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

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Online philosophy

If web links are, as I suggest, a tool with (potentially) a genuinely philosophical pertinence, a way of dramatizing the interconnections between one discourse and another, I have to confess a certain reticence about them too. Like any technological convenience, they bear as much chance of being a drag on or distraction from thinking, as they have of being a asset to it. Socrates tells Phaedrus that the Egyptian king greeted the invention of writing with fairly mixed reviews; far from being an aid to memory, he warned, it will cause memory to wither. I don't want to get into the Platonic case against writing in this post--it's the matter for a very complex argument I might make in a series on the reconstruction of the evolution of consciousness; but I think the warnings Plato offers--or rather, that he has Socrates put into the mouth of Thamus the king--are certainly well-taken as regards the web. Whatever their (considerable) upside, weblinks themselves are also all too easily a mere distraction, or a gimmick, and can scatter the reader's attention, or merely spread one's own discourse out into a sort of horizontal pool, without making it any deeper. As you may have noticed, I've included no links at all yet in my posts (though I may go back and add some retroactively); I'm still weighing how to use them. Links can make us more aware of the "unity of knowledge," or they might merely be a game that does not occasion thought.

Another side to the question of the Web is community. The community offered by the Web is a new sort, and woe betide us if we mistake it for the old-fashioned, face-to-face, nextdoor-neighbor kind. Aside from the questions it occasions about privacy, property, and propaganda (if I may be permitted an abuse of p's)--questions philosophers ought to weigh in on precisely as philosophers--it can hardly be denied that entirely different mores of communication have evolved online, from a nigh-Orwellian Textspeak to a virtual epistolary renaissance.

The most visible trend currently in philosophy online is the work of the so-called Speculative Realists and their fellow-travelers. These thinkers have embraced the web as a tool for philosophical trend-making, at least, and (I would argue) for considerably more. I have some points of difference with any of them, naturally, but I'll make some of that the matter for further posts. As for their use of online media, it was probably inevitable that some would see it as a savvy move, while others would dismiss it as careerist maneuvering. Since I have no stake in the matter, I prefer to simply read their work and wrestle with it. But here again Plato's point is worth heeding: the new technology won't do the work for you. It's an opportunity (and a challenge), with nothing magic about it, and the very things you think of as perks might turn out to be the biggest liabilities.

I might add that the Platonic critique of writing is the beginning of the Heideggerian critique of technology, and gives the lie to any construal of Heidegger (including, say, his own) that makes him the arch-opponent of "platonism."

Ancient hypertext

Philosophy in the ancient world is not primarily the formulation of cosmological or even ontological doctrines, but the practice of a disposition, the training in a comportment, cultivation of openness to modes of experience. This is not to say that accounts of space, time, and matter, of substance and quality, of becoming and vanishing, did not play a role in the philosophy of the ancient Greeks or any other peoples. A keenness for facts and for theoretical frameworks runs from Thales, who knew enough about the physical universe to predict an eclipse and divert a river, to Epicurus’ claim that there was only atoms and the void. But these discourses always function in ancient philosophy in such a way that their meaning inheres in the way they relate to the ethical and self-transformative practices at the heart of philosophy.

Something of what that aim was can be gleaned from Lucretius.
De Rerum Natura is indisputably a work of cosmology, but it has its organizing motive in the desire to free its understanding readers from fear.
Death to us
Is nothing, nor concerns us in the least,

Since nature of mind is mortal evermore.

In this Lucretius faithfully transmits the tradition he lays claim to. Metrodoros of Chios, Epicurus’ immediate disciple, enjoined his students: “Remember, born mortal, with a finite life, you have risen thanks to the science of nature, as far as the infinity of time and space; you have seen what is, what will be, and what was.” Pierre Hadot, in his invaluable study
What is Ancient Philosophy?, points out that Metrodoros’ words are in continuity with a poetic practice: Hesiod, for instance, tells that the muses “breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things that were; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally” (Theogony 30-34). In other words, philosophy’s cosmogonic and theogonic vision is a legacy claimed from the oral tradition of the rhapsodes. The aim was the same: to deliver the philosopher from the fear of death and the tedium of a life half-lived. As Hesiod says, the muses bring “a forgetting of ills and a rest from sorrow.” Philosophy is no different, except that the relief it brings is claimed to be permanent, no mere respite but a genuine release. Plato maintains—for reasons that are the opposite of Lucretius’—that it delivers definitively from the fear of death:
--Do you think [asks Socrates], that a mind habituated to thoughts of grandeur, the contemplation of all time and all existence, can deem this life of man a thing of great concern?--Impossible, said he.
--Hence, such a man will not suppose death to be terrible?

--Least of all.
(Republic 486a-b)

The poetic tradition from which philosophy picked up was an oral one, and it is clear from the
Phaedrus that Plato, for one, preferred it so. Plato’s dialogues seem to me to be elaborate and very cunning devices meant to pull into play as many as possible of the different levels of communication that arise naturally in the course of ordinary conversation. The Seventh Letter famously expressly rejects the notion that philosophical realization can be captured in words at all; “Only after long partnership in common life devoted to [philosophy], truth is kindled as it were in one soul, by a flame leaping from another.”

Note that philosophical life is said to be common, shared. Hadot cites Seneca: “The living word and life in common will benefit you more than written discourse….The path of precepts is long, but that of examples is short and infallible.” Philosophical apprehension of truth does not occur by the thinker sitting alone. It is inherently an activity that transpires among thinkers together. This is how I read Plato when he has Socrates say that he does not learn anything from the trees or rocks, but that he can learn from the citizens of his city. (Later I will argue that this distance from the natural world, its claim that nature is inarticulate, is part of the distance that already separates Plato from the ancient poetic tradition). The work of sitting by myself and thinking hard is an indispensible part of philosophy, but only a part. It is completed by what happens when I am confronted by another, by a mind not my own, someone who challenges me, disputes my claim, calls on me to consider some further case or some other premise. Together we triangulate towards the truth.

