Posted by: captainfalcon | October 3, 2010

Idle thought installment

Lingering on my ridiculous post, it occurred to me that a related point is that two habits of looking at the world, neither of which is illegitimate, underlie a gigantic miscommunication that runs through literature, political commentary, moral philosophy, folk psychology and, I presume, other dubious enterprises, as well.

One “instrumentalist” stance evaluates things (systems, people, artifacts, etc.) on the basis of how valuable or dangerous they are. This stance cares about a thing’s effects, and its reactions to the thing (outrage, tolerance, encouragement) are predicated on its assessment of those effects. Products of instrumentalism include the outcry against Shirvell; unmitigated condemnation of Stalin; and the blanket repudiation – it pops up every now and again –  of undesirable books (note: the blanket celebration of all books is likewise a product of instrumentalism).

The second “intrinsicist” stance evaluates things on the basis of their origins and makeup. This stance wants to understand a thing “from within,” and its reactions to the thing are predicated on this understanding. Products of intrinsicism include amusement at Shirvell; rueful admiration of Stalin; and general suspicion of evaluations of classes of art. (George Orwell’s remark – “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all.” – is an example of this last kind of intrinsicism.)

A great deal of second-order conflict is a result of “disagreements” between instrumentalists and intrinsicists. The instrumentalist translates intrinsicist amusement at Shirvell into instrumentalist lack of outrage at him. The intrinsicist translates instrumentalist repudiation of undesirable art into a lack of intrinsicist sensitivity. (The examples can obviously be multiplied.) As each of these “lacks” is a deficit within each of the two frameworks, instrumentalists and intrinsicists each come into conflict with the other.

But this conflict is wholly unjustified, because the stances are, not only compatible, but both entirely legitimate. Plainly, artwork can be both dangerous and valuable. Plainly, Shirvell can be both a fit subject for amusement (or pity) and a fit subject for outrage. Plainly Stalin can be worthy of both condemnation and admiration.

Thus the conflict between instrumentalists and intrinsicists is a result, not of a bona-fide disagreement, but of errors in translation. Instrumentalists and intrinsicists each become comfortable in their stances and forget (as a practical matter) the possibility of a wide-stance; that they can occupy both points of view simultaneously. In so forgetting, they assume that theirs is the only legitimate stance, and they translate evaluations from the other stance into the language recognized by their own; needless conflict is the result.

Three, final, clarifying points. First, it is obvious that not all conflict can be explained away thusly (the ban all books versus all books must be available to all dispute is obviously real, and obviously squarely instrumentalist). Second, just because intrinsicist/instrumentalist conflict is needless doesn’t mean it will stop – many have real trouble recognizing the compatibility, and value, of the stance they don’t occupy. Finally, it is worth noting that the intrinsicist/instrumentalist distinction does not obviously reduce to another that’s more familiar. It cuts across the left/right divide; it cuts across the cynic/naif divide (it says nothing about motivations); it is more fundamental than the deontological/consequentialist divide (both of those doctrines fall squarely within instrumentalism); etc.



  1. As far as idle thoughts go, I found this one quite interesting (even when controlling for the obvious Chris-bait). Though, now that I think on it, perhaps the entire premise (classifying debates in a novel way and demonstrating how different sides talk past each other) might be Chris-bait. This requires further rumination.

  2. […] try to make sense of my beef with Jones by applying the instrumentalist/intrinsicist distinction I earlier detailed. One might say that my complaint that Jones (willfully) misunderstands the nature of the struggle […]

  3. […] It is worth observing that those who think one of the homophonic judges was right, and the other wrong, in his analysis of the meaning of the homonym are committing the intrincisist/instrumentalist conflation. […]

  4. […] help me figure this out?  Perhaps this all goes back to the instrumentalist/intrinscist divide CF broached earlier… GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "0"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

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