Monday, 29 April 2013

Beyond Simple Acceptance

Prepare for a rambling post about epistemology/(post)modernism/belief which is probably only of interest to people who want me to write out what on Earth I mean when I call myself a tentativist or who want me to make some kind of a positive claim, for Pete's sake, and I kind of expect that group of people to be a null set. My intention for this post is to clarify my own thoughts for my own sake rather than yours...but if you, dear reader, do find this interesting, I would be mighty pleased.

I like quite a lot of what Eve Tushnet writes, but it really should come as no surprise to me (or anyone) that I will disagree with many pieces written for The American Conservative, even if Tushnet writes them. (In the AmCon's About Us section, they write, "Americans didn’t always think of themselves as conservatives. [...] 'Conservative' was a label for the backward and authoritarian, the most hidebound elements of Old Europe." To which I mentally reply, "That still is what the word means.") So when I read her most recent article for AmCon, "Beyond Critical Thinking," I was repulsed within the first paragraph, and I wound up being really unsure about it by the end.

My most immediate complaint is that I don't think people, broadly, are as good at critical thinking as she claims they are. She writes, "We teach students to find the undefended premises of an argument, or the contradictions in a claim. This is really easy." But based on teaching first-year students, and based on interacting with people in non-humanities or even "hard humanities" disciplines, I don't think critical thinking actually is all that easy or that we really teach students to do any of this. Or at least we don't do it very well: lots of students come away being skeptics, but they're skeptics in the sense of being contrarians rather than in the sense of trying to disprove a hypothesis until it looks plausible (a la the scientific method). Maybe what she's complaining about is the contrarianism rather than having certain standards of evidence, or (more probably) that when we teach critical thinking we only teach the half about disproving and not the half about accepting, so maybe my argument is more over what deserves to be called critical thinking than whether it's overvalued.

The bottom line for me, of course, is that people seem to be really accepting of rape culture and aren't thinking critically about consent (also patriarchy also white privilege also heterosexism also colonialism also free market capitalism also classism also etc.). Until critical thinking is more apparent around these issues, I'm not going to be able to take seriously the claim that we are, collectively, too good at critical thinking. (To be clear, I'm not saying that all people who are free market capitalists et al. aren't good at critical thinking. I'm just saying that I haven't personally met any who have demonstrated to me that they are thinking critically about economics. I don't imagine that these are the same things.)

So when Tushnet writes that, "We don’t teach how to tell when you’re sure enough, when you really should take the leap of faith, when you should say, 'Yes, my understanding is totally inadequate, but I believe,'" I'm not sure whether I agree or not. I may well have said the exact same thing myself once, so to an extent I agree entirely--one of the recurrent complaints my peers and I had about some of our English Masters classes was that, at the end of it all, we were afraid of making any positive statements. All we were doing was problematizing. But when all positive statements seem to do damage (to women, to Asian Canadian populations, to First Nations populations, etc.), the stakes are rather high; if I make positive statements about Hamlet, not much can go wrong (accept my transcript average, perhaps), but positive statements about minority populations can have catastrophic repercussions.

But I worry that we do too much accepting, or at least that we accept in the wrong way. I sometimes joke that I'm not a postmodernist but I am a tentativist, and here's what I mean by that: a proper postmodernist will act as if a thing is true without intellectually confirming its truth, and I'm quite similar in that I will tentatively accept things as true without committing outright to them. I will take them as true for now. I suspect that Tushnet has something different in mind when she describes taking a leap of faith, but I could be wrong; I sometimes use the phrase "leap of faith" to describe the tentativist style of believing. After all, one of the things that really can differentiate all-or-most postmodernists from all-or-most modernists is that they believe differently. Postmodernists do practice a kind of belief, but it is a kind of meta-belief; modernists lack the sort of self-consciousness that postmodernists cultivate (which in po-mo terms is called "irony," but as with all technical terms it may not always mean what you think it means). Or, at least, that's the story postmodernists tell.

