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Ron Sundstrom
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The majority of this discussion has so far taken up Dotson’s critique of the culture of justification. I’m curious however about the other part of her argument, which is a call for a culture of praxis. I think that exploring what that means and what it holds might help to address the question about what do about the justifying norms of our profession. One answer, and here I agree with Dotson, is to not get too involved in destabilizing them. Instead, diverse practitioners of philosophy should create new work and pursue the methods best suited to that work. And over time that might do some of the destabilizing that Sanchez wants to see. This doesn’t mean ceasing to critique philosophical method, but it might mean to put one’s energy in the positive construction of work that that is not dependent on the cultural capital or the interaction rituals of traditional philosophy institutions. It means that one should invest in the many groups that are doing alternative work in philosophy and in places that are separate from philosophy departments—Salamon addresses this strategy in her essay “Justification and Queer Method, or Leaving Philosophy.” What is left then is to explore the contemporary meaning of praxis within philosophy. I am curious about the idea of praxis, and what constitutes it, in Dotson’s analysis. Priest, in his reply, puzzles over that word too and wonders why she chose it since what she is arguing for does not necessarily call for action. He cites, by way of comparison, the use of the term by the Yugoslavian Praxis group (Priest, 2012, p.5). That group was Marxist, and rebelling against the increasing authoritarianism evident in Marxist-Leninism as it was carried out in Yugoslavia (see Gajo Petrović’s “Why Praxis?,” Praxis No.1, 1965, and “Philosophy and Politics in Socialism,” in Marxist Humanism and Praxis, ed. Gerson S. Sher, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1978: 7-18). Dotson’s work is one of meta-philosophy, and not the history of philosophy or political theory, so not much rests on the relation of her use of the idea of praxis to its appearance in the history of political theory. Dotson, however, responds that she follows Black Feminist theorists in the use of that term, and what she and they mean by it go beyond action, and includes the idea that who one is and what context one is in affects one’s theoretical interests and approaches (Dotson, 2012b, p.12, fn #5). She claims that a culture of practice has at least two features: Value placed on seeking issues and circumstances pertinent to our living, where one maintains a healthy appreciation for the differing issues that will emerge as pertinent among different populations and Recognition and encouragement of multiple canons and multiple ways of understanding disciplinary validation. (Dotson, “How is this Paper Philosophy?”, 17) But I too wonder where is the action in this praxis? Certainly her recommendations call for new and multiple ways of doing philosophy and of reaching out beyond disciplinary bounds. Another way of understanding the idea of praxis that my help here is Hannah Arendt’s conceptualization of praxis as primarily communicative and concerned with forming life with others in the public sphere (Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). In that case praxis as applied to academic philosophy involves engaging plural voices and perspectives, and being open to and engaging discussions within the public sphere. This is what Dotson’s two features of praxis point to. What is more, praxis points toward movements in contemporary philosophy that seek to engage the world; to some extent this applies to so-called experimental philosophy, but even more to field philosophy, and it cues us to remember that this sort of social engagement and research is found in the history of American pragmatism, Marxist praxis philosophers, and critical social theory. The potential vitality in field philosophy lies in the promise of social engagement, and that is what made so powerful the instances of engaged, partisan scholarship within American pragmatism, such as W.E.B. Du Bois’s or Jane Addams’s social research and activism, and the activity of the Yugoslavian Praxis group. It is precisely this sort of action that is required if we desire to expand the “livability of those lives outside of the norm.”
