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Basically, in case it comes up, I mean something more than Hegelian (?) “dialectic”, an idea of society or knowledge moving forward through refutation, synthesis, progress.

I am thinking about how dialectical culture is, especially when it comes to social movements, values shifting or changing, etc. I think this might be more related to people like Judith Butler, Hayden White, not sure though.

The idea is that (my own contention, anyway) a shocking amount of modern cultural dynamics have some sort of background, precedent factors that led to them, but arguably, this does not imply they are particularly rational, at all. I am much more interested in the concept of “invented history” I heard once (can’t remember the author), about just how much of a “culture” are a bunch of facts, assertions, attitudes, beliefs being circulated by and between people, but given how intrinsically non-rational a big portion of how we think can be, very little of this is some kind of absolute, proven condition on the world. A lot of it are beliefs expressed in a language that isn’t even very precise, information relayed from somewhere else, a source you find trustworthy, not something you witnessed or experienced yourself.

The interesting thing is that it seems very cyclical. A sense that your culture has some sort of irrationality or falsehood or inherent error in it, invites one to refute that false idea, with some contrary one.

But on a cultural level (as opposed to a more “scientific” one), it is hard to imagine that generally being tied with some sort of “progress”. Instead, it’s more like endless contrarianism and revision. I think one of the big reasons why this happens is reification, which I am still trying to find a simple definition of, but for now, my definition is, when people do not understand that rhetoric is just rhetoric; they do not fathom a difference between how language can embody a certain idea, but that that expression may not be that meaningful, since language is imperfect. It’s almost like the one thing most humans wouldn’t want to do is embrace the meaninglessness of language; it would be too counterintuitive to endlessly deconstruct and analyze the things people say, rather than just engaging with it in a primary way, a human modus operandi.

In other words. It seems so much to do with social values are defined in opposition to something, maybe that’s what gives them propulsion. First, we encounter a narrative about something bad, that needs to be corrected. Culture may slowly shift in that direction, as it realizes some previously unacknowledged moral failing inside itself, but the pace may be slow, at first. But the problem is how hard it is to establish some socio-cultural-moral theory without it being “politicized”, or partial - values and ethics are campaigns, they are promoted, they are movements, they are not impartial, they are advocating something.

It seems like all such movements are fueled by rhetoric. I wonder if it is almost intrinsically impossible to rally public sentiment while pushing oneself to the extreme degrees of mere objectivity: can there be any concept of morality, or prescription, at all, in a set of statements of “pure objectivity”?

But if you abandon that, you end up falling into the same cycle of irrationality, to a large extent - in order to promote something, to fuel emotional support or an attachment, you have to become partial, and I think this requires a descent from adherence to perfect accuracy. It will only naturally follow that some examples or anecdotes or narratives or observations become more salient in your mind than others. And now, whatever the last cultural movement was, is just effecting a next cultural countermovement, which is reacting against the movement it doesn’t like - without realizing that in doing so, it’s sealing its own fate to eventually become a social movement that’s too infested with its own selective values and narratives it chose for itself - it too, will get reified, will reach a point where it spreads more by its own circulation of new narratives and rhetoric, than as a reaction to its original impetus, which may have actually faded more than they realize, which is now kept alive more as the imagined opponent more than any real people, themselves.

So, what philosophies or theories or people have discussed or analyzed this?

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  • The natural world doesn't have narratives. We are still evolving to cope with them, like it took so long for legs and feet to adjust to upright walking. Give it a few million years.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 26 at 13:34

2 Answers 2

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+450

You might like this answer about the history of dialectic argument, and the emergence of Historical Materialism: Relation of dialectics, as of Hegel and Marx, toward Enlightenment liberalism

And, on invented history: Do historians have responsibility in how they decide to depict something?

Picking through for what you seem to be asking:

I am thinking about how dialectical culture is, especially when it comes to social movements, values shifting or changing, etc.

...

modern cultural dynamics have some sort of background, precedent factors that led to them

...

endless contrarianism and revision

So, you can look at economic cycles. Schumpeter Waves are interesting, the idea that international trade has gone through cycles driven by developing maturing and decay of successive critical technologies. Discussed here: What will humanity do IF and when technological progression ends? Something important is how technology compounds, and accelerates. We find evolution doing that too.

Consider how a market trader with a substantially better model of the economic system, will affect the behaviour of the economy. People might copy their trades, mirror their style of trading, and reverse-engineer their models knowing what kind of predictions they could make. And then - the economy would behave differently! There is plenty about sentiment and 'animal spirits' in economics, and how homo economicus is invalid: the idea markets consist of independent rational agents pursuing only self-interest. But more interesting is the idea there is a feedback loop, and it includes how models of the system, used in the system, change the system. Douglas Hofstadter has this idea about strange-loops and tangled hierarchies, that this kind of feedback and self-reference is how self-consciousness emerges. It's interesting for thinking about compounding, as the model changes the system it models but also becomes part of it, a model can interrogate and inform a system about itself.

Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Civilisations, suggests that resource depletion, population increase, natural disasters, and other bumps-in-the-road will inevitably hit a society, and that if it fails to develop increases in capacity to face those challenges, the society or civilisation will undergo 'rapid simplification' or collapse, the costs of the level of social complexity won't be able to be sustained. Social trust, a sense that justice is being done, and that capable motivated people will have opportunitues to do well, are a kind of resource that may be less visibly important in peacetime. When war or disaster hits, everyone gets to find out whether people will lay down their lives for each other, or will run for the hills. Wilson and Pickett's 'The Spirit Level' is interesting on how inequality erodes social cohesion. Here I make a game-theory case that 'expanding the circle of moral concern' increases social cohesion and scope of cooperation: Studies exploring the rationale of gender equality

Historical Materialism goes beyond Marx and Engels, with Fukiyama using the method to declare that the end if the Cold War was the End of History, because the 'absolute idea' of political systems had arrived, and triumphed in the dialectic, and all future systems would be built on or from it. It is clear he was wrong. And a huge problem with identifying trends, is that it can feel very satisfying in accounting for the past, but is terrible at prediction. Marx declared Historical Materialism a science, and Popper clarified the bounding-definition of science to exclude it (and Freud). The actual science of social change is Sociocultural Evolution.

Erica Chenoweth's research pointed to the idea there is a critical threshold for revolutions to succeed, in her book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, and discussed accessibly eg in this BBC article The '3.5% rule': How a small minority can change the world. In this picture it takes the build-up of a constituency behind a cgange, and a representative or group to enact it. So it would nake sense how a clear critique has to emerge, and a change to fix it, for an iteration in system to occur.

As @Rusi notes, the 'myth of progress' is primarily a political motivation of 'progressive' leftwing politics (although by no means always, like the Nazis), and I'd also look to how Marx was explicitly in pursuit of utopia, and Fukiyama pictured a Liberal-Democracy as utopia. Whereas Fear and Anxiety Drive Conservatives' Political Attitudes, especially opposition to change, social and otherwise. I think a lot can be accounted for about political change, by how building a constituency change tends to cohere around hope or fear. Jonathan Haidt's research suggests whether we feel secure or under threat during our teen years permanently impacts our political disposition towards whether fear or hope most motivates us, and we can link that to the ambiguity-tolerance/intolerance axis in psychology.

In terms of cycles of ideas, Baudrillard saw us as involved in stages of progressive abstraction, towards building hyperalities. Discussed here: How are hyperrealities created psychologically?

You say

when people do not understand that rhetoric is just rhetoric; they do not fathom a difference between how language can embody a certain idea, but that that expression may not be that meaningful, since language is imperfect

Is there a clear line though? What about science rhetoric, that can explain say how to win a war, and have real consequences? Or do you mean failure to recognise something as rhetorical? We have formal and informal fallacies to help us identify bad forms of attempted pursuasion. Philospher Harry Frankfurt identified 'bullshit' as "speech intended to persuade without regard for truth", which we can relate to the Sophists that Socrates despised who only aimed to win arguments, but also to advertising executives, lawyers, politicians, lobbyists, and so on. Socratic Dialogue was core to the founding of Plato's Academy and so of the founding of academia: the good-faith engagement in dispute, towards finding better answers, which will satisfy all participants that they are the best answer.

A sense that your culture has some sort of irrationality or falsehood or inherent error in it, invites one to refute that false idea, with some contrary one

That sounds like Sartre's bad faith, our refusal to recognise our actual freedom, about our choices or beliefs. For instance people often make an Appeal To Nature fallacy, to justify why some way of behaving is a certain way, and should stay that way, when in fact we get to choose.

Hume with his Is-Ought distinction got at how while we reason around moral problems, the values we begin our moral thinking from are unreasoned, they are feelings, and that must be the case because how the world is arranged cannot compel us to feel we should behave a certain way.

In Buddhist thought they have the Three Marks of Existence, three inescapable points about how things are, that our intuitions generally mislead us about, and failure to grasp which sets us on a track towards wanting what we can't have, and creating suffering. Of the Marks, 'Anatta', the lack of any unchanging self or essence to things, I think relates to your point about reification. For Buddhists the antidote is to recognise Sunyata, 'dependent origination', or how nothing is truly seperate, nor fixed.

the problem is how hard it is to establish some socio-cultural-moral theory without it being “politicized”, or partial

Rorty has this term '[final vocabulary][10]' for this kind of attempt to once-and-for-all settle things. And the problem is, you can satisfy yourself that you have done this, but only another person can say if your answers, your final vocabulary or framing of the way things are, satisfies them.

