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Apologia: The Good
in Second Order Criticism

by David Foss

Philosophy is often described as an effort to provide a general theory of criticism: one whose material for critical assessment and analysis is the general phenomenon of expressive language or meaning. At the very least then, philosophy can be described as second order criticism. That is, philosophical activity is a study of studies, a science of scientific meaning, an art of aesthetic judgment; it is the development of an understanding of the understanding. Under such a light, the essence of the philosophical project looks depressingly circular. And worse, the philosopher seems doomed to ever be incapable of casting her critical eye beyond the verbiage of this or that science (or art). Such a danger is ever-present to our discipline, so long as the philosopher merely carries on an analysis in accord with given measures of conceptual integrity.

Ultimately, however, philosophical criticism must provide an analysis in terms of the that-for-which in human living. Furthermore, it is an analysis which never merely strives to itemize those ends or measures which guide meaningful behavior, or which individuals take to be the private ends of their actions. Rather, it strives to articulate (if only indirectly) the proper ends or criteria with respect to which analysis (in general) should be judged. We do not seek any basis for explanation; but the right basis for explanation. Correctness, the standard bearer of analytical integrity, is the principle philosophical object. By asserting orders of relevance and proprietary comportment, philosophy presents a substantive theory of the Good, which is thereby directly or indirectly the formal substance of all philosophical study.

We might then say that philosophy is second order criticism according to the Good. But it is a substantive account of the Good itself which informs all second order analysis. The task is therefore not so much one of cognitive archeology or empiricism, where the analysis is intended to merely model its object accurately, but one which procedurally develops an account of that for which we ought to judge. Philosophical analysis is one which directly or indirectly asserts a normative concept of intelligibility, both of action and of speech. The philosopher may claim “This is the how we reason,” or “This is how we act,” under the apparent rubric of a descriptive enterprise. Yet, even here, the concepts of reason and action import the project of normative intelligibility: the content of which asserts a cluster of analytical devices which inform our thoughts and actions with meaning. The that-which-informs of meaningful behavior (we may call it semantic behavior generally) must ultimately be proposed as an in-itself of meaning. Even if we propose a sort of instrumentalism (where the measure of a concept’s value, depends upon its analytical utility), utility of some sort would be taken as the substantive in-itself value proposed by the over-all account. Such an in-itself, the end of semantic behavior in terms of an analytic or critical investigation, is the Good, and can not be asserted as given or empirically derivative to the substance of analysis (or criticism). It is the principle in virtue of which the philosophical project claims relevance. And it (the Good) is that which is, ultimately, the formal content of philosophical claims.

There are, then, two fundamental themes of philosophical study. As two, they are not so much categorical realms, distinct in kind and content from each other, but as two sides of a coin, they breach the Good from an examination of two ostensible types of meaningful behavior (interpersonal v. intrapersonal, or general v. specific). These themes are Justice and Judgment. They are often said to be authentically distinct, — one concerning the political, the other concerning the conceptual — and there scarcely seems to be a reason for supposing that the Good of ethical analysis should be the self-same Good of rational analysis. At the very least, the Good of the moral and the Good of the rational is each the child of a common discipline. The role of each within its critical realm is isomorphic with respect to the other. But two sides of a coin? This suggests that there is a greater homomorphism between the two; that there is a common ground of philosophical enquiry which binds the norms of intelligible action for the Good (i.e. the moral) to the norms of intelligible action in itself (i.e. the rational).

The in-itself of intelligibility, the for-which of semantic behavior and propriety, is ex hypothesi the Good. Justice is the face of Judgment in matters political. Judgment is the face of Justice in matters conceptual. Just as second order criticism challenges the conceptual integrity of action, and therein reads the rational of the political, so too it challenges the moral integrity of thought, and therein reads the political of the rational. No endeavor, so conceived, can claim ambivalence in matters of social and political consequence. On a matter more substantive than formal perhaps, it can be said that a theory of meaning for the objects of thought will ultimately have to treat the matter politically (that is, interpersonally or publicly). And as a consequence, the content of the Good, between the realms conceptual and political, will converge. However, this also occurs by more formal considerations. Second order criticism, in order that it be a coherent analysis of general semantic behavior, must assert a unified (though not necessarily unitary) theory of the Good. Though it may, such a unification need not assert the supervalence of a political (social or merely pragmatic) analysis, or conversely assert the supervalence of a formal idealism (concerning pure concept or cognitive coherence in itself). In any case, a philosophical programme must endorse some analytical or critical account of the Good which coherently informs both political and conceptual meaning.

Philosophy is the articulation of a proprietary mechanics of communication and valuation. As such, it is a study whose import bears witness to the humanity or inhumanity of our lived experience. Though its practice may display a rather circular aspect, and its practitioners may frequently fall short of its rather lofty goals, the philosophic enterprise challenges, questions, and asserts value, not of hypothetical consequence, but of the real, the true, the living.

Epistemology, Politics and Society
PHIL-783-01, Georgetown University
Spring 1992
(© David Foss, January 11, 1994)

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