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

Sunday, June 5, 2011

In which the question is raised: in what sense are we doing philosophy?

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil 30:
The difference between exoteric and esoteric [was] formerly known to philosophers.
I subscribe to this interpretation of the history of philosophy, associated most (in)famously with the name of Leo Strauss, though I did not come to it through him. One danger of it, however, is that one starts to think that if one is a philosopher one must practice esotericism; and if one doesn't, one isn't doing philosophy. Another danger is that one starts to think that one can only understand the philosophers if one is oneself a philosopher in this sense. But this is to misconstrue the Nietzschean taxonomy.

In my very first post I cited Strauss and said that, like him, I claim to be "only a scholar;" after all, what is more insufferably pretentious than insinuating that one has a secret doctrine? But of course this is not quite right; are we or are we not doing philosophy here? (I am not asking this because of some recent voices--who should know better--seeming to claim that philosophy doesn't happen online, that what do here is journalism and not philosophy--an argument which has force but not measure on its side. Online media have some debilitating restrictions when it comes to philosophy, but no more than other forms.) The issue for me is that I do acknowledge the force of Strauss' analysis, however much I may quibble with the details--I see a "between the lines" strategy occurring in philosphical texts going back to Plato, and indeed far beyond the confines of what is usually considered philosophy; I struggle with this and indeed feel a keen inadequacy; and I certainly have no gnosis to impart. But at the same time, I do not want to surrender the claim to be an aspiring lover of wisdom. I've been trying to put my inchoate objections to the Straussian formulae into words.

In the wake of Nietzsche, many, many of his "disciples" took over the rhetoric he used, speaking of "we hyperboreans," we philosophers of the future. Most of these have by now been mercifully buried with the past. Those we still read either grew up and found their own voices or started out with other intuitions as well. But the seed had been sown for the elevation of philosopher into a seer.

The tremendous impression Heidegger made among his contemporaries owes something to this legacy of Nietzsche's (as he recognized very well). One gets a sense of this impression from Arendt's well-known memoir, "Martin Heidegger at Eighty", in which she recalls his growing reputation:
There was hardly more than a name, but the name traveled all over Germany like the rumor of the hidden king....word spread that thinking is alive again....there is a teacher; one could perhaps learn to think.
I read Strauss' scholarly humility as a defensive move against the undeniable force of Heidegger's oracular debut. (Like any number of others, Strauss was bowled over by Heidegger's debate with Cassirer at Davos; he later said that Heidegger was "the only great thinker of our time"-- which was, he added, just the trouble.) Strauss was a very deep and perceptive thinker, but he was certainly not that kind of thinker, and to contend with Heidegger on that ground would have been to repeat the defeat of Cassirer, or the Pyrrhic victory of Jaspers (in which he kept his honor but lost the war), or the long war of attrition of Adorno. So he adopted a different strategy, proposing an alternate series of readings of the history of philosophy to the series proposed by Heidegger, readings which did not explicitly engage with Heidegger at all but which always implicitly called into question, in their understated and modest dignity, the Heideggerian animus against Plato.

There remain to this day scholars--Laurence Lampert, Seth Benardete, and so on--who make this distinction between scholarship and philosophy in such a way that leaves one with a slightly uneasy feeling. When Lampert suggests (e.g. here, p 1) that
we have to read philosophers differently, abandoning the notion that--like us--they tried to make everything as clear as possible to everyone, and we have to entertain the unpalatable and unwelcome possibility that they hid their real meaning and that they had good reasons for doing so[,]
he is postulating a very specific difference between "philosophers" and "[the rest of] us," a much starker division than I admit. I am one who holds that philosophy lurks to one's right and one's left at every moment; that to decline it one must actively decline it.

