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

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Hitchcock's MacGuffin is the empty occasion for drama. Ostensibly, it doesn't matter what it is; it serves only to be the object of desire, a narrative engine. "Government secrets," plans for a submarine, compromising letters, the Ring of Power: the object just gets the story going; the story, however, is not about the object, but about the characters. It was a neat little trick of Zizek's to conflate this with the Lacanian objet a, the empty focus of the desiring gaze (often when one doesn't even know one is desiring.) Nonetheless, there is a question to be raised. The assertion that it "doesn't matter" what the object is, is ambiguous. True enough, the audience doesn't care about government secrets; it cares about Cary Grant escaping from thugs and cunning, ruthless bosses. But in the calculus of the story, there are indeed dire consequences, "should the secret fall into the wrong hands." Even if it turns out that the whole thing is a ruse -- that there is no "secret" -- this will be because this pretend-secret has a function in some other calculus; the agent who is an unknowing decoy or a sacrificed pawn is not playing the game he or she thinks is being played, but there is a game, and (in the story) it has an object, even though the audience may not know much or care much about what it is.

This point is sometimes deployed against the case of fantasy as a genre. Just what, exactly, are the "stakes" for the Dark Lord? While a real-life tyrant like Caligula may just be into orgies and a senatorship for his horse, an epic-scale evil like the Sith must have higher ambitions, right? Emperor Palpatine isn't just into relaxing in luxury, we assume. And Sauron -- what exactly does he plan to do if he finally can set the ring again on one of his remaining fingers? Just spread a thick cloud over Middle-Earth and enjoy the sounds of orcs cracking whips?

This ostensible reductio is supposed to function as a kind of "you didn't think of that, did you?" move. Probably for most derivative genre fantasy writers, it's a fair move. But Tolkien in fact had thought of it.

In the volume Morgoth's Ring, one of the books which Christopher Tolkien edited from his father's vast amount of unpublished daft material for The Silmarillion, there is an essay on "Notes on motives in the Silmarillion," in which Tolkien very explicitly addresses the question of the motive of both Sauron and Sauron's predecessor, the vastly more powerful and frightening Melkor (aka Morgoth), who is more or less the Satan-figure in the Silmarillion. Tolkien was engaged not in philosophy but in modern mythopoesis, and his account requires to be understood in its own terms, which are narrative; but despite its mythical tropes (he speaks for instance of Melkor's being having "pass[ed] into the physical constituents of the Earth"), he makes a philosophical, even a theological point. For Morgoth, initially the object was the imposing of his own will upon everything that had its origin outside of him -- the whole of the world. As long as the world resisted, this could be the project; but the only logical conclusion of it was the sheer nihilistic will to destroy all of "Arda," i.e., the created world.
Morgoth would no doubt, if he had been victorious, have destroyed even his own 'creatures', such as the Orcs, when they had served his sole purpose in using them: the destruction of Elves and Men. Melkor's final impotence and despair lay in this: that whereas the Valar (and in their degree Elves and Men) could still love "Arda marred," that is, Arda with a Melkor-ingredient, and could still heal this or that hurt, or produce from its very marring, from its state as it was, things beautiful and lovely, Melkor could do nothing with Arda, which was not from his own mind, and was interwoven with the thoughts and works of others: even left alone he could only have gone raging on until all was leveled again into a formless chaos. And yet even so he would have been defeated, because it would still have 'existed' independent of his own mind, a world in potential.
This is essentially a (brief) theology of evil. It is, doubtless, vulnerable to a kind of critique: "Really? Evil as will-to-destruction? A failed demiurge's cosmic temper-tantrum?" But this rejoinder is too simple and misses the point that what Melkor wants (so says Tolkien) is not merely impossible, but nonsensical. And so in his despair he must "settle" for nonsense.

Sauron, Tolkien specifies, had not reached this stage of nihilism. He was content that the world should exist, "so long as he could do what he liked with it;" but already this had become an idée fixe:
his 'plans', the idea coming from his sole isolated mind, became the sole object of his will, and an end, the End, in itself.
From this it should be clear that the apparent pointlessness of evil, which lies behind the question asked earlier ("what is the Dark Lord going to do if he gets the Ring?"), is intended. It is a feature, not a bug. Tolkien then adds a significant footnote:
But his capacity of corrupting other minds, and even engaging their service, was a residue from the fact that his original desire for 'order' had really envisioned the good estate (especially the physical well-being) of his 'subjects.'
I.e., Sauron's will really does have its roots in a good, albeit now perverted and obscured, desire. (This is already stated in The Lord of the Rings by Elrond: "Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.") By the same token, one could say this even of Melkor; for the will to "self-expression" is not itself evil. But Melkor was immeasurably more powerful (and his fall more ancient) than Sauron's, and so his corruption was the greater. And so, by extension of the same principle, we are allowed to speculate that had Sauron succeeded and his will continued to turn upon itself, he too would have ended in will-to-destruction; in destroying (or attempting to destroy) Mordor, the Orcs, and eventually Arda itself.

A different writer gave us a similar (and no less fantastic) articulation of this destructive will in a famous passage:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness; only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.....

Power is power over human beings. Over the body-but, above all, over the mind. Power over matter external reality, as you would call it-is not important. Already our control over matter is absolute....We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. ...We make the laws of nature.... What are the stars?...They are bits of fire a few kilometers away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the center of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it. ...For certain purposes, of course, that is not true. When we navigate the ocean, or when we predict an eclipse, we often find it convenient to assume that the earth goes round the sun and that the stars are millions upon millions of kilometers away. But what of it? Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?....The real power, the power we have to fight for night and day, is not power over things, but over men....Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy- everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty toward the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always -- do not forget this, Winston -- always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- forever.
Right at the beginning, one can note that Orwell has bitten the bullet about "motive." The Party has long passed the moment where they told anyone, even themselves, that they had anyone else's good at heart. Since Orwell never tells us the history of the ascendancy of the Party in Oceania, we are at liberty to doubt whether O'Brien is aptly characterizing the motives of the revolution; but that is a secondary point. Orwell's nightmare is justly known for many reasons, above all for its extreme and lucid articulation of this naked lust that had never before, perhaps, been so unapologetically spelled out. At the same time, as Orwell was doubtless aware, O'Brien's speech here betrays (not that this would have distressed O'Brien, who would have deftly employed doublethink) an inconsistency. The Party "is" omnipotent; and yet the Party is aiming for omnipotence ("when we are omnipotent, we will have no more need of science.") This is an index of a deeper, more desperate inconsistency. The project of the Inner Party is crucially dependent -- and this dependence is a metaphysical, not a "practical" one -- upon its need for something else to prey upon. A continual and inexhaustible source of helpless enemies. (One could spell this out in some detail with reference to Hegel's account of master and slave in the Phenomenology of Spirit.) This parasitism is precisely analogous with the incapacity of Morgoth to wipe out the world (though O'Brien claims to be able to do this). For now, the Party can be content to foster the sadism of tearing minds apart and putting them back together in shapes of their own choosing -- not unlike Morgoth's corruption of the Eldar and the Edain into Orcs. But ultimately, such a power -- if it should be ascendant, which is by no means impossible -- would end, like Tolkien's Dark Lord, in willing the destruction of everything.

This kind of unimaginable nihilism is easy to dismiss, as though it were a nonsensical boogeyman, or a massive projection. Doubtless we have many reasons to be skeptical of the notion of an "axis of evil;" to guard against casting even those who clearly will our destruction as simply willing Destruction per se. Much could be said about this; both about the hobbling of oneself when one undercuts one's moral intuitions by ruling unusable one of the most long-standing of moral categories, and about the many reasonable and good motivations for being tempted in this direction. That's yet another post. My point here is that neither Tolkien nor Orwell were naive about this question. Each recognized that the "threat" he was envisioning in their narratives was "too big" to be really conceived; that everything it entailed was not clearly spelled out. It is, in essence, a kind of anti-MacGuffin. But this does not make it merely a narrative trick.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Symbol, Doubt, History, Faith

[This is a more obviously theological post than many of mine.]

Father Stephen Freeman reminds us that the way we ask questions regarding "what really happened," underpinning skepticism and fundamentalism alike, is a side-effect of a tremendous shift in consciousness. (Some will remember that I reviewed Fr. Freeman's blog Glory to God for All Things last year in my set of Brief Blog Reviews.) He sets the stage with way the problem is usually looked at today:
The question of faith in contemporary society is a matter of fact – "do I think this event actually happened?" It is around this single point that believers seem to arrange themselves.
Fr. Freeman traces this to the birth of historical consciousness in the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation.
The assault on the authority of the Church required (and still requires) a substitute. By what authority is the Church to be judged defective? .... Scripture is one obvious answer – with the lingering question of authoritative interpretation. And it was at this point that history, as something of a rational science, had its foundations.... The meaning of Scripture had to be loosed from its place within tradition, and sheltered under the guise of an independent fact. This is the birth of history as a collection of facts.... In our time this factualized sense of history has become the sole locus of reality, authority, etc. We have become thoroughly “historicized.”
Fr. Freeman's first illustrations of the contrast between the previous mindset and our own, however, do not concern the difference between an event "literally happening" and a story told for some other reason. It isn't a matter of saying, Oh, the Feeding of the Five Thousand -- that's just a parable; or with a shake of the head, "Creation in Seven Days -- don't you see, the Bible isn't a cosmology textbook?" Rather, Fr. Freeman's examples have to do with allegory:
The frequent assertion of images and types within the Scriptures runs deeply counter to the modern mind. That the Mother of God is also the Ark, the Candlestand, the Jar of Manna, the Rod of Aaron, etc. is not a mere exercise in literary games. The Fathers (and the hymns of the Church) treat such assertions in a manner that carries as much weight as our modern sense of historical facts. They feel about such things the way we feel about our beloved concrete, provable, verifiable events. And that such assertions cannot be provable, or verifiable in a manner that would satisfy us, troubles them not in the least.
In short:
The Fathers simply do not think or feel in the manner in which we most commonly think or feel. Their perception of things is not the same as ours.
This complex of questions is so close to the heart of spiritual malaise that engaging with it in a dispassionate manner is extremely challenging. To enter into the consciousness that can understand things this way -- the ease of allegory and symbol without opposing them to the literal, without giving implicit veto power to a false dichotomy -- is part of what is meant by the frequent injunction in Christian spiritual writings to "put on the mind of the Fathers." But on the other hand, this "mind" can only be cultivated if we somehow already can relax our anxiety and step into faith in a different way than is assumed by the default definitions of our era.

