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Conversation with Dr Robert M Price on Deconstructive Preaching 
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Post Conversation with Dr Robert M Price on Deconstructive Preaching
As a subscriber to Dr Price's Patreon page, I was pleased to read his subscriber article on Deconstructive Preaching in which he uses Derrida's method of deconstruction to analyse the Bible.

While you will have to pay to read his long and fascinating discussion, you can read my response here for free. Note this is not an actual conversation, but rather my thoughts (RT) in response to the quoted texts from Dr Price's essay (RMP). I would be happy to take the comments below as a standalone post, and to explain or discuss anything you like.

RT: Hello Dr Price, thank you for this essay, which I have read with great interest as it touches on many of my own intellectual interests. Just firstly, before responding to some of your specific points, I would like to comment on the general theme of deconstruction in the Bible. To my reading, the best example is where Jesus explains the real meaning of the parable of the sower, deconstructing the stony, thorny, paved and fertile soil to mean corresponding attitudes to the word of grace. This deconstruction of the parable appears to be a paradigm for how we should read all the symbolic language of the Bible, seeing miracles as parables with real ethical lessons, not as literal examples of divine intervention on earth.

RMP: “"Deconstruction" as a term is derived by its greatest practitioner Jacques Derrida from Heidegger's term "Destruktion." It means not destruction but rather the analysis of something by taking it apart into its component pieces. The idea is to understand it better as a result of seeing the relationship of the parts.”
RT: The key deconstruction in Heidegger’s Being and Time is of the Cartesian Cogito, the claim that systematic philosophy can be built upon the indubitable observation that ‘I am a thinking thing’. For the existential standpoint of being in the world advocated by Heidegger, the cogito establishes a myth of an isolated individual that fails to recognise that existence is primarily with others in relationships of care. But this deconstruction of Descartes by Heidegger is very different from the use Derrida made of this concept.

RMP: “says Derrida, … all meaning is ultimately differential, not referential”
RT: Unfortunately, that is a claim that to me has never made the slightest sense, because it establishes cultural relativism as a paradoxical absolute, denying the possibility of systematic thinking and logic. When we say a word refers to a thing, we make an absolute claim of meaning. The foggy concept of the ‘differential’, on the rocky road to the total vague-out of ‘differance’, rejects this simple theory of meaning as reference.

RMP: “one-for-one correspondence between a word and the object it refers to…become[s] ambiguous or inadequate”
RT: It surprises me Bob that with your sympathy for conservative values you give credence to such confusing claims. Science is about the use of logic and evidence to remove ambiguity, explaining clear and distinct meanings, and has been immensely successful in this project. It is true that there are grey areas of uncertainty, but these are primarily in the realm of values rather than facts, and should not detract from the vast factual knowledge that presents unambiguous basis for coherent systematic thinking. Where science has uncertainty about facts it tends to admit it.
It is worth noting how very much Heidegger differs from Derrida on these matters around the correspondence theory of truth. While it is true that Heidegger distinguished between truth as disclosure of being and the more usual adequation of idea and thing, Heidegger also rejected ambiguity, at least in his philosophy, holding that a core value in philosophy should be authenticity, which is undermined by ambiguity. As well, Heidegger presented a systematic ontology, grounded in Parmenides’ distinction between unitary truth based on logic and the uncertainty of appearance, while Derrida is at the origin of the postmodern view that systematic thought is impossible.

RMP: “. Different cultures and subcultures carve the pie of perception differently, and perception itself is governed to an astonishing degree by our categories of expectation, inherited from our culture. ”
RT: Yes, but we can assess the worth of different cultures, as to whether their perceptions are accurate and sensible or not. Science is a gold standard for accurate sensible perception, while unscientific beliefs tend to be unreliable.

RMP: “supposedly foundational talk about presuppositions or premises on which any system of thought might be based is undermined and subverted”
RT: Here we encounter the problem of relativism in epistemology. Socrates criticised Protagoras for his claim that man is the measure of all things. Logically, the claim that we can make our own truth implies the irrational belief that a statement can be true and false, a fallacy that flows directly from the denial of objective truth.

RMP: Derrida points out that Descartes raised one possibility he could not successfully dismiss: what if Big Brother were deceiving him about logic itself? ”
RT: Questioning logic is dangerously crazy. Without basic axioms that Kant called necessary conditions of experience, life is not possible. For Kant, these axioms, termed synthetic a priori judgements, include causality, logic, space and time. The alternative is nihilistic solipsism, an immoral and incoherent attitude, but that is what Derrida promotes here. By the way it is untrue to say Kant was refuted by Einstein’s paradigm shift from Newton’s view that space and time are absolute. Modern science still assumes that space-time is real, and broadly assumes the universe exists and obeys consistent orderly laws of nature.

RMP: “What if what seems so obvious to the rational mind were nothing more than Hume would soon say it was: a coincidental association of ideas? ”
RT: Then as Kant explained, our experience would not be possible. Hume’s scepticism about causality and morality opened the modern path to nihilistic rejection of any possible certainty. Astronomy, as the great scientific source of knowledge of the universe, has much certain knowledge, proved by the fact that if causal theories such as gravity were untrue then man would not have been able to fly to the moon, etc.

RMP: “The mere fact that it does not occur to us to doubt something hardly proves there are no flaws we have not found.”
RT: Consider the example of doubting the moon landings. That doubt is nothing but crackpot nonsense which is immediately dismissed by all sensible people. Science does not know everything, but it is a fallacy to infer from that observation that therefore all knowledge can be doubted legitimately.

RMP: “what seems true to us in our oh-so-rational consciousness is a heavily censored and carefully edited product of the subconsciousness.”
RT: Yes, but we can distinguish what is certain from what is uncertain. The false implication of Derrida’s argument is that this distinction is impossible.

RMP: “Sanity is the tip of the iceberg of madness.”
RT: Perhaps, but as Aristotle argued, philosophy can separate the true from the false, and the sane from the insane. People err, but knowledge builds upon precedent, and is generally reliable. Without good reason we should not question the sanity of facts that make existence possible.

RMP: “The gospels partake of the Western complicity to silence disorder, differance, and the terrible secret that sane reason is but a minor mutant strain of madness.”
RT: Systematic ethical philosophy aims to promote good over evil. Derrida appears to believe there is no way to distinguish good from evil. Religion, in its meaning as a rebinding between earth and heaven, aims to discern the order of the cosmos and reflect that in ethical values. This underlying goal has been badly distorted and corrupted, but charging the gospels as complicit in this corruption seems to me to wrongly assign the errors of Christendom to the original texts of Christianity.

RMP: “the thing that makes faith something else, something additional beside certainty, is precisely doubt, that which would first appear to be its opposite! In a strange way, faith is revealed as being somehow the same as its opposite!”
RT: No, that does not make sense. Faith is confidence in things unseen, whereas certainty only applies to things that are seen, or directly and scientifically inferred from what is seen. Faith operates more in the domain of values, whereas certainty operates in the domain of facts. The fundamentalist error is to assume that faith can be a basis for knowledge of facts.

RMP: “Here is an instance of what we often find in deconstructive criticism, the dismantling and upsetting of hierarchies. Traditionally we have operated with sets of opposites and always evaluated one as good, the other as bad. Spirit is good, flesh is evil. Men are good, women are evil. The one is good, the many are evil.”
RT: This shows the legitimate and important task in theology to deconstruct traditional authoritarian claims as unreliable and culturally bound. The Biblical sources usually turn out to conceal allegorical meaning or social convention behind the literal surface claim. But that does not mean we should extend beyond this proper political use of deconstruction to cast doubt on certain scientific knowledge, which is an implication of Derrida’s approach. Science has its own methods to deal with uncertainty, and the deconstruction of paradigms and values is a separate thing from casting doubt on scientific facts.

RMP: “We commonly think that a text means what its authors meant to convey”
RT:Yes, but with the Bible, the sieve of Christendom makes it hard to discern the original intent. A process of cultural archaeology is needed to sift through the rubble of tradition to reconstruct the most plausible story of origins of the texts. For example, it is more plausible that the Gospels arose from Gnostic mystic secret societies as works of fiction, and were only later interpreted as infallible history, contrary to the author’s intentions.

RMP: “Should God himself tell us what a text meant, how could this be other than merely one more opinion on the matter?”
RT: The story of religion is that when a broad social consensus holds sway over the meaning of a text, a community of faith believes it has access to the mandate of heaven, and its philosophical paradigm reigns with unquestioned assumptions. As these assumptions gradually come under challenge, the old paradigm starts to falter and fall apart, but is only replaced when a superior story claims the mandate of heaven. It seems we are now in a cusp situation between an old consensus and the possible future emergence of a new vision uniting heaven and earth, within the framework of scientific knowledge. Such a new consensus on religious meaning would only be more ‘than merely one more opinion’ if it commanded universal assent as a compelling explanation, a new paradigm satisfying Ockham’s criteria of simple clarity.

RMP: “Deconstruction, in my opinion, destroys once and for all any notion of a regulative meaning of the Bible as an authoritative text.”
RT: ‘Once and for all’ is a big claim. If we find that mythicism provides a more coherent explanation of all the facts than literalism, it is conceivable that mythicism could generate an authoritative regulative meaning of the Bible. For example, it is a remarkable example of human depravity and fall that people could invent and believe the story of the incarnation, if in fact it is untrue.

