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.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Sunday, January 31, 2010

papers up


I've posted a long paper of mine at Scribd. It's in two parts, a main paper on Platonism as read by two very different contemporary interpreters (Alain Badiou and Ernest McClain) with some meandering about with Kojeve and Rosen and others; and a technical/speculative appendix that gets way beyond my competence, and admits it. The paper (with or without appendix) is actually meant to be more than just a presentation of Badiou or McClain; it argues pretty frankly for my own idiosyncratic take on what I think is at stake in philosophy whether in Plato's day or our own (I don't think the situation has changed much).

Badiou is too huge a presence to need introduction, but or those of you who don't know, McClain is an emeritus professor of music at Brooklyn College, who argues that many of the more difficult passages in ancient texts--passages that almost always involve numbers--become readable if we interpret these numbers in terms of ancient musical theory. The texts McClain looks at this way are
not just Plato, but also the Vedas, Homer, the Bible, and the Quran, among others. Though he might not endorse the juxtaposition, I'd compare McClain's work to Giorgio de Santillana's and Hertha von Dechend's Hamlet's Mill; but in place of archeo-astronomy, McClain gives pride of place to music--the other most universal experience, besides sex, death, and the sky. My paper argues that the spirit of McClain's exegesis has philosophical consequences, and suggests that among these are revisions of many of Badiou's arguments. Since Badiou is among the most rigorous and broad thinkers today (and the course-corrections I suggest would arise are not trivial), this is actually a less niggling argument than it might seem.

I'll be getting some other papers up eventually, as I work out formatting issues. I'll keep a permanent link up under my "About Me" to the right, where I've also put a link there to my LibraryThing page where I have a number of book reviews up of various lengths.

All the papers on Scribd, either now or eventually, are drafts and subject to revision, but I welcome comments. The two up now have circulated before, privately, so some of you will have seen them already.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ethics, Mediation, Relation


There has been a marvelous discussion going on currently between Paul Ennis at anotherheideggerblog, Levi Bryant at Larval Subjects, Adrian Ivakhiv at Immanence, Graham Harman at Object-Oriented Philosophy, James Stanescu at Critical Animal, and elsewhere, regarding the articulation of an ethics within Speculative Realism, what Bryant calls a "flat" ethics because it puts all entities on the same ontological level. A good deal of this hangs upon the way that we construe relations and objects, which of these we consider to be ontologically prior, and so on. The whole debate is fraught with ramifications for ecology and ethics beyond the all-too-human. I hope Alf will have a look--I imagine he might be able to really sink his teeth into some of this.

The commentary online about the status of relations in Harman's ontology, and Bryant's also, is quite extensive. I am a relation-guy myself, quite sympathetic to an ontology that holds that relations go "all the way down," and that it is very difficult to elaborate a coherent account of saying what a thing is without reference to its relations. I count myself among those who have struggled to understand Harman’s account of how relations are even possible. (He seems to get this a lot; but sooner or later he will hit upon the right formulation. I also suspect that some of the resistance to his ideas may be of a less-than-philosophical nature; but then, this suspicion of mine is also less-than-philosophical). The clash tends to be between the readers of Deleuze or Whitehead who see relation as being fundamental (Ivakhiv seems to be holding out for this appraoch), and those like Harman who want to return pride-of-place to objects, which is another way of saying they want to re-establish substance as a central philosophical term. This camp would argue that you can't have relationship without relata, and that if you foreground relations too much, relata just melt into undifferentiation.

I don’t want to reiterate the whole discussion, even the recent one that has transpired over the past two or three days. But the entire debate is pertinent to the discussion we are having about authenticity and media or mediation. In this post I’m mainly going to think through a couple of examples.

Consider a couple dining before a night at the opera. She and he are sitting together at a bar in a noisy restaurant, in a certain upscale neighborhood, before heading to see and hear a performance of a piece of art from the 19th century. There are sex- and gender-roles, socially mediated; they are dressed up in evening clothes (socio-economic playacting); there's a complex dynamic of friendship. There is alcohol being consumed. All of this (and more) does more than impact or shape the encounter between them as they sit talking at the bar. This complex array of social mores and historical contingencies and gustatory processes is what mediates the encounter, is in fact how the encounter happens. To imagine that there could be some encounter without these mediations, an encounter one might abstract from them, or have instead if one could only screen out the noise, is nonsense. There would not be an authentic encounter, but rather no encounter whatsoever, without mediation. There can be other encounters (in other settings, on other occasions, with different menus and different outfits), but no "pure" encounter.

I take it that this is what Alf is getting in at the paper (I discussed & linked to in my last post), in asking about tents and tennis shoes in the desert or mountains; it's not as if running naked through the desert is more "authentic," or will better tell you what the desert is "really like," than hiking along sanely protected from the elements. It will tell you what it's like to run naked through the desert--more specifically, what it's like to run naked on this particular stretch of desert on this particular occasion. But follow this line of thought too far, pile on these qualifiers too deep, and you'll find that in deciding that you can't run naked through the same desert twice, you've bled dry the notion of "what it's like;" there's only what happens, only the experience itself. Sure, every experience is what it is, and not another experience, but how do we talk about experience-- i.e., generate experiences about other experiences? Either abstraction is possible, or thought falls dumb. This is the question of media.

Media are tremendous powers—I want to say that in one sense, they're the only power that is; that "power" or "capacity" is media. It is the power of construal. Any medium allows us to construe experience. But, the catch is, it also forces us to construe experience this way. No such constraint is absolute; the thrill of reading poetry is often the thrill of the frisson generated when language suddenly does something new, something we never thought it could do, and so lets us see—mediates—the world in a way never before open to us. But the question, "Is there a relationship that is not a construal?" seems simply another way of asking: "Is there an unmediated experience?"

To say what an experience "is like," as in our example of walking in the desert, is not to construe it any more than it is construed in the experience "itself." To speak of what it is like to feel the warmth of the sun with the first moments of sunrise may involve all manner of poetic license on my part, or may be scrupulously scientific; both accounts involve construing an uncapturable-in-words experience. But that experience is already a construal. The warmth is to me a pleasant shift from the night chill, and the growing light is welcome, bringing to mind certain half-thought kitschy associations of rebirth and hope in which I take a kind of guilty pleasure. This is already mediation enough; but to the burglar who wanted to finish the job before daybreak, the dawn is a serious glitch; to the lovers in a troubadour's aubade, it is the harbinger of bittersweet parting; to the owl or the bat, it is bedtime; to the ice crystals frosting the grass, it is dispersion.

This is more than mere perspectivism. The claim here is that the experience of shifting light and the temperature is always mediated (by physical process, by nervous systems, by social, cultural and private narratives). And, I would add, this means that Harman is exactly right to insist that construal happens between objects all the time. While we can't say what happens when the sunlight strikes the frost-covered lawn from the lights' or lawn's point of view, if I may riff on Harman's perspective, we can say that in acting on each other they construe each other in a sense, and this construal always gets it wrong, is always scandalously partial.

This may seem to take an unwarranted step. Perhaps one is willing to grant that the owl construes the dawn, and does so differently than do the lovers or the burglar. But one might balk at saying that the frost construes the sunlight, or vice-versa. Harman does not (as far as I recall) use the word "construe," so I may be mis-presenting his approach. But his point, I think, would be that the heat acts upon only a single quality of the ice crystals, and does not reach them "in themselves," and so too vice-versa. My suggestion is that if we take Harman seriously, we are bound to think not just in terms of causality but in terms of mediation. According to Harman, the sunlight’s encounter with the frost (and vice-versa) is just like the human subject’s encounter with the hammer that breaks in the opening sections of Being and Time: the "frost-in-itself" recedes into the vorhanden, from the sunlight’s point of view. The light and the frost each encounter the other in a kind of intentionality that is perfectly isomorphic with the intentionality Husserl describes. Harman calls his account of causality "vicarious causation" because "real objects never touch;" a real object only meets another via (and inside) a phenomenal object. And this means (so I claim): mediation.

