Fair is Fair

Everybody’s talking about fairness, these days, as my colleague John Clarke observes. It’s been a central and recurring motif in discussions of the end of universal child benefit, the Browne review of higher education funding, and Nick Clegg’s announcement of the Pupil Premium. All this fairness talk is part of general break-out of explicitly normative political discourse in the last 6 months, or at least the surfacing of themes which have been floating around for a while – The Big Society, with it’s Burkean heritage and ‘Red Tory’ sheen of radicalism is just one example; Ian Duncan-Smith’s catholic inflected social justice agenda is another; David Willets’ account of intergenerational justice yet another, the latter two more obviously having policy relevance than Cameron’s more flaky sounding Big Society.  A key question here is whether it is wise to think of these discourses as simply ‘cover’ for spending cuts, simply means of legitimating more fundamental decisions.

John worries that fairness is too airy, lacking the incisiveness of a value like equality for example. I’m not so sure. Firstly, I think fairness is a term through which intuitive values of equality and justice is ordinarily expressed – these aren’t opposed terms at all. John Rawls’ egalitarian liberalism revolves around a notion of fairness, for example (a rather opaque account admittedly). But the principle of ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’ also expresses an egalitarian sense of fairness. I think the intimate relationship between fairness and from abstract notions of equality or justice is worth considering more carefully as the politics of ‘the new politics’ begins to unfold, starting tomorrow with the comprehensive spending review. Last week, The Guardian’s right-wing provocateur Julian Glover managed to concoct a mean-spirited response to the ECHR’s report, How Fair is Britain?. What exercised Glover was precisely the coupling of fairness with equality in this report, leading him to argue that since fairness is a woolly idea, and since it is too easily mistaken as ‘equality’, we should do away with both notions. Glover’s self-serving argument elicited a debate , which underscored again the close relationship between these two different values.

My point is that we might do well to take seriously the different meanings of fairness, and attend to their changing deployment in public culture and in different contexts. But more than this, might usefully think of this break-out of fairness talk not so much as merely ‘legitimating’ economic decision-making, but as a form of justificatory discourse – in the sense that justificatory practices are understood by economic sociologists such as Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, and Laurent Thévenot, as crucial mediums for the coordination of social life. From their perspective, justificatory discourses need to be understood as exerting real constraints on the exercise of unfettered capitalist logics, and as indices of fields of contestation and critique to which selective responses are made. From this sort of perspective, all this fairness talk is notable precisely because it is an index of the terrain of conflict and contestation to which an emerging, half-baked political programme feels itself obliged to respond in the hope of circumventing other modes of critique. Fairness is not meaningless, and certainly not an empty signifier. It has as set of intuitive associations, which the Coalition is doing its best to both make use of and control. David Cameron talks of fairness as ‘giving people what they deserve, and what people deserve depends on how they behave’. This definition ties fairness to a notion of individual responsibility, but it articulates a broader sense of fairness having to do with desert – an idea that is easily inflected in egoistically ‘meritocratic’ ways for sure, but which is also open to re-inscription.

So fairness might be worth taking more seriously than the urge to question all this woolly moralism leads us to think it should, if only because this is one terrain in which ‘the new politics’ is about to be articulated – not just spending cuts, but the coming debate about electoral reform too. It’s not the only one, of course, and there is no good reason to restrict oneself to the terms laid down by those in formal political control of events. In this respect, too, though, it is notable that there are some funny things happening in political discourse just now. For example, the reaction to the announcement of the end of universal child benefit by right-wing columnists in The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph is interesting not least because the challenge to the narrowly ‘transactional’ view of fairness expressed by Osborne and Cameron at the Tory conference was presented through a clear statement of a principle of public value – the defence of ‘stay at home mums’ receiving child benefit irrespective of personal or household income levels was made in the name of the principle that engaging in an activity that benefitted the collective life of the community deserved reward and support. This is a gendered, nationalistic, paternalistic vision of public value, no doubt, but a vision of public value it certainly is – it is in marked contrast to the ruling principle behind the Browne review of higher education, for example, which confirms an already evident drift to thinking of the public function of Universities primarily in terms of the efficiency with which they distribute private benefits to those who pass through their doors – a trend tracked by OU colleagues in the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information, and theorised by Craig Calhoun. If the ‘stay at home mum’ logic was applied to higher education, the proposals for University funding would look markedly different. All of which is to suggest that one task for a critical response to ‘the new politics’ of spending cuts, austerity, re-moralisation of the poor, electoral reform, and much else is to carefully track the modes of justification presented for different decisions, for it is here that one will be able to track the genealogies of vulnerability to which this idiosyncratic political project is responding and the opportunities for opposition it is helping to generate in its wake.

