Saturday, June 9, 2012

Fake Goods: Levi and Deweyan Ethics


Recently, I had an online discussion with Levi in the comments of another blog. I anticipate posting his comments and my responses as a separate post.  I would like to respond to his arguments in more detail, as I take his words very seriously. I would remind him that many of my criticisms are methodological. That is, he cannot justify what he writes without contradicting himself, and his responses, including the most recent ones, do not address this issue. I will be direct, but I do not intend to be hostile or confrontational. Rather, I do not think I am either being understood or am perhaps not communicating well enough.

Levi, you are aiming at the wrong target when you respond to me, and that is why the questions keep coming. Admit that you are appropriating Dewey, synthesize your appropriations better, and then tell me to lay off because you don’t care what the actual Dewey wrote. I do expect the latter regardless. Yet you reasonably cannot do that until you reconcile the inconsistencies. I will confirm as a Dewey scholar that you do use a diction appropriate to Dewey, e.g., “tension,” “problem,” “feeling,” “situation,” “habit,” “crisis,” “emerge,” “event,” etc., which is a point stressed to me. However, your reading of Dewey knows the terms and big ideas, but connects them in ways alien to the historical and living tradition.


I will address a problem broached in a recent post of mine on Levi’s mischaracterization of empiricism in The Democracy of Objects. The problem is that Levi is an avowed nominalist, and Dewey is not. I suspect that Levi might be reading William James’ strong nominalist tendencies into Dewey, as many readers for generations have, but not reading C.S. Peirce, the father of pragmatism who was furious with James and renamed his theory to “pragmaticisim,” a word too ugly for James to steal. Returning to the point, Levi cannot invoke Dewey in defense of Levi’s ethics without contradicting himself. He’s a nominalist who is appropriating a robust realist while still claiming to be a nominalist. Dewey’s ethics is inseparable from a minimum level of scholastic (robust) realism without turning him into Rorty’s anti-realist position.

When Dewey writes such early articles as “The Control of Ideas by Facts” and his later Experience and Nature, he does not mean that some “I know not what” pushes me to respond and halt the disturbance (nominalism). Rather, Dewey argues that experience “reaches into nature,” has a real connection that is prior to knowing (not yo momma's realism). 

Levi cannot write the following and remain consistent: “there is no one entity that presides over a problem, but rather problems are transindividual” (blog post). A nominalist rejects real generality (universality), and thus no problems are “transindividual” for a nominalist. Why do I bring up this oft-repeated point? Because Levi on many occasions has argued against Matt of Footnotes to Plato and myself when we defend our robust realists that allow us to say that “problems are transindividual.” Likewise, he has no standing to say that “the problematic field is not subjective, but is a mesh– to use Morton’s term –a situation, that people find themselves enmeshed in” (blog post). If only the particular is real, and thus no general description of reality is accurate, then even if there exists a “problematic field,” anything we have to say about it is “subjective.” What we gain with one hand is stolen by the other.


"Habit" is real generality, by the way, given the pragmatist definition of the term.

This issue also is part of the subject in focus during the original discussion, value. Levi missed my point, because he transmuted the question of “value” into “morality,” but that was not what I asked. Value is foundational for morality and all normative fields. Levi conflates “value” with “morality” in his responses to me. The problem is how to develop a normativity that does not degenerate into “what the group wants.” Nothing he writes responds to this, and I can anticipate the kinds of moves that he gives. He does appear, in the blog post that he links, to be adopting Dewey’s problematic situation model; e.g., “its not minds or groups that pose problems, but rather entities find themselves enmeshed or thrown into problems and the nature they take on is a response to these problems.” The idea that a “problem” arises due to an existential or symbolic conflict is very Deweyan, especially when Levi notes that “problems are non-cognitive.” Yet it falls into the same conflicts already mentioned, and thus his answer fails to be an adequate response.

Finally, Levi has argued against my invocation of teleology, but that is also to argue against Dewey. Dewey's theories of ethics and inquiry work because of his emergentist, realist teleology. Without it, one cannot explain his temporalist and historical notions that are at the core of his generative logic in Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. Dewey himself mocks Plato and Aristotle in Experience and Nature, so it is odd to accuse me of being a Platonist. But who knows? Perhaps Levi can write a blog post like this taking me to task. I would be most gracious. No, seriously, and OOO hater and lover partisans need to chill and stop reading everything as an attack.

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