NSSR Philosophy

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july links

Espen Hammer on the the need for utopian thinking

Michael Weinman on celebrating the Fourth of July in Jerusalem

Hannah Arendt’s newly published lecture on revolution

There was also an interesting debate earlier this year, which we discovered only recently, between Michael Weinman and Charles Snyder on Aristotelian courage and US military intervention.

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peter berger

The eminent sociologist and theologian passed away last Tuesday, June 27, 2017. Born in 1929 in Vienna, he emigrated to the US after the war, completing his undergraduate studies at Wagner College. He studied at the New School for Social Research in the 1950s, where he was deeply influenced by Alfred Schütz.

Berger came to prominence with a major sociological work, The Social Construction of Reality (1966), co-authored with Thomas Luckmann, also a student of Schütz at the New School, who passed away last year. Berger also studied the connection between modernity and secularism, where an early and influential work was A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (1969). He founded the  Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs (CURA) at Boston University in 1985, serving as its director for 24 years.

Professor Berger’s death was announced by CURA. Obituaries have appeared in the New York Times, and the Washington Post. Public Seminar has released the video of “Peter Berger’s Last Visit to the New School for Social Research.”

alfred schütz

Alfred Schütz was one of the most influential philosophers at the New School in the 1940s and 1950s. Here we review his biography, his systematic project of using Husserlian phenomenology as a foundation for Weberian sociology, and his theory of practical reasoning. Though originally stated in the technical vocabulary of classical phenomenology, we present Schütz’s view in accessible style and contrast it to some popular theories of practical reasoning.

Alfred Schütz

I

Born in 1899 in Vienna, Alfred Schütz fought for Austria in the First World War. Though he studied economics, law and business at the University of Vienna, he soon developed an interest in Henri Bergson’s philosophy of consciousness and inner time. Due to Felix Kaufmann’s influence, in the interwar period Schütz turned to Edmund Husserl’s work in phenomenology. It was this research program that would exert the main influence on his work until his death in 1959. In the 1920s, Schütz joined the Viennese banking firm Reitler and Company any but continued his studies in the social sciences and philosophy, leading Husserl to describe him as “a banker by day and a philosopher by night.”

In the 1930s, Schütz joined Ludwig von Mises’ Private Seminar, which included such important social scientists as Friedrich Hayek, the leading figure of the Austrian school of economics after Mises, Eric Voegelin, the anti-utopian historian and political philosopher, and Oskar Morgenstern, the founder (with Von Neumann) of mathematical Game Theory. It also included the economist Fritz Machlup and the philosopher Felix Kaufmann, both of whom would go on to teach at the New School. Schütz’s magisterial book, The Phenomenology of the Social World (1932), was composed during this time. The goal of the work was to put scientific sociology on a firm philosophical basis. In sociological theory, he followed the lead of Max Weber, whose methodological writings deeply influenced him (ironically, Schütz may never have read Weber’s most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism). The philosophical basis he envisaged for sociology was that of classical, Husserelian phenomenology. Together these approaches provided a non-naturalistic but nevertheless rigorous foundation for the social sciences, a philosophical basis on which social knowledge could be built upon the primary datum of consciousness.

Emigrating to the United States on July 14, 1939, Schütz continued to work in business. But he began teaching sociology and philosophy courses on The Graduate Faculty of The New School for Social Research in 1943, ultimately serving as chair of the Philosophy Department from 1952 to 1956. During this period he became deeply engaged with American philosophy, particularly with the thought of William James, whose theory of consciousness he saw as a valuable complement to Husserleian phenomenology. At the New School, he worked most closely with Aron Gurwitsch. Among the graduate students he taught were Maurice Natanson, Thomas Luckmann, Peter Berger. The latter two acknowledged Schütz as a driving influence behind their book, The Social Construction of Reality, which was among the most influential works of sociology in the twentieth century. Indeed this book argues that socially coordinated actions depend on a fabric of intersubjectively constituted meaning, a thesis that follows from Schütz’s phenomenological analysis of social action. The concept of social construction, so hotly contested in the 1990s and today, was formulated at the New School in the mid-1950s.