RMP: “If the writer or the reader has a subconscious, so does the text!”
RT: This is a point that Jung made in Aion, that the fish symbolism in the New Testament could have arisen to such prominence due to subconscious association with the precession of the equinox through Pisces over the Christian Aeon.

RMP: “In any act of writing, the text escapes from the control of its writer because every use of language lets loose uncontrollable forces of signification unintended by the author.”
RT: Yes, and the ‘sorceror’s apprentice’ escape of the Gospels from an original Gnostic allegory into orthodox literality looks like a classic case in point. The popular resonance of the Jesus story was so great that the hopeful philosopher king-gnostics who invented Jesus could not control the mass sentiment sparked by their creation.

RMP: “what is the parable trying to do? It seems to want to help you to avoid the fate of the goats. "Help the needy, dear reader, because now you do know what's at stake!" But isn't the parable thus inculcating the very self-seeking it condemns?”
RT: No, that is just wrong. Feeding the hungry and the other works of mercy are not self-seeking. The relationship between faith and works means salvation is the result of faith, not its objective, contrary to your inference. And salvation itself is a term in great need of deconstruction. A more coherent reading of the doctrine of salvation in the parable of the sheep and goats is to mean evolutionary survival of humanity on earth, through a shift of social values to mercy, rather than the traditional idea of going to heaven after we die.

RMP: “shameless self-seeking of one's own eternal bliss.”
RT: That is a caricature of the humble love enjoined by the gospels as the narrow path to transform humanity from its present state of corruption to a state of grace.


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Post Re: Conversation with Dr Robert M Price on Deconstructive Preaching
Hey Robert. I find your dialogue with Price to be interesting and well done, even though I never, as a student, became well acquainted with any of the new critical approaches. Just in general terms, is your disagreement with Price really a disagreement with Derrida? That is, do you not accept the message of decontructionism, which I venture to say might be that the objective of the old textual criticism, finding the true meaning of a text, is neither a possible nor the most interesting way of reading. Would the following statement be one you go along with or not?
Quote:
Deconstructionism (or sometimes just Deconstruction) is a 20th Century school in philosophy initiated by Jacques Derrida in the 1960s. It is a theory of literary criticism that questions traditional assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth; asserts that words can only refer to other words; and attempts to demonstrate how statements about any text subvert their own meanings.

Although Derrida himself denied that it was a method or school or doctrine of philosophy (or indeed anything outside of reading the text itself), the term has been used by others to describe Derrida's particular methods of textual criticism, which involved discovering, recognizing and understanding the underlying assumptions (unspoken and implicit), ideas and frameworks that form the basis for thought and belief.

Deconstructionism is notoriously difficult to define or summarize, and many attempts to explain it in a straight-forward, understandable way have been academically criticized for being too removed from the original texts, and even contradictory to the concepts of Deconstructionism. Some critics have gone so far as to claim that Deconstruction is a dangerous form of Nihilism, leading to the destruction of Western scientific and ethical values, and it has been seized upon by some conservative and libertarian writers as a central example of what is wrong with modern academia. Richard Rorty (1931 - 2007) has attempted to define Deconstruction as the way in which the "accidental" (or incidental) features of a text can be seen as betraying or subverting its essential message.

http://www.philosophybasics.com/movemen ... onism.html



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Post Re: Conversation with Dr Robert M Price on Deconstructive Preaching
DWill wrote:
Hey Robert. I find your dialogue with Price to be interesting and well done, even though I never, as a student, became well acquainted with any of the new critical approaches.
Thanks Bill, you are too kind. I recall as a student back in the 1980s reading Derrida and finding him bizarrely incomprehensible. I also read some other French philosophers, and after finding Sartre and Camus brilliant, although seriously flawed, people like Althusser, Irigaray and others left me cold, with a sense they were more concerned with the politics of class warfare and peacock rhetorical impressions than serious analysis.

Heidegger is the godfather for these writers, and despite his major flaw (Nazism), his philosophy still provides a systematic logical framework for existential attunement.
DWill wrote:
Just in general terms, is your disagreement with Price really a disagreement with Derrida?
Yes, I can’t stand Derrida’s idea that a statement can be both true and false. This is such a basic attack on logic and rationality that it stands as an anti-philosophy, the epitome of obscurantism, grounded more in the psychological and political rejection of western heritage than in any desire for compelling coherent consistency, which I think should be the goal of all philosophy. The popular attraction of this untheory of cultural relativism is its ability to mount a critical political attack against core values of western civilization.
DWill wrote:
That is, do you not accept the message of decontructionism, which I venture to say might be that the objective of the old textual criticism, finding the true meaning of a text, is neither a possible nor the most interesting way of reading.
I see it more as saying that deconstruction, when valid, shows where prevailing analysis fails to find true meaning, and what the true meaning really is. That analysis of failure is not because true meaning does not exist, but rather because the flawed analysis in question contains presuppositions which can be deconstructed as myths.

As I mentioned, Heidegger’s deconstruction of Descartes is the epitome of this method. Heidegger’s devastating question about the whole Cartesian method leading to the cogito ergo sum is ‘if not human existence as being in the world, who else would raise the question?’ This deconstructive critique illustrates the crossover between philosophy and psychoanalysis, something that analytic philosophy finds discomforting, perhaps because of its own unexamined assumptions.

Heidegger’s deconstruction suggests ‘I think therefore I am’ is a way of thought that is simply convenient for the emergent worldview and cultural values of modern capitalist science. Descartes' false premise of the isolated individual provides a myth with great power and meaning, but shaky epistemology. The thinking thing has feet of clay.

As well, Heidegger’s deconstruction operates from a real positive perspective, human being with others in the world, posited as an alternative worldview to the false ideas he is deconstructing to uncover their subconsciously concealed meanings and agendas.

A problem I have with Derrida, due to his advocacy of cultural relativism, is that it is difficult to see what he stands for as a positive ideology. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/relativism/ says "What justifies the appellation “relativist” [is Derrida's] suspicion of the possibility of objectivity [and his] insistence on the role of socio-historical, psychological and textual contexts in accounts of “truth” and “knowledge” claims."

More broadly, deconstruction operates in history in paradigm shift. Our current discussion of Zinn’s US History illustrates a proposed shift from the positive worldview of celebrating the great pioneers to a worldview that balances achievement against the devastation of conquest.
DWill wrote:
Would the following statement be one you go along with or not?
Quote:
Deconstructionism (or sometimes just Deconstruction) is a 20th Century school in philosophy initiated by Jacques Derrida in the 1960s. It is a theory of literary criticism that questions traditional assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth; asserts that words can only refer to other words; and attempts to demonstrate how statements about any text subvert their own meanings.
Maybe that describes Derrida, but as to the principle of deconstruction, I see it more as reverse engineering applied to cultural assumptions, using what Heidegger called ‘fugitive traces’ to dismantle and analyse prevailing myths and work out what is really happening in their assertions.

As I said to Dr Price in my comments above, Derrida’s opinion that words do not refer to things is wrong and stupid. Rocks are rocks, not words.

The point about subversion of meaning reads to me like a great example of why the French are known as cheese eating surrender monkeys, as it is an exercise in the purest vacuous rhetoric devoid of reference and content, a surrender to obscure irrationality as a political gesture.
Quote:
methods of textual criticism, which involved discovering, recognizing and understanding the underlying assumptions (unspoken and implicit), ideas and frameworks that form the basis for thought and belief.
As a general principle that is exactly what philosophy should be all about. If there are examples where Derrida achieved this successfully, without his own implicit assumptions getting in the way and ruining his effort, I would be interested to know.
Quote:
Some critics have gone so far as to claim that Deconstruction is a dangerous form of Nihilism, leading to the destruction of Western scientific and ethical values, and it has been seized upon by some conservative and libertarian writers as a central example of what is wrong with modern academia.
I agree with those critics. The most notorious mockery of deconstruction is the pomo generator http://www.elsewhere.org/journal/pomo/ which generates random gibberish like “The main theme of the works of Gibson is not materialism, but postmaterialism. Therefore, Baudrillard uses the term ‘subcultural patriarchialist theory’ to denote the stasis of neocultural class. The subject is contextualised into a pretextual material theory that includes consciousness as a whole.”

Like a Klein bottle, postmodern jargon has sailed up its own derriere into the fifth dimension of irrelevant impossibility, using meaningless jargon as a means of virtue signalling and failing to properly define its terms or examine its assumptions.

None of that would matter if such nihilistic nonsense did not occupy core terrain in the academic world, as part of a project to subvert western civilization. The irony here is that pomo Godfather Martin Heidegger was among the most fervent ever advocates of the great destiny of the west, but the left Heideggerians only cherrypick very selected parts of his ideas to produce a highly distorted picture.


