Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

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.


  1. Thanks! A fascinating post. I'm surprised no one has commented on it yet. Okay, I'll "bite" on your invitation, "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."

    Hans Lipps (1889-1941), the German phenomenologist.

    I would kill to be able to read any of his works in English. I am able to read French, Danish, Swedish and Russian, in descending order of facility (and I hesitate to even list Russian, because I'm just starting to read it). But for some reason German, specifically, has always been a sort of mental block for me. I have the tools, i.e. a fat German-English dictionary, and a good German grammar book in English. And I have Lipps' complete works in German, sitting on my shelf, just waiting for me to read them. And waiting.

    My motivation to read Lipps is primarily due to the fact that he strongly influenced the Danish philosopher and theologian Knud Ejler Løgstrup. While Løgstrup was in Germany, during the early 1930s, he was a student of Lipps.

    The fact is I'm not that talented when it comes to learning foreign languages - it's a slow, painful grind. But given the fact that I tend to gravitate to thinkers who are "on the margins," and are therefore unlikely to ever be widely translated, I don't have much choice.

    I very much second your desire to see more of Vladimir Jankélévitch translated from French into English. In particular, I'd love to see in English his monograph on Henri Bergson (I do have the original in French). Many still consider it to be the best study of Bergson in existence. Like you I have his translated book Music and the Ineffable and I think it's excellent.

    The comment I'm about to make will probably sound strange, perhaps even nonsensical, but I'll say it anyway. At times, I almost find Jankélévitch's thought to be too penetrating, too acute - somehow almost painfully so. It's like he's noticing things that are so delicate and ephemeral, and writing about them so elegantly, that I almost want to shake him and say:

    "It's wonderful, it's delightful, but stop it. You're almost hurting me. And anyway I feel like you're somehow missing something bigger, something that can't be grasped with a pair of ladies' tweezers, but needs a man's pair of calloused hands. Go read you some William James, and maybe you'll get what I mean."

    How dare I, huh? But I do like Jankélévitch very much. He too is very underrated, in my opinion.

  2. I too have wished I could read Hans Lipps. I first (like many, I suspect) came across his name in several of Gadamer's writings; and later in connection with Edith Stein, but also Løgstrup.

    Eugen Fink is another, from that same milieu.

    I also wish I could read Erich Przywara.

    As to Jankelevitch, there is something to what you say. Yes, William James is a good contrast-- "rough-&-ready," rolling his sleeves up, eager to get on with things. With some thinkers, there's a kind of super-clarity that is scary. Simone Weil is like that for me sometimes. Not that James isn't clear, but his clarity is of a different order-- it's on the way somewhere, and yes, you can get there from here. With Weil, e.g., it is not going anywhere. It just wants clarity for its own sake.

  3. Interesting post and comments (I thank Michael McIntyre for having made me aware of a post I had failed to notice).
    Since I work on Indian philosophy, my personal list of philosophers worth translating would be tremendously long. Hence, instead, I would rather add that what is meant with "translation" might be slightly ambiguous. To me, a translation should be a *reconstruction* of someone else's thought, not just a rendering of his/her words in a different language. This might be difficult, but plausibly possible with a thinker whose thought and background we know quite well, but it is less easy with authors who are remote –both in time and space– and who do not share a similar set of common points of reference. In this sense, a translation of a Gnostic text (if we would ever happen to find one) would be a hard work.
    Personally, I frequently struggle with Sankrit-English (or -German or -French) translations which do not make the original more understandable, since they do not acknowledge the need for today's readers for a supplement of context. What was enough for Sanskrit readers is no longer enough for us, today. Therefore, a literal translation is no longer faithful to the text.
    By this I admit the risk that what is supplemented might be factually wrong (of course, the translator hopes it is not and tries to do his/her best). A philosophical translation is in itself a philosophical work and I do not think it can avoid the reconstruction aspect mentioned by skholiast.

  4. Skholiast,

    Your comments about William James and Simone Weil stirred something below my conscious memory, and it surfaced this morning. It also connects with what I said before about the, at times, extreme subtlety of Jankélévitch that evokes in me (perhaps by way of empathy) something almost like physical pain. I suddenly remembered William James' comments about Saint Teresa in The Varieties of Religious Experience. I'm not thinking here of a specific affinity or commonality between Saint Teresa and Jankélévitch, mind you. I'm thinking more broadly than just the two of them, about an orientation or stance towards life that involves what I'll call intense acuteness. James' comments about Saint Teresa are rather harsh. But I do think he's on to something. And I'm not sure it's so much an "active" / "passive" dichotomy as a "small" / "big" one. Here, "big" corresponds to sweep, breadth of vision; a telescope rather than a microscope. James reminds us of the opposite pole whose presence is needed to restore balance. Okay, so maybe that last sentence is just me talking and not James (who seems to suggest that the opposite pole is better, not equal).