I hardly know where to begin in enumerating the ways some of this play out in ethics, but in reading the discussions between Ennis, Bryant, Harman, Stanescu, Ivakhiv and others, I am quite struck by how it dovetails with considerations of media and authenticity, albeit a "problematized" authenticity.

I hope there will be some comments here to keep the conversation going, but in any case I will try in my next post I may to get to some ethical "implications," or rather, to asking in what sense this is the right question. For now I'll end with just two points.

First: the logic above that isolates every experience from every other (such that every instant is unrepeatable, e.g. "there is no running across the same desert twice"), does so by making every instant infinitely qualified. There is a radical over-determination of every entity and every event: nothing can be viewed in isolation. This follows a kind of ecological logic: just as a species cannot exist by itself, but only in an (endlessly ramified) ecological niche, so any entity whatsoever is regarded as endlessly qualified by its relations. The paradox, however, is that this ecology actually cuts off the branch it sits on, because ecology, like every science, depends upon abstraction and being able to marshall organized pronouncements of general statements, not just litanies of specifics. If this were not possible, it would also be impossible to conclude that it was impossible. Hence, abstraction is possible.

Second (and relatedly): I hasten to add that I believe one can meaningfully ask "what is it like to...?" and that it is a very good and profitable question, capable of a great deal of unpacking (as Thomas Nagel demonstrated). It's also the central question of empathy ("What is it like to be...?"); thus so asking it lands us in the heart of ethics. But the question still remains (here), how is it possible for us to ask it? There are some obvious connections to virtuality here, but that may not be the most interesting thing about it.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mediation vs. Connection


I mentioned Alf Seegert's essay in the Journal of Ecocriticism, and I want to raise a few questions about it. What follows won't mean a whole lot except in the context of a response to that paper, so interested people should read that first. My remarks do not specifically pertain to his reading of Forster's story (though I recommend both story and reading); I am largely in agreement with this. But I have a few questions about how Alf critiques an implicit distinction that Forster draws and relies upon, between the technological and the "natural."

These terms frequently determine the way the ecological debate is generally drawn, and while it's true there are more sophisticated approaches out there, it is surprising to me how often one still encounters this too-simple dichotomy. It's not that the argument is polarized between Luddites and Technophiles; but there's still a curious hankering for some kind of "authentic" experience that, it's suggested, our technology has "cut us off" from. The contrast, or apparent contrast, here is between "immediate" contact (say, skin-to-skin, or being-in-the-same-room) and somehow "mediated" interaction (looking at a picture on a screen, or "reading about," and so on).


The notion here extrapolates from the fact that, for instance, watching a documentary about the Grand Canyon is an
undeniably mediated experience, to the unwarranted conclusion that there is something unmediated about actually riding a donkey down the trail on the Canyon wall. This then serves as the basis for any number of moves in ecological critique, always commending the unmediated over mediation. The danger of course is that if mediation should prove to be ubiquitous, the whole project fails. And one does not need to be an incorrigible deconstructionist to suspect that there is something problematic about "unmediated access." In fact, one of the remarkable things about Harman's Object-Oriented approach is that despite his being a hardline realist about objects, he too maintains that one's "access" to any object at all is always mediated.

As with "immediacy," so with "nature" When plastic or nuclear power is denounced as "unnatural", it is as though a wooden table or a waterwheel was somehow a spontaneously occurring phenomenon. The pacific garbage patch is as 'natural' as the gulf stream, and if human beings one day wipe out the whole damn biosphere, this will be only one more natural event, every bit as natural as solar flares, volcanoes, or indeed as the beginning of life on earth.

So I can't but agree with Alf when he suggests that a tennis-shoe-clad foot, or a foot on the gas pedal, has no more (or less) 'mediated' an encounter with the earth than a bare foot or a hoof.
When Forster describes the final catastrophe (the collapse of the technological utopia and the destruction of the human life that had come to depend upon it), his narrator waxes eloquent:


Man, the flower of all flesh, the noblest of all creatures visible, man who had once made god in his image, and had mirrored his strength on the constellations, beautiful naked man was dying, strangled in the garments that he had woven. Century after century had he toiled, and here was his reward. Truly the garment had seemed heavenly at first, shot with colours of culture, sewn with the threads of self-denial. And heavenly it had been so long as man could shed it at will and live by the essence that is his soul, and the essence, equally divine, that is his body.


As Alf rather ingeniously points out, the nakedness of Forster's "beautiful naked man" is in fact an index of his technological co-evolution, not the sign of its absence; human beings look as they do naked because of the technology of clothes. "Naked man" is not unmediated man. In the same way as Kuno, in Forster's story, can't breathe the natural air on the Earth's surface, neither could Captain Scott have withstood the Antarctic winds if he faced them the way he was born.


Nonetheless, I have some reservations about the enthusiastic tossing-out of "mediation" as a term of distinction. If everything is mediated, then the term becomes meaningless, and this I think leads to places Alf doesn't want to go. This makes his next steps hard for me to "get;" though I understand (I think) each step, the whole shape of his approach feels a little vague.
(To be fair, I should point out that this essay of Alf's is part of a chapter in his dissertation, so the argument might be more balanced and easier in the context of the whole work.) Having spent a great deal of energy problematizing the categories on which the critics of technology want to rely, he nonetheless suggest (as I certainly want to also) that some mediations are more equal than others. And here I don't fully understand the criteria to which he is referring.

Alf asks: "is the problem with “mediated nature” the simple fact that it is mediated (an inescapable condition always at some level), or rather that with certain types of mediation comes a loss of connection with the Other...?" But I wonder how we are supposed to tell the difference between one type of mediation and another type. I find myself wanting to argue back that the critique that points out mediation is actually more to the point. When McLuhan (upon whom Alf is relying here) points out the threat that technological mediation poses to alterity (or rather, to the recognition of alterity) this is because precisely here, mediation is disguised and concealed. Alf argues that the question to ask is not whether a connection is "authentic," but rather, with what or who does it connect us? But already it really is possible to believe, in a kind of automatic unthinking way, that one "knows" the Grand Canyon or the Northern Lights from having seen a movie. One day very soon it will be possible to emerge from a V.R. theatre and say it with absolute conviction. And yet, I insist, one has a crazy-making intuition that such conviction will be wrong.


So how can one do justice to both the critique of the mediation/unmediated distinction, and to the intuition that a perfect planetarium show does not show you the real sky? I think the (only? best?) way to argue this is to say that the so-called "connection" in this case is ersatz.


There is also the issue of the
seductiveness of certain kinds of mediation. I remember a trip to the zoo where I saw hosts of children flock to a TV monitor playing an "instructional video" about an orangutan, oblivious to the real orangutan who was playing and looking curiously through the glass at them a yard away. What I mean by seductiveness is not really the providing of pleasure, but simply the providing of a good substitute for what used to give pleasure, without the cost in pain or (what increasingly is regarded as the same thing) inconvenience. The children at the zoo, were I think, seduced by the form of TV; it didn't give them more excitement than the unpredictable real animal; but everything in their previous experience had already trained them to prefer it. Why?

Well,
I prefer to see a shark through a big plate glass window than in 'unmediated' proximity in the water, and in fact there's a part of me that prefers a shark on TV to a shark in the aquarium. Likewise, I prefer sterile surgery with anesthetic to some of the more "authentic" alternatives. These preferences of mine are based on a disinclination to experience pain--based, in sum, on fear. It need not be an irrational fear. But I wonder if we are not close here to the root of the problem. It is a short step, perhaps, from rational fear to irrational aversion, and from this to mere laziness (a disinclination to effort is also an aversion to pain).