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Post Re: Conversation with Dr Robert M Price on Deconstructive Preaching
As often, I got more than I had a right to ask for in your response, so thanks. I don't know what I really think about all of this. Maybe a bit like you, I shun what comes across as academic nonsense and posturing. But then it's possible I lack appreciation of subtleties. I also like to place limits, though, and one limit I'd want to place on deconstruction is that what it's able to deal with is texts, and that's all, to the extent that it might be a valid way at all of approaching a text. Texts have special characteristics that set them apart from other phenomena to which we might think we can apply deconstruction. I like a snippet I read that drew attention to the relationship of text with texture and textile, in other words containing the idea of weaving that seems descriptive of some kinds of text. Strands of meaning, woven as a text by a writer and afterwards continued by the reader. Why only some kinds of text? Sometimes the rock is just a rock, as in the parts of the U.S. Constitution that tell us about apportionment of representatives. A few other parts, such a the Second Amendment become loaded (ouch) with ambiguity. In what we call literary texts, affixing a true meaning isn't possible and seems to ignore the very nature of the object being discussed--the text just isn't the kind of animal that can be finally classified. I'd say the refusal of the text to be pinned down extends to the matter of its original meaning as well. Peeling back the layers to get at what the first author meant might sound appealing and scientific, but I would see the fact that each dissector would produce a different anatomy as proving the unavoidable multiplicity of possibilities.



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Post Re: Conversation with Dr Robert M Price on Deconstructive Preaching
Robert Tulip wrote:
Yes, I can’t stand Derrida’s idea that a statement can be both true and false.
This is such a basic attack on logic and rationality that it stands as an anti-philosophy, the epitome of obscurantism, grounded more in the psychological and political rejection of western heritage than in any desire for compelling coherent consistency, which I think should be the goal of all philosophy. The popular attraction of this untheory of cultural relativism is its ability to mount a critical political attack against core values of western civilization.
DWill wrote:
That is, do you not accept the message of decontructionism, which I venture to say might be that the objective of the old textual criticism, finding the true meaning of a text, is neither a possible nor the most interesting way of reading.
I see it more as saying that deconstruction, when valid, shows where prevailing analysis fails to find true meaning, and what the true meaning really is. That analysis of failure is not because true meaning does not exist, but rather because the flawed analysis in question contains presuppositions which can be deconstructed as myths.

Wow. Coming to this from the discussion of Dennett, I must say I think you (Robert) are over-reacting to the point of being just wrong.

Saying where previous analysis has missed the true meaning is not the same as saying that you have identified the true meaning in full. Below I will make a case that the "true meaning" may not be a helpful concept.

The meaning of a statement is a hugely complex beast. First, it is constructed entirely within the relationships in people's heads: what words "mean" is an issue of what we think is a good description of the "phenomena" (real or imaginary) to which they refer. We can say with some certainty what "unicorn" means, but to say what "democracy" means would take a lifetime, and indeed is an ongoing discussion within democracy.

Discussing Dennett, I used the example of "Trump is a narcissist." We can pin down "Trump" reasonably well, yet never plumb the depths of the meaning of the name because "a good description" is in the heads of 2 billion or so human beings. (I remember reading with shock the disgust over the name "Harry Truman" in a major work of fiction, because I associate him with the Marshall Plan and the beginning of desegregation in the U.S.) And when we get to "narcissist" things are, if anything, worse. That is the sense in which "words refer only to words" might make some sense to me.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Heidegger’s devastating question about the whole Cartesian method leading to the cogito ergo sum is ‘if not human existence as being in the world, who else would raise the question?’ This deconstructive critique illustrates the crossover between philosophy and psychoanalysis, something that analytic philosophy finds discomforting, perhaps because of its own unexamined assumptions.
Good points.

Robert Tulip wrote:
A problem I have with Derrida, due to his advocacy of cultural relativism, is that it is difficult to see what he stands for as a positive ideology. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/relativism/ says "What justifies the appellation “relativist” [is Derrida's] suspicion of the possibility of objectivity [and his] insistence on the role of socio-historical, psychological and textual contexts in accounts of “truth” and “knowledge” claims."
I guess I see it as just an attempt to be somewhat systematic about bringing in these contexts instead of assuming we can ignore them for evaluating those claims. Okay, so all kinds of weird implications suggest themselves, and have been suggested. To me we do not have to go to the weird implications, but can just trust that we have some ability to separate good from bad evaluations. And implied in that trust is that we are "doing the best we can" given our context and assumptions.
Robert Tulip wrote:
as to the principle of deconstruction, I see it more as reverse engineering applied to cultural assumptions, using what Heidegger called ‘fugitive traces’ to dismantle and analyse prevailing myths and work out what is really happening in their assertions.
Yes, that seems very sensible.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Quote:
methods of textual criticism, which involved discovering, recognizing and understanding the underlying assumptions (unspoken and implicit), ideas and frameworks that form the basis for thought and belief.
As a general principle that is exactly what philosophy should be all about. If there are examples where Derrida achieved this successfully, without his own implicit assumptions getting in the way and ruining his effort, I would be interested to know.
Me too.
Robert Tulip wrote:
using meaningless jargon as a means of virtue signalling and failing to properly define its terms or examine its assumptions.
I think the idea of "virtue signalling" here is crucial. It is the elephant in the room of academic criticalism, and they tend to studiously ignore it unless they want to attack someone's views.



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Post Re: Conversation with Dr Robert M Price on Deconstructive Preaching
DWill wrote:
Texts have special characteristics that set them apart from other phenomena to which we might think we can apply deconstruction. I like a snippet I read that drew attention to the relationship of text with texture and textile, in other words containing the idea of weaving that seems descriptive of some kinds of text. Strands of meaning, woven as a text by a writer and afterwards continued by the reader.

Marvelous. Texts tend to be about Popper's "World Three" objects, which "exist" only in the human mind, broadly defined. I like texts that play with the relationship between the apparent meaning of the text and the interpretation put by the reader, such as "Gone Girl", "Life of Pi" and "The Real Inspector Hound."
DWill wrote:
Why only some kinds of text? Sometimes the rock is just a rock, as in the parts of the U.S. Constitution that tell us about apportionment of representatives. A few other parts, such a the Second Amendment become loaded (ouch) with ambiguity.
Great examples. Interpretation of texts has been raised to a decisive practice by Judge Scalia (in response to innovation that might be considered deconstruction by William O. Douglas and Earl Warren). The aspects of meaning which are "legally salient" might be said to depend on the times, and that makes legal minds nervous. Scalia's project is one of imposing the permanence of texts on the process of legally interpreting texts, but that is ultimately not only futile but, if held to slavishly, pernicious.

Still, it deserves some credit for the limits it seeks to impose on politicization of the process of interpreting the Constitution. This is essentially the tension Robert is reacting to: if a text can mean anything that a majority of nine judges decide it means, then what protection does the law offer to, say, minorities?

DWill wrote:
I'd say the refusal of the text to be pinned down extends to the matter of its original meaning as well. Peeling back the layers to get at what the first author meant might sound appealing and scientific, but I would see the fact that each dissector would produce a different anatomy as proving the unavoidable multiplicity of possibilities.
In labor economics they say, "A contract is a truce." That is, it's an agreement to avoid fighting and get on with cooperating - for a while. Limiting oneself to the powers that are actually agreed on is a form of accepting a truce. The interpretation of the wording of the contract may be an on-going process, but it is much less nasty than actual labor-management conflict.



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Post Re: Conversation with Dr Robert M Price on Deconstructive Preaching
Harry Marks wrote:
Saying where previous analysis has missed the true meaning is not the same as saying that you have identified the true meaning in full.
And nor is deconstructing previous analysis the same as saying that true meaning cannot be identified. But that assertion, that true meaning cannot be identified, is precisely the fallacious inference that postmodernism derives from deconstruction.

Just proving that past thinkers wrongly claimed certainty about errors does not make certainty impossible, even while it shows we need to be careful. We can be utterly and absolutely certain about basic scientific facts, seeing all claims on a spectrum of how confident or certain we are in their truth. The moral problem here is that the denial of certainty that is part of postmodern doubt produces an ethical paralysis, an inability to have the courage of conviction, because every positive claim stands under the cloud of a negative scepticism.

Your observation that deconstruction does not itself provide "true meaning in full" is obvious. Deconstruction is merely the negative step of showing what is not true. To show what is true, a subsequent positive step of reconstruction is required, a step that is possible and necessary for any active ethical decision and choice, but a step which is rejected by the postmodern culture of ennui, cultural paralysis and self doubt.
Harry Marks wrote:
Below I will make a case that the "true meaning" may not be a helpful concept.
True meaning is an intensely helpful concept. Without certainty of the true meaning of any simple scientific knowledge, we are crippled into passivity.
Harry Marks wrote:
The meaning of a statement is a hugely complex beast. First, it is constructed entirely within the relationships in people's heads: what words "mean" is an issue of what we think is a good description of the "phenomena" (real or imaginary) to which they refer. We can say with some certainty what "unicorn" means, but to say what "democracy" means would take a lifetime, and indeed is an ongoing discussion within democracy.
‘Democracy’ and ‘unicorn’ are terrible examples of typical meaning because they are vague and uncertain as to what things they refer to. To show that meaning is more than a mental construct, we should start with simple words like hydrogen, apple and planet that fit the traditional referential model of meaning whereby words refer to things, even though each may have uncertain boundary cases (eg Pluto, crabapple, deuterium). Vague uncertain concepts are peripheral and untypical and cannot be used to say anything about the meaning of simple words that refer to known things.
Harry Marks wrote:
Discussing Dennett, I used the example of "Trump is a narcissist." We can pin down "Trump" reasonably well, yet never plumb the depths of the meaning of the name because "a good description" is in the heads of 2 billion or so human beings.
I fear you are trying to generalise invalidly. The good thing about deconstruction is its demonstration of the limits of certainty, in explaining how people have claimed certainty where they were wrong. A person’s name has complex symbolic resonance that is entirely different from ordinary scientific meaning where words refer to things.

