Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, June 14, 2018


I work among elementary and secondary-level students -- grades K-12 -- before their great entry into "the adult world," where students eventually discover that there is no great Aha moment, that people are just blundering along doing their best, or less than their best; figuring out, or postponing figuring out, what it means to be a person. I do my best to equip them for this world, the only one there is, to encourage them in the warranted confidence that they do know how to live with integrity and openness. It's a dicey dance because I myself am not a master, only a fellow-student. And while I understand and live in light of the real developmental differentiation among children, teens, and young adults, I always hope for those moments in which the distinctions are relativised against our shared immersion in the human condition. Although most schools are not structured in a way that facilitates (let alone encourages) this, it can happen more often than you'd think.

At the end of every school year I am forcibly reminded of the one thing every one of my students has in common: they will not always be my student, and they have always been more than my student. My chance to do them good -- and to learn from them -- is ample, but it is finite. I have regrets over missed opportunities and times when it didn't go well. I thank God for the students who really seem to be wiling to talk with me as a person and not a strange tall alien figure whose role in their life gives him a weird authority they have to deal with. And because I am beset by my own insecurities, I wonder sometimes about some of them. What do they really think of me? By now, I am a little better at not projecting upon a student my own anxieties about myself, but even apart from that, the question can arise: I think they cared -- but am I making that up, because I want it to be true?

The last day of school is always a flurry of talking and tears and smiles and promises to be in touch and wishes of good luck and have a great summer -- and yearbook signing. I am always touched when a student asks me to sign their yearbook, and I earnestly try not to write canned messages, though I know they could look similar if you lined then all up. I also am grateful to the ones who write in mine, and there are always a few who I really want to be sure do so -- especially if they are graduating. Inevitably there are the ones that joke, the ones that write a perfunctory See You Next Year!, the ones who scrawl a cartoon (not always obscene), the ones who take their time to write something they mean, and the ones that just scribble their name. There are always a lot of those, the just-the-name-scribblers, and it surprises me, but I don't think of myself as deserving more -- though I sometimes hope for more.

This year there was a student (I'll call her Rose), with whom I've shared a lot of time talking about real things. Rose has had what I think can be aptly called one hell of a year -- a grandparent's death, an older friend's suicide, and her own struggles with intense anxiety, all while repeatedly doing incredibly competent work in the tech side of several school theatrical productions. This was alongside her usual high academic performance, applying to various high schools, and the rest of middle-school life. We'd had many talks and a lot of laughing, but I didn't assume she thought of me as a special mentor -- though she gave me plenty to think about, and not just when, in philosophy class, she articulated a deep exasperation with the irreducibility of first-person experience. She's been important to me, and I wanted to make sure she signed my yearbook.

I caught Rose just as the graduating class was going to pour out of the school and head off to their celebration at a park. It was the last chance, so I took it, but I knew she must be feeling the pressure of needing to get moving, and the swirl of so many people to say goodbye to. She smiled and took the book -- I said hello to someone else in the crowd for a moment -- and then Rose handed it back to me. I said Thank You, we hugged, and off she went. That was all. It had been a very short moment. Well, she just signed her name, I said to myself. That's literally all she had time to do. I was glad I got that, and sad -- sad that I wouldn't have something more, some sentence or two that would remind me of her funny way of putting things, the special intersection of fluster and earnestness, of impatience both frank and mock-, and the vulnerability she sometimes shows, which together go into the sketch of her in my mind. But it was certain Rose had not done that. She'd held the book for maybe five seconds. She'd just signed her name. Oh well, it was my own fault for not finding a better moment.

I eventually got back up to the room where I was going to work for the day. I set up my laptop, I had some papers to look through. The yearbook sat to one side. I couldn't concentrate. Usually I wait until I get home, but I couldn't help it. I flipped it open, and there I saw, amidst all the others, the "HAGS" and the long paragraphs and drawings the single names, was hers:
Thank You.
Rose M.
So much was packed into that moment. My own disappointment re-framed, my owning up to the ways I can project, the realization that this was the only message I had wanted, or hoped for -- the distillation of all the other ones I had imagined. She had found the only thing that needed saying -- not because I thought I had offered her such a tremendous gift that it needed to be acknowledged, but because the words Thank You are simply what there is to say at this time -- certainly what I wanted to say to her -- what I had said, in fact. And so small. It had taken just those seconds to write.

As I say, I am a fellow-student. Thank God for my teachers. All of them.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Erudition and esotericism

They who have taken up bare theorems immediately wish to vomit them forth, as persons whose stomach is diseased do with food….if you do not digest it, the thing becomes truly an emetic, a crude food and unfit to eat. But after digestion show us some change in your ruling faculty…. eat like a man, drink like a man, dress, marry, beget children, do the office of a citizen, endure abuse, bear with an unreasonable brother, bear with your father, bear with your son, neighbor, companion. Show us these things that we may see that you have in truth learned something from the philosophers.

You say, “No; but come and hear me read commentaries.…I will expound to you the writings of Chrysippus as no other man can: I will explain his text most clearly: I will add also, if I can, the vehemence of Antipater and Archedemus.”

Is it then for this that young men shall leave their country and their parents, that they may come to this place, and hear you explain
words? Ought they not to return with a capacity to endure, to be active in association with others, free from passions, free from perturbation, with such a provision for the journey of life with which they shall be able to bear well the things that happen and derive honour from them? And how can you give them any of these things which you do not possess?

….What else are you doing, man, than divulging the mysteries? You say, “there is a temple at Eleusis, and one here also. … The words are the same: how do the things done here differ from those done there?”

Most impious man, is there no difference? ….The thing is great, it is mystical, not a common thing, nor is it given to every man.

--Epictetus, Discourses III 21

The philosopher turns to esotericism not because he needs to hide things that are too terrible, or too scandalous, but because philosophy with those who are not philosophers turns into regurgitation, or becomes a provocation, and in either case turns out to be harmful – harmful to others, and indeed harmful to the philosopher who is less than adept. This harm doesn't come in the form of arrest warrants and banishment; it comes in the banal form of losing ones temper. It is not easy to be free from perturbation, to do the office of a citizen, to endure abuse and honor alike; and when you provoke those who are not philosophers with things that are too hard to digest, things that are out of place, you may find yourself out of your depth.

In other words, the rationale of esotericism – of saying to one’s philosophical friends what you would not say to others – is not just to protect others from the bleak void, nor to keep philosophers from being disparaged or outlawed, but because philosophers are not perfect, and when an imperfect soul encounters antagonism, it often throws one out of equilibrium. It isn’t an accident of philosophy; it’s an integral part of philosophical discipline.

The philosopher, holding that the unexamined life is not worth living, wants the best for both themselves and for their interlocutors, and so of course tries to spur them to further reflection. The response is, let us say, not always enthusiastic -- and one should worry if it it were. People become irritated, resistant, bored, impatient, suspicious, shamefaced, indignant; and one of the common mistakes the philosopher (well, this philosopher) can make is to take this personally. It leads to, and reinforces, a tangle of unbecoming and very un-philosophical behaviors: resentment, fear of judgment, disdain, and so on -- enough to keep a Nietzschean diagnosis busy for quite a while. The easiest way I know to combat this is simply to remember that no one owes it to you to philosophize with you -- and, if I may put it this way, non-consensual philosophy is no philosophy at all. More and more I think that the one of the most crucial moves in the philosophical repertoire is the tactical retreat -- the art of knowing when to stop pushing it. It is of course important to discern between this and mere cowardice, or even mere conflict-avoidance -- let alone a secret superiority-complex, or even a pleasure in willful deception. Point being: there’s plenty of work to do on yourself before you get to saving all of Athens.

If you just read the first part of Epictetus’ charge, you can come away thinking that philosophy needs to inculcate good, solid skills in living, and that blowhards who talk about wisdom but whose lives area a shambles are impostors. Which is probably true. But then Epictetus illustrates this problem in a weird way: by saying that the impostors are “profaning the mysteries,” blathering about things they don’t understand and declaring on the street things that ought not to be revealed out of context.

Part of Epictetus’ case is, quite plausibly, that the corruption of wisdom into mere mouthing of syllogisms or “commentary” on canonical works – a critique that every Straussian should meditate upon long and hard – is locked in a reinforcing chicken-and-egg cycle with the abandonment of esotericism. Mere erudition would then be a symptom of the loss of esoteric practice, and vice-versa.

