Thursday, March 10, 2005

A Sample of Continental Political Philosophy

Discussing the differences between analytic and Continental philosophy in general terms won’t take us very far. We need to look at examples. I concede, however, that this very move, namely, getting down to cases, is an analytic move. Or rather it is just good intellectual procedure. (Am I perhaps stacking the deck against our Continental brethren right out of the gate?) Slavoj Zizek (On Belief, Routledge 2001, pp. 115-116) writes:

How does freedom effectively function in liberal democracies themselves? Although Clinton’s presidency epitomizes the Third Way of today’s (ex-)Left succumbing to the Rightist ideological blackmail, his healthcare reform program would nonetheless amount to a kind of act, at least in today’s conditions, since it would have been based on the rejection of the hegemonic notions of the need to curtail Big State expenditure and administration – in a way, it would "do the impossible." No wonder, then, that it failed: its failure – perhaps the only significant, although negative, event of Clinton’s presidency – bears witness to the material force of the ideological notion of "free choice". . . . against this purely fictional reference to "free choice," all enumeration of "hard facts" (in Canada, healthcare is less expensive and more effective, with no less free choice, etc.) proved ineffective.

The above passage is the sort of stuff that many (not all) Continental philosophers produce. It fails to meet minimal intellectual standards.

There is first of all the resort to invective, e.g., "Rightist ideological blackmail." Philosophical writing should aim at rational persuasion, not any sort of persuasion.

Second, we note the use of verbiage that has no clear meaning such as "act"and "event" in italics.

Third, the author appears to contradict himself, but does nothing to dispel the appearance. Zizek tells us that "to curtail Big State expenditure and administration" is "hegemonic." I should think that the opposite is the case: reducing the size and scope of government is anti-hegemonic. And what is the function of Zizek’s "do the impossible"? Is he perhaps affirming the apparent contradiction as real?

The very fact that I must ask these questions shows that no clear sense can be attached to Zizek’s pronouncements. But that which has no clear sense cannot be evaluated as either true or false. Will someone say that it is not about truth or falsity? Then what, pray tell, is it about?

Fourth, the notion of free choice is labeled "ideological," "purely ficitional" as if by slapping these labels on it one has refuted it. Suppose I have the choice of either having Medicare take care of my health problem, or paying a private physician at the Mayo Clinic out of my own pocket. That’s not a free choice? The thing about about most Continental claptrap is that it collapses the minute one adduces a concrete example – which usually turns out to be a counterexample.

Fifth, there are also issues of self-reference that ought to be mentioned. If there is no truth, and all claims and counterclaims are ideological, then the claim Z that the notion of free choice is ideological is itself ideological. But if Z is ideological – nothing but an expression and legitimation of some existing power arrangement – then it can make no appeal to my reason and I am within my epistemic rights in rejecting it.

Sixth, the claim that Canadian health care is "less expensive and more effective, with no less free choice" is a mixture of factual and conceptual errors. One of the logico-conceptual errors is his invocation of free choice when a few lines back he branded the notion as "purely fictional." What our man is saying in effect is: There is no free choice but there is more of it in Canada.

There is also the conceptual mistake of thinking that something is less expensive simply because my present out-of-pocket expense is less while ignoring all the money the government took by force in the form of mandatory withholding over my working career. Is health care in Canada more effective than in the good old US of A? I’ll leave that factual question for the experts to decide. But first they have to attach a clear sense to it.

If you enjoyed the above takedown, see here for another and here for a third.

Crossposted at Right Reason, where some comments should be appearing. Max Goss is doing an excellent job of moderating, administering, and enforcing standards.