Tuesday, 7 March 2006

Professorial Blather

No fair-minded man could damn me for suspecting that Professor Baudrillard finds it impossible to say something banal when he has the narrowest opportunity to say something absurd. The temptation is too much for him, and besides, he has a career to consider and a reputation to uphold. He could not simply describe, for example, the feeling that we might experience when faced with the occurrence of something that we had thought was impossible. He is compelled rather to describe “the feeling that seizes us when faced with the occurrence of something that happens without having been possible.” [1]
Ah, the occurrence of the impossible—how Baudrillardian! But really, if he wishes to startle us out of our expectations, he would do well to say something sensible for once. As it is, one expects nothing but such pseudo-paradoxical proclamations and mindless blather, as the following also illustrates:
Before the event it is too early for the possible. After the event it is too late for the possible. It is too late also for representation, and nothing will really be able to account for it. September 11th, for example, is there first—only then do its possibility and its causes catch up with it, through all the discourses that will attempt to explain it. [2]
What he seems to be telling us is that prior to an event there are no possibilities or causes, that the possibilities and causes of an event come to be only through the discourse that places them prior to that event, and thus that discourse is prior to the possibilities and causes of the event that it describes or explains. Consistent with this account, then, is the view that Jean Baudrillard is there first—and only then do all the possibilities and causes of his being catch up with him, from the primordial soup, through the traditions of European intellectual charlatanry, to that unfortunate confluence of genetic material that occurred the night his parents got squiffy on cheap champagne. That said, if I believed for a moment that discourse were indeed prior to the possibilities and causes of the event it describes or explains, I should wish, as regards the proximate cause of Professor Baudrillard’s conception, to possess sufficient literary talent to describe a quiet night of hot milky drinks and improving books.

[1] Jean Baudrillard, “Virtuality and Events: The Hell of Power”, International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Vol 3:2, July 2006, original emphasis.
[2] Ibid.


Cirdan said...

Hi,I think Baudrillard may have had epistemic, rather than metaphysical, possibility in mind. And given that epistemically impossible things can, and do, happen, that sentence is quite intelligible.

Also, your blogging, while amusing, is remarkably anti the principle of charity. Perhaps that reduces its cogency?

Deogolwulf said...

"And given that epistemically impossible things can, and do, happen."

No. "impossible things can . . . happen" is a very silly sentence, and it does not matter whether you choose to modify it with "epistemically" or "metaphysically". .
"Can happen" means a thing's occurance is possible, "cannot happen" means it is impossible. "Epistemically" or "metaphysically" only set the scene of the occurance, as it were. I would like to know, therefore, in what secret sense you are using the words "possible" and "impossible".

"I think Baudrillard may have had epistemic, rather than metaphysical, possibility in mind"

It is quite clear that Baudrillard is not talking about "epistemic possiblity" as you phrase it, though even if he were, this would not obviate the need to use the words "possible" and "impossible" properly. It is I who mentioned "the occurrence of something that we had thought was impossible", "we had thought" being the operative words. Now, "things we had thought were impossible can happen" is not a silly sentence. Baudrillard, however, talks about "the occurrence of something that happens without having been possible", a metaphysical claim and an absurd one.

One has no defence when claiming the impossible can occur, unless one counts sophistry as a defence.

Cirdan said...

I’ll argue that there's a reading of the passage in question that vindicates Baudrillard. The maxim of charity is (roughly) that one ought to attribute to one's opponent the most reasonable construction of his views. There's a construction of B's passage available that keeps it consistent. So, we ought to adopt that view. That, however, requires an appeal to epistemic possibility. You don't like that. So I'm going to try and defend the notion.

Your crucial inference is from :
[A]'Before the event it is too early for the possible'
[B]'What he seems to be telling us is that prior to an event there are no possibilities or causes.'
You take B in the metaphysical sense i.e. there are really no causes… etc. That reading of B is justified if A is a metaphysical proposition, otherwise not. A is a metaphysical proposition if the notion picked out by the word ‘possible’ is a metaphysical one. You clearly think so. So, your case relies at a crucial point on the thought that the modal adjective 'possible' univocally refers to metaphysical possibility.
Let a statement S be epistemically possible if, relative to some knower’s knowledge at some time, S could be true. Let metaphysical possibility be absolute possibility, i.e. only what is possible to be (in the 'to exist' sense). Suppose a statement S describes a state of affairs SA. SA is metaphysically possible if it is the case that SA could come to be. Epistemic possibility and metaphysical possibility do not coincide - something can be metaphysically possible without being epistemically possible, and something can be epistemically possible without being metaphysically possible. Note that there's no decisive reason to think that we have exhaustive knowledge of what is absolutely possible.
Now, your claim about the meaning of the word 'possible' is false, as a matter of easily-ascertainable fact. Modal verbs (I'm thinking about your use of the word 'can') and adjectives are often ambiguous between their epistemic and primary (e.g. normative) uses, as you'll discover if you google. Thus, when one says, 'X is possible', there usually remains the question – what sort of possibility have you in mind?
A vivid case: [G] It is possible that God can damn an innocent man.
If 'possible' in G is read as metaphysical possibility then the sentence is false. If 'possible' means consistent with God's omnipotence, and supposing that to mean that God can bring about any consistently describable situation, then it is true.

