Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 21, “Deictic Discourse”

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Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

We turn now to the chapter wherein Borgmann finally goes into detail about the kind of discourse he actually thinks can have an impact on the current state of technological society: deictic discourse. Deictic discourse is discourse guided by specific focal concerns. It’s hard to know exactly what that means, or why it’s especially effective, and this chapter unpacks its relevance.

The context for these considerations is our earlier discussion about society and the good life. The liberal democratic tradition thinks it has left the question of the good life open in a good and fruitful way, but Borgmann would say that it’s not actually as open as it looks. In fact, we live our lives according to a relatively constrained set of possibilities defined by the technological paradigm. Recognizing that this is the case is of course the first step to doing something about it. But this recognition and any ensuing conversation is actually a pretty rare thing. How come? Well, as a society, the only real public conversations left to us are in the realm of politics, and thanks to the ideals of liberal democracy, political debate is kept fastidiously free of any real moral discussion (for reasons enumerated in previous chapters, e.g., that questions of the good life are to be answered by individuals and not society). The irony is, again, that these questions haven’t been left open; we have chosen a definite way of life as a society, only we’re not allowed to acknowledge it as part of our public discourse. This is part and parcel of “the catastrophe of liberalism which overturns the traditional order without being able to institute a new one” (170).

It is deictic discourse that re-opens the possibility of that conversation. Crucially, it doesn’t strive for pure philosophical cogency (and by cogency Borgmann has in mind a style of argument that compels assent), but rather “points” (hence the term deictic from Greek deiknumi) to something in our common experience which might be able to make a claim on us in virtue of its focal nature (i.e., in virtue of its capacity for sustaining and orienting human experience and significance).

But hold on a minute. Is it really true that there is no “moral” discourse in our political debates? In a sense, Borgmann allows that there is. There are discussions about responsibility, honesty, accountability, and fair dealing, but by and large these fall within and are defined by the technological paradigm, and the explicit and banal goal of maximizing resources and profit. In that context, yes, it is objectionable for an operator to exhibit greed—but the moral force of our reprehension has little to do with the inherent moral vice of greed and more to do with the inappropriateness of that action in hindering the smooth working of the economic engine. Or occasionally some genuinely “moral” movements might spring up from political or religious motivations, but these usually end up simply promoting the expansion of technology to population segments that don’t have it yet. Finally, there are sometimes “purely moral” discussions that have to do with the death penalty, abortion, pornography, etc…, which are increasingly incomprehensible by a technological society and often just do a lot of harm.

The one thing that’s never actually on the table is the explicit goal of technology, namely consumption. Consumption comes pre-justified (unless it harms someone else). Someone might be considered frivolous for buying a car in a mid-life crisis, but it would be “his business to spend his money how he wants”, not an opening for an ethical conversation. But this sweeps off the table whole areas of life that used to be squarely within the field of ethics! Now these issues just get a free ride, without any possibility of moral critique.

Consumption, of course goes against a positive notion of freedom, i.e., the promise of technology for self-improvement, which is ironically removed even further from us when the self is realized via consumption. Borgmann believes that, deep down, we all feel this: “I believe that what shows itself in the vacuity or arbitrariness of most private moral discourse is neither ethical pluralism nor ethical chaos but complicity with technology” (173). In other words, what we consider with pride to be a good sort of liberal ethical pluralism is in fact a very definite, non-pluralistic kind of morality based around consumption. What we need is for this fact to take center stage as a moral issue.

For any moral issue to be genuinely discussed will be hard, however, because of the ghosts of dogmatistm, bigotry, superiority, etc…, not to mention that traditional morality holds no sway with modern society. But the most difficult aspect will be that deictic discourse lacks, according to Borgmann, “cogency and procurability”, which are now the standard requirements of any discourse, presumably because of the privileged place of science in explanation (never mind that people don’t actually understand how science works). Borgmann points out that this is actually a feature of deictic discourse, but in the context of our modern expectations of cogency, it is a challenge nonetheless.

