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

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The rote in thy brother's eye


A while ago I commented on a post of Chris Vitale's over at Networkologies, to the effect that he's right to argue that a philosophy ought to engage ethics and politics not just in the abstract but in concretely, in order to be worthy of the name. While I don't know that I share Vitale's politics in every respect, this argument that one needs to ask oneself about one's own privilege is such a given for me that I was surprised when Levi Bryant launched off from Chris's post and Archive Fire's concurring one, in a spirit of, well, mild cantankerousness. Bryant wasn't disputing their aim, but he argued that OOO is well ahead of the game as far as political engagement is concerned; in particular he was angry at what he took to be Michael's "suggesting that SR is an ivory tower discourse because it’s been developed by, well, philosophers." I cannot but agree with Levi that the embrace of online discussion by Speculative Realism is a potentially populist or meritocratic move. Such interaction as I get here is a clear sign that anyone with internet access and an ability to spell can potentially get taken seriously by people "inside the academy," and while this may not last forever, no one can deny how refreshing it is.

In the further response Ian Bogost made to Bryant (and Bryant's response back), there's a couple of moments I found very engaging and that spurred some further thoughts for me.

To start at the end: Bryant makes a distinction between what he calls "rote theory" and "theoretical practice." The latter term might smack of oxymoron, but this is a superficial reaction; it's actually a distinction well worth making. Bryant puts it in terms of psychoanalysis:
the psychoanalytic clinic is radically anti-normative and begins with each new analysand or patient on the premise that all of psychoanalysis will have to be recreated....ideally the analyst does not begin with a set of criteria or rules as to what is good for the analysand or what the outcome of analysis should be. ...the analyst aims for nothing more than that the analysand avow their (repressed) desire, even if that means ultimately rejecting that desire. The question of whether to embrace the desire or structure one’s life around the exclusion of that desire is ultimately up to the analysand.
What this means is that the symptom is simply a site of interest; it's where the action is, so to speak. Bryant then goes on to speak of a sort of ideal Marxism:
if engagement with an empirical material is simply subsuming that material under existing diagnostic categories and concepts there’s little point in writing about this material.
The critique of bad or rote psychoanalysis is similar to the critique of bad or rote Marxism. At its best, Marxism is less a theory of how the social field is structured, than a theory of how to discover how the social field is structured.... [It] does not begin with a theory of how to change the social field (a proletarian revolution, for example), but instead looks for those lines of flight within the social field where change is taking place. Finally, good Marxism does not begin with a set of predefined normative criteria as to what is good for the social field, but like the Lacanian analyst that is an advocate for the analysand’s desire, instead looks for those new sets of values and ideals that are emerging within the social field as it “thinks” through what is good for it.
I have said that philosophy has to engage the question of norms, but I don't believe that philosophy must be normative. In fact, I rather suspect that norms are a kind of shorthand for what is our practice in any case: that is, norms are descriptive rather than prescriptive. What philosophy must direct us to is what we in fact do. What in fact does motivate us. Only from here can the move to the next question--how then will we live?--be anything other than a groundless thought-experiment.

The distinction between the rote and the practical helps me to articulate a reaction I had, while reading both Bryant's earlier post and Ian Bogost's exchange in comments with David Rylance. I am quite struck by what Rylance said there:
intellectual arrogance arises ...from a refusal, first and foremost, to read for the other thinker's full intelligence, to read, that is, generously, to read a philosophy, even a political philosophy that thinks politics as ontology, for the broadest edifice of acuity
I take this to mean that in disputes about other positions' relevance, or complicity, or whatever, it really does very little good to start from the assumption that a given position cannot be relevant, cannot but be complicit, apathetic, faux-radical. That is, I take Rylance's championing of generosity to be the suggestion that we just owe it to each other to assume the best. This is a position I am largely in sympathy with. And yet.

And yet, I really do get what Bogost says when he (as I take it) expresses exasperation with a sort of assumption of radicality in the academy. Caveat lector: I speak as an outsider here; I am recalling my own undergrad days and drawing conclusions from having talked this over long and hard with many close friends who are still in universities, at different levels, but I am not myself anymore "on the inside." But really, this doesn't just apply to academics anyway; I am addressing myself in all my halfhearted middleclass leftism. What I see is not Ivory-Tower syndrome (this has always struck me as a caricature), that is, not too much thinking; it's rather a kind of substitution for thought, a shorthand for thinking which misses practice. This is what I thought of when Bogost cited colleagues saying, "well, as a Marxist, I...." and "incanting Foucault and Zizek to each other." I honestly don't know what such name-dropping means in any given instance, but I have definitely experienced moments when it struck me as posturing, as pretend radicalism-- not transparent hypocrisy mind you, but a too-easy expression of radicalism that, if it were really taken seriously, would require a serious change of one's life. Nobody's being stared down by any Archaic Torso of Apollo here, because if they were, they wouldn't be able to go and collect their paycheck with a straight face.

At worst, these sorts of moves are a kind of intellectual kitsch, the "idle talk" Heidegger denounced. "One should speak only when one must not be silent... everything else is chatter," says Nietzsche (Human, all too human, preface, Book 2). Good advice for the philosopher, advice that can't but recall for us Wittgenstein, whether early or late ("Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent," Tractatus 7; "Explanations come to an end," Investigations 1). Philosophy, I hold, has the right to speak of anything; but it can only do so by relating it to everything. (This is, among other things, my take on Latour's triple injunction: "Nothing can be reduced to anything else, nothing can be deduced from anything else, everything may be allied to everything else." ["Irreductions", Interlude 1].) This raises the spectre of philosophy terminable and interminable, of course. To navigate among discourses (which is what it is to describe a Latourian hybrid) is is to hold to none of them. When the philosopher trails off in an implicit ellipsis (since no one can relate anything to everything explicitly), this is both an instruction or rule (Wittgenstein: "go on in the same way...") and a challenge--"find the exceptions." Both of these, as well as a kind of double ne plus ultra: one of weakness (this is as far as asking for explanations gets you), and one of danger (conform to the rule, or be ready for the consequences that befall the exception). So there is, as Voegelin saw, an irreducible political dimension. When one is
hemmed in, if not oppressed, from all sides by a flood of ideological language--meaning thereby language symbols that pretend to be concepts but are in fact unanalyzed topoi...he cannot deal with the users of ideological language as partners in a discussion, but has to make them the objects of investigation. (Autobiographical reflections ch 22.)
This is putting the matter far more baldly than I am prepared to; I hold that one can indeed engage in discussion, as Socrates does with Callicles or with his accusers in Athens. In such discussions, of course, each party will accuse the other of changing their story, of equivocation, even of trickery; but Socrates has the advantage of "knowing he knows nothing," and so of having nothing to prove. He is in effect following Wittgenstein's advice:
Don't for heaven's sake be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense. (Culture and Value p 53e.)
This is simply, I take it, the auto-analysis that philosophy is, in precisely the same sense as Bryant describes psychoanalytic practice. But it goes without saying, alas, that one notices more quickly the nonsense of the other person. Voegelin's reference above, to the replacement of concepts by "unanalyzed topics," is a case in point. These set-pieces, as it were: ready-made arguments that can act as surrogates for thought. These are not unlike ideological formulae, the equivalent of "fleet-footed Achilles", as for instance sketched in Flaubert's Dictionary of Platitudes. It's like a simulation of oral culture, but grievously alienated. And these are far easier to detect as the mote in your brother's eye than as the beam in one's own.

In the face of this impression that there's some mis-match between someone's ostensible radicalism and their practice, it can be hard to muster the generosity David Rylance was referring to. Over on Jon Cogburn's blog, I said a bit ago in a comment (linked to above) about norms that "that hurts my feelings" should not be something we are ashamed to say in philosophical engagement. Well, neither should "that pisses me off royally." It is here that I find Bryant's distinction between practice and "rote" helpful. The term "rote theory" gives me a name for what I'm impatient with, and having this name helps me to distinguish it from some kind of swamping mauvais foi that I need to make sure I'm outside of and untainted by. At one and the same time, I want to (1) hold myself to a practice of generosity (Davidsonian charity) that reminds me that I just don't know that anyone in any given instance is being as rote as I think they are; (2) recognize that my recoil is a recoil from my own alienation mirrored back to me; (3) feel the recoil, and act on it: that is, call the rote what it is; and (4) re-orient myself all over again to practice: pay attention to the nonsense that I say and do.

What I mean is that having a name for what bothers me, helps me to distinguish between my impression, and the person who may or may not be really glossing over the practical. I'm reminded of an apocryphal comment sometimes attributed to Plato (though it isn't his): Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. And, one might add, this means you too.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Plato and the music of the text


Having put up two papers now where I argue that Plato (1) meant for his musico-mathematical to be taken seriously and (2) drew on a long-standing and widespread cross-cultural inheritance in using it, I should now pass on this news item arguing that (3) there's a lot more of it than we usually think.

Jay Kennedy is a professor of at the University of Manchester, whose research (some of which was just published in the journal Apeiron) has put forward an argument about Plato that will doubtless remind many of the fracas a decade and a half or so ago over the Bible Codes. Kennedy argues that Plato's dialogues are structured along mathematical and musical lines, not just in their arguments or in occasional examples, but in the very rhythm of their composition. His audacity is pretty apparent: "This is a true discovery, not simply reinterpretation," he says. He claims to have the statistics to back it up, and apparently the peer-review process at Apeiron agrees. This is worth paying attention to.

