Thursday, March 7, 2013

On the Possibility of Epistemic Ressentiment?

In this post, I would like to expand the case for what I call epistemic resssentiment. The possibility of epistemic ressentiment came to me when I happened upon a forgotten passage in Scheler’s Ressentiment. In his Ressentiment. Scheler traces all varieties of experience in which ressentiment occurs, and proposes several initial forms in examples to arrive at the core of true ressentiment proper. Towards the end of the first part, Scheler writes:

...a secret ressentiment underlies every way of thinking which attributes creative power to mere negation and criticism. Thus modern philosophy I deeply penetrated by a whole type of thinking which is nourished by ressentiment. I am referring to the view that the “true” and the “given” is not that which is self-evident, but rather that which is “indubitable” or “incontestable,” which can be maintained against doubt and criticism. Let us also mention the principle of “dialectical method,” which wants to produce not only non-A, but even B through the negation of A. All the seemingly positive valuations and judgments of ressentiment are hidden devaluations and negations. Whenever convictions are not arrived at by direct contact with the world and the objects themselves, but indirectly through critique of the opinions of others, the processes of thinking are impregnated with ressentiment. The establishment of “criteria” for testing the correctness of opinions then becomes the most important task. Genuine and fruitful criticism judges all opinions with reference to the objects itself. Ressentiment criticism on the contrary, accepts no “object” that has not stood the test of criticism.[1]

And two paragraphs later, Scheler informs us of the formal structure of ressentiment itself:

The formal structure of ressentiment expression is always the same: A is affirmed, valued, and praised not for its own intrinsic quality, but with the unverbalized intention of denying, devaluating, and denigrating B. A is “played off” against B.[2]

In these two passages, I do not intend an extensive exegesis. Instead, I will expand what Scheler means in order to offer an account of epistemic ressentiment. I will distingusi two varieties: Metaphysical Lifeworld Ressentiment and Interlocutor Ressentiment. I find difficulty with the latter and insist on the plausibility of the former.
In the extensive passage, Scheler introduces the modern period and dearth of trust in self-evidency. For him, the condition of modern philosophy is one in which the true and the given cannot be experienced at all, let alone be the subject matter of a knowledge claim. Modernity exemplified in Descartes offers only the inner working of subjectivity as a measure for any knowledge claim. A knowledge claim must be inconstestable and indubitable. For Scheler, this Cartesian emphasis removes the knowledge claim from putting us into contact with the world and its objects in the right way. For Scheler, only direct contact with the world and objects themselves serve as a normative principle for making knowledge claims. If a philosophical system does not have contact with the world and its objects in the right way, then those knowledge claims become questionable. In Cartesian thought, the world and its objects are divided into the realm of extension and the workings of the subjectivity where one feels the valence of self-reference as a source of validation for all knowledge claims. Yet, what is really happening is that the subject is the affirming the value of itself to deny and denigrate the realm of objects. Descartes’s cogito plays up the self-referential function as a measure to which all other claims must be grounded upon, yet the privilege of one is made at the expense of nature in an unconvincing division between thinking substance and extended substance. Therefore, any philosophical system that has its source and validation in the subject cannot tease out the difference between itself and genuine knowledge claims without succumbing to epistemic ressentiment. In the preceding passage, Scheler describes two forms of epistemic ressentiment: 1) Metaphysical Lifeworld Ressentiment and 2) Interlocutor Ressentiment. Let me first take up Metaphysical Lifeworld Ressentiment.
The concern for a test in the Cartesian sense, the test of indubitability, is a case of epistemic ressentiment of asserting the value of the subject over and against the world. I call this Metaphysical Lifeworld Ressentiment. In truth, any philosophical system – as is the case with both empiricism and rationalism is secretly “nourished by ressentiment.” These examples embody a system that introduces the unnecessary division between intentional acts and objects. As I have said earlier, when Scheler observes a dearth of the world and object leading one’s own epistemic efforts, this commitment is a residuum of Scheler’s phenomenology of “spiritual seeing.” Such spiritual seeing requires only that a commitment to experience of acts and objects be described in tandem with each other.

…phenomenology is neither the name of a new science nor a substitute for the word philosophy; it is the name of an attitude of spiritual seeing in which one can see or experience something which otherwise remains hidden, namely, a realm of facts of a particular kind. I say attitude, not method. A method is a goal-directed procedure for thinking about facts…before they have been fixed by logic, and second, of a procedure of seeingThat which is seen and experienced is given only in the seeing and experiencing of the act itself, in its being acted out; it appears in that act and only in it. [3]

 In this way, we can easily understand why Scheler urges the return of both the “world” and “object” in the long passage after mentioning Descartes. The object is “that which is seen and experienced is given only in the seeing and experiencing of the act itself, in its being acted out; it appears in the act and only in it.” In Ressentiment, the lack of phenomenological content of acts-in-relation-to-the-world is lost in Descartes’s succumbing to epistemic ressentiment. The real open question remains, however. In proposing this initial form of epistemic ressentiment, does Scheler advance an implicit commitment to interpret all non-phenomenological forms of philosophizing as guilty of epistemic ressentiment? I will return to this question later. For now, I think we are ready for a formal statement of epistemic ressentiment (ER) for both Metaphysical Lifeworld Ressentiment and Interlocutor Ressentiment:

ER: is an epistemic act or system of epistemic acts constituting an entire philosophical system in which the valuation of a knowledge claim A is affirmed not for the intrinsic quality of honoring the intentional relation and expressing truth, but to denigrate another knowledge claim B or system of epistemic acts consistent with B.