What is it like to bat? Dreyfus, McDowell and the exemplary game

The first conference I attended after becoming a parent, and therefore experienced in the ‘concentrated’ way described in my last post, was in Boston in 2008. One of the things I did manage to squeeze in between arriving on a Wednesday afternoon, spending two days in presenting, chairing, or discussing, was to go to a baseball game at Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. So many highlights: riding a rickshaw through Friday night rush-hour/game-night traffic; singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ at the seventh-innings stretch…

To coincide with the start of the new season that month, The Boston Review published a letter written by the Harvard-based political philosopher John Rawls, in 1981, in which Rawls outlined why he considered baseball to be ‘best of all games’. It turns out that baseball’s superiority to basketball, tennis, football and soccer lies in the degree to which it embodies the virtues which Rawls invested in his own theory of justice as fairness – it has a certain sort of equilibrium, contains aspects of publicity, it is inclusive of plural talents, and it has a temporal rhythm that means that “there is always time for the losing side to make a comeback”. The editors of the magazine noted that Rawls had himself once been an accomplished baseball player, and that he had made reference to baseball in his own academic writing. In his essay ‘Two Concepts of Rules’, Rawls used examples from baseball to make philosophical arguments about what a practice is, and what role rules play in practices (arguments which revolve around the puzzle that running, sliding, and throwing are things people do in all sorts of situations, but that stealing base or striking out are aspects of a practice known as baseball, and yet these events are not reducible to the rules of baseball which define them). It is common enough to use games, of one sort or another, to develop arguments of this sort. I wonder if it matters which games philosophers and social theorists consider best exemplify the most fundamental aspects of human action. Rawls’ brief, half-serious analysis of baseball’s virtues is one example of how certain sports attract the attention of intellectuals – baseball and cricket are the obvious examples, both of which lend themselves to the attention of those with a certain ‘nerdy-academic’ cast of mind. Maybe it’s all the statistics, plus the veneer of ‘literariness’ that attaches itself to lots of the books about both of these sports. And in both cases, they aren’t football.

Baseball turns out to play a significant part in a recent debate between two of the heavyweights of contemporary philosophy, Hubert Dreyfus and John McDowell, played out in the philosophy journal Inquiry in 2007 (although Dreyfus’ initiation of the debate appeared in Topoi). This debate is interesting because it serves as an example of an interesting convergence between what are often labeled Continental and Analytical traditions – Dreyfus, a leading exponent of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, stands here for ‘Continental’, McDowell for ‘Analytical’. These are problematic, even silly terms of course – Simon Glendinning has a lovely little book on this topic, called The Idea of Continental Philosophy. The subject of the Dreyfus and McDowell exchange is how to understand unreflective, embodied action, and differences over how far conceptual capacities extend into the world. They tend to accuse each other of clinging to unacknowledged ‘Cartesian’ dualisms, which tends to be the way with these debates – Rorty accused lots of people of this, Charles Taylor accused him of Cartesianism, and so on and so on. Dreyfus has developed a distinctively non-representational view of embodied action as unreflective, non-rational, non-conceptual – as ‘unminded’. He accuses McDowell of still holding to ‘the myth of the mental’ by presuming that the deconstruction of any clear divide between ‘mind and world’ teaches us that that ‘perception is conceptual all the way out’ (McDowell’s work is interesting to me not least because of just how important spatial vocabularies are to his re-casting of traditional questions of the philosophy of mind; something for which he has been taken to task for by others, such as Simon Blackburn).

