I've never been much good at judging my own writing style, but I'm very sensitive to that of others. One of the most painful reading experiences of my life has to have been my (rapidly abandoned) attempt to conquer Birth of the Clinic, by philosopher/sociologist/charlatan Michel Foucault. Quite apart from having one of the least comprehensible written styles I have ever come across, he also annoys people in a way that few academics - even the wilfully controversial ones - ever manage.
Having given up on Foucault little more than a chapter into the book (and less than a term into my master's degree), I'm in no position to judge definitively whether criticism of him is justified - though I did find his approach rather peculiar.
One place he certainly did hit the mark, however, was over a rather peculiar episode in the history of philosophy which gives its title to this blog. Ironically, though it was Foucault who was largely responsible for the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge's appearance into the intellectual traditions of history and philosophy of science, it was merely an anecdote he appropriated from someone else (namely the writer Jorge Luis Borges) to illustrate one of his arguments.
Postmodernists (like Foucault) question whether the world around us can be described in absolute terms. They argue that language is inevitably a product of cultural values, and that our very understanding of the universe is couched in terms of our shared (or not shared) thought processes, opinions and viewpoints. Everything is relative; nothing is absolute.
In a sense, their argument is hard to challenge, and on a philosophical level, I think I probably agree with them. Even if there is an ultimate truth "out there", it is probably unknowable, because the way we look at the world is coloured by the way we think. And yet - it doesn't strike me as a terribly useful way to think. Relativism breeds apathy and apathy breeds indifference. While we might be unable to give a solid argument for liberal, secular humanism being "better" than religious fundamentalism, when the limbs begin to be hacked off and the heretics start fuelling the bonfires, it doesn't benefit anyone to argue for the equal value of the Inquisition's beliefs. Especially when they have so little respect for yours.
Which brings me back, tangentially, to Foucault, Borges and the Celestial Emporium.
Tired of the complications, ambiguities and illogicalities of natural languages, the seventeenth century Bishop of Chester, John Wilkins, set out to create his own. Rather like library classification schemes, it was hierarchical, for example, words beginning with Z- are animals, Zi- denotes mammals, Zit- denotes canines, and Zitα are dogs. All very clever, and seemingly very rational.
Centuries later, Borges came along and, quite rightly, thought that there was something wrong with Wilkins' "philosophical language". The categories which define how words are constructed are, to some extent, arbitrary. Today, we consider dachshunds and rottweilers to be dogs, even though they look quite different. And yet, while wolves and alsatians look rather similar, only one of those is considered to be a genuine mutt.
In order to point out the inherent flaws in such a classification system, Borges "quoted" (he claims this was a genuine document, but all the evidence shows that he made it up to support his point) a "Chinese encyclopaedia" called the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. The Celestial Emporium, he claimed, included a list of types of animals which was supposed to be able to accommodate all the beasts that roam the Earth:
- those that belong to the Emperor,
- embalmed ones,
- those that are trained,
- suckling pigs,
- fabulous ones,
- stray dogs,
- those included in the present classification,
- those that tremble as if they were mad,
- innumerable ones,
- those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
- those that have just broken a flower vase,
- those that from a long way off look like flies.
Or so the argument goes.
I'm not so sure they did, not because I believe that unbiased and absolute knowledge, morals or beliefs are really possible, but because, impossible or not, I think it's still desirable to try to reach them. Even if our knowledge of medicine is imperfect and provisional, and even if we will never achieve a full understanding of the human body, I would still rather go to my GP to cure my stomachache than call my local faith healer.
Because imperfect, arbitrary, and even downright incorrect knowledge can still be useful.
Take dogs again, or any other animal for that matter. Biologists have never been able to define what they actually mean by "species". (Most of them, if you ask them, will mutter something about two animals being of the same species if they can produce fertile offspring, but this is problematic for a number of reasons I won't go into right now.) However, despite being poorly defined, the concept of species remains a useful one. Even the nastier, child-mauling, killer dogs you see being exercised by feral ASBO-wielding thugs near children's playparks are rather less nasty than wolves are. Dogs, as a species, are nicer than their lupine cousins, and there is every reason to distinguish the two when you go to your local pet-shop to buy a puppy to keep your Towser company. At the same time, it is still worth keeping in mind the problems with our understanding of species because, whisper it, if you put a female wolf in the kennel with your dog, they will breed, and will produce fertile offspring, regardless of what taxonomists tell you about inter-species hybrids.
Similarly, even if there's no clear rationale for putting one set of moral values above another, there are plenty of arguments for why a culture of universal and inalienable human rights is better than one where you report the hag next door to the church for dunking and burning if she's been seen dragging a cauldron into her house. But it is worth remembering that your moral outrage at something may not be shared by other intelligent and rational human beings - and that doesn't necessarily make them wrong.
Which brings me back to what I'm trying to argue here..
Just because we can't make definite statements about the world, just because we can't rationally justify our behaviour, and just because we can't fully understand what's around us doesn't mean that we shouldn't try - it just means that we should be aware of our limitations.
In science, in politics, in society at large, we have to be pragmatic - in the absence of universal truths, we have to be. But we shouldn't lose sight of what we hope for, even if we know we can't achieve it.
These days, we see rather a lot of moralistic posturing.
We also see plenty of amoral and illogical arguments being put forward - such as the cretinous argument that "intelligent design" and natural selection should be given an equal footing in schools - based on a radical and thoroughly unhelpful reading of relativism.
But it's not an either-or. Both are intellectually lazy positions, and their prevalence in public discourse today is a monument to our society's frequent and collective failure to think.