Philosophy as Genre

As we walked along the paved path in Millerton, NY, my father posed to me this question:

“What is the point of all this reading you’re doing? What are you trying to accomplish?”

My father is hardly the type to suggest one ought to read less, and he is without a doubt where I inherited my habit – some might say compulsion – of regular reading.  Yet his reading is often directed by some overarching questions or project. So what he was asking me was not “why are you reading so much,” but “what’s the goal? What’s driving it?”

If I had to answer, I’d have to say: more questions than I can count. More than I know how to formulate.

I started out on the trajectory that ended up shifting my reading habits from being heavily skewed towards popular nonfiction towards being heavily skewed towards academic philosophy with some specific questions and even a specific project, which has been all but abandoned.

What I came to feel was that philosophy could not provide satisfying answers to those questions. Literature and poetry and art in general are, without a doubt, more fertile grounds of exploration.

Yet after concluding this, I continued to read philosophy. If anything, I read more of it.

Hence my father’s question.

The answer is simple: because I love it.

Richard Rorty said that philosophy is a kind of writing, which is not quite right: it is a genre, and like science fiction it can take forms other than writing. To the tradition of thought we could broadly characterize as rationalist, this is a heresy; to them, philosophy is modeled on science, not literature. To model it on literature is simply a sign of the unseriousness of pragmatists like Rorty and postmodernists like Derrida.

But to say so is to presume that science is serious while literature and art are not. This is precisely what I would dispute, with Rorty. Great literature and art have the potential to broaden our horizons, to teach us about life and the human experience. To show us the way to wisdom.

Philosophy, like other genres, can broaden our horizons as well.

Or perhaps I’m simply an unserious person, putting off the literature and poetry I ought to be reading more of, in favor of philosophy, my favorite guilty pleasure.

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Reasons for Knowing Knowledge

There are many theories of what knowledge is. That is clear enough from the past 400 years of philosophy, never mind the thousands before that. What has drawn less interest is that there are different reasons we may wish to know what knowledge is.

René Descartes and David Hume were quite clear on why they wanted to know of knowledge. Though they had radically different theories of knowledge, each believed that epistemology was necessary to shore up the foundations of other fields. From this perspective, historians and physicists and linguists need to wait around for philosophers to sort out how they can tell if they actually know anything about their fields. That is the central conceit of the so-called “demarcation problem,” for example.

It is against this sort of epistemology that Richard Rorty framed his pragmatism as anti-authoritarian. Imagine historians thinking they were the authorities on statecraft or politics. It’s laughable. Much has been said about the value of knowing history so one doesn’t repeat past mistakes, but to think of history as primarily a source of practical insights is to seriously misunderstand the field. I have to wonder if anyone who suggests such a thing has ever actually read a history book. Or, on the flipside, perhaps they are a little too well read in history and too short on practical experience. In any event, one needs to be deeply disconnected from either history as it is written, or the practical affairs of the world, to think that the former could be a manual for the latter, or that historians are in a special position to tell practitioners how to do what they do.

To Rorty, the image of philosophers lecturing scientists on when they can know they know anything in their own fields is even more absurd than the image of the historian telling politicians and public officials how to do their jobs. Scholars and scientists did not wait around for the perfect theory of knowledge to be developed before getting to work. And the notion that outsiders to those fields are in a position to dictate the terms of inquiry for insiders is highly questionable. I won’t reconstruct Rorty’s argument here, but suffice it to say that he sees epistemology of the Cartesian and Humean sort as a sort of will-to-tyranny over other disciplines.

His pragmatism is cast as a liberation of the disciplines to pursue their own discourses on the terms negotiated by fellow practitioners, rather than by interfering outsiders. Its value is akin to the counter-punch in boxing; rather than making the first move, it comes as a response. If we imagine historians and physicists minding their own business and pursuing their work, when a interlocutor comes along with an argument drawing on philosophical positivism or related frameworks, pragmatism is the tool to get that interlocutor to back down.  It nullifies the stultifying effects of tyrannical philosophy, rather than offering a substantive alternative.