And what is the nature of the realization in question? The most telling clue I can find is in
Epinomis 991e:
To the man who pursues his studies in the proper way, all geometric constructions, all systems of numbers, all duly constituted melodic progressions, the single ordered scheme of all celestial revolutions, should disclose themselves, and disclose themselves they will, if, as I say, a man pursues his studies aright with his mind fixed on their single end. As such a man reflects he will receive the revelation of a single bond of natural interconnection between these problems.

Such “interconnections” are not always logical or empirical; they may be free-associative. The parallel between Silenus and Socrates, or between the Tyrant and the number 729, for instance, rely on such indirect rationales. When Plato conceded to use writing as a tool for philosophy, he had recourse to a very large range of devices—an expansive “toolbox,” as John McCumber puts it—to simulate and spark such realizations. But these “prodigious and baffling” (
Republic 587e) chains are easily simulated in the hypertext manner by links. Such hypertext is one reason I have genuinely high hopes (and some grave concerns) for philosophy on the internet. It remains to be seen whether the era of books is over; but it is indisputable that we are living through a great transition in communication, and because human beings are “social animals,” this is likely to have deep and unforeseeable impact upon us. Philosophy is bound to respond to this shift as it did before at the advent of writing and of print. One need not be a technological determinist to conclude that the shift has an impact upon the way human beings are together, which means, the way they are at all. Philosophy must confront technology because, among other reasons, technology shapes human community, which means, the very possibility of philosophy itself—the common life in which alone philosophical attention is fostered.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

First post; Nth sailing

"Do you wish me, Cebes," said he, "to give you an account of the way in which I have conducted my second voyage...?"

A while ago I undertook to put together perhaps the only book I have it in me to write. This is an effort to demonstrate why and how I read philosophy vis-a-vis myth, poetry vis-a-vis religion, politics vis-a-vis scholarship, science vis-a-vis history, and all of the above via love. I expect it will be perhaps equal parts exegesis, thought-experiment, lyric, reconstruction, proposal, and jeremiad.

Some of my friends have seen a few of my efforts before now, and if the responses I've received are any indication, readers are likely to consider the work dense, meandering, a trifle obscure, and looooonnnnnng. I am not sure how much of this can be helped. I doubt I can honestly rein in my digressive nature without doing real violence to the shape of the thought; and if that sounds like special pleading, well, so be it. Tracing the “hidden roads that go from poem to poem” is how Harold Bloom described the object of literary criticism. My conviction—which may merely make a virtue of a disposition—is that philosophy takes the secret paths that go from world to world (in the sense in which Wittgenstein wrote, “the world of the happy is quite another from that of the unhappy”). Philosophy maps ways among the worlds of the Dadaist ensemble, the biochemist’s Petri dish, the psychoanalyst’s couch, and the stock exchange trading floor. It finds a wormhole between the silence of an undiscovered vein of silver ore, and the unheard roar and crackle of a solar flare; a route between the chemical panic in a fish caught by a sea anemone, and the exhausted hope of a death camp inmate at the approach of the liberating army.
Thought is the medium in which philosophy charts these passages, which means it maps them by traversing them; and this can mean a mélange of styles, a shuttling betwixt rigor and risk, and some hairpin apparent changes of subject.

This is not always easy to follow, and I can tell you it isn’t always easy to write. But a few generous people, resisting the temptation to throw up their hands, have graciously asked me (admittedly, less eagerly than Cebes) to explain my explanation. For myself, I know that my worst excesses always arise when I write in the “abstract,” to no one in particular, or to some “general reader.” I have always found my best results, in terms of accessibility, manageable length, and readable style, when writing to a specific person in the context of living inquiry.

Hence this series of Open Letters on Philosophical Praxis. While I propose to work through some established points in a more-or-less established order, my hope is to preserve something of the real-time circumstance of actual encounter by genuinely responding to comments (assuming there are any). This is not a conceit on my part; I am convinced that the best, perhaps the only, philosophy happens when there is a real dialogue between engaged persons. I trust that in this conviction I remain a faithful Platonist. This means that intelligent inquiry and critique in good faith is both welcome and solicited. As is always the case, challenge helps me better than does mere acquiescence; though I aim to persuade, my writing is a form of spiritual discipline, an ongoing cultivation of the Socratic spirit of the examined life, above all in myself. I hope to make plausible the claim that philosophy remains viable as such a spiritual discipline (not an academic “subject,” though it is not cut off from scholarship), in open—speculative and critical—dialogue with the spiritual traditions of the world. Moreover, I hold that this encounter can be seen in the history of these traditions; it needs to be nurtured in our current cultural moment, and offers us real promises in the trajectories we can glimpse ahead of us.

Point of clarification: I'm not posing as an online instructor, and have no pretensions of being a great thinker. I am “only a scholar,” as Leo Strauss (a much greater scholar) wrote, and an “independent” one at that; a generalist who is not ashamed to trespass, with no credentials other than twenty-five years of reading philosophy (literature, history, science, religion...), thinking hard, seeking out good fellow-students, trying to be honest, and praying (all this in between musical gigs, phases of political activism and quietism, travels, love affairs, and playing with children). To lead the examined life, one must live. That’s about all I can offer if asked for my certifications, except that I was once a licensed Emergency Medical Tech.

I hope that out of this experiment will emerge a series of posts that can serve as an exposition, however wayward, of what I think is at stake in philosophy today as always. I anticipate that the result will be idiosyncratic, uneven, and difficult. My hope is it will be worth the difficulty. If I did not fear being misunderstood, I would say, worth the danger.