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

Monday, November 29, 2010

"...and each name gave birth to a new thought."


The pleasures that come from a medium used to its fullest, to the point where its very limitations become assets, are among the keenest I know. I've been struck speechless by watercolor still-lifes (lemons and oranges and cups of tea on a tablecloth), the precision of representation brought almost flush with the impossibility of representation. James Burke's Connections and The Day the Universe Changed are instances of exactly the sort of thing at which television can excel, and think they are still unsurpassed 20 years and more later.

This episode (transcripthere, but I recommend listening if you can) from NPR's Radiolab, is radio at its best. So much of radio is made up of language; here is a program devoted to the question of what language is and how it shapes us. (Of course, even more of radio is music, but I've written somewhat about that elsewhere and will again.)

To say there's been a bit of a backlash against "the linguistic turn" in some of the philosophical circles I frequent is something of an understatement. A great deal of that critique is well-taken. I got just as tired as anyone of too much emphasis on how something was said, as if this meant that one somehow couldn't get to what it was being said about. But I regard the current revival of realism as, in important ways, a new way of talking, and I am with Plato and Marx and Russell in thinking that metaphysics must go hand in hand with being clear about how we think.

There's an electrifying moment early in this piece in which Susan Schaller recounts the breakthrough moment she tells in her book A Man Without Words: her student, "Ildefonso," a man deaf from birth realizes for the first time what he's seeing when he sees people signing all around him. Until this moment he had not understood that "everything has a name." This is very close, as reviewers have of course remarked, to the famous moment Helen Keller recounts in her Story of My Life:
Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away. I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought.(My emphasis.)
This story of language-as-nomenclature is the one that Wittgenstein has in his sights in the Philosophical Investigations. He begins with this citation of St. Augustine:
When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples; the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of the voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.
This story, it will be noted, is extremely close to Schaller's example of Ildefonso, and Keller's of herself. Wittgenstein is quite right that it won't do to extrapolate an entire metaphysics out of this experience--as if a language was nothing but a complete inventory of the universe and the relationships of which the items on such a list are capable; such is, at root, the aspiration of the logical atomism which he had realized he had to abandon. But, as Wittgenstein would have said, just because it is a mistake does not make it a stupid mistake. The list of nouns we encounter in children's alphabet books, apple ball cat, really corresponds not just to an intuitive idea of language but to our first conscious encounter with it. Wittgenstein is right to say that use is, as it were, a broader concept than meaning (if we are thinking of lexical meaning at any rate), for in fact we begin to internalize use before we consciously seize upon meaning. But mightn't the reason "meaning" is so compelling a notion, and why "use" is, for all its liberating effects (a liberation which at least two generations of philosophers felt as a breath of fresh air), an extremely difficult conception to think through, be in part because to reach it we have to go back, so to speak, to before we learned "what language is?"

There's one further moment in this episode, out of so many, that I want to highlight. It is Jill Bolte Taylor's account of the "joy" that she felt after the stroke which knocked out her left brain, including all language function, for a long while. After this, during her recovery, she says, she lacked
that little voice that you know you wake up in the morning and the first thing your brain says it Oh man the sun is shining. Well imagining you don't hear that little voice that says man the sun is shining you just experience the sun and the shining.
... It was all of the present moment.
She had no thoughts, Taylor says.
I just had joy. I had, I had this magnificent experience of I’m this collection of these beautiful cells. I am organic. I’m this, this organic entity.
....I lost all definition of myself in relationship to everything in the external world.
This condition she attributes largely to the incapacity she had for language; at least, we might say, it clearly correlates with this incapacity:
... Language is an ongoing information processing it's that constant reminder. I am, this is my name, this is all the data related to me, these are my likes and my dislikes, these are my beliefs, I am an individual, I'm a single, I am a solid, I'm separate from you. This is my name...
I did not have that portion of my language center that tells a story: curious little Jill, me, Jill Bolte Taylor climbing the Harvard ladder, through language, loves dissection, cutting up things, that language was gone. I got to essentially become an infant again.
When Radiolab hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich heard this, Krulwich remarked,
When you drop out of the “I”-ness of yourself or the story of yourself then you're left, she says at peace, I could argue that that's just stranded, that's stranded in the sunshine, in the wind, in the now.
And this is indeed the rub. Here is where every reductive account of religious experience bottoms out, and rightly. Are all our accounts of mystical union, of transcendental bliss, beyond-words joy, simply a function of having no words at all? Is the ineffable just a matter of lacking the capacity to "eff"?

One thing is sure; animals who lack words can experience agony as well as joy, and one does not need words to scream. Wordlessness per se then is no sufficient condition for bliss. To make such a reduction is to fall prey to the pre/trans fallacy; the resemblance between the unio mystica and Freud's "oceanic feeling" is not enough to establish an equivalence.

Since I mentioned Wittgenstein's abandoning aspects of his early logical atomism, I ought to emphasize that the continuity between the Investigations and the Tractatus is much stronger than often remarked. In both there is an emphasis upon practice, upon the point at which our account of things comes up short and must fall silent. This is the basis for Wittgenstein's semi-Schopenhauerian idealism, an aspect of his thought Russell never fully appreciated. This "mystical" element in Wittgenstein (early and late) did not protect him from despair, but sometimes gave him, he said, a "feeling of being absolutely safe," that nothing could touch him,not even death. A psychologistic reduction of logic would have been meaningless to Wittgenstein, and so too a reduction of such transcendental sense, because both of these are such that they cannot be made the object of scrutiny; one cannot stand outside them. He did not dispute that they had no "objective" sense; but this was because they came, as it were before sense.

This is of course where the anti-correlationism camp goes nuts, and this is the site of my own dicey heresy. Certainly, as Brassier or Meillassoux would contend, "beyond language" need not mean "beyond thought." Of course it is not true that "everything has a name," and if thinking and being are the same, this lies beyond what can be said; but the testimony of ancient philosophy is that it does not lie beyond experience.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

St. Catherine & the wheel


Those who have read my speculative and meandering reconstructions of (aspects of) the mythical substrate of philosophy (a lot of this is e.g. in my paper on Herodotus, but some of the grammar of it is also in my paper on Badiou and Platonism and especially its appendix), know that I believe (to a far greater extent than I can prove) that ancient philosophy intentionally transmuted the symbols and experience of earlier cultural strata, especially mythology. In the cultural upheaval that occurred at the end of the Bronze Age (my guess is that much of it had to do with the effects of the technology of writing), participation began to dry up; what Charles Taylor has called the "pourous self" was on its way to mutating into the "buffered self" of today. If I have any semi-original case to make, it is that this development went neither unnoticed nor unopposed. Philosophy takes its place in the context of a minority cultural movement which aimed to keep available the experience of participation (albeit not the expressions of it) even by means of the very cultural forms--in particular, rational thinking--under which it was withering.

