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

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Philosophy, standard and nonstandard, terminable and interminable

I uphold the option and obligation of philosophy for universal and ubiquitous occasion. Philosophy may indeed "philosophize" anything. The difficulty is that, in order to do this qua philosophy and not qua opinion, it must think Everything.

The mind is an itch. It connects. There is an moment of seeing the thing in itself, and then the mind is off, connecting it to another thing, and another. Green becomes the green of the apple or the green of envy or the green of my true love's eyes or a certain wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum. The in-itself is an instant.

Socrates and Plato loved the Thing Itself, that augenblick before the mind had linked it up to something else. In order to recapture that moment of innocence, the mind has to link it to everything else. This is why its task is endless and perfectly hopeless (as Wittgenstein said of our attempts to break out of language), unless by a trick the mind can jump out of its track. The best tricks work by getting the mind to do what it does -- all that linking-up -- as perfectly as it possibly can, and then to see the gap between this admittedly exquisite performance and the transfinite magnitude of the task. If it doesn't drive you to despair, it opens you up to something more than hope. If there is a perennial 'secret' in the Guenonian sense of "secrets passed down through the ages," it is in the tradition's quiver of techniques for making the mind do this -- none of which is guaranteed for life.

The most vociferous opposition to the claim of philosophy to address anything comes currently from Laruelle, who calls this ostensible hubris the "principle of sufficient philosophy" -- a name we can understand, obviously, via its analogy to the principle of sufficient reason: "There is nothing without philosophy," or perhaps, "without philosohizability", to coin a barbarism. Laruelle has set his face against a certain style of philosophical arrogance and power-playing, and this I take to be wholly legitimate. There is a danger in philosophy, well before you get to the real capital-D Dangers like madness or even mere nihilism: the danger of arrogance, of self-congratulation, of being In The Know. Very few students of philosophy have gone mad because of it. Some, perhaps, have found the slippery slide into nihilism made easier by bad philosophy. But many, many have known and savored the delicious superiority of being Above the Herd. They think they are philosophers when they are (barely) exceptions.

I have been reflecting on this of late during my reading of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics with a couple of friends. This book is not a "treatise"; it's more like a novel in which the protagonist is your own quest. You are led along from perspective to perspective, always thinking that resolution is around the corner, always being brought up short. The first part, with its search for the virtue, culminates with a famous exposition of megalopsychia, "greatness-of-soul." By all the signs, this should be it, and seems to be the end of our quest, until one stumbles -- for the great-souled man is in a certain way not self-sufficient; he is concerned with honors, with the admiration and respect he receives from his fellows. Aristotle allows even that the megalopsychos "may seem arrogant." Well, one might say the same about the philosopher, yes? Socrates is always going on about how he Doesn't Know, but he's awfully cocky towards his jury, even suggesting that what most befits his situation is that the Athenians put him up at public expense with a stipend for life. "Seems," eh?

Plato warns in his seventh letter that, even if he could, per impossible, have written a treatise on the real content of his own doctrine, this would not be a good thing to do:
I do not think it a good thing for men that there should be a disquisition, as it is called, on this topic -- except for some few, who are able with a little teaching to find it out for themselves. As for the rest, it would fill some of them quite illogically with a mistaken feeling of contempt, and others with lofty and vain-glorious expectations, as though they had learnt something high and mighty.
Well. And yet, what is philosophy, according to philosophy? The examined life, that without which life is not worth living; the sine qua non of attending to one's soul; the thing most needful. Small wonder if philosophy "seems to be arrogant;" it cannot but risk this narrow passage. Now press this further, beyond philosophy to the gospel: the most dangerous and treacherous of temptations on the way of ascesis is the risk of prelest, of thinking oneself humble and spiritually adept, when this (possibly real) attainment is only a symptom of pride. A danger to which one never knows if one has succumbed. Then the question becomes: how to countenance this without merely slipping into despair, or into indifference -- i.e., despair by another name?

I think the ancients knew very well this risk; they had certain safeguards but also knew that there was a real, inescapable, danger. Indeed, the danger has to be real, because it is the facing of real danger that spurs one on to real humility.

I happened to mention to a friend that I had been reading Laruelle, and he asked me, so what's it all about? I don't consider myself competent to unpack Laruelle for anyone else, but of one thing I have been resolutely confident from the moment I first read him, and I told my friend: "All this Non-philosophy? It's philosophy." This is pretty clear when you press the analogy Laruelle says he is making between non-Euclidean geometry and his non-standard philosophy: both "suspend" certain axioms, but they are still engaged in a similar project; Euclidean geometry now becomes a special-case instance of geometry as a whole, with various other axiom-sets as possible configurations alongside the Euclidean. Well, it turns out that these non-Euclidean possibilities were known to be possible before Euclid, as Imre Toth has exhaustively detailed. The fact that "anachronism!" may be one's first instictive response to such a claim is an index of how deeply ingrained the notion of historicism has become for us. In the same way, Laruelle's non-standard philosophy is simply philosophy qua philosophy. In my language (and, for this instance, Freud's), I would say that philosophy is interminable: it cannot succeed in "thinking everything," it can only either fail to do this, or succeed in failing. On the other hand, what Laruelle opposes is a philosophy that seems to think it could succeed in succeeding. Another way of putting this is that Laruelle is closer to the ancients than to the moderns -- a point that other, better, readers of him have noted before me. Of course, Laruelle's kinship with neoPlatonism is hard to miss (and, no doubt, easy to misconstrue -- I make no claim of understanding it in a way he would endorse). But I do note with some gratification that in an interview (in French) which was given in 2011, but which I have just read -- pretty poorly, I am sure, since my French is weak -- Laruelle confirms my suspicions:
Je veux croire que je suis un philosophe loyal, peut-être trop passionné.
I want to believe I am a loyal philosopher, perhaps too passionate.
It is far from my intention to merely conflate Non-[standard] Philosophy with some abstraction called "Ancient Philosophy," but I do want to suggest that this passion is an integral part of what has been slowly bled out of philosophy by the moderns.

But against this, it would need to be acknowledged that the ancients have a certain "coolness" to them which feels off-putting to us as well. So perhaps Laruelle also right when he characterizes his own passion as trop.

To leave things here clearly leaves a lot of loose ends. I'll try to address some of them in a further post. But it's already a foregone conclusion that we won't be able to connect everything to everything.*

*Laruelle would say that this attempt is precisely the problem -- it isn't our job to think our way to the Real, but to try to think from the Real. To this, the Biblical paradox says: Yup.