This means that this world view is in one sense a prerequisite, and in another sense a result. This creates a paradox, which can be felt to varying degrees. At worst, it seems a sort of double-bind: if you have to ask, you'll never know; or, it's all grace, and without grace you can't understand... Pressed through to it's ultimate "logical" conclusion, this creates an impasse: there is no passage, however narrow, between the mind of the believer and an unbeliever, but only a discontinuity. This sort of guillotine-slice between two "ways of thinking' is often associated -- not entirely correctly -- with a certain thread in reformed theology, of which the work of Cornelius Van Til is a fair representative:
There can be no appeasement between those who presuppose in all their thought the sovereign God and those who presuppose in all their thought the would-be sovereign man. There can be no other point of contact between them than that of head-on collision.
--Van Til, The Intellectual Challenge of the Gospel, p. 19
Elsewhere Van Til nuanced this stark contrast -- a little:
the natural man, using his principles and working on his assumptions, must be hostile in principle at every point to the Christian philosophy of life....all men have all things in common metaphysically and psychologically, was definitely asserted, [but] the natural man has epistemologically nothing in common with the Christian. ...this latter assertion [must be] qualified by saying that this is so only in principle.... So far then as men self-consciously work from this principle [of sin, or autonomy], they have no notion in common with the believer. Their epistemology is informed by their ethical hostility to God.
--Van Til, The Defense of the Faith pp. 189-190
Although Van Til seems to restrict the ravages of depravity to unbeliever's epistemology, the effect here is much the same, since the whole question is, ostensibly, How Do I Know?

At this point,let us note, I have moved far from the Orthodox ambit of Fr. Freeman. We'll circle back.

It may surprise some (or maybe not) to read this, but I actually don't think that Van Til's sort of language is always out of place. I take my cue from Wittgenstein. Thus:
Any man who is half-way decent will think himself extremely imperfect, but a religious man thinks himself wretched.
Wittgenstein, Culture and Value p 45, circa 1944
Wittgenstein was quite comfortable with using religious language -- usually Christian language -- in a way that was not about corresponding with facts:
Predestination: It is only permissible to write like this out of the most dreadful suffering - and then it means something quite different. But for the same reason it is not permissible for someone to assert it as a truth, unless he himself says it in torment. - It simply isn’t a theory. - Or, to put it another way: If this is truth, it is not truth that seems at first sight to be expressed by these words. It’s less a theory than a sigh, or a cry.
ibid, 1937
But Wittgenstein also knew that it was very possible to take such words in an utterly wrong, and indeed harmful, sense; and he had very specific examples in mind, from his own experience:
In religion it must be the case that corresponding to every level of devoutness there is a form of expression that has no sense at a lower level. For those still at the lower level, this doctrine, which means something at the higher level, is null and void; it can only be understood wrongly, and so these words are not valid for such a person. Paul's doctrine of election by grace, for instance, is at my level irreligious and ugly nonsense. So it is not meant for me since I can only apply wrongly the picture offered me." If it is a holy and good picture, then it is so for a quite different level, where it must be applied in life quite differently than I could apply it.
ibid, 1937
The sort of language Van Til employs (and I am only using him as an example) is disastrous until you are ready for it. Press this too soon and all you get is, "oh, so I've got a 'spirit of rebellion,' do I, because I ask questions?" and then, what do you know, you actually do feel kinda rebellious!

However, the disjunction, the "head-on collision" Van Til mentions, can also, in specific circumstances -- at the "right level," Wittgenstein might say -- be exactly the right move. Such a paradox can have a salvific effect for some when the crisis is broken through. Suddenly, in a hitting-rock-bottom sort of way, utterly cornered by the Hound of Heaven, such a one can see the whole dilemma just snap open. For a brief moment, the nature of grace becomes obviously inescapable, and this experience, modulated into the key of "belief," is quite accurately rendered in the language of I-once-was-lost-but-now-am-found.

As a way of "putting on the mind of the Fathers," though, it's pretty undependable.

Another way, much more reliable, is ordinary practice: the everyday use of language and music and full-immersion liturgical discipline, which after long exposure can suddenly appear in retrospect (and sometimes even if it has seemed "rote" or merely antiquarian) as an ascetic training in seeing the world otherwise. It is slow, and of course also requires intentionality; but it has the advantage of going deep into a person.

From the outside -- the modern, "historicized" outside -- of course, both of these "methods," if I may use the word, look suspicious. The latter looks like simple acculturation ("brainwashing," I hear some of my atheist friends mutter); the former looks sort of like Stockholm Syndrome.

Fortunately, there is also a third way (and in fact, a "modern", even a "historicized" way): to see that there remain commonalities between us and this ancient world: and this in two directions -- for the ancients not as indifferent to fact as we may think in our caricatures (Origen for instance is perfectly calm about calling the account in Genesis 1 "not true in a bodily fashion," but he's also quite comfortable with the Empty Tomb being, well, really Empty -- and very recently vacated); nor are we indifferent to symbol, even though we may have a skewed relation to it now. (E.g.: money.) This is where philosophy as propaedeutic comes in, for taking this route is partly a matter of scholarship, partly of philosophy proper; curiously it hinges upon the very historical discipline which has encouraged the spiritual narrowing of which Fr Freeman speaks. This is part of what I mean when I speak, as I often do, of philosophy as a kind of Salvage Ops -- philosophy characteristically grants a critique and then presses it far enough to discern and rescue the essential experience in what is critiqued. The fact that even this is becoming very difficult is part of the poison of historicism, which at first advertises itself as "awareness of history," but eventually becomes an erasure of historical memory. (Compare, obviously, the Phaedrus.)

All these three ways can be put together; practice and study and crisis trading off; there is an important sense in which for any of us in the modern world this is almost essential. But a question arises: are we saying that this is what Christianity thinks is important? Being able to inhabit this allegorical landscape with perfect Keatsean negative capability, no "irritable reaching after fact and reason"? Being able to see the Virgin Mary as the Jar of Manna and the Ark of the Covenant? Is this ancient way of thinking and feeling differently, constitutive of salvation? Or is it, as it were, a kind of prerequisite?

Trick question. Everyone's "False dichotomy" buzzer should be going off. In the course of a (very informative) conversation in the comments, Fr. Freeman refers to the etymology of "symbol" ("putting together") and, pertinently, its antonym -- diabole. He cites Alexander Schmemann (one of the theologians of the 20th century, a man who was crucial in letting Christianity speak to our age), to wit:
in the common theological language as it takes shape between the Carolingian renaissance and the Reformation, and in spite of all controversies between rival theological schools, the “incompatibility between symbol and reality,” between “figura et veritas” is consistently affirmed and accepted. “To the ‘mystice, non vere’ corresponds not less exclusively ‘vere, non mystice.’” The Fathers and the whole early tradition, however—and we reach here the crux of the matter—not only do not know this distinction and opposition, but to them symbolism is the essential dimension of the sacrament, the proper key to its understanding. St. Maximus the Confessor, the sacramental theologian par excellence of the patristic age, calls the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist symbols (“symbola”), images (“apeikonismata”) and mysteries (“mysteria”). “Symbolical” here is not only not opposed to “real,” but embodies it as its very expression and mode of manifestation.
--Schmemann, For the Life of the World, pp. 138-139
After all, any sacramental Christian ought to be thinking, when you really receive the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ, this is salvation.

And yet. While Scripture speaks of "putting on the mind of Christ," it does not have much to say about the capacity to be sanguine about icons or not uptight about whether such and such a miracle-story "really happened;" so urging us to cultivate such a mentality, while perhaps apposite, is still not quite obviously the same as relating to the truth of the miracle, or worshipping the God shown forth in the icon.

Thus the need not to substitute this "ancient way," the "Mind of the Fathers", for what is apprehended in this way, by this mind. I am very wary of phrasing the matter this way, and almost certainly have got it wrong. It may be that in really undergoing this noetic purification, one finds that there is no such difference -- but that is only the case at the end, not at the beginning: a matter of "level." One sets out not to "experience symbols" in a particularly penetrating mode, but to encounter God. It is, one might hazard, a question of form and content. This question may at some point become irrelevant -- and perhaps this point is even the most important point -- but it does not start out as irrelevant.

But surely this is too pat: "Set out to encounter God," indeed. As if God were a destination. Or as if I wanted to encounter Him! When I spend nearly every moment of every day running away. And no doubt, cultivating a different way of navigating facts and historicity, allowing them to become translucent, can itself be clever way of avoiding the real work of ascesis. But one may also suspect that -- even under such circumstances -- it may serve. If there is (as the Psalmist says) nowhere one can flee, not in the depths of the sea, not in Sheol, then even our ways of avoiding God must lead us to God. (Such, says C.S. Lewis, is "the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms.") By grace one may find that even such ill-motivated or rote "practice" may still have been the occasion by which one trains oneself (or rather is trained by tradition) to be ready for the moment which will come -- the moment when there is no place left to hide. To see this moment and welcome it instead of panicking; to meet it with love and not fear.

There were indeed many "who had seen, and yet did not believe." They had had some experience of a kind of "content," but absent a certain "form," it turned out to not be the same content after all. And that is indeed, at least a point of the story -- whether or not it "really happened" in exactly that way.

Friday, November 21, 2014


A conversation a while ago with a friend sparked some reflection upon the sorts of arguments, or (more generally) philosophical "moves," that I find inherently intriguing. Not persuasive, but fascinating -- the kind that make me want to pick them up, turn them around, see how they work. Many -- most -- turn out to be what I would call grammatical arguments: they hinge upon taking a word's meaning seriously, as if with a kind of immanent critique. a few others introduce a crucial distinction. And one or two are the sort of cautionary warning that serves as a more elaborate version of a "rule for thinking."

