Katherine came to class, participated actively in discussions and submitted all required written work. What I found most interesting about Katherine’s work was that she had quite compelling ideas about the meaning of art, and about the role that making art plays in everyday life. As interesting is the fact that Katherine’s ideas connected directly to issues about her own identity. She was raised in a family that valued science and mathematics and encouraged the c children to hone these ski8lls as much as possible. Katherine saw herself as slightly different from her family in that she has an interest in literature and art, and in how individuals can express themselves through writing, visual arts and performance. Her aesthetic theory focused on the idea that people should not think of art as its various formal expressions but rather as a more democratic activity of self-expression that individuals can use every day.

Katherine’s written work had the precision, and brevity, one often sees in the work of those with a science background. Her prose is to the point; she says what needs to be said, and says it well, but does not spend a great deal of time elaborating her points.

Samantha Berkman


Samantha completed her contract for this course in a distinguished and distinctive manner. She came to virtually every class session and during such sessions she was always busy taking notes, diagramming and drawing, all having to do with the subjects we were discussing. I remember that, as a student, I also drew and made diagrams during classes but almost never to help my understanding of the material. Samantha is both clever and artistically adept enough to use her class time to meld imaginative artwork and close attention to class discussions.

This ability came to fruition in her Kant essay exam. Kant is, as he himself describes it, an architectonic thinker whose thought lends itself to visual representation. Samantha exploited this to the fullest in producing a striking and useful set of diagrams and line drawings to illustrate some of the more recondite points in the Critique of Pure Reason. It worked brilliantly, demonstrating exactly how well Samantha got what Kant was doing.

Samantha did not illustrate Hegel as much because, as she understood, Hegel is far more processive than Kant and would be easier to represent cinematically, perhaps, than with static images. In any event Samantha turned the exam to her own interests and skills and submitted a series of observations on Hegel that were as fragmentary, but as interesting, as was her grasp of that thinker’s Protean ‘system.’


Overall, Samantha wedded her serious interest and understanding to her imaginative gifts to produce excellent work that showed a fine grasp of the challenging ideas we were discussing. Contract completed with distinction.




Overall, a contract well completed with some very imaginative insights.



Jake Boyle

PHIL230 –Nineteenth Century Philosophy



Hegel Exam 2009


Section One – Comment on Princeton grad student blog post

              This blog post did two things very well: first it very clearly gave an explanation of Hegel’s use of Geist and, secondly, explicitly set up where Hegel’s break from Kant occurs.  The metaphor that the author uses to describe Geist – that it is a “historical sediment or residue containing the various meanings… that have existed for beings” – sets up a basic notion of the idea of Geist.  The fact that Geist is a product of history changing and growing various meanings, adding on to itself over the years, is laid out very clearly using this geological metaphor.  The move that the author makes next, however, is what makes this blog post’s argument very successful in terms of its description of Geist.  He breaks down the weak geological metaphor and expands on it by saying that the afore mentioned sedimentary layers “need to be fluid to be conceived correctly.”  That is they aren’t so much years of rock piled one on top of the other but in actuality more akin to various liquids combining together in a glass to form something new.  To make a Caribou Lou, for example, you need to mix 151 proof rum, Malibu coconut rum, and pineapple juice.  Each ingredient doesn’t pile on top of each other but instead mixes together “in such a way that each top layer that gets added takes up all of the lower layers and reasserts them as themselves in its own existence there.”  In short, Geist is more cocktail than pile.

              The second, and more important to the class, success of the blog post was the author’s underscoring of the break between Kant and Hegel.  This break, the author argues, comes from both philosophers theory on the source of meaning in the world.  He says, “For Kant and many Christian scholars, the meaning of the world is guaranteed to exist irrespective of any actions of beings within that world of beings – namely the world is guaranteed to exist in and by God.”  For Kant and company what people do has no significance to affect the meaning of the world.  Since God created the world and bequeathed meaning onto us, “the question as to why the world of beings exists instead of nothing is always already decided in advance or a priori… by God, who knows or keeps in reserve… the powerful and sublime activity that is the answer.”   The difference for Hegel is the complete opposite, that “there is no meaning outside the meaningful actions of beings themselves, and the accumulated mass of these meanings.”  This difference underscores the separation between Kant and Hegel philosophies.  For Kant there is meaning but you can never get to it; as for Hegel there is meaning but you have to create it and may not realize it in your lifetime.  This underlying difference is the backbone of the incompatibility of the two philosophers works.


Section Two – Parsing of paragraphs 228FF

              Self-consciousness only exists if it’s recognized.  We perceive this recognition as our self-consciousness always realizing itself.  This perception is multi-faceted and has various parts that are more or less important than others.  Therefore its mechanisms have to be independent of each other while at the same time being part of a greater whole.  This paradox is naturally part of self-consciousness, since self-consciousness is limitless and can never be established exactly.  Recognition is the extensive attempt to explain this paradox.

              Self-consciousness faces another self-consciousness outside of itself.  The meaning of this is two fold.  First by being another being it loses its own self.  Secondly it assimilates the other because it considers the other not real but a reflection of itself.   Self-consciousness must cancel this other self-consciousness.  This action is the assimilation of that first paradox into itself and is thusly a second paradox.  First it must assimilate the other self-consciousness, in order to convince itself that it’s a true being.  Secondly it then has to assimilate itself into itself, for this other self-consciousness is now itself.  This assimilation in two ways of its otherness as a paradox is also a return in two ways into itself.  For, first of all, through assimilation, it gets itself back because it unifies with itself through the canceling of its own otherness, while at the same time giving the other self-consciousness back otherness because it removes itself from the other and lets the other go free.

              The relation of one self-consciousness in relation to another has so far been represented as if only one had been doing anything.  In reality both self-consciousnesses have been doing the same thing the whole time.  The other self-consciousness is its own being.  The first self-consciousness does not force the second to do anything except what the first makes it do.  The second is also doing things on its own that the first has no power to manipulate unless it does exactly what the first self-consciousness wants it to do. This process relies on both self-consciousnesses working in concert.  They have to work together; otherwise the actions of both self-consciousnesses would be meaningless.  This action then has a double meaning, not only because it’s an action done to itself as well as the other self-consciousness, but also because that act simply is the act of both self-consciousnesses.

              In this part of the process, we see what was discussed before happen as the actual engagement of these actions.  What we’re talking about, however, is found in consciousness.  What before was only us thinking about what was happening, now the terms themselves are in the process of doing just that.  All the terms have on thing in common: a self-consciousness that breaks up into extremes.  Each of these extremes is the changing of its exact from into its opposite form.  While being consciousness it no doubt comes outside itself while, still being outside itself, it is at the same time restrained within itself, existing for itself, and its action of giving external form to itself is for consciousness.  Consciousness discovers that it both is and isn’t another consciousness, in the sense that this other is existing for itself only when it stops existing for itself, and exists itself only while the other exists.   Each consciousness is the connecting force to the other, through which each connects while at the same time existing by itself only through this connection.  They recognize their own existence as both recognizing the other’s existence. 

              The perfect appearance of recognition, or the multiplying of self-consciousness within the whole of the self-consciousness, must now be thought of in the way its process appears to the self-consciousness.  It will first show the differences between the multiples, or the break-up of the commonality in to the extremes, which, upon becoming extremes, oppose one another. One of these oppositions will only recognize the other, while the recognized will only be recognized, but not recognize the first, and vice versa. 

              Self-consciousness is mainly the basic existence, the identity of the self, independent of everyone and everything else.  It takes its absolutely necessary features and total material thing to be Ego, or its conscious thinking subject; and in this immediacy it is individual.  But another person is also self-consciousness; an individual makes its appearance in opposition to another individual.  Appearing this way they are, for each other, appearing like ordinary objects.  They are individual forms of self-consciousness independent from the subject’s self-consciousness.  They exist as modes of consciousness that have moved beyond the basic level of being alive.  Additionally they are forms of consciousness that haven’t helped each other in the process of absolute abstraction.  What this means is the eradication of all immediate existence and only being simply a self-individual.  In other words, they haven’t begun to exist purely as an individual self-consciousness. Each self-consciousness is aware of its own self-individual but not of the other.  Therefore it can’t be certain that it truly is itself, because that truth could only come from an object independent of the self-consciousness revealing that truth to it.  This achievement of the pure abstraction of existence isn’t possible unless both selves recognize each other.

              This presentation of self-consciousness as pure abstraction of itself consists in showing itself as the opposition of its objective form; in other words by showing it isn’t restrained to a limited existence or individuals qualities of existence, or a limited life.  Making this happen requires both the other and the self to do something.  Both are trying to destroy the other.  But this implies that there must also be self-activity because the aforementioned action implies that the self risks its own life.  The way self and other interact is designed so that they establish themselves as having reached the level of objective truth, as well as established the other to the same level.  Freedom can only be obtained by risking the life of the self because that is the only way to prove that the basic nature of self-consciousness is not basic existence.  Instead it is guaranteed that there is nothing else present except the pure self.  The person who hasn’t risked his life is still a person, but he just hasn’t attained the truth that comes from recognizing himself as an independent self-consciousness.  Similarly, this person must aim at the death of the other as it risks its own life, because with out aiming at each other’s destruction, neither can attain the truth of an independent self-consciousness.

