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

Thursday, January 12, 2012


R. Joseph Hoffman has opined, in the fine old tradition of legitimate hyperbole, that
Complacency is what killed European Christianity. The fruits and comforts of the industrial revolution killed it. Not education and science; not curiosity; not Darwin’s dangerous idea. Just the creeping rot of not really giving a damn about anything.
Hoffman, who is writing as a non-Christian (albeit a scholar of early Christianity), has the good sense to be on the right side of the "accommodationist" debate ("Can religion and science be compatible, ever, ever, ever?") His point in his admirable post is that the negative answer to this question arises from the excesses of an over-reaching intellectual ambition; and he sees this excess as the equal and opposite cultural reaction to the aforementioned complacency, a complacency which, I might add, was widely diagnosed in the 19th century (read Nietzsche, or Kierkegaard, for instance, though I take my lead here from Baudelaire, whose opening poem in the Fleurs du Mal famously names it Ennui). Hoffman's answer to this complacency is simple and has a venerable philosophical lineage:
The opposite of complacency is not excess. It is moderation.
What's important here is not just that the back-&-forth we are enduring now over this question--the stupid tug-of-war between a superstitious Bibliolatry which was already withering away, and a hubristic scientism that has allowed itself to be distracted from "the business of finding things out" into a tar-pit of unwinnable polemics--that this tension is essentially the spasms of one excess answering another, over the abyss of a fundamental apathy:
American culture is not hardwired to evoke curiosity about science, religion, or anything else. It’s designed to breed complacency. If Theodore Roethke had lived today, he would write about the inexorable sadness of shopping malls and gated communities and universities where nothing happens and a society where conscience dies daily in the onslaught of the latest economic data.
One can quibble, if one likes, with Hoffman's diagnosis, or try to resist the cynicism one detects here, but despite the brief signs of life one glimpses in the #Occupy movement, it is hard for me to dispute the gist of this. As I have said before, there is an oscillation between fear and boredom at work in us. (I don't think this is unique to post-Christian or late-capitalist society; the ancient ascetic spiritual struggle has always been against the Midday Demon-- melancholia and panic).

As regards saving both religion and science from their own excesses: this temper-tantrum-with-two-backs has an answer in the tradition of common sense and ordinary wisdom. As Hoffman points out, it goes by the venerable name "Moderation", the ratio between extremes, the key to virtue in Confucius, the Buddha, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Spinoza. (Not to mention Jane Austen, which really ought to be enough.) Does moderation sometimes look like timidity? Certainly; and vice-versa--timidity sometimes styles itself "moderation." After all, moderation, as pursuit of a mean, will partake of the extremes it attempts to balance. And who said keeping one's balance was easy--especially when everyone at either end is pulling you back and forth?

Point is, all that energy that goes into the pulling, is being generated by something. The "Accommodationism" argument is a symptom of a deeper malaise in our culture--I would say a spiritual malaise, if the word wasn't so loaded. But then, that loadedness is the problem, isn't it?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Please enjoy your trip through this door

Always in search of a more satisfying philosophical experience, and in keeping with our conviction that there is no pure, unmediated experience, we here at SCT are indefatigable in our web-page fine-tuning. After a year of cream-colored poor wannabe approximation of parchment, we are pleased to present our new look: a soothing evening-sky-blue, appropriate for the taking-wing of Minerva's owl. We hope this will aid in putting your mind into a calm and relaxed state, aware but un-agitated, suitable for the contemplative life. Your feedback is, as always, welcome. Thank you for choosing SCT.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Myth & object

Plato frequently shows Socrates inventing myths. Whatever one may think about why this is (shelves have been written about it), I regard the interface between philosophy and myth as of paramount significance; it is neither an accident of genealogy or an idiosyncrasy of certain writers.

A myth is a kind of fiction, but unlike ordinary fiction its denizens seem to have not less but more reality than the inhabitants of our ordinary and familiar world. There is a curious parallel between mythification and what Viktor Shklovsky called ostranenie or "defamiliarization," a notion I have had recourse to before. The latter effect renders us "estranged" from the familiar, usually by some striking trope or vivid description, inflecting the ordinary in such a way as to show it shot through either with significance or with an uncanny refusal of significance. Mythification can also effect this, not however by contrasting the ordinary with some conventional setting (making it stand out against it), but rather precisely by placing it into such a conventional system. "The wine-dark sea," "flashing-helmeted Hector", and so on, are only the smallest-scale examples of the workings of such a system, which extended as far as vast interpretive parallels between various events, natural phenomena, and concepts. These equivalences are indeed conventional, i.e., "arbitrary," and philosophy must address itself to understanding them as such, because treating them as "natural" is just superstitious. But philosophy's myths are meant to indicate their own fictitious status in a way that does not undermine the effect of estrangement, but rather produces it in a particularly philosophical mode. A conscious mode, I want to say, though that's only partly accurate.

The long-time reader of SCT will note that this notion has some resonance with earlier posts on fiction, theme, and secondary worlds. Or, to refer back to just yesterday, the whole notion of defamiliarization is a close parallel to the seeing of an object as "withdrawn"--the perplexing or even uncanny vorhanden hammer instead of the friendly, accessible zuhanden one, or (to switch from Heidegger to Sartre) the eerie, nausea-inducing tree-root that refuses any appellation rather than the one to which the word "root" obligingly adheres.

(Part of these reflections was sparked by reading chapter 4 of Thomas Pavel's Fictional Worlds.)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Does the matter withdraw? Does the withdrawal matter?

