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

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Überrated, and Under-

Graham Harman (with some inspiration from Amazon) opened what he must've known would be a can of worms when he posed some criteria for answering the question, Who is the Most Overrated Philosopher of all time?

Harman suggests that since time has winnowed out most of the actually second-rate thinkers, the Most Overrated must be someone (a) 20th- or 21st-century (probably 20th because one needs some time to build up one's ratings); (b) someone who many people do consider to be one of the Truly Great Philosophers (i.e., not a more minor figure like Abbagnano or Eric Weil, who are not on very many short lists); and (c) not a bad philosopher, i.e., merely overrated, but not unworthy of being called a philosopher at all.

When I first read Harman's remarks about (b) above--"This sounds like a tautology"--I thought, "um, yeah." But the more I thought about it, the more it sparked another question in me that I mightn't have asked otherwise: O.K., but what if Abbagnano should be on everyone's short list? In other words, who is the Most Under-rated Philosopher?

This is, to me, a much more interesting question, precisely because I take (c) above for granted, only perhaps more strongly than Harman does. Harman, for instance, is keeping quiet on his own choice, but he has said in the past that he thinks Spinoza is somewhat overrated. (I'll get to my own guess about Harman's vote below; it's not Spinoza). My feeling is that if a lot of people value a thinker who I don't see the point of, I'm probably missing something. This doesn't make me want to go back and re-read that philosopher-- some people just don't grab you, after all. But the opposite is not true: if almost no one holds a thinker in esteem, it does not follow that the thinker is not worth reading. In fact, chances are much better, once a certain caliber of thought has been reached, that a neglected thinker will repay study than that one will be likewise rewarded by attention to the figure whose name is on everyone's lips. This is because of the inevitable fashions that blow through philosophy, which of course are precisely what makes it possible for there to be answers (although of course no single True Answer) to Harman's question.

Others have answered Harman's question, he informs us, with:


These are all fair given Harman's criteria, though I find myself shaking my head. Sartre will be back, mark my words; McDowell I don't know well enough, but my guess is that he's not over-rated; and Derrida is just someone it's currently hip to hate as it was once hip to love. I agree with Paul Ennis on this. Say what you want about him, Derrida was a genius. Maybe not the philosopher of the 20th century, the way some said. Overrated? Maybe, as he inspired sooooo many bad imitators. But the most overrated? Nowhere close.

[edit: as I finish writing this, I see Levi Bryant has posted his own position on the Überrated. I am pleased to see that he also declines to vote for Sartre, though partly for the same backhanded reasons Harman gives--that there aren't many Sartrian's around these days anyway. Bryant votes for Badiou, which one could see coming--there was a bit of a backlash against Badiou's popularity last year--but while I can again see this as an defensible opinion for an overrated thinker, it strikes me as gross hyperbole to call Badiou the most overrated (I was glad to see I wasn't the only one). However, I do like what Bryant says about his criteria for "greatness," insisting that fecundity and ability to inspire new work is of the essence. I should give some thought to this as one of the great philosophical virtues.]

My own answer to Harman's question must take issue with his point (a) above, because I think it is very possible for a thinker to have once been so highly rated that, though his name be tarnished or even forgotten by now, his "net overrating," so to speak, might well still place him ahead of any current competition. My vote--Herbert Spencer--was once esteemed one of the Great Thinkers, and was indeed possibly the most read philosopher of his day. And while Harman's criterion (c) does hold--Spencer is not wholly worthless-- a look through his work proves that in this case, the verdict of history will not be revised anytime soon.

In fact, Spencer I consider to be a thinker of far lower calibre than the philosopher I would name if I had to restrict myself to Harman's criteria. Regarding this figure (a living thinker, about whom I have written) I will hold my tongue for the present.

My guess about Harman's opinion? (I would love to be wrong about this). Ludwig Wittgenstein.

As to my counter-question--Who are (currently) the Most Underrated philosophers?--I've listed ten of my own, in no particular order, below. Note that here one can indeed go back through the ages, since it is very plausible that figures eclipsed by the twistings of history deserve a more honored place than they now enjoy.

I might revise this list before I settle upon a definitive ten, but off the top of my head, I come up with

George Santayana
Franz von Baader
Pavel Florensky
Giorgio de Santillana
Richard McKeon
Friedrich Jacobi
Rudolf Hermann Lotze
Hajime Tanabe
Alexius Meinong
Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

and one to grow on:
Franz Borkenau

I actually considered listing Alfred North Whitehead. I of course know that Whitehead's star is rising; I just don't think it's risen far enough. But it's probably risen enough that including him on a list of the currently most under-appreciated thinkers would be mistaken. With the exception of Whitehead, I'm not sure I would argue that any of my figures ought to be promoted to Most Highly Rated. I just mean that they haven't received their due.

I'd be very interested in anyone else's thoughts on this question of the under-rated.

Object-Oriented Orientalism

Fine post from Amod concerning Speculative Realism, Ayn Rand (of all people), and the permutations of philosophy in China and India. He points out that Rand positions herself as a strong critic of Kant for some of the same reasons that the Meillassoux-inspired critique does: its too-strong separation between the human mind and the world of objects. Rand felt that in conceding that the mind could not grasp "the things themselves," Kant had surrendered to the forces of irrationalism; from here, it was spitting distance to the psychologism that Frege diagnosed in Husserl's first work, for instance. Now Levi Bryant has rejoined (rightly, I think) that what Rand rejected in Kant is to a large extent what both Harman and he, in their various ways, accept: namely, that there is a rift between objects, which Kant mistook for a local phenomenon between the human mind and other objects, but which Harman has rightly universalized, restoring to all things their lonely alienation. Whereas, what Rand wants to champion against Kant is a kind of anthropocentric grandeur--just the sort of thing that Harman's Object-Oriented take wants to jettison.

These points are, as I say, fair enough. Just because you're anti-Kant, it doesn't mean you're a Speculative Realist. Rand is probably more one example of what Harman might call a
naive realist. Likewise, Bernard-Henri Lévy's recent work, De la Guerre en Philosophie, made a lot of headlines lately when it was noted that he'd cited The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant by Jean-Baptiste Botul as part of a broadside against the Sage of Konigsberg, failing to note that Botul is a nom de plume for French journalist Frédéric Pages, whose two works (there's one on Nietzsche too) under the moniker are clearly spoofs (as you might guess if you coin the correlate of, say, "Marxism" or "Darwinism" with Botul's name instead). But Lévy, while comparable to Rand in some ways, is not very close to S.R., and scoring points against him, while fun, isn't the same as making an argument against Harman or Meillassoux. (Parenthetically: What are these sorts of Sokal-farce dramas are supposed to prove, anyway? I've read quite a few reports now of Lévy's gaffe--he seems to be taking it with fairly good grace, so far--but I've found no, zero, nada, reviews of the substance of his anti-Kantian polemic [if anyone knows of one please comment]; it's as though his citation of a false name somehow invalidated his whole argument).

Back to Amod's post: the more interesting of his comparisons are with Indian and Chinese philosophy. Now I admit, I get very suspicious when great big terms like this, potentially encompassing centuries, get put on the table. "Greek" philosophy presents a very different visage if you look at Aristotle than if you look at Plotinus or at Maximus Confessor, and the same is true in reading "Chinese" thinking via Mencius or Moh Tzu or Hui Neng. As for "Indian," classical sources list various schools that are strongly divergent in premises, arguments, and conclusions. This divergence continues well into modern times (just compare Aurobindo with, say, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), and one has to back up quite far before these differences blur into a generic "subcontinental" philosophy. Amod is not making these sorts of mistakes (he clearly knows the material far better than I); I just have a nervous tic that makes me specify this when the subject is first introduced. And Amod skirts the question of differences in doctrine in a way I generally approve of: by reference to aesthetics. The typical piece of Indian art, in no matter what style, from a period of many centuries, features a human (or humanoid--it can be a divine or animal figure) in the center as an actor; the typical Chinese artwork, within the same parameters, is a landscape or some incidental scene. Amod's lesson: Indian thought, all due caveats made,
tends towards subjectivism, the valorizing of the human agent, even if the ultimate version of this subjectivism is the emptying it of all specific content; on the other hand, Chinese thought tends towards a preoccupation with objects, the mountain or the grass or the cat or the snow.