A friend of mine recently made a mix-tape of what he called "any-mood songs," songs he could confidently expect to always want to hear, no matter what. My friend is a guitarist and composer and has thought more about music than most people have listened to it; he has emphatic likes and dislikes and is astonishingly articulate about them. His compilation exercise, he told me, required a tremendous honesty. Honesty? Indeed: one can be attached to a song for all sorts of reasons, and yet not consider it an "any-mood" song. The nature of these attachments, the severe and open-eyed awareness needed to think about them--who would have thought that questions of self-deception and aesthetics would be so deeply entwined as to come into relief when making a mix-tape for oneself? And yet, he found, there was opportunity and even a strange incentive to deceive himself about his own aesthetics, a matter on which I might have thought him able to operate even without thinking. But this is just it. Every circumstance of our life is fraught with occasion for reflection, for thought--fraught with philosophical import merely by virtue of our own sentience. If we do not find ourselves, each and all, spontaneously voicing the wisdom of Socrates (which is to say, articulate ignorance), this is not because our lives are not philosophical but because we are not; we are divorced from our lives, leading in them in, precisely, a manner of un-examination.

But then, does this not mean that Lampert and Strauss are right--that those who endeavor to live the examined life are different? And if so, then, how different? Was Hume still a philosopher when he turned from skepticism to billiards?

To be sure, this ambiguous adulation of philosophers that wants to decode their secrets is preferable (if one must choose) to the ressentiment towards the dead white males which presumes that feet of clay must go "all the way up." Such is, for instance, the pitiable contention that Fregean logic was tainted by anti-semitism, and abetted National Socialism:
Hitler...guided by sentiments not unlike the ones expressed in Frege's diary, worked out the master-logic of National Socialism...National Socialism thought like Frege's, did not concern itself with empirical content....No personal experience could negate [its] body of truth. The applications of logic to action that Frege had promised came readily to hand. If Jews are a mongrel race, they must be exterminated. 'A thought like a hammer' [in Frege's words] demanded instant obedience to the dictates of logic." (Andrea Nye, Words of Power: A Feminist Reading of the History of Logic p 169)
Well! Yes, this sort of broadside (and there's more where that came from) is simultaneously hard to answer and an easy target. (Those of you who missed the late '80s and early '90s may require a strong White Queen effort to believe it, but this sort of thing was ubiquitous on university campuses then.) But the question, what about Heidegger's Being and Time?, is not so clear-cut; simultaneously harder to brush off and harder to make stick. Oh feet of clay!

And yet, isn't there something similar between unriddling the hidden teaching of Vico or Bacon or Avicenna, and finding the skeleton's in Frege's or Heidegger's closet? Let me be clear: the question of anti-semitism in Heidegger or in Frege can indeed be asked philosophically. If I think Nye fails in Frege's case, this is not because she asks a poor question, but because she doesn't ask it as a philosopher. She knows very well what conclusions she wants to come to, and Frege's anti-semitic writings (mainly his diary) offer her an occasion to get there. And yet even these motives can serve philosophy, for the strong desire to question logic, and to recruit any occasion to its aid, is itself a mode of philosophical eros.

This post is not primarily about the prejudices of philosophers (or of their sophistic critics); it's about the alleged differences between philosophers and "the rest of us." Nye's critique is a way of abolishing this difference, a way I think fails, but this doesn't mean the difference is purely phantasmal.

Wittgenstein said that what he sought was a way to stop doing philosophy when he wanted to. If there is something that sets off philosophers from "the rest of us," it's this--that the vast majority need no prodding to stop doing philosophy, to decline to follow the logos "wherever it leads". For a few, it is not so easy. We get distracted by things, but it's precisely a distraction into thought. Every concrete occasion offers us, not a way to a specific end, but a lure towards God-knows-what-end. To take an aesthetic example: for me, the question of why a beautiful vista is beautiful is part of its beauty. I cannot even begin to respond to the quietist objection "why can't you just 'let it be' without asking these questions?" The response the vista calls forth from me includes the question every bit as much as it includes my admiration--the question is the shape of my admiration. The incentive to ask is woven into the very texture of the experience. This, I maintain, is what makes a philosopher, a lover of wisdom--not that we feel this itch but that we can't leave it alone.

