Getting Old and Feeling Surly, Research Time, 25/11/2017

Right now, I’m working on a short article for the Reply Collective. If I’m going to solicit contributors as Digital Editor, I may as well contribute some content myself. Especially since I’ve been a regular contributor since the place started up.

Recently, we published two articles that pick up a conversation which began last summer. I mean, there was a pretty big gap between instalments, but the conversation was pretty linear. It’s a discussion of John Searle’s theories of human rights.

John Searle's aggressive, unsubtle style of writing
turned out to be very influential throughout
analytic philosophy during the 1980s, and continues
to shape the approach of many philosophers in North
America. I consider that a damn shame, because
Searle first became prominent as one of the thinkers
bringing metaphysical and ontological issues back
into the analytic tradition.
I’m not going to link every single one individually, but you can start from the most recent two, by Gregory Lobo and J Angelo Corlett. You can also look through Raimo Tuomela’s recent piece, because the whole chain started from a review of his book Social Ontology, that SERRC published last year.

That’s what I love about this platform.

Anyway, there are some ideas in this debate that are good food for thought in my own research on utopian drives and concepts in contemporary ideologies. Now that I had the chance to engage with the exchange a little more closely, I could see some interesting convergences with my own work.

So this week, I’m drafting a more formally-written contribution to the discussion. And I’m going to sort out some of the ideas in it here.

Here’s what I latched onto in the discussion. The ideas and concepts floating around make for good elements in a non-reductive materialist conception of how human society works. Let me lay that out for you.

Materialist – Generally,* you don't think any supernatural substance or being is needed to explain things like life, consciousness, human intelligence, or the conditions of the universe’s existence (questions like, ‘What caused the beginning of the universe?’).

* And I’m talking extremely generally.

Non-reductive – You don’t think being a materialist about reality means you have to explain away some aspect of human experience, ability, spirituality, or identity.

As I looked into Searle's late-period social-political thinking, I saw what was in many ways kind of an inadequate system. A few years after Searle’s first book on this project, The Construction of Social Reality, Neil Gross wrote a pretty solid essay showing how wrong-headed the project was because of what it ignored.

I think Gross’ conclusion can apply to the later Searle material that focusses more directly on questions of human rights as well. It’s because Searle’s major creative philosophical works all fit together as a continuous development of a single grand theory.

The return of metaphysics to analytic philosophy had the potential
to create beautifully weird and creative ways of thinking and
writing in that tradition. Instead, such  fantastically strange thinkers
as Saul Kripke and David Lewis became outliers in an increasingly
stagnant stylistic field.
The concepts he developed during his first creative works carrying forward John Austin’s analyses of speech acts were a foundation for his arguments about the nature of mind and intentionality, how people direct their action in the world.

The decades he spent developing those theories laid a groundwork for his account of the social world as shaped by collective and shared intentions. The conception of shared intentions as the atoms of society became the basis for his theory of human rights.

Here are the problems I have with this, which Gross helped me put a finger on.

Problem one – Searle’s insularity. Remember, Searle developed all this theoretical machinery largely as building blocks from his own older work. He’d established his theoretical system, and like the old system-builders, he expanded those concepts and theories to apply to new areas, eventually to give an account of all human phenomena.

So he didn’t think he had an incentive to read the works of other authors as equals. In response to critics – well-versed in social and sociological theory – who said Searle’s ideas didn’t go much beyond what Emile Durkheim developed a century ago, Searle said that he didn’t really read much of Durkheim.

Why? Because what little he’d read of Durkheim convinced him that one of the founders of the entire discipline of sociology didn’t make much sense. No attempt to understand Durkheim’s very different intellectual world or priorities. No attempt to understand why he wrote the way he did. Because Durkheim didn’t write like a doctrinaire analytic philosopher, he didn’t make sense. That’s it.

Which brings me to problem two – Searle’s arrogance and hypocrisy. Searle is infamous for having convinced pretty much everyone in analytic philosophy that everything influenced by Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, or any other philosopher from continental Europe’s traditions is empty charlatanism.

Because those ideas, even though they were sometimes
written in very strange ways, turned out to be very
useful to the social sciences. It was almost as if the
hermeneutic and post/structuralist theories were
philosophies of the social sciences, waiting for the
social scientists to catch up a bit. Just a thought.
The obvious arrogance is in the conclusion that, because I don’t understand something, it’s nonsense. In his exchange with Jacques Derrida, they both talked past each other to epic intensities.

Searle was convinced that Derrida spoke nothing but nonsense. Derrida was convinced that Searle was an arrogant hypocrite who made no effort to understand the vulnerabilities and blindnesses of his own position and thought.

When I read Gross’ critique of Searle’s social theory, I understood how these two threads – his insularity in his own corpus, and his arrogant, dismissive attitude to ideas and styles he didn’t immediately understand – connected.

The ideas that were at the forefront of social theory for sociologists come from hermeneutics, structuralism, post-structuralism, and philosophy of the intensive sciences. The schools of philosophy that Searle has aggressively dismissed as nonsense and fraud for literally decades.

By this late state in his career – when he had also become more untouchable than Harvey Weinstein for his sexual exploitation of young, female students – Searle had become incapable of the humility required to catch up on social theory. He would have likely seen what trends had influenced contemporary sociology and dismissed it all as nonsense without bothering to read any of it.

So he’s a fellow traveller in giving a materialist theory of human thought, society, and institutions. But his arrogance and self-certainty keeps Searle from having anything useful to say to anyone else.

I doubt he’d care. If they think differently from him, he’d likely say they were all simply wrong.

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