Wittgenstein: distinction between saying / showing. The limits of language about language; a "performative" moment at the very beginning of "Analytic" philosophy.

Anselm: "ontological proof." The "prayer of the intellect," Simone Weil called it. Much as with Zeno's refereeing of the race between Achilles and the tortoise, generation after generation of philosophers has felt called upon to refute Anselm. When that many philosophers (who otherwise agree on so little) all feel you are wrong, you are certainly doing something right.

C.S. Lewis: foundering of naturalism ("cause" vs "reason"). This has been elaborated and made more sophisticated by Plantinga and others, but I still think that Lewis' presentation in Miracles is, while flawed, the best short summary. If all "reasons" reduce to "causes," then one can have, by definition, no reason to believe this.

Descartes: cogito. Do I even need to justify this? This was probably my first foray into the canon of philosophy, in a conversation with my next-door neighbor when I was 10 or so. There is much to object to in Cartesianism, but the beauty and simplicity of this grammatical moment is too often overlooked by Descartes' critics.

Frege: against psychologism. The locus classicus here is his review of Husserl's first book, but the import extends far beyond. At issue is, what do we mean by "valid"? Not just "convincing"! Not even really really really convincing.

Brentano: structure of intentionality. "Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not do so in the same way. In presentation, something is presented, in judgment something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on." (Psychology From an Empirical Standpoint) A way of saying the obvious that suddenly shows that a great deal follows from the obvious.

Hume: is / ought non-transition. This one is taking a beating in some quarters these days via a kind of argument-by-poll. "Show me a counter-example!" is Sam Harris' refrain. This is a different argument.

Buber / Levinas: what encounter means. Otherness. This is the core of my debate with Monism, the claim that there is really One Big Thing. What I mean by "encounter" is not a sleight-of-perspective trick by which one part of a system forgets and then remembers another part.

Berkeley: The inconceivability of the inconceivable. Well, duh! Despite being lampooned by David Stove and many others as an argument "so bad it is hard to conceive of anyone being swayed by it," or words to that effect, it also has its defenders, notably (of late) Meillassoux. The beautiful thing about this defense is that Meillassoux doesn't believe the argument -- he just thinks it is strong. I.e., you don't have to be persuaded by an argument to admire it and think it is well worth, not just pausing over in the museum of Great Moments in Western Phil., but really being challenged by it.

Wilber: Pre-/Trans- Fallacy. This is a crucial distinction, and if Wilber is remembered for nothing else in fifty years, the elegance of this formulation will last. One thing that's often overlooked in considering it, is that those prepositions modify a noun: rationality.

Cantor / Gödel: knowing may exceed axiomatics. Like most of my generation I first bumped into this argument in Douglas Hofstadter's masterpiece. But I had the funny experience of being more and more persuaded by an argument Hofstadter was concerned to refute, by John Lucas, that (to put it briefly) human thinking was not reducible to the unfolding of algorithms. This application is only the beginning, though. It's not just that you can deduce something, it's what this capacity to deduce means.

Darwin, et al: time + randomness + stochastic mechanism + "anthropic" perspective can get you pretty much anything. Dennett's crucial modification in terms of "cranes" vs "skyhooks" (an elegant distinction) does much to expound the argument, which seems more or less irrefutable. So the pertinent question must be, is it -- or, in what sense is it -- interesting?

Great doubt, great enlightenment. Ok, this is not an "argument", it's a description of ascetic experience.

And, finally, the argument from Moral Realism. What do we mean by "Good"? And if we take this meaning seriously -- what follows? Or, if we think we "have no right" to this meaning -- then, (1) can we dispense with it? (and I don't mean "practically", I mean, coherently); and (2), if not, then... (This is very close to St Anselm's proof, above).

Looking over the above list, one could note that the verb "means" -- in italics, no less -- recurs frequently. Well, I warned you. One philosopher's Achilles' heel is another's Archimedean pivot. The trick is, to make it both.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


From the preface to Recoltes et Semailles
Passionate love is, also, driven by the quest for discovery. It provides us with a certain kind of understanding known as 'carnal' which also restores itself, blossoms forth and grows in depth. These two impulses -- that which animates the mathematician at his desk (let's say), and that which impels the lover towards the loved one -- are much more closely linked than is commonly believed, or, let us say, people are inclined to want to believe.
--Alexandre Grothendieck (28 March 1928 – 13 November 2014)

Monday, November 10, 2014

faith, form, content: a fragment.

(From work-in-progress, and possibly may be left on the cutting-room floor. Some details may not make a great deal of sense out of context, but I think the gist is comprehensible.)

In one crucial sense, Meillassoux is right: philosophy as it culminates in correlationism (and it is indeed a culmination, for Meillassoux) does yield to "religiosity as such," i.e., to fideism. What Meillassoux seems to miss is that the Biblical paradox, like philosophy, is a critique of "religiosity." Only, whereas philosophy opens upon the pure “form” of faith -- without content -- Meillassoux would rather give us pure content -- "brute" content, as it were: contingency as such. The Biblical critique (the articulation of "revelation", i.e., theology), however, does not pursue reasons, as philosophy does, but the Person. Because of this, it was able to navigate the upheavals of cosmology; but it is also sanguine regarding the critique of "Sufficient Reason". Ancient philosophy does indeed lead up to the question of revelation; and music is the grammar of this preparatio. Modern philosophy accepts the formal critique of religion by the Bible, but not the experiential one; it thinks it can stipulate it and move on. Thus "faith" becomes a formal "as-if," and is either uncritiquable but empty, or (if there is any content to it) superstitious. Meillassoux’s novel move is to reject all this, in favor of "content" without form -- pure contingency. The only questions, then, are (1) whether this move is consistent and thinkable, and (2) whether philosophy can possibly be satisfied with such a conclusion and remain philosophy.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Allen Grossman, זיכרונו לברכה

On Sunday, October 19 there will be a service at Brandeis University for the memory of the poet Allen Grossman, who died last June 27. I am tempted to call Grossman one of the last great American modernists. During a time when poetry was being dissolved into a play of power differentials, historical-political agendas, personal musings, and trivial deconstructive animadversions, Grossman seemed like a character from the wild Romantic bygone. Aside from his grey hair being pulled back in a short ponytail, he looked every bit the aging academic in tweed or corduroy; but no one who ever heard Grossman read left with that impression. The man proclaimed poetry, like that old recording of Yeats going off to Innisfree's bee-loud glen; "like an Old Testament prophet," I've known more than one person to say. Despite what you might think about that sort of elocution -- now that it is out of fashion, it seems to remind us, for no very clear reason, of bad Shakespearean actors -- Allen Grossman was absolutely convincing at it. (What is more, he could do this while remaining familiar, earthy, heartbreaking, and very funny.) If that tradition is still alive (and I'm not sure it is -- the only other reader I ever knew to use such a style was Ginsberg, which makes me wonder if it is a coincidence that these two late holdouts were both Jewish), it is due in no small part to Grossman's defense of it. He was sure that the over-cautious delivery of poems that he saw spreading was a sign of poets' self-protection -- from their public, but especially from poetry itself, in all its raw danger. Grossman thought this self-protectiveness was the symptom of our avoidance of a deeper crisis in representation itself. The task he set himself was to face that crisis and think it through. This was not a wistful wondering about on what restricted terms we might still hope that poetry matters; it was a warning about what "mattering" means at all, and what the consequences are if poetry doesn't.

Grossman was of the same generation as many of the so-called Confessional poets (he was born in 1936, the same year as Sylvia Plath), but his career took a different arc, although he mined as deeply as any the autobiographical, even turning back towards his early poetic self in his late publication Sweet Youth, which juxtaposed many of his first poems with those he had lately written, in a kind of unfolding dialogue between past and present, as the young man and the old man "meet and acknowledge one another for the first time and pass on a stair -- one going up and the other down."

Over his career Grossman not only produced poetry in the strong mode of late Modernism, he elaborated an astonishingly rich ars poetica. This enterprise has a tremendous theoretical range, unmatched in breadth or depth by any similar body of work in the past half-century. Through all this work of a lifetime -- profound wrestlings with predecessors from Homer or Caedmon to Stevens and Dickinson, and unflinching meditations about the problems of poetics under the conditions of late capitalism and the nuclear age -- Grossman never stints from asserting his basic faith: he fully believed that poetry still was, or could be, a kind of sacred vocation. Although he didn't talk about the Muse as White Goddess, there was still, from Grossman as from Graves, the same utterly serious and unapologetic straight talk about the power of poetry, with nary an overblown word. If you didn't see poetry that way, fine. Grossman wasn't going to wear himself out arguing with you; but he was quietly sure you were cheating yourself.

Grossman's deepening concerns can be traced over the length of his whole career, but three crucial installments in that oeuvre are found in The Sighted Singer, which is, I swear to you, one of the great, weird works of poetics in the West, to rank alongside the Biographia Literaria or In the American Grain. The first two portions of The Sighted Singer are records of two sets of conversations, a decade apart (in Winter of 1981 and Summer of 1990), between Grossman and poet Mark Halliday. In these talks, Halliday and Grossman transmute respectful and serious disagreements into a compelling, but open, assessment of the stakes for poetry. They don't converge upon a single vision, but let their mutual demurrals and unfinished trains of thought hang there like the minority views in a Talmudic tractate. After that comes the third part, Summa Lyrica -- a different sort of work, sprawling and systematic at the same time, a very strange sort of -- well, I'am tempted to say "gnosis," despite the Bloomian appropriation of the word. The first section of Summa Lyrica opens with a magisterial declaration:
Immortality I

1. The function of poetry is to obtain for everybody one kind of success at the limits of the autonomy of the will.

1.1 The limits of the autonomy of the will discovered in poetry are death and the barriers against access to other consciousness.

1.2 The abandonment of the autonomy of the will of the speaking person as a speaker constitutes a form of knowledge—poetic knowledge. The knowledge that not “I” speaks but “language speaks” (Heidegger). The function of this knowledge is to rescue the natural will at the point of its death, that is to say, at the point where death arrests its intention.