This doesn't mean we can elaborate doctrines of teachings. Most of continue to grope and struggle, to pick up one bad reason after another for what we believe on instinct, to question our instincts without knowing what else to fall back upon. There is indeed an esotericism involved here, which may be elaborated into some sort of agrapha dogmata, but if so, who cares? Plato's unwritten doctrines were not "secret" because they might fall into the wrong hands but because they "could not be put into words." And as Wittgenstein knew, "if a question can be asked, it can also be answered."

Strauss maintains that Nietzsche followed a long tradition in distinguishing between the 'herd,' the exceptions, and the philosophers. This goes back at least to Machiavelli, who probably got it from Averroes. Among non-philosophers, the herd declines to ask the question; the exception asks, but with an end in mind--it wants an answer, very frequently a particular answer. The philosopher knows that every question will be answered by another; the search is endless, though there can be a realization of this inexhaustibility that goes beyond questions and answers (and in a sense leaves them just where they were). (There is a philosophical truth to quietism too.) "To be able to stop doing philosophy when I want to" presupposes that one has been doing philosophy; it is to come out the other side of it--an experience of deliverance, not of denial.


  1. I'm not saying that this writer has the answers, but, concerning the question of what philosophy is and how it is to be done (a mighty interesting question), he has some infuriating thoughts on the unendingness of it all. It should perhaps be overlooked that he is speaking about Deleuze. This guy is a much better writer. http://www.jamesbrusseau.net/books_and_essays/What_is_Decadent_Philosophy.pdf

  2. Thanks for this, Gary. I hadn't seen it.

  3. The following comment is from Joe, who was prevented by a glitch from posting it:

    another interesting post as always, thanks. You know my view. I think that one doesn't need esotericism in order to 'do' philosophy; one needs it in order to practice it. Privately, certainly one can ignore esoteric procedures in ones own thinking and think however one likes. This is certainly the usual procedure, perhaps even among esotericists.

    But to speak in this manner publicly of philosophy is to be in danger of being an intellectual child-molester. Why? Because philosophy, and the radical doubt it entails regarding all religions and political systems, is always in danger of lighting a fuse that will eventually lead to a bomb that destroys civilization. Philosophy is an incendiary device without equal, and one should keep matches away from small children.

    The problem lies not in the truth that philosophy forever seeks; the problem lies in human nature itself. Nietzsche's remark, 'Psychology is the Queen of the Sciences', does not mean that 'we' philosophers will now manipulate everyone thanks to our superior genius. It means that philosophy must now be honest about human limitations and accept that there will never be a 'wised-up' humanity.

    Therefore the Enlightenment is dead. But Philosophical Psychology also has nothing to do with the myriad constructivist fantasies of our postmodernity regarding human power; it is a frank confession of defeat. Nietzsche isn't making anything. This has to be understood. The new world he points toward is a discovery; not a creation. True, he tries to speed up its arrival believing the quicker it happens the less loss there will be.

    'Those you cannot teach to fly, teach to fall faster', he once wrote. He found modernity falling; therefore he pushed it. That is Nietzsche's activity (in the final period, from Zarathustra on) in a very small nutshell.

    There are two esotericisms my friend; one regarding human limitation, the other regarding the beautiful, yet terrifying, 'unsayability' of the World. (Nietzsche sometimes calls this Indifference, sometimes Chaos.) I am mostly interested in the former, you are mostly interested in the latter. Genuine philosophers are mostly interested in both.


  4. The Internet has been a boon for the reader of philosophy without access to a scholarly library. For example I have been able to download 9 titles by Bergson and thus have the raw material for an understanding of his thought that is unfiltered. Chalmers' consciousness papers site is another great boon. In fact I would have to say that of all the classical disciplines that the Internet has touched Philosophy has benefited the most. Blogs are a mixed bag, of their nature often wreathed in self-regard if not the bay of attainment. To yourself I would say - try venturing out without the bodyguard of authorities. No one is going to beat you up. As the Sufis have it, and they are only real esoterics left, you have a better chance of finding an artesian source by digging in one spot.

