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, November 5, 2010

Agreeing to disagree to agree

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.


  1. Postmodernists---all chandala, including Guru Heidegger. . Were Christ to really "exist", Adam Kotzko & his palsies work for the anti-khrust. Start over with like...Dostoyevsky

    that's the beginning of yr e-theology course.

    (and that's from a ...skeptical POV)

  2. Thanks for this, J, and welcome. Yes, well, Dostoevsky at least puts it in the form of a conversation, between brothers who love each other; and he bends over backwards to make the case for the prosecution (Ivan K's, say) even as he wants to side with Alyosha. Do these two brothers K count as 'friends' in the sense I am using the term here -- i.e., in which the truth is deemed less important than the love? Of course I recall what Dostoevsky writes-- "If somebody proved to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it really were so that the truth was outside Christ, then I would rather remain with Christ than with the truth." Anyone who construes this as a mere will to self-deception just does not get what Dostoevsky is about.

  3. I would agree Dostyoevsky sort of sides with Ivan K--his character reminds me of Voltaire a bit-- or one's tempted to read it as such, though Alyosha (nearly ...a Christ figure himself) has his own claims----whether rational or not--maybe he's a bit Kierkegaardian, for those needing a map (didn't SK say he believed in Christ, regardless if historical or not...). Crime and Punishment impressed me more than Brothers K did ( while very profound in places, also gets a bit potboilerish)--and Raskalnikov himself undergoes a spiritual alteration. FD simply didn't f**k around with that sort of cute, euro irony as do postmods of whatever type (including the AUFS bozos).

    I'm agnostic in terms of trad. monotheism but would add Kierkegaard to Dostoyevsky in the class of the authentically spiritual (and exclude about any 20th century thinkers you can imagine...tho' some southern US writers--O'Connor, or Percy-- may have hinted at Dostoyevsky sort of concerns, or maybe it was Dante)

  4. J, The post-mod hyperirony you speak of is something I find unsettling, but I don't presume that it is all that is motivating anyone (e.g. the Aufsites). Kotsko has had some objections to a couple of things I've written, but I think he thought I was the one being meta- and declining to "take a stand;" I am sure he considers himself quite committed, and I take him (& the others blogging there) at their word; as Elizabeth I said, I have no gift to look into men's souls. Having said this, though, I am of course on record as being on the side of the Radical Orthodoxy folks in at least some respects, and we know how that particular stock is playing over there. I know very well that the rhetoric that Milbank, Pickstock et. al. use can be critiqued as just so much verbal posturing (not to mention nostalgia); and I even see the point of that take. Moreover, I've learned a bit from Zizek and certainly from Goodchild, and even Altizer. But what attracted me (& still does) to Radox is its liturgical seriousness and depth--the way it connects theology to the actual practice of prayer. This isn't really something to be argued for; it's an experiential dimension, and its communal aspect exists in tension & dialectic w/ Kierkegaardian faith (not to mention w/ credal dogma). At the end of the day, I agree with Pickstock that theology is doxology or it's not much. Of course, those who maintain that the liturgy is just the church version of the society for creative anachronism will never be convinced.

    Re. Dostoevsky, O'Connor, Percy-- also Greene, Waugh, Shusaku Endo, and several others-- it is interesting to reflect that this sort of spirituality seems more plausibly rendered in fiction.

    I have some thoughts on the other comment you made (re. platonism), if you feel like re posting it at some point.

  5. Milbank impresses me slightly, but Im not in the theology biz--and don't really have a stake in that game, and since EpisCo followed the Ang.Church a few years ago re....las mujeres en la iglesia, I've...opted out (and Cafe La Misa ...still not too appealing)

    when someone says "Barth" I reach for my luger. Then same response to..."Lacan", and the rest. When Zizek sticks to Hegelian themes he sounds fairly authentic. When it's time for JL-speak...well see the above. (Adam Bosko & cronies don't know jack about it, but did make it through the cliffsnotes to the Phenomenology)

    Peruse Miss O'Connor's tales, and most philosophy goes up in smoke--whether dry analytical sort or sludgy Hegelians (I prefer the former usually...or CS Peirce, who sort of managed to combine the two). Ill pass on the p-to, tho in a Fregean form it deserves our respect, perhaps

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  7. Excellent post! Just a few thoughts. Harman apparently suggests that you can disagree with the content of what someone says, while still admiring or respecting the form in which they express themselves. If this is what he means to say, then I am curious what register it could be taken on. First of all, I question whether this should be counted as philosophy. If this is philosophy, then it seems like an unfortunate residue of neoclassicism that reflects some radical axiological confusion and hypocrisy. I would not criticize this at that level. Instead, I am inclined to read this as hysterical acting out, and as a psychology experiment that demonstrates the fallibility of contemporary human judgement. It's because hysteria operates in an experimental mode that it generates knowledge. This generous performance of liberal hypocrisy demonstrates a symbolic deadlock, and instead of a doctrinal philosophical reading, I suggest a clinical reading. Many works of late poststructuralism (i.e. 1990's) define philosophy in terms of friendship, and that move has some strange results which are possibly non-philosophical. I think the hermeneutic question of the limits of philosophical discourse arises alongside this issue of hysterical friendship, and related communitarian pathos. When you introduce the philosopher as an affective and imaginary subject, and consider them in relation to other philosophers (i.e. Spinozistically), then it seems time to reconsider what sort of discussion is taking place.

  8. MarketCosmo, welcome and thank you for commenting on an old but not out-of-date post. I am aware that this attention to friendship might seem irenic to a fault and could well be taken to abet the status quo all too well -- after all, if we privilege "form" over "content" like this, are we not all too liable to "defend to the death your right to say" not just whatever reprehensible X or Y, but even whatever absolutely laudable Z, as long as it stays on the level of just "saying"? I am not sure, however, that I think it reduces to a matter of form vs content (my words, not yours) at all. Harman for one has been critiqued as just another liberal in this regard, but I am not too concerned with that critique as far as he himself goes (it's not that i don't see the point, but my differences with his ontology are, well, ontological). On the other hand, I do not quite follow the way you are making the philosophy / non-philosophy distinction here. (I take it, for instance, that you are not going in a Laruellian direction.) In any case, you are right to sense the question of community lurking behind this thinking (I later read Blanchot's The Unavowable Community with just such concerns in mind, but I have not posted anything on it). I believe, Wittgenstinian that I am, that this matter of the rapport between persons, a rapport transcending "positions," absolutely situated but directed beyond topos, fundamentally resists explication, but invites meditation. This does not mean that it happens in a a-praxic vacuum.