On Description, Or Beyond the Linguistic Turn and Philosophies of Certainty: A Networkological, Relational Approach
[Note: This is the final part of a series of posts. I’ve included the full version, including the previous posts and the last installment, below]
Nethworkological relationalism is ultimately a type of descriptive philosophy. And so, I wanted to see where this term descriptive philosophy could go. The essay below addresses issues at stake in the distinctions between objectivity and relativism, and how this shows up in contemporary philosophy. Many debates in contemporary philosophy, such as those between so-called “analytic” and “continental” philosophy, can I think be recast by what is addressed below, in ways which I think can indicate potential pathways forward for philosophy by means of a relational approach to these issues.
Apodictic versus Descriptive Philosophies
What follows is a brief thought experiment. It aims to address three trends in contemporary philosophy, and the way in which philosophy has worked to get around the mid-century foundations crisis which goes by many names, but usually deconstruction, the linguistic turn, etc.
Let us start off with that of which perhaps all philosophy is actually composed, namely, a potentially useful simplification. In a manner which is admittedly crude, let us distinguish, provisionally and in the mode of experiment, between two ways of doing philosophy.
Let us say that apodictic philosophies are those which propose that that we can say something about the world about which we can be certain. Those who put forth this type of philosophy believe that even if they aren’t certain about things, that some philosophy, or even some statements, can be believed with certainty. These philosophers often use terms like ‘proof’, ‘proven,’ and ‘truth,’ and when these notions are attacked, argue that there may be human error, or perhaps we haven’t gotten there yet, but that somewhere, somehow, notions like truth, certainty, proof, etc., are possible.
Those who believe in apodictic philosophy are different from those who believe in what we can call descriptive philosophies. Descriptive philosophers believe that there are many possible descriptions of the world, and some are better or worse than others, often depending upon notions like context, or use, but that there are no philosophies that are inherently correct or true. Those who say they have proven something are simply using a type of description of the world that makes use of terms such as ‘certainty’ or ‘truth,’ but these terms are less useful than those which are more flexible, specific to context, etc.
Each of these two major outlooks applies not only to academic philosophizing, but also practical philosophizing. They impact things like the way scientific inquiry frames itself, political campaigns sell themselves, and people use ethical or moral systems to justify actions or weigh various options possibilties for action.
Each of these philosophies are, in their own way, not fully honest. Apodictic philosophies are always plagued by infinite regresses. You can only prove something by means of premises, yet how do you prove the premises? If we base our philosophy on the data of our senses, on what can we base our assurance in the reliability of our senses? Each shift to a meta-perspective of this sort shows the incompleteness of that which had provided certainty or proof, the need for a constant expansion of the context. We can call this theobjection of incompleteness.
Descriptive philosophy is haunted not by incompleteness, but incoherence. How is it possible for there to be no fully correct way of looking at the world, yet some which are more correct than others? No capital ‘T’ truths, but many little ‘t’ truths, some of which are better than others? A double-standard creeps in through the back door. In place of absolute standards of reference and binary categorizations (ie: proven or disproven), there are many little standards of reference, each of which is full of micro-distinctions (ie: more true or less true). We can call this the objection of incoherence.
The terms incoherence and incompleteness are drawn from Kurt Gödel, and his famous deconstruction, around the time of WWII, of David Hilbert and Bertrand Russel’s dream of an apodictic mathematics. Gödel used the formal language of mathematics to show that you can take two major approaches to the question of certainty. You can opt for incoherence or incompleteness, and the choice is yours.
For those who choose incompleteness, many choose to just limit themselves, and say things like ‘we haven’t gotten there yet’, or ‘that’s beyond the concerns of what we’re talking abouty right now’, or ‘let’s just look at what’s right in front of us’, or something like that. And when someone says, ‘yeah, but what about those other [fill in the blank here]’, they are told something like, ‘later’, or ‘you’re changing the subject’, or ‘that’s not the point.’
For those who opt for incoherence, they often say things like, ‘well, ok, it’s not perfect, but it works.’ When others object and say things like, ‘well yeah, but don’t you ever worry that this lack of precision will come back to haunt you,’ most who opt for incoherence say things like, ‘not too much, cause see, it works.’
