, , , , , , ,

I closed my post about Peimin Ni’s gongfu with an important argument of Ni’s, which I didn’t have the space to address there. I had been arguing against Ni’s ends-relativist viewpoint, in which philosophies were judged by their pragmatic effectiveness. Ni made a vital point in response: he noted that I was myself arguing merely based on pragmatic effectiveness, and not on the grounds of the larger metaphysical truth I hope to proclaim. He was absolutely right about this – but it is by design.

What is at stake on this point is a crucial feature of any foundationalist position – that is, a position that relies on basic first principles, such as the existence of truth, and not merely on pragmatic effectiveness. Any such position relies in its logic on the difference between demonstrative and dialectical argument – that is, between arguments from first principles and arguments to first principles. (I take the distinction from a short and helpful discussion on pp. 88-9 of Alasdair MacIntyre’s Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry.) This distinction is what that the young Socrates at first fails to grasp in Plato’s Parmenides: because Zeno’s arguments show the flaws in others’ positions, Socrates sees them only as sophistry rather than as what they are, namely dialectical arguments knocking down others’ premises in order to establish the truth of Parmenides’s view. The young Socrates knows only demonstrative argument, and not dialectical argument. In an anti-foundationalist position like Ni’s (or Richard Rorty’s), where there are no first principles, there is the opposite: only dialectical argument, and no demonstrative.

The point: One cannot deduce conclusions from first principles (demonstrative argument) with someone who does not share those principles. Rather, one must argue from the assumptions and principles of one’s interlocutor, in order to show that the interlocutor’s position is flawed and one’s own is preferable (dialectical argument). Only by doing so can one arrive at anything like a foundationalist position in the first place. No foundationalist that I am aware of has ever tried to argue otherwise. Even Descartes doesn’t begin his argument with cogito ergo sum; rather, he begins both the Meditations and the Discourse with everyday commonsense knowledge and why it isn’t good enough. The first principles – the existence of truth or self – are first only logically; they do not come first chronologically, in argument or in human development. And the question on which a foundationalist position stands or falls is whether the foundationalist can show his interlocutor’s position to be flawed enough that it merits abandoning in favour of one more like his own. In the case at hand, I believe that I have done this – argued why a position based entirely on pragmatic effectiveness will fail on the grounds of pragmatic effectiveness.

I tried to do the same in my arguments against postmodernism. It does little good to argue that postmodernism is false or contradicts itself, and therefore fails on my terms. It is far more important to argue that postmodernism’s performative effects are neutral or worse, so that it fails on its own terms.