This suggests to Amod that Speculative Realism's tendency is more "Chinese" than "Indian." Bryant reads this analogy as something of a misunderstanding, and Amod, to his credit, acknowledges that he's just starting to read S.R.-ists, but I think he's closer to the mark than Bryant gives him credit for (if I'm reading Bryant rightly). Of course, Bryant is (expressly) speaking not for all in the big S.R. tent, and some of Amod's points pertain more to Brassier (in his amenability to the Churchlands' eliminativism, for instance) than to Harman. Bryant responds to Amod:

Yes and no. Remember that
for OOO there’s only one species of being: objects. The consequence that follows from this is that humans are objects too. As a result, humans can’t be excluded from ontological questions. They are every bit as interesting to the object-oriented ontologist as the relationship between, to use Harman’s favorite example, the relation between cotton and a flame.

Well, as Bryant says, "yes and no." Humans don't have anything to do with the cotton-flame relation, on Harman's account (unless they happen to witness a particular instance); this is what being an anti-correlationist means. I don't say that accepting this means we go all the way with eliminative materialism (and clearly Harman doesn't say so either), but I think it does mean that we are far more in tune with the spirit of a Chinese landscape that doesn't seem to require a viewer, than to an Indian scene turning about the center of a dancing god or warrior or princess. Bryant seems to read Amod's post as bespeaking a kind of entrenched obstacle, indeed even a correlationist obstacle, to getting where OO-thought is coming from; a tendency to always read "object" as the corollary to "subject" (= "Chinese" and "Indian," respectively):

I think Amod’s post reflects the connotations of the term “object-oriented”. Upon hearing this term the hasty reader might immediately conclude that “object-oriented” signifies the opposition of being “subject-oriented”, such that we are to be “objective” or “scientific”, as opposed to examining the human element....I believe Amod’s post is a testament to how deeply the connotations of words (like “object”) and certain oppositions (subject-object) are embedded in our metaphysical unconscious.

I read Amod quite differently, and stepping far away from the immediate context of S.R.-related debates--away from Kant and "realism" and so on--to the very different context of Asia, has helpfully reframed some of the questions for me, even if at the risk of orientalism (mine, not Amod's). By itself, Amod's post suggests to me that the indifference to the special status of the subject is more an attitude than a doctrine, and indeed--it occurs to me--might not even be capable of completely coherent formulation as doctrine. The emphasis on subjectivity or on object is, precisely, a matter of emphasis. In conjunction with Bryant's response, it suggests that OO-thought might be too glib in assuming it can shed just this dualism.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Through the Turing test, darkly.

Joe has made a couple of masterful comments that I have let languish too long.

In one, he asks: is there is difference between Kierkegaard's willing-to-be-oneself-by-grounding-oneself-in-the-transcending-power (sorry for all those hyphens, but that's S.K. in his para-Hegelian mode for you), and the plain old narcissism of humanity that seeks mirrors precisely when it should seek windows?

Everyone knows the line of Nietzsche's about the dangers of abyss-staring:

He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee. (BGE, 146)

There's a reciprocal influence between the starer and the stare-ee, Nietzsche warns. In saying this, Nietzsche is actually part of an old tradition that knowing more and more about an object brings one closer and closer to being like it. The tradition as Nietzsche would have known it is specifically Christian: the more one contemplates the goodness and the energies of God, the more one becomes like God; the more one becomes like God, the more one can contemplate. Nietzsche is constantly subverting received Christian opinion, but usually it's been filtered and diluted through generations of bourgeois mercantilism. Once in a while, however, he veers closer to the source, and often it is in connection with asceticism.

This particular ascetic assumption --subject to a host of caveats and careful distinctions which guard the doctrine of the ontological difference between Creator and creature-- is elaborated at length in the mystical writings of both Eastern and Western churches. It is certainly grounded in part in both Platonic and Aristotelian notions of contemplation (only the most obvious example being the ascent from the Cave), but these are inverted in many ways, as even the common terms mean different things for the writers of the
Philokalia than they do for the Academy. The mystical tradition includes specific practices (a simple instance might be the Prayer of the Heart, which probably got its most press from the late, great J.D. Salinger in Franny & Zooey), but the bulk of the tradition concerns attention to ones own spiritual struggles in the moment-to-moment course of life, and devotion to the transcendent source of goodness that makes our aspirations possible.

My counter-suggestion to Joe would be that there is no pure window, and there is no mirror, though it may be that a mirror is what humankind often hankers for. One becomes like what one contemplates, and one makes what one contemplates into the bearers of ones own image.

Graham Harman has argued strongly in the opposite direction, insisting that his reworking of the Kantian noumenon/phenomenon split, his claim that real objects "withdraw" each other while their phenomenal counterparts present themselves, is a variation on the distinction between being and knowing:

is made up of qualities approached directly or obliquely from the outside, while reality consists in simply being something. Knowing one trillion facts about a black hole does not turn you into a black hole. And that’s the point of withdrawal. It’s not about epistemological barriers to total knowledge, but about the absolute gap or incommensurability between being a thing and merely knowing it.

The difference between "likeness" and "identity" is pretty basic, one might think, but easily let slip. Harman is right: one does not encounter crystalline gemologists or completely abstract mathematicians orindeed even silicon-based neural-nets espousing strong A.I. (Yet). The Athonite monk would agree. This spiritual tradition does not balk even at speaking of the deification of the human person (and indeed of the world), but always, always, with a distinction between the divine essence, which is always unknown and infinitely beyond knowing or experiencing, and the divine energies, no less infinite, which are expressly said to be experienced and participated in by the blessed saint, to the point of saying that the saint experiences theosis, deification. (The essence/energies distinction is a theological point that, like most, has been contentious (see especially the comments to that link), and not everyone accepts the language; it's a sticking point between Rome and the Orthodox, for instance. But there is always some language that preserves the difference between God's mode of being and the mode of participation by the human).

The context of spiritual askesis may all seem very rarefied, so here is a more down-to-earth example:

Jaron Lanier, who I mentioned a while ago, notes that the Turing Test can be "passed" by a computer in two different ways. The "test," proposed by and named after that tragic and brilliant figure Alan Turing, is that a human being must be unable to discern the difference between a human being and a computer in conversation for an arbitrarily long time. One way for this to happen is for the machine to become more and more human-like. This is of course the sense meant by most adherents to the "strong A.I" thesis. But, says Lanier, there's another way for machines to pass the Turing Test: the human being doing the "testing" can become more machine-like. This, Lanier suggests, is the shadow-side of the A.I. program. The assumption has been that human beings would stay more or less constant while machines "caught up," and eventually surpassed them. Lanier suggests that this is, in some sense, naive. Spend enough time with machines, and thinking of them as models for the human person, making them your mirror, and you start to elide the differences between humans and machines. He doesn't mean you'll sprout wires or implants (though read Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, for some speculations on this score, among other things), but he does suggest that in subtle but important ways it shapes how you think. And how you think is a great measure of who you are.

This is also an underlying intuition of the philosophical tradition, which began as an unapologetic pedagogy. And within the ascetic and mystical tradition, one might even call it an empirical observation, since the tradition is so fraught with careful commentary on the mechanics of the soul. Of course the counter-examples are close at hand: the religious hypocrites, the weak- or uncommitted, those for whom such contemplation was never an engagement but always-- unbeknownst even from themselves-- a way of hiding from life.