1.3 Poetry is produced by the mortality of body and soul, the immiscibility of minds, and the postponement of the end of the world.

1.4 The kind of success poetry facilitates is called “immortality.”
If there is a more ambitious way of commencing a work of poetics, I do not know what it is. But the work is not merely ambitious; it is full of poignancy, depth, close analyses, erudition, refusals of stock response. It is profound but it is not portentous, and does not elaborate simple responses. In fact, Grossman believed that the notion of "sufficient response" to our human dilemma was a snare. As he wrote in an appendix to his late volume How To Do Things With Tears,
The poet...opposes the satisfaction of supposing that thinking is innocent....The conviction of "sufficient response" ("what will suffice," "answerable voice," "closure") is peculiarly delusive. Any NEW poetry must be aware that there is nothing that will suffice.
Or, as he enjoined elsewhere in the same volume:
Do not be content with an imaginary God.
This question of the new in poetry is also what accounts for the title of The Sighted Singer, a reversal of the traditional trope by which the poet's gift of prophecy was counterbalanced by blindness (e.g. Tiresias, Homer, Milton). This revision of a tradition in which he was so deeply grounded was not lightly undertaken. His were very high stakes, and Grossman did not claim he had won; only that there was no honor or praise in pretending the stakes were otherwise. For Grossman, when one reads a poem as a poem, one is seeking "the presence of a person," and personhood is (I think) the center about which his project turns -- what he called "the hard problem." Immortality. A non-imaginary God. From beginning to end, Grossman's work is a sustained engagement on the terms of this problem. He did not offer easy solace, and he did not despair.

Remember what he remembered.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"Cosmopolitan Philosophy in a Polycentric World"

I want to do my (modest) bit for publicity for this pitch from Jonardon Ganeri, a philosopher teaching at NYU and King's College, London. It is a learned, well-documented and very timely call for asking for philosophers to take seriously the cosmopolitan ideal. It is also imminently philosophical itself, in that it is a call for committed encounter -- not a pointless and going-nowhere "discussion" where everyone shares their story and nothing happens, but a proposal for action -- it is philosophy engagée, but it is very much philosophy.

Ganeri is a well-known scholar of Indian philosophy, and his proposal -- a blueprint for an “Institute for Cosmopolitan Philosophy in a Culturally Polycentric World” -- is informed by a formidable historical expertise. It is also all the more urgent in the wake of a great deal of discussion of Eugene Park's recent Huffington Post article on the way he thinks university philosophy departments, and philosophical assumptions at work in those departments, remain caught in a moribund patriarchal monoculture even as other humanities have successfully moved into a promising multicultural future.
Philosophy of mind does not typically engage at all with Indian, East Asian, African, or Native American ideas about the nature of mind. It’s as if non-Western thinkers had nothing to say about the matter. Similarly, those who work in the history of philosophy work almost exclusively on the history of Western philosophy — e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Russell, Wittgenstein, etc.
So why don’t Anglo-American philosophers engage with non-Western philosophical traditions? In my experience, professional philosophers today often perceive non-Western thinkers as inferior. Of course, few would say this explicitly. Rather, philosophers often point to non-Western philosophy’s unusual and unfamiliar methodology as the primary reason for the disconnect....[But] The excuses for excluding non-Western thinkers from the philosophical canon are sometimes more obviously derogatory. For instance, philosophers often claim that non-Western thought lacks "rigor" and "precision," essential characteristics of serious philosophy. As a result, many philosophers simply dismiss non-Western intellectual culture as (mere) religion, speculative thought, or literature.
Brian Leiter, who's made a nuisance and menace of himself in more than a few ways lately, acted like he had explained the whole thing thus:
My own impression, from having talked to a lot more philosophers than Mr. Park and for a much longer period of time, is that most Anglophone philosophers have no opinion at all about non-Western philosophy because they are simply ignorant of it. Some regret the ignorance, others think it is excusable since there are so many philosophical traditions in the world and one can only master so many, and others just don’t think about it at all because it is possible to pursue an academic career in philosophy ignorant of a lot of things, including large swaths of the history of European philosophy (and the further back in the past we go, the more the boundary lines of "what’s European, what’s not" get harder to draw).
Leiter's modest proposal is that, well, sure,
more study of non-Western philosophical traditions would be salutary and illuminating; ... that some parts of so-called "feminist" philosophy are as illuminating as their so-called "Marxist" predecessors; and... that race -- like class and gender -- benefits from philosophical attention, and that critical theory approaches to social-political philosophy are at least as important as the kind of work done by bourgeois liberals, whose work dominates the Anglophone curriculum. What I still do not believe is that we should add Asian philosophers, or African-American philosophers, to the curriculum in order to “encourage” (on some misguided theory) minorities to enroll in philosophy courses.
Leiter is not a guy I an used to agreeing with (well, to be fair, I'm not used to paying attention; sometimes I regret the ignorance, but mostly I think it is pretty damn excusable). So it is with reluctance that I even give the appearance of condoning, however tangentially, any part of his position. I find his tone condescending and I suspect that his posting on the topic at all is an act of grandstanding which distracts from his other woes at present. (I'm not even going to mention, though I will link to, the silliness that is his silly treatment of this guy "Terrence".) Nonetheless, I'd bet he's right that many or most academic philosophers don't have a thought in their heads about Mohism or Mīmāṃsā; and I mostly concur with the gist of his remark that the motivation for expanding the philosophy curriculum should be, well, philosophical. While I doubt is that Leiter has much interest in this, I could be wrong. But I'd also argue that there is -- obviously -- a genuine philosophical gain to be made in expanding philosophical attention beyond the usual railroad with its Plato - Augustine - Descartes - Hume - Russell - Husserl stations. That this should have to be argued for is just astounding. Does anyone really dispute that Platonism and, say, Confucianism are at least comparably robust and rich philosophical traditions? Leiter faults Eugene Park for never explaining or "even affirm[ing] the merits of these thinkers" from Asia and Africa and South America. Neither, of course, does Leiter defend or even mention the merits of Aristotle, Kant, or Quine. Their merits are self-evident to him. This is exactly the question, though: what is it that will go without saying?

Ganeri's proposal (which I first read about on Amod Lele's indispensible blog Love of All Wisdom, still one of the only online spots that really practices the kind of philosophy I am talking about in this post) suggests an autonomous institute, separate from academia's usual disciplinary boundaries ("Asian studies," "Philosophy of Mind"), which would be geographically spread out in multiple locations, structured as a linked network.

In his blueprint, Ganeri asks after the cross- and multi-cultural aspirations of philosophy, and speculates on the kind of institution that would best serve and embody them. As Lele underlines, Ganeri is frankly asking for input and discussion either by email -- he includes his email address on the blueprint -- or on blogs or other online forums. I don't know Ganeri personally, but it is obvious that something like his proposal needs to be taken seriously for Western philosophy to really face alterity, or for that matter, for philosophy per se to really aspire to universality, instead of a picture of "the universal" that looks the spit'n' image of something very parochial. It is shockingly clear that this is what philosophy should be doing -- not swaddling the love of wisdom in in a bundle of relativistic politeness, but really aspiring to genuine catholicity. And it seems more and more clear that it isn't going to happen in academe as it stands.

I am a strong proponent of the idea of "the canon"; as the twelve people who read this blog can attest, my shorthand for my position is "platonist," and it's all too plausible that I suffer from less than my share of white liberal affluent (by many standards) guilt -- i.e., that I reflect less often than I could on just how good I have it compared to so many (and that I act on this reflection even less). Point is, I'm not motivated here by standard-issue political correctness. I'm not sure anyone is, anymore. But the blinders on western philosophy have got to come off. I find it impossible to imagine Plato, or Diogenes-"citizen of the world"-the-Cynic, (or Leibniz or Spinoza for that matter) being threatened or annoyed by the suggestion that we might be able to seriously profit from really listening to people who have thought about the same things for going on three or four thousand years.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What "We who are dying" need

I have read D.G. Myers' Commonplace Blog for years off and on, and always found it full of wise and sharp insight and incentive to read the books he was engaged with. Myers' posts, generous and enthusiastic, contentious and plain-spoken, appeared on my blogroll here, but for a few months he had not published; yesterday a final notice appeared, saying he had died last Friday.

Before that, Myers' own last post had stood at the top of the blog since last July. it is a courageous, honest account of gratitude for life, a life that is short. Instead of embarrassed or empty encouragement to "hope" or "fight," Myers admonishes,
We who are dying need from you what we should be demanding from ourselves — responsibility, honesty, the courage to face reality squarely.
We do well to remember that "we who are dying" does not just mean those who have received an official medical verdict. We have all already received a diagnosis, and we all require reminder and help to live in this light.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The "death" (?) of Speculative ®ealism™

Last post laid out my claim that philosophy just is realism, is speculative, and is critical. Please note that if you haven't read that post, this one will just be so much occasional reportage. The former post puts it in perspective.

All of that rationale is why, despite some rumor in the blogosphere to the contrary (including a couple from people who I consider friends), I think the "death of Speculative Realism" is being, well, exaggerated. In many of these posts, philosophical engagement and online politics (or worse) go fist-in-gauntlet. To his great credit, Pete Wolfendale has taken things offline and onto the printed page -- onto, as it happens, quite a number of pages. He has thrown down a 430-page gauntlet to Graham Harman. It comes with an afterword by Brassier pronouncing (ostensibly) "the last word" on Speculative Realism, a "movement" which Brassier already characterized notoriously (sort of) as an "online orgy of stupidity," but which he also described in terms that clearly refer not to Meillassouxian extravaganzas on Mallarmé or Iain Hamilton Grant's Schellingianism redux, but specifically to Harman's Object-Oriented Ontology, "actor-network theory spiced with pan-psychist metaphysics and morsels of process philosophy." Reading Wolfendale's preface, which is all of the book that is currently available online (publication is set for late October, although chapters one and two are developed out of this paper which originally appeared in issue IV of Speculations), it seems clear that when Wolfendale expresses his dissatisfaction with speculative realism, it is not with the "movement" but with the "speculative realist brand," for which, he says, "Harman asserted himself as ... spokesman, and the community’s unique dynamic dissolved as a result." I will be interested to see whether this notion of the philosophical "brand" plays into Wolfendale's criticism of OOO as an epitome of "ontological liberalism," given that he says part of his project is motivated by concern with the spread of the phrase "object-oriented" in various academic settings across a variety of disciplines. But whether or not he takes that tack (I will have to read the book to learn) I have to say, this characterization of Harman as self-appointed spokesman for a brand, a kind of Speculative ®ealism™ (my phrase, so Wolfendale should not be blamed for it), strikes me as not quite fair. Harman reiterates in many places again that his version is only one of a variety of attacks on "correlationism," or "philosophy of access;" he has indeed devoted an entire book to a rival version (three, if you count his two books on Latour). Yes, he's also said that he doesn't think of "branding" as a swear word, but he has hardly appropriated the phrase -- rather, he became an enthusiast, valorized it and championed it, and to my mind rightly, for as I have said, philosophy just is both speculative and realistic.