In a post that opens with a citation from Epictetus, it should go without saying that a certain kind of erudition can be worth pursuing. But it ought to further the real task: the hard work of entering deeply into the ramifications of one’s ignorance, while holding onto one's commitment to truth. Otherwise this would just be a regurgitated commentary on an ancient denunciation of commentary.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

"Social constructs" is a social construct: a few applications

Although this post will venture, in passing, some reservations about certain claims about the radical constructedness of gender, it is not primarily about those claims or a defense of those reservations. My argument is modest, but not trivial: to wit, that those reservations are at least compatible with, and indeed coherently of a piece with, a more general granting of limited but real plausibility to the argument that gender is "constructed," and with the deployment of this claim in trans and queer theory. I will employ a very broad-brush account of "social construction," which I'm barely going to sketch, not defend. Constructivists may think it misses nuance; their opponents may think I give too much away.*

We are often accustomed, in a rough-and-ready way, to sorting claims into those about the "real world" ("matters of fact"), and those that are somehow "subjective," a matter of private opinion or fancy. A social construct is neither of these. It's a cumulative effect of many, many behaviors, far bigger than any one person's choices; but there is an open question about its existence apart from those behaviors. "Open," because whatever the social reality of these constructs, they still "bottom out" into other questions a bit further down Maslow's hierarchy of needs -- or perhaps open up onto higher levels.

Money is a social construct, of ancient provenance. Its longevity is indicative of its rootedness in some deep and tenacious tendencies in human nature. (I'm not going to defend the use of the term "human nature" here.)

Are there others? Yes, how about Language? "A cumulative effect, bigger than any one person's choices...?" Check. "Rooted in some deep and tenacious tendencies...?" Yes, check.

"God" -- it'd be safer to say "religion," but I'm biting the bullet here -- is, likewise, clearly a social construct. Because: ditto.

Of course, it would be hard to get a social construct constructed, that is, off the ground at all, without some, um, ground to get off of. Social constructs are not all there is, and constructedness is not all there is to a social construct. This is what is meant by those qualifying phrases above about "deep and tenacious tendencies in human nature," and my reference to other levels of the Maslovian hierarchy besides the social -- say, hunger or safety ("below" the social), or transcendence ("above" it). Not only is there nothing "unreal" about the effects of a "social construct," (or else having or not having money would be a matter of indifference), such construction does not happen in a void. There are motivators, and constraints. Human beings do speak. We have an adaptable larynx and respiratory tract and tongue, and a very developed and complicated neural set-up that has been shaped by feedback from speech for a good long time, relatively speaking. On the other hand, none of this gets us to the famous slipperiness of any particular signifier: how the weird cluster of sounds that go "sandwich" in English come to "mean," in practice, two slices of bread and some ham, cheese, or both.

We encounter the metaphysical horizon, and we notice that we die. Enter complicated social and psychological mechanisms, describe them a la Freud, Levi-Strauss, Marvin Harris as you will. So, ritual, so law, so big-capital-letter words like Torah and Trinity and Tat Tvam Asi. Again, neither this groundedness nor this variance are sufficient to base conclusions upon, in themselves. The fact that lots of people burn incense in lots of different places doesn't make prayer nonsense; by the same token, that prayer is not nonsense does not make these particular words the big exception to relativism. If you think "social construction" explains away God, you've made a couple of extra steps. This is where the interesting and unsettling questions start. (This post is not about religion, though.)

It should really not be a stretch to think of "gender" in these terms as well. It is clearly a "social construct," if by this one means something along the lines ventured above. It is a heavily socially-mediated set of practices -- often contradictory practices -- that change over time. There is no metaphysical magnet that draws "male" towards trucks and swords and denim jeans, and "female" towards pink, flowery dresses and needlepoint. We know this partly because there are many cultures where other constructs of various sorts about gender obtain: where the men wear skirts, for instance, or where polyandry is the general rule, or where there is a more prominent, visible, and "normal" space for those who don't easily fit into the binary. Where what it means to be male, or female, or sometimes-sorta-neither/both, is different. All of this is basic anthropological and sociological data. Not very controversial; also not very dispositive.

On the other hand, just as there are real material and metaphysical constraints that give rise to some constructs and not others when it comes to money, or language, and law, so too with gender. We come in a (broadly empirical but not without exceptions) anatomical sexual dimorphism, which, yes, turns out to be complicated, not a neat-and-simple bivalence, but also goes pretty deep. "How deep?", and "'deep,' how?" are some of the interesting and unsettling questions that open up here.

Once you start seeing them, you can spot social constructs everywhere, which is not surprising, since they are pretty much what culture does. Star Wars; hip-hop, rock-n-roll, jazz; the sanctity of the national anthem; connoisseurship of cigars, wine, art; table manners; sandwiches. All of these are, more or less, what one might call "trends", fashions, ways we do things. Some of them are deep-rooted, or have a lot of momentum behind them. Some of them are integral grammars of an ongoing civilizational conversation that has been underway for thousands of years, bound up with different human ways of being that go deep into the shaping of souls. Others are the creatures of an hour, and could disappear forever with the next power outage. In other words, just because something is a social construction does not make its effects unreal or its basis "arbitrary." On the other hand, just because it may be strongly grounded in material or metaphysical reality does not make it inevitable. One can think both of these things at once.

Language, again -- not just the lexicon, but the practice(s) of language -- is a very deep, broad, multilayered and complicated set and deployment of social constructs. It has subsets with fuzzy boundaries: for instance, what are often in Academese called "discourses" or "discursive practices," of which Academese is one instance (or maybe several instances). So, we have "the discourse of" such-&-such a discipline, or such-&-such a worldview, or such-&-such a class. The kinds of language that we find in various sorts of storytelling (or written fiction), of various genres, are other subsets of such practices; and likewise, the kinds we find in Romantic poetry versus that of the Beats or the Language poets who started doing their thing roughly in the 70's. Science fiction, as a species of language-use, is different from erotica or hard-boiled detective fiction or constitutional law. And there are other ways of doing the divvying: Slang is a subset of language; the slang of a particular class a smaller subset; and the slang of a decade smaller still.

It should not be too much of a stretch to think of contemporary gender-revisionism in these terms as well.

Gender, too, is a very deep and broad set of social constructs. The more recent explosion, in certain parts of the West, of questioning or radical rejection of "gender norms" is, likewise, a (much smaller) set of counter-practices, another set of constructs. ("How recent?" and "'explosive,' how?" are some of the questions that could get raised here.) These constructs may or may not be "fads," or phases -- the rough equivalent of slang; just possibly they are the beginning of a whole new dialect. To observe that there is an element of ideology, media-construction, and social pressure in these movements is not incompatible with seeing the constructedness of gender; it is a feature of seeing the constructedness of gender. And, if one bears in mind that some constructions are more grounded than others, one can be open-mindedly skeptical about the expected traction, longevity, or groundedness of some of these counter-practices. There may be constraints on what we can say is true -- it would be a little absurd to think that there weren't, actually -- and they could make some of these counter-practices unviable. But to say this doesn't make one a reactionary defender of some cis/heteronormative status quo. One can doubt, for instance, that there "are" fifteen or thirty or more genders in quite the same sense that there have been held to be two, without "essentializing" gender in some sort of Biblical fundamentalist manner.

One can also do this without implying that someone's "experience is not real," or that it lacks legitimacy, or that someone "does not have the right to exist." Critics of trans or queer language sometimes assert (or just sneer) that this revisionism is merely trendy, that it's the latest form of teenage angst and midlife crisis, and is rooted in confusion, rebellion, or trendiness. This reductionism is foolish, and often either shockingly cavalier or deeply malicious. (There are costs to identifying as anything but cisgendered, sometimes very heavy costs, that people don't take on for shallow reasons.) But one can also wonder whether trends of a sort are playing a role here, without thereby holding that any given person is not to be taken seriously. It would, indeed, be very surprising if the social dynamics that underlie trends were not at work; it would make this phenomena the great anomaly in our ever-more-interconnected society. And it is important to be able to question and critique trends (corrigibly) without being reductive, belittling, or bullying -- or being accused of it. One can be supportive, kind, loving, an "ally" as they say among the social-justice crowd†, and question whether it's really the case that the great lie of gender is at last being exposed, or whether some of the trailheads in this current conversational landscape -- say, the multiplication of gender designations; the claim that "identification" is essentially what gender comes down to; the asserted illusoriness of gender per se; or the radical and incorrigible refusal to think of sex and gender as having anything to do with each other -- lead to places we should want to go. And, it ought to go without saying, one can do all of this without sanctioning or abetting cruelty, whether individual or collective, whether petty or heinous.

It is important to make this non-sanction visible and audible, given the real dangers that face trans people. That danger is neither negligible nor imaginary. But it does not warrant drawing ontological conclusions. It is very soon to say that the jettisoning of received mores about gender is simply the final longed-for denouement of the truth of an oppressive social construct. The conservativism of some opponents of (and alarmists about) trans discourse should not lead us to assume that all critique of this discourse is on the side of an entrenched essentialism or the privileges of patriarchy. That motivation is a different question. And so, too, is the question of the fact-of-the-matter about "how deep" and "'deep,' how?"