The question, “how is this paper philosophy?,” emerges from the presumptions embedded in the practices of contemporary mainstream academic philosophy. Lawson’s comments directly address these presumptions What, however, counts as mainstream philosophy is too amorphous for easy definition. There are many, if you will, streams of various dimensions that exist and are represented in the many philosophy departments and conferences (not including other departments and disciplines) in the United States. These streams are the products of social networking and have systems for reproducing themselves and legitimizing scholarship. These processes are illustrated by Randall Collins’ _The Sociology of Philosophies_. Collin’s sketch of how academic social networks operate via interaction rituals and cultural capital is useful in understanding the lives, ranking, and legitimization of academics. These social networks become inbred and progress beyond the arguing over technical distinctions and applications of recognized methods is stymied. Opportunity is hoarded within standard practices and is sparsely shared with those who bring in alternative perspectives and methods. Worse, these inbred methods get monopolized by individuals who cannot see beyond their own perspectives and mistake their subjective positions for the universal. Gayle Salamon’s “Justification and Queer Method, or Leaving Philosophy” (Hypatia 24:1, 2009: 225-30), illustrates this problem with a description of a scene at an APA interview in which she is called on to justify the inclusion of queer theory in her curriculum to a hypothetical Christian Evangelical student. Salamon’s critique though goes beyond that point, to question the centrality of justification as a method within philosophy. This is a point that goes to the heart of the problem of philosophy for those who are in the discipline, but who are foremost committed to addressing real problems of human communities, and especially those that suffer and resist oppression and domination. Justification is but one approach, accomplished through various methods, and does not come before the confronting of or amelioration of injustice. When academic justificatory practices take on a life of their own, when they become a way of life, it crowds out the demands of life, and therefore crowds out vital contributions like Salamon’s that aim at “increasing the livability of those lives outside the norm.” Dotson extends the critique of narrow visions of justification in academic, and in particular Anglo-American, philosophy. Her analysis, and Graham Priest’s response to her, is insightful about the hazards and promises of contemporary philosophical practice Their critique of orthodoxy in contemporary philosophy is accurate, as is their judgment that the discipline would be improved by the generation of more ideas from scholars that engaged with a greater variety of approaches, texts, and topics. Dotson’s argument about the prevalent culture of justification in contemporary philosophy is particularly enlightening, especially in regards to how narrowly justification is understood and applied in the institution of academic philosophy. Along with Priest, and with Sanchez, given his comments above, I think that in some form and at various degrees, justification is part of the philosophical engagement, and is inseparable from theory committed to engaging people as they are and toward, as Salamon wrote, “increasing the livability of those lives outside of the norm.” Dotson, however, is correct to point out that her criticism is not aimed at justification as a part of philosophical engagement, but about how justification is narrowed and disciplined in institutionalized academic practice.
I've enjoyed reading the reactions to Bob's comment's about Obama's connection to deliberative politics and his references to the "common good." A recent New Yorker piece takes a similar position and contrasts Obama's "deliberative" style with Clinton's penchant for partisanship: See George Packer's "The Choice" in THE NEW YORKER (Jan 28, 08). In these discussions about Obama, Democrats, and the common good, it is important to remember that Michael Tomasky got the Democrats back on to the language of the "common good" with his article, "Party in Search of a Notion," from THE AMERICAN PROSPECT (April 2006). This talk of the common good, from Tomasky's perspective may be completely in line with partisan politics and need not be identified with deliberation. See Tomasky's review of Krugman's new book, "The Partisan," in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS (54:18 Nov 22, 07). If, with "jj" (and Krugman), you think that the common good is best served by the fulfillment of the DNC's progressive agenda, then coalition building isn't as important as "strong" leadership. Indeed, the old debate over the meaning of the "public good" and "public interest" has been returned to because of Tomasky's invocation of the concept and the willingness of both Clinton and Obama to utilize the idea. See the collection on public interest in DAEDALUS (Fall 2007). The essays by E.J. Dionne, Robert Bellah, and Gary Hart are particularly relevant to the present discussion. In short, I think there is reason to share Nicole Garner's worry that "common good" talk is really a facade for some special or particular interest. But all, the same, I agree with Bellah, Dionne, and Hart, that there is a great need to at least reflect on the idea of the common good and the meaning of citizenship. Here is a worry of mine that is tangential: Bellah doesn't stop with invocations of the common good. He calls citizens to accept the good of being political. I am quite attracted to such civic republican ideals of citizenship (Or is it a bold liberal perfectionism? Maybe it is both). However, the political philosopher in me, steeped in the demands of liberalism balks at such "calls" or projects of "soul making." But the pragmatist in me yearns for for those projects. I don't think that deliberative democrats, can escape this problem: deeply embedded in deliberative democracy are thick norms that lend themselves to republican and liberal forms of perfectionism.