Sly Apodictic versus Sly Descriptive Philosophies
There are, of course, more sly versions of both. Sly descriptive philosophy often says something like this: there’s no such thing as certainty, and that’s the thing we’re most certain of. As evidence for this relative certainty, the effects of modes of action based on apodictic philosophy are often cited. Apodictic philosophy leads to paranoia, foundational crises, deferred gratification for some unrealistic state that none have ever seen, etc. Apodicitic philosophy finds its predeccesor in monotheism. And since descriptive philosophy is inherently pluralist, it sees mono- anything as the criteria, in reverse, for justifying its philosophies.
So there is a form of apodicticity at the bottom of descriptive philosophies, namely, the certainty in the poorness of apodictic philosophies. This is the foundational incoherence at the foundation of descriptive philosophy. But from this flows, in reverse, a system of gradations. Philosophies that are apodictic are more wrong than others. But this is not the only standard of value, for each descriptive philosophy produces its own standard of value, which is the compliment, if in reverse, to that of apodicticity. There are many ways to be uncertain, just as there are many uncertain types of action. So, for example, in addition to being uncertain, do you want to be useful for world peace, or the production or art, or whatever other standard of value you choose? Such are the questions posed by sly descriptivism.
All of these standards of value, however, ultimately have the valuation of plurality in common to them. And as such, they are all variations on a theme, but variations nonetheless. And the surety which grounds them, ultimately, is that the value of plurality works better than that of certainty. Many values are better than one, plurality more than unity. Here we see the manner in which one of the predecessors of descriptivism is polytheism, or animism, or some other poly- oriented type of belief, in contrast to the mono- of apodicticism.
Sly apodictic philosophy, on the contrary, says that ultimately we can’t defeat the infinite regresses attendant to proof. But apodictic philosophy is justified by what it produces in the world. It’s useful. It produces a world of order, relative certainty, predictability, etc., despite the relative chaos of the rest of what exists. While the justification for these values (ie: order, stability, etc.) they are better than those espoused by descriptive philosophy, which is groundless relativism, which ultimately leads to chaos. Thus, sly apodictic philosophy is a descriptive philosophy, but a unique one, one which values one type of description over others, just as sly descriptive philosophy is a type of apodictic philosophy, but a pluralistic one, which values many types of description over others.
In this sense, we can say that sly apodictic philosophy is the truly descriptive one, if in reverse, just as sly descriptive philosophy is the truly apodictic one, if in reverse as well. And in many senses, all apodictic philosophy is sly, as is all descriptive, depending on how naïve a person or philosophy is, or how honest with themselves, and often each is simply a side of the other, for dishonesty works well, and naivete is hard to prove. Furthermore, people aren’t necessarily as consistent as philosophy papers in the ways they justify their practices, so most people engages in some combination, juxtaposition, or oscillation of strategies, and often only those who do things like write philosophy papers worry about the finer details of consistency. That said, most people tend to have one general strategy, and lean to one side or the other, apodictic or descriptive, whether sly or otherwise at a given moment. That said, there is another option.
Let us examine a little closer what we have just done in the preceding paragraphs, in the manner in which our discussion of apodictic and descriptive philosophy has produced a distinction, only to unravel it in the process of looking more carefully at its finer points.
What we have just done, in the preceding paragraphs, is to produce a distinction, namely, between apodictic and descriptive philosophy, and then deconstruct it. That is, we showed how it doesn’t actually work when you get down to it, that under close examination, the terms in question cease to make sense. We reduced the terms to incoherence by carefully examining that upon which they depend to make sense, and then compared the ramifications of these. And by deconstructing the terms, showing their incoherence, we then demonstrated that they are missing something, are incomplete, in their attempt to describe the world, and therefore we also managed to deconstruct the very distinction between incoherence and incompleteness. So we deconstructed the original terms under consideration, and then deconstructed the deconstruction itself. We are left with nothing to stand upon, even that which pulled the rug out from under us.
At the risk of gross generalization, ultimately and arguably the stuff of philosophy, this is what the philosophical movement popularly known as deconstruction argues, namely, that ultimately, symbolic systems, or discourses, whether philosophical or practical, will deconstruct. Legal, political, religious, philosophical, mathematical, and scientific discourses, all of these can be deconstructed.