              This risking of life, however, cancels both the truth that came from it and the certainty of self as well. If life is where consciousness is supposed to be then death is the negation of consciousness, a denial of independence that is what remains before the recognition of one’s self.  After death arrives the certainty that both self-consciousnesses risked their lives and held little regard for; but this is not true for either self-consciousness that risked their lives.  They cancel their consciousness that was part of the unknown part of natural existence; in other words they abolish themselves and are assimilated into a greater whole as a term or extremes seeking to have existence on their own.  But in addition to this essential moment, namely when these consciousnesses break up into extremes with opposite characteristics, disappears from the mechanism through which change occurs; and the commonality collapses into a lifeless unity that is broken up into lifeless extremes, that only exist and aren’t opposed.  And the two self-consciousnesses do not both give and receive on another back from each other through consciousness; they let one another go with out any concern, like they would normal things.  This is a non-physical negation, not the negation befitting consciousness, which negates something while preserving and marinating what it assimilates.  Instead it negates everything, preserving nothing and assimilating everything into itself.

              In this experience self-consciousness becomes aware that life is equally important to it as unadulterated self-consciousness.  In intuitive self-consciousness, the simple ego, or thinking thing, is absolute object, which, however, is for us or in itself complete mediation, and has at its shortest moment in time important and concrete independence.  The break down of that simple unity comes from the first experience; because of this first experience there is a pure self-consciousness and a consciousness that isn’t entirely meant for itself but another, like as a consciousness that appears as an ordinary thing.  Both effects are important because, in the first effect, the two self-consciousnesses are different and it isn’t apparent that they’ve unified so therefore they exist as opposed forms or modes of consciousness.  The one is independent, and it is meant to exist for itself; the other is dependent, and it is meant to exist for another.  The former is the Master, or Lord, the latter the Bondsman.


Section Three - The three-way discussion

              In this three-way discussion I am forced to side somewhere in between Hegel and the Darwinist/Pragmatists, leaning more to the latter.  By this I mean that, first of all, I do not believe whatsoever in Kant’s concept of reason as a fixed character.  I agree with Rorty in qualifying this as Kant’s “God replacement”, an attempt to say that there is a God without really using the word God.  Kant’s philosophy requires a leap of faith and I would go so far as to say any philosophical notion based on faith and God is faulty because it’s proof lies in the afterlife.  I disagree completely with any notion of an independent spirit or reason.

              So why then do I stake my claim between the Darwinist/Pragmatists and Hegel instead of only in the formers camp? I agree completely with the Darwinist/Pragmatists that reason is a set of strategies that developed over the long course of the human/nature interaction.  I also, like I said earlier, disagree with Hegel that reason manifests itself through a spirit independent from what humans create.  I do however think that there is a spirit; it is just a manmade spirit – more in line with Hegel’s conception of Zeitgeist.  I would not go so far as to say along with Hegel that spirit is transcendent, but instead generated by humans themselves.  If you, for example, were to go to a political rally where every one is unified in their excitement for one single cause you would most likely feel certain energy buzzing through the crowd; ethereal but no less real.  A Hegelian would argue that this is spirit manifesting itself in this crowd.  I would argue that that notion could just as easily be classified as a “God replacement” as Kant’s Reason.  Instead I would say that this spirit is instead generated by the crowd alone; again, no less real, but manmade instead of independent from human life.


Section Four- The Zeitgeist in music

              Right now I am diligently typing out my Hegel Exam in the Armacost Library.  I have all my books and necessary papers.  I’m on track to finish all my work for the semester today.  Tomorrow, my last full day here, will most likely not be spent struggling to complete my work but instead relaxing with what friends are left on campus and then heading home for the holidays.  Why, then, am I so angry with myself?

              I forgot to bring my headphones to the library for the second day in a row.  That means that that the next multitude of hours I will be spending here will be devoid of music of any sort, minus the occasional ring tone jerking me out of a Zen-like state of work.  I am and always have been a music geek.  My iPod wakes me up every morning, my iTunes is always open on my computer, most of my t-shirts were purchased at concerts (currently Hot Chip) and I’ve spent the equivalent of a small island nation GDP on concert tickets in my life. 

I mention all this to establish the fact that I know music like a rabbi knows the Talmud.  And I am here today to discuss the Musikalischer Geist der Zeiten, or musical spirit of the times (full discretion: I translated that on the internet and do not speak a word of German).  I was lucky enough to have been born at the dawning of the Internet age.  Being part of the first generation of human beings to have had a computer in their house for as long as they can remember, I am in a unique position to be both a firsthand witness to watching music evolve with the internet and also expertly benefit from these changes the way most adults cannot. 

It would be more than safe to say that the Internet changed how people access and create music.  First there was an Internet musical boom.  With Napster and the advent of file sharing, as well as the MP3 player, any one could get any song ever recorded ever if they knew where to go.  Soon you had middle-class white kids listening to hip-hop, poor black kids listening to heavy metal, kids in Japan starting alt-rock bands, in addition to seemingly every single European becoming a Techno DJ.  I wouldn’t be so rash as to say that this wouldn’t have happened with out the Internet, but it would be naïve to argue that it could never have happened on the level it did unless every one and the mother had access to the World Wide Web. 

With this new exposure music began to change in ways that no one could ever have expected.  Bands began to experiment across genres and to invent new ones in ways never seen before.  Allow me to give an example.  Conveniently Pitchfork Media just released their list of the Top 50 Albums of 2009.  I took the top 10 albums and went to the artists pages to find the ways listeners classified, or “tagged”, their music: 

10. Girls – Album (yes that’s the name of their album) – lo-fi, indie-pop

9. Fever Ray – Fever Ray – electronic, ambient

8. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix – electronic, indie-pop

7. Bat For Lashes – Two Suns – alternative, folk

6. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest – psychedelic/experimental pop

5. Raekwon – Only Built for Cuban Linx... Pt. II – hip-hop, east coast rap

4. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic – experimental rock

3. The xx – The xx – post-punk, electronic dance

2. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca – experimental, freak folk

1. Animal Collective – Merriwether Post Pavilion – avant-garde, freak folk


The one thing that is clear is that the basic genres “rock”, “pop” and “hip-hop” are as dead as disco is alive these days (and disco is back).  If I were to classify the musical Zeitgeist as one thing it would be genre bending and expansion of newer forms of music.


Section Five – The most interesting Hegel

              Last night Carlos, the former Johnston Associate Director, dropped by Bekins and spent close to three hours in the Jimmy Room talking to us about what was going in his life.  Part of this was his explanation of the Baha’i faith, of which he is a member and employee.  I happen to live about fifteen minutes from the Baha’i temple in Wilmette, Illinois, the only one like it in North America, so the religion was always an interest to me.  Part of this faith is the notion of progressive revelation, that God will reveal religious truth progressively and cyclically over time through a variation of ways.  What struck me about this was the similarity to Hegel’s Geist.  Although Hegel’s vision is God realizing truth over time as opposed to revealing it, the similarities between Hegelian thought and this particular tenant of Baha’i have been the most interesting thing I thought about having read and discussed Hegel.  

              In terms of what I know now that I didn’t know before reading Hegel was his influence on Marx and the Pragmatists.  Being able to look back at the source of these philosophies that I have studied quite extensively over the past few years gave me fresh perspective on not just Marxism and Pragmatism but also Philosophy in general, which is what I hoped to accomplish from this course.


Section six – Garden of quotes

“Art’s vocation is to unveil the truth in the form of sensuous artistic configuration, to set forth the reconciled opposition just mentioned [the common world of earthly temporality, and a realm of thought and freedom], and so to have its end and aim in itself, in this very setting forth and unveiling.”

Introduction to the Lectures on Aesthetics (1826)

              This quote is particularly interesting in lieu of what I was just discussing about regarding the Zeitgeist reflected in music.  I chose to focus on music for that particular piece because it is one of my areas of great expertise but, in reality, there is more to what I was talking about in terms of the greater Zeitgeist.  If Hegel is right and art’s job is to reveal the truth through itself then one of the great truths of our age is completely reflected in the music we listen to.  Our music is a reflection of the Internet age and a mirror towards how we live our lives.  The instant access that any musician has to any other musician is universal for any person in any field of work.  The music we listen to holds up a mirror to us and says, “Look, we’re just like you!  We spend all of our days connected to the Internet and it has helped us grow and develop in ways we could’ve never expected.”


“The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.”

              During the Bush years I found myself pulling my hair out in frustration with my spoiled upper-middle class peers who were complaining that because we had a neo-con in the White House we suddenly were no longer “free”.  In retrospect I should have been carrying around a history book to show how even one hundred years ago in our very own country there were people who were much less free than we all are today.  I am a card-carrying member of the Green Party but I am not naïve enough to trade 8 years under Bush for one under, say, Caligula. 