II

Why did Schütz think that phenomenology could serve as the basis for sociological theory? It seemed evident that by beginning with consciousness as a given rather than taking it as a mystery to be explained, phenomenology was in a position to reject the trends of positivism and behaviorism that dominated mid-twentieth century social science. This attitude about the social sciences is broadly in line with Husserl’s relentless critique of a kind of knee-jerk naturalism that he saw as the root of the modern malaise. But by attacking the “natural attitude” Husserl did not commit himself to any belief in the supernatural. Rather, he pointed to the way in which the designation of certain objects as natural and of certain ways of knowing as scientific depends on the work of consciousness in making these categorizations. The goal of Husserl’s phenomenological philosophy of science was thus not to deny naturalism outright but rather to recognize it as a method, the meaning of which was constituted by conscious brings, and hence to place the sciences on a solid philosophical footing.

In Schütz’s hands, this framework of questions and analyses is turned towards to the social world. From this phenomenological perspective, there is no need to reduce social theory to a basis in the natural sciences, for example, by trying to attribute economic behaviors and attitudes to biological instincts. Indeed, a naturalized foundation could have a potentially deleterious effect in the social sciences, if it was taken to downplay the role of agents’ understandings of their own actions. Thus for Schütz, the project of the philosophy of social science becomes that of offering an account of how agents can see events and actions as having meanings, how these meanings can be shared by multiple agents, and how the social scientist can come to know these meanings.

Perhaps the leading methodological question of social inquiry concerns how the researcher accesses his object of interest. Suppose, for example, a social scientist is interested in why capitalist economic organization came to replace feudal organization in Western Europe and North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Why did it happen in these places and not elsewhere? One way to approach the question is to collect statistics concerning commercial and political arrangements for the periods and places in questions. But these statistics could only count as external evidence concerning what was peculiar to these times and places. Such statistics are surely informative to the investigator as an outsider to the social process, but they give one no grasp of how the people of that time and place – in this case the first capitalists – understood that information themselves. Even if all the information relevant to the early capitalists’ decisions could be recovered, there seems to be no way, from the perspective of social statistics, to see how those early capitalists interpreted this information.

Consideration of an individual’s private life (known through interviews or, in the historical case, through written documents) might provide insight into this internal process. But how could one distinguish between some particular individual’s idiosyncrasies and those opinions and understandings he shares with others of the time? It is here that Weber’s theory of ideal types provides a methodological point of entry. For Weber, the understanding shared by a certain class of people can be known on the basis of examining an individual’s views. Precisely because understanding and meaning are shared rather than private, an individual’s opinions shed light on how persons of his type view the world. For example, Weber takes Benjamin Franklin to stand in for the early capitalist understanding of the world. Putting aside the specifics of Weber’s interpretation of Franklin’s world view – which hinges on attributing to Franklin a commitment to a secularized puritanism – one can say that for Weber, Franklin typifies the early capitalist attitude. Examination of Franklin’s maxims (such as “time is money”) thus sheds light on early capitalist subjectivity, that is, one how early capitalists understood their own actions to contribute to a social project.

But whereas for Weber, it was convenient to admit this theory of ideal types to advance interpretative sociology, Schütz aims to root this theory in a more general phenomenological philosophy. In particular, he wants to show that typification is not a mere methodological convenience for the sociologist but is fundamentally justified by the structure of human action and consciousness. His efforts are thus directed to explaining how actions can be meaningful, and how those meanings can be constituted and shared by the members of a community. The upshot of these investigations is that to be consciousness is to live as an agent in a social reality – that structure of meanings that guide one’s everyday life and activities.

 

 

III

Schütz’s theories of action and practical reasoning provide an interesting contrast to some mainstream analytic approaches to these topics. In this last section, we compare Schütz’s theory of practical reasoning to the views of two other influential philosophers.

As Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics VI.9) observed, practical reasoning is a kind of reasoning that results in action. For example, taking as premises:

1. Heavy water is bad to drink.

2. This is heavy water.

The conclusion would be one’s not drinking the water. Though sometimes one reasons practically by just thinking the conclusion (for example, as an imperative: “don’t drink this water!”), and saving up the action for an appropriate occasion, practical reasoning is action-oriented. A fundamental question for philosophers has been how to distinguish practical reasoning from theoretical reasoning. Here we consider the views of two philosophers, Gilbert Harman and Bernard Williams, before arguing that Schütz’s theory of practical reasoning offers a more promising alternative.

Gilbert Harman distinguishes practical and theoretical reasoning by their products. He holds that a line of reasoning is theoretical if it results in a belief, and practical if it results in an intention. Suppose for example, that Jones is planning a trip from New York to Chicago, and calls on his assistant Smith to purchase the tickets. According to Harman, Jones’ reasoning is practical while Smith’s reasoning is theoretical. This is so because once the tickets have been purchased Jones has an intention to travel to Chicago, while Smith has the belief that Jones will travel to Chicago. But now suppose that Jones comes down with a disease, and sends his trusty assistant Smith to Chicago in his stead. According to Harman’s account, one must say that Smith’s antecedent theoretical reasoning has been instantaneously transformed into practical reasoning, since he now intends to travel to Chicago. Likewise, Jones’ practical reasoning has now been rendered theoretical, since he no longer intends to travel to Chicago but believes Jones will go in his stead. Harman is therefore committed to practical-theoretical transubstantiation occurring without any change in the form or content of the reasoning itself. But if this is so, why should one distinguish practical and theoretical reasoning in the first place? Another weakness of Harman’s view is that it seems to base the practical-theoretical demarcation on a psychological distinction between beliefs and intentions. But there is disagreement about the meaning of psychological terms. Thus depending on how one defines these terms, Harman’s theory could have a wide variety of inconsistent interpretations. For example, given a view which intentions are just complex, de se beliefs, practical reasoning would reduce to theoretical reasoning. Finally, using psychological criteria suggests that the distinction between theoretical and practical reasoning is ultimately rooted in agents’ psychological states rather than in their reasons or actions.

Bernard Williams would not be bothered by the objections made against Harman’s view. For Williams denies that is any way of strictly defining practical reasoning. Williams writes, that “there is an essential indeterminacy in what can be counted a rational deliberative process” FN (Williams 1981, p.110). On this basis, he holds that it is desirable for a theory of practical reason not to try to specify what constitutes a sound deliberative route from an agent’s subjective motivational set to her having a reason to undertake some particular action. But surely when one characterizes some thoughts or speech acts as practical reasoning, one commits oneself to thinking that some norms of reasoning can guide the resultant action: if the reasoning is correct, one ought to act in the way determined. For example, if it is true that heavy water is bad to drink and that this is heavy water, one should avoid drinking this water. But it is unclear how, according to Williams’ permissive view, practical reasoning could establish norms that are satisfied only by certain, correct actions.

Schütz’s alternative avoids both the psychologism of Harman’s view and the permissiveness of Williams’ view. Schütz’s approach depends on distinguishing the peculiar form of practical reasoning in terms of its temporality. While the logic of theoretical reasoning may or may not be tensed, for Schütz practical reasoning must take a future perfect form. The Phenomenology of the Social World builds upon Husserl’s description of consciousness as fundamentally intentional and temporal. On this account, consciousness is both constitutively “about” or “directed towards” some object, and is either retentive (past-directed), protentive (future-directed) or present, directed to an object given immediately “before one’s mind” that nevertheless appears on a temporally structured horizon of other presentations. This temporality of consciousness is not here understood as a merely psychological characteristic but as a structural feature constitutive of consciousness. Schütz characterizes action itself as a “spontaneous activity oriented toward the future” (p.57). This orientation toward the future, which is what he understands to distinguish action from behavior – consists in an anticipation of the outcome of the act. This anticipation is not a merely protentive or “forseeing expectation” or “immediate protention” but is rather a “representation” of that which is absent as complete. On Schütz’s account, this representational activity involves an emptying of the perceptual form to the effect that the resultant anticipation lacks its proper “filling-in” and thus needs to be “fulfilled” (p.58). Schütz thus distinguishes practical reasoning by its temporality. This avoids psychologism, since this theory concerns the form of practical reasoning rather than the mental states in which it is carried out. By giving a precise characterization, it is not too permissive an account: for it is consistent with the view that standards of correctness for practical reasoning could be offered on a specific interpretation. Clearly much more work would needs to be done to show how Schütz’s theory works in detail, and to apply it to present problems in practical philosophy. Our purpose here has just been to argue that, nearly sixty years after his death, Schütz still has much to offer us philosophically.