I think a good deal of this was preserved, either knowingly or (often) unconsciously, in later religious tradition as well, always doubtless sliding into superstition (or, put more mildly, at least into poetry); and that this is one way (not the only way) in which we ought to understand the "survival of paganism." It is not simply a case of the convenient appropriation of the trappings of one cult for the purposes of another, since there is always a radical transmutation. One instance of this, to my mind, is the cult of St. Catharine of Alexandria, patron of wheelwrights, of the dying, and of philosophy.

Catherine, whose feast is Nov. 25, was once one of the most venerated saints in the Church. In a wave of demythologization she was demoted to an optional observance by the Roman Catholics, but most strong critics of her legend admit that her historicity itself was not meant to be questioned. She is still revered by the Orthodox.

Her legend says (I am collating from several sources) that she was the daughter of a pagan king of Cyprus, wise and devoted to study and learning. Urged after her father's death by her mother and the nobility to marry, she preferred to remain single, and persuaded an assembly of aristocrats of the wisdom of this course, or at least of her own stubborn determination. (She argues for instance that, as they all admit her to be wise, and that there is no guarantee that a man will be wiser, the better course for them is to agree to be ruled by her.)

This was not long before Catherine traveled to Alexandria, to continue her study of philosophy. While there, an encounter with a hermit (sent by the Virgin Mary) converted her to Christianity. One day, sometime afterwards, Catherine saw the Roman Emperor Maxentius (or in some versions Maximian) making a sacrifice; and seeing the Christians there preparing to be put to death for refusing to join in, she went to upbraid the Emperor persecuting them, and for his idolatry. Since he was left stammering by her, he detained her in the palace and summoned as many scholars and thinkers as he could get to debate her. One by one they all fell to her argument, and either stormed away angry or converted, and were martyred. Thrown into prison, Catherine converted her fellow inmates, her guards, even the Empress who came to remonstrate to her, and the accompanying general along with his retinue of 200 soldiers. During this time Catherine experienced visions assuring her that her martyrdom was coming and that her sanctity would be accomplished thereby. One mystical encounter which figured frequently in later art was the "mystical marriage" in which the Virgin appeared and drew her hand near to Christ, who placed on her finger a ring. (This episode sometimes narratively comes before her first approach to the emperor, as a Christian sequel to Catharine's demonstration--while she is still pagan--to the host of assembled noblemen, of the superiority of remaining unmarried.)

Finally, after refusing Maxentius' offer to marry her and cause her to be herself worshipped as a goddess, she was condemned to be broken on the wheel. This by now rather medieval-sounding process seems to have had more than one form over the centuries, all of them horrible. One elaborate account of Catherine's story describes it as a diabolical device of four wheels turning against each other, equipped with knives and saw-teeth; but it was probably a wheel on which the victim was bound (either on the rim or against the side) and turned in order that their limbs be broken by the successive impact of weapons put in its way. In any case, the moment Catherine touched the wheel it broke asunder, killing its inventor, the story goes (The Golden Legend adds that its flying pieces killed "4,000 pagans"), and so she was beheaded instead. Her body, saith the hagiography, bled sweet milk instead of blood, and was borne by angels to Mt. Sinai where a monastery, still & continuously operative, was founded. Maxentius, of course, went on to be defeated by Constantine.

Catherine's connection to the wheel made her the patron of wheelwrights as well as of philosophers. Her circular iconography is also connected to the episode in her legend according to which she was mystically betrothed and wed to Christ. To this day, pilgrims to the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai are given a ring that had been laid on her relics. The abbey at Rouen (which name is plausibly connected to wheels, though this is a matter of speculative controversy) kept the relic of Catherine's finger(s) through the later middle ages.

This circular iconography makes her story replete with suggestive hints for someone disposed to look for continuity rather than rupture between the later Christian cultural forms and their predecessors. In the papers I reference above, I argue that cosmic models of the universe (the wheeling stars--the day, the year, the precession of the equinoxes), of music (the cycle of the octave) and of the soul's journey (the wheel of rebirth), are all interwoven into a vast symbol of wholeness that is not quite perfect. The cycles have built into them a structural flaw, but this flaw itself makes possible a use of the models more edifying than if the model had been perfect--to wit, the experience of it as model--at which point, the model "breaks." This suggests that Catherine's explicit association with philosophy is not by chance. She is supposed to be the emblem of the passage from the "closed world" cosmology of cosmic cycles to the "open universe" (to appropriate a title of Alexandre Koyré's) made accessible by faith, which is participation, but not participation as it was. (This makes it a necessary part of my project to contend, along the way, against reductive mis-definitions of faith.)

Catherine has been seen as an appropriation of the historical account of the death of the philosopher Hypatia at the hands of angry Christians, an inversion of the story of Ixion who Zeus ordered bound on a fiery wheel, and a recasting of details from the myth of the goddess Arianrhod, "silver wheel". My supposition is that there is a degree of truth in these correlations, but they do not explain the hagiography. In some future posts I hope to expand a little on some of these parallels and on Catherine's legacy (e.g. in the later episodes of Ss. Catherine of Sienna and Joan of Arc), possibly at the risk of analogy-mongering, in order to spell out a little more some of the structure of my thesis that the "survival of paganism" under Christianity is not a matter of undigested fossils being carried along, nor of the mere return of the repressed, but of genuine modulation of a heritage into a new key.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Metaphysics of thanksgiving


By way of preface, I want to say that among the many many things for which I am grateful is all the dialogue I have had on this blog. This post, which is only a sketch of some meta-considerations and not an (impossible) enumeration of everything that elicits my personal gratitude, is but an indirect expression of that thanks; but I feel it keenly.

A very good friend of mine, whose pertinent comments on liturgy and the implausibility of Biblical literalism have appeared on this blog before, used to be heavily involved with inter-religious dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism. John's got one degree in Old Testament studies and one in Buddhism. It was while he was working on this latter, at Naropa, organizing conferences at which various monastics and teachers from both traditions would that a Japanese Zen master made the following remark, which has stuck with me every since John recounted it. A propos the well-known but easily overblown difference between the Buddhism and Christianity on Theism, he said: "When I first heard the Dharma, I realized that I was very grateful. I don't know who to."