Searle on Relativism and Letter Responses 




Volume 56, Number 14 · September 24, 2009

Why Should You Believe It?


By John R. Searle

Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism

by Paul A. Boghossian

Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 139 pp., $19.95 (paper)



Relativism has a long history in our intellectual culture, and takes several different forms, such as relativism about knowledge and truth, ethical values, aesthetic quality, and cultural norms, to mention a few. Paul Boghossian's book concentrates on the first of these. The basic idea he opposes is that claims to objective truth and knowledge, for example the claim that hydrogen atoms have one electron, are in fact only valid relative to a set of cultural attitudes, or to some other subjective way of perceiving the world. Furthermore, according to relativism, inconsistent claims may have what he calls "equal validity." There can be no universally valid knowledge claims.


There is a traditional refutation of relativism, as follows: The claim that all truth is relative is itself either relative or not. If it is relative then we need not accept it because it is only valid relative to somebody's attitudes, which we may not share. If it is not relative, but absolute, then it refutes the view that all truth is relative. Either way relativism is refuted. Boghossian considers this traditional refutation and though he thinks it is serious, he does not regard it as decisive. For one thing, most relativists regard it as a kind of logical trick. They think that they are possessed of a deep insight, that all of our knowledge claims are made relative to a certain set of attitudes, cultural norms, and prejudices. This insight is not refuted by logical arguments, or so they suppose.



The currently most influential form of relativism is social constructivism, which Boghossian defines as follows: "A fact is socially constructed if and only if it is necessarily true that it could only have obtained through the contingent actions of a social group." The social constructivist is anxious to expose construction where none had been suspected, where something that is in fact essentially social had come to masquerade as part of the natural world. Many social constructivists find it liberating because it frees us from the apparent oppression of supposing that we are forced to accept claims about the world as matters of mind-independent fact when in reality they are all socially constructed. If we do not like a fact that others have constructed, we can construct another fact that we prefer.


What do relativism and social constructivism look like in practice? Boghossian gives a number of striking examples. According to our best evidence, the Native Americans arrived on this continent from the Eurasian landmass by crossing over the Bering Strait; but according to some Native American accounts they are the descendants of the Buffalo people, and they came from inside the earth after supernatural spirits prepared this world for habitation by humans. So here are two alternative and inconsistent accounts. Some anthropologists say that one account is as good as the other. As one put it, "Science is just one of many ways of knowing the world. [The Zunis' worldview is] just as valid as the archaeological viewpoint of what prehistory is about." Our science constructs one reality; the Native Americans construct another. As Boghossian sees it, this is not acceptable. These two theories are logically inconsistent with each other; they cannot both be true. Is there any way to eliminate the inconsistency?


The answer, say the relativists, is to see that each claim is relative. We should say not that the early Americans came by way of the Bering Strait, but rather: "according to our theory," they came by the Bering Strait. And "according to some Native American theories," they came out of the earth. Once relativized, the inconsistency disappears. Indeed all claims are relativized in this way (including presumably the claim that the original claims were inconsistent and the claim that they have been relativized). Will relativism rescue social constructivism? Boghossian sees correctly that relativism fails to solve the problem, and much of his book is about this failure. I do not agree with all of his arguments but I support his overall project.


problem faced by social constructivism concerns facts about the past. Are we now constructing facts about the past when we make claims about history? One extreme social constructivist cited by Boghossian, Bruno Latour, accepts this conclusion with somewhat comical results. Recent research shows that the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II probably died of tuberculosis. But according to Latour, this is impossible because the tuberculosis bacillus was only discovered by Robert Koch in 1882.[1] "Before Koch, the bacillus had no real existence." To say that Ramses II died of tuberculosis is as absurd as saying that he died of machine-gun fire.


What is one to make of Latour's claim? The machine gun was invented in the late nineteenth century, and prior to that invention it did not exist in any form. But the tuberculosis bacillus was not invented. It was discovered. Part of the meaning of "discovery" is that to be discovered something has to exist prior to the discovery, and indeed could not have been discovered if it had not existed prior to the discovery.


The claim that knowledge is a social construction is not meant to state the commonplace truth that many facts in the social world are indeed socially constructed. For example, something is money, private property, a government, or a marriage only because people believe that's what it is, and in that sense such things are socially constructed. Social constructivism makes the much more radical claim that physical reality itself, the very facts we might think we have discovered in physics, chemistry, and the other natural sciences are socially constructed.


This view has been influential in a number of disciplines: feminism, sociology, anthropology, philosophy of science, and literary theory among others. The titles of some typical works express various degrees of support for the doctrine: Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality; Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar's Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts; Andrew Pickering's Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics; Donald MacKenzie's Statistics in Britain, 1865–1930: The Social Construction of ScientificKnowledge.[2] Boghossian quotes a feminist view as follows:


Feminist epistemologists, in common with many other strands of contemporary epistemology, no longer regard knowledge as a neutral transparent reflection of an independently existing reality, with truth and falsity established by transcendent procedures of rational assessment. Rather, most accept that all knowledge is situated knowledge, reflecting the position of the knowledge producer at a certain historical moment in a given material and cultural context.[3]

This passage is worth a close reading. On the face of it, the two views being contrasted, that knowledge is a "reflection of an independently existing reality" and that "all knowledge is situated knowledge," are perfectly consistent. Historically situated investigators can discover the truth about "an independently existing reality." But the point of the passage is to claim that most feminists reject the idea that knowledge reflects an independently existing reality; and the rhetorical flourishes in the passage, such as "transcendent procedures of rational assessment" and "neutral transparent reflection," are designed to reinforce that point.




Boghossian distinguishes three features of constructivism and considers each separately: constructivism about the facts (the facts themselves are social constructions), constructivism about justification (what we count as a justification of a belief is a matter of social construction), and constructivism about rational explanation (we never believe what we believe solely on the basis of evidence).


About the first and most important of these theses, Boghossian considers arguments from three philosophers: Hilary Putnam, Nelson Goodman, and Richard Rorty. Putnam imagines a hypothetical universe consisting of three circles: A, B, and C. Then he asks: How many objects are there in this universe? Three? No, says Putnam, because according to certain Polish logicians (he cites S. Lezniewski), we can construe one object as A, one as B, one as C, one as consisting of A+B, another as B+C, yet another as A+C, and finally, one of A+B+C. So on this basis, there are really seven objects in the universe. Because we can correctly say that there are three objects or seven objects, Putnam concludes that there is no objective fact of the matter about how many objects there are.[4]


As Boghossian sees, the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Once you have selected your conditions for something being an object, there is a straightforward fact of the matter about how many objects there are. For Putnam to say that there is no fact of the matter would be like saying that there is no answer to the question "How many guests came to the dinner party?" because you could say eight people or four couples.


Goodman's argument is also weak. Goodman says we construct the constellations of the night sky by drawing certain lines and not others. We draw one set of lines that creates the Big Dipper, for example. All other constellations are similarly created, and what goes for constellations goes for everything, according to Goodman. All of reality consists of human creations.Once again, a bad argument. Constellations are patterns we have selected in the sky because we can discern through our perceptual apparatus certain geometrical forms such as the Big Dipper. Constellations are, in this sense, observer-relative: the actual stars exist independently of any observer, though the patterns we use to name constellations exist only relative to our point of view.


But the stars, as well as mountains, molecules, and tectonic plates, are not in that way relative to an observer. True, we have to select a vocabulary of "stars," "mountains," etc., but once the vocabulary has been selected, it is a completely objective fact that Mount Everest is a mountain, for example, and not a giraffe. The general pattern of error is to confuse, on the one hand, the social relativity of the vocabulary and the making of descriptions within that vocabulary with, on the other, the social relativity of the facts described using that vocabulary. This comes out strikingly in Rorty's argument.


orty says that we accept the descriptions we do, not because they correspond to the way things are, but because it serves our practical interests to do so. Boghossian agrees that the fact that we give the descriptions we do is a fact that reflects something about us and our society. But, he points out, the fact that descriptions are socially relative does not imply that the facts described by those descriptions are socially relative. Boghossian cites an argument by Rorty attacking an article of mine[5] in which I said that mountains, for example, exist completely independently of us and our descriptions. Rorty answered as follows:


Given that it pays to talk about mountains, as it certainly does, one of the obvious truths about mountains is that they were here before we talked about them. If you do not believe that, you probably do not know how to play the usual language-games which employ the word "mountain." But the utility of those language-games has nothing to do with the question of whether Reality as It Is In Itself, apart from the way it is handy for human beings to describe it, has mountains in it.[6]

This is a strange passage. Rorty is saying correctly that we adopt the vocabulary that we do because it serves various interests to have that vocabulary. But what he neglects is that the facts in this sort of case exist quite independently of the vocabulary. He begins, "Given that it pays to talk about mountains...," implying that somehow the existence of mountains depends on the usefulness of the vocabulary. But it does not. The facts are the same, whether or not "it pays to talk about mountains."