Dreyfus’ position is that phenomenology, by which he means primarily Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, teaches us that the capacity to routinely carry out any number of ordinary embodied actions of different levels of complexity without thinking about it is fundamentally a non-conceptual, intuitive capacity, shared with animals and infants. In an entertaining reversal, McDowell then accuses Dreyfus of being the one who holds fast to a Cartesian dualism, by seeking to separate mindedness from intuitive, embodied coping – McDowell reads phenomenology as supporting his recasting of rationality as thoroughly embodied, and suggests that it is Dreyfus who is clinging to a detached conception of rationality.

Now, in the middle of this exchange, the two philosophers end up arguing about Chuck Knoblauch. Knoblauch was an All-Star second-baseman for the all-powerful New York Yankees of the late 1990s and early 2000s. But in 1999, Knoblauch developed a version of the ‘yips’, losing his ability to execute the quick-fire pick-up-and-throw-on-the-run-in-mid-air manoeuvres crucial to his position. Knoblauch was thinking too much, it was widely agreed at the time (he had various off-the-field issues it turns out). Dreyfus invokes Knoblauch as proof for his position, arguing that his skill levels declined because he stopped being absorbed in the activity at hand, but was instead allowing thought and reflection to intrude. Knoblauch’s ‘mental blauch’ (as headlines of the time describe it) shows that mindedness is not an aspect of the immersion involved in ongoing activities of embodied coping, so Dreyfus argues. McDowell takes issue with this reading of Knoblauch’s tribulations – according to him, this case proves his point, that the problem for coping arises when mindedness becomes detached from immersion in activity.

So it turns out that Knoblauch is central to making explicit what is at most at stake in this debate – this is a dispute between two variants of ‘non-representational’ accounts of action, not between a non-representational view and a representational view. Dreyfus stands as the figure for a view in which phenomenological insights correct mistaken views about activity being permeated by conceptual rationality; McDowell thinks phenomenological insights are a ‘supplementation’ to that view, re-ordering how we think of rationality rather than leading to a commitment to notions of non-conceptual or non-rational coping (I like McDowell’s usage of ‘supplementation’ because I have a pet hypothesis about his style of philosophy being similar methodologically to Derrida’s, in so far as it messes with the spatializations of key concepts in philosophical traditions).

The dispute about how to interpret Knoblauch’s freeze is interesting because it underscores one feature about how arguments in this style of philosophy, as well as in social theory, tend to lean on particular exemplars of what a ‘game’ is when they develop arguments about the meanings of concepts such as practice and embodied agency. There is a widely shared tendency to focus on individual, repeated acts within games – throwing, kicking, or taking free-throws in basketball. Oddly, the Dreyfus/McDowell debate might be much more narrowly focussed than Rawls’ discussion, which dates from the 1950s – they are focussed on the sliding/throwing/running aspects of baseball as discrete activities, outside of their wider place in not just particular ‘plays’, but in whole games, seasons, and beyond. Knoblauch’s problem with throwing didn’t end his career. He just got moved to the outfield; he wasn’t paid millions of dollars just as a second-baseman, but also as a batter. And the Yankees still kept winning (besides, Knoblauch has more recently been implicated in on-going scandals about endemic use of performance-enhancing steroids in professional baseball in the 1990s, which might cast an entirely different light on the episodes the philosophers disagree about).