And beyond deconstruction, as a proper and named philosophical movement, most discourses in the 20th century had some form of movement analogous to deconstruction. Math had its Gödel, physics its Heisenberg, modernism its postmodernism, and philosophy its various linguistic turns and deconstructive movements.
Deconstruction is ultimately an odd hybrid of both sly apodicticity and sly descriptivism. For if everything can be deconstructed, then we have proven, in negatively, in a sense, that all symbolic systems are incoherent and hence incomplete. Because if all are incoherent, none can prove their superiority over others.
But deconstruction has more faith in its ability to deconstruct other philosophies than in any other description. So deconstruction is apodictic in relation to itself, and descriptive in relation to all other philosophies, which are equally bad for they are as yet undeconstructed. And though deconstruction also deconstructs itself, if has more faith in this deconstruction than anything else, such that while it can lean to the apodictic and incomplete side by deconstructing other philosophies, or lean descriptive and incoherent side by deconstructing itself, ultimately each is the complement of the other. And as such, deconstruction itself is the final nail in the coffin of the apodictic and desctiptive distinction, for it proves, in its very existence, that such a distinction makes no sense, for it is both incoherent in its premises, yet also incomplete, for it leaves out the need for deconstruction, the third position which haunts both as possibility.
And yet, in its own way, deconstruction is its own philosophy, a third position, which now joins apodicticity and descriptivism as our two primary types of philosophy. So let us make some room, and say now that there are three primary types of philosophy, namely, apodicticism, descriptivism, and deconstruction.
Apodictic Deconstruction and Descriptive Deconstruction
Where does one go, however, after one has deconstructed the world and then deconstruction itself? How does one deal with the wake of deconstruction? It seems that most symbolic discourses in the 20th century went through a phase of deconstruction. And yet, the world has not vanished, practices have not ground to a halt, the world still goes about its business. There must be some way beyond deconstruction, even if only a very practical one. Of course, at least in theory, any practice can be theorized, the question is only one of why and how.
But before addressing the ways beyond deconstruction, it is worth discussing the ways in which many stay within the deconstructive moment. That is, some people in the world, often after starting out apodictics or descriptivists who then encounter deconstruction, relate the world deconstructively as deconstructionists. And so here we see that we need a third position, in addition to apodictic and descriptive, of deconstructive philosophy.
In some ways, deconstructive philosophies are similar to apodictic and descriptive ones, in that they are able to organize the way people relate to their practices and other views of the world. However, deconstructive philosophies also differ in crucial ways. One particular manifestation of this is that deconstruction comes in two primary flavors, namely, the apodictic and descriptive.
Let us call apodictic deconstruction the approach to the world which finds its only certainty in the fact that everything can be deconstructed. Apodictic deconstructionists find security and delight in the fact that they can take apart any and every other philosophy, and the repetition of this act serves to provide order for they need in the world.
In contrast, descriptive deconstruction argues that deconstruction is itself simply one other description of the world, one which itself deconstructs, and which is useful to deconstruct any apodictic system that comes along. Such deconstructionists often see their job as attackers of entrenched power. These deconstructionsists find security and delight in the fact that they can take apart any and every other philosophy, and the repetition of this act serves to provide the plurality they need in the world.
Finally, there is one additional type of deconstruction, one which is rarely seen, but certainly worth mentioning. These are deconstructionist deconstructionists. These are folks who see deconstruction as neither certain nor merely a truth amongst many, but truly a way out of the need for philosophy at all. These are those who leave philosophy and tend to their garden. This is the philosophy closest to Buddhism, one which many espouse, but few seem even able to attain. In fact, while I think such a philosophy is in theory possible, and possible to espouse, I’m not sure it exists as anything but as an unproveable description of a state which no-one has ever actually seen, except in those who are truly un-philosophical, who live in a world of pure practice with no snags or crises. Such an approach to the world simply writes itself out of the world, and in many senses, ceases to be philosophy, and as such, is barely different from no philosophy at all. And as such, there is not much more we can say about it, so let’s return to the matter at hand.