I don't think that we can either correct this, or even really correctly analyze it, via a kind of utilitarian calculus of pleasure and pain or cost/benefit analysis. But my guess is that there is something here that is pertinent, not primarily about pain and pleasure but about fear and whatever one will oppose to it; courage, or interestedness, or love.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Nor am I a Blog


Speculum Criticum reader Alf Seegert recently forwarded the link to his article in the Jan 2010 issue of the
Journal of Ecocriticism. Seegert provides a close reading of E.M. Forster's short story "The Machine Stops," as well as some critique of some of its implicit contrast between nature and the technological--a dichotomy which Seegert rightly sees as more problematic than Forster lets on. This is important because this is where so much ecological thought gets snagged on too-simplistic notions. I'll have more to say about this essay here soon.

The Forster connection was a nice coincidence because as it happened I caught another reference to this story in the hour-long interview with Jaron Lanier on Seattle radio KUOW. Lanier mentioned this story as the locus of the first suggestion of the internet. It isn't an optimistic suggestion, and indeed, while he isn't as dour as Forster, Lanier was suggesting that the cybernetics revolution he helped to shape, while perhaps not heading straight to dystopia yet, might be turning a bit sour. He is plugging his new book urging us each to remember that You are not a Gadget, which I've also been reading. For a helpful excursus, I recommend the brief Half Manifesto he wrote on Edge.org, as well as the interview podcast, where you can hear Lanier in his engaged and laid-back style tell about his conversion from piracy-advocate to champion of micropayments (and his rationale), play his Scriabin-cum-Gershwin improvisations on the piano and a Laotian mouth-harp, critiques Wikipedia, and generally walk the line between humble humanist and techno-optimist.

Always at pains to remind us that he is an enthusiast of online culture, that he helped invent Virtual Reality, and that he still believes in the promise of the web, Lanier nevertheless insists that risk ceding not only our intelligence but our identities to machines. Lanier thus joins the growing number of thinkers asking the hard questions, before it's too late--we hope: Can we stay human and still compute? As Nicholas Carr recently asked: Google making us Stoopid?

I appreciated especially Lanier's intoxicated love for music and his intuition that it is closely related to the transcendent (though he remains, rightly, circumspect about how exactly to draw the connection)--I have found, in practice, that the experience of playing music is one of the experiences closest to philosophical insight. I also admire the way Lanier critiques of strong AI and the reduction of the human person to a complex processing device, while maintaining a gently humble stance about explicit metaphysical declarations.

Most of all, I think Lanier's description of the "task of civilization" is as good an account of the philosophical project as I can think of: "To answer the question: how do we save ourselves from ourselves without losing ourselves?"

If I have one problem with Lanier's pithy sentence (and to be fair, he didn't offer it as an all-encompassing slogan), it's the triple refrain of "ourselves." This misses, I think, the other-directness of philosophy, the need to triangulate with the other human being, with the dog, the coral reef, the positron or the nebula. Of course I don't know that Lanier wishes to exclude these from the range of "ourselves" either; I merely wish to explicitly include them. Seegert argues in his paper that what matters is not whether an interface is "authentic" or not, since no encounter is unmediated; the question is--who or what does it connect us with? Just ourselves again? Or the more-than-human world? I think this is a crucial question.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Corporations are people too, apparently


To anyone exercised over the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, which (briefly) deems it unconstitutional not to allow corporations to spend as much money as they like in support of (or against) particular political candidates (although not to directly fund a candidate's campaign), I commend the discussion on the Volokh Conspiracy, and, for balance, the analysis at Project Censored. Most of the comments on Volokh seem to agree with the Court's decision, though not always with the rationale; in particular, some argue that Justice Scalia's "Originalism" sits ill with the ruling, his protests notwithstanding. Project C., on the other hand, is not addressing the legal arguments, but the political and social ramifications. Scrivener's Error, on the third hand, does (much more briefly) address the legal rationale from the other side--arguing most trenchantly that the contention of the Court's majority missed the point.

The argument seems to turn upon whether "free speech for corporations" had to be granted, lest free speech for individuals be susceptible to suppression; Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, tried to raise the spectre of blog censorship. Obviously, this summary of mine is not rife with legal finesse. Anyone wanting to set me straight is welcome to school me.

One thing I do not see discussed very much is the question, Why did the Court decide to consider the issue in such broad terms, rather than issue a narrow decision regarding the original case? In fact, in his dissenting opinion (starting on p 91 of the decision), Justice Stevens clearly suggests that in asking for the case to be re-argued from this point of view, the Court "changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law."

In any case, the impression is hard to avoid that the Supreme Court has given the U.S. a big push towards Managed Democracy.

(More on Citizens United in this excellent (albeit tendentious) Slate article by Richard Hasen).

[Addendum: the best legal commentary I have found on the matter is Paul Gowder's, which manages to argue why the decision was wrong without having recourse to grounds that would probably exclude free speech for other groups of people as well; the most alarmist commentary, while managing to remain barely believable, is Keith Olbermann's.]

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Radical Orthodoxy, for and against


I posted on Speculative Realism here, and I have more to say about my reservations and enthusiasms on it; but I also want to provide a bit more of a take on Radical Orthodoxy. This is an approach that, all agree, has its start in the theological work of John Milbank, whose Theology and Social Theory argued trenchantly that when theology took its bearings from psychology, sociology, cultural critique, anthropology, and so on, it had already conceded too much. However, Milbank traced the questions and answers of various secular disciplines to Christian problematic, underscoring the way that these disciplines were themselves forced to veer from the Christian context of their origins. In other words, the history of secularism is a history of heresy. Milbank’s founding contention is that (Christianly speaking) one can only coherently critique secularism if one critiques it precisely as heretical. This allows him to formulate an old critique in new guise, and he has strong words both for the liberal notion of autonomous philosophy, and for commitments that are merely fideistic
both old targets of theology.

“Heresy” is obviously a fighting word, and Radical Orthodoxy is a polemical stance. This is one of the things I like about it: it names names, points fingers, and asks hard questions: What did Western Civilization claim to not know, and when did it not know it? Like some other schools that are usually deemed conservative or reactionary, R.O. sees modernity and postmodernity as in a crisis of values, unable to articulate its own claims about right and wrong, to coherently defend itself from enemies or even look after its own; and it sees this precisely as a crisis of faith. Thus R.O. formulates a critique of liberalism familiar from Leo Strauss, Max Picard, or Russell Kirk, a critique from a transcendent not immanent ground. However, unlike these conservative critics, R.O. tends to veers not to the right but to the left. This is a general impression of mine, and I am sure one can point to any number of exceptions; but my sense is that this left-tendency is what makes people double-take, and some of them, inevitably, just don’t buy it.

Milbank’s initial arguments were picked up, and soon several other thinkers were closely associated. Graham Ward and Catherine Pickstock co-edited with Milbank the first anthology of essays concerning R.O. (there have since been others); Philip Blond has recently made some headlines in the UK due to being associated with the Red Tory movement (confirming some folks’ suspicions that R.O.’s leftism was only word-deep). Rowan Williams, once Milbank's teacher and now Archbishop of Canterbury, is a fellow-traveler at least. The movement began amidst Anglicans, particularly high-church Anglicans, but there are Roman Catholics and Reformed and Lutherans amongst them now.

I think one can venture a three-part sketch of basic Radical Orthodox cultural critique. First, R.O. tends to argue that the swerve to secularization always involves the option for a position rejected, either explicitly or implicitly, by the Church: modernity and post-modernity is the playing out of the consequences of heresy, though it is sometimes a heresy that the Church bought into. Moreover, the original reasons for rejecting the secularizing option remain in force. The centerpiece of this sort of argument in R.O. is the theology of Duns Scotus, in particular his doctrine of the univocity of Being: “Being” means the same thing when applied to God and to creatures. This means (goes the R.O. line), both that Being comes first, logically, and then come God and nature; and also that one can investigate nature without God, as though God did not enter the picture. Starting in the generation after Aquinas, RO thinks, the West progressively separated the spheres of meaning and practical life. And, things being what they are, practical questions took over until meaning was entirely edged out.

