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Paper given at the Workshop „Witnessing: Cultural Roots, Media-Related Forms and Cultural Memory“, Research Symposium, 27-30 April 2008, Villa Vigoni, Menaggio, Italy.

Mike Sandbothe

Witnessing the Meta-Philosophical Storm

Some Pragmatist Remarks

From a pragmatist point of view a concept is useful if it makes a difference in our coping with reality. A more specific understanding of pragmatism, as it has been developed by philosophers like John Dewey and Richard Rorty, accentuates possible political dimensions of our use of concepts. A concept from this point of view is especially useful if it does not only help to cope with reality in a general sense but furthermore helps to improve democracy. Rorty calls this type of pragmatism „ethnocentric” because it refers to democratic practices as we know them since the age of Enlightenment in the Western world. The ethnocentric approach to improve these practices includes the hope to carefully and stepwise extend democratic habits in a globalized world.

One of my pragmatist suggestions is that juridical, scientific, religious, and therapeutic uses of the term witness can contribute to both, the improvement of our coping with reality in a general sense as well as – in specific cases – to the improvement of democratic forms of communication. The main difference between juridical as well as scientific uses on the one side and religious as well as therapeutic uses on the other is that juridical and scientific uses in most cases are related to a controversial debate about questions of the truth or falsehood of statements that normally can be answered by using criteria of inter-subjective consensus. These criteria are mostly missing in the religious and therapeutic uses of the term. In these cases the witness is not able or willing to make her experience explicit by using a language or a mode of expression that invites other communication partners to endorse the statement as an inter-subjectively shared consensus. Instead, in therapy and religion we are quite often confronted with singular, idiosyncratic, sometimes even traumatic experiences that transcend not only the articulation possibilities of our common vocabularies but the faculties of our conscious awareness and our voluntary memory as well.

Rorty’s ethnocentric version of pragmatism is connected with an anti-representationalist stance. From this point of view to use a concept as a (mirroring or constructing) representation of reality does not appear as the standard case but as the exceptional one. If we are willing to follow the pragmatist in understanding ourselves in the Darwinian tradition as human animals it seems more useful to describe ourselves as engaged actors or participants than as neutral observers or spectators. To describe human beings as intelligent animals means to understand them as being primarily engaged in optimizing their living conditions. Representational knowledge about our selves and our environment then appears as a function of our interest in transforming reality and not as the result of a genuine activity of copying or constructing it. This „pragmatist turn” from a representationalist to a transformative understanding of the very idea of a concept leads to a critical attitude regarding phenomenology and epistemology.

Both disciplines of philosophy presuppose the primacy of the spectator’s perspective over the participant’s. For this reason epistemologists as well as phenomenologists normally use a vocabulary that is based on a representationalist understanding of concepts, knowledge, media, subjectivity, objectivity, and truth. This fact nicely fits together with the circumstance that most of the questions in the „Phenomenology and Epistemology” section of the conference topics paper („Witnessing Symposium – Some Topics and Related Questions”) appear to be formulated in a representationalist terminology and in most cases refer to merely theoretical problems. Arguing in favor or against realist and anti-realist answers to questions like „What was first, the event or its representation?” does quite seldom make a concrete, practical difference in our coping with reality. For this reason my suggestion is either to re-formulate some of these questions by using a pragmatist vocabulary or to substitute them by problems that actually make a practical difference in our coping with reality. The papers of Elihu Katz, John Durham Peters and Tamar Liebes („Why the professional model of journalists as witnesses is no longer viable”) seem to be quite good examples of a convincing change of subject and a pragmatist politicization of the witness issue.

A systematic attempt to solve (instead of dissolve or substitute) the topical problems of the „Epistemology and Phenomenology” section has been made by Claudia Welz. In her first paper („Three sessions as ,primary cluster’”) she takes almost all of the questions serious and tries to find convincing philosophical answers. In her second contribution („Witnessing Self-Transformation. Conscience, Communication, and Co-Presence”) she furthermore develops an understanding of phenomenology that introduces the very idea of „self-witnessing” as a basic structure of subjectivity as such. This, in a certain way, is the other extreme of the meta-philosophical options that are at stake in recent debates about the very idea of „philosophy”. While the pragmatist is arguing in favor of a therapeutic de-professionalization of academic philosophy and a cultural-political de-philosophization of scientific and public discourse, Claudia Welz and others are trying to re-invent professional philosophy as a systematic discipline that is able to guide scientific and public discourse. For this purpose Claudia Welz substitutes the classical epistemological concept of the subject as neutral observer by a phenomenological concept of the subject as holistically involved witness.

For the purposes of this symposium I would like to suggest a strategic cooperation of the phenomenological and the pragmatist attitude regarding philosophy. A common goal for representatives of both meta-philosophical camps could be to develop a Wittgensteinian analysis of the family resemblances between the different uses of the word witness. That would mean, instead of beginning with a philosophically clean definition of „the witness” we might agree upon starting with collecting and interrelating the variety of uses of the term in different disciplines and fields of reality. The distinction between juridical, scientific, religious, and therapeutic uses of „witness” that has been mentioned at the beginning of this paper could be a first step in this direction. Another type of example is the ongoing debate about the question of the relation between „passive”, „seeing” and „perceptive” aspects of witnessing on the one side and „active”, „saying” and „communicative” aspects on the other.

This controversy can perhaps be mediated by substituting the oppositional terms „passive” and „active” by distinctions of degrees. That may be different degrees of communicability („idiosyncratic” versus „inter-subjectively explicable” or „private” versus „public”) or it even could be degrees/areas/patterns of neuronal activity. By using neuro-scientific instruments (as brain scanners etc.) it actually might become achievable to develop a naturalist clarification of what we have in mind when we talk about more „passive” and more „active” modes of „interpretational” synthesis. But, of course, the debate about possible substitutes can very quickly lead us back into the centre of the meta-philosophical storm.


Menaggio, 27. April 2008

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