Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ 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.
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.