Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Bullshitting: Bullshitting In Philosophy: Bullshitting About Race: John Caputo

   Well, here's how it starts:
“White” is of the utmost relevance to philosophy, and postmodern theory helps us to see why. I was once criticized for using the expression “true north.” It reflected my Nordo-centrism, my critic said, and my insensitivity to people who live in the Southern Hemisphere. Of course, no such thing had ever crossed my mind, but that points to the problem.
   I reckon there must be at least two kinds of people...those who might continue to waste their time reading this, and those who perform triage at this point, realizing that life is short, and move on...
   Just for the record, it simply doesn't seem to be true at all that "'white' is of the utmost relevance to philosophy"...whatthehellever that is supposed to mean... In the face of crap like this, I find it annoying to have to note that race is a pretty important topic. In fact, it's important enough that it's probably a bit difficult to exaggerate its importance. And yet folks over in that academic quadrant routinely do so. Race simply isn't the end-all and be-all of human existence. It's an important topic. But, honestly, it's not that philosophically important. It's important politically, and in terms of policy. But it's not important from every perspective or in every discipline. It's not important mathematically. I'm led to believe that it's really not all that important to biology. And it's not that important philosophically either. But many philosophers are liberals and lefter-than-liberals, and such people love to gnash their teeth and rend their garments about race and sex... So here we are. And who knows? Arguments might emerge some day that show that we philosophers ought to be doing just that. But they don't exist now.
   The Caputo interview is long. I didn't make it very far into it. Philosophy, as you may know, is a sprawling kind of discipline, and to say the very least, someone like me has very little in common with someone like Caputo...someone who, for example, thinks that the distinction between geodetic north and magnetic north is fraught with "Nordocentrism"... (In fact, it's probably worse than that...it's probably just some whining about the use of the word 'true' in conjunction with the word 'north'...) Philosophy can be good, but bad philosophy is really, really bad. Bad philosophy is a confusion force multiplier. Sadly, this toxic soup of postmodernism etc., leftist politics, and an obsession with mere words has led many people in the humanities and social sciences down the rabbit hole. I can only urge others, in the strongest possible terms, not to follow them.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think one's views about how central something like race is to the canon has a lot to do with one's teachers. The questions relating to sex and gender are the same. The history of Western philosophy is rife with racism and sexism, to the point that it's actually quite embarrassing. In the face of that, the standard line had long been to disregard these regrettable passages, and to focus on the "real stuff." That said, both critical race theorists and feminists have in recent times called this reading (or non-reading) into question, and I think there's been much important work done in those fields. That doesn't mean race is the end all be all of philosophy, or that there isn't much silliness happening in the field generally, but I'd be weary of throwing out the baby with the bath-water. It's a popular view that you can simply bracket Kant's racism, for example, but on closer scrutiny I think it was much more central to his thought that most scholars allow. Why is that? Because even many Kant scholars were told not to read his Anthropology, etc. That said, so far as I can tell, it was William James--in his anti-imperialist works--who first traced the link between the legacy of universal Reason and colonialism and imperialism. That doesn't seem like nothing to me, and philosophers who disregard that history do so at their peril.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Hey, A, and thanks for the interesting and temperate comment.

One's teachers are important, of course, but not determiative of what one thinks. I disagreed with my profs more than I agreed with them, just for instance... Interesting, the very view that one's teachers are more important than the content of the arguments is itself in the vicinity of the priority-of-race-and-sex folks, who tend to incline toward genetic explanations and the hermeneutics of suspicion... Anyway, I don't think one's profs are any more important with respect to these topics than with respect to any other.
Philosophy--like just about every other anything with a sufficiently long history--has an embarrassing history of racism, sexism, and other kinds of stupidity and badness. Sometimes this can be separated out from most or some of a thinker's thought, sometimes not. Frege's logic has nothing to do with his antisemitism. Heidegger's antisemitism...not so clear...

We agree that race isn't the end-all and be-all of philosophy...but we disagree about the importance of what has allegedly been discovered/argued by feminist philosophers and critical race theorists. I don't want to be dogmatic about this...I'll admit that I have little patience for the stuff...but I've read a lot of the relevant feminism and find it just terrible. It almost always fails to deliver on its promise to reveal important, fundamental facts about sexism at the core of philosophy. We can find lots of sexism by philosophers...but we all agree that it's bad, and no particularly feminist type of analysis is required. And none seems to help. We get claims that feminism is a fundamental branch of philosophy, and that it can reveal fundamental errors in the way the rest of us are doing it...but it never does. Take someone like Helen Longino...the promised fundamental revelations of feminist analysis just never show up...
I've read less critical race theory, but critical theory in general doesn't seem that interesting to me, and when I do try to read CRT I find it, too, pretty disappointing...
I mean...one doesn't want to harp on someone's worst errors...but that Caputo "true north" business is an embarrassment... And it's not a slip of the tongue (nor the brain)... It has all the hallmarks of a considered view. In fact, it closely resembles a lot of the arguments/assertions one finds over thereabouts... It's almost a paradigm of a certain type of reasoning one finds there. And it's bad...not just a little bit bad, but world-historical bad. Terrible. Embarrassing. Not even anywhere close to being good...
It's that kind of thing that makes me inclined to suspect that it's bath-water all the way down... That we might throw the stuff out all day long and never waste a baby...
As for Kant's anthropology, I don't see any way that anything there undermines anything in, say, Critiques 1-3... The racist stuff in there is mostly speculation based on faulty hearsay evidence. Regrettable, but not in any way revealing anything fundamental about Kant's view...

