Posted by: captainfalcon | June 10, 2010

A fun fact and an insight

1. Fun fact: “The Africkaner ideologues who had crafted the pseudo-philosophical rationale of the apartheid state had promulgated a theory of cultural unities [ostensibly derived from Edmund Husserl’s writings — don’t ask*] according to which each “people” should have their own homeland. Most of South Africa, including all the good farmland, was declared the homeland of the Whites, and Blacks were therefore to be excluded from it [although that did not quite meet the labor needs of the capitalist sector, so townships were to be permitted inside the White homeland.] The African population was then divided, principally along linguistic lines, into ten “nations,” and through a series of forced removals and resettlements, sometimes splitting families apart, the Africans were consigned to a collection of dismal provincial territories, each with its own puppet government, passports, and phony national independence.”

* Someone asked. The answer: “[T]he justification goes something like this: reason can grasp intuitively certain immediately presented wholes or essences, and according to the apartheid apologists, among these essences are the cultural wholes that are identified with the differing racial groups. Thus, by a purely philosophical act of consciousness, one can apprehend the essential difference between, say, he Afrikaner essence and the Zulu essence, or the Xhosa cultural essence and the Asian cultural essence. This in turn justifies the separation of the different cultural groups from one another so that each one can develop separately, etc etc. It is all madness, but the theoreticians of apartheid seem to have needed some pseudo-philosophical rationale for what they were enacting into law.”

2. Insight: “In the mainstream of Western philosophy, and then also Western culture, since Parmenides one finds a very striking incremental glorification of a set of interrelated properties that are counted as virtues: clarity and consistency of thought, speech, and action, the ability to reflect, to detach oneself from prevailing opinion, to ask questions, to give reasons. By now this has developed into a series of highly structured disciplines – our arts and sciences – and sedimented into our everyday ways of thinking and acting, but it also seems rooted in human nature and is self-evidently of great value. Many of us strive for clarity and we do this for many of the excellent reasons the philosophic tradition has expounded in great detail. We tend to attribute to others an equal striving for and attainment of clarity with respect to their own beliefs, although the apparent generosity of this impulse sometimes can be suspected to mask a certain slyness, because it warrants us to put words in others’ mouths, the better thereby to catch them out and trip them up. Socrates, of course, was an unsurpassed master of this technique, and his example remains in this regard paradigmatic for much of contemporary philosophy” (Geuss).

I have not come across any good account of what analytic philosophers regard as the criteria of clarity. They are certainly suspicious of metaphors and so-called “thick” terms (like “cruelty,” which, some suppose, can be analyzed into a normative and a positive element). Contestable concepts – like freedom, liberalism, etc. – also worry them. But I have never seen a justification why these are to be avoided in favor of e.g. proffering definitions that are, in turn, comprised of thin terms.

Further, I would think it obvious that there are reasons to sometimes make metaphor and thick terms central to a critique. (Though it is equally obvious that they sometimes hinder understanding.) When one clarifies one (often) simplifies, and it is too easy to simplify the crux out of an idea. Clarification is a bit like formalism. Just like formalism can blind one to important differences that aren’t naturally accommodated by the model, so too the quest for perfect clarity can blind one to important differences that cannot be stated in thin terms. (And there is no a priori reason, as far as I can tell, why all things should be state-able in terms that satisfy a philosopher’s arbitrary – and sometimes opportunistic – standard of precision.)


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