Future, Present, & Past:

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

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, 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.

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