Thursday, May 30, 2013

Threads of Power

One central theme developed in pragmatism and nowhere else in philosophy is the power of an idea. For the pragmatist, the conceptualization of the idea follows from their effectuating force in the consequence of human action. Thus, a secondary – but no less influential idea – follows from the rule of conceptualization. Ideas exert an influence in their effectuating force on human experience. They are effectual, and this may be referred back to what I meant by the power of an idea, its effectuating force.

            When we study an idea, we can trace its effectual possibilities it possessed in the past and what such an idea may hold for us in the future. However, as many have noted, pragmatism is extremely focused on the possibilities of action to improve life. Therefore, pragmatism is often locked temporally with its attention to the future. There is little, if any, attention paid to the past. Yet, pragmatism’s insight into the effectual power of an idea can be read backward through the hermeneutic threads that have persisted. Through hermeneutics reflection, traces of ideas can conceived when we retell the interpretation of their past. Gadamer strictly delimits that interpretation is always enacted to understand the situated present.

            I will suggest in this lecture both methods may be united to address how various threads of power converge in the present. The power of an interpretation arises when we first look to the possible conceptual linkages of an idea maintained with other ideas or concepts. An interpretation synthesizes various possible linkages between ideas and/or concepts; I call these narrative threads. The past concretizes in the interpretation of various narrative threads in the present act of understanding, and a sense of that idea’s danger, necessity, or emancipatory sense illuminates the present-into-the-future. Then, we can evaluate the status of any given narrative thread pragmatically. Let me give an example.

            Narrative threads underlie the formation of any discourse, and in fact, many discourses do not acknowledge the historical senses implicit that inform these threads. Specific to our reflection, here, the concretion of these discourses take for granted how they are constituted by the reification of those that appropriate an idea to exert its power. My concern is for threads of power. When the Affordable Care Act passed, the government mandated that everyone purchase health insurance or face a penalty on their taxes by January 2014. The conservative disagreement is about the mandate itself. It forces people to purchase a service they do not want. If someone cannot identify how their labor mixes with the gain of one’s own self-directed purchasing, then Obama and the Democrats are transgressing the Lockean norm about property to which we in the United States are so ensconced. There is an implicit and formative sense of violating liberty here that can best be understood as an idea deriving from Locke. Like it or not, ideas are efficacious to the conceptual space in which these narrative threads are at work at the intersubjective level. If the Affordable Care Act is to succeed, then a cultural dialogue about Lockean status of property and liberty must be addressed.

However one understands these claims, these ideas are situated in a thread and the concepts of that thread form a narrative in which the ideas work a certain way. Synthesizing the temporal orientations and methods of pragmatism and hermeneutics allows us to detect the movement of these effectual threads of power. We can ask how exactly did the Lockean norm arise? Where did its philosophical emanation exert its influence the most? Jefferson? Or did Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence implant ideas of liberty and property in the public consciousness to the point that these ideas have infected the political imaginary for several generations? One can easily notice that wealthy Americans have a particular fondness for the concept of the individual that Locke articulated in the 17th century in what is now called “The Liberty Movement” and the rise of the populist libertarian.  In that fondness, the fondness for individuality can be exposed in its shortcomings that arise when we take into account exactly whom an individual can be. For when the 17th century mind conceived of an individual’s liberty, women and other minorities were not conceived in that narrative at all. Consequently, “all men were not created equal” as we might say given that public consciousness now conceives African-American men as men. In fact, Locke wrote slavery into South Carolina’s constitution and Jefferson owned slaves. The thread of power, here, may inherit these same difficulties of patriarchy and exclusion. Mitt Romney’s 46% are not established property-owners, but in the words of Ayn Rand “takers.”

These ideas (and many more) are linked to us today. In fact, the pragmatic-hermeneutic stance is committed to the fact that an idea may be at work in ways that we cannot imagine. The point of the philosopher is to be sensitive to the historicity of ideas and how ideas continue to exert their influence. So many threads of our ideologies and knowledge intertwine. Religion folds into politics. Politics folds into economics, and even religion folds into economics creating a culture saturated with how these threads tie together. Bound together, these threads create knotted narratives that often make little sense and threaten the ethical well-being of those people that unwittingly participate within these narratives. A significant effort of the philosopher is to untie these threads and distill their essence for others to see their harmful effects.

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