On Unreflective Reflexivity
Or,
The Precious Self-Consciousness of the Middle Class Intellectual

by Ralph Dumain

Review: Lawson, Hilary. Reflexivity: The Post-Modern Predicament. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1985. 132 pp.

It would seem that this book exists to justify the ways of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida to analytical philosophers. The author recounts familiar logical paradoxes and the ways analytical philosophers have attempted to deal with them, through the banning of self-reference, metalevels of logical types, restrictions on the extension of (anti-)metaphysical claims, etc. Philosophers such as the three who form the subject of this book, however, not only do not attempt to avoid the negative consequences of self-referential paradoxes, but embrace and revel in them. In what ways, then, do these philosophers manage to still make sense and keep their own philosophies from becoming self-refuting or meaningless? The central role reflexivity plays in the philosophies of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida is what this book is about.

What is not addressed, however, is why the project of opposing metaphysics and avoiding any affirmative statement about reality is a worthwhile one, or in fact, why historically it exists at all. Thus the anti-metaphysical project of the three philosophers becomes as formalist as any logic-chopping analytical philosopher could be. The only alternative presented to the various views in the book, that the relativization of knowledge claims implied by reflexivity could be incorporated into theory itself as a moment in a historically evolving grasp of objective truth, à la Hegel and Marx, is considered only in passing (p. 21). On the other hand, as we "progress" from Nietzsche to the other two, the philosophies presented become ever more obscure, incomprehensible, claustrophilic, and ultimately pointless.

What is most ironic in all this folderol about reflexivity is how limited in scope and character this precious self-consciousness of the petty bourgeois is, and how unconscious it is of so many things. One would never know, in a world where we know more about the natural world, the nature of society, human psychology and the workings of our own minds than our forbears could ever have imagined possible, that our precious reflexive philosophers become more and more convinced that affirmative knowledge is impossible, that we are imprisoned behind a wall of language, unable to make contact with anything outside. That thousands of so-called intellectuals could convince themselves that such a paltry, narcissistic view of the world shows any common capacity of intellect at all, let alone genius—the pretended apotheosis of all of reflective thought—should tip us off that something has gone terribly wrong.

Another striking feature is how thin and pale the abstractions employed by these philosophers are to explain their predicament and the society that produces them. For out of the dense, complex interweaving of the social, economic, political, and other historical factors that have created our lives as well as our thoughts, we see our precious reflexive philosophers engaging only the most isolated and idealized of abstractions—the genealogy of morals, the alleged metaphysical biases of language, the uniform, underlying assumptions of all of "western thought," or, when it finally comes to something material, the influence of "technology" (as an impersonal, abstracted entity) on our life and thought. That our most educated intellectuals should take such infantile, naive, and limited intellectual rubbish seriously, shows how serious the debilitating influences of alienation are on the human mind, how crippling alienated existence is on the most refined intellects as on the average Janes and Joes who plod mechanically through the dull, mind-numbing routine of each day. In fact, the debilitation comes from one and the same source, meaning that the professional intellectual can no longer pose as the repository of universality.

What is most galling is how old all this is. For Marx (with the assistance of Engels) disposed of the precious self-consciousness of the petty bourgeois intellectual in The German Ideology in 1845-1846, Marx's biggest mistake being in not getting this work published in his lifetime. For in disposing of the pretensions of Bruno Bauer and especially Max Stirner, Marx pointed out that reflexive consciousness can only be the result of objective circumstances, which lie in a many-sided engagement with the wide world under material conditions that encourage the drive toward universality, and not with formalistic declarations that one is too self-aware and sophisticated to be taken in by anything. In fact, such individualistic world-beaters always prove, in the final analysis, to be the most gullible individuals of all.

Another sad observation that can be made by anyone who chooses to actually think through the history of thought in social development, is how utterly counterrevolutionary the development from Nietzsche to Derrida is. For the expose of the alienated, religious character of "philosophy" came not from Nietzsche but from Ludwig Feuerbach, representing a moment in the progressive and affirmative development of a social and intellectual project. That the philosopher could finally come to know the extra-philosophical preconditions and determinants of his own thoughts was not the end of affirmative intellectual engagement with the objective world but the beginning. Feuerbach initiated but could not follow through on a new conception and new social role for the philosopher, rusticating himself in a social world as well as a world-view that remained abstract and one-sided, unable to progress beyond the formalities of philosophical anthropology.

Ultimately, it was Marx who pulled together the various threads of philosophical, economic, and sociological knowledge to create a total picture of the development and maldevelopment of human powers under the hierarchical organization of society and the division of labor. The culmination of this process was the now-famous Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, beside which the philosophical droppings of Derrida, Heidegger, and Nietzsche, lie upon on the historical highway of thought as dried-up dog turds whose monumental significance in the vast scheme of things is minuscule in the extreme.

Marx's 1844 manuscripts themselves were not published for decades and decades, and were not available in English for even longer. Nonetheless, now that we have had them for a few decades, we ought to conceive of the place of intellectual life in social life in a different manner. Sadly, none of the proper lessons have been learned, because the work of that period has been misinterpreted as a call to abandon thought for political practice or to narrow theoretical activity to the scope of "political" tasks. Rather than the end of an intellectual adventure, it could and should be the beginning, for our relationships with our material world, with each other, and even with our own selves are manifold, and the unity of theory and practice involves every sphere and endeavor of human existence, and the prospects for de-alienating every aspect of our existence is what ought to interest us, and has in certain times and places proceeded in actuality with or without the participation of this or any other philosophies or philosophers. The possibility for the human race to become more and more conscious of itself, of its fundamental assumptions and presuppositions of existence and thought, has grown, not because of formalistic gimmicks, but because of objective processes in social life that have enabled greater self-consciousness, if so far only for those who have been able and/or willing to take advantage of such increased possibilities. The adventure of human thought is not at an end, but has only begun to come into its own, espcially for those who see both the possibility and desperate need for same instead of contenting themselves with wallowing in their own boredom and moral exhaustion.

7 July 1996

(Note: Only the slightest of editorial changes have been made from the initial version disseminated. The original title, itself a bit over the top, was "On Unreflective Reflexivity, Or The Preciosity of the Self-Conscious Petty Bourgeois." This review gave me the pretext to begin to summarize many of the ideas I had been working on over the previous few years.)


Quotable Quotes from The German Ideology by Marx & Engels

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Pierre Bourdieu and the Epistemic Conditions of Social Scientific Knowledge
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