Wednesday, June 16, 2010

And FLG Returns To His Theory Of Time Horizons

Withywindle tried to help explain that insufferable fuckwad whose insufferable fuckwadiness so astonished FLG. First, he offered this post, and FLG thought this piece was crucial:
I take him to be coming from the tradition, going back at least via Marx to Hegel, that 1) explicitly takes philosophy to be situated in its historical context, with its truth emerging from its historical embeddedness; and 2) takes the point of philosophy to be to provide the theory that is prerequisite to praxis, philosophical knowledge that effects political and moral change within history. (E.g., Marx doing bouts of political journalism/political philosophy/philosophy as guide to political action about Louis Napoleon and the Paris Commune.) Follow this philosophy, and you believe 1) that philosophy ought to be aware of current events, such as the Tea Parties, and 2) that a philosopher should provide a philosophical take on all such current events so as to provide this-worldly change. If you a Critical Theorist, as many in the New School all, the this-worldly change you will want will have a programmatic-left edge.

The issue, at least for FLG but he also thinks for Withywindle, is the direct application of philosophical theory to contemporaneous events to manifest change. This goes back to FLG's favorite theory about political differences being largely predicated upon the individual's time horizon. In this case, Bernstein has this mode of analysis and applies it to this political instant. Likewise, Marx and Hegel also had short time horizons.

Since he's read more Marx than Hegel, FLG will focus on him. Perhaps it seems odd to think of Marx as somebody who overvalues the present given that many people have viewed his theory as The Theory of History. However, Marx and Engels largely disavowed this notion.

Anyway, Marx looked at the present conditions at the start of the Industrial Revolution and extrapolated both forward and backward from there. He certainly gleaned some important insights about the effects of capitalism on the backward nations. But his analysis is largely rooted in his contemporaneous milieu and then the teleological philosophy of the Greeks misunderstood and bolted on.

FLG's theory of time horizons most easily applies to things economic. Taking a longer run view of an investment or policy decision, which tries to take into account potential indirect and unanticipated costs, versus the more short-term and direct mode of analysis is easily understood. But FLG views this as not just how people approach economics and finance, but their entire outlook on reality.

For example, a scientific experiment or survey produces a result that is correct for some instant. If you drop two balls from the leaning tower of Piza and they both hit the ground at the same time, then you are only certain that this was true at that very moment. After a number of experiments proving this at various specific moments, then you can assume that it will always hold. But that is an assumption. Perhaps tomorrow gravity will reverse and the balls with fall upward. Or maybe they won't fall at all. Since it appears that the physical laws of the universe don't change all that often, we are pretty safe in making the assumption that they will be the same tomorrow, and people with short time horizons aren't hindered by their bias. It is nevertheless an assumption that these things don't change.

When it comes to social phenomena, it's a whole different ballgame. People react to other actions and you cannot necessarily project linearly from an instantaneous measurement.

FLG's objection to Bernstein's method is that for him it appears, unlike Withywindle's idea of narrative which conveys a sense of continuity, that reality is a set of related, yet discrete moments in time or history. He views individual liberty as a myth because at any given point in time the state has the power. The state can trespass upon individual liberty. If it choose not to, then that's all well and good but the idea of individual liberty is merely a nice story we tell ourselves.

Moreover, the incessant focus on power by left wing thinkers is, FLG believes, a consequence of this short time horizon. At any given moment, the reality is that there are actors with power over other actors. Abstract principles, such as individual liberty, appear silly next to tangible exercises of power between interests.

And perhaps most importantly, the extent to which these principles and traditions contain historical content they interfere with the social reconstruction of society into a form more fitting and just in this particular historical moment. In this view, the story about individual liberty was perhaps a necessary construct to cast off the yoke of monarchy, but that story hinders further progress and should be cast aside as something from a bygone era.

