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Philosophy and Social Hope

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To realise the relative validity of one's convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian. - Joseph Schumpeter

I had meant to write something about Richard Rorty when he died last month, but I wanted to re-read some things and really think about it first, and then other stuff came up, and suddenly weeks had gone by and it was no longer current. Yet another example of why I'm just not quite cut out for the pace of this medium. But, timely or no, it's still worth writing about, so I'll put this out there and see what happens.

It's fitting that when Richard Rorty died, I happened to be reading a book about William James. After all, it was Rorty who turned me on to James, and a host of other thinkers and ideas which ultimately helped to reconcile a lot of contradictions for me. Like him, I was an eager studen of philosophy, who, as time went on, became more and more suspicious of the validity and importance of many of the problems that philosophy concerns itself with. It all comes down to questions of aims: is the purpose of philosophy to attempt to solve a lot of interesting, but abstract and likely insoluble problems, or to figure out what the Good Life is and how to live it? Is philosophy (or knowledge in general) an end in itself, or a tool to help human beings to attain their own ends? He and I both fell firmly in the latter camps on those questions, and, well, that's just not what academic philosophy does for the most part these days.

Rorty's ideas came into my life at a pivotal time for me, in my last year of college. A friend in the political science department (naturally) loaned me her copy of Philosophy and Social Hope. At that time, I was trying to reconcile problems of disillusionment with the realities of both academic science (I had similar problems with it... an inability on the part of practicioners to put the work in a larger context and think ethically and practically about it, an at-times blindly dogmatic belief in something that is a human practice and thus subject to human failings, etc) and philosophy with a growing practical political urgency. Rorty, and the thinkers he led me to (James, Dewey, Kuhn, Davidson, West, etc, all of whom we certainly weren't reading in my undergrad philosophy dept) allowed me to realign all of those competing impulses in a new, flexible framework, and in many ways to get past the disillusionment and move on. Of course, like with him, moving on meant a self-imposed exile of sorts, because it turned out that philosophy and science weren't actually doing what I had thought they were going in. But, I'm very glad I figured that out when I did, instead of halfway into a Ph. D. somewhere.

My journey through academic philosophy and science taught me that what I was really interested in was politics, in one guise or another. Rorty, Dewey, and James' Pragmatism became the vital link between the two. What it does is is basically blow up a lot of those problems of philosophy that I thought were pointless:

It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhere - no difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact  - Wm. James

What does it matter if we are brains in vats or if reality is truly "real?" Would either answer to the question change the way we live in practice? Either way we still have to interact with the reality we encounter, and if it's perceptually the same for a human or a brain in a vat, what possible difference can it make? It may be an interesting exercise, but it's meaningless.

Now, there has always been this current throughout the history of philosophy, away from abstraction and towards the human and the living of life. But it has always been sort of a black sheep faction, and lots of people who fall within this tradition, and who I consider to be important philosophers... the ethicists, eclecticists, humanists, romantics, doubters... thinkers like Aurelius, Montaigne, Emerson, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Camus, Berlin, and Niebuhr, are pretty much dismissed by modern academic philosophy as lacking rigor and systematicness. Some of the Pre-Socratics and Hellenistic philosophers seem to get a pass on this, likely because they are Greek and old, and anything Greek and old has to be taken seriously, but they are still largely sidelined in favor the Platonic and Aristotelian dualities that have dominated Western philosophy since the beginning.

Though Hume was in many ways a prescient precursor, Utilitarianism and then Pragmatism were the first really concerted and enduring movements that attempted to get beyond the questions of Plato and Aristotle, to find a way to live without appealing to abstract absolutes or replacing God with some other idea as a surrogate-God. To me Pragmatism is postmodernism without all of the gobbledegook and despair. It is a humble admission of the complexity of our reality, the human origin of values and morals and ideas, and the contingency of truth.

In place of capital-T truth and eternal, nonhuman certainties, it offers hope, social hope embodied in human empathy and solidarity, the democratic process, and the possibility for change and a better future (in this emphasis, it differs from and improves upon Utilitarianism for me.)

In place of the fruitless quest for unity, it offers a celebration of the many, and an attempt to find tools to cope with and thrive among many-ness and complexity. In place of end states, it offers process. It admits that we are on our own in the universe, and that whatever becomes of the human experiment is wholly up to us and what we invent and how we choose. This is both terrifying and liberating. James again:

I find myself willing to take the universe to be really dangerous and adventurous, without therefore backing out and crying 'no play! ... I am willing that there should be real losses and real losers, and no total preservation of all that is. I can believe in the ideal as an ultimate, not as an origin, and as an extract, not the whole. When the cup is poured off, the dregs are left behind for ever, but the possibility of what is poured off is sweet enough to accept.

It is a very American philosophy, in many of the ways that I think America is or was unique and revolutionary and dynamic.

As for Rorty himself, aside from his major role as a gateway to all of those other ideas, I admired him for the unique space he carved out as an American public intellectual in the latter half of the 20th century. He was one of few current intellectual role models I could find who managed to combine the sort of sophisticated and skeptical understanding of truth, ideas, contingency, context, sociocultural phenomena, and so on, that makes the most sense to me philosophically with an old-fashioned and stubborn commitment to progressivism, solidarity, meliorism, democracy, and a solid, moderate, possibly achievable social democratic political vision. He admitted the relative validity of his convictions, and yet stood for them unflinchingly. He was able to be in uncertainty and complexity and yet refuse to be paralyzed or unmanned by it, or to take an easy out to avoid confronting it.

