On a Certain Blindness in Political Matters

By Weber, Michel | Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, July 2011 | Go to article overview

On a Certain Blindness in Political Matters


Weber, Michel, Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy


This philosophical essay is put under the dual patronage of William James (1842-1910) and Alfred North Whitehead (1861--1947). Accordingly, instead of speaking about facts, things, reality, substance and the like, it uses as often as possible the process language of experience and events. It argues for two complementary theses, one pertaining to epistemology and the other to politics.

First, unless philosophy adopts a radical empiricist standpoint and seeks the uttermost generalities, it cannot differentiate itself from yet another form of limited expertise and becomes useless. Hence two important requirements: on the one hand, no experience, no fact, can be excluded a priori from the philosophical agenda; on the other hand, philosophy has to pragmatically seek the broadest empirical truths. Second, both radical empiricism and imaginative pragmatism lead the philosopher towards the left end of the political spectrum, i.e., to a radically progressive politics. In other words: on the one hand, the more you experience, the more you become acquainted with the world, the more concern you find for your fellow human beings, for other forms of life and eventually for the entire biosphere; on the other hand, the more you think your expanding experiential field, the more you are lured towards the concept of the common good.

We can establish this thesis through the following steps. First, we revisit the question of the nature of the difference between philosophy and expertise. Second, some definition of the socio-political field is provided. Third, the philosophical gesture is specified with a focus on its epistemological dimension. Fourth, consequences are drawn in the political field. A short conclusion goes over the stakes again.

I. EXPERIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY

Although there is no agreement amongst philosophers on the definition of their discipline, it is possible to consider all philosophical discussions from a common perspective. For they all select certain experiences to deal with and, in order to achieve some systematic understanding of them or at least to obtain some applicable generalizations, they apply some kind of method. There are three broad speculative possibilities that matter in the context of our argument: radical empiricism, empiricism per se and rationalism. All three cast a different light on the data/method/outcome cognitive string.

Primo, from what data do we start? From all experiences whatsoever? If, one early morning, I see a pink elephant in my bathroom, this experience should be taken prima facie and find an interpretation in my worldview. From some--outer--experiences? In this case, what is called "factual" concerns only what is disclosed in sense-perception and especially in sight; additionally, it is often claimed that facts ought to be measurable. From some--inner--experiences? The factual here concerns only what is clear and distinct to my mind, and these "facts" do not spring from sense-perception, from memory or from imagination (all three being notoriously unreliable) but from some ideas.

Secundo, what method do we apply to these data? If all experiences are taken into account, only a pragmatic method can allow us to deal with them (James). Whitehead's version of pragmatism takes the form of imaginative generalization. If only some outer experiences are to be dealt with, simple observation or a non-critical form of (scientific) experimentation is appropriate (Locke). If only some inner experiences are worth the attention of the philosopher, a mathesis universalis of sorts will do (Descartes).

Tertio, what is the outcome of the procedure? Radical empiricism's outcome is panpsychism, which involves two arguments. First, experience does not start from a conscious subject but from a network of pre-conscious experiences. James carves the concept of pure experience in order to name that primordial and pristine reality in which relations are given. …

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