To a certain kind of wary reader, this sort of gentle skepticism I am defending here no doubt looks a lot like what trans activist Julia Serano calls being trans-suspicious:
The “trans-suspicious” position acknowledges that transgender people exist and should be tolerated (to some degree), but routinely questions (and sometimes actively works to undermine) transgender perspectives and politics. For example, a trans-suspicious individual might treat me respectfully and refrain from misgendering me, yet simultaneously express doubt about whether certain other people are “really trans” or should be allowed to transition. While they often consider themselves to be “pro-trans” (on the basis that they tolerate us to some degree), their strong cisnormative and cissexist biases lead them to spread much of the same misinformation, and push for many of the same anti-trans policies, as their trans-antagonistic counterparts.... In a world where trans-antagonistic and trans-unaware attitudes are pervasive, trans-suspicious arguments tend to strike the average cisgender person as relatively “objective” or “reasonable” by comparison (although trans people readily see through this veneer).
Serano's distinction is useful, though obviously she considers "trans-suspicion" a pretty unsatisfactory halfway-house or even a Trojan horse. My response is not simply to shrug "but you say that like it's a bad thing." In any case I am not talking about "toleration" of individuals (if you’ve ever been "tolerated" you know how demoralizing it is). It's incumbent upon anyone of good faith not to spread misinformation, and to advocate for or support policies that are humane and treat people with dignity -- insofar as a policy can do this. In a polyvalent society, there can be good-faith disagreements about those. Speaking of controversial things entails responsibilities. What I care about here is that too-intense counter-suspicion -- seeing reasonableness as a "veneer" -- hampers those responsibilities and makes it much, much more difficult to talk at all.

Various arguments about gender may be susceptible to being co-opted by oppression in different ways; some may even plausibly be asserted to be inherently oppressive. Those are different issues that I haven't addressed. What I'm claiming here is that oppression does not inevitably accompany a kind of moderate skepticism about gender revisionism; in fact, such skepticism is an application of the same insights that leads one to question the absoluteness or essentiality of standard-issue default gender norms. Those norms are, in effect, habits -- bad habits, the critics say, longstanding trends that leave a lot unaccounted for and that drown out minority experience, sometimes with disastrous effect. Counter-trends, however welcome, are also trends, and are susceptible to the same critiques -- even more susceptible perhaps, since they have less momentum behind them. (Uncovering and claiming that momentum is part of what historians of the movement do.) One person's "at last!" is another's "oooh, shiny!" We cannot adjudicate between these with the idea of "social construct" alone, and seeing the problem and taking it seriously does not (by itself) make one party to oppression.

Moreover, to assert that such skepticism is inherently oppressive is not a harmless mistake. It foments suspicion, defensiveness, divisiveness, bad listening skills, and a propensity to ad hominem attacks, guilt-by-association, and Bulverism ("yeah, that's just what a cis-male would say"). That oppression can and does happen I take to be noncontroversial; that it's deeper and more widespread and entrenched than we hoped in the starry-eyed heyday of the Great Society is clear, at least to many (myself among them); but I'm fine with argument about all of that. That such co-opting can occur I also concede, and take seriously, but again I think it is a separable matter, though that separation is not simple. "Oppression", like any high-level concept, is of course itself a "social construct" (you will note I haven't defined it here -- which does not mean I think that this is an unimportant question); but it's also grounded in some deep, tenacious, and nasty human tendencies.

In short: a gentle (but perhaps strong) skepticism about how trans or queer issues are framed is not only compatible (pace the with-us-or-against-us wokeness of some) with questioning the absoluteness of "traditional" gender-roles; it is arguably entailed by it. One does not make oneself an accomplice of oppression just by querying the this framing. And mistaking who is the opposition is not harmless either.

*There will also be those who think it presumptuous or obnoxious of me (happily born-male-still-male (at least by default), for-all-practical-purposes-straight me) to even opine about gender at all. Obviously I think that this would be putting things way too strongly.

†(Hold on, some of you are saying. No. "Allyship is not self-defined," declares the anti-oppression network. And this is a fair point. It makes me sad, sometimes, if I am not perceived as an ally -- or if I am perceived as an enemy -- but it's not within my power to make someone call me this. Because "ally", too, is a social construct.)

Monday, March 12, 2018

Doggerel composed in a dream

Woke up one morning, fumbled for my notebook, and scrawled this down, fresh from the oneiric workshop:
The Superego's decree:
Rhyme and meter, as strict as may be!
The Ego dissents:
"These days, forms can be slant --"
But this limerick comes straight from the
Id, mothafuckah!!! I can do whatever the Hell I want!!!
Freud and others noted fairly early that patients started to report dreams that seemed to cater to certain readings of symbolism or other aspects of psychoanalytic terminology. Even our unconscious creative process can become theory-laden. For instance, construing itself as an "unconscious creative process."

Thursday, March 1, 2018

My teachers (2): Bernard Harrison

I had two professors at college who made a deep impact on my philosophical development. The first was Fred Hagen, who was equal parts challenge and validation.

My other great "official" teacher (I have been lucky in my unofficial ones as well) was Bernard Harrison, who filled a more traditional (but perhaps more crucial) role, party advisory, partly exemplary -- a teacher who would really argue with you, and really listen. He was closer to me in my intuitions and orientations than Hagen, but he was also more challenging because I had to think hard about every divergence, without the luxury of an Oh-well, agree-to-disagree shrug.

Harrison let me audit several courses -- on Wittgenstein, on phenomenology (this was when I first read Husserl, and also Merleau-Ponty), and on the interweave of philosophy and literature. I will always be grateful to him for making room for an extra (and sometimes non-paying) student, one who must have seemed more than a bit odd at first. I spent many happy hours discussing problems with him in his office -- not just Frege, Heidegger, Rorty, but Coleridge, Austen, Kermode. Without ever consciously shouldering his way into an avuncular role, he did what is rare and welcome in a student's life -- he "took an interest." He not only sold me his car for a shockingly low price when he and his wife Dorothy eventually stopped coming to Salt Lake regularly from the UK, but he personally drove me to his insurance agent to see to it that I had coverage. I remember a day when I walked with him to his apartment after class; it may have had to do with the car, or perhaps he was going to lend me a book. I was feeling a little under the weather, and thought I ought to wait outside. "My dear fellow," he said, "you may have the wog, but you're a human being!" Up I came, and sat down for a cup of tea with the two of them. Much later, the visit my wife and I made to them in Sussex was a highlight of our honeymoon. I also credit Harrison for confirming my intuition that I would be miserable in academia, a conclusion I have re-affirmed many times since.

Bernard Harrison's work deserves to be much better known. He did not agree with my assessment of Wittgenstein in every respect and he let me know it (we also disagreed on Husserl), but he did pay Wittgenstein the compliment of treating him as a single thinker rather than as a mythical beast with the head of a logical positivist and the body of a pragmatist. (He had studied under Wittgenstein's student Peter Geach.) He placed equal emphasis upon the early and late work in a way that underscored their continuity, and for a while I believe he was something of a voice crying in the wilderness. (Eventually I found my impression of Wittgenstein confirmed in Ray Monk's excellent biography.) Harrison's project is a nuanced one that essentially takes seriously the Wittgenstinian insight that our thinking is a kind of practice, and it derives far-reaching consequences from this apparently modest seed, including a full-blown defense of a literary tradition both recognizably humanistic and as endlessly "experimental" as you like. In some ways, Harrison's work is the successful fruition of the dialogue between Wittgenstein and the great critic F.R. Leavis, who argued with Wittgenstein throughout his career. Moreover, Harrison, too, saw the split between analytic and Continental philosophy as a false dilemma, and his work is a robust example (and the first one I deeply appreciated) of what would be done if you act like these are different dialects, rather than a zero-sum contest for the soul of philosophy.

The best introduction to Harrison's work is his own prologue to the volume Reality and Culture, an anthology of essays on his entire oeuvre, edited by Patricia Hanna (his co-author of the important Word and World, and a longtime colleague at the University of Utah). Here he outlines the root intuitions of the project that has occupied him his entire career. He acknowledges that it looks a bit curious, initially. His first two books were an odd couple indeed: the para-Wittgenstinian Form and Content -- a minor and unacknowledged classic of the philosophy of practice disguised as a very specialized investigation in the grammar of colors -- and Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones", which I'm tempted to describe as a display of unabashed enthusiasm for Fielding disguised as a canny excusrus in moral philosophy disguised as a "reading" of Fielding. Except there's no "disguise" involved here; at every step you know exactly what Harrision is about, because he tells you in advance, and reviews it patiently, in well-wrought prose and without any didacticism. He somehow manages to keep you reading as if he were surprising you at every step, all the while getting you to say, "Yes, yes, I see that. OK, right." As if you were the mark in a Socratic set-up -- but never feeling the barb of the ironist's scorn.