Can there be any 'pure objectivity?' I put it to you, that objectivity is just reified intersubjectivity, discussed here: What is an objective property?

That is, by sharing experiences, and imagining ourselves in all positions, we think we can not only assemble subjectivities and check them against each other, but transcend them and see a world that does not depend on them. Logically though, we can't. Convergence of evidence, consilience, of what lots of peiple see, is better evidence than what one person saw. It's not proof though as collective hallucinations show.

This isn't just a footnote issue either, for instance if how we experience time is conditioned by what our senses can handle, we could be being deeply mislead about reality, with no yet imagined way to check (and a lack of a quantum gravity theory does indeed suggest we don't understand time though it seems so intuitive). Basic things about how we think reality is, could be only how it is for minds like ours. Indeed, that seems inevitable. Sheldrake proposed that we seriously investigate the nicely radical question [Is the Sun conscious?][11] Can we reasonably know anything about such a min's reality if it were?

[10]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contingency,_Irony,_and_Solidarity#2)_The_contingency_of_selfhood [11]: https://galileocommission.org/is-the-sun-conscious-rupert-sheldrake/

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  • See my reply above to Rusi about the false idea that the myth of "progress" is primarily leftist (oh, and nazi, because of course we all know the real far right is in fact the left... )
    – armand
    Jun 28 at 0:32
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    @armand: The origin of leftwing & rightwing was during the French Revolution, with those supporting the Ancien Regime & loyal to religion & the king to the presidents rights, & revolutionaries & reformists to the left. Of course there is variety in left & right politics, but I think the motivated-by-hope vs motivated-by-fear trends do provide useful insight. For instance while idolising technological progress, the Nazis were primarily motivated by what they feared
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 28 at 6:58
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    Thanks, that is a lot of good material to work through, to help me myself develop and figure out what I even think - which was the goal of asking. I thank you.
    – Julius H.
    Jun 28 at 10:16
  • @CriglCraglthanks for teaching me the history of my country, man. Don't know what i would do without you. Yet it adresses none of the points I mentionned to Rusi.
    – armand
    Jun 28 at 11:45
  • @armand: You made a different & irrelevent point. By saying "the myth of linear progress" you are intentionally excluding radical utopians calling for revolution like Marx. Steady change, can be about invoking how that worked in the past, so no systemic changes are required. You evade political analysis & necessary generalisation about trends, by gesturing at exceptions. That is a shallow way to proceed. I fear our opinions are unlikely to converge, & comments are not the place for debate. Post an answer if you think you have better evidence.
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 28 at 12:07
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It would be helpful if your question was more clear, but based on my understanding of it I think you'd want a thorough understanding of biology, evolutionary theory and it's implications on society, and a range of sociologists (Berger and Giddens come to mind, but you're not going to get a clear answer to this in any one of their books).

I also think you may be over-estimating how mature the field of Sociology is (it really isn't that mature - even work in the past few decades). While there are some helpful titles in the past century, most of it hasn't integrated true evolutionary theory into it's ideas, which is critical for understanding the world.

To give you a little insight into this question, you need to stop looking at world society as something that moves forward, but rather something that emerges from human nature / psychology, and evolves over time. The brunt of our institutions (religious, political, educational etc) have no objective purpose or meaning, they're just intrinsic components of our world given human need and psychology.

We appear to move forward and 'progress', but this is really just due to our propensity to organize. We're smart enough to build helpful social groups (band together to help each other), but that's about it.

So to answer your question - I don't think any philosophers or sociologists have discussed this directly. You would need to read a broad range of sociology and evolutionary theory to understand society implicitly, based on what is out there.

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  • +1 'progress' is a core religious tenet — unsurprisingly of progressivist (leftist) denominations
    – Rushi
    Jun 27 at 13:16
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    @Rusi please keep political partisanship to a minimum on philosophy SE. Also 'progress' is hardly exclusive to the political left. Economically liberal people use it all the time: "regulations/ minimum wages/labor unions stiffle innovation", "ecology is passeist", etc.... the myth of linear progress is actually much more a tenet of the liberal bourgeoisie (consistent historical materialists understand that any gain is precarious). And very few people are conservative to the point of rejecting any form of progress (it would require almost cultish behavior).
    – armand
    Jun 28 at 0:30

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