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

Friday, May 26, 2017

"A reality that is not amenable to reason" : Interview with Robert Firmage, part 1

Robert Firmage taught for many years at the University of Utah, but I met him at the bookstore he owned, Fifth World Books, where he was usually perched behind the desk, stacks of used books on either side, reading. After I got used to the scowl, I'd sometimes talk with Robert for long stretches. He introduced me to the work of Thomas Taylor, and it was thanks to him that I recognized that my intuitions about Plato were at least not without precedent.

Robert was also one of the first I knew to combine a deep respect for philosophy with poetry, and a competence in both. His work as a translator ranges over Latin, German, and French, and his volume of Trakl translations, Song of the Departed, is still in print. His philosophy is a deep synthesis of apparently disparate influences -- Plato, Nietzsche, the I Ching, among others -- but the unifying thread, in my opinion, remains a feeling for the way language can be used with a style and freedom that does not have to irreparably occlude reality, if the ways in which is doesconstrain our apprehension are continually remembered.

This interview was conducted over a few sessions, and the first followed upon a number of months of convalescence after Robert was struck in a hit-and-run accident while riding his bicycle. Partly due to technical problems (half of one recording was rendered unusable by audio interference), this interview has taken longer from beginning to end than any other I've done so far.

The first part of the interview is here; the second half will follow in about a week.

* * *

Skholiast: So, you had this accident. That must’ve been a real scare.

Robert Firmage: Well, it wasn’t, because I was totally out of it. I’m still unclear on what actually happened. I have this shadow memory of a movement to my left, as I was cautiously bicycling along, and then suddenly there was a car there. But that may be a false memory. What I really speculate on though is not how it happened but why it happened--

S.: Because you don’t believe in chance, as you’ve told me. You believe in karma.

R.F.: Absolutely. It’s a karmic universe. Part of causality is karma. Karma is part of causality. Karma is – moral causality.

S.: Yes.

R.F.: So I came to a few conclusions as I reflected during the months that followed, that some things have deepened that are fairly interesting. For one thing I’ve become much humble. A lot more open to other people’s suffering. Whereas before I kind of went through life – not cruelly or meanly or anything, but wrote my own agenda, and what other people were doing was not that important to me. And now I don’t want to say that I’m strewing pearls about me now – I don’t hang out with the people—‘’I despise the vulgar mob and keep it at bay,” as Horace says – but I’m more sympathetic with others. And especially, I have truly come to realize what a treasure I have in my wife Gertrud. Maybe it’s just because I didn’t appreciate her enough before.

S.: Well, I have heard you say very appreciative things of her in the past, but there’s nothing like a concrete experience of mortality to foreground how important another person is.

R.F.: Yeah. It’s made me less macho, I guess. Before I was – “This is my responsibility, I’m gonna do it, get out of my way.” And now, I’m like a slug.

S.: Was that machismo part of continuing to bicycle well past retirement, into your 70s?

R.F.: Oh, no. I still continue to bicycle. That’s lifestyle. It’s beyond lifestyle. It’s — I hate to use such a cliché, but it’s who I am. I’ve been doing that most of my life; I’ve got a hundred and fifty-thousand miles in my legs. It’s part of keeping me healthy, among other things. No, after the accident I started bicycling with a recumbent as soon as I could, but I didn’t like it – it was too slow. In fact I think I pushed myself a little too much and it slowed my recovery. So for the last two months I’ve been doing nothing (that way) and I feel much better.

S.: Well, you haven’t been doing nothing at all, because you’ve been working a lot intellectually, and I want to ask you about that. When you say that you’ve become more humble – more attuned to what other people –

R.F.: suffer.

S.: So I want to ask you about this. Maybe this is just in a different register, an intellectual register. Your career was as a teacher -- mainly philosophy -- although you've also labored on poetry and translation your whole life too. But one can't be an effective teacher if you are thinking first of all about one's own agenda.

R.F.: Of course. My purest experience in teaching was a class in adult basic arithmetic, with halfway-house students who thought they couldn’t learn. I had to convince them first that thet could learn and then that if they could count, they could add, and if they could add, they could subtract, multiply and divide. As I recall, I was fairly successful — we even got one guy into Westminster College in Salt Lake. And it taught me as well—a whole bunch about teaching.

S.: And as a translator, you have rendered Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rilke, Trakl, Brecht, as well as a number of other German poets I might never have encountered otherwise, modern and classic -- from Walther von der Vogelweide to Peter Huchel or Johannes Bobrowski. Not to mention, from the Latin, Horace. And it seems to me that you cannot translate the work of others and have your own agenda foregrounded at the same time.

R.F.: Hmm. No. Because my translations are homages, always. You know, the I Ching said something interesting to me; “He does not serve kings and princes; he has higher goals.”

S.: This was in answer to a particular inquiry you made?

R.F.: Yes. So when I say I’m not interested, I’ve kept hoi polloi at bay, I don't mean I've lived selfishly; but all my goals have had to do with furthering what I consider art, and in this case, bringing poets to the consciousness of people who otherwise wouldn’t have heard of them. Such as Trakl. Many people have thanked me for making Trakl accessible to them.

S.: Did you start translating from German of from French?

R.F.: From German – I started actually with Rilke, the Sonnets to Orpheus. I started reading him in German as an undergraduate, though I first knew about Rilke actually from Salinger, Franny and Zooey. I read the Sonnets and fell in love with them; then I read the Norton translation and it seemed to me one could do better – so I tried. And I tried again, and I tried again. So that’s what I cut my teeth on. Then Trakl was the second German poet I focused on, but in the meantime I had worked on some French, Baudelaire and Mallarmé, and Verlaine came a little later. Also Bonnefoy, who I know you like – Oh, I have a Bonnefoy story for you.

S.: Ok.

R.F.: When I did my Bonnefoy translations, I finished them about the time I was married the second time, to Gertrud. We waited a year to go on our real honeymoon, which was to Germany to meet her parents. On our way there we got re-routed through Paris, and we were there in Charles de Gaul airport, and I decided on a lark to call Mercure de France to see if I could send my translations to Bonnefoy. I got someone very nice on the phone, who spoke very good English, thank God, and they were agreeable, and sent the translations on to him. And he sent me back a very nice letter, to which I responded immediately, so we had a correspondence for a while. He liked my translations, but he couldn’t give me any permissions – Mercure de France had sold the rights. So I went and sat on the translations, and forgot about them until just last year – 2014. At which point I read, on some website, that he’d been given a prize, at the age of 90. I said, my God, he’s still alive! So I went back to my translations. And I found myself totally changing them. The focus before – I had taken him at his word, and the focus had been on the individual poems which in his way of thinking had served as voices – at least this is the way he thought back then – so these various voices contend with one another within the context of the book. So I was working on the individual voices; some of them didn’t want to come through for me, but some of them I found, I perfectly well understood them and had no difficulty translating them – that was my feeling at the time. But when I came back and looked at them, I saw that what I had missed, was the unity of the poet’s voice, behind the various voices. And with that, all of a sudden the whole book came into focus. It was a wonderful experience.

S.: Thirty years later!