Kennedy's claim is not completely original. He notes that in antiquity, it was commonplace to read Plato with an eye and ear to what was hidden, and many neoplatonists expressly invoked music in their interpretations (see below on Thrasyllus). More recently, John Bremer has already argued in his study of the Republic that Plato divided this dialogue into 240 equal units; he found, moreover, that reading the dialogue on a particular day of the year in a particular spot near Athens puts decisive moments of the dialogue at sundown and sunrise. Big deal, you might say-- there's a lot of days in a year and a of places in the world. But the argument gets more interesting when Bremer asserts that the time and place in question is the setting for the dialogue. There is a very small taste of this argument here (some of the links from this page are now dead, however), and (alas, behind a paywall) a more full argument by Bremer himself here. (See too Bremer's Plato’s Ion: Philosophy as Performance.)

Bremer's argument is based in part on the counting of syllables and lines. This apparent finickiness looks odd to our eyes; it's easy to think of it as a dogged pursuit of evidence where there is none. But it is well justified by ancient practice. The number of lines would be one of the things the author would know, as surely as the author of a modern academic article keeps to the editor-specified word-count. Why? Because scribes, on whom the reproduction of the text depended, were paid by the line. (Message, meet the medium.) This book-keeping has preserved for us some sense of the magnitude of an ancient writer's oeuvre; Diogenes Laertius, for instance, says there were 146 works of Aristotle, and remarks that "all of them together are 445,270 lines." This practice of enumerating totals of lines is well-attested late into the Christian era; the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nicephorus, compiled a list sometime in the early years of the 9th century, which preserves for us the length, in lines, of numerous Christian writings both scriptural and post-. (Interestingly, the totals are in nice round numbers, except for "The Book of the prophet Elias" which is counted at 316 lines.) Wikipedia offers a good introduction to what we know; a more full exposition is Harris' Stichometry.

Kennedy starts with a similar premise, and pursues it further with the aid of computer programs to calculate the number of characters in a line (he uses an average of 35), and thus the total lines per any dialogue. Then he looks at the significant turns in the dialogue's plot--characters' entrances or exits, significant speeches, important themes. His results, which he considers statistically strongly indicative, are that Plato took great pains to shape his dialogues, rounding different sections to lengths that would stand in proportion to other sections in musical ratios. In particular, he finds, with remarkable regularity, the division of a dialogue into twelfths. (Socrates chides Thrasymachus: "You ask someone what twelve is, and then you forbid them to say it's twice six or three times four.") Kennedy suggests that one-twelfth is the fundamental unit in a Platonic dialogue, in part because the musical octave divides (in Pythagorean terms) into twelve semitones. Plato uses this twelve-fold scale as a scaffold for the emotional highs and lows of his argument, and paying attention to this can even give us a clue as to where authorial sympathies lie. For instance, he notes that in the Symposium, the buffoonish, the silly,or the too-simple arguments come at the most disharmonious intervals in the scale: e.g., Agathon's over-wrought rhetoric near the tritone, and Alcibiades' drunken interruptions at the note we would call Ti (a note which was left out of a good deal of medieval music, precisely because it made a tritone with the fourth). By contrast, Aristophanes' myth is by this reckoning at the fourth, and Socrates' speech begins at the fifth.

As far as I know, Kennedy does not cite Bremer, nor the interpretation of Ernest McClain which also strongly emphasizes the musical import of Plato's myths, parables and numbers, but his findings clearly intersect with their research. Kennedy also claims that this exegesis would have been far more obvious to a student closer to Plato's own day. He indeed presents a fair case that this was at least partly understood by neoplatonic readers, citing in particular Theon of Smyrna's book On the mathematics required for understanding Plato, which expressly appeals to Thrasyllus (the 1st-century editor of Plato who among other things is credited with the division of Plato's works into tetralogies) in expounding a musical scale with twelve regularly-spaced notes. As Kennedy notes, Theon's book is a compilation of a good deal of mathematical material, but not very obviously connected to Plato. It has not occurred to most readers to wonder whether the mathematics was "required" not because it was in some way presupposed by Plato (the way algebra might be "required" for pre-trig), but rather because this was the sort of mathematics Plato used to arrange, and to conceal, his meanings.

Obviously, this is an argument that intersects with Straussian exegesis (and Kennedy does indeed argue that Plato used these methods in order to protect himself). It also dovetails nicely with the claim, starting with Aristotle and repeated over the centuries, that Plato taught "secret" or "unwritten" doctrines. Depending on one's disposition, this might appeal to you or turn you off. But leaving that aside, is it even plausible? Could it be just a matter of sifting Plato long enough to find what you're looking for?

I see a few points that leave me wondering. Greek tuning systems are not the same as modern equal temperament, and I may have misunderstood some of Kennedy's arguments, but I don't quite follow all of his exposition on the way harmonic and disharmonic themes are supposed to align with analogous intervals, for instance. Occasional qualifiers like "about" and "[very] close to" raise my eyebrows. And of course the inevitable question arises--could one find this sort of pattern in, say, Aristotle, or Homer, or Aristophanes?

Kennedy does have some control cases--for instance, spurious dialogues attributed to Plato but whose authenticity is generally rejected by scholars, in which he finds no significant correlations between numbers and themes. And he presents a good deal of supporting evidence, both circumstantial and direct. At the end of the day, for all the rhetoric of "proof," I think this may come down to disposition to believe. To many, it's bound to look to many like playing with numbers and wishful thinking ("you can prove anything with statistics"), the Greek equivalent of equidistant letter-skips. (In fact, this isn't so damning in my opinion--I have no truck with accounts of supernatural influence over the precise shape of the Masoretic Text either, but I do believe the Hebrew editors and scribes were perfectly capable of laying in plenty of such "codes", and I consider a few examples quite well-enough established [amid a lot of nonsense, of course].) To others, including myself, it just sounds right. This isn't a reason to wholeheartedly endorse it, but I am certainly staying (ahem) tuned. I don't know whether Kennedy's research will re-shape the entire field of Plato scholarship, as he claims; but it matches very well what I have come to expect from Plato.

[Update: Kennedy was interviewed on PRI concerning his findings; click here to listen.]

[Update 2: Several fair points made (both enthusiastic and skeptical) in the comments on this story on Leiter Reports]

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Another (long) paper up.


I've put yet another paper of mine up at Scribd. The title is "Science as Suggestion: Cosmological & mythic intertext as background in Herodotus and Plato."

The first paper I put up was "Platonism as Praxis: the ancients and the moderns." This one, on the other hand, is pretty much just the ancients. Readers of that earlier paper will recall that I cite a good deal of Ernest McClain. McClain's read on the ancients is idiosyncratic and easily misunderstood as a kind of numerology-mongering. His argument, which I think he would characterize as not philosophical but scholarly, starts from the premise that when an ancient writer uses some hard-to-guess-at formulation, they usually aren't writing nonsense; they mean something by it, and we skip over those puzzles at our peril. (The example I usually use here is Socrates' account of the tyrant as 729 times less happy than the good man. That's 729, not 730, not 728. Pretty damn specific. So, why 729...? And once you've got an answer (in fact there are plenty of contending answers in the scholarship), does it matter? I'm betting the answer is yes.)

McClain's own specialty was music, and he painstakingly reconstructed Platonic cosmology (and not just cosmology) along musical lines; he then turned to a number of other texts (the Qur'an, the Bible, the Rg Veda, Homer) and discovered, to his own satisfaction, a similar musical grammar at work there. It needs underlining that McClain's arguments do not depend upon any difficult mathematics; he isn't always easy to follow, but the math itself is very straightforward if you take your time and don't skip over it. (I mention this because it could easily look like an obscurantist tactic that means to overwhelm you into conceding a point by throwing numbers at you, whereas McClain is adamant that in fact anyone at all can easily follow the math with a pocket calculator--it was all done with pebbles on the ground, back in the day.)

Even more worthy of emphasis: this is not a reductionist argument; Plato (or any other author McClain treats) is not being explained solely in terms of tuning theory, as if it were a pass-key to the hermeneutic Holy of Holies. I think McClain does hold that in music, for the ancients, this world and the divine intersected; that it is both a motive and expression of mathematics as such; and that amid the flux of history, the permanence of music stood as an invariant, to which one could try to afix, symbolically, what was most important. But neither music, astronomy, metrics, nor any other field of Aunciente Lore, will tell you what Plato (or the Bible, or etc., etc.) means; what they do is help you understand the language it's written in. And let's face it, when it comes to Plato we can use all the help we can get.

I find it best to read McClain in dialogue with other scholars. I tend to use John Michell, and de Santillana & von Dechend's still-indispensable Hamlet's Mill, as well as Eliade, Levi-Strauss, and Dumezil. I know very well that the first two of these raise eyebrows in some respectable circles, and the last three are all dated. (McClain frequently disagrees with them, too.) Supplement McClain with scholars of your choice if you like. The point is to read mythology and scripture, philosophy and scholarship, with a wide-angle lens, and then to focus in with the fine brushes and tweezers of specialization.

This paper is a very long one (50 pages), but it is organized--well, divided, anyway--into shorter sections. I will be fine-tuning the format of this paper, which in its current form is the product of several different word processing programs, but the content shan't be changed much unless I discover some glaring mistake--always possible, and anyone is welcome to point any error or irregularity out. And,
again as always, comments are especially welcome.

