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

Friday, January 1, 2010

The lonely thinker and the crowd

I’ve followed with great interest the discussion between Joe Pomonomo and dy0genes on the dynamics of herd, the exception, and the philosopher, as intimated by Nietzsche. My only comments upon it at this time center on a couple of points.

One is the value of philosophical conversation. If, as Joe says,
“the philosophers are radically separate from all others,”

then the possibility is raised that philosophical encounter is at best moot. Obviously I don't concur; to me encounter is of the essence. But Joe rightly underscores what is at issue:
“The Mystic and the Philosopher both strive to understand (and even love) the Whole. But the Mystic loves unconditionally; this also means without suspicion. The Philosopher is suspicious of the Whole; oh, he loves - but he loves differently.”

The relation between the Mystic and the Philosopher is indeed near the crux of the matter. In terms of my triumvirate of values as indicated in my title (
Speculum Criticum Traditionis), the Mystic is concerned mainly with the matter of Tradition. Not of course with Tradition itself (this is rather the concern of the scholar, and the Mystic may well not give a damn about it), but rather, with what Tradition is about. The Philosopher, however, is critical, and as Joe puts it, this does indeed mean suspicious.

Critical, yes; but also
speculative; in the words of Socrates, he must be willing to "follow the argument wherever it leads." Here, however, we indisputably require the Other. No insight is attained without encounter, without the unforeseen objection that reroutes the argument. (Even when objections are internal, they are always posed to the Philosopher in dialogue. Socrates speaks of this in the Hippias Major; one can find examples running from the formal Objections that are ubiquitous in medieval philosophy, to the counter-arguments that characterize all of Wittgenstein's work after the Tractatus.) If the question remains open as to the value of conversation, as it must, this is because no issue is finally settled for the philosopher, not even philosophy's own conditions.

But beyond this, I would urge that the
process of dialogue is to be distinguished from the content thereof. Any philosophical argument entails--is practically constituted by--disagreements; indeed, the words 'disagreement' and 'argument' have come to be synonymous. “But,” asks Socrates, “what kind of disagreement causes hatred and wrath?” (Euthyphro 7b). I believe one can tell a great deal about Plato's conception of insight from the fact that Socrates never loses his temper. But this is not a matter of the content of the argument at all; it is wholly a question of comportment. To approach this involves actually being confronted by disagreement (or for that matter, agreement) and facing the experience. Am I flustered by disagreement? (Flattered by agreement?) Suppose the disagreement is strong? Suppose it's angry, or violent, or willfully misrepresents me? Again, underscoring my agreement with Pierre Hadot, I would say that this dimension of philosophy is actually more central to it than any formulation of doctrines.

So much for the matter of one-on-one encounter. The second point is regarding the crowd:

Joe wrote:
“It has been famously said that diplomacy is the art of saying nice doggie while searching for a very big stick. Now, what would be the big stick of the philosophers?

To which di0genes responds:
“Your answer, Universalism, seems right on. Philosophers are elites who have adopted a universal interest instead of a private one.”

I take it that the issue is: is the Universalism espoused by philosophers honest or not? Do they really care for Universalism, or do they merely aspire to get the elites to care about it?

This is a real question, because Universalism came under a lot of fire during the latter decades of the 20th century. After all, if philosophers might have nothing to say to each other, but merely “sit quietly together or nod and move on,” as di0genes suggests, one could be forgiven the suspicion that a philosopher’s talk of Universalism is just a convenient way of getting the children to play nicely.

As I read him, Leo Strauss favors this explanation. For Strauss (if I may risk an oversimplifying travesty), the fact is that flux rules everything; particularism or universalism are therefore conveniences of the moment. The philosopher knows that the case for universalism is flawed but only cares to discuss the flaws with fellow philosophers (amongst whom, as we’ve suggested, there isn’t really much call for discussion). To the ruling elites, the “exceptions” to the herd, the philosopher lobbies (at least in the modern era) for universalism because (and
only because) it tends to make things safe for philosophy.

I do not hold with this dour assessment. While I grant that philosophy has its reasons to gently prod the elites and not always be forthcoming with them, I also think a
dialectical Universalism is defensible—a Universalism-avec-particularity. This is an open universalism, open towards the future and always aware of its own particularity—in short, a paradoxical universalism, one that has read Gödel and does not expect to be the Corporate Citizen that represents every citizen who does not represent himself.

This brings me to the matter of esotericism. But that is a matter for another post.


