Author Archives: jeremyyu

Problems With The Genetic Fallacy

I’ve been thinking about the Visker reading, which isn’t on the syllabus but was the piece I did my critical abstract assignment on.

Basically, Visker points out a number of criticisms of the genealogy approach, the most important one being Habermas’s idea that you cannot critique reason using reason. Visker’s solution is to limit genealogy to only a select few cases, where exposure of the origins of the social system in question would destroy the underpinnings of that social system – at least as it is currently conceived.

I don’t know how I feel about that, to be honest. For some reason, when I read Visker’s piece, I felt like this whole debate about genealogy is something that would only stand up in a “philosophical” classroom, and not in the real world. Sure, there are good arguments for such a critique, but they seem to be missing the crucial point that in practice, the genetic fallacy is often not a fallacy at all. This makes genealogy a more widely applicable critical technique than Visker thinks.

Now I know that this stance isn’t one that is commonly accepted in philosophy, but doesn’t how something start affect how it develops? I mean, let us assume we buy the argument that the success of feminism in the West was due in large part to the need for cheap labour following a world war in which the male workforce was greatly reduced. In other words, feminism was a justification for introducing a source of cheap labour into the market.

Now I’m not a historian, so I don’t know how valid such a case would be, or if it’s even possible to determine what the “most important factor” for a given historical development is. But my point is that, if we were to assume that this were true, wouldn’t that change our view of the feminist movement? After all, we ourselves are creatures of historical circumstance. Us “moderns” might have no doubt that the results of the feminist movement were positive, but that’s an opinion that we have due to all these historical processes that were set in motion before we were even born, and set the stage for how we think about social issues today.

In other words, the “genetic fallacy” is largely bogus in practice because even our contemporary “logic” is not in any way universal or divorced from historical developments. There is no way to perform a historically-independent analysis of phenomena, and so there is always the possibility of challenging the existence of a “genetic fallacy” by pointing out that that fallacy only occurs if you analyse concepts through contemporary modes of reasoning, which are themselves not universal.

Going back to the feminism example, there are many arguments we could use to support the positive effects of the feminist movement, but those arguments will likely be based on modern notions of gender equality. And those notions were only developed as a result of feminism, which in turn (according to our hypothetical example) were inspired by corporate interests. How are we then to accuse a critic of feminism using the above argument, of committing the genetic fallacy, in a way that’s independent of those developments?

And it goes even deeper than that. If we can question the genetic fallacy, then what of all the other “fallacies” that we’ve been taught in philosophy? Why shouldn’t might equal right, for instance? Maybe at the end of the day, philosophy – though it tries to question issues at the most fundamental level – nevertheless falls prey to that universal limitation of academic disciplines: that they are at base a group of scholars who have agreed not to question certain fundamentally-held assumptions.

Signal vs. Noise

The first two parts of The History of Sexuality are interesting in that they get into the mechanics of how an idea not part of the dominant discourse can get assimilated into it in exchange for having certain aspects of it “censored” or labelled as “deviant”. I was reminded of this quote from Jay-Z: “[In my music I adopt a] technique and style to make sure that it [reaches] as many people as possible without losing its basic integrity.” Nevertheless, some of that integrity does indeed get corrupted, as can be seen from some of Jay-Z’s more mainstream albums.

Music aside, I think this idea illustrates an aspect of Nietzsche and Foucault that I find particularly attractive: a keen awareness of power dynamics and how they affect social philosophy. In comparison, so many of the other philosophers we’ve read at UBC seem blind to the basic realities of a fundamentally political human world (this is even the case, most absurdly, for many political philosophers). To me, a concern with power is a key thread that runs through the relationship between Nietzsche and Foucault, one that seems just as important as the fact that they both employ genealogy as their mode of analysis.

Speaking to this idea particularly, Foucault points out that change does not happen as easily as we think. Sometimes, what seems like meaningful change is merely the dominant discourse digesting a new piece of information, and attempting to reinterpret it in a way that fits within the status quo. In other words, change is far from mono-directional; sometimes, it is merely a momentary deviation which will eventually lead to “regression to the mean”, to borrow a statistical term.