There are a couple other papers--shorter than this one but in the same line--that I need to post, but they still present some other proofing challenges.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Pantheism controversy


Kvond has put up an outline of his notes concerning the Pantheism Controversy, a spat that rocked the Berlin Enlightenment back in the day before it was cool to be an atheist. His post follows some exchange over on Perverse Egalitarianism, about a newly published Hegel collection that includes an essay by Hegel on Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi. I read a good deal on this episode a few years back, just following my nose like I always do--I had started w/ Rosenzweig, worked back through Schelling, and found my way to Jacobi, who started the whole thing by leaking word that Lessing had confessed to him in conversation, à propos a poem by Goethe, that he was a Spinozist. (Jacobi eventually came to argue that pretty much everyone who championed "reason alone" was either a Spinozist, or inconsistent, and while I wouldn't say with Kvond that this "put Spinoza on the map," it certainly put a big ol' asterisk by his name.)

The Pax Kantiana (such as it was and is) between faith and reason started here, and its cracks were already visible. We still live in these cracks.

At issue was whether one could believe in a "personal, extra-mundane God;" Jacobi said Ja, Lessing said Nein. Jacobi told Lessing he had been walking on his head, and urged him to make a salto mortale, a somersault, to land on his feet on the firm ground of faith. Lessing had demurred, smilingly excusing himself from the acrobatics of belief on account of his age. (It would be interesting to trace this figure forwards and back; who would have thought that the same trope would beget, like Jacob and Esau, both Marx's inversion of Hegel and Kierkegaard's Leap of Faith?)

Pretty much everyone who was anyone weighed in on the issue: Herder, Hamann, Goethe, Kant, and of course, Mendelssohn, who Kvond reminded me died because of hurrying to the publisher in the thick of winter without a coat, rushing his reply to Jacobi to press. It is quite amazing to see intellects of this stature battling over what Lessing said and what he meant when he said it; over whether he (or indeed anyone) had correctly understood Spinoza; over smaller things like Jacobi's breach of etiquette (he published Mendelssohn's letters without permission) and bigger things like whether rationalism led inexorably to atheism. The controversy itself was a small thing, an exchange of pamphlets; but its influence went on via Heine and Schelling and Hegel, to Kierkegaard (who it will be recalled read Lessing carefully), and a century later to Rosenzweig and Barth. Fortunately for us, it got called the "Pantheism" controversy to distinguish it from the "atheist controversies" of our own era, when the shoe is on the other foot. Whether the feet are yet on the ground is another question.

It is a pity that Jacobi, who besides the Leap of Faith also gave us the term "nihilism" and the matching of I with Thou, is not more well-known in English. There is as far as I know only one anthology of his writings translated. It is, however, a pretty generous helping. I kept it checked out of the university library for a year or so and no one ever called it back; recently I checked it out again and I think my own return date was the last one stamped. It was incredibly expensive for a while, but I see a paperback edition is available since last Sept., only $45 new!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Business as usual: critique of cynical indecision


Writing my posts lately, I've been distracted by a rant building in my mind. Like everyone else with access to the news and a rudimentary conscience, I've been brooding over the ongoing travesty that is happening on the ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico. Even tuning in, occasionally, to the live ecological snuff film B.P. is broadcasting.

Brooding? Well, sorta. More like, thinking about it off and on. In between appointments. Over coffee. While driving.

Even after all these weeks, my response is nothing like a well-proportioned argument. Nor is it, however, quite the eruption it wishes it could be. To be sure, it gears itself up. I want to thunder: Who is there who is, deep down, really surprised at this? Is there anyone, anyone at all, who thinks this wasn't bound to happen--who doesn't acknowledge that it was always, always, a question not of if, but of when.

I want to pound the table until it rattles the computer screen you're reading this on.

And yet. There's something deeply disingenuous about any such pounding. Why? Because I'm wrong? No, on the contrary, I want to say-- because I'm right. We did see it coming, or should have. There's no reason to be surprised. And, in my heart of hearts, I'm not surprised. And that's exactly why I've been driving to work, and life goes on, and somewhere at the bottom of the sea off the coast of Louisiana, a hole continues to hemorrhage petroleum, until the slick that has now risen to the surface may be seen from space.

Gradually, irrationally, inexorably, this slick has seeped into a broader context. The B.P. spill has become--for me--the latest in a parade of mortal shame, an impressionistic series of horror (impressionistic to me, the bewildered and frightened spectator, but not to the ones it is happening to). I suppose many people have such a roster. Mine includes: a Wal-Mart worker trampled to death the day after Thanksgiving by "shoppers" seeking "deals". A hooded prisoner, standing atop a crate, wires attached to him, terrified to move. Students gunned down by fellow students in high schools and colleges. Some may be able to see these each merely as separate incidents (which of course they are, particularly to those whose names are omitted here--the store clerk, the prisoner, the students), awful and perhaps mortally depressing, but not connected. I on the other hand look at such events and find myself stirred to a kind of vague paranoia, as hard to shake off as it is to defend, a sense that this is all symptomatic of something deeply festering and incredibly wrong. Something just under the surface and only occasionally (so far) rising into view, something we glimpse, shudder at, and then stop thinking about it because to really think about it would mean having to change how we live.

At times I want to say to whoever I can corner, "you don't understand! We are all implicated, submerged up to our crown chakras in this, it is not 'the bad people,' terrorists or rapists or CEOs or whoever out there, it's HERE (pointing to heart) inside us; school shootings, prison camps, and drowning polar bears are only the visible signs of something that is going on All the Time, and we all in our heart of hearts are just praying (to the god we don't believe in) that next time it won't be me, it won't be us, it won't be someone I love.
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
So, famously, Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago. I'm leaving aside the vast problem of Solzhenitsyn's own thought--how antisemitic, how naïve, how etc. etc. Let the quotation, this one paragraph (the most many people ever know of The Gulag Archipelago) stand on its own for a moment.

But another voice in my head says: What does Abu Ghraib or Columbine or Wal-Mart have to do with the B.P. disaster? You're having an emotional reaction, a knee-jerk spasm of indignation at Everything That's Wrong, but let's hope cooler heads prevail when it comes to appointing judges or directing clean-up. The claim that everything is related and that the evils are systemic in nature is easy, too easy, to make, but what does it actually mean?

Does Solzhenitsyn mean that we are all responsible? And if so, is this why I feel such inertia? Or does this inertia simply find a convenient excuse in the sentiment that "we are all to blame"? In what measure is this a valid and real insight, and in what measure is it just another word for complacency and cynicism?

Tom Junod has said it very succinctly. Writing in Esquire of the oil spill, he said:
If it was seen as a threat to our way of our life, we'd know how to respond to it.
But it's not a threat to our way of life.
It is our way of life.
This came to mind when I read Graham Harman's thoughts. Harman wrote:
even more depressing than the accident itself is the thought that it might not even prove to be a turning point– that even something this bad could give way to business as usual.
I know what Harman means, I think; the creepy, creeping sense that outrage--not merely on the part of the President but on the part of the public--has just not been commensurate with the atrocity, leads to the depressing expectation that this, too, will prove to be just another "unfortunate incident." But my conclusion is a little different. Unfortunate incidents are business as usual. What is leaking into the Gulf of Mexico is business as usual. It's not a threat to our way of life; it is our way of life.

But does this cynicism just paralyze?

There is passage from Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved that is sometimes quoted (for instance in ch. 42 of Jonathan Glover's sobering Humanity: a moral history of the twentieth century) as a contrast to Solzhenitsyn:
I do not know, and it does not interest me to know, whether in my depths there lurks a murderer, but I do know that I was a guiltless victim and I was not a murderer. I know that the murderers existed...and that to confuse them with their victims is a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation or a sinister sign of complicity; above all, it is precious service rendered (intentionally or not) to the negators of truth.
A more recent victim, just as unwavering in her insistence on the objectivity of the difference between herself and her persecutors, is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose righteous indignation--against the Islamicist bigotry she has herself endured (and still endures, as her bodyguards and death threats must every day remind her)--Paul Berman contrasts with the urbane and "slippery" accommodationism of Tariq Ramadan. I don't think much of Berman's indignation, but if we need a more current instance of the difference between the spirit of these quotes by Levi and Solzhenitsyn, one need look no further than Hirsi Ali's stern either/or, and the both/ands of her multiculturalist critics.

To be sure, Levi also acknowledged a "Gray Zone" in which even victims' and murderers' choices are not so easy to judge; he famously refused to depict war criminals as an inhuman "absolute" evil: "Such total barbarity did not exist." And, on the other hand, I think of the line Solzhenitsyn sent to a New York editor: "Remember, there is such a thing as good and evil."

That is, just as Levi, even as he distinguished between murderers and victims, could also acknowledge a blur or a complicity between them, so too Solzhenitsyn, in saying that "the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being," nonetheless insisted that there was a line.

As a kind of parenthetical observation, I want to add that this intersects with the ethical/aesthetic question I see in the issue of eternal objects. This renewed Platonism was inspired for me by Levinas, whose philosophy of encounter, his hyperbolic insistence on otherness-- "each of us is guilty for everyone before everyone, and I more than the others," as he often quotes from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov--seems in one way close in spirit (despite its insistence on guilt instead of innocence) to Primo Levi. This is because Levinas is insisting on an asymmetry in the encounter between I and Thou, an asymmetry in which ethics is irrefutably a commandment, a Thou shalt; one may disobey this command, but not evade it. On the other hand, the stress on mutual interdependence, the Buddha's pratītyasamutpāda is (in this one way) very close to Solzhenitsyn. And yet, there is a complication--for after all, one might think that the spirit of Dostoevsky's quote is closer to Solzhenitsyn in saying guilt is omnipresent. Faced with this bewildering nexus of responsibility, of questions about where I end and you begin, where my responsibility ends and B.P.'s starts--is it any wonder that cynicism looks like a refuge?