This is a side-issue--I don't wish primarily to defend spirituality's relevance, but to assume it--but it deserves addressing. Bad monks and pseudo-believers and religious self-congratulators there may be, but this does not in itself invalidate the ascetic intuition. The tradition knows them very well. Most of the literature of any great spiritual tradition is aimed at people who are already committed to it to one degree or another, and it is explicit that greater snares await you on the inside than outside. To this strain of spiritual writing, the apotheosis of evil is not the raging of Milton's Satan proudly defying God; it's the self-deceived soul that has perfected the simulacrum of good, that indeed
believes itself devoted to good, that says nothing but "goodness," and always means "me." (This is for instance how Soloyvov writes about the Antichrist). In contrast to this, Milton's dark egoist is a breath of fresh air. This should serve notice that an ascetic tradition like monastic Christianity (e.g. Carmelite spirituality in the west, and of Athonite monasticism in the east) is not naive about this "becoming like" ones object of contemplation.

Nor should we be. In his essay "On the Teaching of Modern Literature," in which Trilling discusses his experience in the classroom:

I asked them to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: "Interesting, am I not? And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom. Have it well in mind that a knowledge of me contributes materially to your being whole, or well-rounded, men." (in Trilling, Beyond Culture: essays on literature and learning, ch 1).

This says loads about the commodification of culture and even commodification of the abyss; but it does not mean that those who gaze thus do not become monsters; there is also such thing as an abyss of shallowness.

Lanier worries that it is we who are passing the Turing test, and he sees the possible future as very different from the starry-eyed expectations of uploadable culture one hears from Ray Kurzweil, who really does anticipate not just Intelligent, but Spiritual Machines any day now, and The Machine of Forster's story (only truly beneficent this time) the day after that. What interests me most is neither the specifics of Kurzweil's (possibly fringe, possibly not) predictions, nor Lanier's naysaying, but the fact that for both of them, "ideas have consequences." This is, I take it, what is at issue in Joe's and my dispute. Declarations of the Kali Yuga are cheap, but one might be forgiven for seeing our age, more than a half century after Trilling wrote, as approaching a kind of perfection of the pseudo-abyss.

patience, will, and limit

I closed last post noting that Wittgenstein said that we run up against the limits of language, and said in comment:

There’s something in this (very ancient, and in a way Socratic) language of struggle that bears reflection. The violence of the metaphor needs to balanced against the more patient connotations of the careful attention (also Socratic) needed to help us trace these limit of thought in ever-finer (fractal) detail. But both are needed, and needed, I would say, both by reason and by faith.

faith I mean, here, simply the assertion or stipulation of unprovable claims, such as dy0genes remarked upon when he said that the notion that there are limits to thought is itself a religious assertion. For the moment, I won't distinguish in any other ways amongst differing unprovable assertions, but of course I don't hold that there are no relevant distinctions.

It strikes me that there's a kind of urgency, a will-to-power, to this talk of "running up against;" it's very close to what Plato calls eros. And both reason and faith, in the sense I'm using it here, require this urgency, this commitment--what the Existentialists used to call engagement.

On the other hand, both reason and faith also require a kind of patience, an attention that pays heed to however things comport themselves, even to the mere thusness of things.
(Malebranche says that attention is "the natural prayer of the soul.")

This attention is harder to see in reason and faith at once; the more one sees it in one, the easier prejudice intrudes to obscure it in the other. If one sees reason as patient, one might be inclined to see faith as merely presumptuous and over-reaching. Conversely, if one sees faith as patient, it's reason that looks like a universal solvent eating away at everything.

I trust I do not need to belabor the point that both of these are caricatures. The scientist sorting through the data, the legal scholar weighing evidence and precedents, are models of patience and attuned listening that an aspiring monastic might envy. So too the painter wholly absorbed in the dialogue between scene and canvas, or the musician finding the way the melody leads. The eros of will, striving unattainably to know the in-itself, always finds its real purchase on things in the attention to what-is-there.

That this is so whether our mode of engagement is reason, or faith, suggests a kind of foursquare array: there is an outward-directed and vehement faith, indefatigable in its efforts to take the kingdom of heaven by force; there is a calm and receptive faith that patiently sits with the moment-by-moment flux of experience; there is an outward-directed reason that brooks no competition; there is a meticulous reason that weighs suspended judgment against the accumulated testimony of data and canons of prudence.

My point is not that faith, in whichever mode, posits the idea of "limits to thought" and reason in whichever mode refuses to countenance them. Both faith and reason think. Each of them encounters the limit; and each of them responds both ways--repeatedly running up against it, as if to batter it down; and patiently, carefully, meticulously, thinking as close as it can to it. The closer they get to it, the more pronounced their similarity and their difference; the more they become mirror images of each other (and mirror-images are not merely the same). One might say that only on the other side of the limit do they become "one." But to say this is already to overstep.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Where are the limits?

The always-provocative dy0genes writes:

I get the feeling that what [Speculative Realists] are reacting to is the assertion that there *is* a limit to thought. That is a very different thing than [making] the assertion that there *isn't*, which is not what I'm taking them to do. I take part of the purpose of this anti-Kantian critique to be the desire to re-draw the boundary between religion and reason. The assertion that mind/reason has limits which it cannot cross is an unprovable intuition, ie a religious thought. It violates the scientific method, which of course can only disprove things and let stand what cannot be dispelled. I suspect that this intuition is *correct* at some level, but don't want to be told, a priori, at what level it is so. I think the project at hand is to make a "critique of pure religion" which reduces the religious sentiment (and other psychological states) to a material foundation, one that can be *managed*. Kant created a space for religion safe from the ravages of an uncontrolled reason, now we need to create a space for modernity safe from radical religion.

This comment nicely snaps a few things into focus. This post are some reflections on it, informed by a trio of distinctions: that of the "limits of thinking" and what lies on either side of these alleged limits; the Non-Overlapping Magisteria invoked by Stephen Jay Gould; and the Problem/Mystery distinction coined by Gabriel Marcel.

First: "part of the purpose of this anti-Kantian critique [is] to re-draw the boundary between religion and reason."

Yes, the fundamental issue here, as always in philosophy, is the religious issue. I am not a Straussian, but I agree with Strauss that quid sit deus? is the philosophical question. Meillassoux’s project is obviously oriented by it; though we have only seen a few hints of it so far, his “Spectral Dilemma” essay and certain parts of After Finitude make this clear. Brassier is frank about his hostility to philosophy serving as a “sop for human self-esteem” and it is not hard to see Nihil Unbound as an overtly anti-religious book. Interestingly, Harman diagnoses both of these figures—I think convincingly—as really correlationists in a sense.

Second: “The assertion that mind/reason has limits which it cannot cross is an unprovable intuition, ie a religious thought.” Yes again. “Limits to thought”-talk derives ultimately from Kant, but most of its currency in contemporary philosophy derives from Ludwig Wittgenstein; and Wittgenstein would certainly have said that such limits cannot be proved, but only shown. The “religiousness” of the intuition is more overt in the Tractatus, but I think a case can be made for reading Wittgenstein as a religious thinker in some sense (the sense relevant here) his life through, especially from the notebook entries collected in Culture and Value. Norman Malcolm tried to make such a case in Wittgenstein: A Religious Point of View? (see a review here) and, aside from some exegetical quibbles and emphasis, I think he is right.

Third: “I suspect that this intuition is *correct* at some level, but don't want to be told, a priori, at what level it is so.” Again, I think Wittgenstein would agree; he would have tried to show that scientific method always does work within these limits, but would have insisted upon the hopelessness of trying to say, “and here is the limit itself,” in part because of the very limit. Problem is, of course, that any talk of such limits makes them into ostensible objects. This is why LW insisted that such talk was really nonsense. But he does not take as dim a view of such nonsense as some; he seemed to think it was a valid and valuable way of engaging with the mystery of things. I am with him on this, but of course given pause by some of the nonsense anyway, especially nonsense not seen as such. (And it’s very hard to see it as such and still see it as “valid and valuable”—this is a fine balancing act).

