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through repeated use in this way, they rarely have settled meanings. By applying them to new contexts, we can use them to focus on different aspects of meaning. Pitkin suggests the example of ‘feed the monkey’ and ‘feed the meter’.7 Prior to such application, however, we may only have had a vague idea of the word's meaning, gathered through past usage. In most, if not all, cases this process is ongoing. So words are learned through a kind of ‘training’ or ‘practice’, and learning or understanding a word is an activity that involves using the word in the correct situation. It is not a case of applying a clear-cut rule to a definite situation.8

Because words develop through practices and their use in particular situations, and in many cases we continue to develop their meaning through such use, very rarely will a term have a single, fixed meaning. Rather, Wittgenstein argues, the different situations in which such a general term is used are like separate language games. Just like moves in a game, words that have meaning when used in one situation may be meaningless when used in another. For example, we cannot talk of ‘checking the King’ in football. While there are connections between games, they are linked like members of a family: some share the same colour eyes, others the same shape of nose, others the same colour hair, but no two members have all the same features.9 Wittgenstein also uses the analogy of an historic city to show how language builds up. While some areas may be uniform, many have been added to higgledy-piggledy, with no clear pattern over how streets are laid out, or which run into which.10 Wittgenstein therefore argues that it is impossible to assimilate the operation of all language to a single model, such as the ‘picture theory’ or label model of meaning. Different language games have different rules, and we can only discover these by investigating particular practices of use in specific cases.11

However, Wittgenstein concedes that there must be some kind of regularity to our use of words. Without some form of consistency, we could not know that our use of a word in a new context was supposed to indicate or evoke a similar context in which the word had been used in the past. That words do so, Wittgenstein argues, is due to their basis in activity– they are used by us in certain situations – and that such use is grounded ultimately in activities that are shared by groups of us, or all of us. Cavell sums this up well when he says:

We learn and teach words in certain contexts, and then we are expected, and expect others, to be able to project them into further contexts. Nothing insures that this projection will take place, just as nothing insures that we will make, and understand, the same projections. That on the whole we do is a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, modes of response, senses of humour and of significance and of fulfilment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when an utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation – all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls ‘forms of life’.12

These forms of life are not so much constituted by, but constitute, language. They serve as its ‘ground’. Therefore, although the process of explaining a term, and of reasoning in language, may continue up to a point, it will always come to an end and have to confront simple agreement in activity, ways of going on, or forms of life.

Mouffe sees this account as ruling out the possibility of rational consensus. Following Tully, she argues that the fact that arguments are grounded in agreement in forms of life, which constitute a form of practice marking the end point of explanation or reasons, means that all attempts at rational argument must contain an irrational, practical element.13 Neither is it possible to suggest, as she accuses Peter Winch of doing, that we can see forms of life as some underlying regularity, which argument or reasoning can then make explicit. Again with Tully, she contends that the ‘family resemblance’ or ‘historic city’ analogy for the development of language shows it to be far too varied and idiosyncratic for such an account.14

Yet I would like to argue that Wittgenstein's theory as characterised above does not rule out rational argument, and the possibility of consensus, at least in principle. Wittgenstein himself characterises the offering of reasons as a kind of ‘explanation’. This much is granted by Tully.15 Explanations are requested by someone unfamiliar with a practice, who would like to understand that practice. Wittgenstein sees this as a completely legitimate use of language and reason.16 This is not surprising, as this process of explanation is precisely the form of language learning that he sets out. A person uses a term based on their understanding of its use from their past experiences. This projection either meets with the predicted response, or a different one. If the latter, the person modifies their understanding of the term. It is only when we go further, and assume that there can be an explanation for every kind of confusion, every kind of doubt, that we get into trouble.17 But this is precisely not what a deliberative theory of reasoning holds. A deliberative theory of reasoning models communicative reason – reason used to develop mutual understanding between two or more human beings. To this extent, the truths that it establishes are relative, though intersubjective. They hold, or are useful for, the collectivity that has discursively constructed them. They do not claim to be objective in an absolute sense, although the concept can be extended, in theory, to cover all people and hence to arrive as closely as possible to the notion of an absolute.