Tacit Apodictic and Descriptive Philosophies
Both apodictic and descriptive deconstruction remain within the deconstructive circle, and abandon traditional forms of apodictic and descriptive practice. Deconstruction becomes the primary philosophical life-mode of these folks, if in its descriptive and/or apodictic varieties, or even, mixtures and/or oscillations between these. These two forms of deconstruction mix more easily than apodictic and descriptive philosophies, for they have more in commo cn than apodictic and descriptive life-modes.
However, most people ultimately engage with their worlds via ad hoc mixtures and composites, oscillations, and various other admixtures from which our generalizations have been drawn. For while many people philosophize about what they do, that is, engage in meta-questioning about their practices, many do so only fleetingly, if at all, for practice only requires so much meta-practical thought for it to work, and for many, when something works, that is enough. Few folks, namely, philosophers, whether professional or practical, worry about things like consistency, since generally, this isn’t required in daily life.
But what should we call those who switch life modes and justificatory philosophies so swiftly and easily? Let us call these folks tacit descriptivists, those who simply ask ‘does it work?’, and if so, continue on without asking any more questions. These are opposed by the tacit apodictics, who in times of crisis ask ‘am I sure?’, and if so, continue on without asking any more questions. And for such folks, if all goes as planned, the fact is that one is sure that things work, and no more questions need to be asked, and that is that. Philosophy is only neeeded when we are less certain that things are working. And here we see the tacit similarity between tacit apodictics and tacit descriptivists, in a manner similar to that between our two types of deconstructionists. Only apodictics and descriptivists seem to worry so much about being different, and much of this is because ultimately they define themselves, at least partially, by means of theif differences from each other.
Most people start off in the world, in fact, as tacit philosophers, and only when hit with some crisis when they aren’t sure if things are working, do they then have to start philosophizing in an open way, and truly take sides as an apodictic or descriptive. And only when challenged by one of the standard critiques of these ways of life (ie: the objection of inconsitency or incoherence), do they become sly. And only when their slyness is deconstructed do they then have to choose to either become deconstructionist, in one of its two mildly distinct varieties, or attempt to find some way forward, a post-deconstive type of philosophy, to which we will now turn.
Post-Apodictic and Post-Descriptive Philosophy
What might the possibilities be for post-deconstructive philosophy? That is, how do we account for those who find a way to move on, as it seems our general culture has, after a deconstructive crisis, without becoming deconstructionist? And can we theorize this process?
Many people simply respond by shifting modes of defense, which is ultimately what these modes of meta-practical philosophies are, such that when their current mode of philosophy is challenged, they simply switch to another similar form temporarilly, and them shift back to the one they are most comfortable with. It’s only philosophers who worry about things like consistency. But as societies grow more complex, it is possible that some of them may need to be consistently philosophical. Certainly, it seems, when there is a general shift in cultures such as that seen in the postmodernism of contemporary global capitalism, it might be necessary for whole groups of people to have a consistent post-deconstructionist philosophy simply to live their everyday lives.
But what about those who decide to try to incorporate deconstruction into their philosophies? Is this possible? In fact, it is, sort of, and here, in a way, at least, we see the rebirth of apodicticism and descriptivism.
Let us call post-apodictic philosophy the type of apodicticism which uses the deconstruction of apodicticism as the foundation from which to build a new form of apodicticism. If sly apodictism defends apodictism against its traditional enemy (ie: incompleteness, or what about x, y, or z?), post-apodictism defends it against deconstruction (ie: every philosophy deconstructs). Post-apodictic philosophy goes something like this: “Yes, all philosophy deconstructs. But if we are clear about what we are claiming, and the limits thereof, then by adminiting our incompletion, we save ourselves from dreaded incoherence. And with limited applicability, we can do a lot of good work in the world this way. Because if we act, in limited circumstances, as if we could be certain, then things work pretty well. It’s almost as good as being certain. And in the process, we avoid the true danger, namely, a world in which there is no truth, and anything is possible.” Basically, what we see here is a variant of sly apodicticism, adapted for the critique posed by deconstruction.
Post-descriptive philosophy, however, goes something like this: “Yes, all philosophy deconstructs. But this just means that no desctription can be fully certain or uncertain of its truth. Many descriptions may prove highly useful, however, in particular situations. And what they are useful for, in addition to the individual values they all espouse, is the avoidance of apodicticism, and the paranoia it brings.” Essentially, what we have here is a variant of sly descriptivism, adapted to the critique posed by deconstruction.