Because he deflates all of philosophy’s big claims to value, Rorty concludes that there’s little use for philosophy any longer, except as a field of caretakers for a set of classic texts. This is where I must part ways with him.

I look instead to Hans-Georg Gadamer, the pivotal figure in 20th century hermeneutics. Like Rorty, Gadamer didn’t see his theory of interpretation as a guidebook for the social scientists whose fields he discussed in the course of Truth and Method and other works. He had no interest in dictating the terms of inquiry for practitioners. And like Rorty, in as much as it has practical value, it is of the counter-punch variety. Unlike Rorty, however, Gadamer views hermeneutics as discipline itself, as legitimate a field of inquiry as history. Like history, it is a study of human doings. Yet as hinted above, the relationship between these fields and practical insight is a complex one. Gadamer no doubt underplayed the practical value of hermeneutics, but, as mentioned, historians and especially history enthusiasts too often overplay the practical significance of history.

The reasons for knowing knowledge, interpretation, or history that align with the spirit of inquiry in these fields is much more indeterminate than something as simple as generating practical know-how. It is more like satisfying intellectual curiosity, or attempting to deepen your knowledge of the human story, or simply taking pleasure in developing and exercising the skills of inquiry and argument in a specific domain. I would sum up this non-authoritarian (contra Descartes and Hume) but non-eliminative (contra Rorty) sort of reason as seeking wisdom. That is an appropriately vague and indeterminate answer for the question I wished to pose in this post.

3, 2, 1…Let’s Jam

The graduate program in economics at George Mason University was a formal community of a very particular sort. As students, we had been granted membership in that community though a selective (or so I tell myself) admissions process, and kept it by paying out tuition and keeping a full course load (without failing out). We learned economics, yes, but we also learned a common language; the language of Hayek, of Ostrom, and above all, of Coase. In social gatherings among classmates, future spouses joked to one another that they were quite tired of hearing about this Coase fellow. Near the end of the program, some of us wondered out loud, “what are we going to do when we have to go out into the world and never be surrounded by so many people like us?”

We have all managed to survive, somehow. My career has had very little to do with what I learned there, and was probably only impacted in ways that (GMU econ professor) Bryan Caplan would appreciate.

But what I really came away from GMU with was a connection to their scene.

In 2008 when I started the Master’s program there, the department was fairly unique in the high number of professors writing on blogs or putting out podcasts. Part of my desire to enter the program stemmed from having followed these professors beforehand. But it wasn’t until after I started that I really dived in deep.

A scene is different from a community, though it is no less “imagined;” that is, the intersubjective product of games played among meaning-making individuals. In the online scene of which the GMU econ professors are still a part, they form a sort of center of gravity; one network cluster among a few, the boundaries of which are ill-defined and ever shifting. Where communities are shaped by membership and belonging, scenes are shaped by audience and participation.

A common audience forms the glue between GMU econ blogs and podcasts, Slate Star Codex, Modeled Behavior, and a constellation of sites and communities that form the scene I used to be an active participant in. This audience participates in shared experiences – in this case, most frequently shared experiences of media consumption. There was frequently a book of the moment, which everyone who was part of the scene either read or read about. Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation was an example that comes to mind, but the book does not necessarily have to be by someone in the scene, or even have much to do with the typical interests of the audience in that scene.

A coworker who follows the comedy scene closely gave me a good example of this recently. He said that a comedian’s wife had passed away and her book would be published posthumously, so the comedian was promoting it on comedy podcasts even though it had nothing to do with comedy. This coworker said that he decided to give the book a shot, if for no other reason than everyone else would be, and he wanted to get the jokes about it and other references to it. You don’t have to keep up with every new text embraced by the scene, but if you stop keeping up with any of them, you’re likely to find yourself falling out of its orbit.