For all the talk of “rapid technological change” in the 21st century, for instance, all that has happened over the past two decades has been a lot of noise without much progress. The iPod Touch replaces the mp3 player, which replaced the portable CD player, which replaced the walkman. Facebook has replaced MySpace which itself had replaced Friendster. A constant hamster-wheel-cycling is taking place, but there is no fundamental shift here in the way we relate to our technological tools, just as our relationship towards sexuality has not so much changed as been transmuted into a different form.

The other corollary point here is that when a challenge to the dominant discourse is “given a seat at the table”, so to speak, that is itself an indication that that challenge has begun to become irrelevant as a potential agent of fundamental change. For major change only happens when a challenge is sufficiently radical as to not be able to fit at “the table” in the first place. Bringing sexuality out into the open only works because there are elements of sexuality that can be fit into polite discourse, while the truly radical parts of it get lopped off and kept outside the room precisely because those are the parts with the potential to upset the heternormative paradigm.

Bottom-up vs. Top-down Analysis

In reading Foucault’s “Society Must Be Defended”, one point in particular stood out to me, which is that a bottom-up approach to understanding power is likely to be much more productive than a top-down approach, because one can conclude anything from the generalities of a top-down approach, and besides it is far more likely that larger power structures were built on top of the foundations of micro-level power dynamics, and not the other way round.

I definitely agree with Foucault here. There is a simple logical reason why top-down approaches are more liable to error – as one constructs a system with more independent propositions (implied or explicit), the probability for mistakes increases. Hence, a bottom-up analysis tends to be less susceptible to error because it starts off not by assuming large chunks of theory, but by establishing the simplest relationships first. One is reminded of the track record of macro-economic forecasters, who tend to do no better than a random coin flip. In contrast, financial traders who focus on a specific commodity or stock tend to predict financial movements better, even when they have no understanding of the underlying macro-economic theory that causes those movements.

As to Foucault’s second point, it reads as a remarkably nuanced justification of evolutionary psychology, and its approach of determining human behaviour by looking at our biological roots as a species. At the end of the day, despite our scientific and technological progress, human nature has stayed largely constant over the ages. It clearly makes more sense to start from the elements that have remained common for far longer than civilised society has existed, instead of beginning with the current socio-political status quo. One needs only look at any of the talking heads on Fox News to see that this realisation that “how things are” in today’s society is not necessarily the “natural” way of doing things, is far from a common understanding even in modern poolitical discourse.

There is a danger, though, with generalising family dynamics to larger social power structures, which is that one might be tempted to use the simple model found in the former to analyse the latter, which might lead one to an inaccurate, overly simplistic account. Looking forward to seeing how Foucault deals with this challenge as we go through the course.

The Randomness of History

One thing that really resounded with me about Foucault’s conception of history is his idea that history is not a linear teleological progression proceeding out of a clearly-defined origin, but is instead better thought of as a series of contingent events. For a long time now, this has been precisely the way I’ve viewed history. It’s actually kind of remarkable how much the ideas we’ve been reading about in this course resonate with my own ideas. I’m not sure if I’m unique in this or if it’s perhaps the fact that both Nietzsche and Foucault are relatively “modern” thinkers that makes their ideas so familiar? Does anyone else feel the same way about this?

In particular, there are two implications of this description of history I’d like to discuss.

Firstly, it suggests that we cannot predict the future based on the information we have in the present. This reminds me of the description often repeated in history textbooks about the origin of World War II: that the underlying basis of the conflict was the result of “gradually rising tensions” between the European powers. In this view, it was only a matter of time before a random spark set off the dynamite pile of political unrest in Europe. Yet when we actually examine the prices of war bonds – bonds that rise in price during war – in the period leading up to WWII, we find not a gradual increase in price, but rather relative stability, followed by a sudden jump AFTER the outbreak of the war. This suggests that people did not know beforehand that war was about to break out, thus undermining the idea of “gradually rising tensions”. This is just one of many examples that suggests that history doesn’t crawl, it jumps – and it does so unpredictably.