R.F.: Yes. And I decided, well, I have to send the new version to him. So I got in touch with John Naughton, who’s also translated him, and he was kind enough to give me his email address. So I just sent it to him, writing as I always had in English to him, and the idea was, the way we’d always done our correspondence, he’d write back in French to me. Naughton had told me, “I’m sure he’ll be glad to get them and to know you’ve been thinking of him, but don’t expect any reply, as he’s very ill.” But in two days I got a reply.

S.: I’m so pleased for you. You know, I think I told you, when I read your introduction to the translations of the French Symbolists, when I saw your citation of Bonnefoy I was immediately struck by it. Bonnefoy has been crucial to my own development as a thinker. His essay on “The Act and Place of Poetry,” in particular.

R.F.: And he says – it’s very brief – “Thank you for your new translations, which seem good” – and that’s all you can ask for, you know – “For my part, I continue to work, with some difficulties.” Which, at 92, you can expect.

S.: It must be very striking for him to look back at such early work of his, just as for you, to rediscover these translations you did so long ago. You’re a grandfather now, obviously very proud of your grandchildren. What is it like, shuttling back and forth between now and then, either in your life now, or looking at the next generations – is the long view different from the short view?

R.F.: Oh, absolutely. My attitude to life changed totally over the last forty years. This [poetry] is all part of that process, teaching as well – philosophy and poetry together – I had the opportunity, starting in the 1980’s to become very well acquainted with Buddhism, by teaching it. Nothing helps you learn more than that. And taking it very seriously; and one thing I came to take most seriously was the dictum that everything is an illusion. Everything. But, you know, how can you mean that? And yet, basically, I eventually came to see life that way. It’s all an illusion. In your youth, you participate in the illusion, you’re a player. And as you grow older, you become a spectator of the illusion, although you still participate. Now to say that it’s an illusion is not to say that it’s not real. Of course it’s real.

S.: Real and illusory! Spoken like a real -- and illusory too, no doubt -- Taoist. Of course, an easy and somewhat reactionary reply to this is that it doesn’t take things seriously – specifically that it doesn’t take suffering seriously, and it leads to quietism, and so on. But the Buddha takes suffering very seriously.

R.F.: Well, Bodhidharma tells us, if you want to understand suffering, attend to your mind.

S.: Who’s being fooled by this illusion, after all?

R.F.: Well, what isn’t an illusion is this mind – not consciousness, certainly not the self – but it isn’t the mind that runs through the biocomputer. It’s behind the biocomputer. Mind behind the mind.

S.: Of course this is the kind of talk that makes scientismists want to climb the walls. What do you mean, “the mind behind the mind”? Can you show me any evidence, posit any mechanism? But Bodhidharma does think there is evidence: pay attention to the nature of mind, and you’ll see it.

R.F.: It’s evidence, of a whole different order. It’s not phenomenal evidence, it’s noumenal evidence, to switch to a Kantian register. Whatever Kant thought he was doing, he was definitely knocking on that particular door. The ding-an-sich doesn’t exist, of course, it’s a myth; but at the same time, it’s what’s behind that. Benjamin too is getting at this when he talks about pure language, you know, the language that wants to emerge in a translation: the marriage of two languages which creates a third.

The idea of scientists crawling the wall, in any case, is one I like. They’d be crawling up an illusion. I speak with some misgiving as I know I’ll be misunderstood, but I studied science as an undergraduate at CalTech, and the scientists around me struck me at the time --strong though this language is -- as very learned idiots. That’s sometimes a good state to be in --

S.: Yes, if you are Nicholas of Cusa. Or Socrates. But then,you have to know you don’t know.

R.F.: Well, in this case, it’s not particularly good. They believe in the given; they are positivists, and they don’t know how to look behind the given. And they take everything as fated, yet at the same time, everything is chance. There’s a dialectic there.

S.: Well, if only there were a dialectic there! But the dialectic never emerges. It’s unexamined. Yes, there’s a contradiction between this fatedness and this chance, but science qua science doesn’t press this contradiction, with a few exceptions. I’ve known wise scientists, but the scientismists I encounter, who seem to be part of a rising trend of late, don’t ask the question and in fact don’t seem to see the question.

R.F.: Yes. We’re talking about a kind of snow-blindness, being blinded by the phenomena. Not being able to see anything else, not able to believe there is anything else. There’s a tremendous temerity to scientism as well. Everyone before Darwin was a fool!

S.: Or, if not a fool, then somehow to be pitied, because – if only they could have known what we know: how it really is!

R.F.: And it’s that which makes me say they are idiots. They should know better.

Huh. How did we get onto scientism?

S.: My fault – I was saying something in response to your remark about Buddhism –

R.F.: Oh yes, “All an illusion.”

S.: This long engagement you’ve had with Buddhism, and also Taoism, is one of what I’d say are three strands I’ve heard you talk about in your philosophical development. I recall you did your early work on Wittgenstein.

R.F.: Yes.

S.: And later, when we first began to talk, it was all about Plato, and a particular stream of Platonism and neoPlatonism; it was because of you that I read Thomas Taylor, who no one else had ever mentioned to me. Were these stages in your thought? Or were they strands in a braid?

R.F.: It’s a constellation.

S.: There’s a Mallarméan term!

R.F.: In the Timaeus at the beginning, he names three and says “Where’s the fourth?” In Hegelian dialectic, three’s a crowd: it always generates a fourth; and the same is true in Jung. I think there’ve been four main philosophers with whom I’ve dealt. Wittgenstein does not occupy me so much anymore. He was good for me to cut my teeth on, and I still love the man; he was so fucked up in such a creative way. I say this with no condescension at all, but with admiration. I love the anecdote Bertrand Russell tells of Wittgenstein in his chambers at Cambridge, pacing up and down, and when Russell asked him, Are you contemplating philosophy or your sins, he responded, Both. What a wonderful answer!

S.: It seems to have been the answer he gave his whole life.

R.F.: Yes. But the main problem I have with him is that the only book I can read by him is the Tractatus. He is probably the only philosopher I’ve written work on that I’m really proud of. I use it, for instance, to introduce my paper on Taoism.

S.: When did you discover Taoism?

R.F.: Taoism came into my life in about 1974, when a friend stole a copy of the Wilhelm-Baynes translation of the I Ching and gave it to me. I knew it was stolen, because he didn’t have any money; but he told me, You’ve got to read this. My wife at the time, Jan, and I together asked the question, How do we prepare for our first child? And the hexagram we got in answer was hexagram 37, The Family. Well, coincidence, right? Except, what does that mean? So anyway, I started studying it, and it’s been a thread in my life ever since.
Plato on the other hand was always a thread. The third philosopher would be Heidegger. And then, because there has to be a fourth, the fourth would be Nietzsche. So you’ll note a very strong Germanic influence. You may have heard that there are two kinds of music: German, and bad? Some would say the same of philosophy. And maybe of women; but I’m a little prejudiced about that.