So, well, I guess we maybe disagree about everything here...though, of course, I could be wrong and you could be right.

But I just don't see it.

My own view is that people are concerned with race, and they're interested in talking about it, and they're interested in philosophy, and people who are interested in philosophy often simply import their other interests and try to find some way to talk about them in a philosophical context. But sometimes they're wrong, and there's just not much there there, philosophically speaking. Again, I think race is very important in terms of policy and politics and history...but not philosophically...

11:55 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Yeah, I would be interested in knowing why you think Kant's racism is "much more central to his thought that most scholars allow." I don't mean to be presumptuous, but that strikes me as a philosophical bluff.. it seems like you're holding some great insight into his thought, but I would be utterly blown away if you demonstrated that any of Kant's most important arguments somehow require racist thought or something...

4:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey again, I'll grant that my claim was overstated (and just not well formulated). But the basic thought I'd had was something like this. What Kant got from Rousseau was that, for law to be legitimate, it needs to be self-legislated. That said, the lynch-pin that keeps this from turning into mere relativism is universal reason. Since reason is universal, the law reasonable beings will legislate to themselves will be the same. That said, "reason" was perhaps the primary criterion used in legitimating imperial conquest--subjugation, domination, slavery, etc. (Do these beings we're finding in other parts of the world exhibit "reason"?) The "people" Europeans were colonizing supposedly didn't show signs of what was allegedly universal reason, and thus weren't reasonable at all, and thus weren't really human, and thus it wasn't objectionable to do whatever we want with them (just as it's difficult to get an Kantian animal ethics off of the ground). Now, the problem with the claim I made was that I claimed all this was internally central to Kant's thought--which I suppose it isn't, or at least I can't demonstrate that it is. But it's not hard to put the pieces together, especially not given the explicitly racist material of his elsewhere. Rather than having said what I said, perhaps I should have made the following allusion to Nietzsche: one of his pet peeves (to put it lightly), was the habit of folks to accept the death of God and think they can keep Christian morality as though it wasn't a package deal. And I suppose my problem is, that while people try to bracket Kant's explicitly racist moments, I still think his thought--even if limited to his ethical thought--has the strategic suitability for legitimating colonialism. Granted, again, that's not what I originally said, but if you forgive me for that, I'd be interested to hear what you think. Thanks for the responses!

10:24 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Well, there's certainly an important distinction between Kant's thought being founded on racism and racism's attempted founding on Kant's thought.

Could people try to declare other ethnicities/races inhumanly irrational and thereby sidestep the immorality of their mistreatment? Sure. Is that in any way a justifiable thing to do? So far, no.

I mean, if there were actually a race of humans which were utterly irrationally violent and insane, then their humanity would be in jeopardy (though we'd probably wade through a virtually endless set of alternate explanations before thinking such a thing). But since there's not...that's where that ends. Right?

A valid system of thought's potential for misuse at the hands of false premises does not make it untrue. In fact, I would suspect the most useful systems of thought to be simultaneously the most ripe for abuse by that very means. If you had a crazy-ass, totally logically invalid theory about morality, you're not going to get very far in leveraging any premise, no matter how wild and incorrect, against it. But, if you have a really good, logically valid theory of morality and you take advantage of an unrelated public misconception to draw an unsound, but valid, conclusion, you can probably get a hell of a lot more people on board.

1:08 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Thanks again for your comments, A. For what it's worth, I disagree. I think that the Mystic has it right. It seems to me that what you've described is a paradigm of something extrinsic to Kant rather than intrinsic to Kant. People took a view that is naturally egalitarian and used it for nefarious purposes. Just like they've done with basically every other view we've ever developed. But...not to put too fine a point on it--the orientation I'm grumbling about has it that the problems with Western philosophy in general is intrinsic, and a new type of analysis/approach/orientation is requried to reveal this and fix it. But IMO the arguments for this never work as advertised.
I tend to disagree with Nietzsche on this point, and tend to think, rather, something like the opposite--that God never had any intrinsic role to play in a roughly Kantian morality, and so the loss of God doesn't matter. But I acknowledge that it's a live question.
Also FWIW, I simply don't see that the core of Kant is particularly suited to supporting racism, colonialism, etc. Again, any view can be put to such uses. We know of no view that magically seals itself off from misconstrual and misuse.
I'm not saying anything new nor unpredictable here, so it's all probably disappinting...
On a similarly predictable note, I guess I might add that there *is* a type of moral view that I think *does* have a natural affinity with prejudice and the mistreatment of others, and that's the kind of cultural relativism that is typically advanced by folks over in the Caputo quadrant. Such folk often inexplicably believe that moral relativism entails or suggests pluralism and tolerance. But of course it doesn't. Though there's an enormous amount of confusion about such a view, one thing is clear enough: if culture somehow grounds morality, then it's contingent facts about your culture that will determine how others allegedly ought to be treated. If you happen to have a racist/ethnocentric (or whatever) culture, then you're not only permitted but obligated to treat people from other cultures or groups badly.
That's all fast and sloppy, and hardly bulletproof...but there it is, shot from the hip.

12:55 PM  

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