I see the issue of discerning such limits in much the way that I see the issue of so-called “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA for short,) as Steven Jay Gould called his attempted solution to the science-religion quarrel: science and religion address wholly different realms and phenomena, so as long as we are clear about which phenomenon belongs where, there cannot be any conflict between them. Science addresses matters of fact and natural law; religion addresses questions of ethics and existential meaning. Between these is a contested border, but ideally, the "Magisteria" (the word is the Roman Catholic term for the authority to teach doctrine) of science does not overlap with that of religion.

“Limit” is a spatial and cartographic metaphor, as is the notion of
“overlapping” territories. On Amod's blog, I ventured that the boundaries of such Magisteria can indeed be seen as non-overlapping, but fractal. So too, in the case of “limits to thought,” if we can run with the cartographic metaphor: seeing the limits as fractal means that in one sense they are “locatable;” but they cannot be precisely located, in the mathematical sense, at all.

Gould’s "Magisteria" are objects of a lot of contesting, and sometimes rightly; Amod has laid out some objections here. But thinking of their borders as “fractal” can perhaps lead the discussion forward, because it makes possible to imagine fine-tuning the distinction between one Magisterium and another indefinitely. My sense is that some version of this account can help us to navigate the conditions where, as Graham Priest argues, contradictions can be countenanced
—where, that is, one might have a genuine case for a dialethism. (As I mentioned last post, Averroes and his Medieval followers seemed to hold that one such case was precisely between religion and science, or, as they put it, theology and philosophy). When you find a contradiction that feels like it matters—and this is a matter of judgment—one choice is to treat it as a spot on the fractal boundary where a ‘higher resolution’ would be of benefit. Interesting discussions proliferate the more thickly the more complex the “resolution” of the boundary gets. However, Wittgenstein’s “limits” are different than the borders between Magisteria. A Magisterium has (per hypothesis) actual content, whereas LW would say that in some sense the discourse of Ethics and Aesthetics is, strictly speaking, meaningless. Ethics can only show. It can say, “Thou shalt not commit murder,” but not “because thy intended victim is an End in Herself,” or “because doing so will decrease the net happiness of the world,” or any other such rationale. And, LW would perhaps say, the “Thou shalt not” only shows the ethical imperative. (This is similar to and decisively different from the emotivist critique that claims that such imperatives amount to saying "I disapprove of murder," in precisely the same way that the sophist is similar to and decisively different from the philosopher).

I am quite sympathetic to the spirit of Wittgenstein’s claim; there is a sense in which, as he says in the Investigations, “Explanations come to an end,” that one reaches a point at which “one’s spade is turned.” This is usually read epistemologically, because LW speaks in terms of explanations. But I would argue that there’s a relevant ontological dimension here as well. It is more fruitful, I think, to see either “limits of thinking” or Magisteria, not primarily in terms of “science” and “religion,” (terms I think are of definite but limited usefulness), but rather what Gabriel Marcel called, respectively, “problems” and “mysteries.”

A problem is an inquiry with an answer, either real or imaginable. But a mystery is an inquiry which involves the inquirer in the act of inquiry, to “answer” which would require a position outside the inquiry. Thus: Is there a cure for cancer? Is a question that can be asked and answered, in principle; whereas Am I free or determined? cannot be answered in the same fashion, since my freedom or determinedness is already at work in the inquiry. Of a mystery, Marcel says it is a question “that encroaches upon its own data.” It thus matters who is asking, in a way that is not true of a problem; the reality of cold fusion or of a conspiracy behind Abraham Lincoln’s assassination might be enormously important to a researcher, but in principle the answer does not change depending upon who asks. Such is not the case with a mystery like Should I tell the truth now? or Who would I have been if I had not married him? Marcel says that the problematic is addressed only to “part” of the person, whereas the mystery, by implication, addresses the person as a whole.

(Parenthetically: I should say that it is not just the first-person pronoun which makes a Mystery. A question like Do trees have standing? can just as easily be a mystery, or at the very least bear or depend upon considerations that are, in Marcel’s sense, “mysterious.” What is the case is that a mystery always has implications for the practice of the questioner. Now this might seem very anthropocentric and out of place in a discussion of Object-oriented philosophy; but that remains to be seen. What is certain is that a mystery involves the “asker”. It is thus very like Heidegger’s existenz, the way of being of that entity for which Being is an issue. Heidegger says that a stone has no world, and an animal is “poor in world;” only Dasein, he says, has a world in the full sense. But the fact that Heidegger says
Dasein and not “human beings” is more significant than is usually seen. This side-issue is hugely important, but to say more here would make this post as sprawling as the last one. I’m only concerned at this point to deny—without defending the denial—that the problem/mystery distinction is irreducibly either epistemological or correlationist).

dy0genes: “I think the project at hand is to make a "critique of pure religion" which reduces the religious sentiment (and other psychological states) to a material foundation, one that can be *managed*.” There is certainly a project like this underway, and SR is certainly making room for it. I am far from disparaging this project, though the verb “managed” might give ones eyebrows a rise and call up shades of Brave New World. The questions about what brain states are involved in a certain state of religious transport, for instance, or whether (as Richard Dawkins asserts) religion is just a memetic virus, are legitimate. The trick, as I see it, is to preserve the legitimacy of the category mystery in the face of these legitimate problems…

...without, however, using “mystery” as a way of defending oneself from having to engage the problems. To cry “Mystery!” when confronted by an uncomfortable-making implication of reason is to refuse, not engage, philosophy; what’s more, it debases the very status of the mystery; it amounts to using the term “mystery” as a move in negotiating a problem. Rather, one must get as uncomfortable as possible. That’s how one stays engaged. Wittgenstein did not simply say, with a shrug, “ah well, limits of reason, you know,” when confronted by a matter of ethics. He said that we run up against these limits.

There’s something in this (very ancient, and in a way Socratic) language of struggle that bears reflection. The violence of the metaphor needs to balanced against the more patient connotations of the careful attention (also Socratic) needed to help us trace these limit of thought in ever-finer (fractal) detail. But both are needed, and needed, I would say, both by reason and by faith. More on this next post.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Thoughts on [at least] Two Truths & a Lie

There's a party game called Two Truths & a Lie; each person takes a turn & tells-- well, you can probably figure that part out-- and the others have to guess which is which. Perfect theme for this long post on dialethism and esotericism. (Long and somewhat disjointed; I'm posting it to keep track of a few intuitions which may or may not turn out to be well-founded.)

Amod's blog Love of All Wisdom is a blog after my own heart. Generous and rigorous, and catholic (small-'c' catholic) in interests. Recently Amod has been reading Graham Priest, whose thought also figured lately in a discussion over at Jon Cogburn's blog about skepticism and pantheism. Priest has made some interesting arguments for rehabilitating dialethism (the link is to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article by Priest), which as the name suggests is a "two-truth" theory, or the notion that there can be true contradictions. Amod's recent post makes a distinction between Priest's version, which is largely a dialethism of signs (propositions are the sorts of things that can contradict each other), and a dialethism like that of Hegel, who, he argues, sees contradictions as inhering in reality, in "the things themselves." Amod traces (or at least, relates) this to a difference between seeing the sentence, or the thing, as the primary truth-bearer. As an instance of the latter, he offers Augustine, according to MacIntyre:

for Augustine it is in terms of the relationships neither of statements nor of minds that truth is to be primarily characterized and understood. “Veritas,” a noun naming a substance, is a more fundamental expression than “verum,” an attribute of things, and the truth or falsity of statements is a tertiary matter. To speak truly is to speak of things as they really and truly are; and things really and truly are in virtue only of their relationship to veritas. So where Aristotle locates truth in the relationship of the mind to its objects, Augustine locates it in the source of the relationship of finite objects to that truth which is God. (Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, p. 110)

I have at least two responses to this citation. First is a desire to preemptively ward off an attack, which (I imagine) takes some such form as: "Truth as a noun, that's at least half the trouble." A comment from Alf is a fair example of what I have in mind here:

Yes, we are able to "show" that abstraction is possible--and yes, we do it by *using* abstractions.
Any time you use language at all, you make concepts out of a reality that isn't a concept at all (as Nietzsche enjoyed pointing out), but you easily *naturalize* this conception-making and mistake it for the real (a la Heidegger's "Age of the World Picture"). I see this approach as necessary to get along in the world (or indeed, to have any "world" as opposed to undifferentiated flux) at all! But it's a strategic fiction, a useful lie that we tell ourselves to give ourselves the comfort of predictability. We nominalize flows to think we grasp them. Our God is a noun--and I find that suspicious.