But let’s start with Plato. In the Republic, he presents a program of education: it’s designed to bring individuals to a place where they can gain an awareness of the Absolute. The steps are maybe clearer in the Symposium: the lover starts with loving one person, and goes on to love all beautiful things, and ascends to perceive Beauty itself. But, you know, what kind of perception is that? To talk about how one perceives it violates something – “whereof one cannot speak.” But notice, Plato’s trinity, the True, the Beautiful, and the Good: he asserts it is a moral universe, right there; one somehow perceives the Good. And I too, of course, assert this: morality is as much a part of the universe as gravity is, which is why I believe in the universality of karma; but how one sees this is very hard to say. One can say that one perceives it “with the mind’s eye,” whatever the Hell that is. It’s a good enough metaphor; but already we’re foundering. It resists being put into words. The Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao; the truth that can be written, that can be expressed, is not the “true” truth.

One finds the same thing in Benjamin, even in just that one brief essay on “The task of the translator,” or in his kabbalah studies. “Pure language!” I know what he means. When I read Benjamin, I think, this man has lived my life. He’s had my thoughts.

Not that I agree with everything he says; I utterly disagree that great poets cannot be great translators, for instance. Of course, he never makes this claim outright, be he implies it.

S.: That Benjaminian evocation of pure language – how does that resonate for you with the Mallarméan longing for the flower?

R.F.: The flower “missing from all bouquets”?

S.: Yes.

R.F.: How does it not? We’re talking about a language in which reference is no longer important except in the sense of intention, which in the phenomenological ambiance of the early 20th century when Benjamin was writing has nothing to do with meaning to do something; it has to do with pointing. In the same sense that the Buddhist parable speaks of pointing at the moon: it’s not the damn finger that you’re looking at!

S.: And you read Brentano and Husserl that way?

R.F.: Absolutely. The essence of mind, of mentality, is intentionality. Without reference. Of course, this is all extremely shorthand, and would need a lot of fleshing out.

S.: Well, but isn’t that the point? “Flower” is shorthand, for that one, and that one, and that one....

R.F.: And yet it’s none of them. But you can’t say that it doesn’t exist, because it’s absent. That’s what the preface to the Correspondences volume is all about. Probably the only way I do philosophy anymore these days is epigrammatically. There’s Nietzsche again.

S.: And Nietzsche himself would say that thought itself is abbreviation.

R.F.: Yes.

S.: Wittgenstein says that when philosophers meet, they ought to hail each other with the greeting, “Take your time.” That’s good advice because there is a sense in which the words always go too fast. Particularly when the spark starts to leap, as Plato says in the Seventh Letter, you do have this sense of enormous things passed over in silence, or posited quickly and then moved on from.

R.F.: Well, let’s move on to that third member of the group, Heidegger. He’s been the one I’ve been working on most assiduously lately – although for me that’s still a rather sporadic phenomenon. When Heidegger asks about Being, rather than beings, here we are right up into Taoism already, because we’re struck with the inadequacy of how we express ourselves. You know: “I’m talking about Mind, not ‘mind.’ ” Well! But when you really think about it, the Being of beings is indeed something “behind” the things, something not accessible through language; he’s saying – but it’s only a pointing – that in our everyday engagement, we take this whole thing for granted. It’s incredible: this thing we call life, which is so rich, so complicated, and so simple, so exasperating, and we don’t ever ask: What is it?

It’s easy to accept unthinkingly, before you read Einstein and modern physics, things like simultaneity. We take for granted that it makes sense to say this happened at the same time as that. But my sister-in-law lives in Germany. What is she doing “now”? It’s a different time of day. Does it make sense to speak of “the same time” in this case, and if so, how does that work? And then furthermore, as Wittgenstein asks: what time is it on the sun? You start to realize that all these things make sense in only in small packages.

S.: Locality.

R.F.: Yes. But beyond that – as you expand the context, what we took for granted is gone.

S.: This is one reason Wittgenstein insists that we keep coming back to immediate practice; what we actually do, how we actually use words, as parts of our particular human projects....

R.F.: But Heidegger does the same thing. He asks about the vorhanden, and everything is a tool. But what interests me about Heidegger, is he started out as a theology student, became a philosopher (and for a while a Nazi), and then at the end, in the Der Spiegel interview, he says, “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten,” “Only a God can save us.” So you know. He’s always had this theological strain. He’s got a secret Buddhist/Taoist axe to grind, but he doesn’t want to bring it up, he wants you to think about it yourself.

S.: What do you think he thought we needed to be saved from?

R.F.: Ourselves. I think he thought we were bewitched, not by language as Wittgenstein thought, but by practice. This is where Heidegger goes beyond Wittgenstein.

S.: Well, one can surely see that local concerns on a human scale don’t work well to give us our bearings when we back out very far at all; that’s why it doesn’t work to ask what time it is on the sun. Nor, either, when we zoom in very close –

R.F.: – it’s changing contexts. And meaning relies on context.

S.: But what is my shared context with an amoeba? Or with a salmon?

R.F.: What kind of conversation can you have with an amoeba? Can you have one?

S.: Well, I may. Dysentery is a sort of conversation, or at least a kind of interaction, with an amoeba.

R.F.: OK, yeah. Nonverbal communication.

S.: And I have – there’s a sort of commerce between myself and the salmon as well.

R.F.: Mm hmm. Well, I have a wonderful relation with my dog. I understand her, and she clearly understands what I do.

S.: And there’s all sorts of back-and-forth in Taoist literature between the smaller compass of human concerns and the less clearly outlined but much larger natural world.

R.F.: And then the Tao. One ascends step by step. Man follows Earth, Earth follows Heaven, Heaven follows the Tao, and the Tao follows itself. When you follow that whole line, you find that there is something that is shared; but it’s noumenal, it’s not phenomenal.

S.: Asking “what time is it on the sun?” is asking a misplaced question, thinking you will find the answer on the phenomenal plane.

R.F.: Yes.

S.: Is this step-by-step like the ascent from the Cave?

R.F.: In the sense that it leads you to the noumena, yes.

S.: Why then do you think Heidegger mounts such a fierce attack on Plato?

R.F.: Because he thinks Plato stats too far in the phenomena. I’m not sure he understands the Republic the way I do. (I’m not sure he doesn’t, either!) Much of Heidegger’s attention is on later dialogues like the Sophist. But Plato has, from Heidegger’s position a problem. Plato wants commerce between the world of Ideas and this world.

S.: : Supposedly Plato has a strong anti-poet bias. As both a poet and a self-described Platonist, do you think this is just a misunderstanding? And if not, how do you square these two enthusiasms?

R.F.: Perhaps my answer seems, or will seem, to you an evasion. To begin with, you’ve got to add Taoist to your list, because that is the key to the whole riddle. I should also probably add a caveat — it’s not that I am a Platonist, poet, Taoist, Christian, whatever. There are no doubt millions of Christians who would deny me standing, and hundreds at least of the others who with their respective beliefs, would do the same. The point is rather that I consider myself a Taoist Christian Platonist poet; the point is indeed that I have a special understanding of what each of these labels essentially or intrinsically denote. Because they are just labels, words. And what they do is to provide a convenient device to make unequals equal in certain respects. But the Taoist, as I understand her, does not believe in words — not as denoters, or as rigid designators. Words are but fingers pointing to that moon which is some particular aspect of the ‘world’ (in its broadest sense) which is under consideration. Or, perhaps better (but still vague & metaphorical), language is a communal grid we place between ourselves and the world in order to facilitate communication of whatever we’re pointing to, in order to secure common reference. What words we use do not identify or rigorously define what we are pointing to, they merely help locate it.