Not that secularism thinks of itself as Scotist (or indeed as nihilist). On the contrary, Radical Orthodoxy argues (secondly) that in its both animus against religion and in its eventual torpor, secularism has forgotten its origin in these disputes. Therefore, while its positions remain determined by these problems, it is responding to a set of questions it no longer understands: disputes in which the stakes are spiritual. Note, this is not simply an argument that some commonly-held contemporary position has spiritual consequences, but that it follows from spiritual premises. This is not unlike a kind of psychotherapeutic take on human relations. Just as there, hidden or repressed motives still motivate, even (or especially) if they are unacknowledged, so too in the history of ideas. (I might add, it's vulnerable to an analogous critique as is the psychothereutic, namely, that the question of motives can be distinguished from the truth or falsity of claims).

So, lastly, Radical Orthodoxy seems to claim that if one returns to the sources, one can formulate a coherent alternative to secularism, an alternative that will be not a mere mouthing of pieties but will be respectful of spiritual yearnings, and will avoid a nihilism incipient in postmodernity (particularly late capitalism, but also its secular critique). By itself this could suggest that R.O. is a tour de force of nostalgia, a kind of philosophers’ or theologians’ Society for Creative Anachronism. But Milbank, Pickstock, Ward et al. do not argue merely that, say, nominalism was wrong then and remains wrong now. Rather, they urge that because “ideas have consequences,” the secular and the sacred are never really separable. From this it does not follow that they envision some sort of theocracy. Indeed, a good many of the social and political positions urged by R.O. are distributivist or socialist. The particulars of this alternative are not agreed upon by every R.O. thinker. But Radical Orthodoxy’s blend of committed social gospel and high-church theology is a genuine tradition inherited from the Tractarians and the Oxford Movement; the liturgical focus upon the senses and the body finds an “applied” correlate in the concern for the concrete economic, social, cultural and political contexts of human life, and a “theoretical” correlate that makes scripture, doctrine and creed a matter of doxological practice rather than of epistemological assertion.

In providing a genealogy of secularism which traces it to various Christian problematics, Milbank is not particularly original, or even very surprising; Lowith and Voegelin before in the 20th century had already argued that many crucial developments in the West were secularizations of Christian thematics, and Weaver had already traced the relativism of the West to William of Ockham. Hauerwas (an oft-cited comrade-in-arms of Milbank’s) made similar points of cultural critique earlier, also on theological grounds; and MacIntyre has also argued that the West made a crucial false step in abandoning the Aristotelian discourse of virtues, in a way that, again, makes it impossible for it to understand What It Talks About When It Talks About Values.

In any case, it is hardly shocking news that sociology or anthropology or economics or even biology should have been decisively shaped by Christian doctrine; there is hardly a corner of the sciences or humanities which has not descended from some Christian thinking. The West simply was Christian; this is where people did their thinking. Moreover, when confronting such grand narratives that trace whatever is now amiss to some faultline where Everything Went Wrong, it is all too easy to find, well, fault. These arguments are always too simplistic. Everything went wrong with Plato (said Nietzsche and Heidegger); everything went wrong with Charlemagne or the filioque; or with Luther; or with William of Ockham; or with Joachim of Fiore; or with the influx of Greek philosophy—mainly Aristotle—from Moslem sources; or with Descartes; or with Machiavelli.
I’ve heard and read all these positions argued at length, and they all remind me of a line from the prologue to the Hitchhiker's Guide: Many were increasingly of the opinion that they'd all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.

Not only will some detail from at least half a century previous always turn up to falsify one’s history, but a plausible alternate evaluation will almost certainly be offered countering one’s whole picture. In the case of Radical Orthodoxy, its main whipping boy, Duns Scotus, could just as easily be lauded as condemned for “separating God and nature,” and so making possible the Western development of science. Precisely this line has been taken by historians who have wanted to assert and explain the development of science in the Christian west and nowhere else. (This has not always with reference to Scotus, and sometimes is merely refered to the Bible). Preeminent among these have been Rejer Hooykaas, Robert K Merton, Stanley Jaki, Pierre Duhem, Oppenheimer, and Whitehead, though I would not argue that these thinkers all meant the same thing.

It should also go without saying that R.O.’s attack on Duns Scotus have not gone unnoticed by fans of the Doctor Subtilis. If you check out the blog The Smithy, you can read several rather contemptuous rejoinders to haughtily dismissed R.O. "pseudo-"scholarship. Of course, these aren’t the only criticisms R.O. has garnered, even online; the folks at An Und Fur Sich can be sort of persnickety about them too (one of the funniest accounts of it I know is Adam Kotsko’s description of it as “an assertion that we need to get back to the slightly nuanced Neoplatonist ontology that Jesus died on the cross to give us”), though it is tempered with respect (and Anthony Paul Smith is doing academic work at Nottingham with (though not supervised by) Milbank). In their case the reservations seem to be partly political—suspicions of what strikes me as an undeniable flavor of conservativism about R.O. despite some of its leftist-sounding social agenda
—partly concerns that R.O. is too cavalier about rejecting autonomous science, and partly just chafing at the tone of some of R.O.'s polemics.

There is also a pretty reasonable criticism of R.O. in Democracy and Tradition by Jeffrey Stout, who argues that Milbank, alongside MacIntyre and Hauerwas, in staking the claims of Tradition against pluralism, must come to terms with Democracy as a rival tradition, and not as the mere negation of tradition.

But by far the strongest criticisms of Radical Orthodoxy that I know of are contained in the books Deconstructing Radical Orthodoxy, edited by W. J. Hankey and Douglas Hedley,
and Interpreting the Postmodern: Responses to Radical Orthodoxy edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether and Marion Grau. The papers collected by W. J. Hankey and Douglas Hedley, two scholars of no mean standing, tend to paint R.O. as a trendy new fad (inevitably a weak spot for any approach that begins to gain attention), and while they are not wholly dismissive, are clearly impatient with some of R.O.s more sweeping gestures, and they stop just short of accusing Milbank & company of deliberate obfuscation, of taking refuge in apparent eruditionan erudition they aim to challenge. Deconstructing Radical Orthodoxy disputes the interpretation not only of Duns Scotus, but of Plato, of Augustine, of Aquinas, and Heidegger., and freely speculates upon what might be behind R.O.s own tendentious readings.

If Stout in Democracy and Tradition argues from the pragmatic center, and Hankey and Hedley argue as it were from the right
not necessarily politically, but academically and certainly with an eye on R.O.s anti-modern agendaRuether and Grau, both well-known liberal and feminist theologians, come at it from hard left. While the critique of H&Hs book is scholarly, that of R&G (and their contributors) is ideological. R.O. remains Eurocentric, sexist, heterosexist, caught in the same-old-same-old: a very masculine, technocratic theology whose notions of contesting modernity hardly seems to consider that this means contesting notions of whose discourse gets to count as theology.” It isn't whether we're hearing Wittgenstein or Suarez right that's at issue here, but whether we're hearing women, African Americans, Latinos, peoples inhabiting the (former) colonies of the British Empire at all.

Well. At the risk of flirting with an inchoate philosophy of persecution, I
d say that anything that has that many people riled up, from all sides of the spectrum, has got to be doing something right.