    I sometimes get the feeling from afar (I am not a philosopher, although I enjoy reading some of them) that philosophy today is rather too fixated on the small, the minute, the littler questions - because they seem to be more frangible, more yielding to our intellect, and because it is tacitly assumed we can combine all these fractured bits of knowledge into something bigger, although that's for later, much later, in some over-the-horizon grand synthesis - and not enough concerned with the bigger questions about ultimate meaning. Bergson asked, in his 1912 essay "The Soul and The Body," in the context of a discussion about immortality: "Whence do we come? What are we doing here? Whither are we bound?" These are not rhetorical or antique questions, and Bergson didn't treat them that way. They are still and always will be of the most vital concern to all of us - except for today's philosophers in their professional personae, it seems. This line of inquiry no longer seems interesting to them. Or am I wrong about this? Okay. I'm painting with too broad a brush here, and I know that. But after you read James' remarks, ask yourself whether or not the bulk of philosophers today may not in fact be shrews. I'm thinking of the analytic philosopher who, say, excitedly gushes about his latest completeness proof in propositional calculus, over which he labored so mightily. The situation in continental philosophy may be somewhat better, but it too seems consumed by and with questions that only are of interest to other philosophers, as opposed to the educated general public.

    I'll post some of what William James wrote about Saint Teresa in my next comment.

  5. This is William James, from The Varieties of Religious Experience:

    Take Saint Teresa, for example, one of the ablest women, in many respects, of whose life we have the record. She had a powerful intellect of the practical order. She wrote admirable descriptive psychology, possessed a will equal to any emergency, great talent for politics and business, a buoyant disposition, and a first-rate literary style. She was tenaciously aspiring, and put her whole life at the service of her religious ideals. Yet so paltry were these, according to our present way of thinking, that (although I know that others have been moved differently) I confess that my only feeling in reading her has been pity that so much vitality of soul should have found such poor employment. ...

    The shrew-type is defined as possessing an 'active unimpassioned temperament.' In other words, shrews are the 'motors,' rather than the 'sensories,' and their expressions are as a rule more energetic than the feelings which appear to prompt them. Saint Teresa, paradoxical as such a judgment may sound, was a typical shrew, in this sense of the term. The bustle of her style, as well as of her life, proves it. Not only must she receive unheard-of personal favors and spiritual graces from her Saviour, but she must immediately write about them and exploiter them professionally, and use her expertness to give instructions to those less privileged. Her voluble egotism; her sense, not of a radical bad being, as the really contrite have it, but of her 'faults' and 'imperfections' in the plural; her stereotyped humility and return upon herself, as covered with 'confusion' at each new manifestation of God's singular partiality for a person so unworthy, are typical of shrewdom: a paramountly feeling nature would be objectively lost in gratitude, and silent. She had some public interests, it is true; she hated the Lutherans, and longed for the church's triumph over them; but in the main her idea of religion seems to have been that of an endless amatory flirtation - if one may say so without irreverence - between the devotee and the deity; and apart from helping younger nuns to go in this direction by the inspiration of her example and instruction, there is absolutely no human use in her, or sign of any general human interest. Yet the spirit of her age, far from rebuking her, exalted her as superhuman.

    We have to pass a similar judgment on the whole notion of saintship based on merits. Any God who, on the one hand, can care to keep a pedantically minute account of individual shortcomings, and on the other can feel such partialities, and load particular creatures with such insipid marks of favor, is too small-minded a God for our credence. When Luther, in his immensely manly way, swept off by a stroke of his hand the very notion of a debit and credit account kept with individuals by the Almighty, he stretched the soul's imagination and saved theology from puerility.

    So much for mere devotion, divorced from the intellectual conceptions which might guide it towards bearing useful human fruit. ...

    On still another occasion, it was given to Saint Teresa to see and understand in what wise the Mother of God had been assumed into her place in Heaven.

    The deliciousness of some of these states seems to be beyond anything known in ordinary consciousness. It evidently involves organic sensibilities, for it is spoken of as something too extreme to be borne, and as verging on bodily pain. But it is too subtle and piercing a delight for ordinary words to denote.

    [and so on...]

  6. Here is a bit of news that is indirectly related to Hans Lipps. One of O. F. Bollnow's books - Mensch und Raum - has been translated into English (the first of his to be translated into English, I believe) and is due to appear next month. Boolnow was a student of Lipps and much influenced by him. Details are (somewhat buried in a long) post on my blog site, here.