The picture I have painted is too schematic and oversimplified — but it comes down to the contention that all language is irreducibly tropical. Kind of an anti-logical-positivism: precision of definition is impossible. I hope you have followed.

What I consider my Platonism ties in here. Platonism is the doctrine that there exist two orders: the order of thought (spirit, ideality, absolute truth) and the order of empiricism (truth by consensus, intersubjectivity masquerading as objectivity, blood-sweat-and-tears). In the Parmenides, Plato shows that the order of language (and hence of our rationality) is strictly incommensurable with the order of Ideas (forms) and that there is no way to bridge the gulf short of platonic contemplation (which is adumbrated in the Republic). What platonists call ideal reality (the realm of forms), Taoists call the Tao; what taoists call language, platonists call opinion (knowledge below the middle of the ‘line’).

So when I call myself a Platonist I am calling myself a Taoist — I believe in a reality that is not amenable to reason.

So how can a poet be a Taoist/Platonist? Because poetry -- or rather art, all art -- is the art of pointing. The ‘truth’ sought by the real poet is in the world, not in his writing — his poem merely points to it. A poem would seem to me the most intricate finger designed by man — unless, of course, it was the gods who designed it.

And what — finally! — of Plato’s diatribe against the poets? I wrote a paper on this subject — one of my best as a student — but the gist of it was that Plato was aiming his polemics at a different sort of creature — the sophist-poet. Plato’s “poet,” the target of his polemic, is one who recites from memory, is immersed wholly in rhetoric and obfuscates with adornment. But Plato himself, as has often been noted, is the most poetical of philosophers. He does not prove, he entertains hypotheses. His ‘theories' are pictures of reality as he envisions it. He never pontificates, and whenever Socrates ‘proves’ a point, Plato wants us to recognize the fallacies involved in his ‘proof'. That is what I try to do as a poet. But I am not as good at it as Plato.

This whole response is an adumbration of what seems complicated, but is really rather simple, once it’s clear.

Also: what I call my Christianity connects also with Platonism. In the Symposium, he speaks of love as being the means by which we are able to bridge the gap from rationality to the forms. Jesus taught that there are no commandments but only the requirement to love, which is not a law since love to be love must be freely given. My belief is that only if we approach it with love can we understand the world.

S.: And what poetic projects are you working on now?

R.F.: I’m trying to put together a number of collections of translations, work I have done over a lifetime. I just finished transcribing a poem, which I hadn’t thought I would include at first. Something I came across in the early ‘80s by a German poet named Heinz Piontek, called Vorkriegszeit, which I have translated as "Prewartime." It is virtually unknown in America. Back then I was working on a compilation of modern German poets, all on the theme of nature. Of course – nature, war, death, love, the depredation of the environment. That was when I found most of the poets I went on to translate more of. I had already known Brecht, and Rilke; but I then got to know Trakl especially, and also Peter Huchel, of whom I hope eventually to publish my translations.

S.: It’s thanks to you that I ever read Huchel.

R.F.: Well, Piontek was another of those. He’s West German, though; most of the others were East German, or else like Trakl and Rilke they predated the split. Trakl of course was Austrian. But Huchel is East German, Bobrowski as well. The anthology never worked, because nobody ever wanted such a thing – a thematic anthology. I understand this much better now. But I’ve been able to use much of the work now, and I find that the translations hold up, though I adjust them here and there. Brecht for instance is relatively easy to translate -- he spent so much time in America that in some ways he thinks like an American. Bobrowski is harder. And Piontek -- he’s considered a Christian metaphysical poet. Stylistically, he’s perhaps in the tradition of some modernist French poets, less in the tradition of the Germans. Most Germans come from Expressionism; he doesn’t. I find his prosody very simple. But the poem is well worth knowing, especially now; it’s an apocalyptic poem. It reminds me in some ways of Carl Orff’s later work. Do you know his choral work Comedy for the End of Time?

S.: No; I know his work for children, and of course the Carmina Burana.

R.F.: Well, at the end of this huge piece, De temporum fine comoedia, Satan comes before God, and says, Pater Peccavi, Pater Peccavi, Pater Peccavi. “Father, I have sinned.” And that’s the end of time. Piontek’s poem is similar, but he sets it around the Jewish prophetic tradition, Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the wisdom literature. It’s written to Wisdom, and opposes to it all the human folly of the century.

S.: Timely.

R.F.: Yes. I’ve just finished that. I’m still, too, in the midst of Horace, who I love, though he’s difficult as Hell.

S.: When you work on an ancient poet, like Horace, do you feel you must change your poetic register?

R.F.: Every poet is different. For Brecht, for instance, you want a tone that is colloquial and quite sardonic, probably looking back to the expressionists and post-symbolists, but his voice is unique. And what one wants to do as a translator is to find a corresponding voice within oneself, that expresses that range. And a necessity for being a good translator is loving your poet, loving what they’re doing and wanting to do the same thing, insofar as that’s possible. Easy to say, hard to understand. On the other hand, somebody like Horace has a certain formality -- I find myself going back probably as far as the seventeenth century, for English models. My language tends to become Biblical, my grammar. One of the things I’ve always insisted upon is precision -- the difference, say, between shall and will; care with the subjunctive mood; that sort of thing is very clear in Horace. “Shall” has an inexorability to it; “will” expresses an intention; that’s my own short summary of it. Little things like that are important, and I always run the risk of the charge of artificiality, preciosity, or just plain derivation; but if someone wants to accuse me of channeling Sir Thomas Browne, I won’t feel bad.

S.: The seventeenth century seems like a good place to go for models for Horace’s language; though not everyone thought well of him then. Dryden, I think, called him a court slave ,or words to that effect.

R.F.: Yes, well, I think Marvell is where to turn for good language to express Horace; not Dryden, whose opinion moreover is not fair at all. In the first place, one has to recognize political necessity; and if like Horace you are an Epicurean and a Stoic to boot, that necessity is something you’re always going to recognize. He asked himself, What better government can you imagine in these circumstances? And he answered, None. He was sick of civil war, of which they had had fifty years. He had lost his ancestral home during that, because he’d backed the wrong horse, and he managed to claw himself back into favor; and as a poet, especially as someone who sees his own calling to be the Roman lyric poet, he needed that favor. Brecht understands this, and by the way loves Horace.

S.: Yes, that does speak well for him -- it gives the lie to the notion of Horace as a fawning imperial yes-man.

R.F.: So yes, he’s a pragmatist; but he’s not a toady. He kept his opinions to himself. He created a persona -- again, very much like Brecht.