What I suspect might be happening is that Tushnet reacts against the postmodernist style of belief by advocating the strongly modernist style of belief, an earnest belief, almost belief without doubt (but I only suspect this because most modernists react overdramatically these days, and the things that Tushnet writes sound very modernist of a certain stripe; however, I've been pinned as anti-creedal based merely on turn of phrase, so I realize the method is faulty). This doubling-down is attractive if you see postmodernism's style of belief as necessarily resulting in the Great Dragon Nihilism, but of course it doesn't have to result in nihilism; I'm not sure I'd call nihilism a species of postmodernism at all and even if it is, it isn't the only species in the genus. Anyway, I don't think modernism (as described by postmodernism) and postmodernism (especially not as described by modernism) are the only options on the table. Tentativism isn't belief-as-commitment or belief-as-play, but instead belief-as-working-hypothesis. I will believe such-and-such for now, and I'll tolerate some contradiction (after all, I don't think we can make many claims that lack différance), but at a certain point I will abandon a belief if it just isn't working. I think it was Wallace Stevens who said we need to ride metaphors until they break down; I will ride a belief until it breaks down. I generally see belief-content as metaphor anyway, so it's not even an analogy.

However, I kind of wonder if what I call "tentativism" is what Tushnet calls "acceptance" (though, given her paeon to obedience and other Catholic writings, I find it hard to believe). When I get into arguments with people about postmoderism/modernism/tentativism/belief and doubt/etc., I think what actually is happening is not that I disagree with my interlocutors, but that I frame my understanding of belief in terms borrowed from some postmodernism or other while they frame a quite similar understanding of belief in terms borrowed from some kind of modernism or other. Also, I think most people don't understand what postmodernism is; they think it is just relativism writ large, which is so oversimplified a definition as to be unusable. (Granted, some of the postmodernists you meet while getting your undergraduate degree could be mere metaphysical relativists, so it might be a fair error.) Keeping that in mind, maybe the only thing that differentiates my belief-as-working-hypothesis from Tushnet's belief-as-commitment is the attitude we have in picking up the beliefs; I hold mine lightly because I have it in mind that I might have to let go, and she holds hers tightly because she has it in mind that she might hold on for a long time. This doesn't mean that I will let go before she does. It's a difference only in approach, and that might be a distinction without a difference. Or it might not be. I don't know.

At this point it's obvious that I'm wildly speculating about what Tushnet meant; I'm not sure how much of the modernism I got from the essay was exegetical and how much was eisegetical. So it could be the case that Tushnet and I would argue for exactly the same thing, or basically the same thing, but in very different terms. Or maybe not. At any rate, I've stopped talking about Tushnet's essay and have instead been secretly in-my-head using "Tushnet" as code for a lot of people of differing sorts (the Less Wrong folks, the sorts of Catholics who post a lot on Leah's blog, Protestant evangelicals, bad evo-psych scientists, etc.) who I label "modernists" using my snarky voice: in other words, those who would think that I'm a mad relativist instead of whatever it is that I actually am. Realizing this, that I've traveled so far from the text I was pretending to write about that I'm merely ranting, I also realize that I should just stop writing now. 

(A note on terminology: I employ the terms "modernist" and "postmodernist" as I discovered them in The Truth About the Truth, edited by Walter Truett Anderson. In particular, Anderon's own essay, "Four Different Ways to Be Absolutely Right," was helpful to me in understanding how postmodernists understand modernism. If you happen to get your hands on this book, I also recommend Pauline Marie Rosenau's "Affirmatives and Skeptics," which might well make the same distinction I've been making between tentativists and postmodernists.)
(A second note on terminology: I made up the word "tentativist." If anyone else also uses the word, coined independently from my own minting, don't assume that my use bears any relation to theirs. Whatever intention of the term that is not obvious from the term itself should become clear-ish in this post.)

EDIT 30 April 2013: Eve Tushnet responds here: link. In general I think it answers everything I had wanted to know. Her major point, that these sorts of things matter in their particular cases, so the general analysis always looks super-weird, is I think where I got confused in her original post, but it's also something I've been guilty of. And further, I should have remembered the context: when belief is love, not just acceptance of a claim, everything's different.

EDIT 3 May 2013: Due to the fact that no one in the comments of Leah's response to this post seems to understand what I mean by the terms I'm using, I decided to write a whole new post defining them! For the tl;dr version, read the last 3-4 paragraphs instead of the whole post.

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