Be all that as it may, what I find immediately and intuitively appealing in Radical Orthodoxy is summed up in the subtitle to Pickstock’s After Writing: “the liturgical consummation of philosophy.” This is a thesis rife with implication for metaphysics and politics alike: the dependence of thinking upon a realm beyond thought which is nonetheless not a mere blank horizon, but a context to which we can orient ourselves in practice—a practice that is inherently either doxologic (praising), or else must constitute itself as negation and denial (nihilism, or nihilism by another name). But what I find most exciting about R.O. is its claim that these larger existential questions are not merely Ivory Tower matters but are inherently bound up with practical day-to-day questions about how we shall live. No wonder it invites contention: it hits us where we live
whether in the academy or not.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

On the Ultimately Possible


The FQXi community, a great physics site, has an annual essay contest. Winners of last year's contest--on the subject "What is Ultimately Possible in Physics?"--have just been announced. You can follow the link to read the winning essays. Worth your time. It's philosophically interesting to note the considerable number of essays discussing whether a "complete theory" of the universe is a feasibility. But this is not the only reason to check these out.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti

On the off-off-chance that anyone reading here has not already decided how they might help the relief effort in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, I pass on this link to the organization Partners in Health, commended by Peter Hallward, a philosopher who has translated Badiou as well as written a significant book on Haiti. On the donation form there is a drop-down menu where you can specify that you'd like your contribution to go to the earthquake relief effort.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Speculative Realism, just for starters


Having dropped the phrase Speculative Realism a few times, I should probably provide some background and a few links. This is nothing you can't track down yourself with an hour’s research, at most, and of course I will inevitably leave gaps, so feel free to fire back anything else you find.

S.R. is a label of quite recent coinage, and is usually applied to the work of four central thinkers: Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Graham Harman, and Iain Hamilton Grant. I seem to have discovered these guys in a way different from the usual—that is, not as a group. (Indeed, this grouping as gang-of-four strikes me as more happenstance than anything else, but for the moment, it's convenient).

I found Graham Harman quite by chance when his book Guerrilla Metaphysics came through the used book shop I worked at. I read it in about three days and realized that here was something new. For one thing, his sources were idiosyncratic. Yes, he clearly knew his Heidegger, but he also cited Xavier Zubiri, possibly the most under-appreciated major philosopher of the 20th century, an absolute giant in the old style; as well as Alphonso Lingis,
(under whom he has studied, I learned later); and he had some beautiful words for Jose Ortega y Gasset, certainly not on everyone’s short list today. Most important, Harman’s arguments were both out-of-left-field and impossible to dismiss out of hand. He contends, very simply put, that whereas nearly all Western philosophy since Kant has seen the human being as having to negotiate a chasm separating him or her from the rest of reality (e.g. Husserl’s subject regarding the intentional object), this chasm in fact obtains everywhere, in every single interaction whatsoever—the light hitting a photographic plate, the match scraping along the hearthstone, the needle in the record groove and the spermatozoon finally gaining the egg all alike encounter their “intentional object” across the same “gap” that lies between the human being and the world at any moment. From here he proceeds to develop a whole ontology.

Well before reading Harman, I encountered Quentin Meillassoux in an article in Philosophy Today, while browsing at the newsstand around the corner from the bookshop. As it happens, the article was by Harman—but the name meant nothing to me at the time, and I’d forgotten it by the time I found Harman’s book. Meillassoux’s notoriety comes in large part for his having, in After Finitude, launched a sweeping indictment against almost all contemporary philosophy as having capitulated to the forces of unreason, whether it knows it or not. “Correlationism” is Meillassoux’s name for his enemy, and he defines it as “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.” This idea is not synonymous with Kantianism, but it is an inheritance from Kant’s firewall between the subject and the unknowable
ding an sich. Once you have conceded that one has no access to qualities that inhere in the object itself, irrespective of the observer, you have abdicated the place of reason. In the place of reality, you are left with a correlation between an unknowable object and an irreducible subject, whether that is a noumenon and a transcendental subject, or power and society, or reality and language, or… and so on. Meillassoux’s critique is twofold. He claims that Kant inaugurated a counter-revolution against the Copernican de-thronement of Man, by reinstating the (human) subject as a privileged center of a phenomenal world. And he claims that this move has necessarily entailed making human finitude thematic, a development we need to undo. (Hence his title).

Ray Brassier I knew first as the translator of Alain Badiou. His essays on Badiou made me at first think of him as a commentator—a very helpful one. But the more I read the more I realized that Brassier saw in Badiou (as well as Meillassoux--he also translated
After Finitude), vital allies (of a sort) for a project that is his own: a thinking-through of nihilism “to the end.” This, one might say, is a kind of immanent critique of nihilism, staring the bleak heat-death of the universe in the eye. Brassier wants to follow the ramifications of extinction and the utter absence of any shred of teleology. This means confronting the mere happenstance of thought—its origins in aleatory material processes—and its eventual total disappearance from the whole Universe, when, as Nietzsche wrote, “the clever animals ha[ve] to die.” This takes Brassier from a prolonged engagement with neuroscience, to the confrontation with the eventual death of the last sentient being. This is “Being-unto-death” with a vengeance. The starkness of the void in Brassier's book Nihil Unbound is absolute-zero cold, unflinching and comfortless. Early in the book, Brassier declares: “Nihilism is…the unavoidably corollary of the realist conviction that there is a mind-independent reality which…is indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the values and meanings which we would drape over it.” His opponents are described at the outset: “Philosophers would do well to desist from any further injunctions about the need to re-establish the meaningfulness of existence, the purposefulness of life, or mend the shattered concord between man and nature.” There is a sense in which nihilism is thought itself for Brassier, and a sense in which it is thought’s shadow. “Nihilism is not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity,” he says in the same preface, and he capitalizes on the opportunity for about 300 pages.

Of the four, it is Iain Hamilton Grant about whose own positions I am still most uncertain. I chanced upon Grant during research on Schelling’s reading of the Timaeus, to contrast with Badiou’s style of Platonism. A web search turned up Grant’s book Philosophies of Nature After Schelling. I soon realized that I would have to make reading this book a separate project of its own. It proves fascinating (and very difficult) reading. He makes a very strong case for the philosophy of nature as the core of Schelling’s thought, and for Schelling, as opposed to Hegel or Heidegger, as the thinker for our age. Schelling provides us with a robust and emphatically non-anthropocentric philosophy of nature, an especially timely contribution at our present ecological impasse. Grant also reads Schelling as the representative of a Platonic and neoPlatonic tradition against Kant (By now you may notice an oft-remarked anti-kantian theme running through S.R.). But to put it like this too easily gives the impression that Grant wants to make a case for the kind of re-enchantment that Brassier contemptuously dismisses. This is too simple, though I do think Grant's work (perhaps despite his intentions) can be turned to the re-enchanters' purposes more readily than can Meillassoux or Brassier. However, it is still early to tell. Because this is Grant’s most substantive book so far, it is easy to mistake him for an explicator (mush as I thought of Brassier). But Grant will, I expect, emerge as much more than an interpreter of Schelling or of anyone else.

There is one more figure who I think deserves some mention: Levi Bryant, whose blog has been one of several online centers of the S.R. storm in the past few years and who has done a tremendous amount of original writing and immediate publishing, rather than sending things through the usual academic channels. Bryant’s ontology, while closest to Harman’s, is different from that of any of the other thinkers presented here. He has just published Part One of an Object-Oriented Ontology Manifesto on his blog Larval Subjects, in which he makes, among other points, the claim that Kant’s Copernican turn inevitably imprisoned philosophy, and willy-nilly all the humanities, in a corral of human discourse, while the sciences, which simply ignored this ghettoization, carried on investigating the world it naively assumed to exist independently of the mind. (This suggests that the “Two Cultures” dilemma diagnosed long ago by C.P. Snow has its roots precisely in Correlationism). Bryant has his detractors, and some see him as a poseur. I think this is simple bad manners; even if you’ve had online run-ins with him, you should respect someone as indefatigable as Bryant. Again, I speak as an outsider; I’ve had no conversations with any of these guys, so I have no idea how easily a flame-war can arise.