 

References

Berger, P.L. and Luckmann, T. The Social Construction of Reality. Penguin Books, 1991. (online)

Harman, G. “Practical Reasoning.” The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 29, No.3 (1976) pp.413-463.

Harman, G. “Practical Aspects of Theoretical Reasoning” in The Oxford Handbook of Rationality. Edited by A. R. Mele and P. Rawling. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Schütz, A. The Phenomenology of the Social World. Northwestern University Press, 1967.

Williams, B. Moral Luck. Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Weber, M. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950. (online)

We have also drawn on Hans Jonas’s memorial piece (“Alfred Schutz, 1899-1959” Social Research, Vol. 26, No. 4 [Winter 1959], pp. 471-474), which gives a succinct portrayal of Schütz’s philosophical project. Mie Augier’s review of Schütz’s collected works (Review of Austrian Economics, Vol. 11: 145–162 [1999] online) contains valuable biographical information as well as his relation to pre-war Austrian economic thought. An article that stresses both the Weberian and economic themes in Schütz is available in “Pendergast, C. 1986. “Alfred Schutz and the Austrian School of Economics.” American Journal of Sociology, Vol.92, No.1 (Jul.1986), pp.1-26.

january links

“As the New Left waned, its structural critique of capitalist society faded, and the country’s characteristic liberal-individualist mindset reasserted itself, imperceptibly shrinking the aspirations of “progressives” and self-proclaimed leftists. What sealed the deal, however, was the coincidence of this evolution with the rise of neoliberalism. A party bent on liberalizing the capitalist economy found its perfect mate in a meritocratic corporate feminism focused on “leaning in” and “cracking the glass ceiling.” The result was a “progressive neoliberalism” that mixed together truncated ideals of emancipation and lethal forms of financialization. It was that mix that was rejected in toto by Trump’s voters. Prominent among those left behind in this brave new cosmopolitan world were industrial workers, to be sure, but also managers, small businessmen, and all who relied on industry in the Rust Belt and the South, as well as rural populations devastated by unemployment and drugs. For these populations, the injury of deindustrialization was compounded by the insult of progressive moralism, which routinely cast them as culturally backward.” – Nancy Fraser on The End of Progressive Neoliberalism

 

“For anyone familiar with President Obama, this invitation to “look forward, not back” is unsurprising. Set in contrast to Ezekiel’s stern warning, however, it should give us pause. Ezekiel did not come to tell the poor and oppressed to “open their hearts” to their oppressors, nor did he suggest they should attempt to stand in the shoes of their oppressors or attempt to look at the world through the eyes of their oppressors.” – Louis Colombo on New Hearts and Racial Divides

 

“The alliance that’s beginning to form between Zionist leadership and politicians with anti-Semitic tendencies has the power to transform Jewish-American consciousness for years to come. In the last few decades, many of America’s Jewish communities have grown accustomed to living in a political contradiction. On one hand, a large majority of these communities could rightly take pride in a powerful liberal tradition, stretching back to such models as Louis Brandeis — a defender of social justice and the first Jew to become a Supreme Court justice — or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched in Selma alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On the other hand, the same communities have often identified themselves with Zionism, a political agenda rooted in the denial of liberal politics.” – Omri Boehm on Liberal Zionism in the Age of Trump

 

Zed Adams and Jacob Browning’s new book, Giving a Damn

swastika dorm graffiti

The New School just made national news… because someone drew swastikas on the doors of several dorm rooms. (Here is a report in the New York Daily News.)

