Monday, February 15, 2010

Alvin Gouldner: Culture of Critical Discourse . . . and Responding to 'Insults'

Alvin Ward Gouldner
(Image from SpringerLink)

In yesterday's post, I quoted Bart Verschaffel rather extensively on the "Culture of Discussion," but also noted Jürgen Habermas on communicative action as a corrective to Verschaffel's rhetorical overkill in seeing discussion as a "war game" and pragmatic 'underkill' in seemingly limiting it to seminar-style settings. Habermas has a broader vision than war and seminar.

Another theorist who writes on a culture of discussion was Alvin W. Gouldner, whom I read back in the early 1980s and who described this sort of discourse in rather formal terms as the culture of critical discourse (CCD):
The culture of critical discourse is characterized by speech that is relatively more situation-free, more context or field "independent" This speech culture thus values expressly legislated meanings and devalues tacit, context‑limited meanings. Its ideal is: "one word, one meaning," for everyone and forever. The New Class's special speech variant also stresses the importance of particular modes of justification, using especially explicit and articulate rules, rather than diffuse precedents or tacit features of the speech context. The culture of critical speech requires that the validity of claims be justified without reference to the speaker's societal position or authority . . . . Most importantly, the culture of critical speech forbids reliance upon the speaker's person, authority, or status in society to justify his claims. As a result CCD de-authorizes all speech grounded in traditional societal authority, while it authorizes itself, the elaborated speech variant of the culture of critical discourse, as the standard of all "serious" speech. (Alvin W. Gouldner, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class (New York: Seabury, 1979), 28-29)
Gouldner saw this culture of critical discourse as the 'language' of a new intellectual class encompassing the sciences as well as the humanities. I would agree with Gouldner (against Verschaffel) that scientists are part of the community, but I would go beyond Gouldner (with Habermas) to broaden the communicative community to include, potentially, everybody. But to do so, I would suggest loosening the criteria a bit and noting what critical discursive actions intellectuals share with a larger society characterized by a culture of discussion. Fundamentally, we're talking about the right of everyone to pose questions about anything and the expectation that answers should offer reasons and evidence.

One intriguing question that arises, incidentally, is how one should respond to insulting mockery. The mocker perhaps does not accept the rules for a culture of discussion in a strict sense and offers not reasons and evidence but satirical insults. What should one do if mocked? Should we follow the example of Alvin Gouldner himself:
[The sociologist Laud Humphreys] entered the Ph.D. program in sociology at Washington University [in 1965] . . . . He made rapid progress as a student (starting fieldwork for his dissertation in 1966 and writing it within two years) but seems to have developed an antagonistic relationship with Alvin Gouldner, a prominent social theorist then in his department.

Humphreys may have been the author of a sarcastic poster that portrayed Gouldner as an example of the species "Inter Alios Platonicus, or Silver-Tongued High-Priestly Bird." (Everyone in the department would have caught the reference to Gouldner's recent book Enter Plato: Classical Greece and the Origins of Social Theory.) Reproduced as an appendix to the biography, the poster is satirical if not exactly witty: "Given to nesting in high places, this raptorial bird may soar to great heights before diving to feed on carrion . . . . He chews on thoughts only when personalities are not available. While devouring his prey, his song is said to be quite eloquent."

The target of this caricature was not amused. Gouldner tracked Humphreys down in the graduate student offices, punched him in the face, then kicked him when he fell down. The matter came to national attention in a New York Times article headlined "Sociology Professor Accused of Beating Student." (Scott McLemee, "Wide-Stance Sociology," Inside Higher Ed, September 12, 2007)
Confronted by insulting mockery, Gouldner seems to have believed that honor stained called for physical violence. In an earlier time, perhaps he would have challenged Humphreys to a duel. Did Gouldner betray his own principles, the rules of his very own culture of critical discourse?

I don't recall enough about Gouldner's theoretical system to say for sure, but I would argue that insults should also be protected speech in a culture of discourse. They have to be protected because feeling insulted is a subjective reaction. For example, some might feel insulted that I apply critical principles to the study of religion, but that person should have no right to attack me physically.

Moreover, even calculated insults play a role in literature and the arts and ought to be protected speech.

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At 7:31 AM, Blogger Jules Aimé said...

One has to hope that Gouldner went to jail for the assault

At 8:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

He doesn't seem to have been arrested, but he lost some status:

"Gouldner was stripped of his title, Max Weber Research Professor of Social Theory. The sociology department never recovered from the demoralization brought on by the Humphreys incident, and, in 1989, the university disbanded the program."

That's from Charlotte Allen, "Spies Like Us: When Sociologists Deceive Their Subjects," Lingua Franca, November 1997.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:20 AM, Blogger Jules Aimé said...

Thanks for the update.

Looking at your two posts, the question that keeps coming up for me is why should anyone any particular weight to the remarks of someone such as Verschaffel or Habermas. I don't dispute their right to make normative assertions for the simple reason that it seems to me that anyone at all has the right to make normative assertions about discussions. But that is the problem: anyone can make them.

Consider the following from Verschaffel: "It took several hundred and even thousand years for the West to adopt principally rational discussion as a means to settle conflicts"

I think, when was this adopted? By whom? The west? If so, could he please point at "the west' and tell us how it deliberates these issues. Was there a binding vote?

At 9:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Habermas is explicitly normative about the need for communicative action, but I think that Verschaffel was being more descriptive . . . not that this point matters much.

I, too, wondered about Verschaffel's remark concerning "several hundred and even thousand years." I'd like to know more precisely about that.

I do think that both Habermas and Verschaffel (and, I suppose, Gouldner) are right about the role that discussion plays in the West. They perhaps both date its full adoption to the time of the Enlightenment, but they'd surely have to agree that the Greeks had something like free discussion, and the Medieval period sanctioned somewhat free discussion through the role of the Advocatus Diaboli, about which I'd like to learn more.

Every culture has to give some room for discussion, or else perish, so the point would likely be that some cultures thematize discussion and protect it.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So the man apparently was not arrested.
He lost his title, and eventually the program was dropped the the university.
I am retired, and if I were to respond in like manner to the insults from a certain nephew, the only thing lost would be my reputation as a mild mannered uncle.
However, disabled as I am, perhaps it would be best to limit my response to a cool greeting when he visits this summer.


At 6:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, a 'cool' greeting will be most refreshing in the upcoming hot, humid, Ozark summer!

Jeffery Hodges

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