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Contingency, Irony and Solidarity

March 3, 2009

I am taking a survey course on the history of the modern Middle East. The class isn't exactly designed for a senior history major who has studied and traveled in the region and is writing an honors thesis about modern Middle Eastern history. Nonetheless, I am enjoying it. I never got the chance to take this class before. The Middle East/North Africa Studies program is new at Oberlin. (And I am happy to say that it appears to be growing quickly.) The professor is new--it is her first year--and she is enthusiastic and knowledgeable. She is younger than most of the professors I have had and her youth gives her an energy and an outlook that is fresh and exciting.

This professor has made a serious point of questioning some fundamental values that most Americans hold about modernity and progress. I don't mean to suggest that she is any way a radical--her views are consistent with those of many academics. But she insists on making us ask ourselves whether or not we believe that Western culture is somehow superior to others.

When I put the question that way it sounds like an easy one, right? Most people, at least the people I know at Oberlin and the people I grew up with in New Jersey, would probably say "No one culture is better than another. To argue such a thing is simply racist!" But when you put it in the context of the modernization of the Middle East, that assumption butts up against another.

I don't intend to write a blog post about Middle Eastern history at the turn of the twentieth century. Even I know that that would be boring to most people. So allow me to give a brief sketch: When "modernity" was introduced to the Middle East through European colonialism the effects were deleterious. Modernity, in this context, includes the modern economy, modern technology, modern conceptions of human rights and women's rights and the state and secularism. Some fundamental stuff that we take for granted as good.

I bring up all of this as a way to get to an even more arcane point. (I'm impressed if you're still reading at this point.) In order to sort out my feelings on this issue, I have found myself turning to the thinking of Richard Rorty. Rorty is an American philosopher whom I first encountered in Jed Deppman's Itineraries of Postmodernism class last year. (Jed is an absolute must-have professor if you are a humanities/social sciences student at Oberlin. You will not regret taking one of his classes.)

Rorty is a relativist, in a way. I won't bore you by explaining the complex details of his philosophy; I barely understand them. Besides, that is a task far better left to John's blog. But the basic idea is that all of our understanding of the world exists in language. There is no way to prove that one kind of language, or, more abstractly, "vocabulary" is better than another. Instead what you must do is be aware of the limitations of your vocabulary and engage in a kind of (I'm quoting a paper I wrote in Jed Deppman's class) "radical self-conscious ethnocentrism." Your vocabulary, the way you interact with reality, must constantly expand. But you have to believe in your beliefs.

And so there was my solution, in a way, to the question of the value of modernity as it was raised by my brilliant new history professor. I'm not sure I'll bother articulating it to my classmates, but it works for me. I developed my own approach to this difficult question.

If this doesn't make sense to you, don't worry. It doesn't have to. But I think that I have just proven the true beauty of a liberal arts education.

Cross posted at my personal blog, Next Year In.

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Responses to this Entry

Out of curiousity, what is the topic of your honors thesis?

Posted by: Anonymous on March 4, 2009 1:14 AM

Uh.. so basically you mean that we can be less ethnocentric by being conscious of the ethnocentric nature of our languages? I'm not sure why you said "you have to believe in your beliefs"-- Is this not a mere tautology?

Posted by: Anonymous II on March 4, 2009 10:27 AM

Anonymous 1: The topic of my honors thesis is American policy toward Syria in the late 1950s.

Anonymous 2: Sort of. It's not that Rorty says that you become less ethnocentric by being conscious of your own ethnocentrism--that's not the goal. What he really says is that you can use your self-consciousness to create solidarity. I can't explain it that well, especially not in a blog comment or even a blog post. I'd recommend that you read Rorty's book "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity", particularly the chapter on the Contingency of Liberal Community.

Maybe "believe in your beliefs" is tautological. But I think it expresses what I wanted it to. You believe in them without believing in their infallibility.

Posted by: Max on March 4, 2009 1:29 PM

It's quite coincidental that you're writing about Rorty. I'm not all that familiar with his more political philsophy (though I've taken a stab or two at Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity). Right now, I'm working through his book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, and as best I can tell he's giving a big middle finger to traditional epistemology, metaphysics, and dualism in philosophy of mind. And, with the exception of his arguments about epistemology, I'd say he's pretty darn convincing.

As for Anonymous 2, I'd say that the proposition you have to believe in your beliefs isn't tautological, as I think a philosophy like Rorty would argue that it is possible to have beliefs about whose existence you can be unaware. So Rorty's (or Max's) urging that we ought to "believe in our beliefs" might be taken as an urging for us to be self-aware about our beliefs. As in, if we accept that our vocabulary is fundamentally ethnocentric, we should understand the ethnocentric nature of the beliefs produced when operation within that vocabulary, and, furthermore "believe" them in the sense that we take ownership of the fact that we are accepting and working within that given vocabulary and with the beliefs it entails.

Or something.

Posted by: john on March 11, 2009 4:16 AM

Very nice post.
I have never read Rotry but I completely agree with the fact that our world and way of thinking is primarily constructed by our language (plus some other things).
And when it comes to believing in ones beliefs, I do believe (:)) that it is a step one needs to make after having discovered the relativism of the construction of his/her knowledge.
I have a suggestion for you. Have you read Marcel Hénaff before? There is book by him on Lévi-Strauss. Chapter 9 is on Lévi-Strauss and Symbolism (although Strauss himself doesn't use the term symbolism). You may find it interesting. I took a class with Hénaff last quarter and he is wonderful.
Once again, nice post.

Posted by: Nadine Wassef on May 3, 2009 3:16 AM

Be careful calling Rorty a relativist. You may be unintentionally offering up a derogatory characterization of Rorty that, in fact, doesn't apply, if we are taking some of the key points in CIS seriously.

Posted by: Anonymous on June 15, 2009 12:59 PM

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