In the last of these three videos I saw at Perverse Egalitarianism, Daniel Dennett remarks to the effect that, when one feels fortunate to be alive, to be able to think, learn, experience, one naturally wants to express that thanks. But for someone like him, who believes in no God, who is to be thanked? No one... "just my lucky stars."

Ernst Tugendhat, the philosopher who long before it was cool to try to breach the gap between Analytic and Continental philosophy was reading his teacher Heidegger back-to-back with P.F. Strawson and John Searle, offers in this lateessay a meditation that starts and ends with this same question: Who to thank? Now of course Dennett does not really mean he thinks his lucky stars have intentionally given him good fortune, but he still feels the urge to offer thanks somehow. For Tugendhat, Dennett's "lucky stars" are nonsensical objects of gratitude:
it seems evident to me that you can only thank a being whom it makes sense to ask something of. And it makes no sense to ask something of a non-personal being. So it seems absurd to pray to a non-personal instance, or to thank that instance. Consequently it is senseless to thank for things for which you cannot thank a natural person.
But this does not mean that the urge to give thanks goes away, as Dennett acknowledges and Tugendhat concurs:
In terms of cultural history, one may say that there are certain things, for example one's own existence or that of a loved one, for which people have always, or at least overwhelmingly, felt the need to thank a supernatural personal being. What happens to this need, and to one's attitude to these things, when you can no longer thank for them? A specific form of transcendence seems to be lost, flattened.
It could easily be argued that this urge to offer thanks is just a misfiring of some mental module, which tries mistakenly to apply social habits to a context in which they don't apply. Tugendhat more or less concludes, somewhat mournfully, that it's a perfectly natural mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. He asks speculatively whether a sort of mysticism that eschewed propositional belief in the supernatural might suffice for the people to retain this "essential aspect of their lives," or at least compensate adequately for its loss.

It is interesting to compare Tugendhat's meditation (and I hope someday soon his later philosophy will be available in English) with John Schellenberg's trilogy on the philosophy of religion. Schellenberg's first book is (as per its title) prolegomena, laying down principles and definitions; most significantly, he distinguishes very carefully between faith and belief. His second volume has been mined by many opponents of religion for its subtle and careful arguments against any belief in God, afterlife, or extra-mundane justification of morality. His third book has been more or less left severly alone by the same crowd, who realized, if they read it at all, that he means to adhere to the definitions very carefully Schellenberg defines "Ultimism" as a sort of bare minimum outline of any religion worth the name, and its chief characteristics are two: that there is a reality both "ultimate" (a sort of Anselmian metaphysical absoluteness) and "salvific" (vital to human beings' being fully alive). Belief in Ultimism is, in the second volume, shown (he takes it) to be unwarranted; the third volume is devoted to not just a defense but a positive commendation of faith (albeit a "skeptical faith") in ultimism. This sort of quasi-religious agnosticism entails eschewing any dogmatic denial or affirmation of positive ultimist propositions, but has plenty of room for "voluntary assent to a proposition, undertaken in circumstances where one views the state of affairs it reports as good and desirable but in which one lacks belief of the proposition" (my emphasis). Just how this differs from a kind of chastened wishful thinking, or again from the theological virtue of hope, is a matter that will be disputed. One can thus, Schellenberg claims, rationally represent to oneself that the world is such that ultimism is true, knowing that one wills this and is not compelled by evidence. One may also rationally, he says, act "on propositional religious faith," "in pursuit of a religious way." May one coherently, on these terms, participate in a spiritual community, engage in theology, watch for revelation? In some sense the answer is certainly "yes," albeit in a persistently as-if key.

Schellenberg's philosophy of religion does seem close to Tugendhat in some ways, especially in the latter's resolute refusal to deceive himself--
For me it would be much easier, instead of cultivating a neutral Daoist or Stoic attitude, to turn to God and say: "Thy will be done!" Yet I must expressly forbid myself from saying this because of course I know that God is only a construct of my need, and that if I let myself be determined by this need, I would end up lying to myself. No other option remains open to me than to withdraw to the impersonal, purely mystical standpoint. But this standpoint turns out to be inadequate in terms of my need for a positive attitude to my frustrations.
--though I think Tugendhat overstates the case for skepticism and slips into active denial when he argues that our need to believe is evidence that the belief in question is false--an argument which would seem bizarre if it was re-framed in terms of, say, our need to eat. Specifically as regards thankfulness, as an expression that might satisfy Tugendhat & Schellenberg, and maybe (in his poetical mood) Dennett, I offer in conclusion this by Mark Strand, who if not a Zen master is at least a fine poet:
Visions of the end may secretly seduce
our thoughts like water sinking
into water, air drifting into air;
clouds may form, when least expected,
darkening the glass of self,
canceling resemblances to what we are.
Even here, while summer sunlight
falling through the golden
folds of afternoon
brightens up the air, we mark
our progress by how much
we leave behind. And yet,
this vanishing is burnished
by a slow, melodious light,
as if our passage here
were beautiful because
no turning back is possible.
It is our knowledge of the end
that speaks for us, that has us weave,
as slowly as we can, an elegy
to all our walks. It is our way
of bending to the world's will
and giving thanks.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Flippancy


Every once in a while Brian Leiter stirs up some snake-pit of like-minded sneering controversy, seemingly just for the self-righteousness spectacle of it. It's quite ingenious how this time he did it just by throwing out a one-liner (really just a single word, "Discuss," since the line --"It is no secret that contemporary philosophy is under the spell of the Other"-- is just the first sentence of the book review he's holding up for contempt) and letting his commenters have a go.

I chanced on this first via Harman's blog (where Harman says, rightly, that it's an index of why any talk of healing the breach between Analytic and Continental is premature) and then ventured a comment (reproduced below) on Perverse Egalitarianism's post. I would have commented on Leiter's blog but I've given up, the three or so comments I have tried to make there have none of them made it past moderation. I assume this is because of the terror the glinting scythe of my prose stikes into the hearts of my opponents; but of course the cover story is that Leiter screens out webonymns (albeit inconsistently).

Mercifully, a number of sensible people chimed in to call the let's-all-laugh-at-the-deconstructionists party the flippant shallowness that it is. Leiter responded lamely to one such critique that "bad philosophy should be ridiculed," which just begs the question of how we know the bad from the good (most criteria I see offered are themselves part of the flippant dismissal game: e.g., bad philosophy uses the word 'precisely' er, precisely when it's making a vague generalization. Get it?!). I don't deny that there is a difference, nor that ridicule, like every other rhetorical ploy, has an honored place in the philosopher's quiver. But when the very same arrow finds its mark over and over, and goes so very deep, one is entitled to wonder if the target might not be stuffed with straw, and carefully placed by the marksman. Preferably up-close.

