The space of blogging and the demands of reason – on arguments to be avoided.

The space of blogging is a particular instance of the space of writing and the space of philosophical blogging is itself a particular instance of the space of writing that intersects with a more general ‘space of reasons’. This last is the name given by Wilfrid Sellars to the particular realm of justificatory discourse, although it is sometimes taken to refer more broadly to the realm of any discourse whatsoever. For Sellars, ‘to know something’ is not a general fact which can be empirically tested somehow by checking a mental or neurological state of the entity claiming to know, it is rather to to identify an object that operates inside a particular ‘game of giving and asking for reasons’. This implies that if we characterise something as a knowledge claim then we are entitled to ask for reasons for the claim – how and why do you know this? That we’re entitled to ask for reasons doesn’t imply that we have to. We may well – and commonly do – accept a large number of claims that we take to be knowledge claims on the basis of a kind of trust, a default acceptance that operates until we are prompted to challenge the claim.

Some people want to extend the space of reasons to be co-extensive with the space of discourse itself. This is the move made in Kukla and Lance’s book, ‘ “Yo!” and “Lo!”: the pragmatic topography of the space of reasons’ (Harvard, 2009). Robert Brandom defines the space of reasons as a space of ‘inferential relations’, in which each participant occupies a slightly different perspective because of their variable observational position but is able nonetheless to engage with others, governed by ‘deontological score-keeping’. Both of these develop Sellars initial idea in interesting directions but the point of the original distinction was to distinguish a space of reasons from a space of causality, thereby enabling a kind of double-articulation theory which prevented radical reductionism. No longer would it be necessary or possible to reduce propositional, conceptual or intentional objects to physical, empirical or material objects. The space of reasons aimed to guarantee an autonomy to propositional, conceptual or intentional objects. These objects would be found in the form of claims of one sort of another.

If the space of discourse is co-extensive with the space of reasons then any mode of discourse is open to a call for justification. The nature of the justification, however, would still depend largely on the nature of the object. If the object is a knowledge claim then it calls for reasons but there is an ambiguity here. Some objects of discourse might be thought of as expressions of knowledge, others as expressions of an absence of knowledge. The latter would, it seems, no longer be subject to the call for justificatory reasons. If the expression ‘I don’t understand’ were responded to with the question, ‘well why not?’ then the ‘justification’ is likely to be entirely circular – ‘because I don’t’. Pedagogically these type of cases call for careful negotiation – a good teacher who is faced with a pupil who simply says ‘I don’t understand’ has a duty, owing to the social role they’re engaged in, to try and work out why there is an absence of understanding. Usually this might involve taking the pupil back to a position they’re happy with and feel they do understand and then slowly working forward again to find the gap or breach in the discursive network. Nothing, however, guarantees that this strategy is capable of success. In principle some things are simply not available to be understood by some understanders. To think otherwise would be to suggest that a complete coincidence of position can occur between two perspectives, which would be absurd since this would render the very ‘perspectival’ nature that prompts dialogue to be non-existent. Put another way, there is only a need to ask for reasons if there is a condition of difference between the claimant and the respondent and a ‘pure co-understanding’ by a respondent of the claimant would render communication and discourse no longer necessary.

The space of blogging offers a curious example of this necessary failure of pure understanding which renders philosophical activity almost redundant if such activity is taken to involve the production of agreement, a kind of commonality akin to pure co-understanding. Occasionally philosophical bloggers produce arguments that are ‘stand-alone’ objects but more commonly they produce arguments in the more mundane sense of a disagreement. Here, in the disagreeable blog, the argument is a series of claims, with justifications, as to why X is wrong, bad, weak, incorrect or somehow or other in error, with a general view to reduce the value of the opponent in what presents itself as a zero-sum game, a trial of strength. There are occasionally ‘argument objects’ produced but these respond not to any specific opponent but rather to the demands of reason more generally. It is more common to find these argument objects within philosophical books, not least because of the mitigation of ‘call-response’ dynamics that are the condition of the space of blogging. It is, perhaps, for this reason that in general philosophical discussion in blogs is weak, limited and riven by a kind of personal politics that is amusing to watch but perhaps exhausting and unproductive to participate in. Philosophy and in particular the production of argument objects benefits less from discussion than might originally be thought. Perhaps this is why Deleuze seems to touch on something important when he decries the value of arguments in general – it is not that he doesn’t want to argue with you, rather that he wants to respond more directly to the demands of reason.

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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