In the first half of this comment Alf is agreeing with me about the necessity of abstractions; in the second half, he's qualifying that agreement. Now Alf says "God," not "Truth;" but it's the suspicion of the noun that I want to analyze. Graham Harman blogged just yesterday:

much of contemporary philosophy is still too obsessed with the specter of the rock-hard, eternal substances of so-called “naive realism.” ....the intellectual establishment is now made up of millions of people who denounce essence and substance and praise difference and becoming.

(This in response to a fine post of Steve Shaviro's)

Now I am on record as being very sympathetic to a number of positions that are often yoked with emphasis on becoming and difference; the philosopher with whom I am most in resonance from the 20th century is Emmanuel Levinas, whose advocacy for difference could fairly be said to be hyperbolic. But Levinas is very different from Deleuze. In any case, I agree with Harman that an aversion to "naive realism" has a deleterious effect on thought. Nor is it just a matter of being in the in-crowd.

However (my second reaction), the sort of noun that MacIntyre means in characterizing Augustine's thought is not a noun like rock or fish, nor like crowd or explosion; nor even like substance or thought, though these are closer. Augustine's Veritas is that in which the true, i.e., real, thing, participates in. We might well demur from sharing this way of thinking, assuming we are confident of knowing what Augustine means. But I think we critique his meaning at our peril. As Alf writes, using the Wittgensteinian terms, we "show" that abstraction is possible by using abstractions. For Alf, I think (he'll correct me if I'm wrong) this is a necessity--one might almost say, a necessary evil. I see it as much more ontologically indicative. Wittgenstein suggests that it brings us close to a limit of what we can say, because language cannot model its own functioning from outside. I see this not as a mere epistemological limit, but an ontological feature of reality's self-disclosure. Priest also argues that there are limits to thought, but that there are ways of edging past them (e.g., "showing" not saying); and this seems to be where Amod goes as well.

This is one place where I think I part company with most of the SR and OOO theorists, but I would love to know for sure. The Speculative Realists' punching-bag "correlationism" is supposed to be the idea that you can't think what is outside thought. Sounds like a tautology, almost. Meillassoux in particular opposes it because it licenses all sorts of nonsense-- in fact, he implies, any nonsense at all; it precisely "makes room for faith," as Kant said. Interestingly, this is just what many opponents of dialethism say: approve contradictions, and anything at all can follow. Amod's first post on the subject does a good job of outlining why Priest thinks this particular spectre is, well, spectral. My question, then, is can the defense of the sort of dialethism Amod suggests Hegel held to-- contradictions inhering in reality, not just in sentences (which as MacIntyre notes, were tertiary for Augustine)-- be used to defend the "limits of thought" argument from Meillassoux's objections? Recently Paul Ennis at anotherheideggerblog answered a query of mine (in the aforementioned discussion on Jon Cognburn's blog) with a sketch of defense of Hegel from the charge of correlationism. In certain moods I'm beginning to wonder whether we always even need a defense.

One last point about dialethism: when the teachings of Averroes were condemned in 1277 one of the accusations against the professors at the Univeristy of Paris who were the targets was that they taught that there were two truths, a philosophical truth and a theological or religious truth. This dialethism was of course different from either Priest's or Hegel's... or was it? It's seriously debated as to just what is meant by the condemnation's reference to "two truths", but even allowing for the archbishop's missing the finer points of Siger of Brabant's thinking, it's quite clear that Averroism plays a significant role in the esotericism that runs through Medieval and Renaissance philosophy, via Spinoza and Lessing, all the way to the Nietzsche.

In this connection I want to point to another blog discussion that I read on Traxus' American Stranger blog, this one from two years ago. The comments eventually degenerate into one of the most depressing flame-wars I've ever seen, so I link to it with reservations, but the bad stuff doesn't hit until about halfway or more through the 159 comments, and the debate between the Balzacian "Le Colonel Chabert" and "Martin" is quite interesting for a while, in particular Chabert's hunches about Meillassoux's esoteric intentions: "He seem purposefully to provoke certain responses from his heideggerian colleagues while all the while posing as sort of gleaming eyed and quite convinced he will be able to overcome them with his “demonstration” of their “error”."

and again: "the effort to sideline ideology is dramatised; he says, you can’t confront this product as ideology, you have to take it as the product of disinterested rationality and judge it as such and refute it according to accepted scientific procedures. So, he does. He refutes it. The refutation is irresistible! But, everyone nonetheless resists it. The procedures and criteria of proof it turns out are not accepted here in this environment. This, then, the irrational, post-refutation, obstinate clinging to the refuted product of disinterested rationality, to the product that is shown (according to criteria borrowed from another discipline) to be in error…can this too be dealt with without consideration of ideology? This is where Meillassoux takes us; that’s the situation he has created at the moment."

And last: "I think his actual intention is to accomplish what critical theory attempted, but dramatically and theatrically. . ...the result is not to dismiss kant and everything after as silly or to reduce the stature of that work – rather the stature is raised or at least bolstered against its tendency to decline. The result is the construction of an inescapable wedding of two kinds of levels of posture, and an exercise in inhabiting them simultaneously –.....Meillassoux’ non-polemic, his theatrical, shows that these are not in fact the antagonists of importance – the battle is between Reason and Authority, between Science and The Inquisition.

This reads like Chabert thinks Meillassoux is staging a kind of intervention meant to show something that he isn't saying. I don't know what I think of this, but it just goes to show that the notion of the esoteric in philosophy is not only the prerogative of Straussians.

(O.K., the post turned out to be even more disjointed than I expected).

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Speculative Realism as Kantian Deconstruction.

[I originally titled this "More thoughts on Speculative Realism, w/ advance apologies to Graham Harman for suggesting he might be a Kantian Deconstructionist," but that was just too over-the-top.]

I issued some promissory notes a while ago, including one for another post on Speculative Realism, dealing with some reservations I have about it. Since this is really too broad a topic, and I don’t think the pro-and-contra approach is actually very enlightening, I’m going to modify it somewhat; but I do want to start by taking back my boring fourpack presentation that I made in that post. As I re-read it, I realize that presenting a new trend in philosophy as represented, even “primarily” represented, by four or five Usual Suspects, is misleading, and, worse, lends itself to a kind of readymade canonical version that doesn’t need any help from me. Of course, no one’s getting their canonical history from me anyway, but just for the record: besides Bryant, and some others who I mentioned in my post, there are Steven Shaviro, Ian Bogost, and any number of others, some of whom will be included in a forthcoming anthology, The Speculative Turn, [ http://www.re-press.org/content/view/64/40/ ] which should give the lie to any notion of the “movement” being a unified front; and though these guys do all read each other, they are not treating anyone as honored patriarchs. So why should I? (Note: I haven't seen any previews, I'm just judging from back-&-forth in the blogosphere).