These two works, "as bizarrely different in ostensible topics as they must seem ... laid down the foundations" for what turned out to be Harrison's lifelong project. In Harrison's account, Fielding -- and by extension (an extension he went on to make himself) any other great literary artist -- shows you the force of an argument without actually arguing it. That is, in engaging with a novel, you find yourself shown things (human relationships, actions, and more importantly the valuations and grammar of these relationships) that are not expressly contended for. Harrison's point is that this "not expressly" is a feature, not a bug, and that it is essential not to the nature of the art ("indirection" or "brain-washing" or whatever) but to the realities in question. In short, Harrison was deploying the saying/showing distinction from early Wittgenstein in a very late-Wittgenstein sort of way.

Harrison's essay goes on to show the way these insights developed, how he wrestled with strong objections and how he extended the arguments through numerous other authors and milieu. His work in literary studies has since filled up two more books (Inconvenient Fictions and What is Fiction For?); these works show Harrison as very close to his teacher Iris Murdoch in how he sees the work of literature as not merely illustrative of a paraphrasable philosophy, but vital and irreplacable in its own right. Meanwhile his book with Hanna, Word and World, develops the argument in Form and Content into a full-blown reading of Wittgenstein (one he calls here "reading Wittgenstein for the arguments") and, far more importantly, an extensive engagement with questions of language, thought, practice, and the whole scope of what philosophy is and ought to be about.

Harrison's prologue to Reality and Culture also gives a flavor of what it was like to be in class with him, as by turns he raises an eyebrow at the reader, or thumps on the table, laughing aloud; also as into a philosophical argument he slips a joke or a historical observation or a biographical note. The biography in particular comes through here, because of the occasion (a prologue to a volume of essays honoring his whole career). But there is one aspect of his work that does not show up in this prologue, which I want to underscore. It is Harrison's engagement with Judaica and Judaism.

Harrison is, or was the last I talked with him, a gently skeptical agnostic on matters beyond the horizon of our temporal finitude, but he has been concerned with Judaism for his whole career, I think. He is an outspoken defender of Israel and a grave critic of those who would flirt with the line between criticism of Israel and an older, uglier and more deadly set of tropes. Harrision has engaged with anti-semitism several times (and this engagement is treated by some contributions to Reality and Culture); for my money the best example is his essay "Talking Like a Jew," again because of the biographical element. Harrison talks here about the esprit of Judaism in thinking and culture; he talks about antisemitism both of the cranky one-off kind and of the endemic and ruinous; and he tells, very movingly, the story of his own personal encounters with Jewish culture in the household of a childhood schoolmate, an encounter which clearly inspired a loyalty which has oriented Harrison through his life. The essay is both intellectually compelling and humanly moving, and not because it treats of all-too-easily manipulable occasions like the Shoah, though it is worth saying that it persuaded me once and for all that those who argue for the "uniqueness" of the Shoah among the horrible parade of human atrocities are not wrong (though they might be mis-motivated). Harrison's discussion of the death camps it is the only place I have ever encountered the word eldritch outside of Lovecraftiana, and it was the only time I understood it. In its interweaving of biography and argument (political and philosophical), "Talking Like a Jew" shows the way that reasoned but frankly partisan commitment emerges from the warp of rational reflection and the woof of personal life.

The essay takes its title from a moment in which Harrison, mistaken by Jewish tour-guide in Jerusalem for being Jewish himself, tries to disabuse his guide, only to be told: "Well, you talk like a Jew." And Harrison knows immediately what is meant, even if this impression is impossible to summarize more succinctly. What, exactly, is "Jewish" in Harrision's presentation of philosophy? I would venture: his enthusiastic returning to argument, his refusal of the pretensions of any single set of argumentative rubrics to give the secret of life; his willingness to look atrocity in the eye and not despair for the possibility of a good life. None of these are "uniquely Jewish," it will be (rightly) objected, of course, and so the question will remain, but it seems to me that Harrison's refusal to accept the verdict of "mere subjectivity" on human culture is precisely the fruit of his having engaged over and over with this Biblical inheritance; above all with the twin refusals of idolatry (worship of images) and paganism (worship of nature).

That would perhaps not be Harrison's way of putting it, but I know of no one who has more thoroughly internalized the way in which Wittgenstein's distinction between saying and showing recapitulates the Mosaic interdiction against graven images -- an insistence on theophany, not theology, as it were -- than he has. This kinship between Wittgenstein and the second commandment has been observed before. What is less frequently seen is the way in which this forbidding of idols -- i.e., the making and ultimate valuation (i.e., "worship") of human constructs, whether material or conceptual -- is entwined with another ban, on the ultimate valuation of "nature". It needs emphasis that this is not -- pace Nietzsche, and pace Fred Hagen -- the same as a devaluation of nature; it is a refusal of regarding nature as ultimate. There is a widespread assumption, rarely stated in so many words, human culture is a matter of distraction and illusion -- the Sellarsian "manifest image" turned though various societal permutations -- while "nature," by which is always meant non-human nature, is the "only reality." In all of his work, Harrison is at pains to point out, contest, and undermine this unexamined and all-too-frequent ostensible correlation between culture and "subjectivity". To him it seems plain that this is an absurd prejudice; culture, art, value, language, are as real as anything extra-linguistic, and non-human reality, while (in itself) unstructured conceptually is accessible by the senses, by cognition, and by contrivance. Harrison underscores that human meaning is grounded in the paradoxical way that Being "loves to hide," and that values are part of what it means to be the kind of creatures we are. There is nothing inescapably "unreal" about that!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

My teachers (1): Fred Hagen

Getting ready to present at the Awe and Attention Symposium put me in mind of my very on-again-off-again time at the University, and I decided to write a couple of brief (and belated) appreciations.

I have been very fortunate in my teachers. I have no academic certification, no diploma on my wall, no letters after my name, because during the years most people spend in college, I was doing other things -- mainly playing rock and roll, falling in love several times, living in a long-lived unofficial artists' commune (though we never called it that), and working in bookshops. (I also worked for ten years in a group home for a population which was then called "developmentally disabled;" I assume this is one of those phrases one "no longer says," but I have not kept up with the lingo.) Along the way I read a not inconsiderable amount (though far less than I am suspected of -- and far less than I wound up owning!), and I began writing in earnest. I did also manage to take a few classes at the University, thanks to the very kind forbearance of a couple of professors. I took the last course ever taught by the late, great Fred Hagen -- a class on Nietzsche, which was filled beyond capacity, but to which he very kindly admitted me simply because I had engaged him in coffee-shop conversation a few times. Hagen was a genteel, old-school pre-Stonewall queer. He enjoyed -- maybe a little too much -- hiding his keen acumen behind the persona of village atheist, much to the scandal of local Mormon culture; many times he took what seemed to a be purely provocative pseudo-blasphemous stance, only to pounce with an uncompromising rationality that was scary if you were the one it was thinking about eating alive. He had honed his logical chops in higher mathematics -- I remember trying unsuccessfully to follow as he walked some students through the Löwenheim-Skolem theorem -- and his mind was the sort for which the cliché about the steel trap was invented. Slightly more terrifying was his wit, which somehow managed to be as fast as the crack of a whip, and yet delivered in the lilting, aristocratic Texan accent he still had. There was a legend -- cultivated by Hagen himself, but based in truth (I have independently confirmed it from other sources) -- that in one lecture he blasphemously taunted the heavens during a thunderstorm that raged outside, upon which a bolt of lightning struck quite close, with a loud thunderclap. (In one version of the story it struck a nearby tree, but that at least may be apocryphal.) Unfazed, Hagen lifted the window and bawled out into the wind, "Your aim is getting worse and worse!" with a few other choice words about the divinity's increasing senility. A few days later, when called into the dean's office -- some of the more pious students had been scandalized -- Hagen raised an eyebrow and said, "But I don't understand the problem. Jehovah isn't the wielder of the thunderbolt, after all. That's Zeus."