Let us agree that we have the word "mountain" because it pays to have such a word. Why does it pay? Because there really are such things, and they existed before we had the word and they will continue to exist long after we have all died. To state the facts you have to have a vocabulary. But the facts you state with that vocabulary are not dependent on the existence or usefulness of the vocabulary. The existence of mountains has nothing whatever to do with whether or not it "pays to talk about mountains." And it does not help Rorty's case to sneer at the existence of mountains as "Reality as It Is In Itself," because insofar as that expression is meaningful at all, it is obvious that Reality as It Is In Itself contains mountains.


I think Boghossian does a public service by pointing out the weaknesses of all of these arguments. But I fear that the real target of his book is not addressed by refuting bad arguments of the sort I have just cited. People who are convinced by social constructivism typically have a deep metaphysical vision and detailed refutations do not address that vision.


In a sense Boghossian makes it easier for himself by taking on more or less rational authors, specifically Putnam, Goodman, and to a lesser extent Rorty. Their views are reasonably easy to refute because they are, at least in the case of Putnam and Goodman, fairly clearly stated. It is much easier to refute a bad argument than to refute a truly dreadful argument. A bad argument has enough structure that you can point out its badness. But with a truly dreadful argument, you have to try to reconstruct it so that it is clear enough that you can state a refutation.


oghossian takes bad arguments by Putnam, Goodman, and Rorty and refutes them. But what about the truly dreadful arguments in such authors as Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and other postmodernists that have been more influential during the last half-century? What about, for example, Derrida's attempts to "prove" that meanings are inherently unstable and indeterminate, and that it is impossible to have any clear, determinate representations of reality? (He argues, for example, that there is no tenable distinction between writing and speech.) The atmosphere of Boghossian's refutation is that of a Princeton seminar. And in fact Boghossian was a student of Rorty at Princeton. But he does not go into the swamp and wrestle with Derrida & Co.[7]


Boghossian observes that we could say, with logical consistency, "according to our view" the Native Americans came by the Bering Strait, and "according to their view" they came from the center of the earth, but that this nonetheless does not solve the problem of relativism. However, it seems to me that Boghossian gives the wrong account of why it does not solve the problem. He says that it does not solve the problem for three reasons:


(A) If we relativize the claims by saying "according to our view," we still have some nonrelative facts left over; there will still be nonrelative facts about what different communities accept or do not accept, for example, physical evidence of people crossing the Bering Strait.

(B) It is often much harder to figure out what people believe than it is to figure out what actually happened. The mental is more puzzling than the physical (this is one of his weaker arguments).



(C) if we get out of objection (A) by saying that there are no nonrelative facts, we get an infinite regress. Here is the regress. We start with:

(1) According to a theory we accept, they came over the Bering Strait.

But if everything has to be relativized then (1) has to be relativized, which produces:

(2) According to a theory we accept, there is a theory that we accept and according to that theory...

And so on ad infinitum.


I agree with objections (A) and (C) but I think they are symptoms of a deeper objection, which Boghossian does not make. The deep objection to relativizing is that the original claims have been abandoned and the subject has been changed. The original claims—that the ancestors of the Native Americans came via the Bering Strait, and that they came out of the center of the earth—were not about us and our theories but about what actually happened in human history regardless of anybody's theories. Our claim is not that we hold a certain theory. Our claim is that the actual ancestors of the early Americans came via the Bering Strait, that there were actual physical movements of physical bodies through physical space. Relativizing of the sort that Boghossian considers does not solve the difficulty; it changes the subject to something irrelevant. It changes the subject from historical facts to our psychological attitudes.


This is the most important criticism of constructivism. It is of the very essence of the speech act of stating or asserting propositions of the sort we have been considering that the speech act commits you to the truth of what you say and therefore to the existence of a fact in the world corresponding to that truth. Such speech acts are made from a point of view and typically within certain sorts of ways of thinking, but the statements and assertions do not thereby become about the points of view or the ways of thinking. If you treat them as being about the point of view and way of thinking you get a different statement altogether, one that is not about the physical movements of Native Americans but about the psychology of the speakers. Boghossian is right to see that the relativization still leaves you with nonrelative facts about speakers and their attitudes and that if you keep going you get an infinite regress, but these are just symptoms of the deeper incoherence. The constructivists do not have a coherent conception of the speech act of asserting or stating.




The second version of relativism Boghossian considers is about epistemic systems, that is, systems used to acquire knowledge and justify claims to knowledge. We justify our beliefs using one epistemic system but somebody might have a different epistemic system that would give different results from ours. It may look like any effort to justify ours would be circular because we would have to presuppose the validity of our system in order to try to justify it. Richard Rorty gives the example of the dispute between Cardinal Bellarmine and Galileo.[8] Galileo claimed to have discovered, by astronomical observation through a telescope, that Copernicus was right that the earth revolved around the sun. Bellarmine claimed that he could not be right because his view ran counter to the Bible. Rorty says, astoundingly, that Bellarmine's argument was just as good as Galileo's. It is just that the rhetoric of "science" had not at that time been formed as part of the culture of Europe. We have now accepted the rhetoric of "science," he writes, but it is not more objective or rational than Cardinal Bellarmine's explicitly dogmatic Catholic views. According to Rorty, there is no fact of the matter about who was right because there are no absolute facts about what justifies what. Bellarmine and Galileo, in his view, just had different epistemic systems.


The point I believe Boghossian should have made immediately, though in the end he does get around to saying something like it, is that there are not and cannot be alternative epistemic rationalities. Bellarmine and Galileo reached different conclusions but they worked, like everybody else, within exactly the same system of rationality. Bellarmine held the false view that the Bible was a reliable astronomical authority. But that is a case of a false presupposition, not an alternative epistemic rationality.


Why can't there be alternative and inconsistent epistemic rationalities? Consider the example of the statement that the Native Americans came by the Bering Strait. I have pointed out that anyone who makes such a statement is thereby committed to the existence of a fact. But that commitment in turn carries a commitment to being able to answer such questions as, How do you know? What is the evidence? Furthermore, only certain sorts of things can count as evidence for and against the claim. These requirements of rationality are not accretions to the original statement, but they are built into it. The requirement that claims admit of evidence and counterevidence and that only certain sorts of things count as evidence is not something added on to thought and language. It is built into the fundamental structure of thought and language.


Consider another example. I now believe my dog Gilbert is in this room. What is the evidence? I can see him. It is in the nature of the claim in question that what I see counts as evidence. Notice that, if in response to a demand for evidence, I said "1 + 1 = 2," that would not answer the demand for evidence.


Boghossian is worried by the possibility that we might encounter an "alternative to our epistemic system...whose track record was impressive enough to make us doubt the correctness of our own system." In such a case, he fears, we would not be able to justify our own. But what is meant by "track record"? The fact that he uses this metaphor without adequate explanation ought to worry him and us. The only "track record" that would be relevant would be a body of established knowledge. But in order to ascertain the presence of a "track record" in this sense, to ascertain the presence of a body of knowledge, we would have to use the only epistemic rationality we have, the one already built into thought and language. The hypothesis of alternative epistemic rationalities has no clear meaning. Eventually, after three difficult chapters (5, 6, and 7), Boghossian seems to come to something like this conclusion.


In the great debates of the 1960s and after, I was once asked by a student, "What is your argument for rationality?" That is an absurd question. There cannot be an argument for rationality because the whole notion of an argument presupposes rationality. Constraints of rationality are constitutive of argument itself, as they are of thought and language generally. This is not to say that there cannot be irrational thoughts and claims. There are plenty of irrationalities around. (For example, given the available evidence, it is irrational to deny that the present plant and animal species evolved from earlier forms of life. Why? Because, to put it as an understatement, the evidence is overwhelming.)




The last form of relativism that Boghossian considers is the explanation of belief. Here the claim is that the explanation of why we believe what we do is never a matter of evidence or solely a matter of evidence, but involves some irrational factors, some social condition in which we find ourselves. I am puzzled why Boghossian takes this claim very seriously, not because it is obviously false, but because it does not really matter to the issue of the truth or falsity or the justification of the claims under discussion. If we have justifications for our beliefs, and if the justifications meet rational criteria, then the fact that there are all sorts of elements in our social situation that incline us to believe one thing rather than another may be of historical or psychological interest but it is really quite beside the point of the justifications and of the truth or falsity of the original claim. It is a factual question to what extent people reach their beliefs by rational appraisal of the evidence, not a question adequately settled by philosophical argument.