The process that Habermas calls ‘practical discourse’18 and the process that Wittgenstein calls ‘explanation’ are basically one and the same. Both are synonyms for deliberation. Habermas sees the essentially rational nature of language as the capacity for a statement to be rejected, in the simplest case with a ‘no’.19 It is with this response that the request for reasons, latent in all rational statements, is activated.20 If we widen the sense of rejection meant by Habermas beyond the paradigm case of the utterance of a ‘no’ to the broader case of a failure to elicit an expected response, we can see the similarities between Habermas’ notion of deliberation and Wittgenstein's concept of explanation. Like Wittgenstein, Habermas sees ‘normal’ language use as taking place against a backdrop of conventionally shared meanings or understandings.21 It is only when this assumption breaks down, when the response differs from what was expected, that deliberation is required. Shared understandings and usage are established anew, through a dialogical sharing of reasons, or explanations, which repairs the assumption that we do use these words in similar ways.22

But this dialogical sharing of reasons is nothing more than Wittgenstein's concept of explanation and language learning. As Tully points out, Wittgenstein's view of language is inherently dialogical. His examples involve interlocutors who have different views of the use of language.23 This leads to the use of a word eliciting a response that was not expected – a rejection. The rejection requires the reappraisal and refinement of our understanding of the word, based on the new information given to us about it by the unexpected reaction. Based on this adjusted understanding we use words again to try to achieve our goal. Through this process of trial and error we build up a shared vocabulary, restoring the assumption that we use these words in the same way, and in the process we understand the other's form of life that gave rise to their unexpected use. The very process of developing that understanding is the process of deliberation. Indeed, in this sense deliberation – explanation or the clarification of usage across different forms of life – can in itself be seen as the process of development of language use.

Before moving on, we should note an important feature of this process: any instance of shared understanding developed in this way will be partial. It will have emerged from particular uses tied to particular spheres of activity. It is important, therefore, that we do not stretch an understanding developed in this way too far. We must be open to its fallibility – to the possibility that new situations will open up different applications of a term, and so require further development of meaning, as we encounter others who use terms differently due to different aspects of their ‘forms of life’.24 While there may be regularities in ‘forms of life’, it is difficult to specify them a priori. They only emerge, as Wittgenstein argues, piecemeal, through the process of attempting to understand others in language. However, the process of explanation, or understanding through deliberation, allows us to be open to these possibilities. The contrast with others’ usage that this involves also makes us more clearly aware of aspects of our own usage that were previously hidden. So we can see this as an understanding developed through reason, though partial, fallible and grounded in practice.

Deliberative democracy, then, is compatible with a Wittgensteinian theory of language, which sees language as grounded in forms of life. Mouffe makes two errors that lead her to suggest it is not. The first is the assumption that because language is ultimately grounded in practice, rather than reason, it cannot be used to reach a rational consensus. However, if we read deliberative theories as mobilising a form of rationality aimed at intersubjective explanation and mutual understanding, we can see that the two accounts are perfectly compatible. The second error is to take Wittgenstein's warning that different uses of language, in different games, are so varied and diverse as to be ungovernable by rules, to rule out any possibility of reasoned communication. Here we need to understand that Wittgenstein's concept of ‘forms of life’ refers to regularities in practice that underpin language. While these do not take the form of prescriptive rules, they can still be discovered through language and the process of explanation. Indeed, this is an important purpose of language. Seen in this way, Wittgenstein's thought shows how reason, or explanation, works to bring out emergent, partial, but shared understandings grounded in people's own, but different, experiences. The partial nature of such understandings also emphasises the need to regard them as fallible and open to challenge and revision when new situations are encountered. However, this does not in principle preclude the use of reason to reach consensus. Moreover, the partiality of such understandings can only be understood against a conception of complete or comprehensive agreement. This is exactly what deliberative theory proposes. These insights will now be used to defend deliberation against the second, deconstructionist, set of arguments that Mouffe musters.

