Dr Paul Viminitz is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Lethbridge.
No one can accuse me of being fair. But were I to be, then yes, every discipline has its own vocabulary, its own syntax, its own rules of inference … Words, phrases, sentences, they all take their meaning from the discourse in which they’re embedded. So there’s no need to remind us Analytics that the word ‘valid’ doesn’t mean on the street what it means in a logic class. And the same can be said of every un-discipline. I have no idea what role ‘authenticity’ or ‘unconcealment’ play in Continental-Speak, but I’m sure they play a role, and an important one at that.
But while we’re in this charitable mood, surely the same can be said of patter. Patter? Yes, like greeting rituals. “How do you do?” isn’t asking a question. Words of consolation. “My heart goes out to …” It’s a wonder it ever stays home. And so, to be fair, it’s likewise with Woke-Talk.
Words, phrases, whole sentences in Woke-Talk, don’t mean what they would in English. One has to guess their meaning from what we can induce Wokeism is all about. Or at least was all about. What it was all about, as near as I can tell, was encouraging a sensitivity to the plight of the subaltern. What it’s become – and the fault for this lies entirely, as we’ll see, with ‘reductionists’ like me – is a decidedly anti-intellectual movement that has long since abandoned any real subaltern, and has instead taken up the cause of the subaltern claimant. So, for example, you’re entitled to compensation just in case you feel you’ve been hard done by, since – and it’s hard to argue with this – in many cases what it is to be hard done by just is to feel hard done by.
But that’s not what this blog entry is about. It’s about Woke vocabulary. And more particularly the phrase “That’s just reductionistic!”, spoken in pretty much the same tone as “That’s just racist!” Apparently being a reductionist is tantamount to – no, change that to is synonymous with – being a fascist. I say synonymous because as near as I can tell, both simply mean vile. Vile as in villainous. Vile as in to be reviled.
In what way is a reductionist vile?
In the same way a fascist is vile.
And what way is that?
And that’s where the conversation gets derailed. To make a case against fascism or racism or reductionism one has to define what she means. But the moment she tries to do that her case dies the death of a thousand qualifications. This is because to call someone a fascist, or a racist, or a reductionist, is a move in (what Ludwig Wittgenstein called) a language-game. It’s played as a trump card against any further discussion. But the moment your interlocutor wants to know what the word means, he’s not playing your game. He’s exited that game and proposed another. One you haven’t the faintest idea how to play.
But I do.
To ‘reduce’ has a hundred meanings in our everyday discourse. But when it’s used in reference to ideas, there are really only two. It can refer to
1. moving from one locution-set to another
What’s a locution-set? It’s a set of words that co-refer for their meaning. Right, just, fair, and so on, are all members of the same locution-set. So, for example, if I don’t know what fairness is, you might try to explain it to me in terms of justice. But explaining one member of a locution-set in terms of another member of that set is not what we mean by reduction. What we mean by reduction is explaining a term by exiting the locution-set in which it’s embedded.
For example, some philosophers, myself included, believe that morality is, in this sense, reducible to intra-mental responses to patterns of otherwise dilemmatic mixed-motive interactivity, typically (but not exclusively) prisoners dilemma or chicken. Huh?!
Never mind, at least not here. Here suffice it to know that intra-mental responses to patterns of otherwise dilemmatic mixed-motive interactivity is not a member of the locution-set of which right and just and fair are members. What’s the purpose of this kind of reduction? To render something we don’t understand to something which, presumably, we do.
Accordingly, you might think that this reduction of moral categories to game theoretic ones (as above) is the worst possible example. Why? Well, because you might think that
- moral categories, like the difference between right and wrong, just and unjust, fair and unfair, and so on, aren’t mysterious at all! Or even if they were, they’re certainly not as mysterious as intra-mental responses to patterns of otherwise dilemmatic mixed-motive interactivity, whatever that could mean! Or, taking a page from your theological commitments, you might think that
- the concept of right, not unlike that of God, does the work it does for us precisely because it (or He) remains mysterious. Or you might think that
- even if a reduction of morality is desirable, the one just put on offer is false. Or you might think
- the reduction on offer is true but unhelpful. Or you might think
- it’s not as helpful as it is dangerous.
Let’s look at each objection in turn.
As for (1), when someone tells you homosexuality is wrong, don’t ask her why. Ask her instead what she means by wrong. To either question her answer will die the death of a thousand qualifications. But the second question will put the kibosh not only her not-yet-for-prime-time views on homosexuality, but also her not-yet-for-prime-time views on abortion, euthanasia, pedophilia … In short, the entirety of her moral world view. So if we don’t insist she reduce her concept of right and wrong to something we both understand, moral discourse becomes impossible. And if moral discourse is impossible, no means of resolving our difference remains to us save appeal to heaven.
As for (2), it’s certainly true – I’m talking to the men here – that if you think about what you’re doing when you’re having sex, you’re going to lose your erection. So yes, there are things that perform their function if but only if we don’t think about that function. And maybe you think moral judgments fall into that sortal.
But you’d be wrong. You’d be wrong because form follows function. If we don’t think about the function we want our moral judgments to play in our lives, we’re as likely as not to end up with judgments that are deformed. Your visceral response to homosexuality, if you happen to so respond, is one thing. Your turning that response into the judgment that homosexuality is wrong is something else entirely. The one is, for you at least, a given. Fine. But the other is an inference. If you treat a given as an inference, but I can’t follow your logic, you leave us no means of resolving our differences save appeal to heaven.
