Adolf Hitler, Aristotle, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Martin Luther King Jr., Mencius, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Peimin Ni, Plato, relativism, SACP, Thrasymachus
In his talk at the conference this year, SACP president Peimin Ni pushed further on the claim he made last year: the idea of philosophy as a technique. I was fortunate to spend a long and enjoyable lunch discussing the talk and its ideas with him further. (I love the SACP conferences because their format is designed to encourage the emergence of mealtime conversations like this; last year I enjoyed a similarly thoughtful discussion with Ted Slingerland.) The present post recounts the ideas expressed at the lunch, naturally from my own side; I hope I am being fair to Ni’s arguments in what follows.
Ni’s talk focused on the Chinese concept of gongfu 功夫, dating from the early centuries CE and meaning any practical art – it could include calligraphy, sports, cooking, good judgement or statecraft. (Although the word gongfu has long ago passed into English with an alternate spelling, it is probably best to keep using the Pinyin spelling rather than confuse people with a term most associate with goofy movies about roundhouse kicks.)
Gongfu as Ni understands it then bears some resemblance to the Greek concept of technē, or Alasdair MacIntyre’s concept of practice, with one crucial difference. Aristotle’s technē involves a telos; it is embedded within a larger determinate framework of human flourishing. With gongfu, on the other hand, Ni agreed with my earlier characterization of the process as a technique. It is open to us to choose our aims; gongfu merely allows us to achieve those aims. There is a gongfu of killing as well as a gongfu of saving. (Ni effectively uses the concept to expand his previous characterization of Mencius into a constructive position.)
Ni urges us to a conception of practical philosophy in which gongfu, thus conceived, takes centre stage. Theoretical philosophy, especially metaphysics, then serves the function not of description but of recommendation. Philosophy is a way of achieving our chosen ends, a set of instructions rather than responsibilities. Philosophies, like other practices, can be evaluated as techniques – on their effectiveness at achieving their aims.
There’s a word for the kind of philosophy Ni is describing, and it’s relativism. Ni’s gongfu is not relativistic with respect to means; a philosophy can be discredited if it fails to achieve its goals. It is, however, entirely relativistic with respect to ends; ultimate ends are up to our decisions and choices, and there is no rational basis on which to criticize them. The value of each gongfu is relative to the incommensurable ends it aims to achieve.
As such, Ni’s approach seems vulnerable to the standard criticisms levelled at relativism. One asks: does this philosophy have any grounds on which to criticize evil actions – of which we might often take Adolf Hitler’s as the paradigm? Ni’s first answer was, to my mind, entirely unsatisfactory: that Hitler’s project failed on its own terms, that he committed suicide and ended his life in misery. This claim is of course true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far. It is not too difficult to imagine a Hitler who succeeded, perhaps by reining in his ambitions a little bit and maintaining the Nazi-Soviet pact. Such a Hitler, maintaining his reign of terror for decades or more, seems worse than the Hitler we know.
Ni then proceeded to offer a strong perspectival defence of sorts: criticism would be part of our own gongfu. We can criticize Hitler from our side, within our own ends; we can and should take this a step further and fight him. Action against Hitler is a part of achieving our aims; it’s just that there’s no objective ground from which to criticize him.
Against such a view, I developed some of the arguments I made in my critique of postmodernism. Relativism privileges the strong. It is no coincidence that Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. believed in universal, objective truths; for it was only on such a basis that they could nonviolently shame their oppressors into relenting. Imagine King standing up and proclaiming: “I have a dream that my children will one day live in freedom and justice and brotherhood. But I know that you have a dream of maintaining this world of segregation, and I know that objectively my dream is no better than yours. So I will fight for my dream, and you fight for yours.” If civil rights leaders had all talked that way, even thought that way, it’s easy to imagine the South remaining segregated for centuries.
Moral persuasion works by imagining ideals larger than one person’s given ends. Without it, there is only violent persuasion, persuasion by force – which, by definition, favours the strong. It is no accident that the most powerfully expressed relativist position in Plato’s Republic – the one which ends on a note of “you have your position, Socrates, and I have mine” – is expressed by Thrasymachus, who has argued that justice is merely the interest of the stronger. Without an ability to cross paradigms and argue about ends, the interest of the stronger is what prevails. When the weak prevailed and achieved a more just world, as they did in Gandhi’s and King’s cases, they could only do so because they had on their side a conception of the good beyond their own limited paradigms, one which had a binding authority on everyone.