The president of the New School, David Van Zandt, has already condemned the graffiti, and it seems likely that many in New School community would agree. But our purpose here is not to say how bad this is or opine about whether it is a sign of the times. Rather, we want to note how the present incident undermines one of the deepest values of the institution. Consider Rutkoff and Scott’s description of the environment encountered by European refugees in 1933:

At the New School these displaced European scholars found a building and an institution ready-made for their use. Free of anti-Semitism, modernist in outlook, and politically committed to democratic values, the New School offered them an extraordinarily congenial environment, perhaps unique in the United States. In Alvin Jonson, the refuges found a trustworthy and steadfast friend and protector; in the refugees Johnson found the fulfillment of his vision for the New School. For the next twelve years Johnson presided over one of the most extraordinary groups of intellectuals and artists in the western world. At 66 West Twelfth Street social scientists, philosophers, and artists from throughout Europe and the Americas grappled with what they considered the fundamental issues confronting modern society. Free from political as well as traditional disciplinary constraints, the New School salvaged from the tragedy of 1933 a great intellectual treasure. (Rutkoff and Scott, p.85)

If this is right, the New School was marked from early on by its commitment to American democratic values and its opposition to Nazi persecution. The anti-antisemitism endemic to the New School’s culture was part and parcel with its acceptance of refugees. Together these commitments gave rise to a “modernist outlook,” that emphasized intellectual engagement with contemporary problems rather than a focus on racial difference. Dispensing with hierarchies of race and discipline in other words was understood to be a precondition for the possibility of engaging in truly open inquiry.

Remarkably, this modern, democratic approach was undertaken at a time when resources were scarce in the United States, and when prejudices were widespread:

There were not enough jobs for Americans, let alone jobs for European refugees. This was as true in American colleges and universities as in the society at large. Moreover, a nativistic and anti-Jewish prejudice was widespread, even in American academies. Such resentments were fed by the predicable defensiveness of American intellectuals toward European intellectuals, who often acted condescendingly toward American scholarship. This was the case in the social sciences, where refugee European social scientists were given a decidedly reserved reception by their American colleagues. The New School was the exception. Not only did it accept a relatively large number of scholars and artists, it welcomed them warmly. (p.86)

That is, the New School maintained a modernist and democratic outlook long before World War II loomed, at a time when economic depression fanned the flames of defensiveness and prejudice on the part of native-born Americans.

Yet the New School did more than provide a voice of dissent during those difficult times. The commitment to free inquiry is not a value of cool toleration but a modern form of ancient philoxenia or medieval hospitium. This is the value of admitting strangers warmly, which is to say as friends who have something to add to an ongoing conversation. To admit a stranger warmly and as a friend depends on the one hand on recognizing her as different, that is, as a stranger. This requires that one allow for the maintenance of difference. By not demanding conformity, one allows for autonomy or self-determination on the part of the stranger. To admit the stranger as a friend on the other hand depends on treating her as a consciousness like oneself, that is of recognizing her subjectivity and selfhood even in the face of strangeness and difference. This warm welcoming in guest-friendship thus requires combining the recognition of difference and the recognition of subjectivity. Such hospitium is finally not an individual taste for the exotic or even a self-interested cosmopolitanism. Rather it a political and intellectual value constitutive of the intellectual community of the New School.

Obviously drawing swastikas on dorm room doors is an act of provocation that is bad for the image of the university. But it is not just a matter of reputation and hurt feelings on the part of those targeted. More fundamentally, it undermines the value of treating strangers as friends, a value constitutive of the New School’s world-historic purpose.

 

Work Cited:

Rutkoff, P.M. and Scott, W.B. New School: A History of the New School for Social Research. New York: The Free Press, 1986.

 

political links

Over the last year or so, NSSR philosophy students, graduates, and faculty have weighed in on important political issues. Since the election season is typically a time of rhetoric rather than reflection, here is a list to remind ourselves that thoughtful interventions into political discourse are possible.

Jeremy Butman: against sustainability

Eric Anthamatten: Trump has reduced speech to voice

Eduardo Mendieta: on racist institutions

Falguni Sheth: the refugee crisis requires more than empathy

David Kishik:  is philosophy an urban phenomenon?