I think the reason that Boghossian is so concerned about this is that some who have written about the sociology of scientific knowledge think that they can explain all of our beliefs, both the true and the false, the well-supported and the unsupported, by a common pattern of sociological explanation. He cites David Bloor's Knowledge and Social Imagery[9] as an example, along with the works by Latour, Woolgar, and Pickering that I mentioned earlier. The writers in question adopt what Bloor calls "symmetrical" modes of explanation: they argue that true and false beliefs, as well as rational and irrational beliefs, must be explained by the same causes. One example, cited by Bloor, concerns a study involving physicists in Weimar Germany who attempted to "dispense with causality in physics." A "symmetrical" understanding of this scientific project would argue that, while considering how the physicists thought about observed evidence, one should consider as well how they attempted "to adapt the content of their science to the values of their intellectual environment."


Boghossian points out correctly that symmetry about truth and falsehood is quite different from symmetry about rationality and irrationality. Symmetry about truth is a possible research program in the sociology of knowledge because people typically arrive at their scientific views, both true and false, through the study of evidence; thus, in most cases at least, both true and false beliefs can be seen as arising from the same cause, evidence. Some evidence may be more revealing of truth than other evidence; nevertheless, if we put aside the use of fraud, both true and false theories have the same underlying cause: observed evidence.


But that is not the same as treating rationality and irrationality symmetrically. First, as we've just seen, for both true views and false views to be symmetrical, they must originate in the same cause: argument based on evidence. But all argument based on evidence assumes a common rationality. Thus, as Boghossian argues, the case for the symmetry of truth is wrong because it rests on "the falsity " of the "symmetry about rationality"; both cannot simultaneously be correct. True views and false views may be arrived at by symmetrical methods, but when those methods involve evidence, they are themselves manifestations of a common rationality and thus make impossible the symmetry, or equality, of rationality and irrationality. This is one of the best arguments in Boghossian's book.




What motivates social constructionism? After all, we pay an enormous intellectual price if we deny the objective validity of the past three and a half centuries of scientific investigation. Boghossian thinks constructionism is motivated partly by intellectual argument and partly by political correctness. In the postcolonial era, some have felt that we should not impose our conception of reality on other cultures. Why shouldn't we, in a multicultural democracy, grant that each culture, or indeed each person, can have his or her own reality? I think in fact the antirational, antiscientific bias of current versions of relativism and constructivism are motivated by a much deeper metaphysical vision than one based on postcolonial political correctness.


What exactly is that vision? Hints of it occur in the passage on feminist epistemology that I quoted from Kathleen Lennon. It is a vision according to which all of our knowledge claims are radically contingent because of their historical and social circumstances. According to this vision, all of us think within particular sets of assumptions, and we always represent the world from a point of view, and this makes objective truth impossible. For someone who accepts this argument, the idea that there are scientific claims that are objective, universal, and established beyond a reasonable doubt seems not only inaccurate but positively oppressive. And for such people the very idea of an objectively existing, independent reality must be discredited.


On this view, if we are to be truly free, free to create a multicultural democracy, we must above all liberate ourselves from "objectivity," "rationality," and "science." The motivation, in short, is more profound than Boghossian allows for, and it bears interesting affinities with earlier forms of Counter-Enlightenment Romanticism of the sort described by Isaiah Berlin in his The Roots of Romanticism.[10]


Boghossian has written an excellent book. It is very compressed, and it is not always easy reading, but it contains relentless exposures of confusion, falsehood, and incoherence.



[1]Bruno Latour, "Ramses II est-il mort de la tuberculose?," La Recherche, March 1998.


[2]Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Doubleday, 1966); Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts (Sage, 1979); Andrew Pickering, Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics (University of Chicago Press, 1984); Andrew Pickering, "Science as a Cultural Construct," letter to the editor, Nature, June 5, 1997; and Donald A. MacKenzie, Statistics in Britain, 1865–1930: The Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981).


[3]Kathleen Lennon, "Feminist Epistemology as Local Epistemology," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary, Volume 71 (1997), p. 37.


[4]Hilary Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism: The Paul Carus Lectures (Open Court, 1987), p. 18.


[5]John R. Searle, "Rationality and Realism: What Is at Stake?" Daedalus, Fall 1993.


[6]Richard Rorty, "Does Academic Freedom Have Philosophical Presuppositions?," Academe, Vol. 80, No. 6 (November–December 1994), p. 56.


[7]See my article and exchange about Derrida in these pages: "The Word Turned Upside Down," October 27, 1983, and "An Exchange on Deconstruction," February 2, 1984.


[8]Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 328–331. Quoted in Boghossian, p. 61.


[9]University of Chicago Press, second edition, 1991.


[10]Princeton University Press, 2001.



The New York Review of Books


Volume 56, Number 20 · December 17, 2009

'Fear of Knowledge': An Exchange

By Kathleen Lennon, Edwin M. Schur, Reply by John R. Searle


In response to Why Should You Believe It?* (September 24, 2009)


To the Editors:


There was something pleasantly nostalgic about John Searle's review of Fear of Knowledge by Paul A. Boghossian [NYR, September 24], riding to the defense of Enlightenment values of truth, objectivity, and rationality. I was however rather surprised to find myself (although in good company) representative of the forces of darkness he needed to justify his crusade. Along with the good old-fashioned intellectual virtues he claims to espouse, many of us were taught another one. That is to read someone's work before making it an object of discussion (or derision as I think we might say in this case).


On the basis of a few lines from my paper in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (Supplementary Vol. 71), lines he urges us to read closely and then perversely misreads, he draws wild conclusions, which even the most cursory reading of the paper would have made impossible. He claims that I reject an independently existing reality, when all that was argued was the widely accepted point of the impossibility of an unmediated access to it. More astonishingly he attributes to me and my fellow barbarians (feminist, postcolonialist, and poststructuralist thinkers) the view that "if we are to be truly free, free to create a multicultural democracy, we must above all liberate ourselves from 'objectivity,' 'rationality,' and 'science.'"


In place of such a fantasy my paper was instead addressing how rational assessment of knowledge claims is possible, if we accept the situatedness of knowledge seekers. It points out that feminists cannot be relativists for "feminist criticisms aimed to challenge and discredit the masculine accounts they critiqued, not simply to add a further perspective. This requires the possibility of rational encounters between the positions."

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One of the problems with Searle's characterization of his supposed opponents is a running together of different positions. Those who argue that historical, social, and material locatedness constrain what we can discover and make sense of are accused of relativism: here the view that knowledge is knowledge-relative-to-a-certain-framework/ time-or-place. But these are quite different claims. Searle also glosses the suggestion that facts are socially constructed as "if we do not like a fact that others have constructed, we can construct another fact that we prefer." Yet those who argue that we are the source of the frameworks in terms of which we understand the world do not have to claim that we do this in a way unconstrained by an independent reality, even while accepting that such reality does not dictate to us the single best way of making sense of it.


The failure of Searle to engage with the positions he is so eager to dismiss is puzzling. What is he afraid of here? That a willingness to see something valuable in his opponents might make his own position somewhat less heroic?


Kathleen Lennon

Ferens Professor of Philosophy

University of Hull

Hull, England


To the Editors:


In discussing Paul Boghossian's critique of relativism, John Searle cites with approval the assertion that "the fact that descriptions are socially relative does not imply that the factsdescribed by those descriptions are socially relative." From a sociological perspective, emphasizing (even claiming) such a distinction may prove inadequate.


In many social situations the "descriptions" (perceptions, definitions, judgments) are infinitely more consequential socially, and for a commonsense understanding of what is going on, than the alleged "facts." And since there may well be differing and even "competing" descriptions, what the anti-relativist might like to see, in a given situation, as "fact" or "truth" might better be viewed as an outcome of processes of social perception and definition. Apposite examples are myriad.


Is the husband hitting his wife a "mere domestic disturbance" or is it "wife- battering"? The hitting may be objective "fact," but how it is defined and reacted to will be crucial. Did the man who fell to his death have an "accident" or commit "suicide"? The evidence may be inconclusive, but in any case a social definition will be applied. What is the objective "truth" value of "clinical depression"? If the distinction between it and extreme sadness is a matter of considered yet still subjective judgment, is clinical depression a "fact"?


Should a critic feel that, by focusing in this way on "descriptions," I am simply by-passing the philosophical debate, I would return to my earlier point about social (and psychological) consequentiality. It may be that a chair, a tree, a human body, and a physical act are "facts." But in the arena of human interaction we constantly encounter social characterizations of people, acts, and situations. More often than not, and in the absence of a truly "established" body of supporting evidence, there is little or no consensus regarding which particular "description" or "vocabulary" is applicable. As my earlier comments suggest, in their ramifications and effects the ones that do emerge "successful" make all the difference in the world.


Edwin M. Schur

Professor Emeritus Department of Sociology

New York University

John R. Searle replies:


In my review of Boghossian's book I cited a passage that he quotes from Kathleen Lennon, in which she contrasts "knowledge as a neutral transparent reflection of an independently ordered reality, with truth and falsity established by transcendent procedures of rational assessment" (a conception she rejects) and "all knowledge [as] situated knowledge, reflecting the position of the knowledge producer at a certain historical moment in a given material and cultural context" (a conception that she accepts and that she assumes refutes the transcendent conception she rejects). I pointed out that contrary to her view, these are not inconsistent. It is trivially true that knowledge is always arrived at by historically situated individuals in historical contexts and it is also true that these individuals sometimes produce theories that meet universal standards of rational assessment.


