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``...reconstruct the moral point of view from which questions of right can be fairly and impartially adjudicated.''


Only the last installment of the discussion referred to a formal philosophical paper as a common point of reference. The original announcement had envisaged precisely this procedure - and had been disregarded by Herbert Hrachovec who felt that it might not fit well into the free-flowing inter-activity of e-mail discourse. While the results reported so far might contain many interesting points, it is probably fair to say that they did not spark the detailed, electronically shared, philosophical investigation that had been hoped for.

It could not have been planned in advance, but discussing the paper ``A Plea for Understanding - Beyond False Dilemmas on the Net'' by Charles Ess (available at ``'') this situation changed. Drawing from Jürgen Habermas's central concepts of communicative reason and discourse ethics Charles Ess defended ``the positive conception of freedom characteristic of Enlightenment democracy'' against several rounds of critical questioning. While not verifying the existence of unicorns the final installment of the discussion certainly established the legitimacy of talk about unicorns.

Charles Ess's piece is specially designed for the Web. It marks an important step away from simply making a traditional manuscript electronically available. Abandoning the hierarchy of linear writing can be regarded as a step towards a non-directive discursive practice well suited for the democratic endeavour. In a move reminiscent of the earlier discussion on ``ideals of the Internet'' Ess, however, stressed the essentially ambiguous character of such optimistic prognoses. One person's liberation may be another person's confusion. The beneficiaries of enhanced political opportunities are most likely to be those that are already fairly well situated now, it had been argued. Similarly, the promise of hypertext depends on circumstances. ``The lesson seems to be that as we author these texts, we must simultaneously teach our audiences just how these texts are to be read - or at least, some possible ways among others.'' (Charles Ess, June 24, 1996)

After these opening clarifications Fiona Steinkamp directly adressed one of Charles Ess's main points, his call for ``self-moderation.'' In an environment heavily biased in favour of traditional male styles of speech asking for some self-imposed restraint seems fair enough. But could this not be understood as ``a pandering to women's discourse,'' Fiona Steinkamp, playing the devil's advocate, asked. (June 21, 1996) Under closer investigation ``self-regulation'' proved to be of the utmost strategical importance in Charles Ess's argumentation. Part of his reply, followed by Fiona Steinkamp's comments, is given here:

> To acknowledge the legitimacy of a viewpoint,
> style, perspective, worldview, etc. that is intractably different from
> one's own - while also maintaining the legitimacy of one's own
> viewpoint, style, etc. - seems to me only to work towards gender
> equality which I further take to be a necessary condition of
> democracy.
> I appreciate Fiona Steinkamp taking the position of the devil's
> advocate here, and would agree that there *are*
> dangers of going too far in the other direction - but I hope that
> my call for self-regulation avoids extremes at both ends in order to
> achieve an equality for both. If you can see ways in which I can
> sharpen this point to avoid the dangers you point to, I'd be most
> appreciative indeed. (Please note: this is *not* intended in an
> ironic tone!)

It never actually occurred to me to take it as ironic! I'm finding it difficult to respond to this. I fully agree with you and yet I am sceptical somehow. I think it is the concept of ``self-regulation'' that I am finding problematic. I have a feeling that I'm about to sound like Paul Treanor. If self-regulation is democratic (presumably it is, because it is aimed at achieving equality for both sexes and equality of the sexes has been deemed to be a prerequisite for democracy), I'm not sure how it can be achieved outside a democratic set-up (i.e. the current set-up). That is, in a way, somewhere, somehow, I seem to have a sniff of something circular and self-perpetuating going on. Self-regulation will occur only if people are agreed (a) that democracy is desirable, (b) that current modes of discourse are undemocratic, and (c) that changing or altering one's current mode of discourse will make things substantially more democratic.

(July 14, 1996)

The point about ``communicative ethics'' imposing its procedure on dissenting minorities that Paul Treanor had not managed to impress on the group returned to demand a much more thorough treatment. Two threads of discussion developed, starting from this point. Both lines were running more or less simultaneously between Charles Ess, Herbert Hrachovec and Fiona Steinkamp respectively. Rather than recount the proceedings in their actual order, I shall present them in analytic separation.

Charles Ess was quick to concede that, indeed, there seemed to be a problem with male self-regulation on the Net in particular and with his way of arguing for democracy in general. Vicious circularity threatens if one neglects to distinguish between the ideal and the real. But a rational form of life can be proposed without automatically supposing that this form of life has been already realized. There might be a plausible transition from a less enlightened to a more enlightened state.