What I wrote on P.E. was: CS Lewis puts into the mouth his devil Screwtape the observation (I paraphrase): Only someone very clever can make a joke about virtue, but anyone can talk as if virtue were funny. This sort of flippancy functions as a surrogate for argument all too often. [So often online, in fact, that it is downright disheartening. I can think of three or so examples off the top of my head, to which I forebear to link. One can only blame "blog culture" for this so many times before I want to scream, Take some bloody responsibility, man!] I realize of course that it’s also true that anyone can talk as if they are imparting great and profound truths, and I would not want to conflate deconstruction with virtue [to say the least]; but I find this sort of snide, in-crowd, self-congratulatory, “how clever we are to see through all that,” to be well on the down-slide to the nadir of integrity.

To which, notwithstanding my struck-out copy above, Leiter could justly respond to me (if he'd condescend), Physician,heal thyself. But I blame the blog. I'm much more, ahem, nuanced in person.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Incommensurate Openness, and vice-versa


In a fairly early post, I wrote that my starting place was
the same as that of all philosophy: astonishment. Wonder. Yes, this; but also an incorrigible itch to make this wonder articulate.... [But] this articulation is a struggle.
In articulating, such as it can be, the astonishment of and at being, I will coin a twofold formulation. Inadequate as formulae always are, it risks seeming trite, but our business is to use it as an aid, and not a surrogate, for thinking. The first half is the Incommensurability of experience. “The world of the happy is quite another from that of the unhappy,” as Wittgenstein said (and as I always seem to be quoting). To one who is gripped by astonishment, the differences between the same activity (say, sweeping a floor) when happy and when sad, are no less striking than is the contrast between war and peace. It is remarkable that eating chicken soup by oneself while convalescing in bed is not only very different than, but in fact not superimposable over, eating chicken soup in a New York delicatessen.

(Really? "Remarkable?" Yes, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. No matter how much any two experiences have in common, they always have more not in common. But in this case it is remarkable that we can speak of there being anything in common at all.)

(And I'll just bookmark here that this is not to breeze past the admonitions one hears in various traditions (e.g. certain forms of Buddhism or Christianity) to practice equanimity and apatheia, to let one's feelings "arise and pass away" and--as the Zen master might say--"just sweep the floor," "just eat the soup," no matter whether one is in the grips of hilarity or of heartbreak.)

In traditional metaphysics one might approach the question of experiences in terms of substance and qualities: substance being that which is the bearer of “identity,” qualities that which can change, so that “the same” soup can be tasted in different contexts. (This is a slightly tweaked version of substance/quality vocabulary, but let it stand). After the “critique of metaphysics,” such talk fell into disrepute. Lately, the revival of “realism,” informed by the Husserlian way of speaking of essences, has made it almost respectable again (in some quarters at least), in a modified way. Levi Bryant argues for a way of speaking of objects that dispenses with qualities as adjectival and makes the objects themselves more like verbs.

This however does not address the scandal of incommensurability.

A scant few alphabetical symbols arranged in one way give us Kafka’s The Trial; arranged a different way they give us Dickens’ Bleak House, and in yet other ways they give us the latest letters to Hustler, the Communist Manifesto, or Roberts’ Rules of Order. N.B., it is not primarily the content of any these that is hard to square with any other; it is the spirit. The experience of reading Bleak House is incommensurable with that of (simultaneously) reading The Trial (notwithstanding their both being about drawn-out legal proceedings, of a sort). But so too is the experience of making love with a beautiful Israeli spy on the French Riviera early in the Cold War incommensurable with playing in a punk rock show to a raging crowd in 1979 Los Angeles. It is not at all immediately clear why this should be, for it is plain that nothing in principle excludes both experiences from happening, or from falling within the same life. The spatial and temporal incompatibilities (for instance, the French Riviera not being Los Angeles, or the 1950’s not being the 1970’s) are secondary to the experiential incompatibilities; the former are at least amenable to mediation in their respective modes. On a quasi-Kantian account, Time can be seen as a “medium” in which contradictory assertions can both be true; it is possible for both A and ~A to obtain so long as the states of affairs to which these assertions pertain are separated by Time. Indeed, it is quite possible to imagine a human life that included being both an English nobleman serving as ambassador to Constantinople during the reign of Charles II, and a prizewinning female poet in England during the 1920s. Virginia Woolf showed us how.

This underscores the complementary principle, the second half of my twofold starting mark: the Indelimitability of experience. (In the first draft of this post I called this the "Openness of experience," but I replaced "Open" (except in the title) with "Indelimitable" in part because I want to distance myself from any too-obvious Heideggerian overtones, and in part because, for all its awkward lack of euphony, "Indelimitable" has the one undeniable advantage of jargon: it cannot be easily mistaken for naming some natural quality. Both my principles (or rather both halves) are, in short, meant to pick out characteristics that properly belong together; it's right, then, that when named separately, they should be saddled with these awkward terms, and in particular with terms that indicate privation rather than some positive characteristic. If that sounds like a rationalization, you are free to assume that really I just wanted the symmetry of having the prefix "In-" on both of them.)

Indelimitablilty means that no experience stays with itself. There is always at least one straightforward route between any two forms of experience. In the case of Woolf’s Orlando, it includes a long lifespan and a sex change (which just goes to show that "straightforward" is a relative term), but both of these are actually rather trivial, in comparison with what might need navigating between being a human male and being, say, a tremendous cockroachy creature or a human breast, but Kafka and Philip Roth each gave a good shot at imagining those transitions too, and the same might be imagined for being a neutron star or a scarecrow or the total South American coffee crop. (This is barely a half-step beyond Chuang-Tzu.)

But the indelimitability and the incommensurability of experience together make experience itself a strange thing (or rather, they highlight how strange it is). To take literature again: words of the same language combine to give us either J.R.R. Tolkien or Kathy Acker, or (translations of ) Vergil or Gogol; but try putting some of Acker's heroin[es] into Middle-Earth, or a couple of Hobbits into the Empire of the Senseless, and you'll get a mélange that is neither Acker nor Tolkien, nor as good. Eating chicken soup is good; winning a racketball tournament is good; making love on the French Riviera is good (let us stipulate all three evaluations for the moment). But try to superimpose these goods, and you get, not a greater good nor even a viable sum of parts, but merely screwball comedy.