Also, precisely because I am an outsider and do not know all the players, no one should take my summary here as definitive. There are several other significant sites in this story, more or less closely involved with S.R. (and not uncritically): k-punk, planomenology, Speculative Heresy, Deontologistics , anotherheideggerblog, and Grundlegung, among others. What emerges from some hours' cruising around on these sites is a whirl of mostly-left politics, cultural commentary, and (on Graham Harman's blog) the occasional sports vignette, as well as a lot of philosophical controversy. I might add, there are several other sites that engage with SR even more critically, and these I will mention next time (though if you spend much time with these links, you'll find them yourself).

I’ll go on record and say that I think that, the trendiness and occasional bad manners of its online discussion aside (and yes, there is some of both), S.R. is a genuinely challenging set of approaches that could go a long way towards snapping philosophy out of its Buridan’s-Ass paralysis between the Continental and Analytic hay-bales. To be sure, I’ve a number of reservations about this rather lose movement, which I’ll put in another post. But (and this is about as polemical as I'm gonna get about this) anyone who doesn't recognize this as real philosophy (maybe not a wholly new thing under the sun, but of indisputable quality) is either kidding themselves, or not really interested in the first place. It may not be what you're into, but this is, and is about, the real thing.

Monday, January 11, 2010

cats & dogs


As always, in media res; anyone claiming there’s another way is either a prophet or a con artist. This is a long-ish post (one of many, eventually, but the longest so far) on what the work-in-progress I’m trying to work out on this site is supposed to be progressing towards. It’ll also give a fair example of the way I think-by-composition, should anyone be remotely interested.

This blog is made up of working notes towards a book (or possibly a “blook,” if it stays online); but in a sense there are two books I’m trying to sort out here, and I am not sure they will not be fighting like cats and dogs all the way through. The “cat” is easy to write, for by definition, it is what gets written easily. It’s the stuff that comes out in white heat, though often half-baked (or less), as an idea grows and transforms and draws other ideas into its sphere. The cat is easily distracted, with a short attention-span and a tendency to pounce. It plays with ideas and loses them under the couch, and almost doesn’t care if I’m there or not. The “dog,” on the other hand, is loyal and steady, but requires much more attention. Whereas the cat will bring me, day after day, little trinkets, the dog wants to herd a whole flock of ideas in a single direction—but that takes work. This second book is like unfinished business that has sat for years in the attic or the hall closet, needing to be seen to and always taking more time than I thought once I get around to it. It’s a whole series of parts without any obvious instruction list for putting them together.

One could plausibly describe these two books as a young man’s book and an old man’s: a book being thought out only in the writing, not knowing where it is going; and a book written to set in order things in memory, conclusions—not dogmas but habits, more or less conscious—already reached. In other words, it’s a book written In the Middle of Life’s Journey.

It occurs to me that my clever dichotomy may give the false impression of a nice order. Actually, both the cat book and the dog book are disheveled things, scattered and cluttered. For in “white heat” it is possible to write in any number of styles (admittedly, not always well) according to the subject; if the cat has pounced on a scholar, it makes little scholarly pawprints everywhere; if it has pounced on poetry, its pawprints might scan or at the very least look a little lyrical. But the cat is by definition interested in what it has right now. The dog, for its part, has its work cut out for it precisely because what it has to order and shepherd is, well, what the cat dragged in, once, long ago, and forgot about. This has been very different over the years, and not infrequently from day to day.

About the only thing these two books have in common, one might say, is their starting point.

My starting-place is the same as that of all philosophy: astonishment. Wonder. Yes, this; but also an incorrigible itch to make this wonder articulate. Wonder is named as the beginning of philosophy by Aristotle, who adds in the Metaphysics [1.2 982b] that “the lover of myths is also in a way a philosopher, since myths are made up of wonders.” Aristotle is a man not in most respects much like my cat—neither my cat-book, nor my actual cat, which freezes or leaps in unfeigned astonishment at every twitching leaf. But then, Aristotle calls wonder the beginning of philosophy, not the whole thing. Articulation—that’s the dog-book—is also essential. Astonishment by itself is, I am tempted to say, a noble response, even a grace; no genuine philosophizing is possible without it. But not every moment of wonder turns into the thoughtful perplexity that is philosophy. Feeling bafflement is perfectly compatible with being satisfied with it, or merely stumped; but if either of these are one’s first response, no articulation occurs.

And one can see why. This articulation is a struggle. Take the old question: Why is there something rather than nothing? If you have never felt the radical, dumbfounding wonder behind this question, it is unlikely that having someone describe it to you will make it seem like a diverting topic for an afternoon reverie. If you have felt it, you will understand how maddeningly difficult it is even to put it into words. To me it feels like trying to find a good fingerhold on the Great Wall of China in order to lift it up and look underneath, while standing on top of the wall. To ask “why is there anything?” is in a way to be asking for a spot outside of everything to be the explanation. And yet, the question will not go away, no matter how often one hears explained, patiently, that it arises because of a kind of grammatical mistake. Indeed, Wittgenstein says of this wonder that anything at all exists, that it cannot be coherently phrased in the form of a question, “nor is there any answer to it;” indeed, “all we can say about it can a priori be only nonsense.” But Wittgenstein,
who may plausibly be held to have started the “it's a grammatical mistake sort of approach with these kinds of remarks, also called the urge to formulate these questions, to run up against the limits of language” as he called it, “a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply,” and added that “I would not for my life ridicule it.”

Every effort to ask “The Question of Being” is a rushing or an infiltration of these borders. (T.S. Eliot called this sort of thing “raids on the inarticulate;” but I think “raids” is a bit strong for the style of my own attempts, which are more like reconnaissance missions). Ken Wilber boils down all such attempts to two kinds. Wilber opens Sex, Ecology, Spirituality with the disarming sentence, “It is flat-out strange that something—that anything—is happening at all.” There are, he suggests, two responses to this realization: either one can believe it is purely fortuitous—a response Wilber calls the philosophy of Oops—or one can hazard something other, as has always been asserted by the great spiritual traditions. One might contend that even this hazarding is bound to either include
this “something else in the everything that is happening (and so risk an infinite regression), or not (and so beg the question). Why not just stay with Oops? And yet there is a good deal of difference between arriving at Oops at the end, as Quentin Meillassoux does in After Finitude, and starting out with it, remaining with it and being satisfied with it.

You see what has been going on here, as the dog and the cat stalk each other warily. Names or issues or phrases are getting dropped in here as if they are part of some assumed common knowledge and not what they are, the flotsam of my own idiosyncratic itinerary through the library and life. This is going to happen all the time, so we’d better figure out what to do. My own preference is not to be talked down to, even at the risk of being presented with information I might not immediately understand. Do you really want the explanatory clause, “Quentin Meillassoux is a contemporary French philosopher,” here? Yes, it’s a blog, for the time being, so I can include links, which are less obtrusive (though potentially more distracting); but are they any less condescending? If you knew Meillassoux’s name already, you are or yawning or rolling your eyes. If you didn’t—well, did I think you didn’t know how to find out?

My criteria for the good reader are those enumerated by Nabokov: “The reader should have an imagination. The reader should have a memory. The reader should have a dictionary. The reader should have some artistic sense.” A pencil and paper might also help. I am going to assume, too, that my reader can use a library, or at least an internet search engine. The reader I hope for is curious enough to look into whatever isn’t immediately made clear—and suspicious enough to look closer at what seems made a little too clear. The reader I hope for will be patient with what might seem like the boring parts, or will give herself permission to skip about and come back, and won’t take umbrage at the author’s apparent assumption that it’s worth hanging in there. For my part, I will attempt to fill in what I think will be helpful, and yes, I put in the links, as I attempt to learn how to ride this curious new media. This inevitably involves treading on some toes, because I will be moving about from discipline to discipline, in what I hope is a responsible way, and this means that one audience might be all too familiar with what is brand-spankin’-new to others.

Brand-spankin’-new, and familiar: this is what everything is all the time. Look at these words.

L o o k a t t h e s e w o r d s.