S.: I have some questions about contrasting poets and kinds of poetry. One is this question about the ancients and the moderns. You’ve described yourself as not liking change; but you’ve spent a lot of time with Rilke and Trakl, for instance, and a hundred years ago, when this sort of modern poetry was making its inroads into English, at any rate, people were alarmed at the casting-off of forms. Though when I read The Waste Land, for instance, I don’t think I’m merely projecting Eliot’s later conservatism back on it; I find it to be actually kind of a conservative poem in some way; not just in that Eliot seems already weary, though he was in his 20’s when he wrote it --

R.F.: Well, he was already weary. Look at Prufrock -- “I grow old, I grow old….” -- and when he wrote that, he was even younger.

S.: But there’s also a fairly discernible content to The Waste Land, which is why I call it conservative compared with what was roughly contemporary; it’s hardly a Dada anti-poem, or even a cascade of Surrealist free-association -- though it is as in love with, as drunk with, sound or diction, as Dylan Thomas, or --

R.F.: -- or Pound, for instance, who’s the one I look to. Pound has an ability I strive after -- his ear, which may be a little eclectic or over-lush, romantic, but which I love. Thomas leaves me a bit cold, and Eliot -- well, The Waste Land I find to be a failed poem. Unlike Four Quartets. In The Waste Land, he tries to do to much, and Pound tried to claw it back; he warned Eliot that he was running into becoming an essayist. It’s a real risk; in my book Stone, I think I fall to it a little. In any case, my admiration of Pound has to do with my seeking, as a translator, for the qualities of a voice. It’s not a historical period, or even a register, for my vocabulary and diction; I’m trying to reproduce what I’m hearing, which isn’t necessarily German or French or Latin, you know; it’s human somehow. The concept of “Voice in Robert Firmage” would become a very metaphysical study before too long, because I am always looking for the Poem within the Poem. As a good Taoist, I may not like change, but I must recognize it and though I can shore up my little routines against it, I always end up bowing to it.

S.: And so a poem changes in translation, but one hopes that the poem within the poem is still discernible -- is made contemporary again, perhaps. This is perhaps what I wanted to ask you about the ancients and moderns. Do you feel that all these poets -- the ones you can love, anyway -- in some sense your contemporaries?

R.F.: Oh yes. And these -- those whom I feel are my contemporaries -- are the only ones I can translate. I can’t translate Vergil, for instance. He’s the one who’s a toady, if you want my opinion. He’s also a very great poet. But contrast him with Horace -- Horace reaches into his own self, and you can read out of what he’s saying about Augustus: “he’s a good egg, so to speak , once you get to know him -- but he’s also a martinet and wants everyone around him to be sycophants, and I’m not going to be one” -- and he wasn’t. Augustus wrote to Maecenus saying, “I’d like your friend Horace to be my personal secretary,” and Horace said, Not Interested. Yet Augustus kept after him to continue to write poems, even after he’d finished the Odes; this is how we get Book Four, which is really a coda, which kept him in favor with Augustus, but contains the worst things he ever did -- the so-called Secular Hymn about the glory of the Roman army reads like a Pagan press release. Well, you can be the Poet Laureate, but you’ve got to do the work; and so he wrote a couple of bad poems. If this was all there was to Horace I couldn’t translate him; but there’s so much more. His wonderful sense of humor, so dry -- I like that, and I suspect this is why Brecht liked him as well.

S.: There’s that sobering quip by Fredric Jameson to the effect that one can more easily imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Well, for myself, I find it very difficult to imagine poets, qua poets, ever becoming so sought after, so pursued or so feared, again. Yet it was fairly recently still the case; the example that came to mind is Mandelshtam, who offended Stalin, tried to get himself back into favor with a bad poem -- and knew he had succumbed to a moment of cowardice. In any case it didn’t work, and he certainly atoned for it. But I just cannot imagine this happening now -- certainly not in the United States, not in the west generally. Can it happen? What does this mean for poetry, or for us, that this art which once made emperors solicit your favor with bribes and threats, and dictators punish with gulag and banishment, has become less than a byword for nobody giving a damn?

R.F.: Well that’s the point. Nobody gives a damn. No one reads poetry now except for a small minority -- maybe eggheads like you and me --

S.: -- or wistful students? I don’t believe it. I know that poetry readings always seem pretty full when I attend. But it is true that they feel like they’ve become consumer events. Even the Poetry Slams, which are touted for their vibrant energy -- they’re not making any of the Great Powers tremble. Auden said that poets write for three audiences: the heads of state whose ears they have, the beautiful young people they imagine they will bed, and their fellow poets. Which means that, in practice, they write for their fellow poets.

R.F.: That’s right. But I write poetry for the sake of the Muse. I’ve become more and more certain as I grow older that this is the correct metaphor. When you write, you are the voice of the muse in one sense, but more importantly, the muse is your voice.

S.: If you are lucky.

R.F.: The muse is what gives your voice life. And there’s no other reason to write poetry, un this day and age. You can imagine that some day in the distant future some other poet will come across your work, like Yeats with Blake -- you can hope for that, but you can’t expect it. If you write “for posterity,” you’re writing for something you don’t understand and may never exist. No one knows what posterity will be like. As for writing for one’s contemporaries, in America, that’s hopeless. You’d do better to become a rock star.

But here’s my fantasy. I imagine Trakl, in Heaven, smiling down. That is enough. I actually got this with Bonnefoy. He responded, he was touched, and what more could you want -- as a translator? As a poet, well, I don’t really have a poetic style anymore, and maybe I never did. Every book of my own has had its own voice; and, if I manage to write my last book before I die, I’ll hope to build off of all of these things I’ve been doing, translations and my own work, and perhaps it will come together.

S.: Do you feel any urgency about this project now, in light of your brush with mortality?

R.F.: If it happens, good; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t happen.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

You may already be a Straussian!

While I continue hammering any of a half-dozen longer posts into publishable shape, may I meanwhile distract anyone who is still following along with an odd little artifact I discovered in a post about two years old on Eric Schliesser's blog Digressions and Impressions.

Schleisser is citing another post by Jacob Levy, which is asking an interesting question concerning a rough-and-ready distinction between what Levy calls political philosophers and political theorists. At one point, Levy clarifies:
Not all theorists (or all philosophers!) have the same canon, of course. Students of Leo Strauss put an emphasis onto Francis Bacon and Maimonides that is pretty alien to the rest of the discipline; I'm unaware of any significant Straussian treatment of Constant. (NB: Those influenced by Strauss are somewhat anomalous in other ways. They place great weight on a practice they identify as "philosophy," but mostly they study others who have engaged in that practice rather than engaging in it themselves. They are strongly pro-philosophy (as they understand it) and at least sometimes serious critics of social science. Yet almost without fail they are located in political science rather than philosophy departments, and few do work that contemporary philosophers identify as philosophy.) But the general trend is that theorists cast a wider net in the history of ideas, ....A theory graduate seminar is much more likely to race through a major work or two, several minor works or letters, and some secondary literature, trying to get a sense of the theorist's major claims, what they were arrayed against, and why they were thought to matter politically. (Again, Straussians are an exception here.)
Schleisser notes that Levy has here given a curious little off-the-cuff sketch of criteria for Straussianism, and he usefully digests it down to a list of eight (really seven) characteristics:
1. Straussians place an emphasis on Francis Bacon and Maimonides that is pretty alien to the rest of political theory.
2. Straussians place great weight on a practice they identify as "philosophy," but mostly they study others who have engaged in that practice rather than engaging in it themselves.
3. Straussians are strongly pro-philosophy (as they understand it) .
4. Straussians are serious critics of social science.
5. Yet almost without exception Straussians are located in political science rather than philosophy departments.
6. Despite 3, contemporary philosophers do not identify Strausians as philosophy.
7. Straussians tend to reach whole books with attention to close readings and eye for details.
8. Straussians ignore Benjamin Constant.
Note that being "pro-philosophy" in this context gets a very particular nuance from Levy's distinction between "theory" and "philosophy." Philosophers, he says, ask "what's the argument?" while theorists ask "What's the point?" Or again:
One political consequence of all this: philosophers are much more willing to be radical in some important ways. Theorists are much more likely to insist on remaining tethered to some core intuition or some (relatively unexamined) political or moral virtue. ....