Membership offers a formal boundary for communities, in relationality if not in geography. I don’t want to exaggerate the concreteness of communities; there is churn, there is overlap with other communities, and there’s substantial grey area. But the ebb and flow of scenes is of another order entirely. Participation, either in the audience or as the object of their attention, is more easily withdrawn than membership, which often requires some formal step. More to the point, it is far easier to dip your toes in. You can go to one metal concert without becoming a part of the metal scene. It’s a far bigger hurdle to become even a part time student at a university. And when you do, there is a paper trail to show it; the line between when you go from a casual concert-goer to a part of the metal scene is vague in the extreme.

Scenes are often called “communities” as in “the online economics community”, and that’s fine; that’s one way the word is used. I distinguish between communities and scenes here not to get at the essence of either word, but merely to observe that there is a distinction to be made. Formal community and scenes are two forms of meaningful existence in the modern world, where we have left the primordial village community of the Romantics’ fantasies far behind.

The Really Real

“There is no ‘we’,” was a catchphrase among the GMU econ company I kept when I went to grad school there. The only really real things were individuals, who made choices, had preferences, and had blood running through their veins, by God! Groups are not really real. They are a myth, a superstition, an excuse for the strong to continue the exploitation of the weak that has gone on since the first social hierarchy was established.

Years later, I explored the communitarians. They seemed to say that there could be no individual at all, without community. I talked with Catholic leftists who would spit out the accusation of “Thatcherite!” at the mere mention of the word “individual.”

The communitarians seemed to have some powerful insights, but the community which glued it all together and made these insights work eluded me. Every time I thought I had my hands on it, it melted away and I had to start anew.

I asked, “what is community?” I kidnapped Dave away from his loving wife and children, at any hour of the night or day, to demand an answer of him. I asked and I asked.

Benedict Anderson, a Marxist, made his legacy on the claim that communities are imagined. But this was not the claim of my GMU mentors, who insisted on the unreality of “we.” Anderson’s communities were imagined only in as much as they were so large, we can never meet all of their members, even though we strongly believe that they are there, and that we stand in a meaningful relationship to them. Anderson did not deny groups in order to embrace only the “really real,” and criticized Marxists who did:

With a certain ferocity Gellner makes a comparable point when he rules that ‘Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.’ The drawback to this formulation, however, is that Gellner is so anxious to show that nationalism masquerades under false pretences that he assimilates ‘invention’ to ‘fabrication’ and ‘falsity’, rather than to ‘imagining’ and ‘creation’. In this way he implies that ‘true’ communities exist which can be advantageously juxtaposed to nations. In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.

Examples of these “styles” include vast networks of kinship, Christendom, and Anderson’s primary subject matter, the nation.

By the time I began scratching my itch to understand community until I drew blood, I had already been lead to view things through the lens of intersubjective relationality; or the language-games of Wittgenstein and Gadamer. But a community is not a game. So what is it? The grounds of the game, in some abstract sense?

The metaphor of the game was one way of approaching the question of human relationality. But there are many types of relations. In the wee hours, as I interrogated him for some sign of how I might understand this question of community, Dave modestly suggested that membership might have something to do with it. It took quite some time for me to listen to what he was saying.

One thing that helped crystalize this for me was reading Michaele Ferguson’s book Sharing Democracy, in which she attempted to discuss imagined community as I might have, before my many conversations with Dave. Here is the relevant part of my review:

Intersubjective relations are a useful starting place, but relationality per se is not very informative. There are many types of relations, with different implications in different contexts. One important relation that is absent from Ferguson’s analysis is membership. This relation is not between individuals, but between an individual and an entity—an “imagined” entity, in Anderson’s sense, though this is misleading. When the conditions are right, such entities are no more or less imagined than money. Imagined social entities in which individuals are members are precisely the collective agencies that Ferguson mis-defines.

I could not see the entity for so long. But it’s there, often explicitly acknowledged in the ways we relate to one another. We play various roles in our social games, and these roles relate to our standing as members in some common group – or of rival groups, or of cooperating but nevertheless distinct groups. The way our imagined communities shape our relations to one another as individuals is as real as the way money influences our behavior. Free will is not subsumed; I can choose not to accept money. I can choose to walk away. But the reality of what I’m walking away from is not changed by this; I could have taken that money, and I could have used it to acquire possessions or hire people to render services.