But he could be astonishingly generous if he knew you were not a fool. I wrote an essay which was decidedly antipathetic to Nietzsche’s overt conclusions, a paper of which I am still very proud, most of all because despite how it provoked him, Hagen pulled me aside quietly to praise it, and gave me an A for the course. Once I said something about believing in deus absconditas. Hagen took a long draw on his long cigarette (he is the only person I've known who could pull off the affectation of a cigarette holder), let out a meditative plume of smoke, and hmmmm'd. "Well, He's gone somewhere, that's for sure," he said. For all his disdain for small minds, Hagen's bark was worse than his bite. He prized kindness above brilliance and knew that the victories of argument were often shallow and short-lived. What I have managed to track down of his published output is slight, and buried in old journals. I deeply wish this were not so. He was a fine scholar of culture (especially German) and was ignoring the analytic/Continental divide way, way before it was cool. He called himself an unabashed generalist. In the reminiscences of people who knew him better than me, I have consistently heard anecdotes of a surprising gentleness of spirit -- though not without a sometimes wicked sense of humor.

Fred Hagen died in 2002. May he forgive me, I still sometimes pray for his repose.

I had been going to end this post there, but yesterday after I finished my brief talk (essentially an expanded version of this post) and the panel discussion had wrapped up, I was talking to someone about a point that got raised in the Q-&-A when a woman walked up to the table and put a small note down on top of my sheaf of papers. I didn't get a good look at her because I was still engaged in what the other fellow was saying and there was a lot of milling about, but I wish I had been more attentive (and at a conference with "Attention" in the title, what could possibly be my excuse? I'm sure I knew her, but it's been a long time. I hope I get a second chance, but...) When I picked up the slip of paper I read: Fred Hagen would have loved that. I really can think of no greater compliment.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Reinhold and the need for interlocutor

Of the many "minor figures" in the history of philosophy who have diverted my attention over the years, I am especially fond of Karl Leonhard Reinhold. Famous as a populariser of Kant, for attempting to give the critical philosophy a foundation and to accomplish scientific and systematic certainty in its context (an effort which gave a strong impetus to work by Fichte and others), Reinhold also had a number of less well-known later stages in his career after his expressly Kantian beginning. Serious criticism led Reinhold to set aside his so-called Elementary philosophy, but his pursuit of certainty, as well as a religious bent (he had been educated by Jesuits, took Roman Catholic holy orders, and was a Freemason) took him through a number of subsequent philosophical systems. He wanted, he said, a philosophy "without epithet." He engaged by turns with Jacobi and Fichte, then with Bardili (speaking of "minor" figures ...) and finally expounded an approach more grounded in linguistics, critiquing his own earlier standpoints from philosophy of language (in this respect, at least, not unlike the work of Herder and Hamann), until he died in 1823. His considerable influence on German philosophy arguably extended until the death of his student Trendelenburg in 1872.

Hegel's main engagement with Reinhold is in the early work on the difference between Fichte and Schelling, and it does not leave a flattering impression of Reinhold. Hegel faults him for inconsistency, for being a bad reader, even for not recognizing his own footprints. He cites a review of Reinhold that suggests that Reinhold's infatuation with Christoph Bardili (whose work, he said, helped purge him of the influence of the transcendental philosophy) was really unwittingly "going to school with himself" because -- surprise! -- Bardili had been influenced by Reinhold first! This is a double-whammy of a critique, because it's hard to avoid noticing that Hegel's estimate of Bardili is already not high, so he's really saying that Reinhold stands behind this second- or third-rank philosopher, and then adding that Reinhold isn't sharp enough to notice this himself. (Nothing by Bardili has been translated into English, to my knowledge, but there are a few secondary sources if you dig around. To spell it out in detail would be the matter for another post, but suffice to say I don't feel Hegel has been fair -- though scholarship does acknowledge that Reinhold may well have influenced Bardili first [he was, after all, the older thinker and had a head-start].)

Hegel is not alone in proffering the charge of inconsistency as reason for not taking Reinhold seriously, but you can't help but feel from the "Difference" essay that a good part of Hegel's polemic is just a little mean-spirited, which casts some doubt on his motives (even if Reinhold's reading does have some blind spots). In any case, Reinhold made no secret of his serial conversions, and inconsistency (when owned and acknowledged) is not a philosophical disqualification; it's hard to imagine this being held against Wittgenstein or Russell or Putnam, for instance. Speaking for myself, Reinhold's shifting stances were an effect of the reason I myself am so fond of him, and of why I feel close to him temperamentally: he read his contemporaries enthusiastically and broadly and as if they might genuinely teach him something. There is, to me, something very winning in Reinhold's unsettledness, and if we smile at his readiness to proclaim each of his successive lodestars the answer, one may still admire his perpetual openness, his hope, his willingness to begin again.

Now it's true that I read differently than Reinhold, who really did seem to have a series of discrete positions (though there's also a continuity from phase to phase). I turn repeatedly to one "new name" after another (new to me, anyway), not because I believe that the key to all the mysteries is just one elusive master thinker away, but because I'm not in the market for a master thinker at all. I'm hungry for serious engagement with the questions, and the names I haven't heard before tend to give me a slant (and sometimes much, much more than a slant) that I haven't yet encountered. It doesn't matter if this is an off-center contemporary or an overlooked or eclipsed past figure; I'm far more likely to get something unanticipatable from them than from someone like Heidegger or Quine precisely because of the ubiquity of Heidegger or Quine. (The suggestion that I'm just going to get watered-down, derivative Heidegger or Quine from most of my contemporaries is one of those dangerous half-truths that would require another post to engage it fully; for now let's leave it at saying that I do tend to shy away from reading secondary literature and "applications" ["...a Deleuzian account of..."] but I also do not regard thinkers as merely functions of, or reducing to, their "predecessors.")

Some read and re-read only (or almost only) the "big names" in the canon (or commentary on them), or some subsection thereof. Others read in their "field" -- keeping up to date in aesthetics, ethics, bioethcs, political philosophy, ecophilosophy, philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, philosophy of.... I am both more scattered, and more focused. My interest is philosophy per se, When I read a thinker who is definitely doing that, with the unspecifiable je ne sais quoi that is the hallmark of thinking -- a weird high-wire act of Kantian confidence and Keatsian negative capability -- the question of whether I "agree" or not becomes secondary. The example -- not the method, not the content, but the thinking -- is so invigorating, and essential to this is the fact that it's someone else, not me -- a thought I couldn't have anticipated and never would have.

Perhaps part of Reinhold was looking for the next "big name," but I think most fundamentally, he just needed that encounter. And to me, that feels just so much healthier than a one-man show like Kant or Hegel.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Wondering about wonder

Theaetetus: By the gods, Socrates, I am lost in wonder when I think of all these things, and sometimes when I regard them it really makes my head swim.
Socrates: …. This feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy, and he who said that Iris was the child of Thaumas made a good genealogy.
--Plato, Theaetetus 155d

It is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize; wondering in the first place at obvious perplexities, and then by gradual progression raising questions about the greater matters too, e.g. about the changes of the moon and of the sun, about the stars and about the origin of the universe. …thus the myth-lover is in a sense a philosopher, since myths are composed of wonders.
--Aristotle, Metaphysics A 982b
Wonder is often supposed to be the special provenance of children. This supposition is perhaps another aspect of the so-called "invention of childhood," the ostensible cultural shift in the west which (it is claimed) gave us a new construal of the difference between children and adults. The historian usually credited with (or blamed for) the idea that childhood is a modern construct is Philippe Aries, who pointed out, among other things, that before roughly the 1600s, children were visually represented in Europe as miniature adults. Among thinkers, Locke and Rousseau are frequently associated with this re-construal, which cast childhood as a window of innocence and goodness and vulnerability.

I am dubious about such historicist claims that such-and-such a phenomenon was "unknown until..." some date that usually winds up being suspiciously late. (Similar claims are made about homosexuality and romantic love, for instance). Talk like this has a tendency to become overblown and to foment the worst sorts of historicist relativism. We do well to beware of anachronistically projecting a contemporary perspective on the past, but such due caution is not the same as thinking that the "new" development was unprecedented and would have been unrecognizable to previous ages. (Similar arguments are made about "judging history" by contemporary values, and here too, one must walk a careful line. There is such a thing as anachronism, of course, and I take the history of modes of consciousness seriously, especially as informed by technology -- which really does change; in thinking about these things one is continually compensating in one direction and then the other).

There is plenty of evidence to show that children were always seen in certain ways as different from adults – for instance, the fact that they are counted (or sometimes not counted) separately. Example: when the New Testament recounts the miraculous feeding of the multitude, it specifies: "The number of those that ate was about 5,000 men, besides women and children." And one could also point to all the specific emphasis Jesus puts on children, which cannot be explained away as sentimental Victorian haze even though it was surely obscured by such sentimentality. Whatever the real differences between children and adults, it is certainly not unreasonable to suggest that this difference has been read in more than one way from era to era. Why this alleged shift should be described as the "invention" (and not, say, the discovery) of childhood is not obvious; but it's at least arguable that the idea of the child as especially prone to "wonder" is an instance of such ideology at work.