It strikes me that cynicism (in the modern, not ancient, sense) is the inversion or refusal of philosophy. And if this is so, America is the least philosophical of nations. Americans across the political "spectrum," if that's what it is, all feel this cynicism; I suspect that this is what lies behind our collective failure to snap the neck of British Petroleum. It isn't some CEO's head we should be calling for, it's the whole damn body politic. In fact, we are cynical because we're buying--we need--what they're selling. And we're not about to stop anytime soon. Not until the oil is lapping at our front door.

I know this is an "overreaction." And I reach, I fumble, for something more moderate.
Perhaps, I want to say, Solzhenitsyn can say "it was... only because of the way things worked out, that they were the executioners and we weren't"; I cannot. I don't know. And Levi can say, "I was an innocent victim and not a murderer"; I cannot. I don't know. Because it hasn't been up to me to choose. It's still hypothetical.

But it is not hypothetical. We can't be surprised. It has always been, it is still, not a question of if, but of when.

And yet, when is not the only question. It is a question of to whom. We will continue to pray that it won't be us, that it won't be someone we love. But it will be. It already is.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Eternity and objects


I have been thinking of late about the debate between theorists who see an entity as irreducibly itself, and those who claim that any entity is only insofar as it is related to other entities. When I am in a Buddhist frame of mind I tend to have a great deal of sympathy with this latter position. The Buddha's teaching of pratityasamutpada, variously translated as Mutual or [Inter]dependent [Co-]arising or Origination, asserts that everything arises and passes away as a continuous ongoing intercausal process. This teaching seems to me to be very close to claims inspired by Bradley, Whitehead, Deleuze, or Latour, to the effect that any entity just is the sum of its relations at any moment. This means that a being is not the same as it was an instant ago; that you cannot, indeed, step into a river twice, not just because the river has changed but because you have. Of course, this also means that it is nonsensical to refer to “a river,” or indeed to oneself. And to this last point, the Dharma replies, “exactly.”

This may strike some as playing fast and loose with Buddhist teachings. Stcherbatsky, whose two-volume Buddhist Logic is still a valuable work 80 years after its publication, warns that

although the Buddhist doctrine of causation has attracted the attention of scholars at the very outset of Buddhistic studies in Europe...there is perhaps no other Buddhist doctrine which has been so utterly misunderstood. (vol I, p 141).
The notion of mutual co-arising, it is sometimes asserted, has little or nothing to do with cosmology, or even ontology; it is a primarily soteriological doctrine about the occasions of suffering, and even what ontological import it has functions in the soteriological context. This is fair enough. But I think it is admissible to use the teaching in the way I am here, and certainly later Buddhist cosmology does this. (Stcherbatsky notes a number of mutations in its meaning from school to school in the course of history, and he is not alone). Amod notes the contrast between Indian Buddhism and some more modern (and indeed more Western) strands: they both assert the causal interdependence of things, but only the more recent trends tend to affirm it; for earlier Indian Buddhism, as well as other Indian schools, the chains of interdependence are all chains entailing suffering, and the ideal is to disentangle oneself from it. Amod sees this as starting to shift once “Bodhidharma goes to the East,” more or less; once Buddhism finds itself in China, in a Confucian or Taoist cultural milieu, interdependence begins to be more affirmed; the ideal becomes less the individual arhat seeking release, and more the sage learning to be in harmony with the Tao. Hence the shift is really is not all that recent; but it is certainly true that the forms of Buddhism that have caught on in the West have tended to be (if I may overgeneralize) of this sort, and not so much the Theravada; and that, in the western context, this aspect (the affirmation of interdependence—understanding it as affirming it) has been more and more stressed.

The most obvious parallel to such thinking is in ecology. Here it is easy to see how animal and plant, predator and prey, environment and climate, mutually determine each other in what seems an irreducibly complex and interdependent web. Any change in any part of this system has repercussions far away. Raise the mean temperature of the water by two degrees and the algae growth is affected; the cycle of fishes’ reproduction shifts to earlier or later in the year; migratory patterns of other animals alter. It is easy to see why, in an era of greatly heightened concern for the impact of human choices and policies on the environment, the doctrine of pratityasamutpada would seem congenial to so many.

What is notable is that this is a doctrine about genesis and corruption, as Aristotle would say. That is, about the way things come into being, and pass out of it. That is, it is about things in time. And it does not take too much of a push to construe it as an account of time, because it gives an ontological priority to change. (Note, I don’t claim this of the Buddhist doctrine itself, at least as originally formulated; I can’t really claim to understand the Indian philosophies of time). This is essentially a Nietzschean doctrine of constant flow, in which there is no such thing as identity. Indeed, for all his critique of Buddhism, Nietzsche is to some degree responsible for making the West ripe for this message. Where he succeeded in his critique was in assuring that the message would be received in the mode of affirmation: Yea-saying. Nietzsche is surprisingly close to F.H. Bradley here (or perhaps not so surprisingly, as the affinities between Nietzsche and idealism are very strong; to see them, all one really needs to do is lose the “-ism.”) Bradley does formulate a kind of doctrine of internal relations, it is true, but he also sees that this is problematic, and argues that neither external relations (which lead to an infinite regress, because the relation winds up being a third thing alongside its terms) nor internal relations (because “a relation without terms is mere verbiage”) are intelligible. Thus objects per se, and relations per se, are unintelligible; the only thing that is intelligible is the Whole. For Nietzsche, on the other hand, neither is the Whole intelligible; there is only chaos.

Leaving aside (for the moment) the question of the Whole, any more proximate object of reference is ruled strictu sensu out of bounds by this doctrine: relationalism taken to its extreme makes it impossible to say “river,” or “tree,” or (the Buddha’s point) “me,” because these are just congeries of flux. This creates problems not only for the science of ecology (which had thought to gain a metaphysical tool in this doctrine, but finds it a two-edged sword) and indeed for all science, but for ordinary discourse as well—not to mention philosophy. Indeed, it has snared us in a performative contradiction, since “particular objects of reference” cannot even exist. And this is why I think it does violence to our experience to try to speak as if relationalism were true tout court.

Yet it is indisputably true, in some sense. The ecological sciences are not just the latest form of neopagan ideology; a fish out of water is not the same as a fish in. I am indeed different than I was last year, or even an hour ago. Does it make sense to say I am "the same person"? Yes. Does it make sense to say I am different? Yes. We have to do justice to both these intuitions.

Against all of the above, Bryant and Harman have each put forward a version of “onticology” (to use Bryant’s term), championing (in my shorthand) relata over relationships. Aside from Harman’s curious occasionalist doctrine of causality, to which the following points are not unrelated (but which I won’t comment on directly here), their most famously problematic assertion is that “objects withdraw” from each other; that is, no object, as it really is, is ever encountered by any other. As I have often reiterated, this means that between any two things lies the separation Kant found between the in-itself and the phenomenon. When my fingers touch the keys on the computer keypad, there is a sensory experience in the finger and some sort of physical impact in the key, but neither finger nor key “really” meets the other. This has seemed like “a difference that doesn’t make a difference” to many commenters; Mikhail Emelianov remarked about it that it is like saying “that my toy soldiers come alive as soon as I fall asleep,” which I have to admit is about as good a line as Harman’s gloss that “the moon is made of fingers” according to correlationism. However, although I smile at the line, there is still something I think is right in Object-Oriented philosophy, by which I mean, right precisely about objects. It isn’t just that no object is ever exhausted (a la Shaviro, if I understand him correctly) by another, because there is still an indefinite amount of other relations it can enter into, in potentia, though this is a (so to speak) related point.

Chris Vitale, in a couple of recent posts at Networkologies, has put a number of good queries to Harman and to Bryant, which I won't unpack here; but I do want to note one interesting point. Vitale appeals to Whitehead (rightly, in my opinion), but he notes that Whitehead posits "eternal entities," which he thinks is unfortunate. Both Harman and Bryant have several times offered rebuttals of claims that their theories require eternal objects. Everyone seems agreed; whether it’s you or your opponents whose account might entail eternal objects, this would be a serious liability, something to be warded off. I am not so sure.

The problem seems to me to hinge on an understanding of time. I want to be careful because I don’t want to sound as if I am accusing anyone of forgetting some basic distinctions, but I look in vain in the online debate (which is where this has transpired so far) for any interpretation of eternity that would mean something than “endless time.” This is the “bad infinity” that Hegel declined. Whereas, the Platonic, Patristic, and Scholastic tradition is at one in maintaining a distinction between this sort of ever-lastingness (which we ought rightly to call sempiternal), and eternity, which is outside of time. Boethius, for instance, early in Book V of the Consolation of Philosophy:

The common judgment, then, of all creatures who live by reason [is] that God is eternal. So let us consider the nature of eternity; this will clarify both the nature of God and his way of knowing. Eternity is the complete, simultaneous and perfect having of everlasting life. This will be clear from a comparison with creatures that exist in time.
Note that while the life of God is called “everlasting,” it is possessed “simultaneously,” all at once. Boethius spells out this contrast with creaturely existence thus:

… it is one thing to progress, like the world in Plato's theory, through everlasting life; another to have embraced the whole of everlasting life in one simultaneous present.
I cite Boethius as a representative figure, between the ancients and the medievals, who underscores that this is “common judgment,” thereby, I take it, establishing that this (in his opinion) is a received feature of the philosophical tradition. Suffice it to say that, with all deference to the fine gradations scholarship loves to find, one can see this notion of eternity-as-timelessness in Parmenides, Aristotle, Philo, Plotinus, the Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, and so on.