To be more precise: philosophers (at least since Rawls introduced reflective equilibrium) typically own up to relying on one or more intuitions. But they aim to have those intuitions be parsimonious, a la axioms in mathematics, physics, and (ostensibly) economics. The aim is to be able to go a long way starting from fairly little. Theorists remain more closely tethered to intuitions for longer.
Straussians -- whom Levy categorizes as "theorists" -- would then seem to be anomalous: they are philosophically-leaning theorists.

(Then comes Schleisser's item 6 -- the one which is not really an identity criterion; philosophers (in Levy's taxonomy), on the other hand, do not return the favor to Straussians.)

There are all sorts of interesting and odd things to note about this, but I'll limit myself to two observations, one semi-frivolous and one possibly not. First, of course one could quibble with the list -- above all, one could object that what Strauss himself contends seems to escape notice.

One very plausible prima facie account of Strauss would surely see a crucial, if not primary, teaching, in his reading modern philosophy as being comprised of various stages of reaction to and rejection of classical philosophy. This account of Strauss' sets up his counter-interpretation, to wit that classical philosophers' insight surpasses the moderns' because they (the ancients) never need to transition between practice and theory. Why not? Because classical philosophy remains rooted in the language of the agora; it does not route things via the theoretical detour, but maintains a directness -- one might even say, "ordinary language" -- necessary for serious engagement with politics.

In other words, the distinction between theorist and philosopher which Levy is remarking is itself a feature of modern philosophy.

Now it is interesting that the widening chasm between theory and practice really begins to yawn as the Enlightenment project -- to make truth in principle generally available, and so abolish the distinction between ruler and people -- really becomes institutionalized. It is as if the gap had to be reproduced elsewhere. The question then arises: Does this point to a problem with (1) the enlightenment project, or with (2) institutionalization -- insofar as these are separable?

There is another omission, so obvious as to be almost invisible. It is (arguably) implied in Schleisser's item 7, but this item leaves out the E-word: esotericism. That is: why do Straussians pay all this attention to the tell-tale nuance? Because they maintain that (classical) philosophers wrote this way; and that, therefore, it is the right way to read.

In this respect, the modern philosophers' question of "what is the argument?" looks as if it pays a kind of lip-service to careful reading but simply does not go far enough.

Well, then, now for the frivolous question: how do I score?
1. Well, I've paid attention to Maimonides and to Bacon, sure; more to the former. But I'd hardly dare say I've studied either of them. So, Yes and No: .5

2. Hmmm. Well, I don't claim to be one of what Strauss called The Great Thinkers. But I also flatly deny either that "mere scholarship" does not open up upon philosophy itself. Moreover, while I would insist upon a strong historical sense, I have an allergic reaction to the notion that in order to love wisdom, one must first run a gauntlet of footnotes. Yes, we are doing (not merely "reading") philosophy here. So, No. 0

3. In case it's not obvious, I am in favor of philosophy. Go Philosophy! Yes. 1

4. I'm agnostic about social science but I'm anti-scientism, so I suppose I am three-quarters "Yes, I'm a Straussian" here. To spare us too many decimal places, let's just go with Yes: 1.

5. I am in neither a political science nor a philosophy department, so... N/A

6. As already noted, whether (modern) philosophers regard Straussians as philosophers is irrelevant, but I'm pretty sure that unless someone is a PhD snob, I can at least pass the Turing Test as a philosopher.

7. Honestly, I am about 50/50 on this one. I believe one should read whole books, but I am dilettantish and tend to err towards breadth and sometimes to sacrifice depth. Also, I have no German, Greek, or anything besides English for any purposes besides haltingly ordering off a menu with a very patient server, so I can hardly do justice to original texts. So, anyway, let's say .5

8. As to Benjamin Constant, I do pay attention to him, though I can hardly claim to have given him a painstaking "Straussian" reading such as might satisfy Levy or Schleisser. Also, I must admit that what initially made me interested was the account of his affair with Madame de Stael, in Dan Hofstadter's book The Love Affair as a Work of Art. (This is a truly gorgeously-written book which I rarely get the opportunity to recommend, so ... well, I really, really recommend it. It's lovely, smart, and human: i.e., the beautiful, the true, and the good.)
Full score: 3 out of 7. Wow, I'd have thunk I was a Straussian for sure. But then again, my reasons for this have much much more to do with the E-word.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

One hazard of thinking

Philosophy is insanely ambitious. "To think the whole," indeed!

Sometimes a rush of analogies occurs to one in a downpour. It's as if the some clinamen in the rain of ideas suddenly causes a congealing. Get it all down, as quick as possible! But the hand is clumsy, and the mind, that mercurial omnivore, dances further and further ahead. Wait, mind, wait!

This rush can be exhilarating -- until it's not. The slightest admixture of ego is enough to unbalance one. But the ego is a sly thing, and you don't notice -- or rather, you collude with yourself in "not" noticing, and the rush of excitement builds. And then, you take a moment, and realize, my God I'm out of my depth. Suddenly the sweet self-congratulation turns brittle and bitter. "I'll never get this all down, I'll never make it hang together."

All this is far easier to avoid in dialogue. It's another reason why thinking by oneself is dangerous for beginners like me.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Philosophy should complete a process that should never have been started:" Interview with Michael Shephard, part 2

(Part 1 of this interview can be found here.)

Michael Shephard: There’s also another aspect to this tension between human connection and my way of doing philosophy. The thought of philosophy as being in a certain way anti-human has been a nice hook for me to hang some concepts on. Recently, I was reading the Crito, which has Socrates declaring how philosophy pushes towards death: that’s the direction it’s facing. Add to this my notion of how I don’t actually want us to be doing philosophy, ideally -- I don’t think it’s a good thing for us to be doing; it’s a (contextually) necessary thing. If we succeeded at philosophy, that would enable us to never have to do philosophy again. Just as if we succeeded at medicine, it would mean the end of all illness, and so of all medicine. That would be good; no one ought to pine, in that situation, “It’s too bad I don’t get to do medicine anymore; I wish someone would get sick!” No; if we’re all healthy and everyone’s going to stay healthy forever; it’s clearly a much better outcome. And I take it seriously that we’re all engaged in such a conversation when we all get together to talk philosophy. I don’t want to damage the human connections that are available to us -- and if you persuade me that philosophy is doing that, I wouldn't do philosophy differently, in a more human way, a more experientialist way; I would just do it less. I’d curtail, and edit, and manage it.