Given uncertainty about whether souls exist, we can hardly claim to understand the full meaning of proper names. Certainty only applies to factual knowledge, not to plumbing the depths of meaning. We cannot know everything about hydrogen, but we do know how it bonds with oxygen to form water. We cannot know everything about Trump, but we do know he is President of the USA.
Harry Marks wrote:
when we get to "narcissist" things are, if anything, worse. That is the sense in which "words refer only to words" might make some sense to me.
Choosing a word such as narcissist that is self-referential and vague in meaning is hardly a basis to generalise about normal words that refer to things.
Harry Marks wrote:

Robert Tulip wrote:
A problem I have with Derrida, due to his advocacy of cultural relativism, is that it is difficult to see what he stands for as a positive ideology. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/relativism/ says "What justifies the appellation “relativist” [is Derrida's] suspicion of the possibility of objectivity [and his] insistence on the role of socio-historical, psychological and textual contexts in accounts of “truth” and “knowledge” claims."
I guess I see it as just an attempt to be somewhat systematic about bringing in these contexts instead of assuming we can ignore them for evaluating those claims.
This is a point that relates directly to our current fiction book, Zinn’s US History. His point is that traditional history did ignore context in its effort to make history serve political agendas. The challenge, in looking for balance, is to recognise that negative history has just as much a political agenda as positive history. If we accept that point, then we can have an argument about the political agendas, rather than pretending that one or the other method is apolitical.

I dispute that the postmodern literature I have read is systematic, since it generally involves a covert effort to claim that the deconstruction of positive history produces a new sort of negative objectivity. There has to be a Hegelian dialectic in play here to generate a systematic existential ontology, integrating the thesis of positive history and the antithesis of negative history to produce a synthesis.
Harry Marks wrote:
Okay, so all kinds of weird implications suggest themselves, and have been suggested. To me we do not have to go to the weird implications, but can just trust that we have some ability to separate good from bad evaluations. And implied in that trust is that we are "doing the best we can" given our context and assumptions.
This seems to read as a justification for relativism, the idea that contradictory claims can both be true.

In political and cultural terms, relativism is essential as a matter of simple respect for diversity and autonomy. People have conflicting opinions, and there is no political authority able to force some tyrannical Nicaean consensus. But in philosophy, leaving aside the politics, there is perfect justification for assessing whether specific claims are true or false, without any derogation of the right of communities to believe those claims.

Western logic is founded on the axiom that no statement can be true and false. Derrida’s point seems to be that this axiom itself is loaded, given its use to justify western imperial claims of intellectual and cultural superiority, starting from Aristotle’s best pupil Alexander the Great in his use of logical arguments for the conquest of the eastern (alleged) barbarians.

Cultural relativism means the acceptance of the rights of people to religious freedom. That is an obvious good thing, since coercion in religion is an evil abuse of human rights. But epistemological relativism, considered at the pure level of theoretical abstraction, involves what you call weird ideas, such as the ability of a person to maintain in good conscience that they personally hold false beliefs, sustaining conscious hypocrisy.

A topic that I find interesting in looking at the difference between cultural and epistemological relativism is the truth value of Christian dogma. We can have an epistemological conversation about what it means to say Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, and delve deeply into the symbolic, political, cultural and ritual meaning of this belief. It may emerge from such a discussion that the observation that the claim is empirically false is only a starting point for assessing its cultural mythology.
Harry Marks wrote:
the idea of "virtue signalling" here is crucial.

‘Virtue signalling’ is key to the politics of deconstruction. It means signalling to people whom you wish to impress that you agree with their politics and therefore should be regarded by them as virtuous and good, able to enter into loyal political alliance against common perceived enemies, sharing in assumptions about how to deconstruct and attack the views of opponents.

This propensity for using language as a supersonic dog whistle is precisely where postmodern thinking should look more carefully into its intellectual foundations. The core idea of Continental philosophy in Husserl’s phenomenology, which is where postmodernism originated, is that all assumptions and presuppositions require logical investigation.
Harry Marks wrote:
[Virtue Signalling] is the elephant in the room of academic criticalism, and they tend to studiously ignore it unless they want to attack someone's views.
Yes, this illustrates the general social tendency to subordinate philosophy to politics, to assess all truth claims against whether we think they will help or harm our political beliefs, turning deconstruction from a disinterested philosophical method into a partisan ideology.

That is an unsurprising turn in deconstruction, since as Zinn demonstrates, deconstructing the Columbian ideology of American imperialism provides a fertile basis to encourage left wing sentiment. But we then need to ask, who deconstructs the deconstructors?


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Post Re: Conversation with Dr Robert M Price on Deconstructive Preaching
Robert Tulip wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:
Saying where previous analysis has missed the true meaning is not the same as saying that you have identified the true meaning in full.
And nor is deconstructing previous analysis the same as saying that true meaning cannot be identified. But that assertion, that true meaning cannot be identified, is precisely the fallacious inference that postmodernism derives from deconstruction.

Just proving that past thinkers wrongly claimed certainty about errors does not make certainty impossible, even while it shows we need to be careful. We can be utterly and absolutely certain about basic scientific facts, seeing all claims on a spectrum of how confident or certain we are in their truth. The moral problem here is that the denial of certainty that is part of postmodern doubt produces an ethical paralysis, an inability to have the courage of conviction, because every positive claim stands under the cloud of a negative scepticism.


This is very helpful, but not because I fundamentally agree. I think there is an analogy, though maybe not a tight one, between the indeterminacy of "meaning" (or "mattering") and that of morality. There are definitely moral wrongs. That is, I would argue, provable. But because moral rights often cannot be proven, some people conclude that morality itself is "all relative" or even "just opinion." That is, they throw the baby of the moral enterprise out with the bathwater of false claims to moral certainty.

In the same way, we can have a thoroughgoing scepticism about many claims of certainty concerning meaning without then concluding that life is meaningless or "whatever meaning we find is valid," or, worse, words have no actual meaning.

It's clear to me that we need fuzzy logic to cope with this matter. Reading Dennett has pointed this up dramatically. "Meaning" is a property of a functional process in the human mind, and it is essentially infinite-dimensional. I have now forgotten the words for the math of taking an integral over an infinite number of dimensions, but it uses a marvelous device of a weighting function whose weights (on the values by dimension) trail off to vanishingly small as you examine dimensions farther and farther from the main matter of concern. As long as they trail off fast enough, the integral has a finite value. (There may not be an infinite number of connections to "Donald Trump" in a person's mind, but the number is large enough that one might as well use "infinite" as the model. We put a lot of weight on the connections that matter, and connections to things like "people who cheat at golf" trail off to insignificance.)

Now, as a matter of maintaining the functional process, we need relatively tight weighting functions (all the weight on relatively few dimensions) for words that are being used in technical matters. These are not "engineering tolerances" on how precise we must be, they are a result of the relative clarity and low dimensionality of the meaning of the matters being discussed.

But when it comes to most "-isms" such as socialism, multi-culturalism, consumerism or pietism, the weighting function is of necessity much more diffuse. And, as a result of social diversity, it will have different values in different heads. Arguments over the true meaning of a word are generally futile because they run counter to this nature of meaning. The dispute between Dennett and Searle over the "true meaning" of functionality is a good example, and inadvertently humorous to boot.

So I would argue that the deconstructionist position is that we need to be aware of the broad outline of the weighting functions in use, most particularly of the aspects which are covert or unconscious. Your position, within my framework of interpretation, is that we should not deny the tight weighting function on the meaning of "socket wrench" just because some terms demand a diffuse weighting function.

Except that you also assert that "moral certainty" is necessary to have the courage of our convictions. I think the answer is in Gandhi's term "satyagraha" or "holding on to truth." We can be sure of moral truth without being able to prove moral truth. And we need to be willing to limit ourselves to non-violence precisely because the means we use to "enforce" our view of moral truth can matter more to the response than the merits of our particular position. The result, I would argue, is "moral humility" in which we are willing to bear the cost of our position without being willing to impose the costs on others.

This extends to all manipulative methods. We may justify violence, or telling a lie, as a matter of self-defense from the violence of others. But if we are in a true moral arena, where the object is not to use morality to push others around but rather to convince others of a moral view, then it is wrong (and self-sabotaging) to use manipulative methods such as distortion, lying, withholding relevant information, introducing ad hominem arguments, or moral bullying. Moral humility is the main implication of moral complexity.
Robert Tulip wrote:
To show what is true, a subsequent positive step of reconstruction is required, a step that is possible and necessary for any active ethical decision and choice, but a step which is rejected by the postmodern culture of ennui, cultural paralysis and self doubt.