But as I've insisted, it is also, like Iago, "nothing if not critical." Though he is not very Iagoesque in other respects, those four words describe Pete Wolfendale more than aptly. Not only am I eager to read Wolfendale's book; I expect I will agree with a fair stretch of it, despite my being on record as admiring Harman's work. I suspect this because my reasons for liking his work are fairly un-Harmanian -- are, in fact, almost Rortyan. I think Harman has invented a way of talking that is fecund and interesting, that has generated real insights and above all pointed to a re-ignited wonder at ordinary things; the unsettling awe one feels at the fact that the dust behind the books has just been quietly sitting there, for years, while the life in the room went on unaware of it -- just as the dust in distant nebulae hangs in space, where no telescope has glimpsed. There really is, for me, a kind of poetry to Harman's ontological fantasia. This doesn't mean you can't have problems with it (let alone, need it even be said, with Harman the person, who I imagine is, like everybody I've met so far, imperfect); but of course the big question is, But is it true? Really? A much harder question; but philosophy cannot defer it interminably and remain philosophy. (Which is not to say that there can be such a thing as a definitive and conclusive answer which prevents the question from being genuinely raised again.) The issue is especially hard because the notion of real objects' "withdrawal" places them outside any kind of way of engaging with the "fact of the matter." I think Wolfendale may have found that Harman's account is simply too speculative, in the sense that I am using the term; that it is a contemporary version of gnostic myth; and he brings in turn a sharp and discerning critique to bear. Though he confesses that the book is peculiar in that it "undertakes a long and detailed discussion of a single philosopher’s work, and yet it aims to show that his work does not warrant such serious attention," it is unclear whether Wolfendale, in playing Chomsky to Harman's Žižek (or Adorno to Harman's Heidegger might be better), stops short of accusing Harman of bullshit -- of not caring whether his philosophy is true. Since, like Steven Shaviro, I have long thought that the absolute withdrawal of objects was untenable (even though I admired Harman for sticking to his guns), I suspect that the substance of this part of Wolfendale's critique will not be too hard to take. But I'll know more soon. As for style, my assumption is that Wolfendale will pull no punches, and yet will behave like a gentleman. I fully expect Harman's eventual rejoinder to be fierce, intelligent, and even-handed. I'm not so sanguine about the blogosphere.

But however it plays out, none of that will mean that "speculative realism" as a motivating thrust of contemporary thought should be considered "over;" and frankly, nobody who has felt invigorated by the nexus of questions SR embodied should get bent out of shape about this. I engaged with the "critique of correlationism" partly because that was the entry point to a vibrant philosophical online discussion, and partly because it was (I am convinced) an important question; but the point of the doorway is to be an entry to the house. So far as fashion goes, I agree with the spirit of Timothy Sprigge's doggerel on the history of philosophy:
The truth of all this, it seems plain,
Is philosophy were indeed vain
If its aim were a view
So objectively true
It will not be discarded again.

So cheer yourselves up my good friends
Though it's true that the search never ends
We may each in our day
Have our personal say
And feel free to ignore current trends.
I am not interested in Speculative ®ealism™, the brand. Although I obviously engage with a lot of the same questions (and I named the blog with a nod towards the phrase), I never proclaimed myself a Speculative Realist, not because I'm too cool, but (in part) because, like Bill Vallicella, I'm just dispositionally not a joiner; in part because most of my own main influences (e.g., Wittgenstein, Levinas, Barfield) are far removed from SR's primary genealogies, when not regarded with outright antipathy. It was plain that my own philosophical stances -- that of an ordinary Christian with a commitment to dialogue, a love of beauty, and a suspicion of power -- were not obviously aligned with any of the main trends of the "movement" (significant though these were). But that didn’t really matter, because to me, "speculative realism" is a redundant phrase for a philosophical movement. As far as I am concerned, to call for speculative realism was and is to call for philosophy, pure and simple; to think good and hard about what was entailed in philosophy per se -- and that, I hold, can only be a good thing. All philosophy is realism (yes, even anti-realism is realism), and all of it is speculative.

So fine, maybe Speculative ®ealism™ is dead, maybe not. Who cares? Long live speculative realism.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Realism, speculation, critique

As is well known, Aristotle held that philosophy was akin to myth, in that its roots were in wonder. Wonder is more than curiosity. Curiosity is expressible as a question: "hmmm, how--?" Wonder is not a question, but an exclamation. It may be quiet or loud, but the feeling is the same: Wow!

But within the context of this Wonder, philosophy has its inception -- not its entire trajectory, and certainly not its culmination, but its precise point of origin -- in a particular question. That question is not "How?", nor even the child's "Why?" Although reducing mythology to aetiology is foolish, still it is clear that "Why?" can be, and frequently is, answered in a mythical register. Philosophy is distinguished from myth -- though not as a "rival discourse" simply, for myth is not merely critiqued by philosophy. Rather, philosophy (as opposed to mere skepticism) is the discourse which aims to keep open the access to the experience to which myth pointed but which, in the face of critique, it begins to fail to deliver. (The nature of that experience is a kind of identification of oneself both with wonderand the object of wonder. I have called this participation, following Levy-Bruhl and Barfield (and Aquinas and Plato), but this post is not directly about that.) That critique -- the condition, necessary though insufficient, of philosophy -- is contained in nuce in the question I mean, a question comprised of a single word -- not "why", not "how," but, "Really?"

"What a sunrise. Oh, Wow."
"Thus Helios drives his chariot, pulled by glorious fiery steeds, out of the gates of dawn."
"Cool, but... Really?"

This question, by its very existence, breaks with myth. Myth does not operate in the register of the distinction between the ostensible and the true. This distinction plays a part in myth, so to speak (there are stories that make use of the notion of deception, or false appearance, and so on) but strictly speaking, once the question "is it really so?" has arisen, we have one foot outside the world of myth. The question "Really?" puts the entirety of previous discourse potentially under scrutiny.

Philosophy is concerned with the matter of Truth (so Plato, and so Badiou, and I willingly follow). Once the question "Really?" has been raised, there are any number of moves that can follow, including denying that "Yes," or "No" are the only options. You can try, if you want, to move on to "How?" or "Depends on what you mean by...", you can admit to "We don't know" or insist upon "We can't know" or even try weirdly to go to the wall for an ontological "Maybe." I am not denying that pragmatism or positivism or various subjectivisms can be serious philosophical positions. What I am insisting on is that none of them dismiss every instance of "Really?", though they may have various accounts of why, or in what circumstances, they feel obliged to meet its challenge.

What this means is that every philosophy is a "Realism".

This does not deprive the term of significance, as if it were thus too broadly pertinent, for the work does not end there; nor is it sufficient for a discourse to wrap itself in the mantle of Realism to qualify as philosophy. Realism is not merely "animal faith," nor is it Bismarkian realpolitik or the neoliberal "realism" of the privileged. The "demand the impossible" of the soixante huitards and #Occupiers is, as Situationism proclaimed, also realistic, and far more so than Thrasymachian cynicism. Philosophy is is a contestation of the term "Real". (This is one of the reasons Laruelle is so interesting -- he completely up-ends this contestation. Or does he -- really?) And one might add, this means that philosophy cares, as ultimately the alternatives do not, about the answer.

But how does philosophy enact this contest, this agon? Since Kant and Marx, the explicit answer has been the word I used above: "Critique." Critique is already the raising of the question, as well as those questions to which it gives rise -- questions like "What do you mean by X?" "How do you know?" and even, "What motivates this argument?". Philosophy cannot continue, qua philosophy, without engaging in critique. But as the post-Kantian generations re-discovered, and as Plato had already demonstrated, critique is self-defeating unless it is twinned with an answering motion in thought, akin to the mythopoetic tropes it opposes. In Plato, this aspect of thought sets in motion a number of "likely stories" and gedankenexperiments. In Schelling and Hegel, among others, this move is called speculation.

Speculation alone, because it harks back to a pre-philosophical matrix, runs the risk of seeming not to care whether what it says is true -- the risk of being taken for bullshit, or even, in worst case, becoming bullshit. Critique alone, on the other hand, risks becoming or at least being taken for a kind of tunnel-vision concern with "being right" -- i.e., with winning the argument, either with one's opponent or with the world.

(Don't assume I put much weight on this dichotomy. Pairs of this sort are always a little too easy to invent -- and therefore to find fault with. Very roughly, speculation generates ontology, and critique, epistemology; but I don't think I've just proposed a key to the history of philosophy here. We could do a little quick-'n'-dirty deconstruction showing how every critique is speculative and vice-versa. I would even insist upon it. But a glance at the masthead of this blog will remind you, speculation and criticism are not the whole of philosophy for me. I am leaving entirely to one side, for instance, an alternative subversion of myth which goes by the extraordinarily contentious name revelation).

Either motive -- speculation or critique -- can, left to itself, drive philosophy into the ground. In Plotinus' polemics against gnosticism we can discern a recoil from speculation run rampant; and the pedantry and hairsplitting which the humanists mocked in the late scholastics are the signs of a decadent critique. These temptations are perennial. I would say that the Sokal hoax called out a kind of irresponsible speculation; and the dead-end yawn of so much current analytic philosophy is the desiccation of critique and nothing but critique.