That said, while I’m thinking of a number of SRists as I write, the name I’m going to mention here most is Harman’s, because I have read him most. In fact, since I came upon Guerrilla Metaphysics, I have read and re-read it, as well as every other essay I could get; next to read is Prince of Networks. I’ve not spent so much time with a thinker since I read Badiou. I spend concerted effort on thinkers for a variety of reasons, but one reason is that they elaborate a vision that is clearly mostly right—but with something about it that bothers me, unsettles me, or leaves me itching to set it straight. (Note, not “leaves me dissatisfied”—this happens with writers too, but I don’t find it compelling, and I don’t usually go back for a second helping). I see Harman as being right, right, right, and then wrong, and I want to understand that wrong step (about which I can’t quite be articulate yet, but it has something to do with his stance on relations)—so I may over-concentrate on this and miss other things (including important things). On the other hand, I am indeed reading him in the context of this loose confederacy of S.R., so I might make an occasional mistake and mis-attribute to him a position he doesn’t hold.

One other point about Harman—he has a beautiful no-punches-pulled but completely civil online style that I deeply admire. So when I voice any critique here, while I am far from assuming he needs to care what I think, I also am fairly sure he won’t assume I’m just out to score cheap points or promote myself by attacking his well-deserved success.

One thing that puzzles me about certain S.R.ists—not just Harman—is their anti-Kantianism. It strikes me as clearly a rhetorical ploy: part of the p.r., not to say the propaganda, but certainly not an essential part of the content. For every pronouncement against Kant and his supposed anthropocentrism, you can find at least an implicit concession, not just to Kant’s status as a great thinker (Harman for instance goes out of his way point out frequently his high regard for Kant as philosopher even as he attacks the Copernican turn), but for Kant’s positions. Read the first half of Guerrilla Metaphysics, if even that, and see if you don’t find yourself thinking: but this is just Kant, pushed “all the way down.” Where for Kant the distinction is between the rational mind and the things-in-themselves, Harman radicalizes, ontologizes, the noumenon-phenomenon divide. This is so evident I don’t feel the need to argue for it very strongly. I understand that—and, I think, also why—Harman doesn’t want to make this his emphasis; but he can do his own presentations. My job is to read him and see if this helps me think. And I find that thinking of Harman as providing a strange new reading of Kant is more helpful to me than thinking of Harman making an attack on Kant. Maybe this is my own irenic strain coming out. Fine. (Shaviro also has a take on Kant a la Whitehead that is quite amenable to S.R.; Harman demurs.)

More seriously, I think there is a tendency in Harman, among other SRists, to misread Kant as a hyper-anthropocentrist. I think this is either unfair or sort of pointless. I don’t have Kant’s Anthropology here with me, but my sense is that when Kant speaks of the bounds of reason, he’s mainly got rational agents (qua rational agent) in mind, and really could not care less if we are speaking of his fellow Konigsbergians, or the Ottoman Turks, or Martians, or hyperintelligent white mice, or some Turing-test-acing Deepest Cobalt Blue Mach VII.

This is more than just an exegetical point. Harman, for instance, makes a great deal out of emphasizing that the human/world “split” is just one of an infinite number of such divides, because literally every object “encounters” everything that is not-it from across just such a chasm. The teacup holds the tea, but its “containing” of the tea, its being warmed by it, its being slightly discolored, and so on, does not remotely plumb the depths of the tea-in-itself. Well and good. So too with the laser scanning the compact disc, the electric current forcing its way through the tungsten filament, the cat playing with the mouse. But—and here is the point of my pro-kantian spin—we cannot talk to the laser, the electricity, the cat. Language is an arena in which we attempt to set up comparisons of experience. If we could understand the Martian, we would be able to compare its experience with ours. Of course, one could say that laboratories are like enormous Babelfish apparatuses, where we try to decipher the messages of cat, electricity or laser. But what I want to suggest is that Kantian “anthropocentrism” is really a symptom of being able to elide a certain difficulty in communication about experience. Doubtless this elision is problematic. One could read Quine as arguing that the difficulty in understanding the cat also obtains between Konigsbergian and Turk; Marx held that it holds between a capitalist and a worker; Derrida suggested that it holds between any two Frenchmen whatsoever, or indeed, between one Frenchman and himself. I think all of this and more is relevant. But one can read it is contradictory ways. On the one hand, it reiterates Badiou (“differences are just what there is”). On the other hand, far from undoing the “linguistic turn,” it radicalizes it; it’s not just language that always misses the referent; it’s every relation whatsoever.

American Stranger and Contaminations both have recent posts up (Contaminations has more than one) about the possibility of reading post-structuralism as Speculative Realism or vice-versa. So it's possible that this reading of S.R. is a meme that's spreading. Which probably means I'll have to change my mind about it soon.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Something there is that loves a wall

According to legend, Bodhidharma spent nine years in meditation facing a wall; even cutting off his eyelids to facilitate the long stare. (Hence his wide round eyeballs in the traditional iconography). Tea-plants sprang up where his eyelids fell.

Leonardo da Vinci also had some tricks involving wall-staring, a sort of proto-Rorschach test:

when you look at a wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of stones, if you have to devise some scene, you may discover a resemblance to various landscapes, beautified with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and hills in varied arrangement; or again you may see battles and figures in action; or strange faces and costumes, and an endless variety of objects, which you could reduce to complete and well drawn forms.

Dale Smith of Possum Ego has gone a step further, posting an interview he conducted with the southern wall of his apartment in Austin, Texas. (I just mentioned former U of Texas at Austin professor Lars Gustafsson's blog entry which also explores the in-depth lives of inanimate objects. What is it about Austin...?)

It's fanciful, but what this exercise imagines is very much in line with what I take to be the meaning of the claim in Graham Harman's Object-Oriented philosophy that the real object "recedes." The interview beautifully illustrates the effort, and the futility of the effort, to understand what it's like to be a wall--

I’m not sure what you mean exactly when you call me “Wall.” I like to think of my birth here from the moment the two-by-four studs were first erected. I mean, it wasn’t until several weeks later that the Mexicans came in with the sheetrock to set me up in the way you see me now. I remember the incessant hammering and measuring. The tape-and-flow.

--and the wall's failure to get what it's like to be a human:

I’ve seen it all. Lots of sex. Laughter. Tears. Whatever you people do. Mean things and sweet things. I quit wondering over your capacities long ago.

This is a whole new take on the Turing Test. What would it take to get you to treat a wall as conscious? When would you stop looking for the hidden speakers? When would you stop looking up psychiatrists (or exorcists) in the phone book?

Since the whole interview is of course imagined by a human being (I think) this is essentially an extended exercise in what Harman calls allusion: a way of thinking what you can't really think. In some respects I think it rather shows up the limits of allusion; whatever Smith's wall is, his "Wall" is really just Smith dressed up in plaster.

But does this count for or against Harman's point?

Thanks to the Bookslut for the link to Dale Smith's blog.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Ancient pragmatism?

di0genes writes:

your paper... left me re-thinking "Plato was a freaking genius!"

This is w/ reference to a paper on Plato according to Ernest McClain and Alain Badiou; I describe it & link to it here and it is also posted at Scribd (there's a permanent link near the top of the right column).

di0genes goes on:

what a great bridge the comparison to tuning music makes for so many difficult moments of ideal vs practical. ... I think you're probably spot on that Plato was more pragmatic than we've given him credit, who knows the Nichomachean ethics may well have been mostly Plato's all along, just fine tuned by Aristotle. The fine tuning of behavior through praxis sure sounds familiar to the approximations you describe.