I am not in favor of ennui, cultural paralysis or more than a modest dose of self-doubt. I do think it represents confusion for people to go from moral indeterminacy (of some moral propositions) to moral cowardice ("so I'll just go on behaving however I please" which is equivalent to Macbeth's "whatever my hand finds to do" choice.) But we cannot force the matter. We have to be willing to argue for the courage rather than speciously (and unconvincingly) argue for the determinacy.
Robert Tulip wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:
Below I will make a case that the "true meaning" may not be a helpful concept.
True meaning is an intensely helpful concept. Without certainty of the true meaning of any simple scientific knowledge, we are crippled into passivity.
Yeah, I never got around to making that case, sorry. This post is essentially the argument I had in mind.
I agree that "true meaning" is helpful, but it is a lot more helpful in the case of science than in the case of law, and a lot more helpful in law than in general moral discussion. This is simply a matter of the tightness of the "true weighting function" on dimensions of meaning. Now, such a true weighting function does not actually exist. But specious weighting functions abound, wherever manipulative rhetoric may be encountered, and to debunk a specious weighting function we need to be able to use the "compass" of aiming for a true weighting function. That is, we have to be able to make the honest case that a particular issue is not very relevant to the true meaning of a word.

A simple example is the recent upsurge in discussion of the difference between "majoritarianism" and "democracy." Just as the wealthy men (always men) of the 19th century argued that a true democracy protected individuals from an over-reaching state, so that "the will of the majority" is not absolute, so we in modern times have argued that "equal protection of the laws" is fundamental to a "true" democracy. Now, to me that is a slight abuse of the terminology, but I cannot make a case that equal protection of the laws is not relevant in practice to the functioning of a democracy as a democracy, that is, as a system in which everyone participates equally in the most fundamental decisions about how power is to be used.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:
The meaning of a statement is a hugely complex beast. First, it is constructed entirely within the relationships in people's heads: what words "mean" is an issue of what we think is a good description of the "phenomena" (real or imaginary) to which they refer. We can say with some certainty what "unicorn" means, but to say what "democracy" means would take a lifetime, and indeed is an ongoing discussion within democracy.
‘Democracy’ and ‘unicorn’ are terrible examples of typical meaning because they are vague and uncertain as to what things they refer to. To show that meaning is more than a mental construct, we should start with simple words like hydrogen, apple and planet that fit the traditional referential model of meaning whereby words refer to things, even though each may have uncertain boundary cases (eg Pluto, crabapple, deuterium). Vague uncertain concepts are peripheral and untypical and cannot be used to say anything about the meaning of simple words that refer to known things.

Well, the argument is that clarity of simple terms does not imply general clarity, and the existence of vague things addresses the generality. You seem to want to have it that the existence of vague things does not tell us anything relevant about the possibilities of general clarity. I cannot follow that. Perhaps you are rejecting the idea that possibilities of general clarity are the issue at hand. In that case, what am I missing?
Robert Tulip wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:
Discussing Dennett, I used the example of "Trump is a narcissist." We can pin down "Trump" reasonably well, yet never plumb the depths of the meaning of the name because "a good description" is in the heads of 2 billion or so human beings.
I fear you are trying to generalise invalidly. The good thing about deconstruction is its demonstration of the limits of certainty, in explaining how people have claimed certainty where they were wrong. A person’s name has complex symbolic resonance that is entirely different from ordinary scientific meaning where words refer to things.

Given uncertainty about whether souls exist, we can hardly claim to understand the full meaning of proper names. Certainty only applies to factual knowledge, not to plumbing the depths of meaning.

Let me take this in a slightly different direction. In science, the truth of propositions can be verified, and so we give deference to experts who know which propositions have been verified and which have not. So yes, terms in science are fairly precise because their use is on highly verifiable propositions. Furthermore, someone who claims that the true meaning of "hydrogen" (or "molecule" to use Kuhn's interesting example) has been misunderstood, can be referred to evidence as a decisive factor, and specious claims can easily be discarded.

The same situation does not prevail even in social science, much less law or public debate. The white Boers of South Africa, or the poor majorities of Chavez' Venezuela, were convinced of their moral correctness. But it is easy for a deconstructionist to show that their positions were actually taken for reasons of self-interest, and that their moral claims are therefore highly suspect.

Deconstructionists claim that this demonstrates the general property that moral issues are always clouded by self-interested perceptions, that "where you stand depends on where you sit" is a general proposition about life. The implications are that moral humility is needed when it comes to denouncing others, but also that moral courage is needed when it comes to righting a wrong. We are rarely in a position of being able to "prove" a moral proposition (in fact, all the really interesting ones are the ones that can't be proven) so the proper use of morality is one's willingness to bear the costs of taking a stand, not one's willingness to beat others with the stick of morality.

Robert Tulip wrote:
The challenge, in looking for balance, is to recognise that negative history has just as much a political agenda as positive history. If we accept that point, then we can have an argument about the political agendas, rather than pretending that one or the other method is apolitical.

I dispute that the postmodern literature I have read is systematic, since it generally involves a covert effort to claim that the deconstruction of positive history produces a new sort of negative objectivity.

Well I think that school of philosophy generally argues precisely that there is no stance without political agendas, and that their negative objectivity is not actual objectivity but is, perhaps, a greater willingness to substitute honest engagement with the issues in place of self-seeking manipulation. Whether that proves out in specific cases is, of course, the "argument about political agendas" that you propose.

Robert Tulip wrote:
In political and cultural terms, relativism is essential as a matter of simple respect for diversity and autonomy. People have conflicting opinions, and there is no political authority able to force some tyrannical Nicaean consensus. But in philosophy, leaving aside the politics, there is perfect justification for assessing whether specific claims are true or false, without any derogation of the right of communities to believe those claims.
Well, we can try to assess it, but you have to understand that World Three constructs, like "democracy" "rights" "privacy" and "security" are going to generate debates in which factual matters are entangled with matters of values, and therefore methods of settling whether propositions are true are often going to take a back seat to persuasion, which is what we have for settling questions of values.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Cultural relativism means the acceptance of the rights of people to religious freedom. That is an obvious good thing, since coercion in religion is an evil abuse of human rights. But epistemological relativism, considered at the pure level of theoretical abstraction, involves what you call weird ideas, such as the ability of a person to maintain in good conscience that they personally hold false beliefs, sustaining conscious hypocrisy.
No, that's not quite right. I understand, even in science, that some of my beliefs are false because not all the evidence is in. In matters of values, an equivalent proposition is that my assessment of the relative importance of values, and thus of how to sort out specific issue such as the right to choose my own euthanasia, will include some views that are motivated by self-serving impulse despite my best efforts to be objective about them. That is a fundamentally different proposition.

Essentially, my argument is that cultural relativism, in which we agree to tolerate different opinions and worldviews, reflects the actual indeterminacy of many issues of value. If we could prove that there is life after death, then we could justify making schools teach it, even if some people for reasons of values objected to teaching such a thing, perhaps because they believe that all decisions should be made on the basis of implications for this world. Factual issues are settled by methods of determining truth. But issues of values are settled by persuasion, and so we play by different rules.
Robert Tulip wrote:
But we then need to ask, who deconstructs the deconstructors?
This is an issue of great import. If they do not undertake the moral humility to do it themselves, then alt-right deplorables are going to gain much ground from the recognition that they are being manipulated by intellectual elites.