It’s worth noting how in sly descriptivism, in its traditional and post-deconstructive variants, description itself is described as always necessarily incomplete. That is, any individual description is tentative, and hence, incomplete, in relation to the most encompassing description, namely, the relative certainty which grounds descriptivism as such. These two positions cannot be brought together at the risk of incoherence, but separately, they remain incomplete, and sly descriptivism in all its varieties continually oscillates or blends these in various ways. What is perhaps curious is that incompleteness is the usual objection posed against apodicticism, not descriptivism, such that it seems like some shift happened when things got sly/post, about which more will be said shortly.
But first let’s examine how likewise, in sly apodicticism, in both its traditional and post-deconstructive variants, the problem is reversed, such that it is not ultimately incomplete, that is, the traditional enemy of apodicticism, but rather, incoherent. For by making use of the argument that limited apodicticism can’t be proven, but that it works, the very defense of employed by apodicticism, whether against sly descriptivism or deconstruction, is ultimately descriptivist in nature. Thus it proves itself incoherent, for uses descriptivism in its own justification, even as descriptivism is that which it fights against. These two positions can be blended, or separated out and oscillated, in various ways.
What do we make of the fact, then, that post-apodictic and post-descriptivst philosophies, in the process of confronting deconstruction, turn into versions of apodicticism and descriptivism, if in reverse? For when sly apodicticism is confronted with its own incoherence, the result is usually a momentary retreat to a form of traditional descriptivism, namely, “does it work?”, and if so, a return to practice as normal as sly apodicticism. Likewise, when sly descriptivism is confronted with its own incompleteness, the result is usually a momentary retreat to a form of traditional apodictism, namely, “are we certain?”, namely, that certainty is dangerous, followed by a return to practice as normal as sly descriptivism.
Are these hybrids really that much different from the simpler forms of apodicticism and descriptivism described early on? In fact, it seems they are, for what makes them different is in fact the very consistency of the hybridity at work. That is, rather than inconsistency, the form of switching between positions is highly consistent. And as such, these forms of inconsistent consistency are truly philosophies, for they can be theorized and described as such.
But that’s not the end of the story, in fact, there’s more, namely, the issue of history.
It may be said that in what has preceded, we have in fact simply played the deconstructionist game, played with words, and not really moved beyond the linguistic turn, that it was all slight of hand. Now, of course it was slight of hand. But let us be clear about what we have just done.
Philosophy is the shift from practice to the meta-, the moment of reflexivity, it is the practice of raising the question of what we are doing in practice. Such a move always produces loss but also gain, loss of the immediacy of the original practice, but new perspective. The presuppositions, constitutive outsides of the practice are revealed by means of the creation of new ones, and in fact, the former and latter are in fact two sides of the same.
Deconstruction is the name of the destructive part of this gesture, just as description is the name of the constructive part. Destruction and creation, two sides of life. In between, there are moments of practice, moments in which there is no thought as to the meta, and these are moments of certainty, or at least, relative certainty. If this certainty is too strong, we have apodicticism and paranoia, while if this certainty is too weak, we deconstruct without reconstructing. Descriptivism is certainty in the process of description, that which allows for interplay between creation and destruction, description and deconstruction, by means and through a sly descriptivist application of apodicticity, if according to its own terms.
For whenever deconstruction destroys, we must not lose sight of the fact that it also produces. The deconstructive gesture operates by means of a shifting of the terrain, and this new terrain is produced only by means of the destruction of the old. Each deconstruction has its own presuppositions, and these do not merely lurk there, but are also created each time a deconstruction is performed. In this sense, deconstruction is a creative act, if one which often cloaks itself. Likewise, description is also destructive, if in a cloaked manner. Descriptivism is the process, however, which works to bring them together in a manner which works.
