Monthly Archives: December 2011

Utopia & Speech-Act: For a Pragmatics of Civil Disobedience

[This essay is from a couple of years ago.]

The problem with defining ‘civil disobedience’ as a political concept is that such a definition is far too often formed within the limits of a particular legislature, ideology, and historical period. Hence, ambiguity arises; civil disobedience in North Korea has a far different meaning than the term does in the USA. With such cases in mind, the only way to avoid narrowness is to change one’s form of description from the empirical to the theoretical, attempting to find the highest common factor of each ideology. I will argue that each political perspective is socially constructed, and that each perspective’s status as a system/model (as opposed to simply a description of empirical events) can be revealed by that which it leaves out. This essay will show that a political model is created when a prescriptive definition of a political concept is offered instead of a descriptive one, so that this prescriptive definition becomes the criterion by which the concept is judged1, that civil disobedience is the violation of a present model in the name of another, and that no act of civil disobedience can be justified, since any act of civil disobedience can only be defined in terms of the political model in which it takes place.

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The Economist Who Refuted Wittgenstein

However, in the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein abandons the idea of language as axiomatic representation of the world, and the idea of the ‘unspeakable’. Discussions with [Piero] Sraffa seem to have played their part in his abandonment of the latter. In this connection, there is an anecdote that Wittgenstein himself liked to tell his pupils, one of whom – Malcolm – recounts it thus in his biography of the master: one day, as they were travelling together on the train from Cambridge to London, ‘Sraffa made a gesture, familiar to Neapolitans and meaning something like disgust or contempt, of brushing the underneath of his chin with an outward sweep of the finger tips of one hand’.21

The gesture can only acquire a specific meaning from the context in which it is performed, thus contradicting Wittgenstein’s idea that every proposition had to have a precise place in the axiomatic order of rational language, independently of the various contexts in which it may be employed.22

21: Malcolm, 1958: 69.
22: According to Malcolm (1958: 69), the object of the discussion was Wittgenstein’s idea ‘that a proposition and that which it describes must have the same “logical form”, the same “logical multiplicity”’; according to von Wright, as Malcolm reports in a footnote, the object of the discussion was the idea that each proposition should have a ‘grammar’. In a conversation (21 December, 1973) Sraffa confirmed the anecdote, telling me that von Wright was right.

Roncaglia, A. (2000). Piero Sraffa: His Life, Thought, & Cultural Heritage. New York: Routledge, pg. 23, endnotes pg. 44.

For a brief skeptical discussion of whether Wittgenstein was really refuted, see here.

The Stakes of Grammatology

The well-known quarrel between Lacan and Derrida over Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” did not come from nowhere. Consider in this regard Lacan’s formulation from “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious,” that one is to grasp the letter à la lettre, that is, literally, and Derrida’s counter in the title to section one of his Of Grammatology, “Writing Before the Letter,” in French, avant la lettre, that is, before the fact, before, that is, the literal. Never to shirk a provocation, Lacan responded in the points edition of the Écrits by instating that his insight into the “instance/agency of the letter preceded any grammatology.” This in turn appears to have prompted The Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan by Derrida partisans Jean-Luc Nancy and Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe. The titular phrase, le titre de la lettre, might also be rendered as “the deed to, or rank of the letter.” Here is not the place to elaborate the stakes of this face-off, but suffice it to say that at issue is the nontrivial problem of whether philosophy can think the general economy of signs that conditions the possibility of language, whether spoken or written.

~John Mowitt, in Lyotard – Discourse, Figure, Editor’s Introduction, pg. 397, endnote 7.

Jonathan Friedman’s Panorama of Cultural Strategies

[I found this excellent chart in an obscure little book called Modernity & Identity, which is about modernism & postmodernism and how these permeate into different areas of culture. Rather than having it be lost, perhaps forever, I feel that it deserves some affection.]

0  Modernist:

(a) Progressive evolutionist, development of self and society and world.  Deviations from this life-strategy are classified as pathological or as just plain underdeveloped and infantile, in the sense that all non-modern states are ultimately reducible to a lack of the necessary means to achieve modernity: intellectually, technologically, motivationally.

1  modernism, can be expressed in general cultural terms; in terms of political institutions conducive to democratic solutions and efficient moral governance; in terms of economic growth; and social modernization, that is, modern institutions.

 (a) political debates in modernist discourse focusing on variant interpretations of the implementation of the modernist strategy; for example whether social democracy is more efficient and fair than liberalism, the role of the private vs. public sector, marxist vs. other approaches, etc.

2  Asian modernism displays most of the basic characteristics of the Western model, the main difference lying in the role of the individual as an instrument of the group rather than as an autonomous agent.


In the decline of modernist identity:

1  postmodern-modern-consumptionist:

(a) cynical distancing from all identification, but an acute awareness of the lack of identity

(b) consumptionist: narcissistic dependency on the presentation of self via the commodity construction of identity.  Highly unstable and can easily switch over to religious of ethnic solutions.

