Monday, August 09, 2004

Hilary Putnam and the possibility of ethics

Foster: It is not my desire to defend [Hilary] Putnam (pictured left) tout court. In some ways I sympathize with his position, but we are clearly miles apart in other respects. What I don't under-stand is how Deweyan pragmatism is necessarily relativistic or necessarily amounts to de facto nihilism. In any event, I'll quote what Putnam says and the reader (i.e. you) can make up his own mind.

Blosser: Well, if you examine Dewey, I think the nihilist
handwriting is on the wall. He's trying to preserve a gentlemanly positivist self-composure, but his jacket is beginning to fray ...

Foster: Putnam defines "pragmatic pluralism" as "the recognition that it is no accident that in everyday language we employ many different kinds of discourses, discourses subject to different standards and possessing different sorts of aplications, with different logical and grammatical features--different 'language games' in Wittgenstein's sense--no accident because it is an illusion that there could be just one sort of language game which could be sufficient for the description of all reality" (Ethics without Ontology, pages 21-22).

Blosser: There's no problem here, as such. But his lack of "ontology" undermines his efforts to find any clear absolutes, it would seem to me.

Foster: Putnam does not understand ethics as a system of principles, "but rather as a system of interrelated concerns, concerns which I [i.e. Putnam] see as mutually supporting but also in practical tension" (ibid, page 22).

Blosser: Isn't this precisely the problem, though: "ethics" reduced to a tug of war (dressed up in the language of "adjudication between") conflicting interests and concerns. But what are the criteria, and the basis for discerning or establishing the criteria, for adjudication?

Foster: [Putnam] adds:
"In fact what I call 'ethics' is precisely the morality that Nietzsche deplored, and regarded as a weakness or even a sickness (which is not to accuse Nietzsche of thinking that an ethics of machismo and physical courage would today be anything but a ridiculous throwback)" (ibid, page 23).
Blosser: Here I would side with Nietzsche against Putnam in calling his "ethics" effeminate and sentimental.

Foster: Specific examples of "ethics" in Putnam's estimation are alleviating the suffering of others or sacrificing oneself for the survival of a community. Ideas which admittedly need to be unpacked. He also affirms that there is such an animal as objective truth without objects. Logical and mathematical data are given as examples of objective truths that have no transcendent or supersensible objects behind them (e.g. "If Jim sees Joe, the jig is up."). Yet, Putnam seemingly wants to avoid drifting into the sea of cultural relativism and evidently nihilism (ibid, pages 115, 121-129). He takes both Foucault and Derrida to task in his new book for their poststructuralist notions that have been highly influential in literary criticism and some philosophical circles.

Blosser: All "gentlemen" want to "avoid drifting into the sea of cultural relativism and ... nihilism." The question is: do they have a means of achieving this avoidance? It's all well and good to want to alleviate suffering and to sacrifice for the community, but one needs compelling incentives to impose any obligation to this effect, which, it seems to me, he would have a hard time providing without "principles" or "absolutes."