requiem for certainty

Archive for October 2009

Contingency and Stability in History

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According to one usual story, necessity connotes stability whilst contingency connotes instability. Foucault is anything but the usual story. One thing that makes his work so provocative and appealing is his attribution of stability and contingency to the selfsame objects of his historical inquiries—or to put it differently, his employment of stability and contingency in the selfsame analytic for historical inquiry.

Foucault’s objects of inquiry are often remarkably stable structures such as disciplinary power and their corollary institutions such as prisons. Unlike those who take this stability as flowing from some necessity (which the historian would prove by way of a causal explanation referring to, say, economic necessity or social efficiency), Foucault shows how high degrees of stability sometimes flow from the contingent coalescence of congeries of chancy occurrences. The fact that these very stable structures and institutions emerged contingently does little to unseat or disrupt them, however. They are, after all, remarkably stable.

And that, after all, is part of Foucault’s point. This is why Foucault is not content to merely make a philosophical or ontological point but rather works in a way that combines philosophy and ontology with history. Since these stabilities are conditioned by a massive historical inertia, we cannot easily transform them. If we do wish to initiate a transformative response to the problematizations that these stable structures and institutions form, then one thing we would require is a historical inquiry that places at our disposal an understanding of the materials which conditioned the emergence of these stabilities. A historical understanding of these conditions equips us with a reflexive relationship to the contingencies which make us who we are such that we can begin the long and hard labor of transforming those remarkably stable structures to which we find ourselves subjected.

[n.b.: this is a paragraph from my genealogy book.]


Written by Colin Koopman

October 27, 2009 at 2:05 am

Where is all the pragmatist historiography?

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It’s a truism to anyone who has bothered to think even just a little bit about it that philosophical pragmatism is thoroughly invested in locating ideas, practices, activities, and judgments in their historical context. Here is one way to think about this. A key pragmatist commitment is to contextualism (in a generic sense) according to which we can discern the meaning of an idea only by tracing out its effects in the context in which it operates including importantly its historical and temporal (but also its cultural, geographical, etc.) contexts.

One can see this historical contextualism quite clearly across the full range of pragmatisms from Deweyan classicopragmatism to Rortyan neopragmatism. Many of the best books in the pragmatist canon are best read as intellectual histories which do they work they do by ably putting certain philosophical themes into the historical streams in which they flowed. I am thinking of Dewey’s Quest for Certainty or Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and there are countless other works by Mead, Addams, Du Bois, &c.).

If historical contextualism is so central to pragmatism, however, one would have expected pragmatists to have turned their attention to the philosophy of history or what some of us like to call historiography. Yet there is surprisingly little work in this area. Dewey wrote almost nothing sustained on the topic (cf. a few pages in the 1938 Logic). Rorty wrote an article in 1984 (cf. the Philosophy in History volume he co-edited). Harvard intellectual historian James Kloppenberg has a nice piece on this in Metaphilosophy in 2004. Rutgers intellectual historian James Livingston (cf. his blog) gives some sustained attention to broader meta- questions impacting these issues in his 2001 Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy.

This is all great work, but none of it represents a full-fledged pragmatist historiography. This is not a criticism of this work, because that is not its goal.

I find this curious. Nobody seems to have attempted to fully work out the ramifications of pragmatism for historiography. Where is that work? Where is all the pragmatist historiography? Where should someone like myself who is preparing some material on this topic go fishing around next? And, assuming I am correct in hunch that though there may be some more work in this area I have yet to find there is not much of it, why has all the pragmatist historiography gone missing? Why didn’t Dewey or Rorty or anyone else write a paper called “The Theory of History”? (Or did they and I am missing it?)

So far the best resource I have found is work by the mid-century pragmatist (some deny him this label) John Herman Randall, Jr., specifically his 1958 Nature and Historical Experience and 1963 How Philosophy Uses Its Past. I am working through it so more to report soon.

This topic has been of some interest to me for awhile so please comment or email with any thoughts. I have an article entitled “Historicism in Pragmatism” forthcoming in Metaphilosophy which addresses these issues from a general perspective but does not develop a detailed pragmatist historiography. I am also working on a second piece on John Herman Randall and pragmatist historiography in connection with an upcoming event I helped co-organize.

My hunch (unsurprising to anyone who knows me): the pragmatists here have a great deal to learn from the genealogists: pragmatist historiography ought to look like a history of problematization: go Dewey+Foucault!

Written by Colin Koopman

October 9, 2009 at 8:04 am

The Function of Critical Inquiry

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From a discussion of ‘novelty’ over at the ARC/Rabinow Concept Work blog where I wrote:

“What function can and ought critical inquiry serve today?  Not denunciation of course! (Nor its contemporary twin, snarkiness!)  We can seek to understand where these conditions came from, of what elements they are composed, and to what stresses they are susceptible.  To denounce is beside the point and nobody is listening anyway.  We might take as our example Foucault, who never said that ‘discipline’ was a bad thing even if this was the takeaway message for almost everyone who read him too quickly: discipline is a condition of who we are and so we would do well to understand the broader problematization by which it conditions us.”

Written by Colin Koopman

October 2, 2009 at 5:52 pm

Book Cover, New Job, &c.

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It’s been awhile since I’ve updated anything here.  That’s a sign of business not laziness, of course.  (It’s also a function of the increasingly-useful way in which status updates are handled on facebook.)

Two main pieces of news.

First, I am now living up in Eugene, Oregon where I have a one-year appointment as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Oregon.  I am (if it’s not obvious) quite pleased to be up here: great colleagues, great graduate students, great program, and a great place to live.

Hunkering down for a solid year of solid work in Eugene should give me the opportunity to update the blog more often.  So I plan to start on that.

Second, it now appears as if my book Pragmatism as Transition: Historicity and Hope in James, Dewey, and Rorty will be out with Columbia University Press very soon (sometime next month, apparently).  I was quite pleased that Columbia was able to get the rights to an image of the painting that I have long hoped would grace the cover of the book, Ducham’s Nude Descending a Staircase, no.2.  You can read a little more about the book on Columbia UP’s website.

So, more soon I hope.  I’m investing lots of time in lots of projects right now.  Some of them will be bloggable in short order.

Written by Colin Koopman

October 1, 2009 at 11:45 pm