All of this is why I think the talk of the end of Speculative Realism as a "movement" is overblown. I'll go into that next post.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Work in progress: brief status report

Usually the work distracting me from this blog is just pen-on-paper writing in the notebook. But these days I have a specific project which I decided I could post some brief notes on.

I take my text from Aristides Quintilianus, a neoplatonic philosopher whose On Music in three books is one of the very few complete musicological treatises to have reached us from antiquity. In the passage in question (Book III sec. 8), Aristides has just gone over a litany of instances from history, politics, medicine, and other fields, in which mathematical proportions play a prominent role. Then he moves to the crux of the matter:
τὸ δὴ ταῦτα μὲν οὕτως ἐναργῶς δι´ ἀριθμῶν καὶ μεσοτήτων συνεστάναι, μουσικὴν δὲ μὴ ἂν ὑπονοεῖν παντελῶς ἀμαθοῦς καὶ ἀμούσου τὴν φύσιν ἐστίν.

"To have organized these things so palpably through numbers and means but not music, is to suspect nature of being wholly ignorant and unrefined." (tr. Thomas Mathiessen)
Mathiessen's translation is not without its problems, which is (let scholars and/or pedants please note) one of the points to be addressed. But the main issue here is more global by far. I can think of no more succinct summation of the difference between the ancients and the moderns than this, that in the modern world (pace Latour) we do indeed imagine things to be organized palpably through number and mean, but not through music. And we do, eo ipso, suspect (and far more than suspect) nature of being "ignorant and unrefined." (Dawkins' anti-Paleyan "Blind watchmaker" is in fact a fairly weak trope for this, for nature is, on Dawkins' assumptions, not merely blind, but plan-less, and indeed fundamentally incapable of either vision or plan, to make a watch or anything else.)

Aristides goes on to lay out further analogies between music and the cosmos as a whole, which culminate (in Book III sec. 26) in a parallelism between certain melodic modes (on the one hand) and (on the other) his Stoic-inflected distinction between the sublunary world, where chance (and by the same token, freedom) has a foothold, and the higher heavens where necessity reigns supreme. These exemplify, for Aristides, two sorts of time, and especially two sorts of future: a future that is in some wise "up to us," and one that is inflexible and inevitable. These Aristides calls (in Mathiessen's rendering) what may be and what will be, and respectively they concern what is, he says, either contingent in part or contingent in general.

These last terms caught my attention, for Meillassoux characterizes necessity in exactly the same way: what is necessary is, in the last instance (to appropriate a Laruellism), simply that something contingent be. So one can (somewhat surprisingly) read a Meillassouxian account of hyperchaos through the lens of the Ptolemaic cosmology, and vice-versa; but the hinge of this is the analogy between "two kinds of future" on the one hand, and Aristides' musical modes. Of course, all kinds of things get weirdly transformed in this set of inversions, especially the distinction between the sub- and super-lunary spheres and the supposed decisiveness of the "Gallilean event" which abolished, we are told, this partition.

It's important to recognize that in Aristides, the comparison of the musical figure to either of the two sorts of future is not metaphorical; rather, the relevant aural musical figure is of two sorts because there are two sorts of future.

One issue, then, is: On Meillassoux's terms, in the last instance, Contingency cannot be opposed to Necessity; "Contingency in general" simply is Necessity. In Aristides, the opposition is between the "What will be" and the "What may be," but this latter is also the realm of agential perogative; thus in an Aristidean key, the oppositional term turns out to be Freedom. But this opposition in turn is bound up with a wholly different casting of the mathematical and its relation to both necessity and contingency -- in which, finally, the mathematical is a species of music, rather than vice-versa. It then turns out to be quite telling that Meillassoux's account (in "Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition") of mathematics as grounded in the "meaningless sign" hinges on the possibility of "iteration" which Meillassoux expressly contrasts with Bergson's account of the musical tone, and in particular to the musical tone's accute sensitivity to temporal meaning.

Not sure how much room there will be to lay all this out and expand upon it in the final paper, but these are the initial terms.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Some stray notes on Meillassoux

Am pouring a lot of energy into other writing projects, and I've been neglecting the blog. But I thought I would post briefly about the reading group a few friends and I have been convening studying Meillassoux's After Finitude. First of all (although I am unsure whether everyone in the group would agree with me), I think this is an extremely good book for getting a philosophy mini-seminar off the ground. Unlike a number of other short works that one might choose for a summer philosophy reading group (say, Descartes' Meditations, Kant's Prolegomena, or some of Plato's dialogues), it is less likely that people have accidentally absorbed prejudical second-hand impressions of it. It opens up many possible further directions of study should people decide to go further, either into the tradition (Hume, Kant, Locke...), or into various problematics (the relation of philosophy to science or to religion, the formulation of laws of nature, the meaning of "know", the nature of time and chance, and so on). It largely evades easy pigeon-holing in terms of the over-arching "traditions" of the last century or so (i.e. "Analytical" and "Continental") -- important in our case, since the reading group is diverse, albeit small. It's been a good mix: some of us were completely new to the book, and some of us have read it before (even more than once). Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be a work of real philosophy, repaying repeated attention. In short, I do not think the importance of After Finitude has been exaggerated during its honeymoon with the Speculative Realist movement.

A few insights (I think) which I have come away with so far (and apologies for not attributing all these insights by name to the various members of the reading group):

Like many readers, I've thought before that the whole problematic in the first chapter about Ancestrality is something of a red herring; to put it more positively, I concluded that it's the way Meillassoux thinks his way into the general critique of correlationism -- the way he initially presses home its urgency -- and I had begun to guess that it was probably the biographical source of the critique for Meillassoux himself: the way the question had, in fact, arisen for him, and so the way he chose to present it; but perhaps it was not, structurally speaking, really the most crucial aspect of the argument. During re-reading, I have begun to modify this conclusion. The question of the status of ancestral claims recurs frequently in numerous places in the book; it is clearly not just a matter of setting the stage. This obviously has much to do with Meillassoux's concern over time, as opposed to space. While Meillassoux's avowed goal is to justify the ways of scientism to men, I begin to wonder just how effectively he can think the diastema, or interval, as such. This has something to do with relativity and quantum mechanics, but because these are scientific accounts, they can assign a scientific meaning to "observer-dependence," which is not the same as the correlationist position; but exactly how it differs needs spelling out. More generally, however -- and I know I am not the first to say this -- the temporal diastema of the past which so occupies Meillassoux (the problem of events which pre-date the advent of life) is not inherently different from other "gaps" in our capacity to observe, based on scale, or happenstance, or (most obviously) space -- or even, as for Brassier, the future (post-extinction of thought). Of course one can read the argument about the temporal diastema as simply structural -- it just shows up a problem for correlationism, which then must be addressed -- but one can also see it as a symptom of something about Meillassoux's own thought -- namely, that time is deeply bound up with hyperchaos, because time = change.

Second (and this is purely anecdotal and unscientific), my experience has thus far been that, while continental philosophers (especially Heideggerians but phenomenologists generally) are often quite willing to see Meillassoux's point and tend to be interested in how to press beyond (while not necessarily granting him everything), Analytic philosophers prove far more recalcitrant. I mention this not because I want to score points here, but because it is almost exactly the opposite of what I expected. I would have presumed the Analytic camp to be far more invested in the claims and grammar of science, and phenomenologists to be far more invested in the maintenance of the correlation. I'm not yet sure that my impression is accurate, and if so, what it means. Its meaning (if any) may of course be purely "sociological," or it may be an index of a deeper logic to the positions concerned. I am very interested in others' experience and impressions about this.

A third point concerns the two principles of thinking with which Meillassoux is concerned in the middle part of the book: Sufficient Reason, and Non-contradiction. Meillassoux spells out a combinatoric which can be depicted in the form of a diagram of four philosophical possibilities (though Meillassoux himself does not sketch such a chart):

The one who is usually credited with first laying out these principles (though not, obviously, all these permutations) is not Kant, but Leibniz. While Kant is usually cast as the thinker to whom the critique of correlationism is responding, there may be a strong case for reopening the Kant-Eberhard controversy and pointing to Leibniz as the ancestor of the broader algebra whose permutations modernity has been playing out for 300-ish years. Eberhard contended that whatever was of import in the Critique of Pure Reason was already to be found in Leibniz, and that Kantianism amounted only to a special form of dogmatism; Kant, as one might expect, took some umbrage at this, and the ensuing argument forms an interesting chapter in the history of the reception of Kantianism. (See Allison's book on the subject -- pdf here (for now).) Why should we care about this? Because if the Kantian account only repeats, perhaps in a different key, notions already sounded, then the thematization of the relation between thinking and reality gets a much more venerable pedigree*. (I have argued before that it really goes back to Parmenides). Meillassoux indeed in one sense recognizes this, since he conceives of the Gallilean-Copernican revolution as a revolution, and Kantianism as reactionary.

Note that, in the chart, correlationism is the position which ultimately suspends both principles; but elsewhere (p 63), Meillassoux argues that correlationism in fact remains deeply committed to Sufficient Reason. Indeed, this is, he says, why correlationism winds up legitimating fideism, "faith as such", albeit no particular faith. This makes for a very interesting mirror-image to his account whereby philosophy invents "strange" argumentations "bordering on sophistry" (p 76).

Meillassoux's contention that the defense of Sufficient Reason ultimately amounts to a defense of fideism is of course anticipated by Chesterton, who famously quipped that when one stops believing in God, one is on the brink of believing in anything. Zizek likes to think that this means claiming God as a kind of "founding exception," an irrational omphalos from which all rationality springs; but of course Zizek also maintains that the "founding exception" is simply the ontological rupture of subjectivity. Neither of those are acceptable to Meillassoux (he will, I presume, see the one as dogmatism, the other as idealism). But for Meillassoux, correlationism has pressed SR so far that it has become an unknowable "reason", unknowable in principle. A Chestertonian faith, on the other hand, is grounded in a Thomistic and Patristic expectation of knowability, and indeed of reciprocal knowability: "Then we shall know even as we are known." (I Corinthians, 13;12). One can argue that this is nothing but a McGuffin-in-the-future, or that the ontology of contingency Meillassoux has set up can still outflank it; but one can't, I think, argue that it involves an inherent in-principle agnosticism.