Where might such justification come from? The two responses I still find persuasive are Kant's and Habermas's. Despite the tendency to assume a postmodern skepticism towards reason (a tendency which, I would argue, rests on distortions of Enlightenment conceptions of reason and involves what I see as fatal self-contradictions), I remain persuaded that something of Kant's conception of human reason as legislative autonomy makes for good philosophical and political sense. Beyond that, I am also persuaded by Habermas's effort to ground a democratic discourse ethics in an arguably universal set of preconditions for discourse as such. Whatever the problems that attach to this project (and they are considerable, but perhaps not fatal), _if_ a democratic discourse ethics, and thus a trajectory towards democratic forms of governance, can be shown to be grounded in human discourse per se, then the argument for democracy might seem a little less circular in a vicious sense and more like a self-consistent and self-confirming theory.

(Charles Ess, July 19, 1996)

Herbert Hrachovec worried about this. There is, he conceded, an element of self-confirmation in every social setting. But is this sufficient to draw moral conclusions? A group discussing democracy might be shocked by egregious claims concerning the dangers of democracy. Yet there would not have to be an appeal to ethics to sort things out. Things could resolve themselves in a variety of ways. There appeared to be a characteristically idealistic self-transcendence of ``Reason'' in Charles Ess's account. ``The space of Reason (of Democracy, for that matter) is determined by Reason. It is no good telling a story about the advantages of rational discourse and pretending that it will convince those that reject rationality *by the very same means* that people within this space tend to get convinced.'' (Herbert Hrachovec, July 25, 1995) Failing to distinguish between those two eventualities leads to a problematic teleological story in favour of the status quo.

Charles Ess, in his response, drew a much more sophisticated picture of Habermas's notion of reason.

Moreover, whatever Habermas might say on this point - I would say that as something that is only partial, as something that frequently exists only to some degree, as something that one can ignore at any moment in favour of other impulses to action, rationality seems to me to be something that one must be persuaded to develop and pursue. This persuasion can be either rational (as it appeals to the rationality already developed in part in a given individual) and/or non-rational (as it uses other forms of persuasion as catalogued in rhetoric, narrative ethics, etc.).

(July 30, 1996)

Does Charles Ess want to have it both ways, combining the forceful global appeal of Enlightenment ideals with an admission of the contingency of every single claim for rational behaviour? ``Let me put it like this: while confidence should not (and cannot) be excluded at this point, it is not what past experience (within a given framework) warrants. It has to be learned (and argued for) independently from `what your mother told you' ....'' (Herbert Hrachovec, July 30, 1996) Indeed, Charles Ess replied, he would prefer to have it both ways, ``although I think what I'm describing is a middle way which includes both, not, as you may be presuming, an either/or which excludes one or the other'' (Aug. 2, 1996). Argumentative strategies within an agreed-upon setting and across different settings do, after all, share a common understanding of the (fragile) practice of reason.

But then the problem is how to distinguish between the different kinds of appeal to ``reason.''

A claim to be reasonable can be made by someone who proves - by carefully examining each single argument - that his understanding of reason is discursive, non-dogmatic etc. But there are different appeals to ``reason,'' drawing on emotional sources that work very much against ``reason'' in the former sense. (``Be reasonable!'') And there has, finally, to be a certain kind of emotional involvement with reason if ``reason in the proper sense'' is to succeed.


My suspicion is that, in giving an abstract analysis of what reason essentially amounts to, you filter out all the unintended connotations of everyday confusion between reason and power and just retain a socially, morally respectable core. You are left with a certain pattern. But this pattern has to be applied to be useful. It does not enlighten the actual world by the glow of its intrinsic value.

(Herbert Hrachovec, Aug. 6, 1996)

A formal procedure can indeed be taken both as constitutive feature of some self-understanding and as one particular rule of conduct. Speaking truthfully, to give an example, is a practical principle as well as a general feature of ethical conduct. Living according to one's principles is helpfully described by blending both types of use. But there is nothing in the underlying set of formal principles to force us to just apply them in the ``intended'' way. (Herbert Hrachovec, Aug. 9, 1996) With Charles Ess's reply this thread reached a temporary closure that was made permanent by the time limits imposed on the Monist project:
Right - and Herbert has also hit a well-known area of dispute in Habermas scholarship, namely: what happens to the admirable pluralism of endorsing a simply _formal_ procedure of achieving quasi-universal norms, a procedure which allows precisely for the possibility of different discourse communities arriving at different norms - perhaps norms absolutely contradictory to one another? What will happen, in different terms, to the tissue of social coherence when two divergent groups arrive at seemingly opposite and irreconcilable differences, such as occurs in the abortion debate in the U.S.? Will a Habermasian approach to discourse be sufficient to keep these groups from flying apart - e.g., into small-scale terrorism (the on-going harrassment and occasional murder of staff at abortion clinics, such as has happened in dear old Springfield, Missouri, my current home town, as well as in more well-known places) and/or possible large-scale civil war?