B. Deconstruction

Mouffe also uses Derrida's notions of differance and the ‘constitutive other’25 to argue that any form of consensus must always be partial and biased against a group that it excludes, while necessarily unstable as it contains the traces of this power. This precludes the very idea of a consensus that is neutral because it is reached on rational grounds.26

However, using our enhanced understanding of deliberation we can see how such an argument is flawed. While consensus through rational argument cannot be guaranteed, it cannot be ruled out either. The only way to find out whether it is possible or not is through argument. In addition, that process of reasoning, or explanation, is itself a process in which we are made more aware of difference, through the projection of language to describe others’ forms of life. Without this attempt, we may never become aware of these different forms of meaning, or their associated forms of life. So, far from hiding difference by imposing one group's biased or partial interpretation on all, deliberation opens up and exposes such uses of power, making clear these divisions, and allowing for collective agreement and collective action to change oppressive practices.

Another way of characterising this process is to see it as the activity of questioning. Questioning allows those from one form of life to understand those from another, by showing how their interlocutors’ understanding is different from their own. The importance of this activity for deliberation lies in the fallibilistic nature of consensus in deliberative theory, which allows for any consensus that is reached rationally to remain open to question. Such openness guards against the kind of hegemonic claims that concern Mouffe.27 This allows for sufficient stability through agreement, since challenges must be reasoned challenges, without atrophy. Moreover, the development of understanding through questioning/reasoning will relate the partial understandings or practices from whose dialectic it emerges. This reduces the potential for ongoing exclusion through, for example, a ‘tit-for-tat’ exchange in which ex-oppressors become the oppressed.

The fallibilistic and partial nature of deliberation or explanation also secures it against Mouffe's use of the Derridean concept of undecidability.28 This trades on the limitations of human foresight to argue that every element of decision must actually contain an element of unpredictability or risk. Mouffe infers from this that consensus must always be irrational (DP, pp. 135–6). However, once again we can pray in aid the fallibilistic, defeasible nature of reason. New events that were not foreseen will not be covered by the language that we have attempted to extend to govern our future actions. This leads to a need to revise such language to arrive at a more comprehensive description that will be more adequate. As we have seen, reasoned argument is well equipped to do this. So while all decisions may well contain an irreducible element of ‘undecidability’ in Derrida's sense, this does not make decisions irrational, nor does it rule out the possibility of rational consensus through deliberation.

Finally amongst Mouffe's deconstructionist arguments against deliberation we have her use of Lacan. She deploy's Lacan's notion of the ‘master signifier’29– a set of unquestioned assumptions that form the frame for any discourse – to illustrate that all discourses must be conditioned by authority. This gives her yet another reason why the idea of neutral rational consensus, free from power, is conceptually flawed (DP, pp. 137–8).

The defeasibility of deliberation, and its privileging of questions, again serves to turn Mouffe's point. While many, perhaps all, exchanges are indeed conditioned by a set of underlying assumptions that are not questioned, or of which we are dimly aware, such assumptions are in principle open to being questioned. Otherwise they would not be assumptions. The fact that Lacan can identify such assumptions, means that it is possible to do so, and thereby to expose them to questioning. While this might not happen in a particular exchange, this may well open up over time, or across discourses. Such questioning then serves as precisely the sort of critical standard that Lacan and Mouffe seek to provide. Their endeavours are therefore not invalid, but gain their validity from within, and not outside, a deliberative framework of rational argument aimed at mutual understanding. Without such an ideal their critical projects founder, just as much as deliberation's.


Mouffe believes in a consensus that distinguishes and opposes oppressive uses of power, seeing the purpose of politics as collective action towards its eradication. This consensus is based on shared norms of reciprocity and equality in the exchange of reasons or explanations. And she argues for this consensus using reasons. In all these senses, her agonistic theory of democracy can be seen to be deliberative. However, we could equally argue that deliberation, and rational consensus, can be seen as agonistic. Deliberation is equivalent to the Wittgensteinian process of explanation and language learning. The understandings reached through either process are partial and defeasible, formed from an encounter with difference. In this sense, there is always the risk of an agreement or consensus resulting in the erroneous projection of one party's understandings onto another, constraining their meanings – it is fraught with the possibility of hegemony. We must guard against such hegemonic tendencies by remaining open to every possibility of their exercise, holding discourses up to careful scrutiny of the language and assumptions that might underlie them. Not only will this help resist power, it will also assist in building deeper and better understanding, or more rational consensus. So we can see that the two processes of deliberative and agonistic democracy – one grounded in critical theory and the other in postmodernism, are in fact mutually dependent aspects of a solution to the same problem.


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