* Robert Miner has argued (in Truth in the Making) that this is to be found in the teaching of Vico that the true and the made are convertible (vreum et factum convertuntur), and indeed describes his position as holding that "knowing is most adequately described in relation to making. It is not bewitched by the fear that human making is inevitably arbitrary." And this has a corollary in the way Kant established the limits of reason "to make room for faith." For this too is a more ancient task.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

"...given that I believe in secrecy..."

Have been thinking a bit about Deleuze and considering the ways in which he is to be read as a practicioner of esotericism. I believe this can be glimpsed in at least two ways. One is the pride of place he gives to the "Christ of philosophy," Spinoza. Indeed this way of talking about Spinoza is already quite divergent from the way that the academicians do (but then, so is the way he talks about magma or blood or Kafka). Of course the great champion of the "esotericist" reading of Spinoza is Leo Strauss. Though at first I was inclined to doubt that Deleuze was influenced by Strauss, I'm beginning to reconsider -- Deleuze was profoundly sensitive to all sorts of "minority reports" among his contemporaries (he is one of the only philosophers to mention Souriau at all). I don't know of any evidence that he read Strauss, but I am not, by a long shot, a Deleuze scholar. In any case, someone really should do a book on Strauss and Deleuze vis-a-vis Spinoza.

Deleuze is very attentive to how carefully Spinoza plays his cards. Consider, e.g., his remarks in a lecture:
Spinoza didn't entitle his book "Ontology," he's too shrewd for that, he entitles it Ethics. Which is a way of saying that, whatever the importance of my speculative propositions may be, you can only judge them at the level of the ethics that they envelope or imply.
Of course, none of this means that Deleuze's reading of Spinoza's esotericism is correct -- simply that he was aware of it.

The second thread in an esotericist reading of Deleuze is the fact that he seems to draw, from beginning to end, upon an underground stream of expressly "esoteric" work. This is not just the fear-of-persecution esotericism (as in Strauss), but philosophy as initiation. This material has begun to be unpacked by Christian Kerslake (see his two books on Deleuze, or chapter 9 of this collection on Deleuze's precursors), and by Joshua Ramey (The Hermetic Deleuze). This work seems to me somewhat similar to Verene's reading of the Phenomenology of Spirit in Hegel's Recollection or Cyril O'Regan's enormous project (who also follows Voegelin -- albeit somewhat critically, refining the point). (His book on Hegel here.) This work by Kerslake and Ramey is some of the only secondary material I have read so far which has both deepened my understanding of Deleuze and helped me think about philosophy per se. (There is a very fine set of exchanges (here, in reverse chronological order) about Ramey's book at An Und Fur Sich, for starters; see also, for a dissenting view, Adrian Romero Farias' post at schizosophy, which, among other objections, takes exception to some Derridiean moves at the outset of Ramey's reading.)

There are a number of places in Deleuze's work where this esotericism seems to me to be expressly referenced. Deleuze and Guattari seem to make a revelatory gesture in What is Philosophy?, when they act as if here they will say outright what has been hitherto between the lines. But as lucid as this book is, I think it is fair to say it reveals by re-veiling. In the essay on Meliville's "Bartleby," Deleuze plays on the Melvilliean-Borgesian notion that "a great book is always the inverse of another book that could only be written in the soul, with silence and blood."* In his "Letter to a Harsh Critic" Deleuze also announces his deployment of decoys and misleading appearances, but this does not have the effect of showing his hand, only of showing that he is hiding it:
What do you know of me, given that I believe in secrecy, that is, in the power of falsity, rather than in representing things in a way that manifests a lamentable faith in accuracy and truth? ...I make my inner journeys that I can only measure by my emotions, and express very obliquely and circuitously in what I write. ... why shouldn't I invent some way, however fantastic and contrived, of talking about something, without someone having to ask whether I'm qualified to talk like that? (Negotiations, p 11)
Probably second only to Spinoza in Deleuze's pantheon is Nietzsche (who of course was startled by discovering his own precursor -- "And what a precursor!", he exclaimed -- in Spinoza). One pretty easily recognizes a Nietzschean energy ("why not, after all, untruth?") in this outburst of Deleuze's. And since Nietzsche's great (if not always remarked) antagonist is Socrates, who insisted that Protagoras or Ion had no business speaking of military leadership or ship-building or medicine since they had no expertise, one can see here too Deleuze's inversion of the Platonic project. But if, as I contend, there is always at least as much going on in Plato between the lines as there is in the overt argument, this inversion, too, might be misleading.

A great deal has been made of Deleuze's refusal of the general or universal concept of "Life," in preference of his famous insistence on the Zukofskyan indefinite article: "a life." But what if the relation between Life and a life were itself a matter of secrecy?

* C.f. Melville, Pierre, or, the Ambiguities, ch.4:
That which now absorbs the time and the life of Pierre, is not the book, but the primitive elementalizing of the strange stuff, which in the act of attempting that book, have upheaved and upgushed in his soul. Two books are being writ; of which the world shall only see one, and that the bungled one. The larger book, and the infinitely better, is for Pierre’s own private shelf. That it is, whose unfathomable cravings drink his blood; the other only demands his ink. But circumstances have so decreed, that the one can not be composed on the paper, but only as the other is writ down in his soul.

Sunday, May 18, 2014


I have a few thoughts on the question of essentialism in Plato, pursuant to the discussion in the comments to my last post. They take the form of a very small argumentative knot. Because it is brief, it risks seeming glib. I do not believe it is some kind of magic bullet or gotcha. I do believe it is true to the spirit of Plato.

Alf argues that the Socratic opening moves by which he asks for a definition of X (piety, friendship, justice, imitation, love, etc) entails what he calls "essentialism." I think that this means, for Alf, that asking after definitions the way Plato shows Socrates doing it (i.e., trying out one after another, running with each until one bumps into a contradiction, then starting over, examining premises and so on), entails reifying the object of the word in question, so that there is imagined, or projected, a kind of perfect friendship (for example) that somehow in principle pre-exists all instances of actual friends Most classically, the Republic's account of art imitating an imitation courts disaster, Alf thinks:
The theory of mimesis -- in its *grammar*, not just its particular application or vocabulary -- can be a royal road to fascistic thinking because it privileges a hypostasized "one" over the many -- a rigid blueprint for what "qualifies" and what is marginalized, a logic of domination: origin/imitation or "authentic/perverse." Such thinking comes out in religion as "God's Plan," in science as "Natural Law" or "Evolution," in politics as "National Security," or many other versions of the "Big Other" that see multiplicity as threatening to "the plan."
Now I frankly deny that the Republic presents us with anything like "Plato's ontology," but Alf contends that I am, in this, "too eager to pull Plato off the hook for the implications of essentialism and its accompanying theory of representation (and of being)," the implications being the afore-quoted "logic of domination." It is also true that I don't see these effects themselves following from the Socratic example with anything approaching rigorous necessity, and I believe the onus is upon those who do to demonstrate the necessity. If the case made is that it is consistent with Plato or (empirically, historically) correlates with apparent Platonic influence, that is fine, but one has not thereby demonstrated that these pernicious effects (we are stipulating the perniciousness, for the sake of argument) are Platonic. I, on the other hand, am arguing that the "logic of domination" is not Platonic; that it cannot non-tendenciously be applied to Plato; that in the dialogues, it is not accidental that for every quest for definition at the beginning there is aporia at the end; and that a crucial fact about all those "footnotes to Plato" for the last twenty-four hundred years is that this aporia tends to be lost in them while the definition-search is not. In brief, just as Kojève argued, more or less, that the political destiny of the West depended upon competing readings of Hegel, I believe that the "essentialism" of these abuses-of-power Alf lists -- and, hence, much of the political history of the West -- constitutes a mis-reading of Plato.

All of that by way of preamble. Now for the knot. Either the search for a definition, for a "what do you mean by that word you keep using," can be "worn lightly," or it cannot. Either it "in its grammar" gives rise to an imagined blueprint-in-the-sky, or it does not. In short, either it is of the "essence" of the definition-quest, or it is not. If it is, then it is; but this will be seen to be so because we have established, precisely, an essence of the definition; and so, discovering that essentializing is apparently inevitable, we will be in no position to fault Socrates for it. On the other hand, if our own critique here has not named any eternal necessity, no "definition-in-itself," well and good, but we can then not establish that Socrates also is not involved in this "looser" quest.

"Oh boy," I can hear the objections beginning. "Yeah, sure. What you're saying is, Yes, it's true and tragic that Plato, or Christianity, or Marxism, had all these sad accidental effects, but that isn't their fault! Don't blame them for the failures of their followers (or those who say they are their followers)! That wasn't "true platonism," or "real christianity," or whatever. All the anti-semitism was just the sin of the church, not the church. The gulag, that ain't Communism, that's "just" Stalinism. All that two-world schizophrenia is just an accident, a misunderstanding -- not "the real Plato" -- not the essence of Plato, huh? That what you're saying?"

Ah, special pleading. I am mindful, however, that many arguments in Plato as well seem, on the face of them, to be open to just such obvious objections. I'm also mindful of the fact that, when it comes down to it, it is not the exegesis of Plato that matters. In light of this, I am very tempted, in spite of every risk, to answer the question "is that what you're saying?" with "In essence, yes. But -- loosely."

Saturday, May 10, 2014

In Memoriam Ernest G. McClain

One of the spiritual antediluvians of the past century, Ernest McClain, has died. Beginning in the 1970s, starting with three extraordinarily dense books and continuing in a stream of essays and correspondence that lasted until the day of his death, McClain propounded a thesis, notable equally for its profundity and its simplicity, which read the archaic mythico-speculative inheritance of the West "from the Rg Veda to Plato" and beyond, as a musical cosmology. His work never gained anything like mainstream recognition (a fact which in later years he occasionally noted with bemused resignation), but for a small cadre of researchers, McClain is (as Joscelyn Godwin called him), "one of the most original and ingenious researchers of our time."

