ABSTRACT

The brief discussion of Bakhtin’s views on language and reflection which closed the preceding chapter raises a crucial (and unavoidable) problem: that of the normative justification of critique, of the standpoint from whence the exercise of critical reason and reflection is to be conducted. For, as J.B.Thompson (1984) has convincingly argued, any viable criticism of ideological phenomena must (i) make a claim to ‘truth’ or adequacy vis-à-vis other interpretations (and therefore implicitly or explicitly appeal to particular grounds or standards); and (ii), on the basis of this claim, censure existing relations of domination from a conception of alternative forms of social organization which would be better suited to the satisfaction of the legitimate needs, desires and capacities of human beings. These two considerations (that is, the task of interpretation and that of critique) are not, of course, unrelated: the question of the limits and aims of critical reason has always been an extremely contentious one. This issue is itself intimately connected to the ‘problem of modernity’, to the ideological vacuum which has followed the decline of religious and mythological beliefs from the 17th century onwards. Responses to the modern situation have been, needless to say, exceedingly diverse: to take one extreme example, Frederick Nietzsche argued that any talk about reflective knowledge or even

‘reason’ was an insidious (and ‘feminine’) delusion, a pathology of consciousness which had infected humankind ever since the consolidation of the Platonic-Christian world-view. The pursuit of ‘truth’ in whatever form only concealed or legitimated an ubiquitous ‘Will to Power’, a primordial desire to colonize the external world regardless of conventional moral constraints in order to realize the ultimate goal of the aesthetic transfiguration of the self: ‘each specific body strives to become master over the whole of space, and to spread out its power-its Will-to-Power-repelling whatever resists its expansion’ (cited in Danto 1965: 220). One result of this striving was a perpetual conflict or agonism, which he felt was constitutive of both human life and nature, and Nietzsche believed that there could be no Archimedean point above the fray whence to view this struggle in a dispassionate or objective manner. The only viable epistemology could therefore be a radically relativistic or sceptical one: that every view or perspective was an idiosyncratic interpretation, a post-hoc justification of this eternal strategy of domination and self-realization. Nietzsche’s nominalistic antifoundationalism was at least in part derived from his belief in a fundamental schism between language and the world, between the mercurial flux of reality and any particular conceptual system. The desire for objectivity was a ‘philosophical mythology’ that was more symptomatic of the rhetorical force of language than its capacity for felicitous description.1 As he wrote in Beyond Good and Evil:

Indeed, what forces us at all to suppose that there is an essential opposition of ‘true’ and ‘false’? Is it not sufficient to assume degrees of apparentness and, as it were, lighter and darker shadows and shades of appearance-different ‘values’ to use the language of painters? Why wouldn’t the world that concerns us be a fiction? And if somebody asks: ‘but to a fiction there surely belongs an author? —couldn’t one answer simply: why? Doesn’t his ‘belongs’ perhaps belong to the fiction too? By now one is not permitted to be a bit ironic about the subject no less than the predicate and object. Shouldn’t the philosopher be permitted to rise above faith in grammar?