  1. As I follow this discussion it seems to me that the philosopher and the mystic share some deep fundamentla experience. What distinguishes them from each other is their reaction to that experience. We could call this experience the dyonysian, or the oceanic feeling, or maybe, at the risk of offending the religious, we could call it yahweh. Now do the herd and the exceptions have the same experience? My guess is that they do. Maybe what makes us "herd", "exception", "mystic", or "philosopher" is the way we react to this fundamental experience. Do we deny the experience, embrace it, or perhaps we rationalize it, try to control it and reproduce it. For some the experience is probably a daily reality while others may have only vague ideas about it, some may even deny that the experience exists or cynically devise schemes to recreate the experience, or some substitute (some opiate?), for those who have become estranged from it. What would we call people who are themselves alienated from this basic human state and create substitue experiences for others in return for power or money? Perhaps nihilists?

    So what motivates the philosophers? Are they altruistic? Driven by artistic ambition? Are they proud lovers of their muse? Or perhaps they're just like the rest of us, trying to turn their native talents into something that provides themselves some security and confort.

    I suspect that we would all agree that "true" philosophers are not nihilists, or at least that they struggle not to be. So why aren't they silent? What is it they think they are doing? I don't have answers to the questions I raise. I would hope to get some feedback from my well read interlocutors. My guess is that they need us. Philosophy must be a dialogue, even if it is with the long dead or unborn. Otherwise it is just a dream. So the philosophers may have many motives but in the end the they are only human.

  2. dy0genes,

    My read is that philosophy & mysticism do share an experience, and insofar as philosophy is "suspicious," it is as relates to *desriptions* of that experience. (Joe may disagree with me here.)Mystics of course also say that no description really does justice, but the descriptions happen anyway, and religion follows from them. Philosophy's job is to be suspicious of those descriptions. Too much suspicion and you get nihilism, which is why philosophers "need" interlocutors...to save them from themselves. There is silence and silence, Simone Weil says somewhere; the silence of rapture, and the silence of nihilism. Perhaps what makes the philosopher "suspicious" of the Whole, as Joe says, is the worry that the silences are indistinguishable.

  3. One could take the phrase "the philosophers are radically separate from all others," as a warning; that is, those of us reading the genuine philosophers (in a manner almost approaching adequacy) should be on their guard and not assume any familiarity between us and them. Like you, I too learn from the philosophers, I just approach them differently.

    Speculation, Criticism, Tradition...

    You know, philosophical speculation, which many consider the most pleasant endeavor, is also the most dangerous. I think you are having it both ways. It is criticism that I see anchored in argument/discussion. (And tradition, of course, is its own anchor.) But Speculation? Everyone does that on their own...

    I always find myself asking the same question of the Socratic dialogues: Where exactly in the dialogues is anyone brought to philosophy? Are people perhaps better off after speaking to Socrates. Oh, yes! But are they philosophers? Oh, ...no.

    You praise the necessity of the Other and openness adding, "this is because no issue is finally settled for the philosopher, not even philosophy's own conditions." Agreed. But the philosophers do write, and, I contend, they write to get results. Results are "open" in the sense that the future forever comes on, and it threatens to toss down and tear apart everything that was done. But it is the 'done' that we need here to stare at harder...

    You defend the Other, but the Other as conversation between two or three philosophical searchers. Buber (a remarkable mystic) once remarked (I no longer recall where) that wherever two or three are truly together, they are together in His name. It would, of course, have been darkly comical to say this of a City, of a Civilization. You see my point; it is the same way with philosophical conversation too. Two or three philosophical searchers are together as you say they are.

    But now, I too want to speak of the Other, but as History. In conversation between philosophical friends there is no hatred, no wrath. But in the 'conversation' of History? As the philosophers have observed, it is an insane asylum, a butchers bench. But it is precisely that History that requires that something be done. At the beginning of the 'Republic', that is to say, at the beginning of our philosophical tradition, Socrates asks if it is just to lie to the insane...

    It is then agreed that it is...

    And I largely agree (no irony intended) with your last two large paragraphs. What you call "a dialectical Universalism' is that conversation between two or three philosophical searchers.

    But History still requires that something be done. It is not, and can never be, an open conversation.


    PS. In typing the above I was unaware of the comment by dy0genes, and skholiast' reply.

    I want to say that it is the problem of silence (of non-knowledge) that led me to my 'nihilism'. On the one hand one has mystical rapture; while on the other, one is presented with the forgetfulness of Being. Silence. In his long argument with Nietzsche, Heidegger (I am thinking especially of the fourth hardcover volume of Nietzsche essays and lectures -the one titled "Nihilism"- and also the essay titled, "Nietzsche's Word: God is Dead") will denounce valuation as a murder of Being. But insofar as Being Itself gave us (i.e., unconcealed) this fate he would perhaps have been at least equally justified to speak of a suicide of Being...

    But whenever I think of that my head hurts.