I am especially glad he notes the close affinity here w/ the Nichomachean Ethics (what else is the Aristotelian doctrine of the mean but a tuning of character in relation to circumstance?) It would obviously be quite hard to square Levinas w/ Aristotle on ethics. But my deeper point in the paper was to claim that a close attention to the texture of Plato's thought, precisely as regards the manner in which he deploys mathematics, actually belies the ends to which Badiou would put it in the name of "platonism;" if we are going to salvage "truth" along platonic lines as Badiou encourages us, we must paradoxically be more pragmatic. And the first locus of this pragmatism is ethics, exactly as Levinas claims. While of course L. would not want to argue for "pragmatism" in the way it is put by James or Dewey (or Rorty), it's worth remembering that Levinas' notion of time is deeply Bergsonian, and there was deep fellow-feeling and intellectual kinship between Bergson and James. (I am more a Peircean myself, insofar as I understand Peirce, which is not something upon which I'd want to stake my reputation). And in fact, now that I think of it, I can almost see Rorty's refusal to defend his moral intuition that cruelty is to be abhorred as a kind of Levinasian move: Levinas too presents it almost as a brute fact; Rorty would simply dispense with all the phenomenological stuff about the Face of the Other; you don't need that, he'd probably say (in fact, he probably does say it somewhere) .

... getting back to the ancients always gets my blood flowing,

di0genes concludes. I couldn't agree more. There's a frank joy in thinking, a sense of open air that feels more aware both of the possibilities, and the stakes. There is a reason that Nietzsche is the only modern who comes close.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sometimes a great notion

Occasionally one finds a tool which, like a magic lens, enables one to cut through all kinds of noise and zoom right in on the essential. One such comes from Charles North's Lineups:

Wittgenstein lf
Heidegger 2b
Aristotle 1b
Kant rf
Hegel cf
Hume ss
Sartre 3b
Plotinus c
Plato p

Even if you're not a baseball fan, it should probably only take a moment for you to work this one out, and another moment for a big grin to break over your face.

Another great exercise was posted recently at An und Für Sich
: Take Amazing Grace and rewrite it according to your penseur de jour. The example in the original post is Schleiermacher, but one certainly imagine Nietzsche's "Amazing Recurrence" ("I once was resentful, but now am a yea-sayer..."), or Wittgenstein's, which would probably go "mmmm, mmmmm..." since it would of course refrain from attempting to say what can only be hummed.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

In the rubble of best-laid plans

In my comment to Joe, I mentioned his excellent review on Marx & Engels on religion, up at his LibraryThing page. This is worth reading (as are in fact all of Joe's reviews).

It came up in my mind in connection with the "Program for a System of German Idealism," variously attributed to Schelling, Hegel, or even Holderlin, which calls for, among other things, a unification of philosophy and mythology.

I was responding to a comment of Joe's on the Hayek/Keynes EconoRap video. Joe writes, "The philosophers have only blessed what was happening (or emerging) around them. So Plato did not 'make' the various Platonic Worlds (Christianity, Islam, Secular Modernity) based on Being and Knowing - he merely discovered that tendency in his times and furthered it along. Ditto Nietzsche and his World(s) of Becoming and Creating."

There's more here than just the owl of Minerva lifting off at dusk. I heartily agree that Plato and Nietzsche both (and all real philosophers in between) are responding to the pressing needs of their age and bringing to light the latent directions of their culture. But these directions are always both 'creative' and 'destructive', to use some ham-fisted terms. The most precious heritage of a culture is its means of processing the raw chaos of existence into meaning, by orienting itself to the source of order. (I might need to think through this language a bit more, but this is pretty much my position). This is more or less what Kierkegaard says in The Sickness Unto Death: in relating itself to the power that grounds it, the self relates to, and wills to be, itself.

Problem is, the cultural mediation for this relation is constantly decaying (and as you will have noticed, the question of mediation looms large for me). Quite possibly any language that is right for the job, is right only once. Eventually the wrong language needs to be swept out, precisely in order to keep access open. But those who wield the broom too often also want to upgrade to a bulldozer. Often those whose job it was to keep the language clean and to note what was ready to be thrown out have done such poor work that they would secretly be relieved if the bulldozer came through. And of course sometimes an earthquake levels the house.

Scholarship can do some of the task of pre-sorting the rubble; but we need philosophy to make a living question of what is involved, and at stake, in seeking to understand the great traditions. Of course, to really see what they saw, to make them alive again--that takes us beyond philosophy, and as Rosenzweig says, "into Life."

Incidentally, the remark by Hayek that concludes the video, "The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design," comes from his final book, The Fatal Conceit, which as The American Mind notes, was published "decades after the Keynes-Hayek debates," a summing-up of Hayek's long career of exploring the philosophy of society, science, and psychology. This sentence is a striking nutshell-sized take on why the "Program" that Hegel or Schelling or whoever it was envisioned, will never be completed.

But then, as Rabbi Tarfon said: "It is not required of you to complete the work. Nor is it permitted you to neglect it."

maybe it's a meta-message

Maybe the link will be fixed by the time anyone clicks on it here, but this really just happened. I'm sure there's a non-nefarious explanation, but it certainly gives you pause when you click on an hours-old link to Project Censored to read a story whose headline caught your eye (in this case "Theocrats, the establishment clause, religious theme schools and charter schools"), and find the message:

404 Error! Not Found Page

Sorry, the page you were looking for has either been deleted or moved. Try a search in our archive?

But like I say, I'm sure there's an explanation....

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Nihilism as ghost story

dy0genes writes, in response to my post on Speculative Realism, that he's made his way through Brassier's Nihil Unbound. I quite like the take on Brassier as telling us spooky stories around a campfire, and I think it's more than half-accurate.

I sort of got the sense that the author had gathered us around under the stars to tell us ghost stories. He seems to assume that we fear both the dark and the ghosts. In my case he's at least a little right, enough that I found it engaging.

As anyone who's done much looking into their online presence will note, there is a strong affinity between the SRists and a certain kind of terror- or horror-genre. A whole issue of Collapse was devoted to para-Lovecraftian themes. And in fact I think there is a strong affinity between nihilism, horror, and the kind of magic(k) that coalesces around these genres. This is a far more an impression than a judgment; but Reza Negarestani's blog & Cyclonopedia is just the most extreme evidence. Nihilism as a ghost story--scaring ourselves. Yes, I like it.

dy0genes mentions:

Brassier's discussion on Nietzsche's failed attempt to overcome nihilism. I must say I've always read Nietzsche for his critique and psychological insights rather than what he tried to build up. Part of me has always felt a little disappointed with "eternal return". It barely coheres as a mathematical idea much less as a deep foundation for a new philosophy. So I probably didn't take it seriously enough.

I think dy0genes puts his finger on one of those "two-kinds-of-people-in-the-world" taxonomies: there are readers of Nietzsche who are impressed by his moral genealogy, and others who are struck by the Eternal Return. Like most such schemes, this one has holes, but it would be interesting to look at the commentary N. has received through this lens.

For myself, I'm an Eternal Recurrence guy. I have learned more from Nietzsche than from many a thinker, and he probably shaped my Christianity more deeply than any sermon I've ever heard; but the thing in N. that grabbed me by the scruff of my neck was Eternal Return of the Same. I would say that I recognized myself absolutely in his description:

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence - even this spider and this moon-light between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!" Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?

To me, this is one of the ten or so scariest passages in world art and literature, up there with Yeats' "Second Coming," Schubert's "Der Erlkonig," and David Lynch's Lost Highway. Blanchot's book The Step Not Beyond, which is essentially a long gloss and meditation on this mad idea of Nietzsche's, threw me in my early 20's into the kind of malaise that one probably only encounters once or twice in one's life, at least inresponse to literature. It's all very well to say that Nietzsche was trying to spur the creation of the sort of will that could endure, and even rejoice in, the idea that the universe was an endless and meaningless grind:

Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: "You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine."

To me, the horror of it had nothing to do with an endless run of Auschwitzes and Killing Fields, or even with an endless replay of my own petty disappointments. It was just the insidious reduction of the universe to a diabolical machine, blindly putting the needle back in the groove--the idea that what seemed meaningful was just an inexplicable happening that would go on and on and on. No thrill or ecstasy or calm fulfillment could possibly, I felt, withstand the awful leveling that the Eternal Return implied. Human freedom and human creativity withered before it. Everything was reduced to an perpetuum mobile of causality.

