On Empathy and Others

1 December 2010

I’m going to being by restating J—dV’s thesis: Western rationality insists on an absolute correlation between the understanding of propositions and the acceptance of resultant conclusions, “It is necessary to accept conclusions having consented to their formative propositions.” This has implicit structural corollaries, that it is impossible to dispute a conclusion having accepted the propositions, that it is impossible to refuse the terms of the proposition while accepting the conclusion (not formally, but if we are talking about any meaningful content then something more than formal truth-preserving functions are necessary. If I disagree with your proposition and agree to its conclusion, I am agreeing to something synonymous, not identical.), and finally that a failure to accept a conclusion necessitates failure to accept the premises. What J—dV is seeking is a form where we can accept the premises and their coherence with the conclusions without being bound to the conclusions, or later in his post, a modified version where, via another, we de-couple statements from agreement or disagreement at all. J—dV rejects two further “escapes”, one we can broadly call the subjective, what he calls, the “contextual” outlet where truth value is relativized, making “coexistence … possible” but “dialogue … elusive” and the other which diminishes the importance of claims, setting them outside “the rational” and turning them into merely “opinions” or opinion-like trifles. A final option, “Empathy” is proposed where we experience the argument and conclusion of another so that when we return to ourselves, we grant it an autonomy, both as valid yet different from our own, and more deeply, the discourse is allowed to exist without our needing to have any opinion on it whatsoever, a sort of micro-secularism.

I’ll begin by saying that I think this last point is absolutely correct and one that I think should be broadly developed. Much of the danger residing in subjectivating practice is the metastases of the “Ethical”, where all actions and thoughts require a constant pruning. The technologies of the self both refine the substance and perpetuate the strain. However, I am going to disagree with J—dV’s argument on four points. First, there doesn’t seem to be a clear notion of “understanding” here. At points it indicates acceptance of terms or premises, at others, simultaneity of worlds, while avoiding the deep Spinozan sense that might have real implications here. Second, “agreement” and “disagreement” as terms don’t ever release us from “truth-value”; these terms psychologize or subjectivize the quality referred to in truth-value.  It is impossible to preserve them as terms outside of a truth-value criterion. It might be possible that different truth-value criteria are advanced, a realist perspectivism for instance, where we are all accessing a shared really existing reality but from excluded points of view, but I think the terms as they’re presented here can’t be coherently reconciled with non-truth-value criterion. Following this, my third objection; twice he opposes terms that are the same sense at different intensities; “contextualization” is merely the practice of “rationalities”, where we still have truth-criteria like coherence or fidelity, and “empathy” is without truth-criteria in the same way mere opinions are; we are still beyond disagreement. Further, in order to genuinely empathize with an “argument”, I have to take onto myself the frame by which it is produced, if only to look through it, and again we are back to a truth-criterion of coherence or fidelity to the frame; that is, one can’t empathize with a position that is self-undermining (whether any position can be self-undermining is a different question; I tend to think that this is only a misunderstanding of the frame in which it is occurring, by either disputant). At this point, what seem like four different options, a universal logical truth criterion, multiple local logical truth criteria, a non-truth criterion of “respect” and a non-truth criterion of “empathy” are reduced to a weaker version of the first, disputed, premise: a coherence between the ground of the proposition and the conclusion.

However, none of these problems are really my issue here. What really seems striking about this problem is that it isn’t a problem at all. It’s one of those classic moments where Heidegger’s phenomenology and Wittgenstein’s deflationary analysis of philosophical problems align; the problem isn’t how will it be possible for us to a) argue and b) understand, but that the premises we are using fail to explain something that happens all the time. Our question should be instead: What is happening when you say something that I don’t disagree with, elaborate a relation that I don’t disagree with, and come to a conclusion that I disagree with?

Let me not simply critique but instead put out a more positive thesis: Something like a faculty of “judgement” is occurring. Suppose we agree that music exists on a spectrum of quality. Suppose we agree even on the poles of this spectrum. Where a particular piece of music falls on this spectrum for each party isn’t going to be the result of the application of these notions, but our composition as a location in the shared “world” of disputants that makes us intelligible to each other. “Judgement” here is the application of one’s composition to these terms, which have enough intersubjective meaning that allows us to speak, while still remaining limited. Perhaps even so limited that they are, as in Pascal’s critique of skepticism, that we can only assume from agreement that your terms have a relation that is the same as the relation between my terms while saying nothing about the terms themselves. In disagreement, we can say even less, that the formal relations aren’t necessarily aligned, though they could be if the disagreement is in the further remove of the relation of the relation of the relation. Our ability to “understand” and “disagree” is a recognition of the infinite recursion at work, that is, it will always be too unclear whether or not we actually agree on a “logical” relation because the discontinuity of the “world” is self-evident. This premise is obviously limited to practices with a similar position on the impossibility of self-undermining statements that I mentioned earlier.

We might further unfold this practice by insisting that the question as originally posed suffers from limiting the terms. I don’t respond to propositions but to fields. I’ll take a personal example. Suppose we accept the premise that without a master signifier, there exists no way to ground our moral judgements, and that there exists no master signifier. The obvious conclusion is to suggest that there is no ground to moral judgements. However, suppose this conclusion has all sorts of effects that we would be opposed to, the stupid claim that we wouldn’t be able to distinguish between good and bad actions is one, but a better example would be the loss of impetus to engage in actions one considers “good”. If social justice is merely a local frame, maybe I skip that protest or don’t work at the Food Not Bombs kitchen. Foucault’s description of the spirituality of the Iranian Revolution is crucial here; how do I commit myself to a struggle where I will be sacrificed without a master signifier, and how do I smash the state without such a commitment? Instead of accepting the obvious conclusion, I can escape western rationality with the absurd, insisting on a master signifier, concocting mystical or obscurationist or noumenal access arguments for its existence, and believe up myself a god. (That this would merely be self-deception again limits the terms too narrowly by ignoring the will’s propulsive need for this idea.) I elaborated this too much perhaps, but the point I’m trying to demonstrate here is that our affinities for or against an argument aren’t limited to the propositions of that argument, or even to its conclusions, it’s to the fractured “world” which is discontinuous while constantly circulating references and values in a non-rational way.

This last thesis is far too expansive to be anything other than a sketch here, but I think it’s getting closer to this phenomena; that we agree or disagree on meaningful statements isn’t limited to the formal aspects of the proposition, nor to the content that we put into this form, but is instead an affinity between ourselves as composites, the world as composite, and the composite of the terms in their infinite mutual relations with both of these.