None of which seems terribly philosophical, but it does provide a nice link to an essay by John Haugeland, another important philosopher in these debates, who died earlier this year. Haugeland has a long essay called ‘The Intentionality All-Stars’ (from 1990), re-published in his book Having Thought. He uses the fielding positions on a baseball diamond to map out different philosophical positions on the topic intentionality. He actually focuses on three main positions, using first, second and third base to differentiate thinkers like Searle, Quine, Dennett, Brandom, Heidegger and Sellars (Derrida, Rorty and others are consigned to the outfield, because they don’t really think these issues are that important – and Wittgenstein is shortstop, a joke I think about how he mediates between more rejectionist and more reconstructive positions on this classical topic). Haugeland is only using baseball here as a device to delineate these positions – it’s a mere metaphor in his essay, not part of a central philosophical argument (although he does end with a funny line nodding at Thomas Nagel about the importance of the question “What is it like to be at bat?”). A point I make only to underscore the fact that in other cases, like in Rawls or Dreyfus/McDowell, it might well matter that they use this game, rather than others, to exemplify fundamental philosophical points.

One of the things that McDowell’s position in his debate with Dreyfus suggests is that we might do well to pay heed to the sort of ‘immersed activity’ that is involved in doing intellectual work. There might be an interesting aspect of disavowal and projection involved in academics having to invoke games or dancing in order to elaborate on the relations between knowing that and knowing how (while choosing games which tend to push to the side forms of knowing-with which are implicated in both). The point is made succinctly by an essay by Stephen Jay Gould, collected in Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, his essays on baseball. Gould’s essay, written contemporaneously to Knoblauch’s freeze, is called ‘The Brain of Brawn’, and refuses to buy into the straightforward dualism in which athletic excellence is presented as wholly opposed to, as either superior to or lesser than, scholarly accomplishment. Gould doesn’t want to interpret Knoblauch’s problem as the intrusion of the brain upon feeling, mind on matter either, and he draws an arresting analogy which cuts straight to the heart of the philosophical debate which Dreyfus and McDowell have more recently staged in part around Knoblauch’s trouble: “Knoblauch’s problem takes the same form as many excruciating impediments in purely mental enterprises with writer’s block as the most obvious example, when obsession with learned rules of style and grammar impedes the flow of good prose. And we surely cannot designate our unblocked mode as less intellectual merely because we cannot easily describe its delights or procedures”. Thinking well, it seems, is something that also might be embedded in intuitively grasped, not-too-reflective coping skills as well.

I’m not sure where Dreyfus and McDowell would stand exactly in Haugeland’s ballpark, although I think it’s somewhere between second and third base – in his account things get more pragmatist, phenomenological, and social as you round second. It’s probably quite crowded there. One thing the Dreyfus/McDowell exchange seems to confirm is that being ‘non-representational’ isn’t much of a discriminator these days – the issue is about different ways of being non-representational. And might it not matter just a little which game you take to be the model of having a ‘feel for the game’ when making arguments about non-representational aspects of action? The Australian philosopher John Sutton, who also works on phenomenology, distributed cognition, and the embodied mind, develops his argument with reference to cricket. More precisely, he uses batting as his favoured example. Batting in cricket is the basis for his argument about how thinking too much disrupts the accomplishment of embodied coping skills, showing how conceptual memory and procedural memory are dynamics aspects of embodied practices. They have batting in baseball too, of course, so maybe the point translates across fields, so to speak. But of course batting in these two games is not quite the same practice, it involves different sorts of coping skills. Sutton’s argument about the importance of memory seems an opening to understanding this difference, in so far as it suggests that the rhizomatic lines of flight passing through any discrete ‘at bat’ or ‘taking guard’ carry markedly different worldly resonances. And I can’t help thinking that all of these arguments amongst philosophers of embodied action might be helped by taking Iris Marion Young’s phenomenological analysis of ‘Throwing like a Girl’ a little more seriously – it reminds us that all these seemingly universal features of ‘embodiment’ and ‘coping’ might be cut through with social relations all the way down, as it were – that there is no universal phenomenological domain waiting to be exemplified by this or that particular game.