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.

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

The animus against appearance

What Harman contends against, as the "philosophies of access," what Meillassoux calls "correlationism," arose in response to a kind of naive critique, the notion that in explanation, one had explained away; that in showing what lies beneath, one has shown what is really there. Against this, phenomenology responded: no, for the appearance of things has its own legitimacy. Goethe said: "The highest is to understand that all fact is really theory. The blue of the sky reveals to us the basic law of color. Search nothing beyond the phenomena; they themselves are the theory." Or, as Wittgenstein, who pondered Goethe very deeply, has it in the Philosophical Investigations 66: "Don't think, but Look!"

In one episode of The Pilgrim's Regress, C.S. Lewis writes of a group of people imprisoned in a cavern by a giant who is "the spirit of the age." The giant has a gaze that renders the surface of whatever he sees transparent. The protagonist John is horrified by the entrails he sees inside the human beings about him (and in himself), feeling that this is what human beings "really are;" worse still are the disclosed innards of an old man with a cancerous growth inside. Later, having escaped from the cavern, John asks the allegorical figure of Reason about what he saw. "Did you think," asks Reason, "that the things you saw in the dungeon were real; that we are really like that?"
"Of course I did. It is only our skin that hides them." "...What is the color of things in the dark?"
"I suppose, no color at all"
"And what of their shape? Have you any notion of it save as what could be seen or touched, or what you could collect from many seeings or touchings?"
"I don't know that I have."
"Then do you not see how the giant has deceived you?"
"Not quite clearly."
"He showed you by a trick what our inwards
would look like if they were visible. That is, he showed you something that is not, but would be if the world were made all other than it is. But in the real world our inwards are invisible. They are not colored shapes at all, they are feelings. The warmth in your limbs at this moment, the sweetness of your breath as you draw it in, the comfort in your belly because we breakfasted well, and you hunger for the next meal--these are the reality; all the sponges and tubes that you saw in the dungeon are the lie."
"But if I cut a man open i should see them."
"A man cut open is, so far, not a man; and if you do not sew him up speedily you would be seeing not organs but death. I am not denying that death is ugly, but the giant made you believe that life is ugly."
"I cannot forget the man with the cancer."
"What you saw was unreality; the ugly lump was the giant's trick; the reality was pain, which has no color or shape."
"Is that much better?"
"That depends on the man."
"I think I begin to see."
This fashion of unmasking, by which whatever was apparent had to be reduced to something else, met its answer in a stance that said that no matter how many layers were stripped off to get to the real, this real appeared under the layers, and it was the structure of this very appearance that was most interesting and most neglected. This insight could be articulated in the most various ways: Wittgenstein's "Don't think, but Look!"--a motto that informs his thought both early and late--tried over and over to show that "nothing is hidden," that from no matter how many angles one approached, one did not need to look under or behind anything, in fact could not, for any looking is looking-at. Wittgenstein's rather scattershot approach followed (though it was not inspired by) Husserl's meticulous studies into the structure of phenomena qua phenomena; science, Husserl warned, had not delivered "the things themselves" but had diverted us from them. But before Wittgenstein and before Husserl had been Nietzsche, telling us "how the real world became a fable;" and in a sense all of the back-and-forth between the pragmatist misconstrual of Wittgenstein and the pragmatist misconstrual of Heidegger is a tossing and turning in our bad dream that "with the 'real world' we have also abolished the apparent one."

For all that the attack on correlationism is well taken, we need to recall that heed to appearance qua appearance (which always means an appearing-to-) was a move against the excesses of critique, against the presumption of being able to explain-away. Philosophers who are criticized for only thinking "our access to reality," may merely be carefully eschewing to privilege one appearance over another. Such privileging is all the more pernicious since it often goes hand-in-hand with pretending not to be thinking of appearance at all.


  1. "...always means an appearing-to."

    Indeed. The truly interesting question is this regard is what is meant by 'appearance'? Thinking is secondary in this regard - whereas the encounter of/as flesh is primary.

  2. I've been trying to glean from your writings about other people just what your own views are. This is very helpful. Please, let me see more of your philosophical world. Those other guys can wait outside.

    So, do we see the world and the existing things directly or are we only looking at a representation, a bright appearance in our own minds or even in our dark innards?

  3. Gary: One good post for this could be this one (on fields of discourse and being); or (more lengthily) perhaps these posts from last April. I do a fair bit of commentary in these, but there's (I hope) a clear indication of what my own position is. See too what I wrote the last time someone asked me something like this.