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Philosophy on LJ
The Grammar of Rationalization 
20th-May-2006 05:23 pm
mercury
According to Weber, disenchantment and rationalization are irreversible because they develop through a historical process that itself has no "outside" or rational end governing it. Again, the reason that the iron cage is iron is because the institutions and rules governing the interactions of agents are themselves rational, the products of reason. They're geared, ideally, toward efficiency. This means that there's no rational purchase point one could get outside of the iron cage from which one could critique it. The only rational critique one could form of modern society that would carry any normative weight would be the complaint that it's not rational enough. But as for the whole of disenchantment and rationality, there is no reason or rationality that may judge or qualify it, because rationalized reason is our reason.

Weber's complaint about rationalization is that it fails to acknowledge its own "religious" or vocational presuppositions. For example, we can devise more efficient and successful ways to extend life, but we cannot explain, on the basis of natural science, why a human life is worth preserving let alone extending. If disenchanting reason provides a total account of how the world, in fact, is, and if this account turns a blind eye toward values, then modern life becomes, essentially, meaningless.

Nietzsche similarly complains that modern rationalism is still theological. According to Nietzsche, all of the institutions of modernity -- modern science, with its reliance on causal, deterministic accounts of the world, liberal-democratic politics, romanticism, humanism, "free thinking," pragmatism, socialism, etc. -- are essentially Christian or express the psychological and moral interests of Christianity. Asceticism, self-denial, ressentiment, weakness, and a slave mentality are all phenomena we ought to understand as consequences and implications of the most basic "drive" of all Western institutions: the will to truth. Again, modernity is supposed to be a rationally defensible, self-grounding, and hence independent, fully secular form of life. Yet, according to Nietzsche, all the modern claims for independence ironically express a deep fear of genuine independence; they're a disguised and self-deceptive form of dependence and the slave mentality. Therefore, what modernity takes to be success is in reality failure.

Adorno inflects the Weberian and Nietzschean accounts. If religious rationalism turns into self-stultifying scientific rationalism, then we must project scientific rationalism back into the historical process from which it emerged, so we may see religious, mythic forms of life as already predicated upon the instrumental rationality and identity thinking they will eventually produce in pure form. If we can come to understand religious rationalism as already instrumentally rational (as "enlightening," or as a form of identity thinking), then the "religious" and the "secular" are co-extensive. Religion contains a rational kernel, but scientific rationality contains a mythic core (i.e., there's something inherently irrational about treating the world as though it were causally explainable through and through). And contrary to Weber and Nietzsche, the solution isn't simply exposing the religious presuppositions of secular thought; rather, it is exposing the problematic conception of rationality they both share: identity thinking.

Disenchanted reason and mythology are both forms of identity thinking: subsumption of sensuous particulars under explanatory, coherent, unifying universals, whether those universals be myths, gods, natural laws, or concepts. Rationalization is the increasing comprehension of individuals by means of their participation in conceptual schemes whose elements are invariant and unchanging. Where the grammatical structure of moral insight entails the performative realization of the good, the grammatical structure of rationalization is one of subsumption.
Comments 
20th-May-2006 10:56 pm (UTC)
"scientific rationality contains a mythic core (i.e., there's something inherently irrational about treating the world as though it were causally explainable through and through)."

I haven't read Adorno in a long time but I think this argument is weak. Science is all about estimates, approximations, and models. "Explainable through and through" is merely a caricature. Also, I don't think that the concept of identity is problematic--most scientists and social scientists are keenly aware that resemblance is frequently not the same as identity, and much of the work of science is disproving identities, as often as it is the finding of new ones. It is an interesting way to think about these issues however, I can imagine that you could regard totalitarianism, for instance, as an enormous "identity" project that failed for the cited reasons.
20th-May-2006 11:33 pm (UTC)
(1) Scientists who take a broad view of the matter understand that what they are doing is approximating the truth better and better. Most scientists probably don't think about this and are more concerned with tabulating the results of their experiments. But this is beside the point. The methodological presupposition that allows natural science as a human activity to proceed is that there are no purposes in the universe, and if we were to produce a fully objective account of the world, that account would be causal and mathematical. This is the regulative idea toward which scientists understand themselves approaching asymptotically.

More broadly, this intellectualist rationalization of the world is the knowledge or belief that, if one but wished, one could learn at any time. Hence, it means that, principally, there are no mysterious, incalculable forces that coe itno play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need not have recourse to magic or the spirits; technical means and calculation will accomplish the task. This belief -- that scientific rationality is universal in scope -- is at the basis (not the conclusion) of natural scientific method.