Thus experiences cannot be combined like spices. The “combination” of two experiences is not a combination at all, but a new experience of precisely the same ontological standing, a third sort not dependent on the other two. Every instance of experience is precisely itself. (Of course not every “combination” adds up to less than the sum of its parts, like my Acker/Tolkien example; but it always makes something new.) We are speaking here of experience as a whole, not of “responses” to or interpretations of experience; writhing under the lash in pain or in masochistic enjoyment are different experiences, and not superimposable. The thought of Pegasus is not the sum of the thought of a horse plus the thought of wings.

And yet, experiences may be brought as close together as one likes. Again, think of Kafka or Roth. Such asymptotic approaches resemble at a certain point exceptions that prove the rule. For instance: one might respond to a piece of news with various emotions—with joy or with anger, for instance; but one could also imagine receiving news that elicited both responses at once: “Surprise! She’s not dead!” What is fascinating about this instance is how it shoves two experiences right up next to each other as close as can be—and yet each remains clearly distinguishable. One is joyful in that one’s loved one is alive, indignant in that one has been subject to a tasteless practical joke. This is simply an illustration of how experiences nearly diametrically opposed can be flush up against one another, without thereby becoming conflated. (“Everything is what it is, and not another thing.”)

Such examples could be presented ad infinitum, and there is much to learn from them, but what they illustrate above all is the twinned nature of these two principles, the incommensurability and the indelimitability of experience.

The incommensurability of experience obviously pertains to mediation. This has been the subject of more than one post here. If there is no non-negotiable “what it’s like,” (as I argue at the end of the first post linked above), this is because every experience is what it is and not another experience. But likewise, if experience is indelimitable, this is again because mediation is ubiquitous; any experience may become a sign of any other, and may lead on to or from any other. The encounter of ovum and spermatozoon, or indeed, the emergence of a lungfish onto a muddy bank, leads on to defeat at Waterloo, to liberation of Dachau, to touching down in the Sea of Tranquility.

This is not merely a matter of causality, of dominoes falling; it is a matter of mediation. The encounter of the tabletop by the domino is mediated by (among other things) gravitons or the curvature of space. The relation between the alphabetical symbols and the experience of imagining Frodo and Sam toiling through Mordor, or Abhor and Thivai moving through Acker's collapsing Europe, is mediated by neurons and cultural practices. The way from the lungfish to the moon landing is mediated via more ways than anyone could count. (Mediation as power, energeia).

The incommensurability of experience is the indicator of worlds, in precisely Wittgenstein’s sense above. These worlds are what are navigated in metalpesis. The indelimitability of experience is the indicator of the World. This World is how metalepsis’ navigation works. (This by way of comment on the ninth thesis in my last post.)

This is the same problem as has always been with us, since there was philosophy: the One and the Many.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Chromatic scale: thirteen theses and a comma


A fellow-blogger asks me for a presentation on "what I really think" (though not in those words). Am I being coy? Or obscure? Probably.

Here is a short inventory of my philosophical values, in the form of thirteen theses. On the surface some of them read like newage platitudes and some of them like wannabe Adorno. Will I go to the wall for every one? Sure... "appropriately interpreted." This means I reserve the right to qualify by commentary and caveat, or to swathe myself in gnomic silence as I choose.

[Addendum: I have re-arranged them to better structure the scale, and added the 'pythagorean comma.']


I. Practice over theory. But: Theory is a practice.

II. There are infinite openings between the banal and the extraordinary, between the prosaic and the sublime. Any moment, any question, opens onto all others; but each moment is irreducibly itself. (The continuum hypothesis.)

III. Dialogue over monologue. But: in dialogue, one finds one's voice, and more than one.

IV. To call the Spiritual either a mistake or a sublimation is a sublime mistake.

V. Questions over answers. But: to genuinely ask is to believe in the possibility of an answer.

VI. Every experience is either a turning towards Love, or away. Every encounter involves the risk of conversion or apostasy.

VII. If you have never felt the undertow of pure nihilism, you do not know what [you think] you're not missing.

VIII. There is no Science of Persons. There is Thou, but there is no Thou-ness.

IX. We make our way "from world to world" insofar as we learn to relate, to attend, to be interested, to like, to care; for every thing is a world, and the way between is The World.

X. To be alive is to be engaged with everything and attached to nothing. "Touch more; hold on less."

XI. One cannot prescribe the way to do this. Every spiritual technique works in part by not working.

XII. "Why is there anything?" --"We do not know. But it is good that there is." Philosophy can get this far (and this is very far).

XIII. Experience goes further.

(comma). Irony is a good spice, and a bad main course.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Peregrination


This started out as a comment on Amod Lele's post at Love of All Wisdom about common sense, but soon dovetailed with a lot of thinking I've been doing about the place of counter-intuitive results in philosophy in the wake of my back-&-forth with Pete Wolfendale. I certainly concur with Amod that philosophy has every right to go counter to common sense, and indeed that we probably ought to expect it to do so, but that at the same time, it must account for our intuitions -- and this in some nonreductive way (i.e., no saying merely, Oh, you believe that because you're a sensualist, or a puritan, or a capitalist sell-out, or etc). I think this goes very deep; on some level, a philosophical account must still have recourse to our intuitions, because even to assert "Everything you know is wrong" is to appeal to some notion (which pre-exists this assertion) of rightness and wrongness.

This is, pace what Amod says about Wittgenstein and the film The Matrix, what snags every brain-in-a-vat scenario. Amod writes that The Matrix:
gives a clear and graphic illustration of what it would mean to doubt our everyday experience, to show that the world could be completely other than we imagine. It’s not necessarily plausible; but what seemed hugely implausible or even impossible to past generations (the earth revolving around the sun, the adaptation of living species without the help of an intelligent designer) has turned out, as far as we now know, to be true.
Amod offers this as a refutation of Wittgenstein's claim that there are some things the doubting of which is nonsensical. I'm not absolutely certain I am following Amod's thought here, and so also not quite sure of the extent of my disagreement with him. He's right that the film gives a (far-fetched but barely imaginable) picture of how I could be mistaken about some things, even things that seem indubitable; but if Wittgenstein is arguing that total doubt is incoherent, then The Matrix does not touch him. Indeed, The Matrix tries to substitute one solid account of reality (a post-apocalyptic world in which humans are wired up inside pods as biochemical batteries for intelligent machines and kept in a constant collective dream) for another (it's the 21st century and humans live on a crowded and polluted but still pre-apocalyptic planet). But (and please don't assume I think this is a particularly profound objection), if it were possible for me to be wrong about me sitting here with my laptop, why should I believe I have a "brain" inside my "skull" that would be susceptible to computer-generated illusions? Sure, I could be deceived by an evil genie; but if that's the case, I sure as hell can't assume that it's deceiving me by affecting something called my "brain," because the reasons I have for thinking I have a brain are exactly like those I have for thinking I am sitting and writing. To every assertion that I am just a brain hooked up to a computer, I can ask, But why should I be a brain? What's a computer?