If we refuse this (generally modern) notion of time which tends to conflate eternity with sempiternity, then the “eternal objects” of a Whitehead-inspired object-oriented philosophy offer a very different (and rather postmodern) version of the oldest philosophical tradition in the west; a tradition the renewal of which has been called for by the likes of Levinas, Strauss, Patocka, and Badiou; the tradition most often discredited, most often refuted, most often misunderstood: Platonism.

The “eternal objects” of the sort I have in mind are the aspect of any object, the “side” if you like, that faces away from us in time. Within time, things come into being and pass away; they are determined by the churning or flow of a fractal interdependent causality. But eternally, in what one might not hesitate to call the World Soul, things are themselves, alone with the alone. In a metaphysics that remains to be articulated, they are the modern or postmodern analogues of the logoi of the Stoics and of Maximus Confessor. They might be, in the spirit of the original occasionalists, the ideas of each thing in the mind of God.

Why might one want to revive such an out-of-fashion philosophy, whether Stoic or Platonist or Patristic, even with a cheering section like Levinas and Patocka? Because such a philosophy underlies the western aspirations of spiritual attainment. No less than Buddhism, no less than Nietzsche, the great ancient philosophers strove to articulate an ontology that would make sense of and (even more importantly) make possible the spiritual dimensions of human experience. I am on record as frankly seeking a route to legitimate “re-enchantment” of the world, a “second naïvete” in Ricouer’s phrase, that can be upheld in our age. Like Amod, I am a little suspicious of modern Western Buddhist attempts to forge this out of interdependence alone. Interdependence, by itself, gives us only the wheel of birth and death. Buddhism claims to articulate the way to “stop the wheel,” by truly understanding it; a way that involves the cessation of desire. But by this very token it is hard to understand how to understand the desirability of this cessation. The religions of the book offer a very different account of desire; and their theologies all presuppose Platonism (though they may also put it through the looking-glass).

The eternal object is, as it were, precisely the face of the object in the sense Levinas uses the term. In The Man who was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton (Zizek’s favorite Catholic thinker, it always seems), the protagonist attains a kind of epiphany, as though he sees into

…the mystery of the world. When I see the horrible back, I am sure the noble face is but a mask. When I see the face but for an instant, I know the back is only a jest. Bad is so bad, that we cannot but think good an accident; good is so good, that we feel certain that evil could be explained. …Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front——
Now, even a “glimpse” is forbidden according to Harman or Bryant, but I am not [yet] arguing that the “eternal object” withdraws in the same way as they do; I am unsure whether the account requires it. That is not the only way in which this rough suggestion (and that’s all it is at this point—a “speculation”) diverges from both of them. Still, I think it could be worked out, not only as coherent in itself, but as consistent with the spirit I think is motivating Speculative Realism and indeed onticology. Before one says, for instance, that good and evil have nothing to do with Harman’s way of reading readiness-to- and presence-at-hand, I remind that Harman’s call for “aesthetics as first philosophy” is an express counter-offer to Levinas’ claim that “ethics is first philosophy.” To this I add only the word of Wittgenstein, Tractatus 6.421: “Ethics and aesthetics are one.”

One might say, for shorthand: objects have souls.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The relevance of Rousseau


A while ago, when I got sidetracked by A.C. Grayling's silly dismissal of "religion" (a concept that is just plain too huge anyway, covering as it ostensibly does everything from the Dalai Lama to Ken Ham), I mentioned that the real interest of Grayling's exchange with Tzvetan Todorov lay elsewhere. The conversation is occasioned by Todorov's new book about the Enlightenment, and Todorov starts out by emphasizing the central role for him of Rousseau:
He is a very singular representative of the Enlightenment, since his point was fighting against the philosophes, the extreme of the Enlightenment. He always claimed that he had to fight on two fronts, against the fanatics on one side and atheists on the other....Rousseau is one of the most complex figures of the time and for that reason maybe one of the most fascinating for us readers and critics, because he seems at times so contradictory. But, at the same time, to blame a writer for being contradictory is an easy way out of the problem of interpretation of his thought, because probably Rousseau was brighter than me, and if I can see contradictions in this thoughts, probably he saw them just as well.
This double-front fighting is something of a motif for me, as I have mentioned before. Nor is it just a matter of steering a middle course between two extremes. Though philosophy has something in it that makes it akin to moderation, this is too negative a view of it, as though wisdom were exhausted by eschewing and avoidance. Rousseau perfectly illustrates the paradox: there is nothing merely negative about him, as if one could define him by what he was against. He was, indeed, against many things; but always in the name of a concretely articulated (though not necessarily explicit) vision of what it was to be a whole human being.

I came to Rousseau quite late, and to my shame, quite prejudiced. He has a reputation of being the father of so many excesses of our own age. A believer in "man's natural goodness," he was decisively refuted by the guillotine; and yet, his oblivious progeny had gone on to give us the 1960's. This is the received cliché on Rousseau, reinforced by even such otherwise sensible (if tendentious) critics as Camille Paglia, whose Sexual Personae takes Sade's mirthless side in one chuckle after another at Rousseau's expense. Aside from a quick walk-through of The Social Contract, this was the extent of my familiarity with Rousseau. It took me a long while to unlearn what I "knew." I wasn't that interested in the Enlightenment as a period anyway (Peter Gay's scholarship eventually helped cure me of this), and so many of Rousseau's main works all seemed so... well, novelistic. Reveries of a Solitary Walker; Emile, or, On Education; Julie, or, the New Heloise. I preferred to get my philosophical instruction "straight," as it were. So I kept the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and The Social Contract, but left more or less everything else aside, and what I did read, I read already "knowing" what it said.

Now if you've read Rousseau, you know how foolish my attitude at the time was. I can only defend myself with the lame excuse of "youth." Eventually I stumbled on Allan Bloom's essay on Rousseau's Emile, in which he called it one of the greatest philosophical masterpieces in the history of the West. I had read The Closing of the American Mind with some sympathy, though Bloom certainly seemed curmudgeonly, and I was a bit wary. But I looked in, and I saw that this was a case in which expecting great things actually helped me to see them.

In the first few pages of Emile, Rousseau says of the Republic that "[i]t is not at all a political work, as think those who judge books only by their titles. It is the most beautiful educational treatise ever written." How could it have taken me so long to get around to this? For Rousseau was clearly honing in on something essential. I had sensed for quite a while that I had not the first clue as to how to read the ancients--there was obviously more to Plato than the straw Ideas-in-the-Sky dreamer that political correctness was busy critiquing as the ursprung of all things Dead, White and Male. Here was a writer from 200 years ago telling me the same thing. I turned to Rousseau.

In fact, Emile is a phenomenally ambitious and engaging book, about everything under the sun, with always another level, another angle. Though it has a sort of story-arc, in which the eponymous main character is raised to adulthood by the narrator, calling it a "novel" is like calling the Republic a play. If Rousseau thought that Plato had concealed his pedagogy under a Utopian fantasy, he certainly learned his lesson well. It takes a great deal of attention to catch Rousseau each time he gives a clue to more going on than is on the surface. This happens all the time in Emile, because Rousseau is constantly pulling on the reader the same sorts of oblique object-lessons his narrator is foisting on Emile, taking care to lead you only so far and then letting you "draw the conclusion for yourself." But what I want to emphasize is Todorov's (correct) point, that Rousseau's struggle was twofold: on the one hand against the fanatics of "religion," and on the other, against those who believed they either could or should wage war against religion per se.

Rousseau's own vision is somewhat outlined in the story-within-a-story he nested in almost the center of Emile, the episode called "The Faith of a Savoyard Vicar." I say "somewhat," because it is a matter of considerable debate how closely the vicar's profession of faith in a sort of culturally-Christian deism matches Rousseau's own beliefs. Bloom observes in his preface that at least with regard to sexuality, Emile as a whole teaches an integration rather than the alienation such as the vicar still seems to experience. This is an important clue, for Paglia is right, despite her exaggerations, to claim that sexuality is very close to the heart of things for Rousseau. He is a Freud before Freud. No philosopher since Plato, of anything like his public standing, had been so expressly concerned with eros. It would be easy to leap to identifying Rousseau and the vicar, however, and certainly Rousseau's critics did not hesitate; it was largely because of reaction to this section of Emile that Rousseau was forced to spend the rest of his life in exile. I think this is a mistake, as I will reiterate below, but one can see how it happened.

Rousseau's vicar has given up on all metaphysical speculation, and now rests content with a simple Deism. He maintains a faith in a God who has intelligently made the universe, who loves humankind and the rest of creation, and who made humankind with free will. Human evil the vicar explains in almost the same terms as St Augustine or indeed St Paul ("the evil I would not do, that I do"), but he denies any use in petitioning God for punishment of the evil or vindication of the righteous, even in this life let alone the next; indeed he does not even know whether the soul is immortal. Though he says he believes in an afterlife as it is both comforting and not unreasonable, certainty on such questions are beyond the human scope.

