This is a follow-up of sorts to my thoughts on in-crowds and friends.
One of the best, and most moving, essays I know of on Husserl is Lev Shestov's "In Memory of a Great Philosopher". It is remarkable for many reasons-- e.g., the clarity with which it sees that Husserl reacted against Kant-- but above all because Shestov's relationship in print with Husserl was one of unmitigated polemic, and yet his memoir of Husserl is full of respect and affection. To read Shestov is to meet a modern Tertullian, who refuses a syllogism precisely because it is a chain to bind thought; to read Husserl is to meet possibly the most ambitious philosopher of the 20th century, who tried to start again from doubt and the indubitable, like Descartes, and to move absolutely methodically. How could these two thinkers have found anything in common?
It wasn't any aspect of philosophical doctrine. It was a matter of their shared spirit, the single-mindedness with which they pursued truth. But this is very strange, strange almost to the point of paradox: how can one decide that one who puruses truth single-mindedly is to be honored when they conclude that truth is the opposite of what one thinks oneself?
"A friend is a second self," Aristotle also famously said. "No one has ever attacked me so sharply as he," Husserl said of Shestov; "--and that's why we are such close friends."
A while ago I was in a cafe when I noticed someone at the next table reading a book with the word "metaphysics" prominent in the title. After satisfying myself that this was really metaphysics and not newage crystal-healing or what have you, I struck up a conversation. When he noted that I was reading the Roman Catholic thinker Robert Spaemann, my new acquaintence asked me, "Are you a Christian?" "I am," I responded. "So am I," he said, and once again I felt the heavy question hanging in the air-- what do we really know about each other based on this exchange? There are some who would say that this is the most important thing. There are others who'd argue that this clarifies nothing at all. I have heard it said, and have thought myself, that a Christian existentialist has more in common with Sartre than with Billy Graham. "I have called you, not servants, but friends," Jesus says to his disciples. But what is this friendship, whether or not we think of it as "within" the church?
Harman posted recently some thoughts on philosophical temperament, reflecting that he loves how Deleuze and Žižek, to mention two, philosophize, but rarely finds himself agreeing with anything they actually say; and by contrast is drawn to Heidegger's or Gadamer's conclusions, but can take only so much of their way of getting there. He concludes that this fits into:
the wider ethical theme of how everyone “gets away with” different things. Ethics is not primarily about the content of our behavior, just as philosophy is not primarily about the content of our thoughts. But neither is it a relativistic “everything goes”. We make rigorous demands on people and on authors, but those demands only sometimes have to do with explicit content.One could say that friendship is not more important than content, but is irreducibly important-- necessary but not sufficient, say-- but such a calculus pursued too rigorously seems itself to border upon the unfriendly; even if we acknowledge that there may be positions beyond the pale (it would be hard for me to be friends with an outright racist, for instance), who among us adds up camaraderie and content in a cost/benefit analysis?
Yet, to say that content is not as important as friendship makes friendship into, well, a sort of content. And yet one can never say that theory has no claims, for one's philosophical friendships are conducted by way of theoretical engagement.
When we say, "I wish so-&-so were here--they'd have something to say," this means that they are a source for a point of view, one we cannot imagine or anticipate; our foresight fails us. We might imagine "the sort of thing they would say," and yet in the wish that they were here, we are wanting to be surprised as well. This is the case even if we disagree with them, perhaps especially so, for the positions with which we disagree are the hardest for us to anticipate. Elie Ayache makes some entertaining remarks about this a propos his own book The Blank Swan as a re-write or palimpsest over Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan. Ayache writes:
it takes somebody who knows you well, perhaps even the person who knows you best, to best surprise you when it comes to giving you what you expect the most. Miracles share with gifts the property of being the most expected and, at the same time, the most surprising events. (Not to mention, in the case of the miracle, the peculiar brand of knowledge of the supreme giver.) What is surprising is the gift, not the object given. “Just how did you know this was the thing I desired most?” asks the recipient in a burst of joy and thankfulness.
– Because I know you so well!
– Of course you do!
This tells us that no surprise will ever come, in the surprise gift, from collapsing the epistemological chain that is made up by the giver, the recipient, and the thing given. Since the first knows the second best and the second knows
and expects the third most, by transitivity you could only get certainty of outcome and thus the total discounting of the surprise.
The question of friendship, of course, has been a theme of philosophy since Plato's Lysis. That it looms large for me is partly why Derrida's Politics of Friendship is my favorite of his "late" writings. In this book he meditates over and over on the mantra, from Aristotle via Montaigne, "Oh my friends, there is no friend," a koan that was made for Derrida if ever there was one. Ayache's little illustration fairly begs for a Derridean treatment (all that thematic of the "gift," for instance), and this is probably intentional, as writing figures prominently in Ayache's thinking of the market. (He goes on to riff a la Borges on himself as Pierre Menard to Taleb's Cervantes). Certainly the question of friendship is a pressing question for today, when "the enemy" is again a category of philosophical interest; and indeed one can come away from reading Derrida's Politics... with the impression that not a single philosophical issue can be separated from the question of friendship. If this is true (and I think it is), it is so in part because philosophy is paradoxically bound up with the solitude of the one, as well as the discourse between more-than-one.
What is a surprise? How to anticipate changing one's mind? Can I really listen to you and not be open to the possibility that you might be right?
To me, all of this bespeaks yet again a sort of limit of discourse; a moment when the aspect of practice swamps the considerations of theory. This is a disposition that goes very deep with me; there is a reason why my blog is subtitled Open Letters of Philosophical Praxis. One can see it in my pedagogy, when I concentrate upon process over content (to use catch-words with whose associations I am not always comfortable); in my theology, which is liturgical for a reason; in my irenism. Above all, one sees it in my suspicion that philosophy and "everyday life," which are coterminous, have an indispensible "esoteric" aspect to them: the most essential thing is "hidden," albeit in plain sight.
But I want to underscore a point that I also take Shestov to make in his memoir about Husserl: that to prize friendship over content makes philosophy more, not less, urgent. It is a question not of what abstract positions one holds, but of who one is. Socrates urged the Athenians to concern themselves with their souls, not with anything less. This is not a matter about which to be lackadaisical. Disagreements become more pressing when such are the stakes; but the most important thing is how one disagrees, and this "how" is itself only obliquely an object of philosophical doctrine.