As for (3), in his Principia Ethica, G.E. Moore famously offered (what many take to be) a knockdown argument – it’s come to be known as the Open Question Argument – not just against this reduction of right and wrong or that one, but that no such reduction is possible. Moore’s argument was this:
Let’s suppose, as did John Stuart Mill, that right simply means that which maximises utility. Then the question, “But is it right to maximise utility?” would be a closed one. It would make no sense. But it does. That is, “Is it right to maximise utility?” remains an open question. So right cannot mean maximising utility.
Kant thought that right means to act only on such maxims you could will to be a universal law. But one can meaningfully ask, “But is it right to act only such maxims you could will to be a universal law?” The answer might be yes. According to Kant it is. But that it’s nevertheless an open question means that right can’t mean “to act only on such maxims you could will to be a universal law.”
And the same, claimed Moore, will hold for any such attempt at reduction. And so, he concluded, right must therefore be an unanalysable primitive. If you don’t know what the word means, then sorry, I can’t explain it to you.
Are there unanalysable primitives in our web of beliefs? Of course there are. Were there not explanation could never come to an end. But it doesn’t follow that ‘right’ has to be one of them. In fact game theoretic reductionists believe that we don’t hit explanatory bedrock until we reach the concept of preference. That particular reduction may be wrongheaded. In fact most ethicists think it is. But if so, it doesn’t follow, pace Moore, that no reduction could be true.
As for (4), let’s suppose – as I think is very likely the case – that “Darling I love you!” is reducible to an nth-ordered manoeuvre in the elicitation of this young female’s reproductive cooperation. Not only is this reduction counterproductive when shared with the object of his affection, it’s also probably counterproductive, as we’ve already seen, were he to consciously entertain it. So being as-it-happens-true is always a contingent virtue of an explanatory hypothesis, just as it is of any belief. What recommends a belief to us – in this case a reduction – is what that belief does for us. So one could argue – and many do – that the reduction of moral categories to game theoretic ones, though it dissolves the meta-ethical mystery, it does us little if any favours, and if applied indiscriminately it may do us a serious disservice.
And, finally (5), there are certain reductions, though true beyond any doubt, that ought not to be performed, because, given the context of dissemination, they’re likely, however irrationally, to incite acts of violence we can all do without.
For example, none one of us would be here were it not for rape. Does this normalise rape? Of course it does. Does normalising it trivialise it? Probably. But does trivialising it encourage it? Of course not. But among people not trained in more careful thinking, it does. And so, notwithstanding we’re all the product of rape is virtually a truism self-evident to anyone on a moment’s reflection, it’s a truth not to be spoken.
Was slavery introduced to North America in 1619? No, it had been ubiquitous from the Atlantic to the Pacific for millennia. Blacks owned blacks, not only in Africa but in America as well. Indigenous Americans bought black slaves to work their cottons fields for them when they were driven from the South to eastern Oklahoma. Does reporting on this ubiquity encourage a return to slavery? Of course not. But does it blunt the outrage over white supremacy? Probably not. But will it be taken to do so? Without a doubt.
Statutory rape is not a kind of rape. A trans woman is not a kind of woman. Criticism of the State of Israel is not anti-Semitism. And so on. In public discourse, it’s not what’s said, it’s what’s heard. And what’s heard need bear no relation to what’s said.
What does all this tell us? That reduction is often a political act. As is the resistance to such a reduction. The reductionist and the anti-reductionist each accuse each other of having an agenda, because, well, they do.
“Why would you wear a T-shirt reading All Lives Matter? You know it means black lives don’t.”
“I know nothing of the sort. And neither do you!”
“Why would you normalise genocide and colonialism and slavery were you not trying to trivialise the Holocaust and the plight of Indigenous and black Americans?”
“Because people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones!”
And so it goes, well into the next day, and the next, and the next …
As a philosopher I’d like to be responsible for what I’ve said, not for what you’ve heard. I’d also like a world free of haggis and goulash. “Well,” says the anti-reductionist, not unlike the Scot and the Magyar, “Suck it up, princess!”
2. insisting that claims include their inferences
The second Woke line of objection to ‘reductionism’ in argumentation is typified as follows:
“Black lives matter!”
Too quick! “Black lives matter!” is not a well-formed-formula in English. It’s not a well-formed-formula in English because mattering is a two-place predicate. It requires a to-whom. To whom do black lives matter? And do African black lives matter any more to American blacks than they do to American whites? Arguably not. So why should black lives matter to me any more than most lives matter to me, or to you, which, let’s face it, isn’t a whole lot?
Pushing like this on claims like “Black lives matter!” doesn’t just make the Woke befuddled. It makes them livid. It makes them livid because it calls them out on the vacuity of their most heart-felt convictions.
“We need to have diversity in the professoriate.”
Good ol’ boys?
“Well no, not them.”
So by ‘inclusion’ you mean exclusion?
“Now you’re just being racist!”
3. and so …
This is why I say Wokeism is an anti-intellectual movement. It can’t abide careful thinking because it can’t meet the demand for it. In this sense reductionism is to Wokeism what Johnny asking the obvious question is to the Sunday school teacher. This is not to say that Wokeism’s substantive conclusions about social justice need be false, any more than kindergarten Christianity need be false. Moreover, one can object to any given reduction by appeal to one or more of (1) through (5) above. That is, maybe it’s false that the unexamined life is not worth living. If it’s true of our sex lives, maybe it’s true of “Black lives matter!”