Each of McClain's books -- The Myth of Invariance, The Pythagorean Plato, and Meditations through the Quran -- is a set of closely-argued excurses through a body of literature as if through an underground mine, looking for the telltale glint of something sparkling in the walls. That sparkle is number, and McClain demonstrated over and over that numbers are not scattered randomly throughout ancient texts. There is a preponderance of multiples of very low primes -- notably 2, 3, and 5; and very often, when a number that cannot be so reduced does occur (say, 37), looking to the context with the small primes in mind will yield a plausible rationale. The books have been noted for the density of their presentation. ("Obscure," "hard to understand," "inaccessible," are terms that come up in the (positive!) reviews on Amazon).This is only partly due to their mathematics. It is more that, once McClain has a numerical trope established, he frequently runs with it, employing it just as the ancients (he held) did: as an extremely abbreviated figure of thought, which could be adapted to many different situations. And yet, he insisted repeatedly, the mathematics involved was itself not difficult. "A child can learn it," he claimed, and he implied moreover that in the era of the pocket calculator, no one, not even the math-averse, had any excuse. (All three of McClain's books are available in pdf from his website, www.ernestmcclain.net , as well as numerous essays. The shortest, most accessible, and least tendentious introduction to McClain's basic insights, however, may be the third chapter of Jay Kappraff's excellent popular mathematics book Beyond Measure.)

McClain's work altered the whole apparent shape of the Platonic dialogues for me. For years I had known (ever since reading Voegelin) that I did not know how to read Plato. The stupid caricature of the body-denier, the philosopher who invented "another world" since "this" one was so changeable and disappointing (and, let's not forget, who "banished the poets"!), had always rang false -- a whipping-philosopher dragged out whenever we needed to blame someone for "essentialism." This was very big in the early '90s. There was obviously a tremendous amount going on between the lines in Plato that was going right over my head. No doubt much of this was due to the fact that it was written in 2,300-year-old Greek. And yet, Plato was so obviously concerned to transcend the particular, to reach beyond the limitations of a given setting -- not to deny them, but to refuse to be ruled by them. So where was the way in?

The Pythagorean Plato pointed out that the way in was right where we had always known it was. The door to the Academy famously had on its welcome mat the phrase, Some Geometry Required (loosely translated). "Platonism" was, as Badiou never tires of reminding us, defined by its coupling to the mathematical truth-condition. But the actual mathematics that occurs in the dialogues is very frequently ignored by commentators. (One stark example of this is found in the 1947 translation of the Republic by F.M. Cornford, in which Cornford permitted himself to omit entirely Plato's "extremely obscure" account (at 8.546b) of the so-called ruling or nuptial number, and also to "simplify" the text (at 9.587b) concerning the number of the Tyrant. But even when scholars do not give themselves such free rein, they very often let the mathematics pass by without much comment.)

McClain himself did find the clues in some commentary, including some very old commentary -- above all, Albert von Thimus, to whom he was pointed by his colleagues Ernst Levy and Siegmund Levarie; but also James Adam, Thomas Taylor, Plutarch, Proclus, Aristotle. Really, though, we might have guessed, for it is obvious once you think of it: Plato's mathematics is musical -- not accidentally, but essentially so. McClain understood the stakes of this interpretation as reaching far beyond the exegetical:
From Philolaus in the fifth century BC, through Plato and Aristoxenus in the fourth, and down to Ptolemy in the second century AD and Aristides in the third or fourth, Greek acoustical theorists moved confidently between two modes of expression: the absolutely precise and the conveniently approximate. ... There is an urgent need for a review of all these ancient materials, not simply for their intrinsic interest to musicians and historians of science, but for their wider relevance to the philosophical foundations of Western culture.
Indeed, (though this is perhaps not quite so obvious), this matter is itself part of a great tradition of musico-mythical cosmology, which McClain worked very hard to unpack, stretching back to the Vedas (and likely before) and forward as late as the Quran. The most obvious "fossil record" of this tradition is the recurrence not just of very specific numbers -- numbers which are usually multiples only of very small primes (mostly not higher than 7) -- in cosmological and visionary contexts, but of various sets of numbers which can be seen to "go together" in a way that indicates that writers knew the provenance of the numbers, or at least that certain numbers called for certain other numbers, even when the surface meaning of the text has nothing overly to do with music -- aside from, say, the mention of a number of harpists or trumpeters attending the celestial court.

All throughout a largely misunderstood (when not ignored) career of four decades, McClain never tired of insisting upon the tremendous import of this project. He himself declined to write philosophy in any but the most occasional or offhand modes -- he was unpacking a prelude to philosophy, he said. It was, I came to see, not just that the numbers were a sort of scaffolding for a widely various but shared cultural background. The numbers were symptomatic of something else. They were features of a whole way of looking at the world -- not an artificially schematized worldview parsed out in multiples of 2, 3, and 5, but a world in which the "metaphor" of cosmic harmony came perfectly naturally, and indeed was no metaphor. (The phrase "cosmic harmony" may make us cringe in reaction to Newagey overtones, but did no such thing for the ancients).

In saying this much, I've already gone beyond what McClain himself explicitly argued. He restricted himself to a rigorously empirical program. His numbers were all there on the surface of the text itself, or in a very few cases, easily derivable from those that were. No one ever disputed this. It was the rationale he deduced that earned him occasional rebuke and eventually either polite disregard or largely misapprehending fandom. Early on, Gilbert Ryle set the tone. "Plato would never," he informed McClain, "have planted all that musicology for you to find." To which one rejoinder must surely be, well then, how do you account for the numbers, the very specific numbers, in (for example) Plato's texts? The Tyrant is held, in the Republic, to be exactly 729 times less fortunate than the good ruler. Not "about 700," not 730. There are exactly thirty-seven guardians of the city Magnesia in the Laws, a city which Plato repeatedly insists will be composed of 5,040 citizens.

McClain's conclusion was not that Plato really "supposed that the well-being of the city depended almost as much on the number 5040 as on justice and moderation," (as Jowett remarks). Nor did he believe, as Ryle feared, that Plato had played a kind of nudge-wink game of find-the-tuning-theory with his readers for the fun of a few initiates. It was, rather, that Plato's exposition of justice and moderation found a completely natural expression in terms that privileged this musical and numerical grammar, and did not find it distracting. Far from being some private diversion on the part of Plato, it was an inherited vocabulary shared across a wide spectrum of wisdom texts descending from a common tradition, which lasted in oral culture even until the early strata of the Quranic tradition.

Even among his disciples, there has been significant breadth of opinion about the nature of the nature of the importance of McClain's work, and much of this variation is occasioned by this wide-net approach which drew in a vast range of background, beginning with the Rg Veda (on which his friend Antonio de Nicholas had written a book, Four Dimensional Man, whose importance for his own work-- and for his serious students -- McClain frequently emphasized). Some readers seized upon McClain as grist for anti-modern contentions, trying to recover an ostensibly lost tradition capable of producing something like "real magic." Some imagined that McClain's numbers would provide something like the resonant frequencies of the soul, a means for opening the crown chakra by just the right solfeggio. Others were intrigued enough by the musical ramifications to build instruments aligned to various tunings derived from McClain's work. And some were content to multiply contexts in which McClain's tonal harmonics could be plausibly applied, but without raising larger questions as to why.

My own interpretation is likely to be no less idiosyncratic. Tuning a musical instrument is a continual practical exercise in letting good enough be good enough, in making one adjustment here and then a counter-adjustment there. The great paradox is that this became the flowering seedbed of an effort to understand the whole. Because there are incommensurables built into the theory, the theory becomes a self-referential exercise in showing how theory itself, all theory, theory per se, fails to account for the whole; but it points to this in a way that weirdly manages to show the whole as needing no accounting, without denying the experience of the whole. Approximation and precision become the warp and woof of cosmology and indeed of ascesis. (And, I will add, Plato is especially significant in this account because he comes at an historical moment when, under the inexorable influence of writing, the complete naturalness of this way of thinking is no longer so evident, but has become itself a problem.)

McClain kept a respectful engagement with all contacts and the proclaimers of all interpretations, never disdaining them, often profiting from their suggestions while insisting that what he was talking about was not "secret" and never had been, in the esoteric sense; it was all out on the surface of the texts; you just had to learn to think like the authors. He had warm and deep correspondence with giants like John Bremer and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and with young and eager readers who had discovered his books or his website on their own and sometimes had no credentials aside from being intellectually alive and not risk-averse. In the last two decades of his life he carried on an almost daily exchange via email with Duane Christensen's BIBAL forum and many other colleagues and friends, throwing out variations on the book of Ezekiel one day, a Sufi poem the next, always ready to make mistakes in public, and insisting both that no one believe him "until you must," and that whatever your own work was, you did it "your way". These relationships have borne fruit in recent years in the form of several books by others which draw on McClain's work, including Christensen's Anchor Bible translation and commentary of the Prophet Nahum, and a presentation of an overview of his work at the prestigious annual ICONEA symposium. (See too, among others, Schatz's work in the context of the Jewish Kabbalah here and here; Kurtz and Driscoll's reading of the Atlantis legend here; and, for those who want to jump right in, Heath's extremely useful website here.) McClain was invigorated by this late-blooming attention, whether marginal or mainstream. I think it helped fuel the optimism with which he continued to believe that a breakthrough insight could easily surprise him and force revision of everything he'd written. I've never known anyone with more intellectual gumption.

For me he was an invaluable (and now keenly missed) friend and mentor, a never-flagging enthusiast of "adventures in ideas" (a Whiteheadian phrase he loved), who took with great seriousness the ancients' love of play and their easy-shifting referents. I slowly came to see that he had indeed learned to think like them. The density of his books is a function of the extreme compression with which he was accustomed to think, the way he could pack whole clusters of "contradictory meaning" into root-metaphors. To the outsider this is bewildering, and looks like either eye-glazing calculus or word salad. But after spending enough time with him, one came to see that the details, while ready to open up if you did the work (which in every case turned out to be almost as easy as he promised), were actually part of the "precision" that took its accustomed place within approximation's relaxed mode. In short, McClain taught me that the law was always already included within grace.

To that wider grace he has now gone. Memory Eternal.