Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Harding - Standpoint Epistemology.

I think the main concern for anyone considered the "strong objectivity" advocated in Harding's paper would be the emphasis on the importance of marginalized perspectives in the pursuit of knowledge: how can we make any claims of objective knowledge if it is necessary that the perspective be that of specific individuals. To reformulate the question: if knowledge is objective (this meaning that it is not bound to any single individual or perspective) how can we simultaneously maintain that certain perspectives are more apt to be able to gain such a knowledge.

The best reply to such a concern would be to restate the origin of such a perspective (the European Enlightenment tradition) and in doing so emphasize the prejudice of such a view: the methods of the European epistemological tradition have maintained that certain perspectives are more apt to be able to gain knowledge (in this case, those who are of higher status and are thus more educated in the methods of knowledge production) and are more able to achieve an objective perspective. The key difference between "strong objectivity" and the empiricist objective enterprise lies in the lack of acknowledgment on the side of the empiricist that there is in fact a bias which is being enshrined in the questions and hypotheses being considered. The empiricist lies in uncontested social territory: they have absorbed the traditions and the biases of the society of which they are a part and replicate them in a way which mirrors the society at large and renders them nearly unrecognizable. The "strong objectivist", conversely, lies at the margins of society at large and thus are in a key position to be able to see what is invisible to others, to criticize what is taken as a given and thus acheive a greater degree of objectivity than other methods which stress objectivity.

While this argument is convincing, it also seems that there must be a counter-act of critique to fully strength of the marginal account: the individual who makes the account may be able to see the biases hidden in the society at large, but may harbor their own biases which may not be accounted for. Further, such an actor may have absorbed certain biases which infect the rest of the society; the actors are marginalized, not outside of the society that they critique, for they must have some working familiarity of the system. Such an example is historically found in the lack of attention paid to women in the advancement of civil rights. If we consider such a difficulty, we run the risk of infinite regress, insamuch as there seems to be no position of which we can say with complete security that it is better able to engage in critique. This, of course, assuming that we value objectivity as an ultimate end; here we must take it upon ourselves to consider the origins of the value of objectivity yet again.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Nietzsche's Criticism

In section 370, Nietzsche asks what Romanticism is and, in doing so, contrasts it with the Dionysian. Contrasting interpretations of creative power, he describes the Dionysian as "The desire for destruction, change, and becoming... an expression of overflowing energy that is pregnant with future." The question of Nietzsche's creative destruction, of what exactly such a method entails, is answered in his own techniques of self-criticism. Nietzsche does not desire his work to be solid and static but rather, that is always change; he continually grows and continually reflects upon the work which he has done, questioning his own prior values, adding prefaces and additional chapters to work long since finished, and reimagining his own conceptions of his key terms. The is illustrated in section 370's dealing with the Dionysian where it becomes a more focused power than that imagined in The Birth of Tragedy, one which is no longer contrasted with the Apollinian but instead the Romantic; it goes from being a mad force of undoing to a penultimate creative power, one which does not renounce, but eternally says yes.

Such criticism is especially clear in Nietzsche's treatment of Schopenhauer and Wagner in section 99: here again we see Nietzsche engaging in very important self-criticism. Nietzsche is no longer quoting long passages of Shopenhauer or celebrating Wagner as the genius of the age; both are considered in their strengths and weakness and both are found wanting in certain important senses. The intellectual conscience mentioned in section 2 is obeyed and Nietzsche cannot help but move away from the individuals and thoughts that he once endorsed. This is seen especially clear in the recurring themes that occur throughout all of Nietzsche's work (Wagner and Schopenhauer, of course, but also Christianity, music, the arts, and morality).

Section 317 is very telling in this respect: reflection on past events leads us to the recognition that what was once very sure may not be in the future. Taken in relation to his own philosophy, it is a recognition of the change that has occurred in his own philosophy and the change that shall continue as long as Nietzsche remains rooted in his critical method. Continuous change and "yes-saying" is only made possible when one is in the critical mindset, that is, when one can be comfortable enough to continuously question the core beliefs that one holds. Section 106 perhaps illustrates the hope that Nietzsche has for his own thought: "For a doctrine to become a tree, it has to be believed, it has to be considered irrefutable. The tree needs storms, doubts, worms, and nastiness to reveal the nature and the strength of the seedling; let it break if it is not strong enough."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


The necessity of groups suggests that Hopkins's hope for dismantling the category of gender is largely wishful thinking. That is, at least if we are to understand dismantling as the complete elimination of the categories themselves; the final line of the piece suggests another reading, however. Rather than eliminating the categories of gender, it might be said that the goal should be to deconstruct the binary nature, to reinterpret it as a polar matrix of gender, one which admits of many shades of gender. Such a reconception seems in line with what many others have suggested for sexuality, and it seems appropriate that gender, which is intricately connected to sexuality (as Hopkins suggests) should follow a similar model. Using such a model allows for less rigidity while still allowing a general area of male and female, as the similar model of sexuality allows for polar heterosexuality and homosexuality while also allowing for an account of bisexuality and other more subtle sexualities. Under this manner of understanding, we can support the value of general gender and sexual identity while also acknowledging that the members who are said to belong to a particular group are not homogeneous. In doing so, we pay respect to the experiences of different groups as well as different individual experiences within a particular group. The goals of Hopkins and Spelman are both valued, and a subtlety is gained.

