April 15, 2003

"I'm afraid I've committed an egregious foucault"

John Holbo is a professor of philosophy at the National University of Singapore, and (like everyone else) has a blog. He's also tried his hand at a Socratic dialogue, The Advantages and Disadvantages of Theory for Life, with excellent results. Holbo (or rather, Socrates and Phil) demolishes the following bit of received wisdom: that it is impossible to engage in criticism without some theory or another; "those who resist theory commit it by other means". As he says, this rests on an equivocation about "theory". On the one hand, there is little theory, which are the ordinary reasonably-coherent ideas one does indeed use to get through the day, or the book review. On the other hand, there is big theory, which is something like Freud, or Althusser, or (pace my friend J. J.) whatever the hell it is Deleuze tried to say. The cliche only has any bite if one believes that little theory is always some kind of disguised form of big theory, which is, to say the least, not obvious. Indeed, Holbo can't think of any sense in which this might be.

Here I wish to record a small quibble. A defender of the cliche might argue as follows. Consider (they would say) someone who seems to only be employing little theory in their reasoning. On closer examination, however, it turns out that the explicit part of their reasoning is full of formally invalid inferences, which are not positively fallacious but simply lacking major premises --- in a word, enthymemes. If one were to collect those suppressed major premises, which might be tacit and not consciously available to the reasoner, might they not constitute a system of generalizations as grandiose as any big theory? Thus "those who resist theory commit it by other means".

As usual, a lot rests on "might". There are usually lots of ways of fixing a formally defective argument, and the missing premises could be more or less grandiose. Why should we believe that the hidden premises are generally very ambitious? The partisan of theory-by-other-means might point to their friends who study particular cases of implicit theory and conclude that ambitious implicit premises are themselves good theories, since they parsimoniously account for large numbers of enthymemes. But this would only be good evidence if these analysts had severely tested alternatives involving quotidian, reasonable hidden premises. So the partisan of theory still loses, though they can put up a little more of a fight than Holbo allows.

(This takes it as a given that tacit premises are the right way to explain enthymemes and their kin. But I'll save the problems with that for a book reivew.)

Learned Folly

Posted by crshalizi at April 15, 2003 13:25 | permanent link

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