What is involved when you read this sentence is so astoundingly complex and so familiar that a full account is probably impossible. Perfectly arbitrary (by some criteria) arrangements of dark against a lighter background are scanned by the eye. How much does “scanned by the eye” already presuppose? The mechanism of the eye, the manner in which the photons of light trigger neuroelectric signals in the brain, the translation of these into (sub-aural) sounds, all of this is a synaesthetic miracle. These sounds, these inky squiggles, these arrangements of pixels on a back-lit screen, mean something. The ramifications of this one act are enough to fill a book, an encyclopedia, a library. It took millions of years of evolution, and a relatively brief but quite complex coda of human history, to attain the well-formed eye, the capacious brain, and the language-system that enable this reading. We so take this for granted that “take for granted” is too weak or loaded a phrase. It is not possible for us not to take it for granted. To not take it for granted would actually be to change who we are.

Now my point here is not to swerve off (yet!) into a tour of the history of language, writing, and culture, or the evolution, biology, and physics of perception, cognition, and reading. (Patience, gentle reader). My point is that every moment of our experience involves these unexamined ramifications before and behind. The dance (the clumsy dance) I make between expertise and bluff here is the dance we make all the time. The artist who presents what we “already know” in a new way, who estranges the familiar, and the scientist who attempts to explain something puzzling in terms of what we can regard as established, are both engaged in this dialectic, and each presupposes something of the other. Everything we think we already know is charged through and through with the unacknowledged, the unplumbed, the unguessable; under our feet, the soles of our shoes; under the shoes, the pavement; under the pavement, the ants. The ants on the surface of the earth, the earth hanging in the void of the heavens, the heavens nowhere-because-everywhere. Where do these things come from? And how is it that any of them are at all? This strange question—“why is there anything at all?”—or rather, the wonder motivating this inadequate formulation of a question, turns out to be simply the continuous perplexity behind all the others, the always-present strangeness of the taken-for-granted. Every time an apparent digression sideswipes us here, it is always a sign that the strangeness of things is clearing its throat, asking politely (or perhaps not) for our kind attention.

This is the family quarrel of my cat- and dog-books. What is diverting and new squares off with what is assumed and established. The boringly familiar is re-lit with wonder; the astonishing and unforeseen comes forward to greet us and make acquaintance, speaking a language we can understand. Every moment of our lives is “the middle of life’s journey.” Every instance opens onto an infinite number of possible paths, and this infinitude of questions that can be asked is itself always a signal of the even more mysterious unaskable question, fumblingly expressed as Why is there anything at all?

The discipline of philosophy is to keep this question open, to never get bored with it. The technique of philosophy is to ask as many of the other questions as possible in concert with each other, always opening them back upon this fundamental question. The aim of philosophy is to cultivate the understanding of the answer; an answer which, note, is just as nonsensical as the question, and can only transpire in one as an experience and not a sentence, but which, I want to say, casts a sort of image in language which, as close as I can come, is something like this:

I don’t know, but it is good that there is.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Living Questions


In response to Alf’s suggestion—a post on some philosophical problems that interest me currently—I will make a characteristically evasive response, but I hope not out of sheer perversity. The philosophical problems that interest me are the ones that are most contentious! “What sorts of disagreement cause hatred and wrath?” And of course, how can one skirt this danger and transmute them into occasions of understanding?

I have more than one motive here. Obviously, the contentious subjects are “hotter”—more “current”—and this generates a certain energy which can be put to use for philosophy. Intelligent Design? Globalization? Ecological stewardship? Multiculturalism meets Fundamentalism? The ethics of abortion? Nothing like an intervention in one of these to get the blood flowing.

For similar reasons, I am also interested in “new” movements. I’ve already mentioned Speculative Realism. I am also interested in the so-called Philosophy Cafés, though like Roger-Pol Droit, I suspect they are often more café than philosophy. (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”) There is Radical Orthodoxy, a theological approach with which I am much in sympathy, founded by the work of John Milbank, which is (to risk overstatement for the sake of brevity) an attempt to outflank philosophy with theology by insisting on faith over against nihilism. And of course, there’s the converse movement—a recent spate of critique of religion, with the inevitable rejoinders by believers. At worst, of course, this is not very deep belief or disbelief, but happily not all critics or defenders are shallow. While I don’t have much good to say about Dawkins’ or Dennett’s acumen on the subject (aside from the trivial observation that the “meme” meme is a promising avenue of approach on any subject at all), AC Grayling’s and Michel Onfray’s seem a little more worth responding to qua philosopher, and André Comte-Sponville’s work is positively pleasant to read in its civility. As for the defenders, I won’t go into them right now, but the literature is at least as uneven.

In both of these interests—the contentious and the current—there’s an admitted danger of opportunism. One can be fairly sure that the currency will pass before the contention is resolved. What happens usually is that some sort of practical compromise is jerry-rigged. This is of course a matter of politics, and philosophy just has to stand back and shake its head. We might provisionally decide that home-schoolers can teach their kids that the world was made in six days or that it floats on the back of an infinite stack of turtles, but public schoolers must put up with the latest news from the Biology department. If they don’t like it, well, there are private schools, and if they can’t afford those, we’re still discussing charter schools and vouchers, none too politely. All of this dumps the conversation into the churning bin of opinion. So if our motive is to philosophize, our interest cannot be in currency or controversy for their own sakes.

But my interest here is not in straining to construe philosophy as “relevant.” Nor is it in seeking in philosophy for guidance in resolving the dilemma de jour. In a certain sense you will see that I dispute whether philosophy ever offers us “practical” guidance. It is rather that wherever the dispute is, is the opening for realization. That’s where the itch is. “Where the danger is, grows what can save” Hölderlin writes (Patmos). These are the Living Questions of the moment; the place where you can find the pulse.

This is one reason I value Vehemence (in the sense I used it before) so highly: Strongly-put positions tend to raise the stakes. Within certain parameters, this means that participants’ investment in the dialogue is higher. Those parameters are important: outside of them, investment can fall off quickly.

Example: three people are talking about the 9/11 attacks. Dan claims that 9/11 was an “inside job,” a false flag operation carried out by parts of the U.S. government; foreign operatives may or may not have been involved. Walt holds that it was a case of “roosting chickens;” legitimate grievances against the U.S. were bound sooner or later to result in just such an act, and the U.S. can hardly be justified in complaining when its own violence is turned against it. Ted maintains 9/11 was more or less what the official Commission Report says it was: an unwarranted terrorist attack, planned and executed by members of Al Quaeda.

But, you may say, the nature of 9/11 is a historical, not a philosophical question. Likewise, one could say that the question of “whether (or why) global warming is happening,” is a climatological question; that the question of what will be the likely fallout of government intervention (or lack thereof) on behalf of teetering banks, insurance companies, and brokerage firms is an economic question; or that the question of whether to buy from a grocery store or a farmers’ market is a nutritional question, perhaps informed by your own private budgetary considerations.

But follow the inquiry far enough--and it's really not so very far--and you find that all of these questions also come down to philosophical premises, and have philosophical ramifications. And, most importantly, the act of asking them and disputing them contains in that moment the opening to philosophical comportment. In fact, the conversation won’t even start to make any progress beyond “that’s-what-you-think,” until we do get to the philosophy—either by backing up or moving forward. "Who do you trust?" is an example of the sort of philosophy I mean. (It is exactly the sort of question Socrates asked; if you go to a specialist for shipbuilding or carpentry or cooking, why not for moral advice? But what makes a specialist and how do you know one?) If I am shown two different accounts of how and a building falls “into its own footprint,” then unless I am myself an engineering expert in demolition, I have to make a choice: do I believe expert A., upon whom Ted relies and who says that a building could well collapse straight down after being hit by a plane; or expert B., whom Dan cites to the effect that the only buildings that fall that way are those that are brought down by controlled explosives? What is it that disposes me to believe one or the other? And can I evaluate that disposition from outside?