As to the question of whether being a woman today implies heterosexuality, it must be answered that this is case only inasmuch as the identity of a woman is understood within the binary model of gender. The rigidity of the heterosexuality, however, would seem to depend on the perspective of the observer; as society at large is largely patterned on the male perspective, and as the male perspective must understand the "other" only in generalized terms of what it is not, it stands that the field is more open. This is different within the field of positive speculation of what defines a woman, where the attempt to define who and what a women is are considered in positive terms. Accordingly, to men the woman can express a more subtle sense of sexuality, such as bisexuality, as long as she is not outwardly butch (though bisexuality is often normalized as mere promiscuity); to women, however, there seems to be less acceptance, and a similar expectation that the bisexual is merely a promiscuous individual (the bisexual always seems to lose).

Group boundaries serve to exclude as well as include, so that any positive form of group identification (that is, identification besides simply being an "other") serves to create a set of norms. So: only when we see bisexuals, transsexuals, transvestites, and others who engage in the critique of binary gender and sexuality (likely the best description of what is a complex phenomena) as normal individuals should there be said to be a lack of heterosexism.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Gay Science - Nietzsche's Irony

191: Against Many a Defense - The most perfidious way of harming a cause consists of defending it deliberately with faulty arguments.

This aphorism is, I think, key if we are to make any sense of Nietzsche's hyperbolic and offensive statements. Nietzsche toys with our expectation that he should be arguing for his perspective by engaging in the very forms of argumentation he disagrees with, successfully parodying them by showing what a lack of reason they exhibit and pointing towards other conclusions regarding the subject at hand. So, for example, in 140, entitled "Too Jewish", he utilizes the tendency to justify behaviors on racial lines to make a point about the heritage of Christianity and its tendencies, in tandem with the surrounding sections. He points towards (I think this is the best way to characterize his style of argumentation) the absurdity of anti-Semitism by making clear, again and again, the affinity between Christianity and Judaism while appearing to be engaging in purely racist argumentation.

A similar, and altogether bizarre example of this is found in section 145, "Danger for Vegetarians"; here he engages with the common Orientalist perceptions and anti-Irish sentiment (which seems rather odd, since he isn't English). His first line is a bizarre bit of syllogism: "A diet that consists predominately of rice leads to the use of opium and narcotics, just as a diet that consists predominately of potatoes leads to the use of liquor". Here Nietzsche is engaging in the sort of racist talk about tendencies and diets that was not necessarily uncommon in this period. The reasoning is shown to be laughable, and Nietzsche uses this to make a greater point about dietary rules in general: the religious dietary restriction is also a method for control. The guru would like to enforce the rule of vegetarianism as law because it would further increase influence; the talk of narcotic effects, I think, should be taken less as a literal statement of the effects of foods and more as a statement about the religious content being discussed.

The difficulty in interpreting such sections is that Nietzsche parodies are so subtle that it requires biographical knowledge to determine where he is telling the truth and where he is engaging in parody. The situation is further complicated when we consider the different standards of what was and what was not considered acceptable language: his use of the term "Oriental", for example, would likely not have struck his peers as overly offensive, even though it is questionable to us. Nietzsche surely knew that misunderstandings would occur, and seems to have strategically placed hints such as section 191 as well as others about humor and lightness, to suggest to us that there his ridiculous arguments and questionable statements are only preliminary stages upon which he is engaging in more complex reasoning.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Spelman - Gender and Race

