Here is the rest of Andy's message. I don't think it made it through. Lots
of good stuff.
---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Andy Blunden
Date: Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Subject: [xmca] Interpreting Leontiev: functionalism and Anglo Finnish
To: Greg Thompson <email@example.com>
Greg has sent me a bunch of page numbers in Williams' book where Williams
talks about mediation. For Williams "mediation" means several things (all
valid meanings which we all recognise) such as in: A and B do not have
mutually exclusive systems of thinking, there is a view AB which is shared
by both, which "mediates" between them. X is not sovereign in and for
itself, but X has self-determination which is mediated through
participation in a system of right. "Mediated" means "open to influence"
and not isolated and "in-iself." "Mediation" is the middle way. All well
and good, but all beside the point.
What I can say absolutely is that material culture is non-existent in
Williams' view of human society.
All interaction between people happens in a universal unspoken language in
which there is direct mind-to-mind communication. No words or symbols are
necessary. People do not use guns, or email to communicate, reproduce their
lives without factories or buildings, have no bodies or domestic animals,
interact without clothing or guns - it is all just mental entities called
people floating in the ether. So when A communicates with or does something
with B, they do not need a common written language, tools, healthy human
bodies and sense organs, they just engage in "intersubjectivity" where the
subjectivity of one person immediately interacts with the subjectivity of
Now of course, faced with being accused of such an absurdity, I have no
doubt at all that Robert Williams would deny it hands on heart. He fully
accepts that human beings are material organisms which use vibrations of
air pressure to speak to one another, etc., etc. My point is that this
little detail - the material world and how people have used it and changed
to construct a human culture - does not even warrant a footnote. It is
taken for granted and deemed to be irrelevant to the business of social
theory and philosophy.
The mediation I claim is absent from Williams' interpretation of Hegel is
the use of signs and tools as a means of action. Of this there is nothing
in Williams. The sign and the tool do not simply lie in between two people,
they are essential and active participants in what people do and were
produced by other people as part of the construction of a human culture.
This is what Geist is.
Robert Brandom does the same thing. There is a whole tendency which is so
afraid of Marx and the forces of production that they have theoretically
excised the entire human-made material world from human society.
Greg Thompson wrote:
Thanks for the lovely Hegel quote. It's not with Hegel that I
disagree. It's with your reading of Williams that I disagree (and
maybe "misunderstand" is the word I should be using here).
I disagree that Williams misses mediation. See pp. 11, 59, 75, 378
(among others) of Williams' Ethics of Recognition for a few examples
of how integral mediation is for Williams' reading of Hegel. This is
the heart of Williams' critique of Kojeve and the existentialists'
interpretation of recognition - he argues that they miss mediation. So
it seems odd to suggest that Williams is missing mediation. (unless
your mediation and his mediation are altogether different things).
You also seem to hang a lot of your criticism on the fact that
Williams takes the M/S dialectic as the prototypical example of
recognition. Again, I see Williams as arguing against this approach.
It was the approach taken by the Kojeve writers and is, again, the one
that he is criticizing. In his analysis of Hegel's section on
self-consciousness in PoG, Williams focuses on the part that precedes
the M/S dialectic proper, and he argues that you need to look at
recognition as it appears in Hegel's other works in order to
understand what recognition means.
Also to your essay on Williams’ proper, you write:
“Hegel himself abandoned the notion for all but the restricted place
it finally occupied in the Encyclopaedia, because it was ill-fitted
for those wider tasks.
In a sense, ‘recognition’ is an eminently un-Hegelian notion because
it presupposes the absence of effective mediating institutions and
artefacts. It only became Hegelian by the way Hegel demonstrated that
even here, where no mediation existed, mediating elements could be
found. But it is precisely this aspect of ‘recognition’ which is most
often ignored by modern interpreters, such as Robert Williams.”
I deeply appreciate your critique of methodological individualism and
of the notion that subjectivity is constituted by, not merely in
relation to, culture. This is what I have always seen as the key
insight of cultural psychology (esp. the strand that I grew up with, a
la Richard Shweder who frequently used "in and through" to describe
the constitutive relation of the individual and culture/society -
implied in his book title "Thinking Through Cultures"). So we agree on
that much. I think.
I guess where I differ is that I don't read Williams as making this
move (I think a lot of it turns on what he means by
"intersubjectivity"). And similarly, I don't see Williams as making a
move toward an ontological distinction between world-historical and
individual. I see this as an analytically useful distinction in order
to argue to the person of late modern sensibility that these two are
imbricated with one another (a Hegelian move, no? to take two elements
assumed to be different and show how they are, in fact, the same).
Thus, I read Williams as arguing that recognition happens via culture.
Truth be told, in the end I don't think this amounts to much b.c. you
and I both end up on the same side of the argument - it's just a
matter of whether or not Williams is there with us. Sorry I don't have
more to argue about here. But maybe there is more to your criticism
that I have missed in my description.
I fear that I haven't sufficiently described how I am understanding
Williams, but it is getting late and hopefully this will be a start.
Although it is in many ways a trivial matter (arguing about someone's
interpretation of someone else's work), it also gets to the heart of
what Hegel's work is all about and, more importantly, about how these
concepts might be useful to us today. Because I can't "see" your
criticism of Williams, I am somewhat concerned that my own thinking on
this matter may be subject to the same criticism. So please forgive
any pushiness or rudeness that may come through in the above (I've
written before that I'm terrible with "tone" in emails - it's still
true!). And please bear with me if I'm slow on the uptake. I don't
always get things the first time through (and the second, and the
third), but once I get it, it usually sticks.