Aside from this there is almost no express "theology" in Rousseau. This much, however, is almost explicitly a recapitulation of Plato's theology from Book X of the Laws: the gods exist; they care for the world; and they cannot be propitiated by men's gifts or prayers. Here again Rousseau shows himself Plato's student, and his Vicar is a kind of vicar for himself, both him and not him, as Socrates and the Athenian stranger and Parmenides are all both Plato's stand-ins and yet not Plato. The vicar happily serves in his parish and tries to help the souls under his care; he does not preach overtly against the trappings of their religion, but advises them in their worries, sufferings, and moral dilemmas, and occasionally nudges them, if they seem ready, towards his more chaste and restrained faith, a faith "within the limits of reason alone," as Kant would later reframe it.

In his recent The Stillborn God, Mark Lilla writes that Rousseau challenged Christianity
by claiming to understand Christianity's fundamental truths better than Christians themselves did. By turning attention from God to man's need for God, he laid the theological foundations for a new kind of faith that could exist within existing religions, bringing out what was true in them while protecting the faithful from dogmas that were psychologically or morally pernicious....the Vicar...explains that after his conversion to this universal moral faith...he once again could celebrate the sacraments and speak the prayers with more sincerity and respect than he ever felt before. That the particular rites and dogmas are not universal does not disturb him; one can mentally distinguish those conventions from the deeper truths they adorn. (pp 126, 129)
I submit that in his effort, Rousseau was quite successful. Not only Kant, but Hegel, Feuerbach, Jefferson, and Schleiermacher followed him. Today, whatever they maintain out loud, a tremendous number of believers are split in their own minds between a theology they think their tradition says they ought to believe, and a Rousseauian faith that accords very well with their practice. This is above all the case in America.

It is here that we might also note a difference between Plato and Rousseau. Plato's Athenian offers Deism as a public religion; Rousseau's Vicar thinks it is the inner meaning of any religion and that one can cultivate it under the auspices of any external cult. It's worth reminding ourselves that the Laws is the only non-Socratic dialogue; also, again, that the Vicar is not Rousseau. I don't pretend to know just what either Plato or Rousseau intended on this count. But I would submit that the fact that they both seem to commend deism need not be because they believe it is the final word in religious wisdom. One may well hold, instead, that it is because it is an effective tool for the cultivation of tolerance.Philosophers may well (as elsewhere in Plato) continue to speculate and indeed to strive via ascesis to ascend higher than this bland creed; but this is because philosophers do not, qua philosophers, kill each other, even when they disagree.

But Rousseau remains important not only because of what in his legacy is accomplished, but what is unfinished. His two-front war-- against religious fanatics, and against the cultured despisers of religion-- is part of what makes him relevant today, and of what makes him a vital link to the ancients. I believe he saw quite deeply into not just the methods but the motives of Plato, not in all the details of his cosmology, but in his fundamental project of salvaging what needed to be kept from the wreckage of the great upheavals in consciousness that closed the bronze age. Plato had written to try to keep open some avenues that were being lost as writing did a complete remake on the shape of human consciousness. He opposed both the rear-guard efforts to just dig in one's heels and honor the gods of the city as if nothing had happened (for something had happened, and was happening), and also the sophistic relativism which was prepared to whistle past the nihilistic graveyard, too breezily opposing nomos with physis as though one needed no answer at all to why one acted as one did. (This is the whole question that keeps Socrates preoccupied during his final hours--what is for the best?--and it is from this question that the hypothesis of the Ideas is launched).

Rousseau, likewise, sensed that a shift was underway. It was a kind of mutation in thinking, which coincided to some extent with a technological innovation (Gutenberg--we may even speculate with McLuhan about the extent to which it was brought on by Gutenberg, but that is--for these purposes--a secondary question), whose ramifications were felt above all in the relationship between faith and reason.
We are still going through this upheaval, for the Axial Age does not pass in a fortnight, and Rousseau's vision is as relevant as ever.

Another index of Rousseau's pertinence, a sign that marks his thinking as that of a genuine philosopher, is one of his most misunderstood characteristics: his optimism. Like Leibniz, who died when Rousseau was four, Rousseau is known for his belief that the world is good, and human nature, left unmeddled with, is good as well. It's this which opens him up to the belittling of his critics, who see him as sufficiently refuted by Robespierre, Stalin, Pol Pot, and any number of others who put into practice some utopian dream vaguely traceable to Rousseau's door. Clearly, in a blog post, I'm not going to defend the doctrine of the goodness of the world from every attack. All I want to do here is point out the continuity between Rousseau and his precursors--all the way back to Socrates--and his descendants, including even Nietzsche, who rarely had a kind word to say about Rousseau but whose yea-saying is Leibniz' optimism etsi deus non daretur. The question about whether or not life can be good is ancient, and one can be forgiven for coming away from the ancient tragedians shaking one's head. That the gods "kill us for their sport" was not a sentiment that originated with Shakespeare. Socrates' contention that the unexamined life was not worth living is both a counter-accusation against his jury, and a counter-claim to the pessimism of the tragic poets. (The question of the origin of ancient pagan pessimism is different; I don't assume it was primordial). To the wisdom of Silenus, which claimed that the best thing for man is not to be born, Socrates rejoins: there is a kind of life that is worth living:
I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and the unexamined life is not worth living.
Socrates did not deny that the pessimistic verdict on human life was, or seemed, often warranted. Nor did Rousseau. But something in him held to a faith (and it is a faith) that it is possible for the human race to do better than its record would lead one to suspect. This is too easily sneered at as "the myth of progress," and such a sneer just starts a back-&-forth, in which the ills of yesteryear (the Black Plague, Torquemada) are compared with those of the past hundred years and today (DDT, oil "spills" under the Gulf of Mexico, genocides), or the towering achievements of our day are held up against some prelapsarian World We Have Lost. These debates don't get us anywhere. The question of a direction to history (teleology) is a legitimate one, but it is possible to hold that things can improve without holding that they will; or indeed to hold that if they improve they will do so along such-&-such lines, but they might not.

Rousseau is indeed an ancestor of such starry-eyed hopefuls as Carl Sagan and Gene Roddenberry, who believed we can someday figure out how to get along, well enough to venture to the stars. But Rousseau believed we would attain this not by forgetting about religion but by understanding it. This understanding was twofold. On the one hand, letting go of the desire for unattainable certainty in metaphysics; on the other, letting go of an incorrigible disdain for faith. The religious urge is an inner drive of humankind, Rousseau believed, and cannot be uprooted or "critiqued" without doing violence to ourselves. Both sides of this understanding aim at finding in ourselves an appropriate humility, a humility by which, paradoxically, we would be able to do great things.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Visible and Invisible


Amod writes, about the question of depiction of God:
Protestants have tended to follow the Jewish and Muslim lead [in categorically forbidding idols]. Catholics have been a bit more slack about it, but still accept the basic principle through fine distinctions, saying they don’t worship images, but merely venerate them; even for them, it’s understood that there’s a fine line they’re walking, something a little suspicious about depicting God that needs to be defended.
The difference between “veneration” and “worship” which Amod points out is most technically spelled out in the scholastic Roman Catholic tradition, which I sometimes think never met a distinction it didn’t like. Here the distinction is between Latria, the worship one gives God alone, and Dulia, which one may give to the Saints. (True to form, the Church also distinguished a class Hyperdulia, appropriate only to the Blessed Virgin Mary). These terms predate the schism between Rome and Constantinople, but if the western church seems to have picked them up and ran with them, it may be because the Reformation put it on the defensive (Calvin, for instance, seems to have held that the terminology was more or less invented as a verbal dodge). Strictly speaking, one would say that one worships God, or venerates a saint, and does so with an image; St. Basil the Great had declared, “the honor of the image passes to the original,” and the Second Council of Nicea, in quoting him, expanded: “he who shows reverence to the image, shows reverence to the substance of Him depicted in it.” The distinctions reinforce Amod’s point that there is an understanding in Christianity that the depiction of God is problematic. In the East, incidentally, one almost never sees a depiction of the Father (those that exist are all, I think, very late -- post-Peter the Great, i.e., after "westernization" began to catch up w/ the Orthodox.)