In short, I think that the notion of "wonder" is associated with children for good reason that modernity may have magnified but which it did not invent. And yet, in the same era that would have (per hypothesis) projected this image of the naturally-"wondering" child, specifically engaging the very young in expressly philosophical discussion has more and more fallen out of practice, except in the most informal or "framing" of contexts. Teachers may allow themselves a philosophical aside, or discover that they and their young students are having a surprisingly wide-ranging conversation, but in modern academic pedagogy, philosophical instruction tends to begin in undergraduate years. The notion of intentionally presenting philosophy to young people (between elementary and high school) as an investigation in its own right is (for the most part) foreign to primary education.

What does this say about our presuppositions about pedagogy, about philosophy, and about the "wonder" from which philosophy supposedly springs? Might the modern "disenchanted" world – a world from which wonder has (supposedly) been banished – be a symptom, a cause, or both, of our assumption that philosophy is a matter for "adults"?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Awe and Attention Symposium

I don't do a lot of publicizing of academic events, but as I have (somewhat to my surprise) wound up on the program for this one, I suppose I ought to mention it:

Awe and Attention
"A two-day interdisciplinary symposium addressing the widely perceived loss of attention in the contemporary world. Presenters and keynote speakers will speak to the consequences—social, psychological, and ecological—of the crisis of attention, and consider possible ways to alleviate it through a renewal of awe."
University of Utah College of Humanities, Friday-Saturday, February 16 and 17 2018

Friday, December 29, 2017

"The best / worst thing there is."

My problem has never been finding things interesting enough to talk or write about them, it’s always been finding too many things interesting to talk or write about only one of them. ... But this is me. I like explaining things more than everything else, pretty much. I don’t study philosophy. I don’t teach philosophy. I am a philosopher. I philosophise. It’s what I do. When I can do it it’s the best thing there is. When I can’t it’s the worst thing there is.
This disarming and frank declaration comes in the midst of one of the most candid depictions of depression and philosophy I've ever encountered. Because it's Pete Wolfendale writing, and Pete is a philosopher, it is also about everything else: it's an account of his post-doc struggles with the academic market, a more general descriptive theory of academic career paths, a spot-on slam against the misappropriation of Spinoza by the vulgar Deleuzo-Guattarian left, a whirlwind inventory of SSRIs and assorted other neurochemical blunt instruments, a theory of thinking as navigation through fractal problem-space, a self-reflexive instance of its own narrative of possible "bad career moves," and a lovely and moving homage to Mark Fisher, whose suicide a little less than a year ago sent shock waves through the leftist blogosphere. There is no way I can do justice to it, you just have to go read it. I am sure that many will remark upon the courage it takes to write about one's mental health issues in a public forum, and they'll be right, but I feel only a little less queasy speaking that way about someone else than I would of myself -- getting called "brave" is obviously not the reason for writing such an account. I just want to underscore here a few of the things that rang true for me as I read Pete's post, and urge everyone to go give it the carefully (and patient) reading it requires and deserves.

Philosophy can be a really, really lonely business. Pete's post resonates strongly with me in the wake of my own meditations on melancholia. Melancholia feels isolating. Even when you are sociable, at parties and at home with your family and wherever else you may be surrounded by joviality, there's a sense of estrangement. It's not just that they eventually roll their eyes when there you go again, that they really don't seem to get the puzzlement with which you face an ordinary punch bowl or the fired-up enthusiasm you have for a question no one else ever thought to ask. It's not even just that to explain yourself -- sometimes even to reassure them that while you aren't merely "playing devil's advocate," you aren't the devil either -- you'd have to back up so far.... It's that when you philosophize you really do kind of "go somewhere else." Where are we when we think? Arendt asked, and part of her answer is -- nowhere. Tantôt je pense et tantôt je suis, she cites from Paul Valéry -- sometimes I think, and sometimes I am. No wonder philosophy is bound up with melancholia! Who can be with me when I am nowhere?

Somehow it does happen, though -- at least sometimes. I often think that friendship is simply the question of philosophy, maybe even of how philosophy is possible. (Aristotle arguably thinks this too). Of course, I think a lot of questions might be "the" question of philosophy, but maybe that's what philosophy is: seeing how every question is holographically encoded in every other. Maybe that's how we hear each other across the chasm, above the din of the party conversation and the wailing of sirens and the silence of centuries and the drumbeat of our own egos -- philosophy cues us into how your puzzlement opens onto (answers, mirrors, analogizes with, inverts, reframes, subverts, is a species of...) mine. At worst, this would just be appropriation and projection. But there is something about philosophy that can make it more, and I think that at least in part it's because we sense how fragile and precious the connection is. It's fucking scary out here. The chasm is real. (And who wants to cross it for someone who might turn out be on the devil's side?) Just that being seen and heard, regardless of approval or agreement, from across that chasm, is a lifeline to the thinker. And if it dissolves....

Arendt responds in part to the displacement of the thinking self into the void by counterposing our temporality to our spatiality:
The everywhere of thought is indeed a region of nowhere. But we are not only in space, we are also in time, remembering, collecting and recollecting what is no longer present ... anticipating and planning.(see The Life of the Mind, pp 197-202)
In other words, our character as temporal can also orient us in our thinking, and provide a direction that will guide us in what might otherwise be nothing but vertigo. It's noteworthy then that Wolfendale's account of his own condition includes a point-by-point description of how memory breaks down during depressive states, and the way -- for him, at least -- this feels like another sort of spatial estrangement:
memory becomes strangely dissociative. You remember facts about yourself. I know this. I can do that. But if you try to call it up it isn’t there. You can recall what you think but not why you think it. You can’t traverse the argumentative tree. ... you can’t find the connections that normally carry your thoughts forward, generating the possibility spaces you used to explore. After a while, you stop even trying to reach out. It’s just too jarring. The intimations of stuff that should be there but isn’t, a sort of cognitive phantom limb syndrome, slowly fade away.
None of this is to say that philosophers are more prone to depression, or suffer it more keenly (or God forbid "more authentically"), than others; or that (vice-versa) those who must deal with depression are any more likely to be drawn to philosophy. I don't know that this is or is not the case and I don't know what it would indicate if it were. Pete does speculate that
one of the reasons a lot of philosophers struggle with depression is that we spend so long sharpening our knives they cut deeper when we turn them on ourselves.
What I am sure of is that philosophy was meant to challenge the deadening sense that life cannot be lived well. Philosophy has taken the measure of the tragic account of life which doubts that life can be good, and says: it can, if.... If what? If we embrace what Socrates called examination, what Malebranche and Simone Weil refer to as "the natural prayer of the soul": attention. (And this attention is not to be reduced to that sharp-knived analysis, though that may be what remains -- a technique -- once the wonder is bled out.) This does not mean that we encounter no misery, that we "can be happy on the rack," as the Stoics aspired to be; it means our life is worth living. It is literally not a "waste of time." But philosophy is a dangerous cure, a "hair of the black dog," as it were. The name of the noonday demon is sometimes given as Panic. And philosophy contends against this enemy by confronting Pan, the All. Pete gives an account in which I recognize very well the obsessive tracking-down of ramifications, the exhaustive and exhausting chase of the argument "wherever it leads," which can be merry hunt indeed with friends as the night wears on and the pints keep pouring, but can also feel lonely and obsessive and hopeless when you look at all the books stacked up and the pages marked and the half-finished drafts and the unfinished, unfollowed trails....
I furiously chased up every possible lead regarding the provenance of the terms ‘ontology’ and ‘metaphysics’, all the way through Calvinist theologians and the Arabic appropriation of Aristotle, to the subsequently titled Metaphysics itself. I burned out so badly I can only half-remember most of it. There’s another unfinished paper for the folder. Another possible choice. Which one should I pick up and have another go at? Will it burn me again if I stare into it too long?
"When I can do it, it's the best thing there is. When I can't do it, it's the worst thing there is."