This post, though, is not primarily about skepticism, but about the peregrination of philosophy away from, and back to, our intuitions.

As I mentioned last post, Wittgenstein urged: Don't think; Look! This isn't an anti-intellectual slogan, but a reminder that thinking starts somewhere. And, as he also remarked, it stops somewhere too. "Here my spade is turned," (Philosophical Investigations 217) he famously said; and "Explanations come to an end somewhere" (P.I. 1). It's this beginning and end that I am interested in, since of course philosophy famously goes on and on, and the quest for clarification and insight does not stop; yet in some sense it returns us to our starting-place.

This is, interestingly, also the case with Kant. Kant's system, Nietzsche claimed, was a joke -- literally:
Kant wanted to prove, in a way that would dumbfound the common man, that the common man was right: that was the secret joke of this soul. He wrote against the scholars in support of popular prejudice, but for scholars and not for the people. (Gay Science 193)
Schopenhauer implies that the joke is on Kant -- he says (this is in On the Basis of Morality) Kant is like a seducer at a masked ball who works his charms on a woman all night only to discover that she's his wife). Nietzsche and Schopenhauer are having fun at Kant's expense, but in fact this is what philosophy always does; we need not agree that it finds "bad reasons for what we believe on instinct" (--Bradley), but it always in some way suspends our presuppositions in order to return us to them; a kind of "second naïveté," as Ricoeur puts it (see The Symbolism of Evil, pp 350-353).

As Merleau-Ponty put it:
Philosophy believed it could overcome the contradiction of perceptual faith by suspending it in order to disclose the motives that support it. (The Visible and the Invisible, p 50.)
Merleau-Ponty's objection to this suspension can be directed against the Husserlian epoche, against Kantian critique, against Cartesian methodical doubt; but in fact this procedure applies as much to Merleau-Ponty as to any of his targets, for his own rather recondite notes on human experience bear about as much resemblance to life in media res as a Henry James novel. Yet to say this is no reproach to Merleau-Ponty (or James). Philosophy always "suspends" our common sense (what Plato calls doxa), but it ultimately returns, not us to it, but it to us.

There is in this shuttling an approximation of what Viktor Shklovsky called ostranenie, "estrangement:" reflection makes strange our familiar experience, and it familiarizes (without cheapening) the strange. The continual meditations of philosophy upon difference and identity, same and other; the weird distancing of oneself from oneself one finds from Socrates to Augustine to Derrida; the play between the esotericism of a Strauss and Wittgenstein's insistence that "nothing is hidden"--all of these are variations on the continual endeavor of the mind to wrest obviousness from perplexity in a way that will do justice to both. Amod rightly notes that the possibility of error is a genuine puzzle for Sankara, for instance; and it is no less one to Plato; and yet, what is more common than error?

In a recent conversation with Tim Morton I cited St. Donovan: "First, there is a mountain; then there is no mountain; then there is." How is it that nirvana is said to be the same as samsara? How is it that we can hope, as T.S. Eliot wrote, to
not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
--? This homecoming is vulnerable to critique as nostalgia, doubtless: the old Freudian smile at longing to crawl back into the oceanic state in utero. But I see no reason to view this Freudian interpretation of "return" (or, mutatis mutandis, Derrida's head-shaking over "craving for origin") as the "type" of all returning. (Amod did remark that my comments on "common sense" risk a kind of romanticism, which I think is fair enough -- though I don't believe I cave in to the danger.) Even in the Odyssey, its almost perfect exemplar, this old, old motif is already salted with something more than homecoming:
you must take a well-made oar and carry it on and on, till you come to a country where the people have never heard of the sea and do not even mix salt with their food...A wayfarer will meet you and say it must be a winnowing fan that you have got upon your shoulder.
Every moment of our lives returns us to the perfectly familiar, utterly strange world; it is part of the effort of philosophy to awaken us to the strangeness of this ordinary world in a way that is not just a trivial, forgettable, prepackaged brief unsettling but a lasting shift. And what in this world is more familiar or more uncanny than our own consciousness? Or even closer, "closer to me than my pulse" as the Muslim prayer has it (literally: "closer than my jugular"), that Reality Who is most nearest and farthest away of all -- so Other that all words are inadequate; so intimate that none are required.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The animus against appearance


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

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

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

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Logos, face, śūnyatā


This is another stop along my stumbling path towards a "renewed Platonism," as I try to hold in tension some claims by Levinas and Badiou, informed by my own poor struggles to understand Buddhism (a la the Kyoto school and with some help from Morton's recent object-oriented take on it), and the sixth-century theology of St. Maximus the Confessor.

There is a difference "between me and myself." This is not just the difference between who I was and who I am, but between who I am and who I ought to be.

To be sure, the former difference is already difference enough. I both am and am not "the same" person as I was in high school, or earlier this week, or when I was dreaming this morning. I am and am not the same person I "would have been" had I been adopted by different parents, or moved to Chicago, or not left the religion of my youth; perhaps even if I had missed a bus one day. What "I" means in regards to these counterfactuals is hard to specify, but to say of them that "I would have been..." is not nonsensical.

When I deliberate about a choice to make (and it can be an ethically neutral choice), I can feel (sometimes) a pull, the bearing of some rightness trying to make itself clear. I don't want to make this purposely obscure--I am not talking about a mysterious destiny (though I do think of it in terms akin to Spinoza's use of conatus), or a hunch that whispers to me like an angel on my shoulder. I mean only that one struggles to find the right thing to do, appealing to some sense (not always well-defined) of what is appropriate, of what the circumstance "calls for." Some people claim to have a sense of teleology at such times, of heeding a daimonion, but whether or not such a sense is right is not at issue here. I am interested in the space in which ethical considerations play.

Badiou holds that "differences are simply what there is," and so there is no philosophical interest in difference qua difference. This is what grounds his identification of ontology with mathematics, as well as his strong critique of Levinasian ethics of obligation to the other qua other. I am fairly sympathetic to Badiou's critique of the "politics of difference" for those who are not ready to follow the way Levinas' metaphysics opens up onto religion. I will leave aside the degree to which Badiou condemns Levinas' project as a whole. What concerns me here is Badiou's argument that difference is simply what there is, and what follows from this. For Badiou, there is no greater, and no less, difference between me and an oyster-bed or a telegraph line or the Pharaoh Akhenaten than there is between me and myself. This means, for him, that difference per se is no basis for ethics.