Amod contrasts Judeo-Christian-Muslim reticence with India. In the Bhagavad Gita,
Arjuna asks to see Krishna’s true form – and Krishna agrees to show him. …Krishna’s divine form is infinite, extending in all the directions – but with infinite numbers of eyes seeing everything, infinite numbers of mouths swallowing the dead as they go to their fates, infinite crowns on his infinite heads. This divinity is physical, visible, even tangible.
What does this mean for thoughts of a God as structuring the universe, a First Explanation with metaphysical significance for the way we understand the rest of the world? YHWH precedes the physical world, stands in some sense outside it, describing himself only as “I am that I am.” Krishna, on the other hand, seems a much more physical God, a part of the world itself, a creator of standing in some sense equal with his creation.
With all due caveats about too-easy parallelism, I'd say that the Orthodox/Catholic stance is in some ways not far from the Indian (at least as Amod presents it). I don't mean that Jesus is an avatar like Krsna -- there is an analogy there, but it is easily misconstrued -- though I would say that the Incarnation (& resurrection & ascension) in Christianity really does mean that it makes sense to speak of God's body, a trope which significantly gets extended to the Eucharist and to the Church. But also in the ascetic tradition, the hesychast monks claimed (though not without occasioning controversy) to see -- with bodily eye -- the Uncreated Light, a claim that in the 12th c. occasioned the writings of St. Gregory Palamas which spelled out a theological distinction between divine essence and energies (which I had occasion to refer to before; click there to find a number of explanatory links). There is a longstanding tradition of understanding the icon of the Transfiguration as depicting this light, God made visible. (Compare: "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us...and we have seen His glory.")
He said to them, 'In truth tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.' Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. (Mark 9:1-9)
A tremendous amount could be (indeed, has been) said about this passage. Note, for instance, how it follows immediately upon the much-cited assurance that “some standing here” will see the kingdom of God come before they die; the implication of the text is that the next episode, the events on Mt. Tabor, are the fulfillment of this prophecy, which has here nothing to do with the “second coming.” Moreover, although this story might seem primarily an epiphany of Jesus himself, it is also understood, by virtue of the assumption of human nature in the Incarnation, as an epiphany about creation -- it is to the creation what epiphany is to God: a showing of what it really is (or ought to be, or will be). This is thus a curious counterpoint to the encounter Job has with the Lord in the whirlwind. There, too, theophany is a kind of cosmophany, but as Amod notes, the Old Testament contrast between God and world is quite marked, a transcendent God standing over against the created order. There is also an analogy here to the theophany Arjuna sees, but again it is not one-to-one. I almost want to say that the vision on Mt. Tabor is an intersection between the theophany of Job and that of the Bhagavad Gita. Whereas Arjuna sees what Krsna is, Peter, James, and John see what they are called to be. (The contrast and the synthesis are both a little too simple, but let it stand for now).

It will be objected that the Gospels themselves say nothing of this. There, only Peter says anything at all, and seems to be blurting out something when “he does not know what he is saying.” But I’d urge that this is one of many places where the Bible is in fact an “esoteric” text, and that one needs later “unpacking” of it in the tradition, including icons, commentary, spiritual exercises. (The text itself emphasizes, here as elsewhere, the fact that something important was shown the disciples, something not to be disclosed to others -- not yet. Indeed, I often suspect that whenever Jesus warns someone not to reveal something, this is supposed to alert us that there is something more going on -- a kind of “let the reader understand.” In any case, am in pretty close agreement with scholar Margaret Barker that the Transfiguration is a story meant to be understood in continuity and dialogue with Temple and Merkabah mysticism (as witness Moses and Elijah, the prophets associated with the Tabernacle and the Chariot). Barker’s work ranges between speculation and documentation and one does not need to buy into her every reconstruction, but in my opinion she builds a very strong case for the mystical background of Christianity (a case that seems stronger the more familiar one is with the liturgy, which is self-consciously an “ascent” into heavenly courts), and the parallels between this tradition and others -- for instance the Body of Light in Dzogchen, or (closer to hand) some Qabbalistic meditations -- are at least provocative and prima facie convincing enough to warrant a guess that they are looking to similar psycho-spiritual phenomena. Barker of course is not alone in seeing such roots, but she is more idiosyncratic in suggesting that these roots have a relevance today, without slipping into unwarranted or sloppy Newage syncretism. (Though not all syncretism is equally unwarranted, in my opinion.)

Such exercises, moreover, in their emphasis upon light, seem not to attend to what one can see (or represent), but to the principle by which one sees.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Solomon Maimon, then & finally


Over on Perverse Egalitarianism, both Shahar Ozeri and Mikhail Emelianov have posted their introductory thoughts on “Why Maimon?”, i.e., why study this particular thinker? Jon Cogburn has also given a good bibliographic overview of what scholarship is available in English, and Mikhail put on an addendum to this. My thanks to Mikhail for the invitation to respond. What follows are more or less a random host of associations that arose for me as I have started to read Maimon’s Essay on Transcendental Philosophy and some secondary literature, plus what I recall from the Autobiography. (A good online place to start are the two articles on Maimon here and here.) I’ll point out a few places where Maimon strikes me as pertinent to some contemporary discussions, offer a couple of impressionistic guesses about Maimon’s sources, and make a stab at how to understand Maimon’s own positions.

I am especially interested in Mikhail’s posing of the question of the relation of Maimon’s “critical skepticism”—surely a semi-paradoxical stance—and in Shahar’s unpacking of the Jewish/German context for Maimon, which I agree is essential for grasping him. He’s a thinker who removed himself from the Talmud and the Qabbala, but who never quite got the Talmud and the Qabbala out of himself. From his Autobiography one gets the feeling that he was always viewed a little askance, by Jews (who saw him as too assimilated, rationalistic and scientific), and by the Berlin philosophical community who saw him as too connected to Judaism despite all his declarations of reason.

One might answer the question, why read Maimon, in two ways at least. The first is historical. Maimon is usually called a link between the critical philosophy of Kant and the later speculation of Fichte, Hegel, and Schelling. This is certainly relevant to us now. Since it first appeared, Kant’s thinking has been the object of controversy, and today is unexceptional in that regard. In the wake of the idiosyncratic but increasingly influential reading of Kant provided by Meillassoux—a reading which I do think needs to be engaged, and which seems to have made an apparently permanent contribution to philosophical vocabulary with the term “correlationism” (and perhaps “Kant’s Ptolemaic counter-revolution”)—we would do well, perhaps, to go back to Kant’s earliest readers, when the debate was still fresh and not fraught with ressentiment against 200+ years of perceived Kantian ascendency.

To be sure, it could be objected, among these same contemporaries were the worst readers of Kant, who did not understand the tremendous upheaval that was taking place in their midst, and who tried to read Kant in terms of an outmoded set of concerns and concepts. Graham Harman has made just such an observation:
…the early reviews of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason…are shocking in their ability to miss the point. Reading these reviews we discover numerous reasonable criticisms of Kant that persist to this day, and even a number of discerning compliments. Yet none of the first reviewers is able to recognize the revolutionary kernel in Kant’s now idolized book. There is plenty of “critical thinking” at work in these reviews; the authors are not fools. Their chief deficiency is subtler than this—they simply overlook the surprising treasure that lies before them, and enlist Kant’s book into the existing leaden-paced trench warfare between well-known opponents that dominated their era as it does every era. Put differently: the reviews had too little capacity for surprise. (Guerrilla Metaphysics 239)
This account has a degree of justification. Many objections—and many appreciations—regarding Kant did overlook his deepest and most far-reaching moves. From our own vantage point, the philosophical scene upon which Kant arrived looks to have been divided between the rationalism of Wolff and the pietism of Thomasius. Skepticism maintained itself against both parties but was also co-opted by faith against what was seen as the over-reach of reason. In such a context, it was perhaps inevitable that Kant would be read through the lens of the pressing concerns of the day. So when he claimed to have re-invigorated rationalism, to have answered skepticism, and to have instituted a pax kantiana between faith and reason to the advantage of all parties, he was met with either enthusiasm or incredulity (depending), but not always with deep understanding, exactly because he addressed all too well the concerns of his readers, who went straight to Kant’s apparent relevance to their own worries. Thus in looking back, it behooves us to choose carefully and seek Kant’s best readers, critics as well as supporters, those who knew best the views to which Kant was responding and saw the force of his critique as well as of the objections to his solutions.

By his own testimony, Kant for a time saw Solomon Maimon as the chief of these; his now-famous first impression was that “none of my opponents has understood me and the principle question as well as Mr Maimon.” (Mikhail cites Jan Bransen’s reasonable question: was Kant just giving a polite brush-off, as encouraging as he felt seemly? I’m not sure—one could do this without the superlatives.) Until very recently, English readers could form an impression of Maimon only upon his Autobiography (which is still only partially translated), or upon secondary sources. (As I mentioned in response to Cogburn, one can now find excerpts of Maimon’s “Letters of Philaletes to Aenesidemus” in the anthology Between Kant and Hegel, trans. & ed. George di Giovanni; and the first half of Maimon’s essay “The Philosophical Language-confusion” in the anthology Metacritique: The Linguistic Assault on German Idealism, trans. & ed. Jere Paul Surber.) So the translation of Maimon’s Essay on Transcendental Philosophy is an important and welcome event. Those who brought it to us are to be thanked.

What Harman calls the missing “capacity for surprise,” in Kant’s early reviewers, I tend to see as the failure to see the problem. Mikhail gives us this short gloss of Bransen’s The Antinomy of Thought:
Maimon’s philosophical engagement with Kant shows that the latter was successful only to an extent that he presented the issues in novel terms as a philosophical problem, not to an extent that Kantian transcendental philosophy was able to provide us with a solution to this problem. The book’s main premise is that we need to rediscover the problem itself, that is to say, we need to understand the stakes and the significance of both Kantian contribution and Maimonian original reaction to it.
Plenty of Kant’s readers zoomed in on the ding-an-sich, and asked, how is this ding, an-sichly, supposed to be impacting our consciousness? The question arises because on Kant’s own account, causality itself is a form of understanding, and is not given in experience. Thus, as Jacobi pointedly put it, “without the assumption of the ‘affecting’ thing-in-itself, we cannot enter the sphere of the Critique of Reason; with it, we cannot remain.”