Pete follows this declaration ("... when I can't do it....") immediately with an acknowledgment of the role the philosopher's community plays:
This is not the bipolar cycle talking, this is the core of my self-image. It’s also how other people see me. I don’t know about anyone else, but the sort of mutual recognition I get from my academic peers means a great deal to me. That moment when someone else understands what you’re saying and thinks it was worth saying, whether they agreed with it or not.
This rapport is crucial and the validation it provides is far deeper than what follows from any mere agreement. I can trace, to the day and the hour, my self-identification as "philosopher." A trusted friend of mine was raising gentle but insistent and serious objections to an argument I was making in print (it was a short review of Ken Wilber's Sex, Ecology, Spirituality). In an email, he wrote to me: Yes, he had practical concerns about the sort of thing I was arguing about, which I was defending and he was attacking; but then he also wrote:
But also, because you are a philosopher, I care that you might be making logical connections that ultimately don't hold.
I felt the inner pause as I read this. Because you are a philosopher.... Was I? For a long time I had taken the Straussian line: "I am only a scholar." But as I re-read that sentence, I felt myself assent to a kind of inner inevitability; a re-alignment in my psyche. Something in me stepped out of self-protective faux-modesty as if from a chrysalis. (It took a while to complete the transition. In my inaugural post on this blog, I repeated the "only a scholar" line, and I still make use of it now and then; but it differentiates me, now not from love of wisdom per se, but from the much different claim of being a "great thinker," which is also I think how Strauss meant it.) I think it is important that this recognition came precisely in the midst of a disagreement; not someone saying, Whoah! What a stunning insight! but rather, Friend, as a philosopher, you can do better.

Pete's essay is long, and (notwithstanding his craft) it is raw. It starts with and circles back to Mark Fisher, who most certainly got cast as being "on the devil's side" more than once; and whose own candidly described battles with depression ultimately led to Fisher's suicide. (When it happened -- last January -- it was only months after my brother's death; I couldn't muster the energy to face writing about it.) In between it is shot through by wonderful writing (by turns wry, frantic, understated, desperate, and completely disarming), and draws all sorts of other things into its net. Pete suggests that this wide-ranging scope is one more instance of his turning the hypomanic energy to good use, but he also acknowledges that this same energy has plowed itself under many times. To me, though, it is also very clearly an index of philosophy itself: the assumption that everything pertains to everything. (It makes me almost spitting-angry to think that this omnivorous "weirdness" of Pete's might be, as he intimates, one of the things getting in the way of his job prospects. To me it is blazingly obvious that this is how philosophy works, and if you don't like it, you're probably a bit scared of philosophy -- albeit, yes, with good reason, but if you feel that way you shouldn't be on a hiring committee for philosophers.) Is there something obsessive about this energy? Well, speaking for myself: Of course. Could it do with a bit of gelassenheit? No doubt. But anyone who has really wrestled with the thrill and desperation of philosophy will recognize something of themselves in Pete's account, and -- just as importantly -- see how different, how very specific, is his particular circumstance. I don't want to suggest that Pete's story is to be reduced to a universal stencil to which "everyone can relate," any more than he wants to appropriate Fisher's story to illustrate his own. It's a matter of recognition, across a chasm. And without that, the loneliness of philosophy is unrelieved.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

very brief note on form, content, and scare quotes

The stance of many of Socrates’ opponents -- Callicles and Thrasymachus being the most obvious -- seems to have been that if you were fortunate enough to have the wherewithal to take what you wanted, you were a fool to waste time on those you took it from. You are happy; enjoy it while it lasts. To these opponents it was also plain that the stories about right and wrong were tools to be exploited. Persuade others that it is wrong to struggle, and your own work is all the easier. This critique of ethics follows upon, and is abetted by, a critique of religion. It is a short step from the cultural relativism that was making the rounds -- the observation that the nations’ gods all tended to resemble the nations’ respective inhabitants (for example, their kings), and the observation that the laws vary from city to city as well -- to the conclusion that laws and gods alike are mere stories that serve the interests of the powerful and distract the weak, the gullible, and the fearful. Atheism has not evolved very much since then. Neither, incidentally, has superstition -- i.e., “religion” as a human instinct; but that is not surprising, for atheism is simply a special case of superstition.

But faith has indeed “evolved,” if by this we may mean become deeper, more encompassing, more profound -- and also more wise. (More cunning, Nietzsche would rejoin -- and he’s partly right, but not for the reasons he thinks). This does not mean that “the faith once given,” as Jude 1:3 calls it, has changed, but the language for it has indeed developed, responding to one cultural shift after another. The critique of religion was not merely propounded by the sophists and tyrants and opportunists like Thrasymchus. It was also -- and perhaps even primarily -- propounded by philosophers themselves, albeit in a different spirit. But parallel to this philosophical critique of religion, there was developing another critique -- what I have called the religious critique of religion, which has kept deepening not just as its object adapts to and parries its moves, but as it skirts and avoids nihilism itself.

The other human endeavor that has certainly “evolved” is science. I would say -- in a from-the-hip sort of way that I might regret for its possibly too-easy symmetry -- that whereas faith has evolved precisely as regards its “form”, the cultural apparatus it uses, science on the other hand has evolved in the way faith has not -- and only in this way: as regards its “content,” which is (as is continually averred by scientists) corrigible and revisable in a way that “the faith once given” is not.

The scare quotes within which I enclose “form” and “content” here are meant to indicate that I'm using a rough and ready distinction. It needs to be queried. But one possible formulation might be that faith is to form as science is to content -- this comes through, for instance, in a certain reading of Meillassoux in which he holds that it is precisely the content of a scientific assertion with which correlationism cannot cope, and precisely the form of faith which is ascendant in correlationism, because it has remained committed to the the idea of sufficient reason even after any possible candidate for such a reason has been abandoned. What this underscores is that the very idea of form and content are philosophical and when they are applied to faith they are a function of the philosophical critique.

Or -- possibly -- the very split between philosophy and faith is itself a function of religion fighting back -- a divide-and-conquer strategy, or a desperate cornered slashing.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The shoreline

At one point in The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard (or rather Anti-Climacus, his pseudonym) makes the striking claim that "to be ignorant of being in despair is the specific feature of despair." If one likes, one can congratulate oneself on perceiving the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose structure of this claim, but like most such arguments in philosophy, the "fallacy" here is a feature not a bug. (Strictly speaking there is nothing fallacious about the notion of a condition that structurally works against ones realization that one is in that condition -- and in fact such an idea figures in a good deal of contemporary ideology critique; arguably, this is part of the prevalent critique of "privilege," for instance.)

One of the consequences of Kierkegaard's identification of despair with sin, and vice-versa, is his conclusion that "the opposite of sin is not virtue, but faith." The above-mentioned account of despair not knowing that it is despair means that there can be forms of despair that look like anything but: that look "positive," life-affirming, or indeed "virtuous;" that look, in short, "healthy." Kierkegaard spends a lot of time underscoring that the spirit is as it were in crisis continually -- in a state of perpetual decision "before God" -- and that absent the notion of spirit (i.e., self -- "the relation which relates itself to itself"), ones philosophical anthropology will have no place to put the idea of sin; one will have only "health" or "illness." One could unpack the entirety of the critique of "the triumph of the therapeutic" (in Philip Rieff's phrase) from this passage in Kierkegaard.

Despair is perfectly compatible, S.K. warns, with feeling (in modern therapy-speak) "positive" and "life-affirming." One can have
an intense, energetic life, the secret of which is still despair. In the latter case, the individual in despair is like the consumptive: when the illness is most critical, he feels well, considers himself to be in excellent health, and perhaps seems to others to radiate health.
But for S.K., the condition in question is spiritual, and
the condition of man, regarded as spirit...is always critical. [And] we speak of a crisis in relation to a sickness, not in relation to health.
SK goes on: if a human being is regarded only "as a psychical-physical synthesis, health is an immediate qualification" -- that is, it is the assumed baseline, from which one can deviate. But "spiritually, or when man is regarded as spirit, both health and sickness are critical; there is no immediate health of the spirit." "Critical," in the sense of "crisis" -- a decision, which is continuous and onging, a decision to relate oneself to oneself by grounding oneself in God -- or not.

I remember a conversation about fifteen years ago about theodicy. I was talking with two fellow-Christians; we were discussing the question of suffering. The question arose out of a common and indisputable experience – the encounter with absurd and unrelieved hurt. Natural disaster, freak accidents, human malevolence, the relentless grind of ordinary nature chewing itself up – it doesn’t matter. The “problem of pain” is a real problem. Did I even need to justify saying so? I quoted with approval a passage from a book of semi-popular theology a statement of shaken faith: "I have no trouble believing that God is good. My question is more, What good is He?"

My appreciation of the stark pull-no-punches approach is not always shared. The friends to whom I was speaking were more than scandalized; they winced. One looked as if I had struck her. It was as if asking the question had broken a crucial decorum and occasioned real, even physical, discomfort. The idea of God being good had been conflated -- so it seemed to me -- with being good for -- good for something, some specific end, or and after end, as each occasion arises. God who “delivers”, not from the logical spiritual conclusion of our narcissistic self-sabotage, but from – terrorist attacks, viruses, sub-prime mortgages. Human vulnerability.