The conversation between Dan, Walt and Ted is likely to get very heated, but it is perfectly possible for it to remain civil, and even for it to issue in one or more participants being persuaded. Even over so volatile a topic, manners and reason can inform our discourse. But there are limits. If Walt puts his case so strongly that Ted begins to suspect that Walt would happily see or sponsor a further attack if he could; or if Dan begins to suspect Ted not only of having “bought” the “official version” but of having participated in the “cover-up,” then a threshold has been crossed beyond which reactiveness is likely to swamp reflection.

Similar difficulties attend other debates—say, over the “life of the unborn,” or the “right to choose” (even the shorthand betrays a subtext of pre-commitment), or of the status of “fringe science,” or the competing claims of “civil liberties” and “security.” Up to a point, the debate can proceed more or less openly, but there comes a moment when one has to choose to stay engaged, or else to regard the other as enemy.

Now what I’m interested in is: How do we decide? Why are the parameters such as they are? How can we expand them (and should we)? What happens if we stay engaged and don’t run away? What is engagement? What are its limits? And what is the nature of the realization it brings?

I hope it is clear that here we begin to move from the mainly meta-philosophical considerations with which my postings began, towards ethics, in a way which I mean to be consistent with Levinas’ claim that ethics is first philosophy.

Monday, January 4, 2010

+3 Vorpal Argument

A semi-frivolous P.S. to the last post: I awoke this morning with a message in my mental inbox from my own Inner Dork, who had obviously been thinking about it all night: Imagine a D&D-style character sheet for each philosopher listing the seven characteristics with respective scores (from 3 to 18). Then we could settle disputes between philosophers (e.g. replaying Wittgenstein's brandishing of his +3 Flaming Poker at Karl Popper) by rolling dice shaped like Platonic solids! (I know there are already collector's cards). Do I smell a new nerd pastime? "Sorry, dude, you've only got a Subtlety of 12 and a Learning of 13; you need at least a cumulative 26 on those to be able to wield that +2 Syllogism of Lightning. Pass me the chips, wouldja?" In any case, a potentially dangerous new time-waster, speculating on Leibnitz's or Chisolm's stats. Not sure where I'd start, except that Plato definitely has a Depth of 18, and Rand has a Subtlety of maybe 5, max.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Seven Virtues for Philosophers


I can think of seven distinguishable characteristics of the philosophers I admire. They don’t all exhibit these in equal measure, but a thinker needs to show several, and rank high in at least one of these for me to want to spend much time reading them.

Originality, Learning, Style, Breadth, Vehemence, Subtlety, and Depth. Note that these are virtues of writing, not of living. I trust that it goes without saying that my mention of any philosopher as exemplifying a given virtue does not mean I think this is the philosopher’s only virtue.

I can break these into a Trivium and a Quadrivium. The Trivium is easier to describe:

Originality: Does a thinker offer any promising new approach? (Socrates, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Peirce, Popper, Wittgenstein, Quentin Meillassoux). Obviously this is an ambiguous virtue. No one should strive to be original for its own sake; the novelty in question is a break from received opinion, from the status quo, but for the sake of truth, and not for the sake of notoriety. Hence this virtue must be balanced, in a writer, by

Learning: Are they solidly grounded in the whole—or at least an appreciable range—of what has gone before? (Aristotle, Cassirer, Gilson, John Deely). This is a critical reception, and for the sake, as Aquinas wrote, “not of what men have said, but of the truth of the matter.” Hence it is also ambiguous: erudition prized too highly, by the writer, makes for a diet of footnotes; by the reader, it makes for pedantic objections and missing the forest. To some degree, excesses or deficiencies in either Originality or Learning can be made up for by

Style: How well (elegantly, clearly, or both) do they write? (Nietzsche, Santayana, Graham Harman). Certainly valid and valuable philosophy comes in all packages, and a bristly, bland, or even pop prose style does not mean there is nothing else there. (Consider, for instance, Sellars, or Laruelle, or Dewey, or Peter Kingsley). Philosophy ought not, indeed, spare one the trouble of thinking. But this has become so commonplace that it’s sometimes a backhanded compliment to say of a thinker, “Oh, he writes well…” Well, work can be pleasant, and one would hope that philosophers, as lovers of the Good, the True and the Beautiful, would strive for a little beauty in their books.

Wholly lacking any one of these virtues would be a grave fault, (and no one worth reading does—if you look hard, you can find clear passages in the densest of philosophers—usually where their ideas are becoming clear to themselves). But even all three of these would be insufficient to raise one to the level of upper-drawer philosophy. All the writers I mention above, and many more I admire, also exhibit to varying degrees my

Quadrivium:

By Breadth, I mean more than just range—I mean the ambition to formulate the grand vision of the Whole. This is not simply a matter of treating a number of different “areas of philosophy,” but of the treatment being coherent and coordinated—even (to use a somewhat loaded word) “systematic.” The paradigmatic modern example is of course Hegel. Among contemporaries—though some are now getting pretty venerable—there is Nicholas Rescher, for instance, or Mario Bunge, or Alain Badiou, or Ken Wilber. When I encounter one of these thinkers, I have all sorts of problems with them, but I am thrilled to meet someone whose aim is to leave nothing unaccounted for. (I considered naming this “Audacity” instead.)

By Vehemence, I mean the energy or urgency with which one formulates ones insights, and the tenacity or faithfulness with which one pursues them, even at the risk of hyperbole. This is the philosophical analogue of the old virtue Courage. The thinker that comes to mind here first is Levinas, but among living thinkers, I can name for instance Daniel Dennett, or Derrick Jensen, or Anthony Daniels, a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple.Vehemence does lend itself to denunciations that such critics love to make (and both Jensen and Dalrymple, I think, consider themselves cultural critics more than philosophers sensu stricto--I do). But there are quieter but no less vehement thinkers: Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, or Peter Singer. Vehemence isn’t a matter of being loud or angry; it’s a matter of drawing ones conclusions in the most stark manner. How much one values it may be a matter of taste—I happen to like it a lot, as is perhaps betrayed by my denoting it Vehemence instead of something milder like Strength or Commitment. This has nothing to do with how much one agrees with a thinker; it’s to do with how starkly they draw their ultimate consequences—how much they compel one to think what is at stake.

By Subtlety, I mean attention to detail and finesse; not mere analyticity, though I do find this characteristic in many analytic philosophers, but also nuance, a sort of feel for lived (and not just dictionary) distinctions. Douglas Hofstadter is a fine example; so too John Schellenberg. My teacher Bernard Harrison has subtlety in spades. Hilary Putnam is the contemporary thinker par excellence here. My two canonical examples are Husserl and Derrida. To some degree, one can see Subtlety and Vehemence as complimentary.

Above all, what one wants in a philosopher is Depth. Plotinus, Maximus Confessor, Spinoza, Heidegger, William Desmond. Depth is the sine qua non and the je ne sais quoi of philosophy, something beyond all the previously mentioned characteristics. In some sense a corollary of Breadth, Depth is an orientation to the hardest questions; a listening, an enormous patience. Aristotle says that philosophy begins in wonder, and I could almost say that depth is sustained wonder: an ability to be continually astonished; a humility in the face of the enormity of the mystery, and a willingness to return to it again and again. It’s the sense that one is
implicated by philosophy; that one hears the Delphic imperative γνῶθι σεαυτόν, gnothi seauton. I hardly know how to describe it; but it is unfakeable and unmistakable.

Incidentally, if I had to name the thinker who to my mind best combines all the above, I would be hard pressed. Merleau-Ponty? Patočka?

But I think I would have to say—at least in the 20th century—Paul Ricoeur. This suggests, by the way, that my Quadrivium, while essential, does not swamp the call for the Trivium. There are broader thinkers (though Ricoeur's concerns are broad), thinkers more vehement, perhaps more subtle even (though I wouldn’t want to bet on that); but Ricoeur has originality, learning, and style, and unmistakable depth.

[Addendum: brief follow-up post here.]