Levi Bryant has posted a brief take on one of the two hard (and deceptively simple) questions that I think must be faced by any philosophy which takes its lead from Harman. [Update: in a follow-up post, Bryant distinguishes further between his own conception of withdrawal and Harman's before moving on to elucidate his own position more.] Both these questions have to do with the "withdrawn" object. One of them I asked some while ago--how do such metaphysicians know there are any such objects? This question can easily get disregarded in the enthusiasm for doing ontology rather than epistemology. I happen to think this is a dicey game, but I don't think it renders Harman or Bryant unable to continue doing their work. It just means we should place them more in the line of Descartes (despite Descartes' supposed epistemological bias) than of Locke or Hume--they are after "clear and distinct ideas"--and that's no surprise, as we know that the stakes of the crusade against correlationism are set by Meillassoux as the answer to "Hume's problem." When you recall that one half of Harman's project comes to us courtesy of Husserl, this makes perfect sense. Husserl had already set his face against Kant when he declared in the Logical Investigations that
What is true is absolutely true, is true "in itself." Truth is identically one, whether men or non-men, angels or gods, apprehend it. (I sec.36; p79)
The other question, which Bryant is addressing now, is what difference the thesis of the withdrawn object makes. Bryant rightly compares it to the question of whether everything might be doubling in size; one could add any number of others. ("Could the world have sprung into being half a second ago complete with fossils and records?" is a popular one.) These are the questions that critics of "metaphysics" like to lampoon as pointless. A passage from Wittgenstein always occurs to me in this context:
“a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism. (Philosophical Investigations 271)
Bryant compares the withdrawn object to the infinitely receding transcendental signified beloved of deconstructionists. And here too he's right, though I read this in a slightly different way; Terry Eagleton objected to deconstruction that the problem with deconstruction was that it "left everything as it is." That we can "allude" to the in-itself may not strike us as very significant, if that's really all we can do. Some while ago I blogged on this notion of allusion, and there I remarked that to me this allusion is very much like the Socratic spinning of a "likely story;" the example that comes to mind if the account of anamnesis in the Meno, another instance in which an infinite regression threatens. Latour's account of mediation is another. Latour essentially thinks we trace mediation until we get bored--i.e., his is a pragmatist solution. Harman's way out of this is to give us a circuit between real and sensual objects, but this (as he realizes) still leaves us with a very strange situation, and one could be forgiven for thinking it "just pushes the question back a stage." But it is worth recalling that Eagleton's comparison derives not from Marx (though there is a similarity with the famous line about interpreting the world vs. changing it), but rather from Wittgenstein, who believed that what we could only allude to was precisely ethics:
if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing.
It is philosophy itself, Wittgenstein famously held, that "leaves everything as it is" (P.I. 124). Despite the gulf that would seem to separate Wittgenstein (at least in his familiar role as prophet of the linguistic turn) from Speculative Realism in general and OO-thinking in particular, here I think we see a place where object-oriented thought comes close to seeing in any object at all what Wittgenstein sees in ethics--and that seems to me to be extremely significant. (I have earlier juxtaposed before Harman's claim that "aesthetics is first philosophy" with Wittgenstein's that "ethics and aesthetics are one.")

John McDowell (who would seem to be very close to the quietism of Wittgenstein in some ways) is at pains in Mind and World to avoid the consequence that our empirical thinking is a frictionless spinning in a void, a possibility he thinks is raised by what, following Kant, he calls the spontaneity of our judgment--the fact that we decide when we judge, and do not feel caused. Although McDowell is thinking of minds and their decisions, this is in some measure quite analogous to the question of causality in general as it arises for Harman (and I presume for Bryant, though I have not read Democracy of Objects closely yet), because Harman has followed Whitehead in thinking of every interaction as prehension. McDowell thinks he has a way to safeguard against this result. It depends upon granting a distinction between human and animal consciousness (McDowell calls the latter "proto-subjectivity") which may or may not strike one as being the sort of "basic ontological rift" that Harman objects to. For McDowell, the problem arises on the side of subjectivity--it's free, so it seemingly offers no purchase for the natural world to impinge on it; for Harman and Bryant, the problem arises on the side of the (real) object--it withdraws, so how does it interact with anything else?

This question of causality is not quite the same as the question Bryant raises of "so what?", but it is (I think) closer than it may at first appear. The causal question has to do with ontology; the what-difference question has to do with discourse. I have urged before that the difference between epistemology and ontology as philosophical practices is more fluid than rigid; and I expect that Kant still has a thing or two to teach us about this. This may seem like welcoming correlationism in again through the back door, which doesn't concern me as much as it would some. Bryant concludes by saying that
in answering this question it seems that it’s necessary to concede that withdrawn objects make differences that aren’t withdrawn. This isn’t a retreat back to correlationism, but rather the suggestion that perhaps what’s important in object-orientation doesn’t lie in withdrawal as it’s been dominantly conceived.
Or it might mean that correlationism is different from how it has been dominantly conceived. What if the question proved to be a sort of antinomy?

I am very pleased to see Bryant taking this issue on. For myself, I believe that these irruptions of the question of the infinite, and of propositions that have (apparently) no traction, are symptomatic of philosophy not just at its most "pointless" but also, potentially, at its best. One thinker's "pseudo-problem" is another's crux of the matter. Socrates does not stop being friends with people just because their every attempt to say what friendship is is stymied. Though the object "recedes", ones "allusion" to it still occurs--but it occurs in practice. Which means, in participation.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Good luck with that

The resident teenager pointed out yesterday that the Wikipedia article List of Numbers begins with this stock disclaimer:
This is an incomplete list, which may never be able to satisfy particular standards for completeness.
To quote G.K. Chesterton: that is what one calls a powerful understatement.
You can help by expanding it with reliably sourced entries.
Yet one more way to waste time on the internet, or crowdsourcing at its finest?
Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?
(That last bit is from a different Wikipedia article. No need to expand Browning.)