FLG thinks he and Withy are coming at their disagreement with Bernstein from different angles, but arriving at very similar conclusions. Withy writes in a follow-up:
The quarrel, then, is what sort of theory conduces best to creating proper practice. The politics in some senses matters less than the disciplinary quarrels. If I criticize a philosopher like Bernstein, it's as a historian with disciplinary prejudices. I.e., how do you understand the Tea Partiers, and theorize them so as best to guide praxis? Why, as a historian with a wealth of knowledge about Elizabethan and Early Stuart England and a nervous habit of squawking "Rhetoric! Rhetoric! Rawk! Pieces of Eight! Rhetoric!" It's Narrative, you see, and all that historical goodness.

He's arguing for the recognition that we need to expand our approach. Look at a long time horizon and the events from different angles. The narrative of individual liberty is the product of many generations and events. It contains the wisdom of many lessons. Let's not cast it aside because it stands in the way of the straightest line between you and your short-term political goals. Tomorrow, you might just wish you hadn't. That individual liberty story might be useful to you. Or maybe that's FLG putting what he believes on Withywindle's keyboard. Nevertheless, it comes back to short versus long time horizons for FLG.


Withywindle said...

If I had a hammer, the world would be full of nails ... FLG is a chronologist.

Mulling your post.

Withywindle said...

My Obsession encompasses your Obsession: it's all about time-boundedness and limits of knowledge! Knowledge of time-boundedness, knowledge that we are bounded by the horizon of time, is part of knowing our general limits of knowledge. Therefore, philosophy aware of its situatedness is superior to philosophy that pretends to eternal truth, God's eye view, or focuses so much on the present that now becomes eternity again. So Hegel and Marx, by forwarding time-boundedness, are superior to philosophers who pretend to the knowledge of eternity. But then, Hegel and Marx also hope to transcend time somehow--to develop wise men, wise classes, scientific laws in the case of Marx, that get us beyond time-boundedness. Which is where they Go Wrong; but at least they start in a better place.

As for your bit about time horizons: having any sort of time horizon, short or long, beats either eternity or an eternal now. I.e., one wants to bind together as many moments of time as possible, aware that this is a necessary task, and ultimately a hopeless one. In general one needs to distinguish between people who don't set themselves on this task at all, and those who attempt it, but do it badly.

As to Bernstein: so much of what I dislike about what he says follows from stipulations about reality that I consider dodgy (i.e., the nature of the Tea Partiers, and the nature of the policies they object to), that I find it difficult to say that his method is what has gone wrong. (I note there are dissident Critical-Theory-niks who are probably a lot more positive about the Tea Partiers; the method can lead you in different directions.) It seems to me that what he's saying is that the Tea Partiers have a false consciousness of liberty, and the anger arises from the Truth of Reality pressing in on them. (Did we need the word "metaphysics" to say that? No!" So, the Tea Partiers are angry as they are forced to acknowledge the Truth that I, Bernstein, know. Oy; ah, the insufferability of circular reasoning and projection.

Arendt, and even that Negri, have ways of viewing revolutionary power that acknowledge the creative aspects of it; you can say power is everywhere and see it as standing behind liberty. That aspect of Bernstein isn't necessarily a problem.

It's his romantic metaphor--that really isn't all that philosophically grounded--that's the problem. Maybe the Tea Partiers (at whatever level) do take the relationship of citizen and government to be a loving one, and they are outraged because the government is abusing that loving relationship. This doesn't have to be outrage at the necessity of a loving relationship; just outrage at the particular abuse of it.

And then, the Tea Partiers perhaps recognize that it is not "government" as such that is abusing them, but "the particular people we elected to serve us in the government that are abusing us." And the righteous anger is part of turfing out the abusers and putting in people we can trust to love as officials in government. Which is to say, we can take much of Bernstein's framework, but ratchet down the philosophical rejection of it we presume in the Tea Partiers, and ratchet up the substance of the political disagreements.

I take him to fail as an analyst because he cannot distinguish between government as such, and individual varieties of government and government policies. But I think people with his philosophical assumptions can--and have--analyzed government without making such an elementary mistake; so I'm unconvinced that his errors indict his philosophy; whether in the matter of time horizons or anything else.

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