(2) When he says that the rationality behind disenchanted reason is "identity thinking," Adorno has something very specific in mind. What he means is that reason treats individuals as token types of universals. In general this means that we understand the world by "subsuming" particulars under universal concepts or frameworks. For example, we say that I know what it means to be a chair when I can identify chairs irrespective of their particular differences like color, size, material, etc., and error is nothing more than subsuming something under the wrong universal. Obviously, we play fast and loose with this in ordinary experience, but in natural science, it's rigorous and pronounced. From the point of view of a scientific law, particularity doesn't matter at all. It doesn't matter whether you're dealing with this proton, that proton, or another proton. Protons are absolutely interchangeable with one another. And even if they're not, the ideal of natural science is to get to the point where we can explain things that way, thereby overcoming contingency and particularity, and being able to make more and more accurate predictions about what will happen. We're able to make more accurate predictions and better master nature the more we're able to put aside particularity and treat things as interchangeable token types of universals. That's what Adorno means by identity thinking.

(3) That's why, according to Adorno, the highest expression of identity thinking is Auschwitz. It's the deliberate, mechanized destruction of individuals. It's the number on the wrist. It's the record keepers who find out who is a token type of "Jew" and who isn't. It's the steam-powered trains. It's the tracks that take them there. It's the conveyor belt to the furnace. And it's the total disregard for and affectless butchering of individual human life.
21st-May-2006 12:17 am (UTC)
"....What he means is that reason treats individuals as token types of universals. In general this means that we understand the world by "subsuming" particulars under universal concepts or frameworks..."

The plodding application of scientific principles to the human world has caused many tragedies, of course. But this is largely the legacy of utilitarianism. Kantian rights theory provides a necessary corrective to the machinations of overly scientistic social planners.

(3) That's why, according to Adorno, the highest expression of identity thinking is Auschwitz...And it's the total disregard for and affectless butchering of individual human life."

I don't see a direct jump from the identity thinking of science to Auschwitz. It sounds like he is blaming science for Auschwitz, which would be incorrect because the West was scientific as well. Also, the Nazis were infatuated with all sorts of mystical, pseudo-scientistic concepts, hence their scapegoating of the Jews, and their continued expenditure of resources toward the destruction of the Jews even when it hurt their war effort. So many scientists fled the Nazi regime that the Germain scientific establishment was overrun with cranks such as Mengele, hollow earthers, and the like.
21st-May-2006 06:54 pm (UTC)
The plodding application of scientific principles to the human world has caused many tragedies, of course. But this is largely the legacy of utilitarianism. Kantian rights theory provides a necessary corrective to the machinations of overly scientistic social planners.

You're still missing it, because you're too focused on vindicating natural science and what scientists do. That's not what's under attack.

Again, identity thinking is not restricted to utilitarianism, and it's not restricted to the natural scientific method. The point of the analysis is that it is the rationality shared by scientific rationalism, disenchantment, rationalized social relations, and mythology.

As for Kantian ethics, what I'm trying to show in this post is that the grammar of moral insight and the grammar of disenchantment are competing grammars. Part of what identity thinking accomplishes, in its transformation of particulars into mere token types for universals, is that it creates an ethical problem. That's what I was trying to show with the earlier posts on internalism and externalism in ethics: the reason that motivating norms are distinct from rational norms, the reason we can have something like the "banality of evil," if you will, is that identity thinking is our form of rationality. If you could just bring in "Kantian rights theory" as a "necessary corrective," then it wouldn't be conditions of disenchantment! It'd be something else entirely.

I don't see a direct jump from the identity thinking of science to Auschwitz. It sounds like he is blaming science for Auschwitz, which would be incorrect because the West was scientific as well.

You can't get at this as just a problem of natural science. It's a problem of scientific rationality in general. It's universality and particularity, whether it be in physics, social planning, mythology, rituals, philosophy, economics, whatever.

Re-read the last two paragraphs of my post.
22nd-May-2006 02:09 am (UTC)
OK, I can see how identity can be a problem. But what recourse is there? As I have suggested, science (as well as philosophy for that matter) relies perhaps more on equivalencies rather than identities. Perhaps the recognition of this is already driving our scientific, philosophical, and political practice.

I went back to your prior posts to get up to speed. Looking back at your initial plan, it doesn't look like you've got around to posting about "why does this debate become totally pointless and jejune once one understands the nihilism crisis." So perhaps I need to await that and pick up the Bernstein book in the meantime. My current sense is that the best answer to the nihilism crisis is in Nietzsche's "The Use and Disadvantage of History for Life." I suppose you could call it an instrumental answer to the problem, but I haven't heard of anything better.
22nd-May-2006 01:32 pm (UTC)
OK, I can see how identity can be a problem. But what recourse is there?

If the problem with identity thinking is that, qua rationality, it squanders the particular, then perhaps the solution is an expanded notion of rationality that includes ineluctable, irreducible moments of contingency and dependence into it. Put in Kantian terms, the concept for such a form of rationality would contain a mixture of reflective and determinate judgment.

Looking back at your initial plan, it doesn't look like you've got around to posting about "why does this debate become totally pointless and jejune once one understands the nihilism crisis."

That was a bit of hyperbole to get people to read it.

It's not that the debate is pointless. It's just that it's difficult to see what the debate really is about unless one looks at it from the point of view of the nihilism and disenchantment problematic.

So perhaps I need to await that and pick up the Bernstein book in the meantime.

Read Bernstein's book anyway. :) It's good.
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