Secondly, it implies that the evaluation of the quality of our past decisions cannot be based on what we know at present, but rather, should take into account only the information we had at the point of decision-making. So someone could do something which results in disaster, but nonetheless be judged to have made a good decision, precisely because of the contingent nature of events. Conversely, this also means that the best decisions will not necessarily lead to the best results. I remember being struck a while back when, randomly walking into a Chapters bookstore, I saw a bestselling book on “how to lead like Mark Zuckerberg”. The premise was so absurd precisely because it was obvious to me Zuckerberg’s success was largely a product of luck, and was not necessarily attributable to any leadership decisions he had made over the course of his extremely short career. The founders of MySpace or Friendster could easily have been on the cover, if not for the fickle whims of Lady Fortuna.

In the light of these two observations, Santayana’s observation that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it” seems rather quaint. We are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, simply because those “mistakes” are usually only construed as such after the fact, from the padded (but unfortunately insulated) armchair of the future.

A Personal Take on the “Genealogy”

The more I read Nietzsche the more I like this guy!

I don’t think I’ve had as many “yes” moments with any other philosopher I’ve studied in courses here so far than I have with Nietzsche. When he says that a Homer could not have written an Achilles if he himself was one, or when he points out that the path to power is NOT the same as the path to happiness, but in fact is something we might prize over happiness, that could even lead to our unhappiness, I find myself ticking off mental checkboxes in my head. These (and others in earlier treatises) are ideas I had thought of independently before even coming Nietzsche, and at this point this is becoming so common that I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve maybe been reading a lot of stuff inspired by him without knowing it. Otherwise, the similarities are certainly starting to become freaky.

On a personal note, Nietzsche is often considered to be an INTJ on the widely-used MBTI personality test, the exact same type I am, which could explain many of the similarities in thought process (even though we don’t agree on everything). This is part of the reason I mentioned the other day in class that he maybe might not have intended for us to take the precise components of his arguments as particularly as we do, since INTJs are often known to be more concerned with making a point in the “best” (clearest, strongest, most vivid) way possible than about the formal “rigour” of the arguments themselves – which is not to say they can’t be analytical, of course. Obviously, Nietzsche was a highly gifted scholar who was more than capable of writing in the conventional “philosophical” style, but certainly in the “Genealogy” at least that doesn’t seem to be his main focus. Perhaps a more literary style of textual analysis would be more appropriate here?

Speaking of which, this post doesn’t seem to be all that “philosophical” either, but I just had to put this out there, since the “Genealogy” has just been such a fun read – something I never thought I’d say about a philosophical text!

Different Strokes?

I thought that Nietzsche’s discussion in section 13 of the 1st treatise on how strength has no choice but to express itself was very interesting. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the strong cannot help but be birds of prey, but I certainly think there is some merit in the idea that strength is not merely a passive capacity waiting to be used, but exerts its own demand for expression on its possessor, figuratively speaking.

I feel this point can even be generalised to all supranormal capacities in general. For instance, take the concept of intelligence. It has always been somewhat annoying to me that most moral philosophies seem to impose additional obligations upon the more intelligent or well educated agent. Peter Singer invokes this argument when he says that animals cannot be held responsible for eating other animals because they do not know better, but humans can, because they do. Also note that this argument would apply only to people who are a) intelligent enough to understand Singer’s argument, and b) educated enough to have come across his ideas in some form. Other humans who are not as intelligent or educated would presumably also be excused to some degree from exercising this standard of morality, albeit to a lesser extent than wild beasts, precisely because they lack this knowledge.

However, this issue is seldom seen as an unfair treatment of the more intelligent when it comes to morality. It is seldom pointed out that this discourages intellectual curiosity (and the building of all other capacities) since it privileges weakness and ignorance. Nietzsche’s insight is refreshing because he seems to suggest that birds of prey and lambs should be judged by different moral standards, one which does not penalise the bird of prey merely for being what it is. Even if, like me, one does not believe that birds of prey CANNOT become lambs, this point still holds, since all significant personal change takes a substantial amount of effort to bring about, so expecting someone to invest that effort just because he possesses X quality seems unfair, to say the least, ESPECIALLy when X quality is one that has historically resulted in great benefits for society as a whole as well.