On Descriptive Philosophy, Or Beyond the Linguistic Turn, Final Part

[This is the final section of this essay. For the earlier two parts, please see here].


Apodicticism, descriptivism, and deconstructionism continually attempt to outflank and outargue each other. And when these philosophies fail to do so on the issue of any particular question, they inevitably widen the terrain of dispute. Recourse is often made to the various contexts in question. We see this already in our discussion of consistency.

When we bring up the question of consistency, we begin to invoke the question of memory, time, and history. That is, consistency is about the relation between a given theory and the past. Many apodictics, descriptivists, and deconstructionists attempt to refute each other by means of recourse to arguments which invoke time and history, and yet, each group stakes out fundamentally different relations with the question of time, history, memory, and the past.

According to the apodictic, we relate to the past in a manner which can be described as progressivist. That is, the apodictic believes that over time, we will discover ever more clearly what the past was really about, and in the process, gain a surer understanding of the meaning of the present, and hence, the potentials for our future. According to the descriptivist, we have a historicist relation to the past. From such a perspective, we continually redescribe the past, and in the process, shift the way we concieve of the present, and thereby chart out new paths for the future. For the deconstructionist, however, there is a timeless relation to the past, for history is that which continually unravells itself underneath us, since each narrative we produce about the past will ultimately deconstruct itself when it begins to attempt to reflect on the processes of its own production.

Because apodictics, descriptivists, and deconstructionists make recourse to time, history, memory, and the past in a manner which is fundamentally different, any attempt to justify one or the other by these means ultimately only ends up shifting the terrain, but does not solve anything. And yet, this does not seem to stop the continual production and reproduction of apodictic, descriptivist, and deconstructionist philosophies and philosophers.

And this has, in its way, always been the case, not only in the present, but also, in the past. For the present always sees itself mirrored in the past. History is in fact full of proto-apodictics, proto-descriptivists, and proto-deconstructionists. If we look at the Greco-Roman tradition, for example, we could say that Parmenides and Plato were proto-apodictics, Heraclitus a proto-descriptivist, and the Sophists, Xeno, and the later Skeptics proto-deconstructionists.

In this manner, we see how it is that any division of the world, such as that between these three types of general philosophies, will always be able to see its refractions in the past. The same thing happens even if we switch up the categories. For example, why not divide the world into traditionalist, modernist, and post-modernist worldviews, as many in the arts have suggested? Certainly once one chooses such a typology, the world refracts itself into the image proposed by these categories as well, if in differing degrees.

But to what end? Categories and meta-categories shift with the times, which leads us to question why it is we produce them. What are the deeper motives? Sociological, historical, personal, psychological, whatever set of reasons you will. Ultimately any typology not only finds itself mirrored in its contexts, but is itself a mirror thereof. And in the hall of mirrors, it’s easy to get lost.

So what can we do, then, with the question of contexts? To a descriptivist, all these contexts are inevitably intertwined with the production of any description, and the biases inherent in each cannot be avoided, and is in fact productive of each standpoint, and must in turn be  understood. This is the perspectivist approach to context. To an apodictic, all these potential contexts, each of which produces a bias in relation to the choice of a given framework for dealing with the world, it is regrettable, and we should seek to reduce the influence of all these contexts, a task which it is hoped will slowly be accomplished over time. For the choice of worldview should not be informed by our history, psychology, social biases, these are all distortions of our relation to the world, each warping our ability to make proper decisions, and with hard work, over time we can hopefully get rid of these. This is the eliminationist approach to context. To a deconstructionist, however, context is fundamental, essential, a stumbling block to any attempt to establish a foundation for action, and a hindrance to undermine any form of certainty. This is the aporetic approach to context.

As we see, the move to context and history have shifted the terrain and scope of the dispute, but not the issues involved. But we can begin to see our trio of apodictic, descriptivst, and deconstructionist play out in varying degrees in many cultures and across many periods of time. What’s more, we can begin to see a larger cycle, in which entire movements and even cultures cycle between general periods of apodicticism, descriptivism, and deconstructionism. A society begins to question that of which it had been certain, and moves from a tacit apodicticism to some form of descriptivism. Multiple new perspectives emerge, and then eventually either a new set of certainties takes hold, and hence a new apodicticism, or rather, a sort of skeptical exhaustion which leads to some form of deconstructionism, until some new paradigm emerges, and with it, a new form of apodicticism. History and cultures can in fact be seen as nested and intertwined cycles of these three forms, playing out in a constant motion of varying degrees of intensity and complexity.

