us these days.  It's certainly much easier not to think, and in that case comforting to maintain that there is no need to think, really, in any case.  But perhaps there is a kind of romantic despair involved in such attitudes as well, similar to the despair indulged in by many, especially artists and intellectuals, when doubt in the existence of God became serious in the 19th century.  "If there is no God, everything is permitted!" they would cry, some of them while crying, literally.  Thence to kill themselves like a character from a Dostoevsky novel as nothing mattered anymore.

"If there is no Truth, everything is permitted!" would seem to be a pronouncement worthy of those Haack refers to as propounding the "New Cynicism" or perhaps it's more accurate to say they are worth of the pronouncement.  I don't particularly like the name "New Cynicism" as I think Cynicism for all its extremes was a respectable ancient and venerable school of philosophy in its time.  A cynic may feel about it what a pragmatist may feel about "neo-pragmatism."

Regardless, it's a saying which seems to fit.  Where there is no Truth, then all theories, conclusions, judgments, claims are of equal worth, which is to say of no worth at all.  All are permitted as there is no way to distinguish them, no basis on which to judge them as good or bad, reasonable or unreasonable.  Vacuitas, vacuitatis, et omnia vacuitas.

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