Maimon’s objection to Kantian dualism addresses this issue, albeit roundaboutly. He aims to give us what the thing-in-itself was meant to give—a content to human thought, a standard according to which to measure objectivity—but without the liability Jacobi points out. He therefore transplants the dualism of the mind and the thing-in-itself, a dualism in which the border runs between consciousness and world, wholly into the mind, so that the border now runs between one part of consciousness and another: sensibility, and understanding. For Maimon, the Kantian dualism between sensibility and understanding is more basic than that between phenomenon and noumenon. Maimon’s remark is:
How can the understanding subject something (the given object) to its power (to its rules) that is not in its power? In the Kantian system, namely where sensibility and intuition are two totally different sources of our cognition, this question is insoluable… on the other hand, in the Leibnizian-Wolffian system both flow from one and the same cognitive source (the difference lies only in the degree of completeness of this cognition)and so the question is easily resolved. (Essay, p38)
The difference, “the completeness of this cognition,” means (I take it) that Maimon considers these two aspects of our cognition to be, roughly, unconscious and conscious. This means that Maimon really does step pretty decisively in the direction of Idealism; and as we know, Fichte singled out Maimon as a predecessor. (So Maimon can help us grasp not only Kant, who came before him, but the German Idealism that came after.) As Samuel Hugo Bergman in The Philosophy of Solomon Maimon glosses Maimon’s point, when we experience a sensuous perception as ‘given,’ we are referring to this sense of not feeling responsible for a certain realm of our experience. I’d compare this with Pete Wolfendale’s version of Hegel, which he recently made (expressly to counter Meillassoux) in his paper on Transcendental Realism:
1) Consciousness relates itself to its object, or takes its object to be a certain way. What this means, is that it makes a claim about its object.
2) Consciousness distinguishes between its relating (or its claim) and the object as it is in itself. In essence, consciousness allows for the possibility of error.
These then have two implications:-
3) Because consciousness itself makes the distinction between its claim and the object it is about, the object cannot be truly in-itself, but must be for consciousness. This means that consciousness must have a concept of its object.
4) However, consciousness cannot be aware that the object is for-it without ceasing to be consciousness, and thus must suppress this fact. This means that consciousness cannot recognize that the concept of the object is dependent upon it, without undermining the possibility of error.
(This from Pete's page 12)
An infinite understanding would, unlike ours, perfectly coincide with its object. (We are back with Maimon here now). Maimon clearly considered the human mind finite, but even in our case, he thought, we could form a notion of what an infinite understanding would be like in a way that was more than just the negation of human fallibility. In fact, he held, even we ourselves have such understanding, in the special case of mathematics. I crib this quote (from On the Progress of Philosophy) from the translation in Socher, The Radical Enlightenment of Solomon Maimon, p 91:
God, as an infinite power of representation from all eternity thinks himself as all possible essences, that is he thinks himself as restricted in every possible way. He does not think as we do, that is, discursively; rather, his thoughts are at one and the same time presentations [of their objects]. If someone objects that we have no conception of such a style of thinking, my answer is, we do in fact have a concept of it, since we partly have this style in our possession. All mathematical objects are at the same time thought by us and exhibited as real objects through a priori construction. Thus we are in this respect similar to God.
Put this vis-a-vis Vico’s assertion, in On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians, that the mind knows only what it invents, and that the paradigm case of such invention is mathematics.
Man… does not have within himself the elements from which composite things are constituted. ...[so he] turns this fault of the mind to good use, and creates two things for himself through what is called “abstraction:” the point that can be drawn, and the unit that can be multiplied. ….By this device, he creates a kind of world of shapes and numbers which he can embrace entirely within himself. ….When the mind gathers the truths of the things it contemplates, it cannot do so except by making the truths it knows. Of course, the physicist cannot define the things themselves[;] …that is God’s right but is unlawful for man. So he defines the names themselves, and creates the point, the line, the surface following the model of God, without any substrate and as though from nothing [tamquam ex nihilo].
I have argued elsewhere that this supremacy of mathematics is a theological conclusion, and that this requires a rethinking of the philosophical re-appropriation of mathematics (in the service of post-theistic philosophy) that Badiou attempts. As is well known, Badiou (and Meillassoux after him) thinks that Cantor offers us the basis for a sort of laicized notion of Infinity, that finitude has been thematized as a kind of pathos of not-being-God. Having done with this inheritance from “romanticism,” as Badiou calls it, is a central part of this project; hence, e.g., Meillassoux’s title, After Finitude. I am looking forward to the chapters where Maimon unpacks his mathematical arguments more fully.

The analogy with Vico is a little surprising, at first. Vico is usually (e.g. by Isaiah Berlin) read as a predecessor of the counter-Enlightenment, who inspired Hamann and Herder and Jacobi. For all Maimon’s critique of Kant, it is hard to see him as a full-fledged counter-Enlightenment thinker. But if one bears in mind Vico’s attempts to forge a synthesis between the study methods of the ancients and the moderns, something of Maimon’s practice comes into focus; namely, his allegiance to his philosophical forebears, especially his famous loyalty to Maimonides (despite, as Shahar points out, his criticisms of every point of Maimonidean philosophy—including, as Maimon mentions in the Autobiography, twelve of the thirteen articles of faith).

This brings me to the other (and even better) reason to read Maimon, the non-historical reason; he’s an interesting and deep and very peculiar thinker in his own right. He’s also, incidentally, quite funny sometimes, and he had a love for learning and books that as an inveterate biblio-addict, I find quite endearing. (it is sometimes observed that his admittedly asystematic style of philosophy-as-commentary—two centuries before deconstruction made it cool—is a direct inheritance from the Talmud). The Autobiography recounts his how he once walked a hundred miles to see a book of Aristotelian philosophy; how he hid inside the synagogue all night to get access to books; how his studies of the Qabbala (in the rabbi’s home, where the rabbi would let him read) were so enthusiastic and determined that his presence at all hours interfered with the rabbi and his newlywed wife in their, um, other activities; how he rescued a copy of Wolff from a butter merchant, who had been cutting up its pages to wrap his wares. Eventually, out of all this, he digested and synthesized what he called his “coalition-system,” a synthesis of Maimonides and Cordovero, Leibniz and Spinoza, Hume and Kant. Not unnaturally, though, this synthesis leaves some feeling that it is not quite balanced, especially between the rationalism he prized and the skepticism he respected.

The notorious ambiguity Maimon’s thinking exhibits (referenced by Mikhail, Shahar, and Jon), in the tension of his philosophy between (Leibnizian?) rationalism and (Humean?) skepticism, is sometimes read as simple inconsistency on Maimon’s part; and sometimes explained as a “development” from a confident reliance on the canons of consistent thought, to a resigned acknowledgment that there is no certainty, only probability and practice. For myself, I am tempted to regard it in terms of his inheritance from Maimonides. What I mean is twofold. Maimonidean rationalism, its recourse to Aristotelian categories and canons, is very different from the Enlightenment project undertaken by the philosophes. There is a good reason that the notion of Bayle or Diderot undertaking a new edition and commentary of the Suma Contra Gentiles poses a strong challenge to our credulity. And yet Maimon and Isaac Euchel devoted a great deal of effort to a new edition of the Guide for the Perplexed, with Maimon’s commentary as well as the hitherto-unpublished commentary of the 14th-century Averroist Moses Narboni. Maimon also wrote commentaries on Aristotle’s Categories and on Bacon’s Novum Organon, that self-conscious usurpation of Aristotle; and in even his first book, he tells us, he interpreted the ten Aristotelian categories as the deeper significance of the ten sephirot in the Qabbalistic tree of life. (He also says that the Qabbala is a sort of sublimated or symbolic Spinozism).

So my first suggestion as to why Maimon’s thought has proved a challenge to attempts to pin him down is that we tend to read him via the protestant Enlightenment, which traced itself as far back as Descartes’ break with scholasticism; but Maimon was one of the Maskilim, on the radical edge of the Haskalah, which for all its revisionism, remained in contact with a tradition that was as ancient as the Talmud, and maintained intentional connection to founding texts of philosophy like Bacon’s, Maimonides’, and Aristotle’s.

A second reason, related to the first, is that Maimonidean philosophy is famously ambiguous itself. Naturally, I have in mind here Strauss’ reading in Persecution and the Art of Writing and elsewhere, but I don’t believe one need accept the whole of Strauss’ argument about Maimonides’ intentions to agree that there is plenty in Maimonides that, by design, eludes ready unpacking. Maimon, we recall, took Maimonides’ name as his own (quite an act of chutzpah, one might say), but even without this clue on the title page, there are plenty of indications in Maimon’s work that for all his rationalism he did not give up his concern with Judaism. Maimon’s earliest work was on Jewish philosophy, and he tells us in the Autobiography that he kept a copy of this work with him all the time. One is left wondering, then, to what extent his hard-to-pin-down attitude, between skepticism and idealism, is a maneuver of concealing-and-revealing such as he might have imitated from Maimonides. I don’t know if Shahar will concur with me on this, but I raise the question now because there is no explicit reference to Maimonides in the Essay itself (that I have seen), so any reflection on this deeper context will need to be brought in “from without.” In any case, I am confident that Maimon’s thinking finds an echo in Rosenzweig, e.g. p 110 of the Essay, which gives us already the three points of Rosenzweig’s Star.)

In pointing us thus backwards from Maimon (as far back as Maimonides and Aristotle), as well as to a few current investigations (e.g. Wolfendale’s critique of Meillassoux, my own attempt—for which I do not claim any great significance—to contest the right of Badiou to the mantle of Platonism) I am trying to forestall any charge of having myself merely enlisted Maimon into the merely topical interests of today—i.e., whatever trench warfare currently features on the philosophy equivalent of the nightly news. Maimon always insisted that beyond scholarship, systematicity, or indeed currency, he was interested in the Truth. This might seem a little quaint today. It would be no bad thing if a study of Maimon could remove a little of that aura of quaintness.