If it doesn't grab you, probably all you can do is shrug and "hmmm" about it taking all kinds of people.

dy0genes goes on:

someplace [Nietzsche] said what was needed was a scientific Buddhism. Not until I read [Brassier's] critique did I realize that he was trying to do just that with the "creative" agenda he had set for himself.

The contradiction Brassier points out is that eternal return "exterminates all known values because it is the assertion of absolute eternal indifference, without even a "finale of nothingness" to punctuate the sequence or to distinguish between beginning or end." To my ear this sounds a lot like the emptiness that is neither born nor dies in Buddhist thought. It is all meaningless suffering. But Nietzsche posits an affirmative "redemption" by willing the world to be exactly what it is. Brassier goes on to point out that this affirmative act that "divides history in two" completely undermines the previous devaluation of eternal return (as it was intended to do) and makes the whole agenda very problematic. I think that's an interesting and well argued attack. But what struck me while reading this is how similar the moment of affirmation is to the sometimes repeated myth of the Buddha's enlightenment. Some Buddhists maintain that when enlightenment happened for the Buddha it actually happened to the whole world. Enlightenment was not only a personal experience but a cosmological one.

I don't "believe" that particular myth but I found it be an interesting parallel. It would not surprise me if Nietzsche was mindful of this parallel.

I am no Nietzsche scholar, and have not made an exhaustive study of Nietzsche's relationship to Buddhism, though this is one of the aspects of his thought that interests me. My suspicion is that it is far more interesting than the mere dismissal of "Schopenhauerian" pessimism it is usually assumed to be. In any case, Nietzsche certainly writes explicitly that he himself has divided history in two; and speaking of the murder of God, the Gay Science's madman says: "Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us---for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto."

dy0genes is right, too, that the Buddha's enlightenment is sometimes spoken of as having effected the whole universe--the power of Mara, the illusion-maker, was fundamentally broken. Of course, there were other Buddhas before Gautama (according to legend); but one can say that each time realization occurs, each time the sentient mind awakes to the truth of sunyata, in a sense this awakening is felt from one side of the universe to the other.

What this reminds the Christian of, of course, is the breaking of death by the Resurrection. This is, for the Christian, only the ne plus ultra of Revelation. In his exchange of letters with Eugen Rosenstock-Hussey, Franz Rosenzweig says regarding Revelation that it and it alone makes a "real before and after" in the world.

This can be critiqued as "magical thinking," but such claims of cosmological status for personal events chime with a profoundly liturgical mode of experience. What happens under the Bo Tree, or on this hill outside Jerusalem, or here at this altar in this church, is connected to the world, and even the meaning of the world. "Mah Nishtana?" goes the Haggadah question; "Why is this night different from all other nights?" "This is the night," the Easter exultet declares, "when first you saved our fathers: you freed the people of Israel from their slavery and led them dry-shod through the sea....This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave." Any sense of "commemoration" is here secondary to an immediate enactment, a recognition of a present reality that obtains here and now. In the same way, the Hopi elder who Jung met on the Southwest American pueblo declared that he was helping the sun across the sky; implicit in his worldview was the sense that if he did not perform his dance, something in the cosmos could fray.

It is a simple matter to declare such assertions denotatively false--the sun will not fail if the Hopi elder does not dance, and "this night" is not part of the same 24-hour period as a night in Palestine or Egypt two or three millenia ago (leaving aside any other problematic claims about what happened on those occasions). But one wonders if the great rabbis, the Church fathers, and the Hopi elders are such fools as this easy dismissal might assume. A Jungian rejoinder (and not just Jungian) might be that an assertion can be connotatively true while denotatively false. While I am not sure I would want to defend this claim in exactly this form, I am anxious to defend the spirit of it from being a mere last-ditch sorry attempt to preserve discredited beliefs.

"Preservation" is not what is at issue, as if concern for the holy was a kind of spiritual wildlife conservation. What is called for is not a chain of museums or national parks for those who would be tourists of the sacred, but a rediscovery of what it means to live a whole life in the way that the Hopi or the Aboriginal elder or the Christian monk could. "The glory of God," wrote St Irenaeus of Lyons, "is the human person fully alive." (Against Heresies, IV 7)

The word for the kind of connection--implicit in the worldview of the Hopi elder or the Aboriginal singer--between the sentient being and its cosmic context, is participation, often found in Greek as methexis or as metalepsis. This is a technical term I hope I will be able to unpack more fully in some future posts, but it derives (in philosophy) most anciently from Plato, and has featured prominently in Levy-Bruhl, Barfield, and (one reason I am interested in them), some of the thinkers connected with Radical Orthodoxy.

Nietzsche did indeed know that what was needed was a new religion, of a sort; he was attracted to and horrified by the prospect that he would be its John the Baptist. He knew that it must have some sort of relationship to Plato; he himself called it "reversed" platonism. "Scientific Buddhism" may be as good a name as any for what he would have wanted, and it is important that for him, the Eternal Return was (like "enlightenment") a kind of experience, and not just an idea. This is the matter for a good deal of reflection. But I think it worth noting that the Eternal Return, in making every moment "simultaneous" in a sense, is a kind of flattened or mechanistic cosmos but one in which one could say, in a sense "This is the night." It is a vision not of a "scientific" universe but an interpretation of the meaning of a scientific universe, a universe that preserves the denotation of "this is the night," without the connotation -- i.e., without participation.

Many would-be defenders of the sacred, many aspiring "re-enchanters," are suspicious of or resentful of science. And there is a challenge from science, but this challenge is not that science undoes the meaning of the world. Brassier is rightly impatient with the humanities' general resistance to science. I think the divide between the humanities and the sciences is a cultural rather than a spiritual rift, and will be best addressed culturally not "spiritually." (This is one reason why I consider the work of John Brockman of special significance). Indeed, from one point of view, there is nothing especially "spiritual" about the humanities.

If I agree with Brassier about anything, it is the need to overcome the allergic reaction that so many in the humanities seem to feel about science--not about particular scientific results, but about the general esprit of science. Not that I think there is nothing amiss with scientism; but the answer to this is not avoidance and retreat.

I resonate very much with Brassier's account of nihilism as opportunity, not mere impasse. But his impatient claim that "philosophers would do well to stop trying to re-enchant the world" is a view that is about as uncongenial as I can imagine to my own disposition. It is true that thinking does risk being merely ridiculous when it tries too hard to pull off something like 're-enchantment.' To some degree this ridiculousness strikes me as having something to do with Keats' disdain for poetry that "has designs upon us." I would argue that the answer to this danger of ridiculousness is finesse, not abdication. Still, for all my differences with him, I find Brassier very bracing, and I like having my opposite so clearly laid out for me, but of course the challenging thing is he's not merely my opposite. I'm certainly glad di0genes found the book worth reading. I am more inclined now to see a certain kind of fascination with nihilism as a telling of ghost stories -- a sort of Halloween of philosophers. Which does not mean, of course, that there are not some who do try to practice black magic.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Lars Gustafsson

It's been a good two or three days for finding philosophy in translation on the web. First I found a new essay by Verhoeven; and now, to my delight, Lars Gustafsson's blog. Gustafsson's meditative lyric poetry has been a paradoxical tincture of provocation and balm to me for many years, and his novels are a perfect sort of thinking-person's train reading. But his philosophy has been frustratingly difficult to get in English, and, well, my Swedish just isn't
mycket bra.

Most of his posts are, therefore, still unreadable for me, but every once in a while an English version is posted. (Just look through the archives for English titles). This one is fraught with resonance with Object-Oriented Ontology as well as, to my pleasure, the Ars Memoria of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

(See here for an interview in the Austin
Chronicle with Gustafsson, who 'til recently taught at the University of Texas there).