Language, which has been at the forefront of so many deconstructive assaults on the apodictic, is not the end all and be all of deconstruction, though as the medium in which philosophy is generally performed, it has a privileged relation to the meta- of philosophical practice. And language is little other than the creative destruction of an elsewhere. For the deitic gesture, the indicative of the pointing finger, “I am talking about that,” is itself as destructive as it is creative, for it destroys the finger to the extent it creates the “that” in question. So it is with any philosophy. Philosophy is the reflection on a practice. In reflecting, it turns the practice into an object for thought, destroys the immediacy, the surety of that practice, even as it creates the immediacy and surety in its own practice as philosophy.
We have simply shifted our terrain, and in the process, creatively destroyed our own foundations. We have used a slight of hand to shift the terms of the game. Philosophy has never benn anything but, nor self-reflection, nor language. We string words together in a sentence, each one partially obliterating the ones before it while creating new meanings for them in the process. We keep speaking to creatively destroy what we have already said. We change the terrain of our arguments to creatively destroy new ways of acting in the world.
So it should come as no surprise that in my own description of descriptivism, I kept changing terrain. At each jump, I creatively destroyed the last, showing the ways in which descriptivism could relate to a variety of contexts, how it unravelled in those contexts, and in relation to the creative unravelling of other terms like apodicticism and deconstruction. But I didn’t relate it explicitely to other terms, like dog or cabbage or mustard or steel. Descriptivism relates much better to apodicticism and deconstruction, to philosophy and reflexivity, than to salt or wood or stone. While I could’ve tied descriptivism to these more concrete terms, there is more distance, more labor is required, more stretching to do. And this distance between terms creates gradations, terrains, forces, attractions. Each deconstruction is like a topographical intervention, a leveling of a particular hill in a landscape, yet one which always gives rise to a hill somewhere else, for the terrain is simply the flip side, the moebius strip-like refraction, of the act of walking.
That is, the descriptions and unravellings are always specific, always situated, and the particulars of the situation provide traction, force, and movement. Each metaphor is related by gradation to some over others, wood is closer to tree than it is to stone or Immanuel Kant. Deconstruction is always local, and so is creation. One never ends up without something to stand on so long as one keeps speaking.
For in fact, I always choose to deconstruct a particular term over others in a given discursive situation. Those which I deconstruct provide space in a discourse which is always already being filled by others. The terrain moves under our feet. That which I do not deconstruct, namely, the words I use to do the deconstructing, provide the scaffolding for what remains, and the grounds for the next round of creative destruction.
Which is why the issue with deconstruction isn’t so much language, but rather, of faith. Deconstructionists are creators who have lost a degree of faith in the potential of the world to create itself anew, just as apodictics are those who are scared of the potential of the world to create itself anew. Descriptivists, on the contrary, keep saying yes to the creative powers of life, they have faith in description, enough to describe again, and then to describe again yet again. Having faith in description means not being overly attached to any, it means being ok with swimming in a constantly fluid domain.
Of course, life gives us little choice but to swim in such fluidity, life is fluid whether we like it or not. Deconstruction and apodicticity are means of defense against a game we must play whether we like it or not. And in this sense, deconstruction and apodicticity are always already forms of description, but they are in a sense less honest about what they do. For the apodictic constantly redescribes their justifications for what appear to be the same descriptions of the world, but underneath the appearance of stasis, all is actually continually having to modify itself in the effort to remain the same in changing circumstances. Likewise, deconstruction continually must deconstruct the new forms of description which come its way as the world changes.
We are all descriptivists, in this sense, anyway. And yet the apodictic and the deconstructionist waste so much time and energy, the first creating defenses against new creation, and the second destroying them the second it has created them.
Descriptivism, however, has its eye on sync. Sync with itself, with the world, and with its own self-redescription in its process. Sync conserves as much of creation as is possible, for it creates and destroys in the name of creation. And of course it can always already be destroyed from within. The question isn’t whether or not you can unravell it from within. The question is in how you play the game.
And game it is. Life, language, they are all a slight of hand, a continual pulling out of the rug beneath our own feet. This is time, change, becoming, saying, doing. But it’s all in how you play the game.
And how slowly. In the time between the saying and the unravelling, metaphor gives rise to the new via description. Metaphor, always nested, networked, into specific relations in a specific topography in a specific terrain. Which move do you make, and how fast or how slow, in a give region? Which way do you shift the gradients, which way do you push or pull yourself in given situation.