  5. And just to prove James Brusseau's point there is this - http://realityconditions.blogspot.com/2006/02/book-review-thomas-nagel-last-word.html

  6. If one is mainly interested in the clarity of meaning, significance, and plausibility of philosophical claims or theories, then it is irrelevant whether the inquiry and discussion is done in a room, or in a journal, or online.

    In fact, since we don't have the distraction of "special effects" associated with physical presentations or lectures - such as a halo of wisdom, airs of profundity in making philosophical claims, theatrical imitations of Rodin's Thinker, repugnant smirks of complacency, hyena-style laughter at objections etc - we are better off doing philosophy online! LOL

    "some recent voices...claim that philosophy doesn't happen online...Online media have some debilitating restrictions when it comes to philosophy..."

  7. Lampert suggests (e.g. here, p 1) that
    "we have to read philosophers differently, abandoning the notion that--like us--they tried to make everything as clear as possible to everyone, and we have to entertain the unpalatable and unwelcome possibility that they hid their real meaning and that they had good reasons for doing so..."

    I would like to know at least one good reason a good or great philosopher could have to hide the real meaning of his her claims. I find this notion bizarre.

    There is a simple explanation for consistent obscurity in the writings of a philosopher: here is a bad philosopher who wants to disguise his or her poverty and confusion of thought and convey (misleading) impressions of depth and profundity!

  8. Thill,

    Lampert in this follows Strauss, whose reasons, famously adduced in Persecution and the Art of Writing and elsewhere, are that philosophy courts political disaster at all times and so must hide its more drastic conclusions under a surface of apparent conformity, or at least compatibility, with political order. There are any number of examples of philosophers who we know to have suffered persecution, which both trivially supports and trivially undermines Strauss' contention: supports, because it demonstrates the threat is real; undermines, because it apparently indicates the alleged esoteric strategy was not well carried out, and so might plausibly not exist at all. But both these scores are trivial (say I) because after all Strauss himself is engaged in a reading of the philosophers in question and clearly feels himself competent to see the esotericism at work. In other words, it is not a question of an insupportable and private insight, but of a reading of signs, which are of course public by definition. Certainly there were philosophers who distinguish between their intended audience and others who must be more gently led; the doctrine of the 'noble lie' is too well known to belabor, and had along legacy. But in my opinion the best (circumstantial) evidence for Strauss' contention is the detailed readings of philosophy which he produces thereby.

    Of course there is esotericism and esotericism. Doubtless many have deployed its trappings to make themselves effective purveyors of snake oil. Probably the most famous indication of this is the anecdote, recorded by Dennett, in which Foucault told Searle that in order to be taken seriously by French philosophers, twenty-five percent of what you write has to be impenetrable nonsense.” Dennett dubbed this tactic eumerdification.

    My own readings differ somewhat from Strauss', in that I think there are indeed some occasions when philosophy aims precisely to push one beyond the articulable. Joe remarks in his comment above that one does not need esotericsm for philosophy per se, but only for its safe practice. (There are sometimes good reasons for dressing up, even as a snake oil salesman.) I think there are times when either one motive or the other, and sometimes both, come(s) into play. I am thinking e.g. of Wittgenstein whose first and only published book was, he declared, only the less important half of an entire project; it was the second, unwritten half, he said, which was the significant one. At least in Wittgenstein's case I dispute that he was selling snake oil. Certainly anyone can blow smoke; but sometimes where there is smoke, there is fire.

  9. Yes, I had the same thought on persecution as a possible reason for disguising the content of one's thoughts, but then this is self-defeating. How would anyone figure out what one's real political thoughts were behind their disguises?

    "Probably the most famous indication of this is the anecdote, recorded by Dennett, in which Foucault told Searle that in order to be taken seriously by French philosophers, twenty-five percent of what you write has to be impenetrable nonsense.”

    Appalling! I would add that the 25% is intentional "impenetrable nonsense", but there is a further 70% or more of unintentional "impenetrable nonsense". LOL