Thursday, December 27, 2018

Cliché and Metaphysics

"The well-known historico-sociological construct of a "ghetto mentality"... has been repeatedly dragged in to explain behaviour which was not at all confined to the Jewish people and which therefore cannot be explained by specifically Jewish factors. The suggestion proliferated until someone who evidently found the whole discussion too dull had the brilliant idea of evoking Freudian theories and attributing to the whole Jewish people a "death wish" -- unconscious, of course." - Arendt, Postscript to 1964 edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem 

Today I am going to use the blog to put out some very incomplete thoughts. I hope this sort of thinking out loud will be of interest to yinz. I recently read (for the fist time all the way through) Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt. Being an educated fellow in the West (and having seen this film) I was broadly aware of the thesis already. The horrifying thing about Eichmann is not that he committed great evil out of a sadistic desire to inflict pain or a passionately felt bigoted animosity for the Jews; rather, he was just thoughtlessly performing the tasks he was assigned, because that was the done thing. It just so happened that his tasks involved seeing to the systematic slaughter of millions, but he did them just the same as he would have done them if told to save as many, or simply get them from A to B on an errand. Eichmann was thoughtless, his evil was banal, and the real lesson of the trial is that world historic crimes can be committed by unimpressive ordinary people to whom it never really occurred to do any better. (Such is Arendt's thesis - not having done any research beyond read this book I am not in a position to judge the accuracy of her claims. In general, throughout this blog post my aim is to do exegesis, I do not always endorse the views I outline.) But one thing that hadn't yet reached me through pop culture osmosis was Arendt's intense contempt for cliché phrases.

A substantial part of her evidence for the claim that Eichmann was a thoughtless man rests upon his use of cliché. Eichmann, she reports, would get elated when he could find some "fine words" to fit an occasion. But it turns out these words did not really have to mean anything or convey much of interest. As long as they were sufficiently grandiose and seemed like The Sort of Thing One Says at such an occasion, this was good enough for him. His last words, even, were a stock phrase from German funeral rituals. It seemed that his thought ran on autopilot, guided by pleasant sounding bromides that he never much reflected upon to arrive at unexamined conclusions whose practical implications should have horrified him. Arendt repeatedly draws attention to his invocation of these phrases, and makes much of the role they seemed to play in both his mental life and the story he told himself concerning his actions.

Though Arendt resists generalising her conclusions too much, I feel it safe to say that we her readers are at least supposed to take away the conclusion that one ought not be like Eichmann. Where Eichmann was thoughtless and passively went along with what was normal in his social environment, we have a duty to actually live examined lives and properly consider for ourselves the consequences of what we say and do. Therefore, I take it, we should avoid having clichés play the role in our life that they did in Eichmann's. What does that amount to?

Here is where the quoted section I opened with comes in. To me the sarcasm about the Freudian construct was rather reminiscent of her discussion of stock phrases. There is something contemptible about bringing in this untestable claim about death wishes; it is done for frivolous reasons to liven things up, or perhaps (the passage is ambiguous) by somebody who simply does not enjoy thinking about difficult social questions and would like to draw the discussion to a close with a pseudo-explanation. It has the hallmarks of one of Eichmann's clichés: it fools one into thinking a conclusion has been safely reached, actively discourages further examination of its own applicability, and yet is such that if you thought about its implications more (in this case, in particular, if one noticed that an explanation peculiar to Jewish people does not fit the evidence) you would realise that it cannot be right to go along with it.

This suggests an affinity between Arendtian cliché and Carnap's analysis of metaphysics in his Elimination. Logical empiricists do not always object to sentences which are not verifiable. Not everything one says must be cognitively meaningful. Rather the objection is to language which "pretends to be something it is not" (from page 79 here). Metaphysicians seem to be making the sort of claims for which evidence may be asked and given and consequences drawn. And indeed metaphysicians will appeal to sundry observations from science and daily life to support their claims. But in fact (according to Carnap) their claims are systematically cut off from any such implications. They may encourage us to adopt beliefs about the world and arouse in us certain attitudes to our situation, but they have not done so via any actual process of evidencing. The danger is, though, that they appear to have the support of evidence and argument. Metaphysics thus encourages us to go along with things which, upon closer scrutiny, we realise we never had good reason to go along with in the first place. And it does so by employing a mode of speech which obscures, and so diminishes our ability to really think about the actual difference our claims would make to the course of experience if accepted and acted upon. I suggest, therefore, that part of avoiding Arendtian cliché is avoiding metaphysics in Carnap's sense.

The comparison might sound harsh - some of my best friends are metaphysicians! But given that the context of Carnap's essay was an attack on Heidegger, the connection to resisting Nazi evasion of real thought can hardly be said to be something I am simply contriving. Of course, I do not think that all metaphysics facilities Naziism any more than I (or Arendt) think(s) that all cliché does. But the point is just that, if I am right about what Arendt thinks is wrong with cliché then it is the same as that which Carnap thinks is wrong with metaphysics: it's a way of speaking that misleadingly appears to give grounds for accepting claims which, if we were to properly think about them, have actually not been supported at all. What is more, due to the actions we can be inspired to take, this thoughtless acceptance of claims can be dangerous for both the individual and society at large.

As mentioned, this thought is incomplete. For one thing, I need to go and look more systematically at what Arendt says about cliché. For another, I think a more interesting empiricist connection than the Carnap-Arendt line actually relates Arendt to Hempel.  But I am just going to tease that connection here, and say that it relates to this paper - Hempel's thoughts about how an empiricist must make sense of theoretical terms may, I think, bear an interesting relationship to what a proper avoidance of Arendtian cliché would look like. Alas I don't have the time to write more than this, so I hope that by just floating the idea here that there's more to be said in the Arendt-empiricist connection I may encourage others to take up the investigation.

(I, ah, borrowed, today's format from Digressions and Impressions. For all I know this is all entirely old news - sorry Arendt scholars! As penance, I recommend folk read these essays. To anyone who has read Graham Priest's One, I found myself thinking that after this blog post I may say that Carnap is the gluon uniting Xunzi and Arendt. Two more blog posts forthcoming in short order. One, which will be hosted by Shelley Tremain (I hope! If she's not too angry at me for how late I am!) on meritocracy. The other will be my full book report for this year, where I will post short reviews of every book I read in 2018. I liked this blog post so while I am linking things and talking about other blog posts I'll link that too.)

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