And I already do that -- I already am careful about where philosophy could potentially trample my human connections and human experience. I don’t think of them as necessarily dovetailing; I don’t think of philosophy, either the undertaking or its results, as being perfectly harmonious with what it is to be a healthy, experiencing human being. This goes back to the issue of whether philosophy is best thought of as a kind of effort towards something divinely profound, something harmonious and healthy -- a kind of song we’re all singing. I don’t know that it is.

Ray Brassier says, in the preface to Nihil Unbound: “Thinking has interests that do not coincide with those of living.”

M.S.: Well, yes. My rephrasing -- my brutal, weird rephrasing -- of that would be that thought is processing towards a specific conclusion, or result -- an answer. But it’s not at all obvious that modern human beings are not in a deeply fucked-up input environment. It’s not an environment in which, if we get a clear and good input, our processing would naturally lead us to good results; I think almost every problem that human beings care to discuss indicate that we’re a processing algorithm currently getting very bad input. Were we being given good input, perhaps all processing would lead to “life” -- or whatever, whatever was important. Now because I think it’s a possibility -- that perfectly functional, healthy algorithms can, given bad input, turn out garbage -- and because with the human being, it’s a self-recursive algorithm, so the garbage goes back in -- thus why it’s interesting to talk about societies shaping human beings who then shape societies -- I think that if we, modern human beings, just take the experiences we’re given, I think our processing activity, our thought, may be leading us into bad places. If that’s the case, then -- to put it rhetorically -- if our thought is headed that way, we have to go after it: chase it down, bring it back, and wall up that avenue.

But I think Brassier means something stronger: that it’s no slur upon philosophy to say that it might point to something besides life; there’s no reason why we should assume that the task of thinking is to perpetuate the human.

M.S.: But it is! The task of human thinking is to do that.

See, he’d say that thought qua thought –

M.S.: -- which is not a thing.

-- Brassier certainly wants to argue that it is, that it can be; there’s such a thing as truth, and the truth doesn’t give a damn about life; it doesn’t have to. And the remarkable thing about our capacity -- our human capacity -- to recognize truth, is that it can; it can recognize, and countenance, and at least momentarily make common cause with, this completely ahuman, inhuman truth.

M.S.: It’s a notion of truth I disagree with. This is why I get caught between dogmatic ideas, and relativistic ideas. I certainly maintain that there is something worth being called truth; but it extends not from some pure thing that is either discovered, or revealed; it derives from the tautology of cognition; the tautology involved in being able to even pose questions. That’s not a magical capital-T Truth, but it can be agreed upon. It can be agreed upon to the degree that we are capable of meaningful communication at all. And of course that’s true, right? E.g.: Obviously, you need to exist outside of me in order for there to be some kind of consensus between two separate things; and we need to be actually communicating. Again, I didn’t put those elements there; those things are necessary in order to talk about agreement.

We can say that this is implicit in the notion -- in the grammar of agreement.

M.S.: Yes, the grammar; or the semantics of what it means for two independent minds with different premises and conclusions to suddenly share the same conclusion -- whatever we mean by “same,” whatever meaning that could have -- that’s all in there, it’s all part of it.

Yes. if I say, I need to go mail a letter in the mailbox across the street, and you say Where? And I say, over there -- behind the tree there’s a mailbox; and you shift your position by a step and say, Oh, there is a mailbox! -- at that moment, something happens, an “agreement.” And you’re claiming that whatever that is, in any instance like that, the grammar of that experience implicitly entails: your existence, my existence, meaningful communication.

M.S.: Yes. all those ingredients are in there.

And a triangulation in the world.

M.S.: And the fact that they can be lined up, that they can be triangulated. In fact, it’s absurd in my opinion (not absurd in the sense that I think people who do this are idiots, but it’s conceptually absurd) to concur that all these ingredients are there, to be on board with all the ingredients of that triangulation and then refuse to grant that the triangulation can occur. Not that it does or must -- but that it can. That’s the truth of thought; and I’m interested in thought in the sense of human thought.

Your take on philosophy, then, seems both -- not that you’ll agree with these particular terms -- but it’s at least mildly deflationary; you have a suspicion of, as you said, things people get excited about; a suspicion too of reverential treatment of great figures; even of “experience” per se --

M.S.: I’m a de-humanist.

And yet. While you aren’t committed to the notion of philosophy as the life worth living --

M.S.: No. Though it might be the best thing for me! Fucked up as I am.

-- But you also seem quite ready to go to the wall for the notion that the truth philosophy seeks is a human truth.

M.S.: Well, I’m quite sympathetic to the Nietzschean skeptical argument against truth in a sense, and I’ve even occasionally considered jettisoning the word “truth” from my vocabulary. But I mean, “human” truth as opposed to--?

Well, what else would there be?

M.S.: I’m not sure what corner that puts me in. I mean, it’s a human truth insofar as --

-- as it’s part of an activity undertaken by human beings.

M.S.: Yes. I’m very much in line with the assumptions, broadly “Continental,” that we are always-already human, and that our thought proceeds from there. We don’t get to step outside of that. But I resolve this by saying, Yes, of course; the tautology of questions-and-answers is what we’re talking about.

When we read Meillassoux, you surprised me by being as sympathetic to the correlationist position as you were. I’d anticipated you being willing to side absolutely with the critique of correlationism. I think your juxtaposition is very interesting: a deflationary account of philosophy side by side with a humanocentric perspective upon, if not reality itself --

M.S.: Maybe.

-- Hm! Well, at least of philosophy. These don’t tend to cohabitate; people tend to associate the inflated sense of philosophy with connotations of a profound, or a pseudo-profound, portentousness, with the dignity of thought that surrounds this weighty human endeavor to think and experience deeply. So the deflationary account of philosophy is often deployed as a way of pricking this (ostensibly) hubristic project.

M.S.: I think a good way of putting this is that human beings are generally weak; narrow-minded; blinkered; and that’s OK -- it’s entirely appropriate for them to be this way. I grant that this is loaded rhetoric -- words like “weak” are supposedly inherently negative -- but I think this is part of the problem; this is what I’d like to explode. Tangentially, I have a problem with heroes. So much of human literature, art, mythology, thinking, is concerned with heroes, as something to live up to. And I think that’s quite unfair. I think we need to lower our standards for what human beings can put up with -- the situations they can navigate. .

Hence what you’ve said about how people should be able to dispense with philosophy.

M.S.: Absolutely.

Wittgenstein said he was searching for a way to stop doing philosophy when he wanted to.

M.S.: You know -- there’s an arrogance to saying that humanity is privileged, special, a culmination –

"The measure of all things...."