            Next, let me transition to Interlocutor Ressentiment. We can see this definition in the second matter before us, dialectical method. In that method, it is usually accepted that an Interlocutor can put forth a conclusion resting on several premises and another epistemic agent can propose their own counter-argument as to why the first argument is either unsound in its content or invalid in its structure. I largely accept these norms given that adherence to these norms produces better philosophical positions than those that might ignore these norms of good reasoning. However, there are times when these norms are not guided by a search for truth, but are instrumental tools in the critique of opinions. In some ways, the social experiences at some APA meetings tend to devolve into harsh exchanges that feign civility between interlocutors. In those instances, argumentation – like subject/object split systems in the modern period, are capable of being more concerned with the “establishment of criteria for testing the correctness of opinions” than “fruitful criticism” judging opinion in relation to the “object itself. When Scheler mentions the “object itself,” he is expressing a concern for the phenomenological object. Phenomenological seeing is, therefore, a normative principle at work here. The whatness of the phenomenon guides our insight of the object correlating to the epistemic act in immanent intuition. The object opens itself up to our epistemic act. Insofar as we are valuing truth itself in the epistemic act, the object must attend the act to get it right.
            Scheler is pretty clear that true ressentiment requires two elements. First, the person feeling ressentiment must be impotent, and incapable of releasing the emotive discharge of ressentiment. Moreover, the feeling of ressentiment requires comparison with others—typically in the form of envy and jealously. From the following two passages, the comparison between subject/object split modern thinkers and those who use the dialectic method, neither envy nor jealously seem especially apt for what I have been talking about here. For the modern thinkers, the comparison is made from a stable subject against an indifferent world of objects. The epistemic acts of modern thinkers in subject-object epistemologies are more concerned with logical consistency than letting direct contact with the world and objects guide understanding. In this way, modern thinkers never understand the primal-urge drives and affective instincts at work in a particular metaphysical system. In fact, Scheler and Nietzsche would agree that only through philosophical reflection can the very unconscious motives and factors shaping a metaphysical system and cultural lifeworld be brought to the foreground. These unconscious motives can be a source of value delusion in which delusive preferences are promoted by inhering in the very heart of the metaphysical system for an entire cultural ethos. An ethos for Scheler is a particular understanding of the objective value-rankings in which an individual and culture may have a true or false ranking of the eternal value-rankings. For instance, a cultural ethos may prefer pleasure over the epistemic truth, and this value-preferencing while not right when measured against Scheler’s value-rankings may be ingrained in their lifeworld. As such, these ingrained tendencies and responses underly the entire metaphysical lifeworld ethos. In Descartes, for instance, all persons are reduced to a homogenous universal rational subject that with the use of reason will come to be a “master and possessor of nature.” Clearly, Scheler thinks that the function of phenomenological reflection brings the immanent relation between the person and the primordial feeling of the knowledge claim and its object into full view, even beyond the particular ethos in which one is living. Otherwise, a person may be deceived by the value-delusion that redirects the drives, instincts and desires implicitly shaping the understanding of a knowledge claim and its object into a misapprehension of how values are ranked objectively. For this very reason, Resisting epistemic ressentiment occurs when persons value truth, justice and the beautiful over the particular ethos that lowers these values of the object to serve some other purpose.
            In the dialectical method of philosophy, the social experience can serve other purposes beyond truth. In some ways, Scheler’s brief allusion through the powers of negation of non-A and the denunciation of B seem suffuse with an awareness of the problems in social epistemology in which interest/belief and power/knowledge are intimately interwoven. Like before, the mere criticism of an opinion without reference to the object employs the same phenomenological norm as before. Without being guided by the act-object correlating structure, the use of dialectical method can conceal what is truly occurring. Notice, however, in the formal definition of ressentiment Scheler regards the relation of the negation of A as a silent “unverbalized” devaluation of B, even if B is not strictly mentioned. In the much the same way as before, the devaluation of someone else’s opinion involves here the comparison of one’s belief to that of another. The social reality can be a dialogic exchange that occurs in speech or writing. Using the dialogic exchange in a dialectic method entails a social act. For Scheler, social acts entail the presence of the others in order for them to be realized. The dialectic method, therefore, is social and intersubjective as the earlier example of a metaphysical system. The introduction of a test of correctness conceals that the exchange between two or more interlocutors, yet ressentiment is a movement of psychic energy that once internalized and repressed lashes out in the epistemic act shared with others. In ressentiment, one person becomes devalued by the other in an exchange. On the surface, this epistemic ressentiment is difficult to see. The social aspect of the epistemic ressentiment is not concerned with truth but through devaluation and negation. In devaluation and negation, a silent intention is unconcerned with truth. The devalued person illustrates the stupidity found in the heart of his personal core beliefs. The devalued person and his beliefs are regarded as a cause for why others do not accept my beliefs.