Each style of thought then has a differing relation to this cycle. Apodictic philosohies in general see this cycle as something to be fought against in the name of deeper stability, deconstructive philosophies see this cycle as something to be accepted as part of what is, and either encouraged or discouraged depending on if you lean to one side or the other, and descriptive philosophies generally see this cycle as beneficial, as that which allows society to change and reinvent itself. We can call such positions historical apodicticm, historical deconstruction, and historical descriptivism, respectively.


And yet, can any of this help us choose which approach? Ultimately, it seems, the same trio of options: change, order, or stasis. How to decide?

Decisions, individual or cultural, are strange things, for it is difficult to tell if we make them, or they make us. Retroactively we come up with reasons and justifications, and in we always see the image of who we have become reflected back to us in our own pasts. And perhaps not surprisingly at this point, one’s approach to decision and temporality are largely determined by the choice of apodictic, descriptive, or deconstructive. Do we believe in freewill, as does the descriptivist, or destiny, with the apodictic, or deconstruct the difference?

And either way, is it ever really a choice, or something else entirely? A semi-choice which continually seems to choose us, even if we are continually always choosing it again anew. What a situation. We cannot choose, but have always already chosen in our continual choosing. Grammar fails us in the interstices between philosophies, times, decisions, identities, practices.

And where can we go for solutions? Epistemologically, we cannot be certain of any evidence for one approach over another. Ontologically, we cannot be sure any of our descriptions are actually the way things are. Ethically, all our values can be deconstructed, and have likely chosen us before we choose them, though we can’t be sure. And this is where a deconstructionist will often point to the aporetic nature of language, decision, history, and all the other terms described, call it all a game, and go home.

And yet, there are many of us who still believe in the world, want to do things in the world, and in fact, continue to do so, despite the deconstructionist, who, when it comes down to it, often leans apodictic or descriptivist, if on the sly. For the deconstructive deconstructionist probably hasn’t even bothered to get into these sorts of discussions, for they don’t produce anything anyway. Any desconstructionist still in the game leans one way or the other, its just a matter of how, where, and why.

And what’s more, we all know apodictics, descriptivists, and deconstructionists, and they haunt our histories and potentially even our futures, even if we can’t figure where, how, and why decisions happen in relations to them. How to make meaning of all this?


One possible attempt at a solution can be found in the analysis of what each philosophy produces. Judge them by their effects! This approach goes something like this: “Who cares what people believe: what matters is what they do. If believing something totally silly helps people not kill each other, or farm more crops, this can serve as a value to determine if a given view is better than any other.”

This position, however, is a form of sly descriptivism, for it believes that many different philosophies produce many different things, as opposed to apodicticism, which believes that there are many forms of chaos, but only one real form of stability. Once again we’ve shifted the terrain, but we simply come upon more of the same.

And yet, our sly descriptivist will say, might it not be possible that there are some situations which call for descriptivism, apodicticism, or deconstructivism? And that life works best when we can learn which situations are which, and when to apply which model? To which the apodictic may reply that we’ve then instituted a certain value of appropriateness to the situation, and we are secretly apodictics or simply dishonest, while the deconstructionist will then again work to take apart the terms of the debate.

And here we see, once again, the circularity of all the arguments we have produced. For just as deconstruction deconstructs all around it, the other two approaches both reduce the world into the binary between them, if in reversed and complementary fashion. Are we to simply throw our hands up in despair?


Let us now ask what we’ve accomplished with all this going in circles. A deconstructionist might say, “well, accomplished? That’s a silly notion, in fact, let’s get to work deconstructing it! How we might recognize accomplishment, what standard of reference should we use? And once we have a standard, don’t we realize that we can deconstruct it?” Basically, the system is rigged, let’s show how, and then pack up our things and go home. The problem, however, is that history keep going, decisions keep getting made, and the world worlds around us. The deconstructionist will ultimately get left with little agency, and will be left behind, though they will cause others to doubt themselves along the way.

If you’re an apodictic, this is a bad thing, and if a descriptivist, this is generally good, so long as its not so excessive as to undermine the production of new descriptions needed to keep the world changing. And in fact, we see here that a descriptivist is a cultural pluralist, and wants some apodictictics and deconstructionists around. The apodictic finds both of the other two dangerous, and wants to convert them or get rid of them. And the deconstructionist is often an apodictic or descriptivist in disguise, otherwise, they’ve already left the game.