1  variation on the above is the consumption of roots as commodities, the creation of a life space reminiscent of a nostalgic vision or pastiche of eras based thereupon.

2  traditional-religious-ethnic

(a) solution to lack of identity, the failure of the modern project.  The individual feels the acute need to engage himself in a larger project in which identity is concrete and fixed irrespective of mobility, success and other external changes in social conditions.

1  traditionalist refers to the general aspect of this strategy, the emphasizing of concrete values and morality, social rules and cultural practices.

(a) religious: usually traditional, fundamentalist in form, sometimes tied to ethnicity.

(i)  local based, community oriented

(ii) international, mankind oriented, anti-ethnic yet concrete, i.e. species oriented

(b) ethnic: the constitution of concrete regional of historical-linguistic based identity-not so much connected to a value system as to a set of distinct cultural practices and beliefs.

2 closely connected with the traditionalist strategy is the ecological or green strategy.  If the former bases itself in culture the latter bases itself in nature: the correct relation between man and the ecosystem.  The overlap is clear and occurs in the evolutionist cosmology where traditional = close to nature = adapted to nature (that is, ecologically sound)

3  Third World – strategy of attracting wealth flows, strategy of attachment and dependency:

(a) state-class ranking system with chains of client in which sumptuary consumption plays a central role in defining position.

(b) strategy is unequivocally oriented to the centre as a source of wealth, and to the modern as the form of power to be appropriated and in the rank-strategy described above.

(c) strategy is thus pro-development defined not in terms of infrastructural growth but in terms of the consumption of modernity or its products that function as symbols of prestige and, as such, power.

4  Fourth World – strategy of exit from the system, the formation and/or maintenance of culturally organized communities that are self-sufficient and politically autonomous:

(a)  strategies usually take the form of cultural movements for the re-establishment of formerly repressed identity and lifestyle.

(b)  strategies usually reject all forms of modernity and especially the notion of universal development. They are traditionalistic, and attempt, further, to establish a functioning social order based on particular world-views and/or religious schemes.

(c)  tendency to egalitarianism, since there is no basis for ranking in such movements: often local history is re-envisaged so that an original state of existence without any form of social hierarchy is posited at the beginning of time.  If leadership is posited, it is invariably in the form of the charismatic leader who is the saviour or father or mother of his/her people and is the embodiment of their values.

Lash, S. & Friedman, J. (Eds.). (1993). Modernity & Identity. Massachusetts: Blackwell, in the essay  “Narcissism, roots and postmodernity” by Jonathan Friedman

Asian Modernism

In those areas of the East characterized by rapid economic growth there are new forms of modernism. These have to be seen in relation to the declining dominance of the West in order to understand the difference between their particularistic cultural character and the universalistic evolutionism they embody. On the one hand they have emphasized the moral core of the Confucian order, expressed in Neo-Confucianism, an order that stresses the ethics of the bureaucratic public sphere, an abstract morality, but one extracted from the ideals of the family and elevated to a set of generalized social principles. This has been linked to the notion that the NIC (Newly Industrialized Countries) lands, for example, have some special culture that is conducive to development, and even superior to Western individualism. There have, on the other hand, been numerous discussions of the relation between Confucian developmentalism and Western models. Neo-Confucianist ideology stresses the goals of democracy and rationalist development above practically all else. The particularistic property of this self-conscious programme of modernity is related to its ethnic base in Chinese civilization. There is an interesting logic in this new modernism. It might be argued that the problem with Western mediocrity is that its individualism tends to erode the moral values that render the entire project of modernity a genuine possibility. Such a view would dovetail with [Daniel] Bell’s analysis of the dialectical contradictions of modernity that generate, all by themselves, the postmodern dissipation that has now taken form in the West. In the Eastern model with its weaker, if clearly present, individual, entirely eroded to the project of the group, such disintegration ought not to be possible.

Lash, S. & Friedman, J. (Eds.). (1993). Modernity & Identity. Massachusetts: Blackwell, pg. 356

Resources on Spinoza

Having recently finished Spinoza’s Ethics, I thought that I might as well post some of the charts other people have made highlighting the insights he makes via his geometrical method. In particular, this chart offers a useful summary of the entire Ethics.

In my own approach to Spinoza, I chose to read the Ethics in a fairly casual manner, i.e. via audiobook, as opposed to having a hard copy and checking each proposition to see if his point is adequately proved by those preceding it. Close readers of Spinoza can take advantage of the online version containing hyperlinks to previous propositions, which eliminates the need to onerously flip back and forth and thus saves the reader a great deal of time.

For the advanced reader of Spinoza, Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu is a Spinozist who formerly wrote prolifically on his blog, which includes a project known as Spinoza’s Foci, which analyzed the impact of Spinoza’s vocation as a lens-grinder on his philosophical thought. In early 2010 he began a new blogging experiment called Mitochondrial Vertigo, which has since become inactive. Nonetheless, his writings are still available, and critique the interpretations of Spinoza by prominent contemporary philosophers.