She says, correctly, that I had not read her article. I was reviewing Boghossian's book, not her article. I have now read the article with some care, and I believe it contains a deep inconsistency. In her letter to me she denies that she is a relativist, and insists that the passages she quotes from her original article support her denial of relativism. But the key sentence in her original article is this: Theories cannot be assessed by reference to universal norms. This is an astounding claim, because it denies that there are universal norms such as truth, evidence, consistency, rationality, and coherence, by which we can assess theories.


Her grounds for this claim are in the passage Boghossian and I quoted where she assumes that the situatedness and contextual dependency of actual research is inconsistent with universal norms. They are not inconsistent. The rejection of universal norms implies relativism. If there are no universal norms, then what sort of norms can we use? And the answer is implicit in what she says: norms are derived from a given material and cultural context. That is relativism. She cannot have it both ways. She cannot insist that she is not a relativist and yet deny that there are universal norms of validity.


Edwin Schur makes an important point that I want to emphasize. Where brute physical reality is concerned, we can typically state facts that are totally independent of any human attitudes: that the earth is round, that hydrogen atoms have one electron, for example. But where human reality is concerned, there are many facts where the descriptions of the fact are partly constitutive of the fact in question. Something is money, property, government, or marriage only insofar as we represent it as such, and that representation requires some use of language.


Furthermore, there are many human attitudes where language is partly constitutive of the attitude. In order to fall in love or resent injustice, you have to have a certain way of conceptualizing your feelings, because the concepts are partly constitutive of the attitudes in question. And the point is not, as he suggests, that the evidence might be inconclusive. Given complete evidence in some cases you cannot separate the facts from the interpretation. I think these are very important points, and indeed I have written two books about them and related issues, The Construction of Social Reality (1995) and Making the Social World (forthcoming). I am glad that Professor Schur enables me to make this point.


A number of other questions were raised in the numerous letters commenting on my article, and I want to answer at least one familiar objection: the fact that science frequently changes is sometimes taken to support relativism. In fact scientific change is an argument against relativism. We would not bother to change our scientific theories if we did not think the new theory was closer to the truth than the old one. For example, we give up the Newtonian conception of space and time and replace it with an Einsteinian conception, because the latter is closer to the truth.










Book Review of

The Discourse of the Syncope: Logodaedalus

The Cunning Kant

In the summer of 1985, I, for perhaps the only time in my life, held in my hand a physical copy of the Sunday Boston Globe. Perusing the newspaper on the grass during a fine July day, I found the Magazine section contained a col- umn by (I assumed) a longtime regular for the Magazine. He was a middle-aged man, the type who writes charming familiar essays about the whimsies of middle-aged men, whose ultimate point is to show life is neither too perfect nor too troubling. In this column, he described his son’s first semester at college. The son, perhaps a few weeks into the semester, had written his father, bespeaking his frustrations with reading Kant in his Intro to Philosophy class. The son wrote something like this: “I was trying to analyze why I find Kant so indigestible, and I have come to this conclusion: all language requires metaphor— we cannot describe something in itself but we have to use imagery and comparison to do so. Kant’s abstractions are not readable because they are not metaphoric.” The father, writing in the column, commented more or less, “Aw shucks—isn’t this great, this is precisely why you send your kids off to college, to get this sort of discovery. Gosh, that kid sure is thinking thoughts his old man never could.”

Immediately, one saw manifold problems here. First of all, intellectual self-confidence is a good thing to instill, encourage, or solicit in the young. But for a college freshman to believe that he just blew Kant out of the water sets up a kind of hubris that is not only riding for a fall but in a sense is so complacent that it is lucky if it ever gets sufficiently hubristic in absolute terms to even be eligible to ride for a fall. Second is the father’s evident delight in this postulated “elimination”

Agonist 16

by Jean-Luc Nancy (Lexington Books, 1976) reviewed by Nicholas Birns

of Kant from the canon of meaningful linguistic expression. Do you send your son to college so he circumvents, through convenient and precipitous dismissal, one of the major figures of world philosophy? Third, and in a sense most urgent, is that, as I am sure the reader of this review has already discerned, the very structure of the son’s dismissal of Kant is done in terms remarkably Kantian. Kant was par excellence not knowing the absolute in itself but only through apprehen- sions of the absolute; we project or postulate or (Kant’s Humean legacy) infer from these appre- hensions; we discern where they are going even as they fade out asymptotically on the horizon. The framework by which we know that we cannot know the absolute also constitutes the only categories in which we possibly can even have an inkling of it. Kant himself would agree that any attempt to distill the absolute truth sans linguistic interference is wrong.

But the son’s comment, and the father’s ready acceptance of it, was, in its underlying meaning, perhaps not exclusively about Kant, or even about philosophy. It was about literature, and literary language, and it explains a good deal of why people outside the academy have, for the past 30 years, rejected recent developments in literary theory. If one were to look at the various aesthetic manifestoes of the past two centuries, one would think that the bourgeoisie has a fear of the aesthetic, that the inability of what Théophile Gautier called “l’art pour l’art” to be efficient in the realm of commodity culture, to have its expenditures be credited with ready meaning, led those concerned with practicality to scorn it. This should not be underestimated. But it may well be that a certain amount of metaphor is fully tolerable by mainstream society, as long as it is conclusively walled off from other kinds of meaning. To say all language is metaphorical seems destabilizing, but is not so, as what it is saying is that the linguistic is the metaphorical and is by definition not vulnerable to or inflected by the material or the inelegant. People outside academia tend to want to hold onto an idea of literature as concerned with language and form, not with poli- tics and materiality, because to confine literature to a metaphorical level puts it into a box, renders it unthreatening, with the additional fillip that those who praise it get the bonus of seeming to be sensitive to the presence of art and beauty.

Jean-Luc Nancy, in this, for a ‘poststructuralist’ approach, surprisingly early (1976) book on Kant, confronts the allegedly non-metaphorical, inelegant nature of Kant’s language, its ‘will to being a discourse, by definition, without style” (146). Nancy does this not to dismiss it but to affirm its value as a mode of exposition. In doing this, Nancy almost passively refutes the conten- tion that Kant does not employ metaphor; not that he employs metaphor the same way as everyone else, but that his non-employment of metaphor constitutes a particularly crafty—Daedalian!— employment of metaphor, a labyrinth of phrasing whose rigor is at once an irremovable wall and a tantalizing tease. It is to Nancy’s great credit that this book, appearing in Stanford’s prodigious Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics series under the supervision of Werner Hamacher, situates its as- sertions about the ‘renunciation’ (38) ‘disappointment’ (39), and ‘undecideability’ (59) of Kant’s language specifically within the site of Kant’s textuality itself. This is, by implication, a book

reviewed by: Nicholas


Agonist 17

philosophy and language as such. But more specifically it is thoroughly, albeit playfully, a book about Kant. Indeed, at times Nancy strips the philosopher’s name of its capital letter, par- tially to signify that ‘kant’ in German is a past participle of the verb kennen, to know, perhaps to signify a certain irreverence towards the monument of Kant with a capital K, which has tended to forestall explicit questionings of time-honored premises about Kant and language.

The preface by translator Saul Anton meditates lengthily on the un-translatability of ‘tenir un discours’: “to make a speech: but also ‘to hold a position”: there is a sense both of exposition and sustenance. Anton variously translates tenu as ‘spoken’ and ‘held up.’ Anton is right to not project any single English equivalent, yet there is one that comes close to—yet very far from— being appropriate. Surely “to hold forth upon” is idiomatic in English, and keeps the tactile, prehensile aspect of tenir. Yet the English phrase implies precisely a non-philosophical discourse, what the blowhard at the next table at the restaurant bloviates about; ‘holding forth’ is apodicti- cally short of the philosophical, especially the Kantian-philosophical. I am not suggesting Anton should have used ‘to hold forth,’ merely observing that it is in the possible field of linguistic refer- ence here and that its narrow-miss inappropriateness says something about the entire problem of translating this sort of text into English.

There is also the related verbal motif of ‘tenacity,” of holding on to something in a kind of dogged effort, and ‘tenacity’ and ‘eloquence’ tend to be registered in inverse variation. Anton’s point about tenir un discours being untranslatable into English gains heft when one considers how dissociated tenacity is from any idea of intellectual brilliance—would one ever describe Ein- stein (as suggested by Roland Barthes’ piece on his brain in Mythologies), Riemann, or for that matter Nancy as ‘tenacious’?—and indeed that the word is at times applied with a certain conde- scension. ‘Tenir’ in French also has a temporal element; we have only to realize that maintenant, the French word for ‘now,’ refers to the hand being held out, as if to signify a discrete moment of presence but also to suggest the passage of time, which makes every ‘now’ also a gesture. And tenacity is just that which persists through time, despite challenges. Often when one considers questions of translation one is supposed to meditate on the original language and how it poses unsolvable enigmas, but here it is what the enigmas tell us about English that is perhaps most intriguing. Anton should, incidentally, have been credited on the cover page with the translation. Anton did a thorough and creditable job on a hybrid, shape-shifting text, made even more diffi- cult, as Nancy implies in his own 2006 preface, by an awareness of the later course of the author’s thought, difficult to exclude when translating such an early text. Stanford University Press should make sure to credit him more prominently in the second edition.