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Post Re: Conversation with Dr Robert M Price on Deconstructive Preaching
Hello Harry, once again, thank you very much for these comments. Deconstruction is not an easy topic, and it often seems there are subterranean currents swirling around it. I find that I need to read what you say two or three times to feel I am engaging correctly. This is a very worthwhile discussion to get some clarity on some important questions.
Harry Marks wrote:
analogy between the indeterminacy of "meaning" (or "mattering") and that of morality.
This raises the problem of a general theory of meaning. The problem is that ‘mattering’ is completely different in meaning from ‘denoting’ and yet both are synonyms for meaning. The relation between meaning and mattering rests on the logical relation between facts and values, a problem at the foundation of existential ontology. Essentially, values are indeterminate whereas facts are determinate. And only values matter. Facts only matter due to their effect on values. Whether things are important or unimportant, determining the value we place on them, is a problem that Lewis Carroll shed some satirical light on when the King of Hearts could not tell the difference when the White Rabbit pointed out his mistake in response to Alice.
‘Meaning’ has two different meanings for facts and values. The meaning of facts is how words denote things. The meaning of values is about what matters to us, what is important. Objectivity exists only in quantitative matters of fact, not in qualitative matters of value. As soon as we say one fact is more important than another, we are in the indeterminate qualitative relational realm of values.
Harry Marks wrote:
There are definitely moral wrongs. That is, I would argue, provable. But because moral rights often cannot be proven, some people conclude that morality itself is "all relative" or even "just opinion." That is, they throw the baby of the moral enterprise out with the bathwater of false claims to moral certainty.
Moral rights and wrongs exist only within a framework of value, where we define qualities that matter against assumptions. Much as it may grate, Hume’s view that an ought cannot be derived from an is is entirely logical. All views about what ought to occur rest upon moral axiom, assumptions about what is good. These axioms are considered as necessary truths, such as that human flourishing is good, to take the most general example of what people value. Without such qualitative value judgement, moral wrongs lack any framework for assessment. Claims that values and theories of right are intrinsic to the universe have a religious mythic function of lending emphasis to a social consensus, like hellfire and heaven do, but can never properly be seen as objective statements of fact except within the assumptions of a constructed cultural world. The only thing that makes a moral action definitely wrong is that people define it that way.
Harry Marks wrote:
In the same way, we can have a thoroughgoing scepticism about many claims of certainty concerning meaning without then concluding that life is meaningless or "whatever meaning we find is valid," or, worse, words have no actual meaning.
Certain meaning only exists for factual claims that are definite and precise. It is wrong to believe that core scientific facts may be untrue. However, we cannot have certainty about the meaning of values. A fallacious elision between fact and value can lead to errors about the boundaries of certainty. Scepticism about the certain meaning of facts is completely different from scepticism about the certain meaning of values. The meaning of life is purely a question of values, not facts.
The meaning of facts can be tested by objective measurement, whereas the meaning of values rests on intangible qualities such as spiritual wisdom. It is wrong to use the fallibility of values to infer fallibility of facts that appear to be necessary conditions of experience. However, the relation between facts and values is close. For example, facts are intrinsically valuable, because evidence and logic are central ethical values. Respect for facts is central to ethics, with direct implications for transparency, rationality, honesty, integrity, principle and accountability. A factual scientific worldview is the only coherent foundation of systematic practical ethics. This factual scientific moral framework then provides a basis to understand higher ethical ideas of the good, justice, love and grace.
I disagree with Gould’s theory that facts and values are non overlapping magisteria https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-overl ... magisteria. There is constant overlap between facts and values. Good moral principles cohere with evidence, deliver the best practical consequences and entail action. Gould’s NOMA theory involves a shocking moral nihilism, for example in his statement quoted in the wiki that “scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution”. That is exactly what scientists can and should do, for example with recognition of the moral crises of extinction and climate. With this confused NOMA nonsense Gould wrongly put out the message that claiming a course of action will result in better or worse impacts than another is a mere matter of religious values.
Harry Marks wrote:
It's clear to me that we need fuzzy logic to cope with this matter.
The fuzziness is in the meaning and priority of values. We should have consensus about facts, and that should be the starting point for moral debate, but it will always be difficult to achieve consensus about values. Reason alone cannot deliver morality, which rests upon intangible psychological qualities such as insight, will, intent and intuition, with social consensus about assumptions.
Harry Marks wrote:
"Meaning" is a property of a functional process in the human mind, and it is essentially infinite-dimensional.
Now you have prompted me to return to how Heidegger analysed meaning. The meaning of facts, explained by exact science, is finite. The meaning of values, which is not amenable to exact definition, is infinite or un-finite. In factual meaning words are quantitative, denoting things, while the meaning of values is purely qualitative.
Only within the boundary of what matters to us, our values, does the dimensionality of meaning become infinite. Heidegger explained this by the concept he calls ‘distantiality’, a term he coined to mean ‘making the farness vanish’, a process central to the construction of the world of care. What it means is that how much something means to us is a separate issue from how near or far it is physically. For human intent, meaning is not a function of scientific properties such as mass and extension, although these properties are central to the objective meaning of facts.
Heidegger’s aim, which was not shared by the postmodern philosophy that claimed him as its ancestor, was to develop a systematic ontology. Postmodern deconstruction, with its relativist scepticism about the meaning of facts, is broadly opposed to the idea that philosophy can aim toward a universally agreed systematic method. So the status of systematic logic is a key area of dispute for philosophy. Heidegger’s system effectively aimed to base values on facts, nesting the infinite value framework of authentic care within the finite factual framework of thrown historicity. That is what Heidegger meant by his central thesis in Being and Time that the meaning of being is care. The meaning of care cannot be defined as strictly finite, and yet care interacts closely with relationships that are finite.
Harry Marks wrote:
weights (on the values by dimension) trail off to vanishingly small as you examine dimensions farther and farther from the main matter of concern. As long as they trail off fast enough, the integral has a finite value. (There may not be an infinite number of connections to "Donald Trump" in a person's mind, but the number is large enough that one might as well use "infinite" as the model. We put a lot of weight on the connections that matter, and connections to things like "people who cheat at golf" trail off to insignificance.)
The non-finite nature of any moral value proposition rests in the fact that values cannot be ranked in exact factual quantitative terms. Intangible moral ideals promoted by President Trump such as confidence and greatness involve political theories whose consequences and impact are difficult to predict. The polarisation of politics means the weight people put on different moral actions varies wildly, largely due to conflicts of moral principles. Even so, a central task of moral theory is to say how we should assess actions, and to do this well involves placing the value scheme within a factual framework.
Harry Marks wrote:
Now, as a matter of maintaining the functional process, we need relatively tight weighting functions (all the weight on relatively few dimensions) for words that are being used in technical matters. These are not "engineering tolerances" on how precise we must be, they are a result of the relative clarity and low dimensionality of the meaning of the matters being discussed.
Sorry Harry, I am struggling with your phrases ‘maintaining the functional process’ and ‘technical matters’. The only way I can interpret what you call ‘dimensionality of meaning’ is by imagining a spectrum from material facts through to intangible values, with facts understood in the material framework of four-dimensional space time, and the most intangible ideas approaching what you call an infinite dimensionality. So if someone breaks the law, that is a low dimensional moral failing, whereas if someone fails to instil confidence, or does something stupid, that is a more abstract and therefore higher dimensional moral issue. My view on dimensions is that the connection between different times is a different thing from the flow of time, and has a separate dimensionality. For example, how ancient culture influences modern culture involves a durable persistence through time in a way that cannot be simply described in the physical framework of space-time.

Now you are making me want to read Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, since it seems that higher order moral ideas function as if they are skyhooks, purely transcendent in terms of conscious appearance of intention, even if they may have a material evolutionary physical explanation (a crane).
Harry Marks wrote:
But when it comes to most "-isms" such as socialism, multi-culturalism, consumerism or pietism, the weighting function is of necessity much more diffuse. And, as a result of social diversity, it will have different values in different heads. Arguments over the true meaning of a word are generally futile because they run counter to this nature of meaning. The dispute between Dennett and Searle over the "true meaning" of functionality is a good example, and inadvertently humorous to boot.
I don’t think arguments about meaning are futile, even though conflicts may not be easily reconciled. Discussing what people mean can improve understanding and change perceptions. My view is that in ideology, what you usefully call the weighting function of meaning has an essentially mythological function. People choose to adhere to a value system and then use that system as their prism to assess the worth of everything. Here I am using myth in its psychological sense as the framework of meaning rather than as false claim. And a myth is the ultimate functional skyhook, in terms of how it is perceived, an absolute necessary transcendental truth, largely impervious to influence by evidence. Perhaps even Dennett and Dawkins have their own skyhooks, their assumptions about how evolution must operate, for example in gradualism and social evolution.
Harry Marks wrote:
So I would argue that the deconstructionist position is that we need to be aware of the broad outline of the weighting functions in use, most particularly of the aspects which are covert or unconscious.
Your phrase “need to be aware” covers over a multitude of sins. For example, looking at Zinn’s ‘awareness’ of the crimes of Columbus as an archetype of deconstruction, the riposte to his approach is that such negative history itself engages in covert ideology. The moral attack on heroes is a way to subvert social cohesion and smuggle in assumptions of class analysis into politics, and often this political objective appears primary for deconstructionists.
Harry Marks wrote:
Your position, within my framework of interpretation, is that we should not deny the tight weighting function on the meaning of "socket wrench" just because some terms demand a diffuse weighting function.
More generally, my view is that all known facts have what you call a tight weighting function in their meaning. Factual knowledge is the starting point for systematic philosophy. If we have a shared understanding of facts, we can then jump on board a slippery slope towards the ambiguity of moral theory of value where meaning becomes diffuse. This epistemic ethical model differs from Plato’s Divided Line in recognising that appearance is often more reliable than speculative moral theory about the idea of the good. Modern science has provided reasonable certainty about enough facts that we can define sense experience as reliable, when seen through the prism of rigorous scientific method.
Harry Marks wrote:
Except that you also assert that "moral certainty" is necessary to have the courage of our convictions.
The role of moral certainty is an argument located more in psychology and politics than philosophy. The point of moral views is to influence the world. In politics and business, the first trace of doubt is smelt as fear, meaning the psychological ability to persuade rests on giving the appearance of unshakeable moral certainty. That is why great persuaders like Billy Graham resolved early in their career never to entertain any doubts about their faith.
Deconstruction of Graham’s views should hold all his beliefs to a philosophic standard of scepticism, while also examining his tactical psychology of certainty in assessing his moral impact.
Harry Marks wrote:
I think the answer is in Gandhi's term "satyagraha" or "holding on to truth." We can be sure of moral truth without being able to prove moral truth.
Satyagraha involves principled integrity, grounded more in intuition than proof. The slipperiness of moral intuition provides the need for subsequent deconstruction. In Gandhi’s case his romantic attachment to artisanal traditions greatly delayed India’s industrial development. Nonetheless it was his moral certainty that destroyed British imperial morale and enabled Indian independence.
Harry Marks wrote:
And we need to be willing to limit ourselves to non-violence precisely because the means we use to "enforce" our view of moral truth can matter more to the response than the merits of our particular position.
This question of enforcement raises the problem of how ends can justify means. Ends usually do justify means, for example the end of buying things you need justifies the means of going to a store that sells them. The cliché that ends never justify means only means that good ends do not justify bad means. Lenin’s idea that the end of creating a communist utopia justified the means of liquidation of the kulaks as a class is a case where the means actively destroyed any chance of realizing the purported end.
Your reasoning of the case for non-violence looks attractive on the surface but I am not sure it quite holds together. The reason to support non-violent methods of persuasion is that reducing violence is a good end in itself, because non-violent social methods promote social understanding and cohesion and solutions achieved through consent rather than coercion tend to be better and more durable. In Christian terms, ends of peace and justice are promoted through a non-violent ethic of love, forgiveness and mercy, not through revenge and control. Sustained security depends on relationships, not walls. That is an empirical argument about moral causation, as well as a statement of ideal principle. However, in some cases state violence is necessary, especially to enforce property law, or to prevent worse violence, placing a practical limit on the scope of non-violence.
Harry Marks wrote:
The result, I would argue, is "moral humility" in which we are willing to bear the cost of our position without being willing to impose the costs on others.
A deconstructive approach to philosophy should entail the humility to recognise that totalising attitudes are fraught with risk of the errors of vanity and arrogance. Humility implies soft power through listening and dialogue. Again, Christianity applies this deconstructive method through the sacrificial injunction to bear your cross and the strong gospel rejection of hypocrisy.