I must acknowledge here that I have no ready answer to this question. Rather, it is one I'm very interested in exploring.

(Aug. 19, 1996)

The invocation of a civil war between Europe and the U.S. (May 23, 1996) had passed without notice. At the end of this discussion, however, the whole spectrum of modern political thinking, pragmatic and principled attempts to establish civil society under the ineradicable threat of civil war, had been laid out.

One of the main prerequisites for peaceful coexistence is, of course, some measure of equality and justice. Currently obtaining gender discrimination is obviously at odds with the way Western nations want to look at themselves. How should one approach this dilemma? By (i) ``reinstating an original equality that has been lost'' or (ii) by stopping the privileging of one gender over another? (Fiona Steinkamp, Jul 24, 1996)

As Charles Ess pointed out, these considerations echo the controversy that has been going on between (i) ``sameness'' and (ii) ``difference'' feminists:

Given this, my hunch (and it is only a hunch: this is probably something that needs a great deal of _empirical_ work) is that ``i'' will largely inhibit the transition to ``ii.'' My hunch is based on an analogy with language. I see ``i'' as analogous to the ethnocentric position, ``I can respect you and communicate with you as long as you speak in my language and reflect my cultural norms.'' ``ii'' seems analogous to the position that acknowledges that a _different_ language and set of cultural norms, while irreducibly different from one's own, nonetheless stand as equal to one's own language and norms.

The second position seems necessary if I am to learn to speak in another language, operate with some success and comfort in another culture, etc. - and, by analogy, to communicate more successfully with those folk who prefer communication styles different from my own.

(July 30, 1996)

Fiona Steinkamp, on the contrary, proposed a more complicated relationship between those options. Only by addressing her travel companions in French could she be seen and accepted as the native English speaker that she is. (July 31, 1996) It seems that there is no easy way to separate the ethno-centric attitude (insisting on one's own way of life) from communicative pluralism. Abandoning yourself to a foreign set of rules you will not have to offer something in those circumstances. Charles Ess did not object to this: `` least someone has to be, in effect, the first pluralist: one who gives up on the posture of attitude (i) (`speak my language or be considered a barbarian') and seeks to achieve some level of communicative competence in relation to those who speak a different language.'' (Aug. 2, 1996) Aiming for a mediating position amounts to a subversion of all too clear cut dichotomies here. The same, incidentally, holds for the relationship between ``Reason'' and pragmatics that had been an issue in the exchange with Herbert Hrachovec:
Certainly, philosophers and logicians will make this distinction; and certainly I believe social change ought to proceed on the basis of persuasion by evidence and valid argument. But my impression is that in the lives of both individuals and societies, persuasion is at least occasionally achieved via some mixture of solid argument and evidence conjoined with utterly fallacious argument and powerful emotional appeal. As an example: there are solid arguments to be made for ending segregation laws (in the U.S.) and apartheid in South Africa - and there are powerful emotional appeals to be made as well (often the good and the less good grounds still lead to the same conclusion). I suspect important social change - change justified by the best evidence and argument - will not occur without some addition of strong emotive and fallacious appeals as well.

(Charles Ess, Aug 2, 1996)

``Perhaps we've achieved agreement? Or at least greater clarity regarding any remaining differences?'' Regardless of how the participants might like to answer these questions put by Charles Ess, they did succeed in exploring each other's idioms.

This leaves us with an open query about unicorns. Here is the opinion of an expert on modality.

We must distinguish two questions:

(1) Under what conditions would we find out that there were unicorns?
(2) Given that there aren't unicorns, can there be counterfactual situations such that in them there would have been unicorns.gif

Kripke holds that, epistemically, we might discover that a certain type of animal has existed even though we thought this extremely unlikely. This case has to be distinguished from another - metaphysical - claim. Once we decide that unicorns are a paradigm of non-existing animals, there is no respectable way to think of them as existing nevertheless. Under what conditions would we find out that democracy is real? We cannot simply search our minds to solve this problem. Dealing with utopia is a form of life.

Editor: Herbert Hrachovec

University of Vienna

Ravi Arapuraka
Stuart Broz
Charles Ess
Gregor-M. Killing
John MacDonald
Fiona Steinkamp
Paul Treanor
John Wong

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Next: Fiona Steinkamp: Gender and Up: Lines of Thought Previous: ``But whereas power is

Fri Jul 25 22:00:35 MEST 1997