But while a deconstructionist might argue that we’ve gotten nothing done in the inquiry performed above, the descriptivst would likely differ, and rather, say something like this:  “Well, we’ve likely accomplished quite a bit with all our circling. We could’ve divided up the world into a variety of ways, and apodictic, descriptivist, and deconstructionist is only one. We could’ve used traditionalist, modernist, and post-modernist if we liked, or stable, chaotic, and complex, or any other sets of terms. Each one, however, creates a world, and each world has its uses, depending on the context. And by giving birth to a world, we tried something out. We weren’t quietistic, like the deconstructionist, nor rigid, like the apodictic. Now, maybe our current description isn’t the best. But then someone suggest another. And we don’t have to fully invest in these terms to use them to do things in the world. For who really believes fully in the terms they use to describe why and how and what they do? People tend to jump around, oscillate, blend, and otherwise mix and match justificatory strategies on the fly, redescribing the world, and their justifications, on the fly as they go. Consistency? Well, its nice, but overrated. What matters is what gets done. And yeah, there’s aporias to this notion, but there’s only so much time, we have to selective on what we deconstruct, there’s not time for everything, it’s all about being appropriate, what fits a given context. And sure this is a circular situation, but that circle is precisely how life gets lived. If you try to fix it apodictically, or spin it faster deconstructively, well, these are ultimately two sides of the same, the same paranoid need for foundational certainty. Life doesn’t give us that. But we don’t really need it. We need to keep going, and use apodictic and deconstructive approaches when needed, but remain generally within a descriptivist frame. Whenever something hits a crisis, redescribe, resist the pull towards the rock of apodicticism or the abyss of deconstruction. When in doubt, redscribe. Because all description is a form of doing, and just as all doing is a form of redescription. Have faith in the power of redescription to give birth to new worlds, new potentials, new hopes. And when the current terrain seems dry, look beyond, be curious, and new modes of description will likely present themselves. Jumping terrain is how new descriptions often get produced! Cross-pollinate, so to speak. And if a deconstructionist yells from the wings that the emperor has no clothes, well, of course not! If you pull any term out of circulation, and examine it close up, it’ll unravel. But in the time between it’s first put into circulation and the time it has been deconstructed, it can be used to do a lot of things. And if you are able to let the need for certainty go, of either the deconstructive or apodictic sort, even if you keep the deconstructionist critique around, whispering in the back of your ears not to get too caught up in any given model, the world will change ever anew. Descriptivism is a continual balance, between the stasis of apodicticism and the dissolution of deconstruction. And isn’t that what life always is, a balance, a meta-stable push to greater complexity, yet without guarantees? Everyone knows that if you are trying to climb a mountain, you don’t get anywhere unless you take some risks, and try not to look down. Paralysis and vertigo are twin dangers. Got to keep moving, not too fast, but also not too slow. Be less paralyzed than the deconstructionist, and less rigid than the apodictic. For in fact, these are two sides of the same, they get you nowhere. Only descriptions move you places, and continual redescription keeps you continually moving. Just keep an eye on the pacing. And if you get bored or frustrated, there’s always new worlds to create. Of course, one can’t create them randomly, you’ve always got to do so in dialogue with the wider world. And some descriptions fit the world and one’s situation better than others. But how can you tell? Well, things work. If they don’t, time to think about some redescription. Usually investigating that which doesn’t work helps this out, usually something’s missing, and working to integrate that helps. But let’s not be rigid about this, the world is full of surprises, and that’s why we’ve got to keep flexible, so we can hear the call of new descriptions. Each description is an abstraction, each one leaves things out, which is what allows it to generalize. And this means there is always room for new ways to carve up the world. Have faith, apodictically, in the ability of the world to give birth to itself anew by means of the powers of redescription.”

And the apodictic? The apodictic probably stopped reading a while ago, but if they’re still here, they probably think something like this about what we’ve just done: “What about some real foundations to our practice, clear goals, aboslute boundaries, limited applications, etc? How can we proceed without those?!” But of course, we’ve always been without foundations. Foundations, to the descriptivist, are always elsewhere, but never here. It’s always the same song with the apodictic: foundations! And the same with the deconstructionist: foundations! But when has anyone ever seen foundations? The apodictic believes they’re out there somewhere, and the deconstructionist doesn’t, but they still both need them. Only the descriptivist believes that our foundation is in the motion itself.

Beyond the Linguistic Turn

And this is where your author here confesses. I’ve rigged the game all along, you see. I’m a descriptivist. Of course, that’s got to be obvious by this point. This little experiment has had a clear hero from the start. And the attempt to articulate a descriptivist point of view has in fact been the goal of the whole inquiry, to redescribe the world in a way that the descriptivist can win. Yes, the game’s rigged, but it always is, whether you go with any of the three options. The question isn’t whether the game is rigged, but how, why, and towards what end.

