Monthly Archives: June 2011

Mikhail Bakhtin: An Extremely Short Introduction

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A professor at my school, Michael Gardiner, not too long ago brought to my attention the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian social theorist who lived in the initial two-thirds of the 20th century. I recently read his first book on Bakhtin, The Dialogics of Critique: Mikhail Bakhtin & The Theory of Ideology (1992). The book itself was interesting, if somewhat dense at times (though I’m sure that Bakhtin’s own texts are exponentially more dense), and admirably contextualized Bakhtin and his work’s importance within 20th century theory. On the whole, Bakhtin doesn’t appeal to my interests, but his work has gained new relevance and popularity in the face of the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy, notably the discourse ethics of Jürgen Habermas. Félix Guattari was influenced by his work, and Bakhtin has gained a voice in contemporary hermeneutics, sociolinguistics, and ideology critique. Rather than focusing on these subjects, however, I feel that it would be useful to outline as clearly as possible the more abstract of the new concepts which Bakhtin introduces, and to suggest ways that they can be utilized for contemporary analyses.

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Defending ‘Human Rationality’

[Edit 17/01/24: This is one of the first posts I made on this blog. I wrote it when I was a freshman. While it’s embarrassing to reread my ‘juvenilia’, to my surprise it’s not nearly as piss as I thought it would be (at least after a few edits). While editing, a link accidentally got posted on my social media accounts. While I’m mortified to think people might actually read this, the post has a charming spontaneity to it that I feel I’ve lost since then.]

Out of all the precepts of economics, that of rational human actors is the one most criticized by laypersons (particularly continental philosophers). However, economists usually find their propositions quite self-evident (we should think of ‘rationality’ as a utilitarian sort):

  • Agents have stable, well-defined preferences and make rational choices that are consistent with these preferences.
  • Whatever their preferences, agents will attempt to maximize their satisfaction subject to the constraints they face.
  • Agents prefer more of what they want to less.
  • Agents will satisfy more urgent needs before less urgent ones.
  • The goal of an action is to remove an uneasiness.

…et cetera.

This problem can be circumvented by separating ‘rationality’ from the set of premisses on which an individual or group bases their reasoning at a given time. In doing so, all of the above propositions can be retained, while ‘irrational’ behaviour can be explained as due to false premises. In this fashion, one can act ‘irrationally’ while still being fully consistent with the above principles of human rationality. Thus, ‘irrational’ behaviour, in logical terminology, can be said to be ‘valid’, but not ‘true’.

In fact, the scope of human action which is outside the range of rationality or our meaning of irrationality is exceptional, as the following examples will endeavor to show. Michel Foucault, in Madness & Civilization[1] (a condensed version of his History of Madness), writes of a man who believes that he is made of glass, and who is subsequently diagnosed as melancholic (in an archaic use of the term) and sent to an asylum. Foucault notes with interest that this man behaves in an entirely rational manner, except for his false premise (a mode of behaviour referred to by early psychologists as ‘melancholia’). That is to say, he behaves exactly as a person would if they actually had become glass. In a similar episode, a man who believes that he is dead is sent to an asylum, where he was entirely docile, but refused to take meals because, after all, dead people do not eat. The head of the asylum, in an experiment, recruits a troupe of volunteers to dress up as dead people, via make-up, et cetera. They are put in a room with the ‘dead’ patient, where a feast is set before them. The ‘dead’ man queries “But I thought that dead people do not eat?” “Of course dead people eat!” replied one of the volunteers. Thereafter, the patient ate heartily, all the while still believing that he was dead. Read the rest of this entry

Sage Advice.

“And above all, you should not think of writing as a way of earning your living. If you do, your work will smell of your poverty. It will be coloured by your weakness and be as thin as your hunger. There are other trades which you can take up: make boots, not books. Our opinion of you will not be any poorer, and since you will be sparing us acres of boredom, we may even think the better of you.”

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~Sade, “An Essay on Novels”, pg. 16. 

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