Nancy Fraser and Andrew Arato: a dialogue on US elections and the Left

 

may links

 

“A professor of philosophy at Gordon College is suing the institution for allegedly retaliating against her for publicly disagreeing with its request for a religious exemption to a federal antidiscrimination law pertaining to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers” reports Inside Higher Ed. That professor is Lauren Barthold, a graduate of NSSR who has written on Rorty, Gadamer, and the philosophy of friendship. Barthold called Gordon College’s hiring policies discriminatory in a letter to the Salem News in 2014, and faculty dissent from the policy was reported the same year by the Boston Globe. According to the Daily Nous, the vice president of marketing at Gordon College claims that “Professor Barthold’s faculty peers voted to discipline her in a manner consistent with past precedent because her actions harmed the Gordon community and violated their trust.” A detailed timeline of the case, as well as an account of the alleged retaliation by the university against professor Barthold are available in her legal complaint, filed with help from the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The current EU has proved repeatedly that it is not equipped to grapple with the global transformations — and tragedies — for which it also bears historical and political responsibility. This EU also lacks any political soul beyond the technocratic defense of the interests of European capitalism.” Cinzia Arruzza in Jacobin on The Refugee Crisis and European Shame.

“First one makes a decision: are my politics fundamentally practical, or are my politics fundamentally moral? Then, having decided, you make your other calculations as best you can, and you lead others in the way most suited to your personality and your skills.” Michael Weinman’s Weberian reading of the Democratic Presidential Primary.

february links

Disrupting Silences in the Philosophy Canon” NS PhD Candidate PJ Gorre reflects on teaching the canon of modern philosophy.

“All human experience involves a coordination of the voluntary and involuntary body, where the correct or appropriate relation between the voluntary and involuntary body is set in place by social rules. Torture depends on working the difference between the involuntary and the voluntary body differently. In torture, the victim is reduced to her involuntary body, while the torturer effectively takes possession of all voluntariness and agency; the torturer has the victim’s body. If in torture I can no longer call my body ‘mine’, then torture dispossesses me of my body. And it is just this that rape is about: a radical act of dispossession through violation.” J.M. Bernstein on rape, slavery, and torture.

Anwar Shaikh’s new book, Capitalism: Competition, Conflict and Crisis, comes out this month from Oxford University Press. Shaikh is Chair of NSSR Economics. The school will host an event for the book’s release on Friday, Feb 12.

Fifty-two years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inaugurated the American Race Crisis lecture series at The New School. The recording of his lecture, “The Summer of Our Discontent,” was recently digitized from open reel tapes, and can now be heard online.

january links

Everyday Revolutions“: a portrait of Ágnes Heller.

“The effect, and surely the aim, of the 9/11 Museum is to make visitors experience what it was like to be there at the time. It places them in a situation where, like the participants, they only know that something supremely awful is happening, but where they do not know why it is happening, or what is to come.” Ross Poole on 9/11 Memorials.

“Gangster-type radicalized fundamentalism demonstrates a radical phase of nihilism, perhaps more radical than ever, looming below the ‘clash of religions’.” Julia Kristeva on Radical Evil.

“For the hundreds of thousands of ordinary working-class boys and girls in England in the early 1970s, including me, Bowie incarnated something glamorous, enticing, exciting and mysterious: a world of unknown pleasures and sparkling intelligence. He offered an escape route from the suburban hellholes that we inhabited. Bowie spoke most eloquently to the disaffected, to those who didn’t feel right in their skin, the socially awkward, the alienated. He spoke to the weirdos, the freaks, the outsiders and drew us in to an extraordinary intimacy, although we knew this was total fantasy. But make no mistake, this was a love story.” Simon Critchley on David Bowie.

december links

Is Heidegger’s Being and Time a “Collection of Pretentious and Vague Platitudes“?

David Kishik has a critical perspective on Walter Benjamin in Jerusalem.

The NSSR’s new “virtual bookshelf” features books and articles written by New School faculty.

Christopher Long remembers Reiner Schürmann in the Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal.

The new Hannah Arendt documentary.