So too with the group – it is precisely because I am a citizen of the United States of America, living within the territory of its sovereign body, that I expect to be able to use dollars and not pounds to acquire my possessions. It is because I am an employee of a company that I expect they will let me enter the building and go into the area outsiders are not allowed to wander through unescorted.

Anderson makes reference to “primordial villages of face-to-face contact” which he excepts, tentatively, from being “imagined.” This is a kernel of the Romantics, who judged modernity as false against the really real of the authentically primitive. In the mouth of a Romantic, just as in the mouth of an economic individualist, “imagined” is spat, much like “Thatcherite” in the mouth of a Catholic leftist. It is an epithet against that which is not really real.

Perhaps it is time we loosened our grip on the really real, and grew more comfortable with the reality of the imagined.

Frameworks, Models, and Math

One could go mad seeking a vocabulary to speak of vocabulary, a language to speak of language.

A framework is a shared semantic web, a range of possible pragmatic moves to make in language-games played with fellow adherents as well as with proponents of alternatives. In short, it is a language.

A model is a much more regimented language; its moves are fewer but more penetrating, the domain of its meanings narrower but, one hopes, more illuminating if kept within those confines. In economics, all they taught us were models. Even at the not-particularly-mathematical George Mason University Department of Economics, there was no substitute for the value of a formal model. Simplicity in the model was pared with sophistication in collecting the larger menu of models; we were taught to be undoctrinaire about models that might add up to an inconsistent whole, so long as the application brought us closer to truth for the matter at hand. Somehow, though, these models all fit comfortably inside of a utilitarian framework, albeit the more qualitatively sensitive and uncertainty-emphasizing Austrian variety.

Models turn out to have an unusual portability. The economic models, as I mentioned, were clearly utilitarian in design. They existed in a hermeneutic circle with utilitarian frameworks; the model as the part and the framework as the whole. The law of supply and the law of demand, perfect competition or price discrimination, are all models that are seemingly incomprehensible without a foundation of utilitarian assumptions.

And yet, these assumptions can be relaxed. Perhaps not entirely eradicated. But a humanist like Deirdre McCloskey can comfortably turn these models into metaphors and integrate the “P(rudence)” values into a framework which includes “S(acred)” ones.

But such an integration has its costs, or at least its impact. McCloskey is no mystic. Integrating the economists’ prudent models transforms the framework they are integrated into, just as the models themselves must be transformed as they enter into a new hermeneutic circle with a different whole.

Of course, Gadamer emphasized that all understanding is a creative act, and transformative. All fusions of horizons leave both horizons forever changed. The utilitarian is transformed merely in the act of applying his model to a specific case, just as certainly as the humanist is transformed by integrating models of utilitarian origin.

As I thought about these things, my mind wandered to the question of math. Math, like models, is quite regimented. So much so that – again, like models – it requires a less regimented language in order to provide the resources to explain it, discuss what is going on in a given example, and so on. Nevertheless, there are few things more portable than math. Mathematicians do their work in a staggering variety of vernaculars. And their work can be understood without too much explanation by mathematicians who do not share a common tongue.

It is no wonder that math so dazzled the Pythagoreans and Platonists, seeming to transcend the contingencies of language as it does. But it does not truly transcend those contingencies. The positivist dream of a perfectly rational language is long dead; mathematics requires the resources of unregimented, highly contingent language in order to be understood and to be maintained (never mind further developed). Math itself is, as I said, a regimented language. But it is not just another language. There truly is something miraculous about it, and about the portability of models and of meanings, across the creative and transformative gulf of fused horizons.

It Depends

One important but easily overlooked lesson from hermeneutics is that you must attend to the particulars.

Students who lack experience and have an appetite for abstraction are generally looking for shortcuts. I recall a math teacher who joked that mathematicians would spend enormous amounts of time trying to find the quickest way to solve a lot of problems at once. There’s nothing wrong with that mindset—it’s how we get innovation in general. But there are domains where it is inappropriate.

