Modern thought(less): In which I discuss the margins of modernity, multiplicity, and epistemological nihilism. . .

30 08 2011

I have not abandoned medieval thought.

Okay, yes, I have been skipping from the 16th century to the 4th century to the 21st century and now, the 19th (Weber) and 20th (Berlin) centuries.

There’s a purpose in all this hopscotching, there is. Somewhere.

I mentioned oh-so-long ago that I was going back in an attempt to make sense of now, back to the end of the last great (European) ontological moment for clues on what might be the end of the current, modern moment. I noted that I had become increasingly dubious of the notion of the post-modern, and thought that perhaps we might be simply be at the fraying ends of modernity.

Now I’m not even so sure about the “fraying ends”; that we may be at the far side of modernity does not yet mean we have reached the limits of this territory. There may be margins we can approach, but “ends” or “afters”? No, I don’t think so.

There are multiple modernities, just as there were multiple medievalisms; such multiplicity within (as opposed to, alongside) modernity creates problems which did not exist for medieval thinkers: unlike medieval thinkers, who worked toward unity, modern thinkers have tended to presuppose a unity in both method and outlook. Such unity has been long questioned—most obviously by Hume and Nietzsche—but it seemed that only in the latter half of the 20th century that skepticism about modernity’s (modernities’?) presuppositions came to the fore, a skepticism which is often called “post-modernism”.

But this skepticism, even undermining of the presuppositions seems itself to emerge from modernity and to be obsessed with questions of modernity, and it is not at all clear to me that laying bare the complexities and contradictions of the various modernities is in any way post-modern.

Well, in any way save one: the shattering of epistemological unity (again, which cracks long predate the 20th c) irreversibly breaches one of the boundaries of modernity, and it is here, and only here, that any thinkers, in grappling with such nihilism, may be said to advancing beyond modernity.

That matters. A lot. But even the shattering of such epistemological unity does not itself obliterate the methods which rested unconcerned above it. In other words, measurement, observation, reduction, generalization, and, of course, reason, are still powerful tools for dismantling and reassembling the world, even if they are no longer all-powerful.

The foundation crumbles, but the world still stands, and it’s not at all clear to me that scattering of foundational certainties necessarily leads to the dissolution of modernity; it may, in fact, simply have revealed the plurality of modernities which were, as the saying goes, always already there.

Don’t you ever get sick of being sick about it

20 12 2010

How may I be irritated? Let me count the ways:

*Irritation due to disagreement: This may be further divided into partisan (of any sort), preference-based, and personal disagreement, but it is just as likely that all three motivations may be at play (albeit at different levels of intensity). In any case, such irritation is usually merely irritating, i.e., uninteresting and unproductive—you say potayto, I say potahto—but can be dispelled if turned into a game.

*Irritation due to stupid arguments: The  person making the argument either isn’t trying or doesn’t understand or is so riven with emotion that she is un-able/-willing to put together a coherent argument.  Non-sequiturs, ad hominem attacks, and utter illogic abound in stupid arguments, which is what makes them simultaneously irritating and difficult to counter. Irritation may be expiated either by pounding the argument into oblivion or dissipated by walking away; while the former is more immediately satisfying, sometimes the latter is the only recourse.

*Irritation due to bad arguments: Similar to that caused by stupid arguments, this is a case in which there is at least a semblance of logic structuring the argument, but said structure is riddled with inconsistencies and bad evidence. The best antidote is continued conversation, which is possible if interlocutor is a reasonable person who is willing to repair his argument; at other times, one may have to find satisfaction in mending the argument yourself.

*Irritation due to bad-faith arguments: Again, similar to both stupid and bad arguments, but with the important proviso that the person knows her argument is shit and/or that she is fucking with the data, and doesn’t care. This is bad form in purely intellectual debates and deserves to be called out, but to be expected in political debates, where the point is to win. In the latter case especially it is important to keep one’s irritation in check (so as not to lose one’s head and thus the argument), but in the former case, one can channel the irritation into a kind of bemusement, and counter with one’s own ‘whimsical’ bad-faith argument (possible only if one hasn’t drunk too much).

*Irritation due to inconsistency/hypocrisy: Easy to spot in others, less easy to admit to in oneself, and damned well impossible to avoid if you spend any time at all thinking or doing. A fun charge with which to whack an opponent over the head, but rarely should too much be hung upon this, especially if it occurs on its own or as part of a stupid argument; point it out (or not), laugh if off, and let it go. On the other hand, if coupled with a bad or bad-faith argument, inconsistency and hypocrisy can heighten your overall irritation, and will likely have to be dealt with as one would deal with that caused by those bad[-faith] arguments.

*Irritation due to tone: The tone is usually either snide or condescending, or some variation thereof, and indicative of a sense of either inferiority or superiority. The best counter to this is absolute (even if feigned) sincerity in response, although the more likely response is either to adopt a similar tone or to escalate the snottiness. Such encounters rarely end well.

*Irritation due to crabbiness: This is self-generated, such that one is either looking for or finds trouble just because; can amplify other forms of irritation.

*Irritation due to material reality: Actually, just irritation due to physical discomfort, but this sounds so much more elevated, doesn’t it? Anyway, this may (but does not always) account for crabbiness, and  can be countered by band-aids, medicinal cremes, relevant medications, a lie-down, sleep, ice, a heating pad, and/or food.

*Update: Oh, and I forgot: Irritation due to peeve. Similar to crabbiness, but more durable, this re-/occurs when confronted with whatever niggle happens to set you off, e.g., “irregardless”, stuck zippers, indestructible plastic packaging, bad parking, etc. Little can be done about this, beyond chanting “breathe” to oneself and trying to let it go.


All of this was prompted by my irritation with both Andrew Sullivan and Dave Weigel. Both of these men are conservatives (each in his own way), so I wondered if my irritation was due simply to disagreement, i.e., because they’re conservative and I’m not, or due to something more substantive.

I think it’s mainly down to disagreement. I may not like how the argument is shaped or think that the conclusion is foregone due to Sullivan’s or Weigel’s predispositions, but the arguments themselves may be legit. Yeah, sometimes I think the tone (Sullivan!) is off or the evidence (Weigel!) thin, but these guys (well, Sully more than Weigel) offer thoughts worth considering.

On the other hand, I’ve pretty much stopped reading Will Saletan because, while I may agree with at least some of what he writes, I think he’s often condescending, and too often musters incomplete or shitty evidence and deploys rhetorical tricks in place of reason. I couldn’t read him without getting irritated—so I stopped reading him.

I try not to stop reading people/arguments/magazines/web sites solely because I disagree—that seems weasely. I hold the views I do because they comport with my principles, but, epistemological nihilist that I am, I can claim neither that the principles themselves are grounded in absolute truth nor that they lead necessarily and ineluctably to my views. As such, if I truly do want to understand a phenomenon, then I have to approach it from all sides.

However irritating that may be.