Anton, incidentally, refers to this work as Logodaedalus, even though the publisher gives The Discourse of the Syncope upper-case treatment and gives the subtitle only in inconspicu- ous lower case. This book is indeed only the first part of a two-part project, but the other part, Kosmotheoros, was never completed. This structure—of course in itself mirroring the Kantian trope of the observable as a graspable instantiation of an absent whole—employs both the idea of

Book Review

Agonist 18

Volume I — Issue I — July 2008

the microcosm and the microcosm—Logodaedalus pertains to verbal artifices and the slippages of its putative absence, Kosmotheoros would have, if ever written, pertained to the regulative, ‘geometric,’ categorical side of Kant and of the discourse ancillary to or epiphenomenal of Kant. This division into diptych is emblematic of the two major senses of syncope, in French and even mutatis mutandis in English. Syncope is the odd word best known for either its medical or musi- cal pertinence. In medicine, syncope refers to a pause in a normal biological process, most princi- pally a loss of consciousness. Anton helpfully adds that avoir un syncope is colloquial French for ‘have a heart attack,’ presumably in the colloquial, largely figurative sense in which one would say “I had a heart attack when I saw the prices on the menu” and so on. Syncopation in music is an emphasis (or lack of emphasis) where none is expected. It is a disruption of the normal beat. In music, syncopation is essentially something you want to happen; it adds friction and interest to the beat. In medicine, syncope is something you emphatically do not want to happen. The syn- cope is not a lacuna or a caesura. It is not, at least in the most pedantic use of the term, a negation. Nancy even goes so far as to say the syncope is a sort of synthesis—we might say it is a bump on the road to synthesis that is irremovably on that road yet prevents its course from ever amounting to conclusive synthesis in the way we usually think of the term.

The Kantian trope of the veil as a limit to knowledge means that exposition and beauty cannot be subsumed into one totality. What is interesting is that the term is familiar in both medi- cal and, even more so (at least in English) musical discourses, yet its meaning in each has not necessarily infiltrated the other—lending heft to the integrity of the Logodaedalus-Kosmotheoros dyad, in other words, grounding it lexically and not in any a priori distinction between the natural and social sciences. Even more striking is that the syncope, though certainly an effect of linguis- tic disruption, is a different sort than an aporia or a fissure. The syncope is a bump, not a gap. Its spatial corollary is not absence, but spin. And it is not the generalized effect of linguistic instabil- ity an sich, but a phenomenon specific to Kant’s discourse—a sort of literariness that comes from the effort to deny literariness, that is, nonetheless, and pace our father-son duo, literary, but is rendered by the rigor of Kant’s style and the internal struggle of his parergal discourse with that rigor’s specific kind of literariness. Nancy speaks of the “undecideable inscription of absence” (158) as meta-mathematical and not ‘dubious” (8), which is a move reminiscent of the later work of Alain Badiou.

This conceptualized undecideability underlies the association of the syncope with the ex- treme craftsmanship of logodaedalism and even the Witz or bon mot, a favorite subject of Nancy’s, whose contradictions are given further pressure by the containment of epigrammatic poise, which is yet disruptive to presumptions of uncomplicated exposition. The Witz, in nearly a Freudian sense, offered embarrassment or exposure as well as simply being witty in the more presentable sense; in other words it represents both the ultimate in conscious formulation of language and the limits or self-undoing of that conscious formulation. What Nancy extrapolates from Kant’s mode of linguistic self-awareness that was not merely Romantic expressiveness or its modern update in

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the psychic automatism of the Surrealists. Another way of theorizing linguistic instability with- out fetishizing or sentimentalizing it must be found: and Nietzsche, Bataille, Leiris, Heidegger (for all his political problems), Sartre (for all his political problems), Derrida, Foucault, Nancy, Nancy’s late collaborator Lacoue-Labarthe, all made efforts—Derrida of course most famously in Glas, published the same year as the French original of Nancy’s Kant book—to pursue this line of thinking. The important point here, as Anton indicates in a different way in his prologue, is that all this was not simply a result of May 1968 or a certain impasse in mid-1960s structural- ism but had its basis in an intermittently subterranean channel (rhizome?) of thought that extends much further back.

One hallmark of this thought-strand is not to enforce artificial distinctions between exposi- tory and imaginative language of the sort that ultimately are able to subtend the Sunday familiar essays of the world. Kant’s era saw a merging of philosophy and poetry—most obviously in Schiller and, as Nancy (with Lacoue-Labarthe) has shown in The Literary Absolute, the ‘Jena Romantics.’ Though far removed from ‘normal’ Romantic expressivism, Kant was not entirely not of it. Nancy asserts that exposition is not just unfettered discourse or rendered speech, but a linguistic mode that has its own pitfalls. Presentation (Darstellung) is indeed not the same as Di- chtung (poetry). Kant’s prose, Nancy suggests, is ‘beautiful’ in the way that a Mondrian painting or a Breuer chair is beautiful; the beauty is in the uninflected nature of the exposition that does not foreground the visible presence of beauty. But wait: this exposition, for Nancy, is not wholly successful; in attempting to hide beauty as a product in favor of the beauty of the process (itself a paradox), a new, stranger kind of beauty is revealed. In transparently parading the product, there is a gap, a bump—a syncopation—by which the non-present beauty is insistently, surreptitiously, manifested. The syncope is that which rhetoric takes in, hides, and, virtually ‘behind closed doors,’ discloses.

This syncopation does not make Kant metaphorical in a way that the Globe columnist’s son wanted him to be, but it does mean that within the dryness of Kant’s Darstellung there are deposits of covert Dichtung, “the rest of literature,” both potential treasure and potential waste. And yet Dichtung, the kernel of creative expression, is not strictly identical to writing, or the production of that expression; the Schriftsteller, the author, is on the other side of Darstellung from Dichtung, and that would apply not just in the first place to the philosopher but to any kind of actual literary work, which need to be propelled by the trace of their production if the inner mystery of their Dichtung is to be displayed.

Nancy makes a simple yet very important assertion, far more declarative than most of what he says in Logodaedalus: that Kant wrote philosophy in German in a day when (155) “German [wa]s a language not very much written”; in other words, when scholarly writing by Germans was done in French or Latin. Kant in a sense is rendering the philosophical equivalent of Luther’s Bible, putting philosophy into language for really the first time. Thus the hesitancy of the prose is a part of this; in a way we should compare Kant’s German more to say the English

Volume I — Issue I — July 2008

of Hobbes or perhaps even Hoccleve than of Hume. Given the engrafted, virtually adaptive rela- tionship between Also Sprach Zarathustra and Luther’s Bible, recently demonstrated by Graham Parkes in his Oxford translation, perhaps we can see Luther, Kant, and Nietzsche as three major non-demonstrative as Nancy might say, automonstrative, instances of the difficulty of even writ- ing in German, and the rare and dangerous insights won through this difficulty. Nancy cryptically announces that “Logodaedalus is also Zarathustra” (159).

This makes Kant more prophetic, Zarathustra, or his programmer, more cunning. Perhaps we can see Luther, Kant, and Nietzsche as three major non-literary (in the first instance) excava- tors of a space that a belated German literary language could fill. As a longtime professor in the liminal region of Strasbourg, Nancy knows well the complicated relationship between French and German languages, territorial and otherwise, and the dangers of any too-totalizing a solution of them. This once more puts him in the tradition of Nietzsche and Bataille, whose only solution of the endemic problems here may be a hyperaware self-consciousness of them. There is, by the way, a special aspect of Kant’s name which treads particularly ‘wittily’ across the Franco- German fold, K is a letter that is virtually nonexistent in French and its rare appearance in the language accrues comic overtones. Nancy quotes Kafka’s Trial in such a way as to make it seem K stands for Kant, and in turn one wonders whether the incongruity of K in Romance languages is part of what Kafka was gesturing at in his metafictive use of his own initial letter. This is just one extrapolation afforded by the self-conscious weft of Nancy’s exposition.

Nancy’s book knows itself as a production in another way as well. The book is not just a treatise on Kant, but what the medieval would have called a ‘cento’ or patchwork of quotations about Kant—jokes, imprecations, tributes, citations from various hands—in fact the book, for all its density, is about two steps away from being, in one direction, a coffee-table book (if ac- companied by pictures of Kant and the people who contribute the quotes about him) or in another a “How Kant Can Change Your Life” pop-manual. In the right context, this potential popular- izing can be a disruptive move. It is so here, as Nancy takes us past the monumental Kant of our accustomed reception-history and shows us a Kant who was popular in his own day and who astonished younger foreign visitors such as Thomas de Quincey (21) by talking of essentially popular matters. Of course, to say Kant is ‘mainly’ popular is the same as saying he is ‘mainly’ metaphorical—impossible.