It seems that Spelman's point that the oppression of different sorts cannot be easily understood in combination is quite astute, and her suggestions considering the futility of the question concerning the primacy of one sort of the oppression over another was well taken. What she missed, I think, and what is also important in differentiating the experiences of different individuals in different cultures, are the culturally bound aspects of sexism and sex roles which accompany sexism in the rest of society. The marginalization of minority groups provides a buffer between the hegemonic culture and their own, so that culturally specific views of what it means to be a woman can be allowed to exist in tandem with what might be called "standard white" views of the women in question. The experience of a Black, Hispanic, or Native woman is different from that of any woman in any other group because of this. To take the example of a single mother: this phenomenon is more common in Black households and so holds a certain amount of cultural significance, both for the women living the role and the greater society at large. Pejorative talk of "welfare mothers" who "have more children so that they can collect a greater check", though more of a relic of the past, still has resonance as a pejorative term for minority groups. To be a white single mother is not necessarily to be poor, and it is only through the addition, often enough, of other pejoratives that such individuals are identified (such as "white trash); such pejoratives are not necessary when speaking of other groups, and indeed, it seems that the image of single mother is wedded to the single black mother. Further, while being a single mother has been somewhat legitimized within the majority of society, marginalized groups often tend to conservatism; they become marginalized not only from society but within their own group, considered to be unfortunate cases of dissolving morals.

This much said, it seems that there can be a united front if there is recognition of the varieties of experiences in the same stroke as the recognition of similarities. Marginalization of women and their rights does occur at all levels of society; Spelman mentions the subordination of women in the struggle for civil rights in the United States. As long as such experiences are acknowledged as legitimate grievances, as long as the unique experiences of all groups of women are understood as legitimate and not special cases, then can the be a united front. If the of the life of the white middle class woman takes a greater role than it deserves, if this life is taken as the standard for what it is to be a woman, then there can be little hope of reconciliation and a united front. It is a task which must be achieved over a period of time, however, not a problem that can be solved through simple immediate action.

Monday, February 2, 2009

An Addendum

Perhaps it is art that is preferred as a source of self-deception precisely because it is knowingly so engaged. Or, at least such a view would be tenable if Nietzsche were more warm towards the plastic arts. Still, there is an important sense in which art does not deceive in the same way that rigid value systems do; there can be knowledge of the artificiality of the process which is understood in the same instant as there is deception and self-loss. Indeed, it is the anti-realist urge which seems to be present in Nietzsche's condemnation of Euripides and other artists. In the Birth of Tragedy, he unknowingly (or knowingly) tends towards a somewhat Romantic conception of the arts, especially inasmuch as he focuses on transcendence through the aesthetic.

Reginster - Nihilism

Under Reginster's interpretation, it would seem that pessimism stands as an antecedent to nihilism, inasmuch as it shares an understanding of the world which nihilism takes to an extreme. Whereas the pessimist believes in the impossibility of the of the realization of values in the world, the nihilist accepts this and also questions the possibility of there being any other world in which such a realization could occur and, hence, posits that there is no hope at all: it is not only that the world is hostile to our values but also that there is no possible world where they could be realized. This distinction mirrors somewhat Reginster's distinction between two forms of nihilism (though he does seem to maintain that this distinction is one between forms of nihilism and not necessarily applicable to the pessimism/nihilism distinction). The first form is that which is most focused upon, that the world does not contain value in itself and hence that we cannot be justified in any maintenance of a system of values. In addition to this, however, Reginster finds also another aspect; it is not only that there is no justification for our system of values, but also that the world is hostile to our values and there is no possibility of their realization in this or any other world. The first form focuses on our ability to maintain values and the second is a judgement on the feasibility of any value system to be maintained in any rational way. The two seem complement one another in their destructive power.

The Birth of Tragedy is imbued with a pessimistic spirit, with hints of the nihilism to come, but compared with later work and in general, it seems to avoid the most despairing nihilistic points and manages to sound rather optimistic. One of the most pessimistic moments involves Nietzsche's description of the story of Silenus, with the quote from Oedipus at Colonus, that "What is best of all is... not to be born, not to be, to be nothing" (42). While we must be drawn in by the gravity of such a statement, there is little hint of overwhelming systematic despair; the quote lends itself merely to pessimism. Indeed, the next page has the description of the Apollinian resolution of this despair with the emergence of a thirst for beauty, "just as roses burst from thorny bushes" (43). Again, on page 60, "man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of existence; now he understands what is symbolic in Ophelia's fate; now he understands the wisdom of the sylvan god, Silenus: he is nauseated". Even here, "art approaches as a saving sorceress, expert at healing". Even when reaching for towards nihilism, he is drawn back, he is convinced by the overwhelming power of art, not questioning its legitimacy or its ability to truly engage us in such a way. He has not reached nihilism proper, for he has not let go of the hope that art can provide us with a meaningful existence. Can art do this? We should rather rephrase the question: can any form of self-deception do this? I believe so, but when we have reached the point of nihilism, we are taken by a possibly fatal disease which can be warded off with treatment but can always return and will show symptoms occasionally. Nietzsche has not reached beyond pessimism at this point, and so seems rather hopeful that art can serve a healing function; his solution at this point is the most attractive solution which will likely be found in any of his writings, at least for most readers.