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Post Re: Conversation with Dr Robert M Price on Deconstructive Preaching
Robert Tulip wrote:
And nor is deconstructing previous analysis the same as saying that true meaning cannot be identified. But that assertion, that true meaning cannot be identified, is precisely the fallacious inference that postmodernism derives from deconstruction.

Just proving that past thinkers wrongly claimed certainty about errors does not make certainty impossible, even while it shows we need to be careful. We can be utterly and absolutely certain about basic scientific facts, seeing all claims on a spectrum of how confident or certain we are in their truth. The moral problem here is that the denial of certainty that is part of postmodern doubt produces an ethical paralysis, an inability to have the courage of conviction, because every positive claim stands under the cloud of a negative scepticism.


Robert, I wonder in what special sense you are using "deconstruction." If it is not in the same sense employed by the originators of the term, it would not seem to merit any special meaning beyond a number of available synonyms, such as "analysis." The uncertainty of meaning of texts appears to be integral to deconstructionism, so if you deny this uncertainty principle it's best not to confuse things by hewing to deconstruction. Also, denying that texts have a definable meaning isn't the same as denying that any truth exists on the more more general, non-textual, level.

Another point is that knowledge, by its nature, comes to us in grades of discreteness. We know that certain findings of science, things we call facts, are at one end of the scale, while on the other are matters where subjectivity makes assertions of certainty unwise or impossible. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman made their careers studying the errors that we all make when faced with conditions of uncertainty, when, for example, the best we can do is choose the "facts" that can be demonstrated to be the most probable but often go against our intuitions. I think Harry could have something to add about the relevance of their work.

As far as confidence in the truth of one's position is concerned, might it not often be healthy to keep open the possibility that we are wrong? If we do, we automatically become more inclined to compromise with the other side, and we get somewhere instead of being stuck in gridlock. If we are able to resolve our U.S. healthcare mess into at least a more functional mess, it will be because Republicans and Democrats compromised on some of their deeply held truths.

Quote:
‘Democracy’ and ‘unicorn’ are terrible examples of typical meaning because they are vague and uncertain as to what things they refer to. To show that meaning is more than a mental construct, we should start with simple words like hydrogen, apple and planet that fit the traditional referential model of meaning whereby words refer to things, even though each may have uncertain boundary cases (eg Pluto, crabapple, deuterium). Vague uncertain concepts are peripheral and untypical and cannot be used to say anything about the meaning of simple words that refer to known things.

I thought on the contrary that "unicorn" and "democracy" were good and relevant examples, and that your insistence on simple words empties the discussion of content. Who is saying that we can't define "apple" with just a few distinctions, such as that we're not talking about a phone?



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Post Re: Conversation with Dr Robert M Price on Deconstructive Preaching
DWill wrote:
Robert, I wonder in what special sense you are using "deconstruction." If it is not in the same sense employed by the originators of the term, it would not seem to merit any special meaning beyond a number of available synonyms, such as "analysis."
The difference between deconstruction and analysis is that deconstruction claims to find a hidden meaning which is not readily apparent to previous analysis which accepted prevailing assumptions. Sometimes deconstruction can reveal a hidden meaning intended by the author but not seen before, or it can argue that the author was influenced by unconscious factors that can now be seen in the light of history.

With the example of deconstructing the Bible, the original theme of this thread, my view is that the original authors made more extensive use of symbol than came to be seen in Christian theology. The traditional dogma of the church generally tried to take the claims of the Bible on face value as literal fact, but deconstructing the original texts suggests their true meaning is quite different from the dominant interpretations. Dr Price’s essay included a commentary on the Apocalypse which I have responded to, and I will post my response here as well.
DWill wrote:
The uncertainty of meaning of texts appears to be integral to deconstructionism, so if you deny this uncertainty principle it's best not to confuse things by hewing to deconstruction.
No, I don’t agree that there is some ‘Heisenberg Principle’ of intrinsic uncertainty operating in literature. It is more about whether prevailing assumptions about the sources of certainty are justified. If we think about paradigm shifts in science, it is clear that Newtonian physics and its refinement by Einstein provided greater certainty about planetary positions that Ptolemaic geocentrism, even while showing that certainty only operates within boundaries that are never fully understood.

Considering the role of certainty in deconstruction, Heidegger’s original ‘Destruktion’ of the philosophy of Descartes is a primary intellectual forebear for the postmodern deconstruction of western thought. In showing the hidden aspects of Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’ as the starting axiom for systematic logic, Heidegger was not at all arguing against certainty in principle. Rather, he wants to place certainty on a more accurate and reliable foundation, namely the certainty that thought only ever exists in relation to other people in the world.

His specific argument is against Descartes’ claim to prove the existence of God and the world by positing human existence as an isolated individual thinking thing. Heidegger says Descartes failed to engage with the meaning of being as care, and therefore introduced prejudicial assumptions into the culture of philosophy. Heidegger accepts the need for axioms in philosophy, but suggests different axioms, around human being in the world, and the meaning of being as care. These assumptions are themselves open to critique, but aim to provide a methodical basis for doubt about traditional Cartesian scientific, philosophical and political assumptions.
DWill wrote:
Also, denying that texts have a definable meaning isn't the same as denying that any truth exists on the more more general, non-textual, level.
My understanding of deconstruction, rather than denying that texts have any definable meaning, is more about querying the meaning previously claimed, and proposing different meanings. But I agree, the general attitude of cultural and epistemological relativism that you describe, seen in the denial that texts have definable meaning, is a signature feature of postmodern culture. My view is that that attitude is more a political than a philosophic stance, and breaks down when examined by logic.

As I mentioned in my opening comments above about Dr Price’s work on Derrida, deconstruction has focused on critique of prevailing western theories of logic. I studied that in my MA thesis on Heidegger, in terms of his comparison of the modern philosophical model of the enlightened rational individual against the engaged existential model of care that Heidegger proposed. The argument is not that logic is wrong, but rather that logic is limited in its application, and its parameters of validity needs to be analysed and its use deconstructed within an existential ontology.
DWill wrote:
Another point is that knowledge, by its nature, comes to us in grades of discreteness. We know that certain findings of science, things we call facts, are at one end of the scale, while on the other are matters where subjectivity makes assertions of certainty unwise or impossible.
Yes, this scale of certainty that you describe is a key to the theory of knowledge, epistemology. In my last comment I pointed out that Plato’s epistemology was wrong, considered against the model you summarise here. If we rank true knowledge on a scale from certain facts to uncertain subjective assertions, which might include moods, opinions and beliefs, that differs from Plato’s model of the divided line, which defined appearance as the source of unreliable belief and logic as the source of reliable knowledge. I don’t think that works, since modern science has applied logic to appearance as the basis to validate facts to provide certain knowledge.

Heidegger argued that traditional philosophy has wrongly discounted moods such as anxiety which disclose our existence, and should be respected more within philosophy, rather than just being ignored as irrational and uncertain.