Understanding texts is one of those domains. It takes patience and consideration to understand a text. Moreover, it is an ongoing task: the more you read beyond that text, the more context you have for understanding it. There is a gulf between an experienced scholar and a newcomer to the field which can only be bridged by a great deal of patient, careful reading. And that takes time—there is no shortcut.

The desire to seek shortcuts where they are inappropriate is common. One man wanted to determine whether the great works of the western canon were really all that great through a very simple probabilistic analysis. Another wants to be able to expand the price system to every facet of life so that he can know what he ought to prioritize. The latter’s impoverished hermeneutical framework makes it literally impossible to conceive that there is concrete knowledge that (say) a dog show judge has about different dog breeds which allows them to have superior judgment over the audience, or that such judgments are qualitative rather than expressed in equations.

Perhaps this is the aspect of hermeneutics that causes those ignorant of it to attribute an anything-goes relativism to it. Unlike the various species of rationalism, or even skepticism, hermeneutics offers no concrete answers. It provides a fairly skeletal outline of how understanding works in general, but offers no constraints on the nature of what might be understood. Intellectual shortcuts are precisely that—constraints on possibilities.

But this isn’t relativism at all. It’s the simple admonition, which we all know on some level but love to deny, that there’s no shortcut to wisdom. It’s very easy to find a reason to be dismissive but much more hard to actually wrestle with what you wish to dismiss, to understand it enough to see if you were correct about its lack of value.

No matter how wise you become, you may have missed something truly crucial. Perhaps you missed a great deal. This is not relativism, but humility.

The Language of Community

I’m going to observe, rather than define. Communities are groups of people who share a common language, in which communal relations can be articulated. The most basic such relation is membership.

How much is the language peculiar to that community? Are all English-speakers a community, because they speak English? Let’s set that question to the side for a moment and treat the big, recognized languages as something separate. Particular communities draw on the resources of the big languages but develop their own idiosyncrasies. In some contexts this is called a dialect. In other contexts it is called jargon. But it is peculiar to the community.

More important, perhaps, is lower-level language; language at the level of practice. “Body language” puts it crudely, but the nonverbal aspects of practice have a kind of vocabulary of their own. We see this quite clearly in community rituals, thick with meaning even when no one is saying a word.

But we also see it in how people in a community behave towards one another; telegraphing their relative standings without consciously intending to do so. There are also formal protocols, of course, on top of informal ones. I know how to behave in an interview, a wedding, and a barbeque hosted by a friend; the expectations in each case are quite different. But people have no trouble communicating when I’ve crossed a line I shouldn’t have.

Communities rest on formal relations, spelled out at least in part in actual forms. That is, documents. Dave has hammered this into me again and again in our discussions of community, and it has stuck at last. The local Catholic church has a deed for the property, a charter, a formal relationship with the mother church. There is a whole set of documentation behind the priest. They undoubtedly have lists of who attends regularly, especially if they have signed up for church activities at some point.

My diploma, my lease, my employment contract, my birth certificate—all of these things indicate membership in communities of various sorts. In this case they refer to a community of alumni, or a neighborhood, or an industry, or a political community. Some are more specific than others; my employment contract gives a thin outline of my role at the company, what I owe them and what they owe me.

There’s only ever so much that’s put on paper, but the paper establishes a formal relationship with a formal community.

Not everyone is multilingual at the level of big languages, but at the level of community-specific language, we are all multilingual. A white Mississippi boy from a poor family who is the first in his family to go to college, and eventually takes a job in Canada, learns to speak in the language of at least three communities. Typically, he is most likely to seem like a foreigner in how he speaks and acts to the people in the town he grew up in.

The nature of community is, in short, intimately tied to the nature of language. This drives home Hans-Georg Gadamer’s belief in the universality of the hermeneutic dimension, and his evocative phrase that “being that can be understood is language.” Hermeneutics and linguistics are as important for understanding community as sociology—perhaps more important.

Don’t Look Down

My father believes that the 21st century by necessity will be a metaphysical age. Our tacit metaphysics so divides us from one another and from the world, that we will have to find our way back again. I do not doubt that a new, great unified metaphysical framework may bloom. As to its necessity—I wonder.