Knowing this point, those aiming for change could certainly try to lie – to proclaim universal ideals they did not themselves believe in, as itself part of the technique, the gongfu, for achieving their individually derived goals. (I believe that Gayatri Spivak has argued for a “strategic essentialism” that bears a strong resemblance to this approach.) An outsider might refer to such a person as a liar and a hypocrite, but such outside criticisms do not of themselves need to bear any weight on the relativist individual who disregards outsiders’ ends. More important is that such an approach can itself be rather self-defeating – public figures aiming for social change have their words and actions relentlessly dissected and examined. If King or Gandhi had really believed that what they were doing was only best for them and not universal – but proclaimed the opposite – their lies would have stood a good chance of being exposed.
Or, pushing the point further, one might even try hard to believe in a universalist view in order to advance one’s own pragmatic goals. Ni’s interpretation of Mencius (about which I hope to say more) suggested such an approach: rather than deriving one’s ethical or political practice from a metaphysics of the world’s nature, one starts with the practice and employs the metaphysics as a part of it. So one might try to take on a universalist metaphysics in order to advance one’s pragmatic goals, even though one is convinced that there is no such universal metaphysics that transcends each individual’s given ends. I have somewhat more sympathy for this possibility, as I have explored a similar possibility with respect to hedonism. But I concluded there that such an attempt is self-defeating. More generally, from a commonsense point of view, it is bad to believe things one knows to be false; from a philosophical point of view, it is bad to avoid thinking too hard lest one think the wrong things. More specifically, contradictions get in the way of one’s own practice, whether personal or political: when one believes a contradiction, one cannot – pretty much by definition – believe either side of the contradiction wholeheartedly. It is much more difficult to fight for justice (or anything else) when one is already at war with oneself, for such a fight must be fought on two fronts.
Ni made one final reply before the lunch ended: he noted that I was myself arguing merely based on pragmatic effectiveness, not on the grounds of the larger metaphysical truth I hope to proclaim. He was absolutely right about this, I think, but in a way that does not undercut my position. I’ve said a lot here already; this point deserves enough attention that I will save it for another post.
michael reidy said:
A technique. Sounds like rhetoric, the stock in trade of the Sophists, that Plato excoriated. I loved ‘Gongfu’ the TV series, the old one: ‘Little Butterfly, we do not win arguments, we invite our opponent to align himself with the truth that is within him which he knows in his heart.’
Amod Lele said:
Yes, I agree. To treat philosophy as no more than a technique, only about means and not about ends, is sophistry – thus my reference to Thrasymachus. But sophistry recurs, in our age more than most.
The quote sounds like a good expression of the intimacy orientation.
“Philosophy is a technique.” Well, it’s always good philosophical practice to take a deep breath (literally!)and take the time to explore the meaning of a claim before rushing to evaluate it or make pronouncements on it.
It is even more important to ask: What is the issue or problem this claim is intended to address?
So, is the claim “Philosophy is a technique.” intended to address and answer the question (A)”What is philosophy?”?
If it is intended as an answer to question A, then other questions follow: What sort of a technique is philosophy? And what is it a technique for?
Recall Wittgenstein’s declaration that philosophy is an activity? That immeidately raises the questions: What sort of an activity is it? And what are we seeking to achieve by means of this activity?
Is there a difference between the claims “Philosophy is a technique.” and “Philosophy is an activity.”? If so, what is the difference?
Are these claims exclusive? Can one consistently claim that “Philosophy is an activity which employs a technique or a set of techniques.”?
Amod Lele said:
Helpful questions, Thill. Welcome, and I hope you’ll stick around!
The biggest question that “philosophy is a technique” raises in my mind is the question of means and ends: one then has already excluded the possibility that philosophy is an end, a good in itself. An overly pragmatic view, to my mind, reduces everything to means, excludes consideration of the ends. The Wittgensteinian questions pose a further problem: if we must phrase our ends in terms of achievements, that already puts limits on what those ends can be – the ends are goals, results, consequences. But some phenomena claimed to be ends are not this: David Velleman refers to visiting one’s dead mother’s grave “for her sake.” One is not trying to achieve anything; rather, the mother is in some sense an end in herself, and not anything that one could do for her.
So is philosophy an activity? Well, perhaps. It certainly entails activities; to ask questions and seek answers for them is clearly an activity. But if philosophy is the love of wisdom – is that solely an activity? Can’t this love be in some respects a state of being, in which one abides – a state which requires activity for its maintenance but is not itself an activity?
