Sunday, February 14, 2010

a note on discursive reading

Consider a review of Enjoyment: the moral significance of styles of life by John Kekes. However accurate the reviewer Jason Raibley is, we have a narrative that one can work with, which is valuable relative to its cogency as discursive episode on, in this case, a sense of living well.

A keynote of the narrative’s accuracy is (1) one’s sense that the account of the author’s thought implies what one might expect an expert in the area to argue; and (2) the reviewer’s disagreements hinge on views of the author’s thought that one might expect the author to have, regardless of the reviewer’s preferred view (which would be assessed on its own apparent merits).

But the reviewer’s claim about the author that causes the reviewer to disagree may not gel well with what the reviewer has non-disagreeably claimed earlier that the reviewed author thinks or claims to be the case. An implausibility of the author’s claim which the reviewer rejects, relative to the plausibility of what the reviewer earlier claimed about the author’s case might provide reason to defend the reviewed author in terms of reviewer misreading, just on the basis of the reviewer’s own not-yet-disagreeing portrait of the author’s case. In short, one may side with the reviewed author against the reviewer just on the basis of what the reviewer says about the reviewed author.

So, we have a narrative, a discursive episode with its own integrity. Whether or not reviewer misprision is taking place for the sake of the reviewer’s own views, a narrative has its own coherence or plausibility, in terms of the case(s) at hand. I may engage myself with the review as autonomous narrative, without a lot of concern about reviewer accuracy toward the reviewed author, just because the narrative is discursively cogent, educive (or provocative), and thereby useful.

However, I believe that Raibley reads Kekes accurately. I can see how Kekes might have the views that Raibley disagrees with. But I can side with Kekes against some of Raibley’s disagreements. And I can also agree with some of Raibley’s disagreements as a chance to improve the view of “Kekes,” as a discursive stance in a narrative I engage with, like I might respond to a letter.

So, Raibley’s review becomes an autonomous occasion for thinking about living well, relative to his reading of Kekes. As if there is no book, but merely a narrative of arguable views, the review provides an occasion to think about a conceptuality of living well. I read the narrative with much interest in “Kekes’” view, seeing how to make it better. I find Raibley’s disagreements useful in that venture. My sense of how to make Kekes’ view better (and avoid Raibley’s disagreements) derives from the approach to the well-growing life that I’ve developed (more or less). The review (as autonomous narrative) is an occasion to explicate the approach I want to take, by engaging with the Kekes/Raibley narrative.

But what I prefer to do is to go my own way, come back to the Raibley review relative to what I’ve done; then go to Kekes’ book to test myself. That would be giving pride of place to Kekes in my explication of an approach to the well-growing life. But others already have a place in line: Frankfurt, Slote, Velleman, and Brandon. So, I’ll engage Raibley’s narrative online, later this month, before moving on to “my” primary others.

I want to note one point, at the end of Raibley’s review. He says, appropriately, I think: “The synthetic abilities that are required for Kekes’ style of philosophical thinking and writing are perhaps undervalued in professional philosophy at present. But analytical acumen is also valuable and necessary, and in many spots, Kekes….[could have been] more clear and precise.” Kekes has written many books, including one titled The Art of Life, providing ample chances for precision in Kekes’ thought, though that fact alone doesn’t undermine Raibley’s point about lack of precision in Enjoyment. But one might expect that synthetic abilities might prevail later in a career and implicitly ask of the reader that a late book not be read in isolation. I’m not familiar with Kekes’ earlier books, so maybe Raibley’s point remains well-taken relative to Kekes’ career. But it seems to me, from Raibley’s review, that precision can be provided to Kekes’ view. Not dealing with other recent philosophers, as Raibley complains at the end of his review, is typical of mature philosophers.

But here is the point I want to make, why I’ve singled out Raibley’s endpoint: Synthetic abilities are undervalued in professional philosophy because they are so commonly miscarried, implying metaphysicalist desires (if not overt stances) that are untenable. But it’s not the business of a venture in cohering to be, at the same time, a venture in analysis. Analytic work might develop into synthetic positions (not in the sense of ‘synthetic’ that belongs to the analytic/synthetic distinction in Analytic philosophy). But synthetic positions are usually not meant to be derivations. A completely tenable position might have enough to do just by explicating what, it is claimed, can be argued with precision. An excellent floor plan for an awesome house is not claiming to be every subcontractor’s blueprint.