For a long time, as a devoted believer in the philosophy of David Hume, I thought that “metaphysics” was simply the highest form of rationalism; a word that must always be said with a sneer. Metaphysics is synonymous with hubris, with the folly of man leaping over an open cliff with no real hope of reaching the other side.

A greater appreciation of history has helped me to see that Hume’s anti-metaphysics metaphysics, and the sorts of metaphysics it was aimed against, tend to run together. For every Plato and Aristotle there is a Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus, for every Hume there is a Kant—or more to the point, a Hegel.

Today, the echoes of the Hegelian and Marxist projects, as well as the anti-metaphysical positivist ones, are all we are left with. They have fallen into ruin, but their ghosts continue to haunt us as the most recent of such projects to be taken up. Behind them we see the long reach of their predecessors; the continental rationalists and the English-speaking empiricists.

But in this accounting we leave out a very different sort of project. We can see it in the phenomenological and hermeneutical schools in Germany, and in the “ordinary language” philosophy in England. Its most prominent figures are Heidegger, whose putrid prose and National Socialist politics left a foul odor on the enterprise, and Wittgenstein, who made his name through a cold formalism he subsequently abandoned for the enchantment of language.

These thinkers were not so much metaphysical or anti-metaphysical as mystical. Their critics would agree, for positivists, Hegelians, rationalists and empiricists alike can think of no higher insult to a thinker than the accusation of mysticism.

But mysticism is not here meant as an insult, but as an appreciation for ineradicable mystery. Heidegger’s forgetting of Being can be seen as the inevitable result of attempting such an eradication. In seeking to remove all mystery, we simply fence our attention into specific areas and soon forget that a whole world exists beyond them. As Wittgenstein put it:

It is as if someone were to say: “A game consists in moving objects about on a surface according to certain rules…”—and we replied: You seem to be thinking of board games, but there are others. You can make your definition correct by expressly restricting it to those games.

A serious commitment to truth accepts that unconcealing some aspect of it necessarily involves some other aspect falling back behind the veil. Total unconceilment, Hegel’s great promise, is not available to frail, finite beings such as ourselves.

And yet there is wisdom, there is truth—even moral truth—immanent in life. It is not really grasped through theory, though theory does play a partial but important role in the life of such truths. These truths are best approached cautiously, sketching them out as living phenomena rather than attempting to reduce them to some formula.

Poetry and storytelling are beyond compare as methods for approaching these truths. It is precisely their indirect, figurative, and suggestive nature that leaves them open to vastly more than direct examination allows. More than even poets and storytellers are capable of realizing they have captured.

I don’t think anyone has any trouble seeing and feeling this when they aren’t taking the stance of philosopher or scientist. As children, stories seem to have a simple meaning. As we age, we notice meanings in familiar stories that we had missed the first time. The danger is to suppose we have finally grasped all of the meanings, or that we are capable of doing so. True adulthood requires an acceptance of the multitudes forever beyond our reach. This acceptance must be paired with a faith that such multitudes exist at all.

Metaphysics, and even anti-metaphysics, has its place. But living in the world requires a deep seated belief in its enchantment. In practice, we are all mystics.

Melting Away

Insofar as Reformation theology relies on this principle in interpreting Scripture, it remains bound to a postulate that is itself based on a dogma, namely that the Bible is itself a unity.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method

I have recently begun to read Jacobin Magazine, as a scout might enter the boundaries of an enemy encampment. A few days ago they posted a review of Marx’s Inferno, a book I had seen mentioned in my web community a few times. The central conceit of the book, apparently, is that Marx used the basic structure of Dante’s Inferno in the way he unfolded his arguments in the first volume of Capital.

The critic is charmed by this analysis, and thinks it’s pretty compelling, but believes the author makes a fundamental mistake:

My most serious objection is that Roberts isolates Volume 1 of Capital as a standalone text and seeks to interpret it by ignoring its relation to Marx’s other works. He does so on the shallow but convenient grounds that these other works were not prepared for publication and therefore not definitive. I suspect that the isolation of Volume 1 rests on the fact that the Inferno analogy simply doesn’t work with the content of the other two volumes of Capital.

