Saturday, November 17, 2007

Age and Political-Semantic Masturbation

“At 20, if your not a liberal, you don’t have a heart,” Churchill said, “but at 40, if your not a conservative, you don’t have a head.” So very true. Unfortunately this can only be understood when you're 40.

This comment was found on an earlier post, and it maintains that there is certain political knowledge that cannot obtain until one has reached a certain age. I have several ways of explaining why this is false.

In general, arguments from private knowledge claim that it is impossible to obtain the source of private knowledge, while simultaneously holding that this knowledge is justified. It is the equivalent of saying "I know bogons exist, and you can't know this fact because you're not a moron like me."

This is a contradiction. We are owed an account of how that knowledge is obtained, and more importantly whether that knowledge is justified true belief. To say that justified true belief -- the definition of knowledge -- only comes at a certain age is simply not true. I may learn discrete mathematics at an early age and no 40-year old, no matter how conservative or liberal, can tell me that this knowledge is false simply because I am young. Age itself has nothing to do with the truth-value of knowledge.

I must say that the argument from Winston Churchill has been reduced to a form of semantic masturbation, a form of coercive private knowledge abuse, which gives no compelling reason to believe it is true.

So if the person making this claim wants to masturbate on the faculties of reason like this, it can equally be applied the other way: because I am younger and therefore do not understand conservativism, as the claim goes, it can equally be replied that the author is older and therefore does not understand liberalism.

If there is private knowledge that exists at the age of 40, then there is reason to believe there must be private knowledge that exists at the age of 20. The 40-year old does not know what-it-is-like to be a 20-year old anymore, and the 20-year old does not yet know what-it-is-like to be a 40-year old. Neither understands the other anymore so than one can know what-it-is-like to be a bat. Knowledge is completely subjective. And there is no point in assigning truth-values to each of these subjective states, since neither of them can know what-it-is-like to be the other, and therefore neither has basis for refuting the position of the other. Further, to assume that time is a function of truth would also make no sense due to the fact that neither can know what-it-is-like to be at various different points along the time continuum.

How different, in all honesty, is this situation from what the born-again says to the unconvinced atheist? "I was once an atheist, and now I'm born-again. I know what it was like to be an atheist but I have somehow become born-again and that refutes atheism". Arguments like this are unconvincing, and should never be convincing, since they address social comparisons, instead of faculties of reason. They neglect all other factors, including reason, that are involved in the conversion process, such as Erikson-style stages of life, subconscious acts, and various neuro-physiological inputs.

But the most basic point of my objection to this semantic abuse is to point to the Toulmin model of argumentation, where one basically refuses to respond since the burden of the opposition has not been met.

2 comments:

Jeff said...

Wow! Impressive rant.

Unfortunately your epistemological parsing only goes to my point. To put it simply: quantitative knowledge, like math and science, and even logic, is different from qualitative knowledge, which is formed as a result of repeated stimulation---experience---age. Read Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method.

Believe me when I say I wish it wasn’t that way, but for the most part it is.

I had to learn, as you will too, probably the hard way, that practical wisdom (what little you can really learn) and a sharper intuitive sense, comes primarily from the experiential. That is just part of growing up. You, too, will be mugged by Reality. “Age itself has nothing to do with the truth-value of knowledge.” It’s not age, its experience--time alive is just a mathematical thing. Sorry.

And if I may add, your writing (or philosophizing) reminds me of a comment Moses Mendelssohn made after reviewing Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: “it consumes the fluid of the nerves.” As a suggestion, you need to watch the abstractness in your writing. You have a good sharp mind, but you need to find a way to be more simple and direct in your writing.

Maybe this is because you’re a rationalist like Rene Descartes; you think therefore it is. As for me, I am more of a empiricist from the Scottish School of sentiment. You need a bit more Hume or maybe even some William James in your writing. You, being a philosophically astute person, can understand what I mean.

Also you may want to calm your rhetoric too. Your Ward Churhillian use of “semantic masturbation,” just doesn’t seem to fit and doesn’t exactly call up the best images.

acumensch said...

"To put it simply: quantitative knowledge, like math and science, and even logic, is different from qualitative knowledge, which is formed as a result of repeated stimulation---experience---age."

Why should any knowledge be evaluated on the basis of age? If the oldest person in the world was in fact an American-style liberal, wouldn't that prove you wrong? Your argument is not very strong because it's easy to imagine all sorts of things that invalidate it. John Stuart Mill became a socialist in his later life, for example. Many intelligent people become radicalized as they grow older.

"As a suggestion, you need to watch the abstractness in your writing. You have a good sharp mind, but you need to find a way to be more simple and direct in your writing."

Thanks. But I try to combine both analytic and continental styles in my writing.

"Maybe this is because you’re a rationalist like Rene Descartes; you think therefore it is. As for me, I am more of a empiricist from the Scottish School of sentiment. You need a bit more Hume or maybe even some William James in your writing."

I don't agree with pragmatism. I'm not a James fan at all. Hume makes good points and is very useful, but I think rational thinking is much more forceful and argumentative. Rationality informs empirical faculties, not the other way around.