I do not think this follows. If there is a difference between me and myself, surely this means simply that I can have an ethical relation with myself, as well as with the whole network of circumstances, even though this is not really the way we usually frame ethical considerations.

Levinas was fairly critical of the notion of auto-affection, pure self-relatedness, a critique he passed on to Derrida; but the notion of auto-affection, best articulated by Michel Henry (cf The Essence of Manifestation), need not mean a pure self-coinciding. To affect oneself calls for a space in which this happens, and this space is empty, sunya; for indeed, "difference is what there is." This gap is what I see as the sunyata of form-- except of course that I do not see it, because "it" is not there.

In Levinas' thought, it is the encounter with the Face of the Other that is the occasion for ethics. Levinas has often been criticized for anthropocentrism on this count. Does a dog have a face? A snake? a butterfly, a tree? I think these questions miss the point, even once we give them their due (i.e., that Levinas does not elaborate a robust ecological ethics). In fact, Levinas quite expressly holds that it is not the empirical physiognomy that constitutes the ethical "call." The face is not seen; it is apprehended.

I have noted before that Levinas called for a return to a sort of Platonism. This aspect of his thought always seems to get left off to one side by those who came to his work via Derrida. For postmodernism, Plato was bad, reification, absolutism, etc etc. But Levinas saw quite clearly that Plato's apprehension of the Good as beyond Being was a sine qua non, and actually a way around the straw Platos we had been scared by.

In hearing by the "ethical demand," as Knud Ejler Løgstrup names the imperative, I am not just addressed; I am constituted. This call is a call to be, to live into (even impossibly) who one is; this telos of self, different both from the empirical self and from the transcendental ego or any Absolute Subject. The call comes not from any empirical object, but also not from a beyond as if the concrete other before me was a mere loudspeaker or object lesson; it comes from the full ordinary miracle that the real object is. This is so even when-- and this is important--even when the issue is not about what we usually think of as ethical deliberation. E.g., when the issue is not, Do I tell the checkout guy he gave me too much change?; or even, Do I smile at the guy or just stay closed up in my own preoccupations?; but more something like, "Wow, that guy has a gorgeous smile." That this does not arise only vis-a-vis human beings, or even animals, is not, I think, necessary to argue. All of us have known moments when there was a clear "right way" to comport oneself with regard to a room, a piece of music, a distant mountain, a forest path. (Alphonso Lingis is very good on this in The Imperative.) It is not merely a question of not inflicting suffering and indeed need not be a question of affecting at all; at the risk of portentousness, it is a matter not of doing but of being; of "rising to the occasion;" of who one will be here and now.

From Longinus on down, the sublime is connected to greatness of soul. One of the moments that confirmed the spiritual kinship between myself and my best friend and I was after we had stood dumbfounded before a mountain bathed in golden sun and framed by a shocking blue and white sky. Later, in retrospect, we tried to put into words a kind of helplessness we had felt. "Because," I started, "there's nothing--" "--that you can do about it," he finished; and we both grinned with a stupid relief. To the almost shockingly frequent question I have repeatedly heard --"Why do you have to do anything?"-- I have nothing to say. If you don't get it, you don't.

The question of megalopsychia opens onto a specifically salvific dimension. My own approach to Platonism has been via the expressly religious thinking of Maximus the Confessor, a thinker about whom one could hardly say enough-- he is my own nominee for the currently most underrated ancient/medieval philosopher, though I am glad to note a renewed attention to him. Maximus articulated a hugely coherent body of thought, always centered upon the revelation of God in Christ, the Logos of God, in whom the reconciliation between me and who I ought to be, between the "law in my members" and the "law in my nous," is accomplished.

Here, of course, Maximus passes beyond philosophy proper. His philosophy is in fact intended, like Wittgenstein's, to be surpassed; it is meant as a way towards an experience that is salvific, not just theoretical. Maximus articulates a recognizably platonic or neo-platonic account of entities, whereby each being has what he calls (following the Stoics) a logos. (There is debate among scholars about just how far Maximus' "christianizing" of this metaphysics goes.) These logoi are, as it were, thoughts of God--Platonic Ideas, or expressions of God's will and purpose; and although contemplating the logoi of created beings gives only a relative knowledge, they function as a training-ground which enables the mind to eventually ascend past sensible things to "the intelligible economy of God."

Maximus is often noted today for his death after having been tortured for his refusal of monotheletism (the doctrinal position that Christ had only a divine will and not also a human will). This is the sort of thing that makes our modern eyes glaze over, and it is hard to want to have sympathy for those who were ready to have their hands cut off and tongues cut out (this is how St Maximus won his title "confessor") for the sake of a theoloogical formula. About this I will only say here that if we imagine this did not occur to Maximus as well, we are naive.

Here, though, I am drawing upon another part of Maximus' thought. It is very possible I'm getting him wrong, or at least reaching conclusions different from his own. I am not a scholar of Patristics or Byzantine theology, and aside from translations, I am depending on Andrew Louth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Lars Thunberg, and others. (For the record, I am not claiming to be completely true to Levinas here either). But I read Maximus as saying that every entity has its logos, all of which are "contained" as it were in the Logos, Who is Christ. What's important or my purposes here is that in meeting any particular entity, I encounter also its logos, what Levinas would call its face. This is not an encounter with a what, but with a who, which is a hard thing to wrap one's hear around when talking about a light bulb or a pop song or a flock of birds or the gulf stream. The encounter is not just with an "ideal"; it calls me to a new ascetic [=disciplined] openness to the being encountered. The point being that it is not just about a difference between the horse and the "ideal" horse, but about a difference between me and myself. This difference, I claim, is readable as sunyata.

And this dovetails very precisely with another principle of Maximus' inverted platonism. For Maximus states unequivocally that God created every being in the universe out of nothing. Here Maximus at least, departs clearly from all of his Greek antecedents, whether Platonic, Aristotelian, or Stoic. It's also here that one discerns a hinge that might connect the covers of a Buddhist cosmology and discipline with the pages of Christian vision and eschatology.

That, obviously, is controversial, and way too much to even begin to sketch in a single post, even if I hadn't already gone on so much. But I am suggesting that in the ethical encounter, the encounter with the Face, the Thou inherent in human being or a landscape, a supernova or a sea slug, a painting or a power tool, one apprehends or intuits a right way to relate, and this way involves a letting be (a Heideggerian lassen) but also a response; and this response is one of being.