The scale of certainty is a helpful way to consider these issues of systematic logic. Factual findings of science, providing absolute certainty, can be assumed as axiomatically true. But the problem is to avoid using science to make claims about what is untrue, in areas of uncertainty. Matters where subjectivity makes assertions of certainty unwise or impossible can be assessed systematically, but this is complex and prone to error.
DWill wrote:
Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman made their careers studying the errors that we all make when faced with conditions of uncertainty, when, for example, the best we can do is choose the "facts" that can be demonstrated to be the most probable but often go against our intuitions. I think Harry could have something to add about the relevance of their work.
Yes, and I would consider Thinking Fast and Slow to be a great example of the broader concept of deconstruction, in that Kahneman takes prevailing assumptions about logic and certainty and shows that they are not well founded, as a basis to develop more soundly based economic psychology.
DWill wrote:
As far as confidence in the truth of one's position is concerned, might it not often be healthy to keep open the possibility that we are wrong?
In general that principle of humility makes sense, but in practice humility can make it more difficult to be an active participant rather than just a passive observer. A participant in politics, science, religion or business at some point must usually take a leap of faith, taking positions and holding to them, in order to represent views strongly and achieve results. Leaders who are open to doubt about their core convictions are easily seen as weak, untrustworthy, deceptive, unreliable and unable to deliver results.
DWill wrote:
If we do, we automatically become more inclined to compromise with the other side, and we get somewhere instead of being stuck in gridlock. If we are able to resolve our U.S. healthcare mess into at least a more functional mess, it will be because Republicans and Democrats compromised on some of their deeply held truths.
Although I am not close enough to the US situation to have a strong opinion, my outsiders’ view is that the US health debate is revealing some basic cracks in the economic and social framework of the nation. I like Donald Trump for the cultural ideal he promotes of individual self-reliance and entrepreneurial freedom. The bad implication of these values is the direct harm it causes to to the health of the millions of Americans who need to rely on society and lack resources to pay for their own care. A system designed for an elite cannot work for a mass society premised on equal human dignity.

It seems the unstated belief of the Republicans is that dignity is a lower value than freedom, meaning killing people through failure to provide health resources provides moral incentive for others to become more self reliant. It seems somewhat like Aztec human sacrifice. The underlying issue is that the US spends too much on the military, meaning infrastructure and health and education lack needed investment. The dilemma is how to respect and balance the Trumpian and the non-Trumpian virtues.
DWill wrote:
I thought on the contrary that "unicorn" and "democracy" were good and relevant examples, and that your insistence on simple words empties the discussion of content. Who is saying that we can't define "apple" with just a few distinctions, such as that we're not talking about a phone?

Harry introduced the unicorn and democracy examples to justify his argument that the meaning of a statement is constructed entirely within the relationships in people's heads. This is a great example of how choosing non-typical examples can distort a conclusion. Theories of unicorns and democracy are far from simple scientific facts, so do not serve to illustrate the nature of certainty.

Unicorns have an intensely symbolic mythology, standing as an icon of imagination. The British Coat of Arms showing a chained unicorn https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lion_and_the_Unicorn symbolising Scotland. “In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the unicorn was commonly described as an extremely wild woodland creature, a symbol of purity and grace, which could only be captured by a virgin lady.”

Theories of democracy range from majority vote through to more detailed ideological claims about social participation. Both unicorns and democracy are mental constructs, so don’t work at all as examples to prove that meaning of other things is similarly entirely mind-dependent.

Is meaning constructed in our heads? Yes for unicorns and democracy, no for hydrogen and apples.

When we start with simple words that refer to known things, their meaning is not mind-dependent, but is primarily in their description of a simple thing. This is called their denotation. - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denotation . Denoted meaning is not just a mental construction, in cases where there is no doubt that the thing exists.

Systematic logic should begin with claims that are certain, as in geometry, using axioms to develop rational understanding of more complex claims that can be inferred as necessarily true if the axioms are true. For example, the periodic table of the elements is so abundantly corroborated for naturally occurring elements that it provides a clear example of certainty.

While there have been philosophers who reject versions of systematic reasoning on principle, such as Kierkegaard and Feyerabend, this has been because they thought that previous claims about system were not logical, and considered that scientists and philosophers committed logical fallacies.

I am particularly interested in how Carlos Castaneda asserts that shamanic thinking provides a critique of the absolutist assertions of western logic. The problem arises when logic makes claims which extend beyond its internal coherence, and has to be deconstructed.

An example of deconstruction is that climate lobbyists wrongly infer from the proof of the settled science of anthropogenic climate change that the science of how to respond to climate change through emission reduction is equally settled. Questioning this inference looks like an attack on reason to those who assume the fallacy is correct, and deconstructing it is politically challenging and intellectually complex.

Postmodern ideology supports constructivism, the theory that meaning is constructed rather than discovered. Debate in the postmodern ideology can therefore only occur between different ideas, whereas in the traditional empirical view, debate can be settled by facts, except where the debate is about the values regarding what sort of world we want to construct.


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Post Re: Conversation with Dr Robert M Price on Deconstructive Preaching
DWill wrote:
The uncertainty of meaning of texts appears to be integral to deconstructionism, so if you deny this uncertainty principle it's best not to confuse things by hewing to deconstruction. Also, denying that texts have a definable meaning isn't the same as denying that any truth exists on the more more general, non-textual, level.

This seems to be a major issue of confusion about the matter, for me I would say and to some extent for Robert. I find at times that I am turning over the question of definiteness of "meaning of a term" and I end up bringing in issues of definiteness of "knowledge of its referent." I have done a lot of thinking about epistemology over the years, in connection to economics, and so the issues within the question of how we know what we know end up contaminating thinking about "how we know what is meant by some words."

This contamination seems to be a case of what the military dubbed "capture errors" some decades back. Studying mistakes in war, one type of error that they found arising fairly often was when a decision-maker (fighter pilot is the classic case) ends up responding to a mental habit close to the real situation, because the erroneous thing is more familiar and similar enough to the real situation that it had "captured" their train of responses. An everyday example is when your car "drives itself" to somewhere you were used to driving, rather than where you intended to go.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slips_and_capture

And of course the loveliest example is that "to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

DWill wrote:
Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman made their careers studying the errors that we all make when faced with conditions of uncertainty, when, for example, the best we can do is choose the "facts" that can be demonstrated to be the most probable but often go against our intuitions. I think Harry could have something to add about the relevance of their work.


One of their key findings is that professionals soon stop making most of the basic errors in the context of their work. Whether this is because they learn to watch for them out of regret for past mistakes, or because they use different parts of their brain in the first place, by virtue of being professional, I don't know. But my habit is to try to find the "solid" solution, that is, the one that is not caused by economizing on the effort it takes to be rational but rather will hold up to more careful scrutiny. That doesn't always give an accurate model of behavior, but it does tend to underpin durable arrangements.

DWill wrote:
I thought on the contrary that "unicorn" and "democracy" were good and relevant examples, and that your insistence on simple words empties the discussion of content.
Well, I take it that Robert was making a valid point in arguing that denotation is "normally" a fairly clear process and therefore the deconstructionist skepticism about meanings is itself suspect. When Richard Rorty went so far as to insist that Kuhn had showed the content of science to be "created" (by our "vocabularies" no less) rather than "discovered", I thought it was a howler. Didn't quite roll on the floor laughing, but there was a little homunculus in my brain whose sides were splitting open with laughter and orange goo coming out.

Still, being interested in the difficult cases, like interpreting the original text of the Constitution, I tend to gravitate naturally to unicorns, democracy and other arguable terms.



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Post Re: Conversation with Dr Robert M Price on Deconstructive Preaching
Harry Marks wrote:
DWill wrote:
Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman made their careers studying the errors that we all make when faced with conditions of uncertainty, when, for example, the best we can do is choose the "facts" that can be demonstrated to be the most probable but often go against our intuitions. I think Harry could have something to add about the relevance of their work.


One of their key findings is that professionals soon stop making most of the basic errors in the context of their work. Whether this is because they learn to watch for them out of regret for past mistakes, or because they use different parts of their brain in the first place, by virtue of being professional, I don't know. But my habit is to try to find the "solid" solution, that is, the one that is not caused by economizing on the effort it takes to be rational but rather will hold up to more careful scrutiny. That doesn't always give an accurate model of behavior, but it does tend to underpin durable arrangements.

This might not be the aspect of their work to which you're referring, but from Michael Lewis's The Undoing Project , I have the impression that sophistication and professional status did not give subjects any significant protection from running the heuristics stemming from our intuitions. Cognitive biases are supposedly that stubbornly resistant to reasoning.



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Post Re: Conversation with Dr Robert M Price on Deconstructive Preaching
DWill wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:
One of their key findings is that professionals soon stop making most of the basic errors in the context of their work.

This might not be the aspect of their work to which you're referring, but from Michael Lewis's The Undoing Project , I have the impression that sophistication and professional status did not give subjects any significant protection from running the heuristics stemming from our intuitions. Cognitive biases are supposedly that stubbornly resistant to reasoning.

I got bogged down about a quarter of the way through "Undoing Project" (unusual for me with a Lewis book - I really like his writing - just too many other involvements) so I am not sure I am up to speed. But according to "Thinking, Fast and Slow" both are true - professionals (including psychology professors aware of the issues) are still subject to cognitive biases about as often as ordinary people, but particular biases which are important to, say, trading commodities or negotiation tend to disappear from the on-the-job behavior of professionals to whom those matter. Not always, not every kind of cognitive error, but some of the real "dumb" ones like anchoring and recency biases they seem to develop defenses against.



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Post Re: Conversation with Dr Robert M Price on Deconstructive Preaching
That distinction works for me. I thought The Undoing Project was lacking in something...not sure what exactly, maybe a real strong organizing theme. I should read more of his books instead of just seeing the films, which have been good with the exception of "The Blind Side," which I kind of hated.



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