That Nancy parades the popular Kant also cajoles us to accept Kant’s essential unpopular- ity. What Nancy is trying to do is leaven Kant’s staid transmitted persona with just enough of the popular and metaphorical elements that are there, even as minority strains, in order to show us the plural, distended performance—the syncopation—of Kant’s language. But the quotes embed- ded by Nancy in his own Darstellung also show us why Kant, after his death, has been at once so inescapable and so continually unpopular. Several of the sampled authors—people as different as Michelet and Artaud—imply Kant lacks masculinity, that he is, in Artaud’s words (xxiv) ‘a little girl.’ There is, among Nancy’s sampled texts, a persistent will to envision Kant as sexually incon-

reviewed by: Nicholas


Agonist 21

gruous, preposterous, or nonfunctional. The lengthiest and funniest example of this in Nancy’s book is an excerpt from Louis Guilloux’s 1935 novel Le Sang Noir. In the novel, a misbehaving student in a high school class is called out by Professor Cripure; the student asks derisively if Kant was a virgin, but not before calling Kant the author of the Cripure of Pure Reason.

The ‘Cripure’ parapraxis, like the opening scene of Madame Bovary, illustrates the endless fun to be had with proper names by children, a fun which improvises upon an inherent syncopa- tion between name and referent. In calling Kant the author of the ‘Cripure of Pure Reason’ the child is substituting a personal name for a philosophical term, someone known to him in person of someone known to him only in a book, the medium of intellectual instruction (his teacher) for the substance of the instruction (his book). But even as the student embarrasses himself with this confusion, his question about Kant’s virginity actually, like the later pedagogic response of the Globe columnist’s son, represents an aspiration towards the conventional. With our knowledge that Kant was a lifelong bachelor, the reader seeks his sexual affect—in a way, part of Kant’s pro- claimed difficulty to the ‘general reader’ is less intellectual than excited by the peculiarity of his apparent asexuality, whether known from his biography or merely ‘inferred’ from the ‘dryness’ of his prose. There is the sense that there is a certain connection between the seeming desicca- tion or abstraction of Kant’s prose and a lack of sexual fruition. There is a double bind here: The great philosopher must be sexless, both out of a mystique of the purity of the intellect. Yet this is set off by a resentment that Kant is already smarter, invincibly systematic, and, to boot, more ‘logodaedalic’ than us—that in fact our only advantage is the postulated likelihood of having more achieved sex lives. To believe that Kant was a sexual being as well as an intellectual one would rob us of the one bit of Schadenfreude we can muster with respect to him. But there is also a worry about the asexual thinker, cognate with the earlier mentioned worry that the artist is economically unproductive, that the expenditure of art is inherently wasted. In this way, we want the thinker to have a ‘fulfilled’ sex life because we can see him or her enrolled in a libidinal economy. This will constrain one kind of pleasure—the aesthetic—in the name of another—the sexual. Thus the key point in the Guilloux text that the student is trying to make a point about Kant’s asexuality that he thinks will ingratiate himself with his teacher, which the verbal matrix reveals by the unintentional use of the teacher’s name. Kant’s pure Critique is unpurified by as- sociation with the prosaic pedagogue Cripure.

“Shouldn’t the philosopher be virile?” (164) But would we be happy if he really were? We do not want Kant to have any sort of discernible sex life for the same reason that the columnist father was pleased at his son ‘discovering’ Kant was disqualified from being meaningful by not using metaphor. We exclude Kant from a safe circle composed of those who possess a quality that we think we hold. Kant becomes the outsider. The man who, as imagined by Musil’s all-too- normatively educated Young Törless, has “solved the problems of philosophy once and for all” (142) becomes, through that very aspiration to the normative, rejected by the norm. He is seen as the outcast, the vagabond, the scapegoat. The imperturbable sage of Königsberg is expelled

Book Review

Agonist 22

by ‘exposés’ (in both the English and French senses of the word), such as that by the columnist’s son, and is rendered abject: the unsexed, the unmetaphorical. But this may not be the final move. Kant’s logodaedalic determination can, Nancy implies, through “curious acrobatics” (126), shake this impasse: syncopate it through almost invisibly subtle but nonetheless tangibly present lin- guistic “play of alternation” (35).

Nicholas Birns is currently working on Theory After Theory: An Overview of Contemporary Thought About Literature, under contract to Broadview Press.

reviewed by: Nicholas Birns

Agonist 23


Kant and Transcendental Deductions

The key to the first and most compelling parts of the CPR is the deduction of the categories of the understanding.
By "deduction" K does not mean something one does with one's taxes, or the sale price of shampoo. Nor does he mean the process that Sherlock H uses to solve cases. His use refers to a juridical environment, to law courts, in which, when an argument is presented, one can offer either a de facto or a de juris defense or prosecution. The boundary is of course permeable but the idea is clear enough. Sometimes attorneys ask by what right someone did something. We use the concept in a familiar way: what right did the neighbor have to buy a goat and pen it in his back yard, where it bleats the day away while I am trying to complete my Kant midterm? There is no question of fact here - I can look over the fence and see the goat and I can definitely hear it. The question is justification. Does my neighbor have a legal right, a warrant, for keeping a goat? And here the question is one of law. Is my property zoned for agricultural uses, and does keeping a goat count as such a use?
Think of the question of how, by what right, do concepts, or the twelve a priori categories, which K thinks are given as necessary parts of human reason, apply to the manifold of sensation, to order it into experience and then into propositional knowledge? First the categories get applied to make experience possible in the first place: "This is a creepy, sticky chair I am sitting in", then they allow us to make more general judgments: "Plastic chairs in small town bus stations tend to have unpleasant surfaces", and then even more general judgments: "Inexpensive plastic materials used for chair seats and backs tend to retain viscous liquids and semi-liquids, for the following chemical/physical reasons ... " (there follows an unintelligible but accurate scientific account of the composition of the chair plastic). 
K's question is this: how come these concepts, which in themselves have nothing in common with sense manifolds, get to apply to them? 
There are really three answers.
First, and this is in a sense one K did not write about but assumed -- we do make such applications all the time and they work quite nicely. In fact, as human history moves on, we seem to be able to make such judgments even more accurately, and to predict and control what happens to us in the world on the basis of that knowledge. 
Second, and this is one that K covers, we are justified because we are able, by a mysterious process K cannot exactly explain rationally (that is, by using the very concepts he is trying to justify), to schematize the sense manifold, that is, we are able to create, via the faculty of imagination (our mental power to produce visual, tactile, olfactory images), general templates that are part concept and part sensory detail, which we use as halfway houses between sense material and pure concepts. These templates, which have a priori elements -- the conceptual rules -- are ultimately empirical, because they develop over time. It must be true, of course, that we develop purely a priori schemata(plural of 'schema') around our thinking of the pure a priori forms of intuition. These are the ideal images (circle, square, polyhedron. etc.) that we use in geometry, and K might even see numbers in this way, as general images of different quantities. 
Third, we are justified because all of the categories are unified into a single system, of which we are always aware, by what he calls the transcendental unity of apperception, or an a priori "I think" that he says accompanies all our judgments and experience. K postulates that there must be this persisting "I think" to make experience itself possible, because, of course, to have experience as an object of thought, to be able to say things about our experiences, there must be a unifying second-order awareness that we are having experiences. 
Thus we know that we know, we think that we are experiencing, we are always already aware-that. If we did not have this then we would not be justified in saying that the categories apply to sense material because we would not even be aware that they did or did not. What really justifies us in saying that we can apply the categories is our reflexive awareness that we do so. So, the "justification" is not really about the fittingness of the categories but of the fact that we must be unified and unifying subjects in order to have human experience.
The real point here is to argue that self-consciousness, of a highly formal rather than a psychological sort, is required for human experience and knowledge to be possible.
Major point: for K, this "I think" transcends direct experience. We know that it must be operating or we would not be making judgments but it lies, as do the things-in-themselves, outside of our direct experience. We know that we are such subjects because we make the judgments but we never, ever directly live that formal subject-hood. 
This is really what 'transcendental' means in the final analysis. Things that we know must be there to make experience possible, but that we cannot ever touch directly, like things in themselves and the 'I think', are transcendental conditions that make experience possible and thinkable. But the conditions can never become direct parts of the game. They are shadowy presences behind, or at the edges, of the scene, never quite able to be grasped as themselves and therefore, for some, as the American philosopher Stanley Cavell speculates, causes for despair. The despair is born from the fact that both the world and the self, my two anchors, are always only represented to me-as-consciousness. Thus I am always doubly alienated, and assailed by the idea that there might ultimately not be anything behind me or appearances, that this is all a terrible dream.