Another example: Suppose I solve a complicated sum, and someone asks me whether it is possible that I'm wrong. If I'm wrong, then I'm necessarily wrong; if right, I'm necessarily right. Either way, it's a matter of necessity. So what sort of possibility is in question here? epistemic possibility.

Yet another example (the modal fallacy): If I know p, it is not possible that p is not the case. But if it is not possible that p is not the case, then p is necessarily the case. The sort of possibility that is required to defuse the difficuly is epistemic, not metaphysical possibility

Example: It is possible that I don’t exist. If I say this, I’m not asserting of myself that I don’t exist (or else it is necessarily false). Rather, it means that for all I know, it could have been the case that I did not exist.
Yet another example: Someone comes up to you at a ball and says: ‘That masked man is your father’. You say: ‘That’s not possible!’ In fact, the masked man is your father. And given that necessarily your father is identical to himself, and that necessarily your father is your father, it looks like you had something like epistemic possibility in mind.
Examples could be multiplied: http://tinyurl.co.uk/o047

The point is that the word 'possible' often expresses different modalities. One can't deduce from the fact that a sentence has the form 'X is possible' that it makes a statement about metaphysical possibility.
[You might (!) like to see this note on modal confusions: http://tinyurl.com/kptty]
Now, suppose that there's a fact, F, such that at a given time, for some person, or group of people, F is epistemically inaccessible. There is no reason to think that that F is not also metaphysically possible. Further, actuality implies possibility. If F should now become the case, then it was always metaphysically possible that F, and it is now (let us suppose) known and hence possible to know that F is the case. But then, one can truly say that there was a time in the past when it was epistemically impossible that F. A fortiori, B, exploiting the ambiguity of 'possible', can say that "impossible things can . . . happen", and all the rest of it.

So, we've established that 'x is possible' doesn't always mean 'x is metaphysically possible'. And we know that there's a perfectly intelligible notion of epistemic possibility. B's extract, read in that light, is not only coherent, it is rather banal. I suggest we attribute banality rather than vice.

Anonymous said...

Cirdan, take a look at the comments to the Feyerabend post. In retreating to the claim that M. Baudrillard's only fault is banality, you yourself have illustrated how guilty you and M. Baudrillard are of the "motte-and-bailey" ploy: "where your claim has an exciting-but-false interpretation, which grabs the attention of the undergrads, and a true-but-trivial interpretation, which you retreat to when attacked by more discerning minds."

Cirdan said...

Paul, Shackel is a hero of mine. I benefited greatly from his teaching (and his criticism – he was never one to suffer fools gladly!) Also, I read the paper when it came out in Metaphilosophy. I liked it then, and still do, but I now have a quibble or two.

It seems to me that the motte-and-bailey criticism is underspecified. Suppose I make a claim C. Some clever person points out a problem for that claim. I then qualify C, to avoid the problem. My critic makes a different criticism, and I qualify C in another way. And so it goes. Eventually my claim is seriously reduced in content. It seems to me that Shackel's strictures would catch even that very respectable exchange as an example of the motte-and-bailey. So perhaps he needs to add a condition to escape that consequence. More precisely, I think he needs a condition that would sort out bad faith refinements from good-faith ones. And reading the paper, it's clear what's bugging him is the bad-faith moves. Anyway, that may convince you (more likely not!).

Now, my points in the Baudrillard case are slightly different. First, given two interpretations of a position, one of which is obviously unreasonable, the other not, one really ought to attribute the reasonable position to the speaker. Understanding people depends on this sort of interpretive charity. We do this in speech all the time, by the way, e.g. if someone says: I like it and I don't we just automatically qualify the statement so that we don't attribute a contradiction to the speaker. I’m suggesting that deogowulf was inattentive to this point, especially because there was an obviously non-crazy understanding of Baudrillard at hand.

Secondly, deogolwulf seemed to have a very odd view of how modal terms work in English. It’s just a fact that possible, can and all the rest of them are often ambiguous. In particular, they’re often ambiguous between their epistemic and their primary uses. So, since deogolwulf’s attack on B seemed to rely on a false premiss, I said so, and gave examples of epistemic possibility at work.

Deogolwulf said...

Cirdan, as I have pointed out in the Feyerabend post, "I must admit that I am not inclined to do charitable work for pseudo-philosophers who delight in making attention-seeking declarations that I suspect are designed to appear absurd at first sight."

I have made it clear how far my charity extends. It is also quite clear I am working on suspicions. Now, if you wish to suspect that Baudrillard is innocently seeking to make banal and boring statements that just happen to appear absurd and exciting, then so be it.

“when one says, 'X is possible', there usually remains the question – what sort of possibility have you in mind?”

But when one says “x is not possible” there does not remain a doubt that one is claiming that possibility is excluded. “Impossible”, “not possible” have no ambiguity in that sense. They do not say “improbable” or “vastly improbable” or “slightly possible”. They exclude possibility.

As for the epistemic versus metaphysical possibility, I repeat that it was I who introduced epistemic content, not Baudrillard as far as I can see, and to bend over backwards to interpret him as thinking about epistemic possibility is charity to the point of indulgence.

Of course, your comments, criticisms and corrections are always welcome!

Anonymous said...

Regarding charity, it is a worthy public sevice to expose some of the intellectual rogues and fraudsters of our time. In any case, a true philosopher would, I venture to say, regard it as somewhat ignoble meekly to solicit his readers charity.