But in the process of playing a groundless, rigged game, we have produced something after all. We’ve managed to describe descriptivism, right? We’ve articulated its parts, its others, its suppositions, and a world in descriptivist terms. And we did so in a way that is able to incorporate the deconstructionist critique, and in fact, use it as part of the starting point for ever more description. For a descriptivist, the real work always gets done in between, in process, never at the start or the end.

Now, I’m not claiming that descriptivism can’t be defeated easily by apodicticism or deconstructivism when they use their standard critiques. But I also don’t think descriptivism can be disproved either, nor its critiques of the other three. Which then brings us back to choice. Which one has chosen you? Or would you prefer to redescribe the situation? Go ahead, that’s also part of the game.

If you’ve read this little thought experiment, and heard the call of descriptivism, it’s likely that you were already the type of person who had that in them. And if not, you probably hated each move I made, expressing it with something like a hrmph of “I expected something like that, the same old song!” at each turn. I don’t think my arguments can convince you either way, I thnk you’ve likely already chosen. And yet, there are occasionally some people who are on the cusp of becoming the descriptivists they always already were.

For each of us likely has a general world orientation, one of these three general models which shape our thinking, even if we continually switch between smaller strategies based on circumstances, or perhaps even during the day. For example, if I’ve woken up in a quizzical mood, I might start my day as a sly descriptivist, but then go through a deconstructive moment at lunchtime, but then resolve in a moment of traditional apodictic defensiveness (the standard fall-back dedfense of sly descriptivism!), that I’m tired of questioning things, and would really like to each lunch because it works, after which time, I’ll go back to my standard descriptivist worldview, whether sly or otherwise, depending on what I encounter. Because descriptivism is my general world orientation. But we each have a standard way we tend to play the game.

But when it all comes down to it, I think that despite all the circling, its all ultimately and paradoxically quite simple: openness and curiosity and creativity, or paranoia and ordering, or getting sucked into a black hole. Take your pick!

Now, of course, at this point I’m really laying my cards on the table, my metaphors are totally giving me away. But that’s the point, it’s all in the metaphors, they create worlds, pulls, grounds for action, attractions. Descriptions are powerful stuff! And I really do think they matter a whole hell of a lot, so choose your descriptions carefully, or be chosen by them carefully, or something like that. Even if they all deconstruct, words, metaphors, they can do a lot while they are moving. Examine them up close and they dissolve, but put them in motion, and they create forces that push and pull us in and out of varied forms of action in various worlds. And ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. For a descriptivist, that is.

So actually, despite all the circling around, I think a lot has been accomplished. Certainly a lot of description. And in a manner that works to incorporate, rather than ignore, that pesky linguistic turn, all that deconstructionist stuff that has hindered philosophy from saying all that much lately.

And I do think its important to say things, to describe things, lots of things, in many different ways. Because in times of change, we’ll likely need more descriptions, and you never know which could come in handy later on. And if you don’t take any of them too seriously, you can try them on and see what fits, kinda like clothes. Those apodictics can be so serious about these sorts of things. Which isn’t to say its easy to describe things. No, its hard work, cause some descriptions really do work better than others. If you leave out lots of things, its easy to describe things, but if you want details, you’ve got to really work to connect the often contradictory aspects we see in the world. When we connect them well, we can figure out how to make things work better. When we fail at this work of description, the world seems incoherent, lacking reasons. But don’t get too caught up in any description, because our world keeps changing, nearly as fast as we do. There’s no assurance of absolute standards in a continually changing world. The only standards that work are those based on where we come from, and where we’re going, and all the contexts, and those keep shifting underneath us.

So despite the appearance of not getting much done, I think we’ve gotten quite a bit done. And in fact, it’s the appearance of not getting a lot done that let us get a lot done. That’s how, I think, good descriptive philosophy works. It produces experiments, and sees where they go, what they produce, what they allow to be seen, what they make possible. Rather than try to prove descriptive philosophies, you test them by trying them out. But usually, you can tell beforehand, from past experience, if they’ve got a decent shot, though ultimately, you’ve got to try them on and see how it goes.

So in this short experiment, I tried on the division apodictic, descriptive, and deconstructionist, like I would try on some clothes. To see what it did, and if it worked. Wasn’t sure till I really wrote it all down to work it out, but I had a hunch it could do some interesting things. I may keep it around a bit.

And in describing descriptive philosophy, we’ve seen a description of how desctiptive philosophy can be done.


~ by chris on March 29, 2011.

One Response to “On Descriptive Philosophy, Or Beyond the Linguistic Turn, Final Part”

  1. […] On Description, Or Beyond the Linguistic Turn, Post-scriptum [This is a post-script to a series of posts. For earlier posts, see here.] […]

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