If philosophy is an end or goal, then it would make sense to say “I have achieved philosophy.”, “I have accomplished philosophy.”, “I have finally reached philosophy.” and so on. It is not clear if these statements sound meaningful to philosophers. Certainly, they sound odd to me. So, it is problematic to claim that philosophy is a goal or end. Further, since the question “What is the purpose or goal of philosophy?” is definitely meaningful, there is a serious problem with the claim that philosophy is a goal or end.
I think we can get on the right track if we relate the claim “Philosophy is a technique.” or rather “Philosophy is a set of techniques.” to Wittgenstein’s remarkable insight that philosophy is essentially an activity, something we do. It is a complex activity involving a variety of verbal, linguistic, logical, or semantic techniques. (Could some of these techniques be non-verbal? What could they be? Holding up a flower reminiscent of the Buddha’s action at a sermon?)
What is the purpose of all this activity? The attainment of wisdom? What motivates or impels all this activity” The love of wisdom?
Well, what the heck is wisdom? (we are back again in the activity which is philosophy!)Can you love something if you don’t know what it is? I don’t think so. Hence, anyone wishing to affirm that philosophy is a love of wisdom must first clarify what that wisdom is.
So, what is wisdom?
It also occurred to me that the complex activity of thought and speech which constitutes philosophy must be a constitutive element of wisdom, whatever else we may add to the latter.
Hence, there is a problem with notion that philosophy is a means to attaining wisdom because this presupposes the separation of means and the goal or end. The problem with that presupposition is that the so-called means, i.e., philosophy, is itself a constitutive element of the goal, especially if we don’t conceive of wisdom as a frozen state in which someone has all the final answers.
Amod Lele said:
Again, there is a difference between ends and goals. Not every end can be achieved – nothing is achieved by visiting your mother’s grave “for her sake.”
Can you love something if you don’t know what it is? Well, sure, to some extent: some elements of all our loves remain unknown and maybe even unknowable to us. Definition emerges in the process of the search.
So I would agree more with the second of your two comments here: means and end are intertwined. We cannot so clearly separate philosophy from its ends; it is part of the end itself, and more importantly helps us to know what the end is.
michael reidy said:
It seems I have misled you. The single quotes are in this jurisdiction an indication of hypothetical, notional, imprecise, use mention sort of thing and not a quotation (oratio recta). In this case they are an indication of imprecision because there is surely nothing more imprecise than the false. Cod quote in other words. That series lent itself to it in that the sayings of the Master were true but portentous. As you say ‘satyagraha’ is the true heart changer.
I am attracted to the notion of philosophy as ideally coterminous with life– a gongfu of “calligraphy, sports, cooking, good judgement or statecraft,” of archery or motorcycle maintenance, suits me very well. And, recalling the more narrow use of the Chinese term, I remember that Plato was a sportsman who liked his time in the gym, & that the word ascesis which I keep tossing around just means “training”. So there is something in the notion of philosophy as technique that attracts me.
But all that being said, I agree that it cannot be completely technique. For all the reasons you list, and more. This is like saying that philosophy reduces to logic. Logic needs something to start from. I have no doubt that philosophy not only includes but preserves and transmits techniques, like any tradition (or rather, that traditions arise which come to adhere to philosophy and of which philosophy makes use); but philosophy must cultivate a sense of what ends are best, not just what means will get you to them. Socrates makes very much this point in the Phaedo:
as if someone were to say, “the cause of everything Socrates does is mind”—and then …said that I am lying here now, because my body is composed of bones and sinews…. I for my part, think it is better to sit here, and more right to stay and submit to whatever penalty [Athens] orders, for by the dog, I fancy these bones and sinews would have been in Megara or Boetia long ago, impelled by a conviction of what is best, if I did not.
I suppose I believe there can be a non-relativist technique, a technique that is meant to generate just such insight into “what is best,” as Socrates says; it may be a rather paradoxical technique, judging from the words of folk like LaoTzu, according to whom the right way just sort of unfolds when you forget about technique. I don’t know. But I am sure that you are right about performative contradiction. As to the utility of believing what you say, e.g. in universal rights or etc… No. It just decays into doublethink. There’s got to be a more finessed, light-touch way than that.
Amod Lele said:
Yes, this is all important to note. Technique and practice do matter; their absence is one of the unfortunate ways that contemporary academic philosophy (both analytic and “continental”) differs greatly from the philosophy of previous eras. After writing and thinking about my post on Hadot, I realized more and more how that sense of practice may be lost forever from the concept of “philosophy”: once you start practising, what you’re doing quickly gets filed under psychology and/or religion. But it’s still vital that the links of such practice remain closely linked with philosophy, and that is something that’s valuable about a concept like gongfu, attempting to maintain that close link.
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