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.
Saturday, January 8, 2011
Philosophy as fragmentary
Quentin Meillassoux's strange essay on Deleuze, "Subtraction and Contraction: Deleuze, Immanence and Matter and Memory," begins with a provocative thought-experiment: imagine that Deleuze's work had been almost entirely lost, and reached us only in fragments and quotations, like Heraclitus' or Pherecydes'. Meillassoux goes on to do a "reconstruction" of Deleuze based on a few quotations and some testimonia. Harman says somewhere that this is the work by Meillassoux he wishes he had written himself, and one can see how it would appeal to his quirky taste for counterfactuals. But the essay actually mirrors very well one of the ways I read thinkers, though I had not put it that way until I read it. As an attempt to correct (unsuccessful, doubtless) for my own tendency to pedantry, I have cultivated a certain casualness as regards reading philosophers-- which is to say, I don't hesitate to misread them. From a distance this might look like just a hangover from my undergrad days, when deconstruction was the rage and told us that there was only misreading. But in my case, it really is a strategy deployed against my own completism and tendency to second-guess myself. Of course I'm not so cavalier as to shrug off accuracy. But I look, really, for plausibility, knowing that I'm offering a reading and that there will always be another and another and another.
When it comes to a writer of whose work only a little is available, there really is no choice but to treat reading them as such an effort in plausible reconstruction. Yes, one can be careless or careful, but even the most painstaking scholarly effort yields a sort of self-portrait of the scholar, via the medium of the fragmentary evidence (which offers the same sort of "resistance of materials" as would the properties of paint on canvas, pastel on paper, or moulded clay). With Sappho or Parmenides, or "the historical Jesus," this is what you get.
But there are writers whose work is widely available and yet is accessible to me only in fragments, simply because I don't read the language. I am grateful every time Daan Verhoeven translates another one of his father Cornelis Verhoeven's essays. I deeply wish that Vladimir Jankelevitch's Traité des vertus and Philosophie première: introduction à une philosophie du Presque would be rendered into English (and I am very happy this has been done for Music and the Ineffable). Of both of these these thinkers, and many others, I have a very lopsided impression of their thinking, because I am dependent on translations. But I have at least read full books, and while the books may not be their "central" ones, not their magnum opus, one can at least gather something about the style of their thought.
There are other thinkers for whom the case is more dire. I know Sergio Quinzio's work only from a single essay and from his influence on Giorgio Vattimo and Ivan Illich. In this case, I am very much like a scholar squeezing every word for as much as it can yield, and almost certainly construing too much. I can't pretend I know Quinzio's position on anything; I can only see whether I can make responsible use of his influence, knowing full well it is mediated not just by the sources I have but by my own project. Of course I wish more (well, something) would be translated (especially Silenzio di Dio and La croce e il nulla). Until then, I have to make do with what I have.
This is why the essay I have been anticipating most of all in the finally-available anthology The Speculative Turn is Bruno Latour's chapter on Etienne Souriau. I'll make Souriau the matter for a separate post. But I am curious to know if anyone out there has any writers-- they need not be philosophers-- the translation of whom they consider a desideratum. (Chris Vitale at Networkologies just posted news that the translation of Gilbert Simonodon's works is underway.)
My reading of a thinker as a reconstruction, however, is not limited to those who I read in translation. There's an important sense in which I realize I am reading everyone that way. This is because I assume that the referent in philosophy is philosophical experience, and this experience--always imperfectly rendered into words--is (I say, following Gilson), essentially unified, or (in my own terms) indelimitable [from itself]. I take this to mean, with tremendous hubris, that insofar as they are philosophers, I can read Daniel Dennett and Albert the Great, Martha Nussbaum and Aurobindo, together. Yes, they do apparently contradict one another. And yet, I discern in all of them a striving toward clarity and articulation of something both intellectually and intuitively satisfying; I account for their differences in terms of a dozen things--prior commitments, errors (my own or theirs), the infelicities of language. I of course do not assume that they do "ultimately agree," nor even that insofar as they do agree they are all enlightening, but rather than insofar as they are all enlightening, they point me to a possible agreement beyond words (which they may or may not share).
I think in this I am something of an unregenerate Romantic, following F. Schlegel and Novalis (and, here at least, wanting to resist Badiou), seeing every philosophy as an incomplete and uncompletable task, but one that intuits a whole.