He feels like a rather sad example of a road-not-taken, both in American politics and academics. There aren't many classic old liberal/humanist public intellectuals like him left, and at least from within the academy, I don't see many more on the way. I wish he had won the argument instead of the rejectionist and puritanical Chomsky types politically, and the inwardly focused and disciplinarily narrow types academically, but it was a losing fight from the start, for reasons structural and institutional as much as ideological. I'm very glad and grateful he was still willing to fight it though, and I have great hopes that we on the American left may just be coming back around to his sort of practical, hopeful, incrementalist, and progressive vision of ourselves and our country after all.

As an interesting little side-note to the latest whine-fest about how the intarnets are destroying journalism, this article at Newsweek whingeing about how bloggers aren't willing to give interviewers carte-blanche on their terms sure is a treat. Now, Winer is notorious for being touchy and tough to deal with, and Calacanis is not known as the nicest guy on the web either, but still, they have good reason to be suspicious. Most bloggers who have dealt with the media at all do, because they have in many cases learned from hard experience. Now that they have enough power to have some degree of control of how the media represents them, they're certainly justified in using it.

"The interviewer used to be in charge, but that's no longer the case," says media blogger Jeff Jarvis. "I can decide how long the quote is, I can make sure the context is accurate."

All this can be unnerving to someone (like, um, me) who has spent a career conversing with people on the other end of the phone line or lunch table. A live interview allows me not only to follow up quickly but to sense the verbal cues that direct me to more fruitful topics. In e-mail, people talk at you; in conversation I can talk with subjects, and a casual remark can lead to a level of discussion that neither party anticipated from the beginning. I am more likely to learn from someone in a conversation than in an e-mail exchange, which simply does not allow for the serendipity, intensity and give-and-take of real-time interaction.

We in the journalism tribe operate under the belief that when we ask people to talk to us we are not acting out of self-interest but a sense of duty to inform the population. It's an article of our faith that when subjects speak to us, they are engaging in a grand participatory act where everyone benefits. But these lofty views don't impress bloggers like Rosen. "You have to prove [you represent the public]," he says.

Yes, we do. But every time we lose the priceless knowledge from those essential, real-time interviews, our stories are impoverished, to the detriment of our readers: you.

There is a reason that bloggers feel like reporters have to prove that they represent the public and are acting in good faith. And that is primarily that almost all of us, or at least someone we know, have at one point or another naively and in good faith given an interview about blogs or online culture to some traditional media outlet, and upon reading the end-product, found it to be a total misrepresentation of the content of the interview given and the terms under which it was given.

Over and over again, I've seen reporters come into stories about blogging and other geeky lifestyle stuff with a pre-written thesis that they're seemingly determined to cram whatever their interview subjects say into, regardless of whether said thesis stands up to the reality of the people they are supposedly trying to learn about. In just the most recent of many, many examples that I know of, a friend of mine was interviewed about fantasy hockey. The reporter pitched it as sort of an expository/anthropological lifestyle piece, and said he just wanted some info on the appeal and mechanics and what have you of online fantasy sports. The finished piece focused almost entirely on gambling and addiction, which scarcely came up in the interview itself, and it had a real "look at the freaks!" feel to it, further reinforced by the photo (now gone, retrieved from they published with it, which almost seemed calculated to make him look like a pathetic loner or something, which he (and most of us who are thriving in the online world) is decidedly not.

Seeing this kind of thing play out over and over again has made me increasingly suspicious that this happens constantly on much more serious subjects as well. Some of it may be simple ignorance, but ignorance is no excuse for how some of these things come out. More like incompetence that is in effect indistinguishable from malice, if we are going to be generous about motives here.

Isn't the job of a reporter to go out and find the facts, and then write a story, instead of pre-writing a story and then cherry-picking facts to flesh it out? Sure, to even have the idea of a story you may have to have an angle in mind, just like scientists have to have a hypothesis to work from, but when the facts don't bear your hypothesis out, you're supposed to rethink it. If you're not doing that, you're not seeking the truth, you're creating it from whole cloth. Insofar as their mission is to turn out journalists with the tools and mentality needed to seek the truth, journo schools are not doing their job, if the often laughable coverage of any of the subcultures and technological changes that I've been a part of and am semi-expert on is any indication.

Now, there are plenty of ways to begin to earn back that trust. Some reporters, (but not nearly enough of them) are doing a very good job of using the interactivity of the web to turn these things into a public dialogue, which eventually results in them getting it mostly right by the end of the discussion. Another way to do this would be to use these tools to provide much greater transparency to the whole newsmaking process. Frontline, for example, does a very good thing, in that they still make and edit down their show as they always have, but they then post the full interviews and lots of the other background that went into making it to their website, so anyone who wants the extra context can easily get it, and anyone who feels they have been misrepresented by the finished product can point to the original sources by way of defense and correction.

In the absence of the limitations and costs of print, this should be fairly trivial for newspapers to implement. It would increase trust immensely, and it would allow bloggers and others to dig around in the source material and find new angles and connections, and ultimately help the journalists to do their job and uphold their civic obligations. This is just one of many ways in which newspapers are failing to grok the potential of the new mediums and technologies available to them, and in doing so, endangering their own survival and failing the people they claim to work on behalf of.

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