All such vulnerability ultimately points to the one great vulnerability of our lives -- that we die. And the turning of Christianity into one more ineffective salve on this vulnerability has been aided and abetted by the enormous success of all the technological and social maneuvers of the technologico-capitalist West, which has made it more and more easy to put off the remembrance of death until the last possible minute. (Say what one likes about Medieval Christianity, one thing it did not do was deny the reality of death.)

Alexander Schmemann, one of the indispensable theologians of the twentieth century, has critiqued this modern aberration as secularism. That such secularism can sit comfortably with religion – or rather, vice-versa -- is part of Schmemann's point; indeed, secularism has forced other religions to compete with it on its own terms, but as Schmemann argues, secularism is itself a religion. Nevertheless, Schmemann’s account is different from that of those who point to the “religious” character of (for instance) scientism or Marxism. Secularism is a religion, Schmemann says, not because it too is somehow “based on faith,” but because like all religions it is
an explanation of death and a reconciliation with it. It is the religion of those who are tired of having the world explained in terms of an "other world" of which no one knows anything, and life explained in terms of a "survival" about which no one has the slightest idea; tired of having, in other words, life given "value" in terms of death. Secularism is an "explanation" of death in terms of life. (For the Life of the World p 98)
Like Schmemann, I think of secularism as a Christian heresy, not only genetically derived from Christianity but (though this is a more challenging point to argue) unthinkable without it. Wiser heads than mine have seen the same thing -- I think, for instance, of Ivan Illich, or Rene Girard, or Jacques Ellul -- but as was often the case, Kierkegaard was there ahead of most:
There is and remains a difference, and it is a qualitiative difference, between paganism in the stricter sense and paganism in Christianity...namely that paganism does indeed lack spirit, but that is still is qualified in the direction of spirit, whereas paganism in Christendom lacks spirit in a departure from spirit or in a falling away and therefore is spiritlessness in the strictest sense.
Schmemann thought that if it were a question of being reconciled with death, secularism was decidedly an improvement over Christianity or indeed over any religion, and that Christianity had already ceded too much when it tried to compete, casting itself as a religious "service", advertising
in subways and busses as a valubale addition to "your friendly bank" and all other "friendly dealers": try it, it helps!...but here we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity, help is not the criterion. Truth is.
But does the believer not turn to God for help? Indeed, "a very present help in time of trouble." Wittgenstein's worry at one point is precisely that in the absence of the ressurection, Christ is simply dead "and can no longer help."
If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like any other man. He is dead and decomposed. In that case he is a teacher like any other and can no longer help; and once more we are orphaned and alone. So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation. We are in a sort of hell where we can do nothing but dream, roofed in, as it were, and cut off from heaven. But if I am to be REALLY saved, -- what I need is certainty -- not wisdom, dreams or speculation -- and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind. (Culture and Value p 33)
But the "help" LW is asking for here is not the help in any particular instance, but a help beyond them all -- the help that saves, not the help that finds my car keys or delays me on my way to work so that I "miraculously" do not arrive in time to be killed by the rampaging disgruntled former colleague with a gun. Do such minor, trivial "miracles" occur? Maybe. But they are not and cannot be the object of faith -- of "ultimate concern," as Tillich called it.

When I met that wince, I of course did not know just what it meant, and I still don't – nor is it really my business. But it felt to me at the time like a rebuke simultaneously fierce and pitying. Nor was it an isolated incident; I've routinely encountered people who (meaning well enough, I suppose) try to encourage me to just "be faithful" in some way that would have meant to them more emphasis on something they would have called "Good News!" and less real acknowledgment of sorrow or pain -- or indeed, of sin. "Sometimes we resist being Easter people," one guy said to me. I had to hide my inner cringe. No doubt there is a scriptural warrant for claiming that Christians even or especially in tribulation are "more than conquerors" in Jesus Christ, that "nothing shall separate us from the love of God;" but there is plenty of scriptural warrant also for asking why the wicked prosper, how long God will hide His face, and why he has forsaken us.

All of this occurs to me because in the wake of my brother's suicide a little more than a year ago, I have been reflecting upon and owning my own deep melancholia. This has been a slow unfolding of an awareness of something that has always been the case. As awareness, it is also a shift: what is new is the realization that this was here all along.

There's a passage attributed (questionably) to Aristotle that asks "Why all notable men of genius" (or some such) have suffered from melancholy. I doubt if I am anything like a man of genius, but I suppose I do "suffer" from melancholia, and in a way that I also would distinguish from the modern sense of a word like "depression." Not that I believe there is no lexical overlap between the words, nor any psycho-somatic overlap between the conditions they name. But Melancholy is obviously a less modern, and less (modernly) medicalized, notion, and I don't think it's merely quaint antiquarianism on my part to identify more with the ancient term. There are connotations of both boredom and sadness bound up in melancholy and especially in the associated term acedia, which is identified as a sin (it gets translated as "sloth", which has far more connotations of laziness or disinclination to effort than either "depression" or "melancholia." There is a spectrum of these states which includes lassitude, boredom of the what's-the-point kind, despair, deep and paralyzing sadness, anxiety, and a kind of recoil at existence -- Sartrean nausea, maybe. All of these seem to me to fall under the rubric of the "Noonday Demon," which the old Christian desert fathers call acedia but which is also called Panic -- as in, terror of Pan, the "All."

That might seem like quite a spread, and the term Panic might seem hyperbolic. Certainly my own experience is what I would usually describe as "mere" melancholy -- a sort of wistfulness, a great sensitivity to what is called the "poignant," a keen appreciation of what the Japanese language calls mono no aware -- an untranslatable phrase for (approximately) the passingness of things, or maybe the "Ahh!" of things. I am certainly not usually "bored," and I am not paralyzed -- usually. But there are times when I am very much aware of how my usual mood could slip incrementally and yet decisively towards these more crippling states. (This is in my own case bound up with a sense of procrastination – of a struggle against and sickly acquiescence to time -- ) Moreover, sometimes these can burst upon me, almost without warning. I don't mean that I am volatile or that I wildly oscillate -- such moments are (thank God) rare, and also probably not as unpredictable as I make them sound. But I can "lose my balance." In fact, my "owning up" (as it were) to my lifelong melancholy is part of what feels like an effort to maintain my balance -- to claim honestly what has always more or less been the case but not always named.

I do not have an answer to the questions about the prospering of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous, nor to the questions about Nature Red in Tooth and Claw. I do hold that writing these off as non-questions is an abdication of thinking, and not just by Christian theology. If you have never just stood aghast at the problem of evil, I can only warn you: you do really need to brace yourself. But the huge examples of suffering -- the famines and tsunamis, torture chambers and abattoirs -- are only the garish face of something much broader. The falling cherry blossoms that are given iconic pride of place in accounts of mono no aware are not instances of meaningless absurd cruelty; but there is still here a deep and poignant suffering in the passing-away of things. (In Sanskrit this is called viparinama dukkha, the suffering that arises because of impermanence -- even in the midst of pleasant experience.)

Kierkegaard's claim that one can actually look completely "healthy" and positive and still be in despair -- perhaps not even know it -- can be inverted. There would then also be a spiritual state which is keenly aware of the struggle of things, deeply tuned in to dukkha, but which would remain, by S.K.'s lights, faith -- a orienting of the self to the power that grounds it. Indeed, I admit that I cannot see how a stance that was unaware -- well, let us say, willfully unaware --of dukkha could even qualify as faith.

But if there is such a faith, what would distinguish it?

In 1982, Alexander Schmemann was hospitalized with the cancer from which he would die the following year. From his hospital bed he wrote a note of thanks to seminarians at St. Vladimir’s (where he was dean). The single scriptural citation in this note is three short verses from 1 Thessalonians 5:
Rejoice evermore.
Pray without ceasing.
In every thing give thanks.
This names the very center of Christian devotional life; for "give thanks" here is (of course) ευχαριστειτε.

It is dangerous to so much as whisper the names of ones own attempted virtues, but over this past year as I have been thinking of my acedia, I've also had borne in upon me another perennial aspect of my own experience which I had not consciously connected with melancholy until now. It is gratitude. For a while I started to think of these somewhat like compensating traits: Yes, I can be (unduly?) aware of how hard things are, but I am also (often unexpectedly) overtaken by deep gratitude for things, even the most trivial. This is another aspect of mono no aware. More recently, I've come to recognize this thanksgiving and this sadness not as a mutual "balance," but as (de facto) inseparable: each of them is an apprehension of the way things arise and pass away in time. They are more like the sand and the waves on the shore. One can surely have waves alone, and one can have sand alone; but one cannot have a shoreline without both.