The author responds:

[I]t is strange to say that you miss the point of Volume One if you read it on its own. Marx did, after all, publish Volume One, on its own. In fact, he did so three times – twice in German and once in French! He was preparing to publish it again – on its own – when he died. And he approved a Russian translation of Volume One – on its own – in 1872. Whatever aspiration he had for Volumes Two and Three, he clearly thought that Volume One could be read and understood “as a standalone treatise.”

He locates their difference of interpretation in their model of Marx. The critic views Marx as an “explainer” who is distilling his findings to a broader audience.

My Marx, by contrast, is an arguer. He doesn’t have a fully-worked out theory in his back pocket. Instead, he is oriented by a set of disagreements with the classical political economists, and with his fellow socialists, and is working out, in Capital, as full-fledged a response to those disagreements as he can. The literary form of his intervention is not a costume he dresses his theory up in; it is the form of the theory itself. His audience knows very well what he is talking about, because he is not descending upon them from the mountaintop, but responding to on-going arguments and controversies within the socialist and workers’ movements. The metaphorics of Marx’s text – the vampires and werewolves, Lazarus and Moses and the prophets, machine-gods and automata – are commonplaces. They show up again and again in socialist tracts from both sides of the Channel. What is unique to Marx is the use to which these commonplaces are put, and the elaborate interconnections among them.

One of the crucial questions in phenomenology and hermeneutics is what the relevant horizon of meaning is, within which some specific text is given its sense. The critic argues that Marx’s entire body of work, published and unpublished, trumps any one work standing on its own. The author, by contrast, argues that the public field into which volume 1 was published provides the most appropriate context.

“Horizon” refers to boundaries, but like the horizons of vision they do not bound all that could be seen. Marx’s other works are connected to yet others; ones that are directly mentioned in the texts as well as ones that were influential but did not get mentioned. And those texts, of course, were influenced by yet others, many of which Marx never read himself. And out and out.

The same holds for the disagreements and controversies he was responding to. If you had asked Marx to set out and draw a circle around the participants in these scholarly and political conversations, he could not have. He may have drawn it around the people he himself had read, or at some arbitrary point beyond them. But any participant would form a link to others, who formed links to others, going back to before any of the current participants were alive. If you look too hard, the “conversation” disappears into history itself.

The speech act theorist J. L. Austin described how the words “I now pronounce you husband and wife” have, beyond their locutionary effect or semantic meaning, a perlocutionary effect; they are “doing something” rather than just “saying something.” They are effecting a change in status, from single to married, with all that entails within the specific speech act community. But it can go wrong—what if it turns out the officiant was lying about being licensed? Or if the couple never filed for a wedding license? In order to know whether the speech act took effect, “it is important to take the speech-situation as a whole.”

But how can we do this? What is the whole speech-situation? Jacques Derrida replied that because context is boundless, we cannot possibly know enough of it to determine if we have learned all of the relevant context. The speech-situation is too large, the relevant details too hidden behind the horde of irrelevant ones. If you stare at the speech-situation too long, it too melts away, deconstructed without mercy.

What are we to do? If we need the whole to interpret the part, and the whole is either infinite or in any case too large for human comprehension, then can we interpret anything?

We can, but in doing so we are walking on air. Like Marx we do not have a “fully-worked out” framework in our “back pocket.” Nor is our horizon of meaning made up solely of the specific texts we have read and conversations we have had. The authors of the texts we have read, the interlocutors in the conversations we have had, and we ourselves, have what Gadamer referred to as “historically-effected consciousness.”

We bring our prejudices to the texts we read and the conversations we have. These prejudices are shaped most directly by “our place within a historical series of persons” with whom we have already interacted. But these people are, as mentioned, influenced in turn, and under scrutiny the influence ultimately melts into the many currents of history. The currents are fluid, but we, with our prejudices in this moment, are concrete. We take concrete actions, come to concrete understandings and establish concrete relations. We engage in concrete practices that form the basis of concrete communities.

