requiem for certainty

Posts Tagged ‘problematization

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

Practices, Problems, Sites

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As a philosopher I have standard discipline-anxieties whenever confronted with some rather usual (but nonetheless perplexing) social scientific questions concerning how one should conceptualize, represent, and present one’s research where one take as their material for inquiry actually-functioning practices.  A great talk by James Clifford at the Center for Cultural Studies at UCSC the other week provided me with a much-needed bit of confidence in the face of my ongoing difficulties with these questions.  Clifford unashamedly noted that problems such as those I have been wrestling with are ones that he too faces in his present work even if they were not posed to him as problems back when he was a graduate student.  In short, my problems concerning these matters are not just my problems as a philosopher interested in taknig up social science into my work, but these are the problems which anyone in a similar position faces (or at least ought to face if they are sufficiently self-reflective).  A few notes, then, on these problems as they’ve been foisting themselves on me in recent months.  Provoked this time by Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life.

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Written by Colin Koopman

October 31, 2008 at 2:53 am

‘Open Source Study’ now available

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I participated in a graduate seminar in anthropology offered by Paul Rabinow this past quarter. Part of my work there involved a collaborative research project on ‘open source’ and ‘open content’ initiatives. Though in many ways this research is still very much in progress, the seminar is now over, and we turned something in, and so we have also posted it to SSRN. You can find it here: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Colin Koopman

December 10, 2007 at 8:35 pm

Working Definition of Problematization

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I have now been working with the methodological or analytical device of problematization for long enough that I am comfortable offering a (merely tentative!) ‘definition’ or ‘specification’ of this device of inquiry.

Problematizations are formed by congeries of conceptually-specified vectors which intersect one another in such a way as to create tensions and instabilities that both render old practices problematic and provide bases for the elaboration of new practices.
– Problematizations are thus complexes.
– Problematizations are thus formed by tensions between different vectors or levels, e.g. power and knowledge.
– Problematizations are thus objects with dual functionality in that they both render problematic and provoke solutions.
– Problematizations are thus hinges of historical emergence and descent. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Colin Koopman

December 5, 2007 at 3:13 am

Open Source Problematization

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I am currently looking at developing concepts adequate to the general problematization in which practices of ‘open source’ (by which I am broadly referring to open content, open source, open development, open platform techniques and practices). These concepts are probably most helpfully thought about in terms of inquiring into the ‘conditions of possibility’ of the emergent equipment in question. On this view, inquiry into problematization is meant to facilitate the development of general concepts which establish the conditions of possibility of the equipment at all. It is in virtue of these conditions of possibility that potential practices can come to be taken up as open source equipment. This is not yet to say, of course, whether or not these practices are as yet ‘valid’, ‘intelligent’, or ‘right’ uses of open source. It is only to specify that they are intelligible as open source equipmental practices. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Colin Koopman

November 26, 2007 at 11:16 pm

Foucault on Problematization

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The historiographical commitment undertaken by Foucault’s practice genealogy as problematization is a commitment to problems and responses as the units of historical explanation. This means that the genealogist will seek to explain historical processes by reference to the problems which motivate certain processes and the specific practices which develop in response to these problems. This can be contrasted to more common historiographical commitments to explanation by reference to familiar themes of economy, of territory, of spirit, of rationality, or of ideology. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Colin Koopman

November 18, 2007 at 5:45 am

Deleuze on Problematization

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One source of a conception of philosophy as the work of problematization is the thought of Gilles Deleuze. Though the critical literature on Deleuze can hardly be said to have found many points of consensus, a number of commentators have not been hesitant to acknowledge the importance in Deleuze’s thought of what DeLanda calls “problematic epistemology” and what Rajchman describes as a form of thinking which consists in “making visible problems for which there exists no program, no plan.”  In Deleuze’s thought, the very practice of philosophy itself can be expressed in terms of this work of problematization. Deleuze is well-known for the view he developed with Guattari in What Is Philosophy? According to which “philosophy is the art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts.” Often not acknowledged, however, is their further claim that “concepts are only created as a function of problems” such that “concepts are connected to problems without which they would have no meaning and which can themselves only be isolated or understood as their solution emerges.” (1991, 2, 16) Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Colin Koopman

November 5, 2007 at 8:00 am