But why be so quick to give up cogency? Why deictic discourse and not some other more airtight form of philosophical reasoning? As Borgmann points out, there’s a long history of philosophers trying to start with little and end with much, but just as in real life, this never actually works. Usually it turns out that stronger assumptions were smuggled in somewhere, and the dramatic conclusion is mere philosophical legerdemain, rather than a genuine proof. For example, JS Mill claims that, in most cases, focusing on one’s own happiness will lead to the greatest good for the most people (here the weak starting assumption is “just focus on your own happiness”, and the strong conclusion is that this will set society as a whole on the best path). Pascal’s Wager would be another example (it’s better to assume that God exists because that’s the bet that’s most likely to pay off, therefore…. God exists?). Borgmann’s point is that in each case the argument compels not because of its rational character but because of the strong, hidden starting assumptions, which are precisely where deictic discourse begins and ends. Only, it does so honestly, without pretending to be something other than it is.

Ultimately, if there’s going to be a successful critique of the social malaise inculcated by technology, it has to come through deictic discourse. So what could its impetus be? Borgmann says that it needs to begin with the inner experience of something of ultimate significance (i.e., a focal thing or practice) that’s threatened by technology, and it must be fueled by regard for our fellow human beings. What, then, are some of the characteristics of this kind of discourse? It has three descriptors:

  1. It is enthusiastic: it is filled by the greatness of the thing that I’m disclosing, its potential for solace and delight. In other words, it springs out of a real and genuine (even transcendent) encounter with something.
  2. It is sympathetic: it is tempered by concern for the integrity of the person I’m talking with. It cares more about that person than their allegiance to what I’m disclosing. In fact, I’ll prevent their agreement if it looks like it would injure their agency.
  3. It is tolerant: it recognizes that violence or aggression will automatically nullify what I’m trying to disclose, and cause more harm than good. Violence and force are never worth it.

This is why Borgmann says that deictic discourse lacks cogency in a positive way: it simply discloses the good as an opportunity, as an open door that one may walk through, and the land through which I have experienced myself to be good. Deictic discourse is a witnessing or appealing kind of communication, not an expository kind of communication, or even a persuasive/rhetorical kind of communication. Borgmann says that this kind of discourse is what our democracy needs (and I heartily agree). Of course, liberal democracy must be opposed to deictic discourse since deictic discourse presumes to communicate a concrete aspect of the good life, and liberal democracy is committed to leaving the good life “open”. In other words, it believes that it has created an environment of true tolerance. The reply is as before: liberal democracy only claims to have left the good life open; in fact it hasn’t done so: “The question of the good life, as said before, cannot be left open. What remains open is not whether but how we will answer it.”

Deictic discourse has two modes, corresponding to its character of witnessing on one hand and appealing on the other. As a witness’s testimony, it becomes poetry. And as a strong appeal, it becomes politics. In fact, deictic discourse must be the ground of all real political action. Apodeictic discourse (the kind that comes by scientific or philosophical reasoning) can demand assent, but only in the narrow sphere of its own definitions. To connect it to action there must always be a deictic component. Deictic explanation is the only kind that can fill the is-ought gap.

A final critique of deictic discourse is that what is a focal thing or practice for me, what is of ultimate concern for me, is merely my imposition of significance. This is supposed to disqualify my appeal from generality, but Borgmann doesn’t dodge the critique. It is true, and irrefutably so. On the other hand, it’s inconsequential. Deictic discourse doesn’t aim to show that something is generally significant, or universally true. Its strength comes from precisely the opposite: it is grounded in the dirt of my own specific experience. It is unapologetically personal; it puts the question of significance to the interlocutor in a way that raises the question of her own experience as well. It says, in sum, “come and see”.

And thus ends Borgmann’s powerful explanation of deictic discourse. To drive the point home further, in the next chapter he will give an example of something about which deictic discourse is eminently suited: our natural environment and our relationship to it.

Author: Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan is a Director of Engineering at Sauce Labs, leading a team of open source developers to improve the web and mobile testing ecosystem. He has worked as a programmer in tech startups for over a decade, but is also passionate about academic discussion. Jonathan has master's degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively. Living in San Francisco, he's an avid rock climber, yogi, musician, and writer on topics he considers vital, like the relationship of technology to what it means to be human. Visit jonathanlipps.com for more.

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