            We are now in a position to evaluate both types. First, I will mention the problem with the Interlocutor Ressentiment given in Scheler’s exposition of the dialectic method. Here, Scheler’s case is a bit overstated, nor is Scheler’s agitation of the modern period and its inability to allow evidence through intuition freely given. These are insights that need more refinement, and I find them insufficiently articulated in epistemic ressentiment. In the dialectic method, arguments are scrutinized by offering up counterexamples and reasons that might falsify a premise in the argument. Moreover, someone might show that the argument contradicts itself, the conclusion is not supported by the premises or any other number of argumentative mechanics. These argumentative mechanics are accepted as norms for philosophizing generally speaking. Given that philosophy inquires into conceptual questions that common sense, faith or science alone cannot grasp, the application of dialectic method and the logical norms ensure that philosophizing can arrive at truth. In this way, logical norms and dialectic method can conceal some silent intention unverbalized intention for epistemic ressentiment, but it would be very hard for the activity alone in the critique of mere opinions to conceal such intentions due to the wide range of those logical norms associated with dialectic method. Even phenomenological seeing requires logical consistency and the avoidance of contradiction when the phenomenologist describes the act-object intentional structure. These are norms that govern phenomenology as well as underscore dialectic method. As such, direct phenomenological contact with the world and objects is not an entirely reliable indicator when epistemic ressentiment occurs between two interlocutor as an ability to honor the truth as Scheler seems to imply here. What I will say is that phenomenological seeing is necessary for detecting epistemic ressentiment just not sufficient. Not everyone engaged in argumentation or claiming knowledge in relation to someone else is interested in honoring the truth as they should, but for those that value truth above lower values in Scheler’s rankings are immune from epistemic ressentiment. Epistemic ressentiment is better understood as a value-delusion.
            If epistemic ressentiment is better understood as a form of value-delusion, then a revision of my formal definition is required. Particularly, I must revise what ambiguously appears as “denigration” and qualify what I mean by it. The denigration of B is a distortion of what is co-given or co-felt and like the metaphysical lifeworld ressentiment, there is a distortion on the part of what I know from how the cultural lifeworld constitutes my knowledge in both the affective and cognitive dimensions. Both these experiences embody how a particular ethos can reveal the value-preferences of an entire culture. In other words, the case for epistemic ressentiment makes sense as an opening up the possibility of what will become Scheler’s Principles of a Sociology of Knowledge. While I do not have space to develop the following thought, it should be shared. I conjecture that the pursuit of real factors in epistemic acts fosters epistemic ressentiment, and the pursuance of ideal factors avoids it. Let me transition to Metaphysical Lifeworld Ressentiment.
            Scheler’s insights for Metaphysical Lifeworld Ressentiment are better developed. Still, I would like to pause and return to my earlier rhetorical question: In proposing this initial form of epistemic ressentiment, does Scheler advance an implicit commitment to interpret all non-phenomenological forms of philosophizing as guilty of epistemic ressentiment? From the two brief passages here, that might seem likely. However, we must remember that Scheler’s phenomenological method is one of seeing, and it privileges intuitive evidence to gain access into the primordial affectivity, value-structures and the beliefs foregrounded by them. In that way, there are other possible methods one may employ to arrive at the same insights for Scheler. Pragmatism brings into reflection the cultural milieu of a particular problem or valuation in much the same way. For pragmatists are concerned with how some ideas, conceptions and beliefs functionalize in the cultural lifeworld, and James in particular is aware that metaphysical beliefs are motivated very much by our practical and aesthetic interests though pragmatism would never propose an eternal value-ranking.
            In this short post, I have come full circle, and while not a refined reflection, certainly we can see that epistemic ressentiment is a possibility, but the metaphysical and lifeworld ethos must already saturate the domain of an epistemic agent. Moreover, the sociology of knowledge, even if not Scheler’s but possibly Mannheim might better articulate the relationship between social aspects of knowledge and epistemic acts. I am digressing and should end this post.

[1] Max Scheler, Ressentiment trans. W. W. Holdheim (New York: Glencoe, 1961), 67-68.
[2] Scheler, Ressentiment, 68.
[3] Max Scheler, “Phenomenology and the Theory of Cognition” in Selected Philosophical Essays (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973): 136-201. Scheler, Phenomenology, 137-138 here. Emphasis mine. 

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