Or so it feels to us, and so it must for us to carry on. We’re aware that there are peripheries to these communities, we may even be aware how vague and porous they are. But many imagine they could find reasonable boundaries, if they had the time and inclination to perform a systematic study of the matter. They are wrong, but that hardly matters. They recognize the game, they recognize and are recognized by the players, and that is enough—enough for books to be written and read and understood, enough for men and women to marry, “putting to rest all anxieties with respect to legitimacy, and ushering in new anxieties.” Enough to be active in the community of scholars, of gamers, of young mothers in the neighborhood.

Except for when people do attempt a systematic study. Our understanding of social space is implicit, similar to our understanding of how to navigate a familiar neighborhood without a map. But unlike physical geography, attempts to map our implicit social space influence the very thing under study. And so those theorists who approach the study of community with the prejudice that there is an essential, rational meaning of the word, and that each community is discrete and can be mapped, may end up doing a lot of damage along the way. That, in any case, is the story of the 20th century’s great tragedies, perpetuated by men who imagined themselves to be social engineers and scientists.

When you approach the question of community as an engineer or scientist, the experience of community melts away entirely. Cold, logical axioms are all that remain, taking the place of authentic understanding.

It’s Academic

Recognition is performed. Its meaning is determined by the context of the performance. This gives it an elusive quality, difficult to generalize out of particular settings.

Consider the academic department. Wallace Stanley Sayre famously said that “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” As a student in an MA program in economics, I had a very small window into it. Mostly through the gossip of the PhD students, for whom it was a practical concern. It amazed me how a few dozen people could organize into so many factions.

The games that were played were largely determined by larger communities than the particular department—academia and the field of economics. You published papers and you taught students, some of whom you took under your wing. My school was a bit unusual in the degree to which blogging and writing books for popular audiences were recognized as legitimate work, rather than sideshows. A popular book that made a big splash could elevate a professor’s status in the department, which I have been led to believe is not the norm.

A lot of the moves that professors made in these games were characteristic of the department rather than the larger communities. Ronald Coase, F. A. Hayek, and Gordon Tullock were recognized as authorities whose work could lend strength to your argument, for example. But a lot of moves were recognizable signs that you belonged to a specific faction.

One of the factions was extremely tightly knit compared to the rest. Their canonical texts were more uniformly selected, their shared scholarly language distinct. They rotated around a single central Sun, who had a handful of former students within the department in the closest orbit. An alumni who was not of this particular faction joked that to gain the career benefits from it, you had to burn their brand onto your forehead. The members went out of their way to make themselves recognizable, not only as members of the department but members of their faction first and foremost.

Repeated failure to recognize the moves, or even the games, that someone is playing, will eventually lead to lack of recognition of membership in the community. Tenure complicates that equation. One tenured professor was playing games so clearly different from his colleagues that he was out in the wilderness, as far as the community was concerned. He did not participate in their games and they did not participate in his. Nevertheless, all recognized his claims to a salary and an office, as well as his responsibility to teach classes.

Context is key. The department is a particular community, but so is the field of economics, as well as the vocation of university professor. Economics professors in different factions or employed at different universities would recognize one another as fellow travelers at a wedding where neither knew any of the guests. An economics professor and an English professor would probably find something to commiserate about in that situation as well.

In the specific setting of a given department, economists who seem quite close together from an outsider’s perspective may refuse to recognize one another as fellows. You’re one of them, the ones taking the department down the wrong path. At the wedding, the same person is someone who can talk about something actually interesting, and they are recognized as such.

I originally approached the question of recognition to get at a different question: just what is a community? My tentative reply was: a community is a group of people who recognize one another as players in a set of games which they also recognize, and are capable of recognizing the potential moves in those games.

Recognition and community exist, then, in a hermeneutic circle: community cannot exist without recognition, but recognition lacks sense without the context provided by community. Whether you’re in the department with one group of people, or at a wedding with another, bounds what you’re capable of recognizing and gives meaning to the recognition you do, in fact, perform.

Recognition is performed in communities which are created by recognition.