To close this long post, I want to cite a poem by Hopkins which I find frequently turns up in the secondary literature on Maximus (for instance, here. It's as if something in his thought calls it forth. It's also (fir me at least) a breath-stopping instance of the literary sublime.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself, it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
The word "selves" here in the seventh line is a verb. And what Maximus says is: None of us yet self very well. We have none of us yet become who we are. We are too much in our own way; trying too hard to fill up instead of breathe through sunyata.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Agreeing to disagree to agree


This is a follow-up of sorts to my thoughts on in-crowds and friends.

One of the best, and most moving, essays I know of on Husserl is Lev Shestov's "In Memory of a Great Philosopher". It is remarkable for many reasons-- e.g., the clarity with which it sees that Husserl reacted against Kant-- but above all because Shestov's relationship in print with Husserl was one of unmitigated polemic, and yet his memoir of Husserl is full of respect and affection. To read Shestov is to meet a modern Tertullian, who refuses a syllogism precisely because it is a chain to bind thought; to read Husserl is to meet possibly the most ambitious philosopher of the 20th century, who tried to start again from doubt and the indubitable, like Descartes, and to move absolutely methodically. How could these two thinkers have found anything in common?

It wasn't any aspect of philosophical doctrine. It was a matter of their shared spirit, the single-mindedness with which they pursued truth. But this is very strange, strange almost to the point of paradox: how can one decide that one who puruses truth single-mindedly is to be honored when they conclude that truth is the opposite of what one thinks oneself?

"A friend is a second self," Aristotle also famously said. "No one has ever attacked me so sharply as he," Husserl said of Shestov; "--and that's why we are such close friends."

A while ago I was in a cafe when I noticed someone at the next table reading a book with the word "metaphysics" prominent in the title. After satisfying myself that this was really metaphysics and not newage crystal-healing or what have you, I struck up a conversation. When he noted that I was reading the Roman Catholic thinker Robert Spaemann, my new acquaintence asked me, "Are you a Christian?" "I am," I responded. "So am I," he said, and once again I felt the heavy question hanging in the air-- what do we really know about each other based on this exchange? There are some who would say that this is the most important thing. There are others who'd argue that this clarifies nothing at all. I have heard it said, and have thought myself, that a Christian existentialist has more in common with Sartre than with Billy Graham. "I have called you, not servants, but friends," Jesus says to his disciples. But what is this friendship, whether or not we think of it as "within" the church?

Harman posted recently some thoughts on philosophical temperament, reflecting that he loves how Deleuze and Žižek, to mention two, philosophize, but rarely finds himself agreeing with anything they actually say; and by contrast is drawn to Heidegger's or Gadamer's conclusions, but can take only so much of their way of getting there. He concludes that this fits into:
the wider ethical theme of how everyone “gets away with” different things. Ethics is not primarily about the content of our behavior, just as philosophy is not primarily about the content of our thoughts. But neither is it a relativistic “everything goes”. We make rigorous demands on people and on authors, but those demands only sometimes have to do with explicit content.
One could say that friendship is not more important than content, but is irreducibly important-- necessary but not sufficient, say-- but such a calculus pursued too rigorously seems itself to border upon the unfriendly; even if we acknowledge that there may be positions beyond the pale (it would be hard for me to be friends with an outright racist, for instance), who among us adds up camaraderie and content in a cost/benefit analysis?

Yet, to say that content is not as important as friendship makes friendship into, well, a sort of content. And yet one can never say that theory has no claims, for one's philosophical friendships are conducted by way of theoretical engagement.

When we say, "I wish so-&-so were here--they'd have something to say," this means that they are a source for a point of view, one we cannot imagine or anticipate; our foresight fails us. We might imagine "the sort of thing they would say," and yet in the wish that they were here, we are wanting to be surprised as well. This is the case even if we disagree with them, perhaps especially so, for the positions with which we disagree are the hardest for us to anticipate. Elie Ayache makes some entertaining remarks about this a propos his own book The Blank Swan as a re-write or palimpsest over Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan. Ayache writes:
it takes somebody who knows you well, perhaps even the person who knows you best, to best surprise you when it comes to giving you what you expect the most. Miracles share with gifts the property of being the most expected and, at the same time, the most surprising events. (Not to mention, in the case of the miracle, the peculiar brand of knowledge of the supreme giver.) What is surprising is the gift, not the object given. “Just how did you know this was the thing I desired most?” asks the recipient in a burst of joy and thankfulness.
– Because I know you so well!
– Of course you do!
This tells us that no surprise will ever come, in the surprise gift, from collapsing the epistemological chain that is made up by the giver, the recipient, and the thing given. Since the first knows the second best and the second knows
and expects the third most, by transitivity you could only get certainty of outcome and thus the total discounting of the surprise.

The question of friendship, of course, has been a theme of philosophy since Plato's Lysis. That it looms large for me is partly why Derrida's Politics of Friendship is my favorite of his "late" writings. In this book he meditates over and over on the mantra, from Aristotle via Montaigne, "Oh my friends, there is no friend," a koan that was made for Derrida if ever there was one. Ayache's little illustration fairly begs for a Derridean treatment (all that thematic of the "gift," for instance), and this is probably intentional, as writing figures prominently in Ayache's thinking of the market. (He goes on to riff a la Borges on himself as Pierre Menard to Taleb's Cervantes). Certainly the question of friendship is a pressing question for today, when "the enemy" is again a category of philosophical interest; and indeed one can come away from reading Derrida's Politics... with the impression that not a single philosophical issue can be separated from the question of friendship. If this is true (and I think it is), it is so in part because philosophy is paradoxically bound up with the solitude of the one, as well as the discourse between more-than-one.

What is a surprise? How to anticipate changing one's mind? Can I really listen to you and not be open to the possibility that you might be right?

To me, all of this bespeaks yet again a sort of limit of discourse; a moment when the aspect of practice swamps the considerations of theory. This is a disposition that goes very deep with me; there is a reason why my blog is subtitled Open Letters of Philosophical Praxis. One can see it in my pedagogy, when I concentrate upon process over content (to use catch-words with whose associations I am not always comfortable); in my theology, which is liturgical for a reason; in my irenism. Above all, one sees it in my suspicion that philosophy and "everyday life," which are coterminous, have an indispensible "esoteric" aspect to them: the most essential thing is "hidden," albeit in plain sight.

But I want to underscore a point that I also take Shestov to make in his memoir about Husserl: that to prize friendship over content makes philosophy more, not less, urgent. It is a question not of what abstract positions one holds, but of who one is. Socrates urged the Athenians to concern themselves with their souls, not with anything less. This is not a matter about which to be lackadaisical. Disagreements become more pressing when such are the stakes; but the most important thing is how one disagrees, and this "how" is itself only obliquely an object of philosophical doctrine.