M.S.: And there’s also an arrogance to saying that humanity is another accidental collection of atoms, and that I can see that -- I, this particular accidental collection of atoms, can see it. Well, I do want to deflate something -- the sort of magical grandeur of philosophy -- what the goal of that is. But I’m also very practical; I’m in this for results. And I think the project needs to deliver the sorts of results that philosophers pay lip service to.

And that means, seeing something. Well then, let’s talk about this notion of results -- or progress in philosophy.

M.S.: I’m going to go right back to my tautology argument.

Ah -- that, by definition, if you’re engaged in a project, the grammar of the very idea of project, is progress.

M.S.: In this case: the grammar of the idea of investigation is --

-- Answers.

M.S.: Yes. If the questions you set up in philosophy are meaningful, there will be some kind of answer. And if you think you are posing questions that don’t have an answer, there’s something wrong -- that’s not a question.

Wittgenstein, again, says in the Tractatus -- Six-point-something --

M.S.: What, you can’t remember the exact number of the proposition?

Nah. But he says, “If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered.” [6.5, as it happens]

M.S.: And I would challenge anyone who wants to deny progress in any endeavor to formulate this. Now “progress” is a word laden with too many associations, but I’m not invested in any specific form -- “scientific progress”, or transhumanistic progress, or whatever. Again, I’d be happy if the result of philosophical conversation led us to a significantly non-modern form of life.

The reason I brought it up in this case, is that you’ve said you were letting go of the reins -- insofar as Drunken Philosophy ever had any reins -- partly because you were tired of having the same conversations over and over. This reminded me of a remark by Frithjof Schuon, to the effect that “The Truth can bear repetition.”

M.S.: …. Depends on the truth, though.

Well, and the truth may be able to bear what we can’t. In any case, do you feel that in your own evolution -- from your discovery of philosophy and your entry into it -- which I’m very interested in -- do you feel that from there, in your own trajectory, you yourself have made progress?

M.S.: Yes! I do. I could joke that I haven’t made progress as a human being, but I have as a philosopher!

But you feel you’ve done both?

M.S.: I’ve done both, but I’ve done both separately.

Is it presumptuous to ask for examples? We’ll keep it to what you identify as philosophical progress. Some instance in which you started out with a question, a sloppy formulation, or a mistake, and through conversation and thought have changed and arrived at a better-formulated question or even an answer?

M.S.: Regarding philosophical progress, this is, of course, not something easily defensible. My ideas are only being exposed to a moderate level of assessment, just introspection and what ultimately amounts to casual conversation, no matter how informed and passionate. That being said, in the last half-decade or so, that compulsive testing I mentioned earlier has more and more frequently meshed with the complex ideas that I apply it to. It doesn't (often) yield predictions, per se, but it does yield a quick assimilation of difficult questions into existing conceptual relationships. The most important part of this is that those conceptual relationships are extensively cross-referenced. My conclusions about a single issue, say capital punishment, need to survive the implications carried into every part of the system -- in this case, a meta-ethical question must be squared with existing conclusions about politics, free-will, psychology, natural rights, murder, religion, epistemic prediction, etc. If it doesn't, then either the new conclusion is unacceptable or one of the existing ones require a revision.

Disclaimers established, you asked for a specific place where I've made progress. I can mention multiple places, as long as you understand that the actual progress I think I've made usually requires the simultaneous and indispensably interdependent instantiation of several controversial positions, namely moral nihilism, strong epistemic skepticism, strong atheism, skepticism of a unified self, free-will denialism, determinism, mereological nihilism, presentism, some asterisked version of anarcho-primitivism, a firm embrace of ritual and myth (controversial only in the context of my other positions), a very specific understanding of language which I don't have a label for (but is almost certainly not original), and a general desire to take the piss out of any narrative which considers human being special or capable of being special.

Stipulated. Let the record show.

M.S.: So: I believe that what we call morality is wholly inseparable from the face-to-face human connections which we, as social organisms, are attuned to via the normally accepted and biologically straight-forward sensory mechanisms. Any ideas about empathy or morality which extend beyond these mechanisms will fail necessarily, in spite of the best intentions, and every idea about empathy which truly leverages a long-term (years/decades), non-dysfunctional connection between emotionally healthy human beings will succeed necessarily, in spite of the worst intentions. Any talk you hear about empathy between people at a distance is a mis-use or dangerously precarious extension of the concept of empathy, and we can only expect people to feel amorally towards individuals who, because of a lack of the circumstances which make someone human to you, don't register as human in the only ways which such connections are real and meaningful.

I believe that we can "know" almost nothing, and that once you accept solipsism as the first and last solid foundation, you can get down to the business of comparing sets-of-beliefs, instead of arguing over how we could know things that, logically, by definition, can't be known (because we could be wrong about them). This dispenses with a multitude of obstacles which cause so many debates to stall before any momentum is gained.

I believe that the concept of a god or gods is necessarily incoherent as a result of the core elements of the only definitions which a theist could agree to. I'm not talking about the "omniscient / omnipotent / omnibenevolent" thing, that's a pretty soft attack in my opinion. I'm talking about something that ceases to be godlike if it can merely fit into any conceivable description of a very powerful alien entity (or whatever). And I claim that all of the attributes which separate proposed god or gods from a very powerful alien entity (or whatever) are necessarily inconceivable. In fact, that inconceivability is often explicit, or beyond explicit - probably the most sophisticated and compelling defenses of theism lean the hardest on that inscrutability. But I think that sense of mystery is not an argument in and of itself, or a koan-ish vibration which can only be felt and meditated on - it's the beginning of a discussion. The end of that discussion is a reduction of that sense of mystery and its appeal without denigrating or even dispelling the substance of religious awe. In my experience, it's that religious awe that's the final sticking point for so many theists. If I can save the phenomenon of religious awe and accommodate ritual, mythological story-telling, and real community bonding without offering the pathetic substitutes of scientism and modern western urban secularism, then I think what's left of god shouldn't be worth the trouble that concept causes in so, so, so many other domains of philosophy.

It goes without saying that these descriptions are nowhere near a sufficient defense of these claims, but you asked for examples. I’m happy also to give you my answer to almost any of the more run-of-the-mill moral/philosophical questions. At the very least I'm confident that I could dismantle the usual abortive conversations and provide a clear path to ones which have real traction (if people were willing to at least entertain the system of controversial positions I outlined above, which of course the vast majority of them will not).

These are each specific enough and counter-intuitive enough to have probably cost a good deal of effort. I suspect there are stories there.

M.S.: Also, unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to genuinely believe that you’ve made philosophical progress, without being automatically enrolled in the halls of crackpots, inducted into the membership of those who think they’ve “figured it out” -- solved the Grand Questions. But I guess I’d turn that critique around and ask -- if that isn’t your goal, than what is it you think you’re doing? I’m OK with multiple agendas at the same time, and as I’ve said, I try not to let my philosophical agenda interfere with my other efforts. To the degree that I am capable of being an happy and healthy human being, I want to still keep doing the things that are the most important. Again, I don’t think philosophy will lead me to happiness; or if it does, it’d be in defeating philosophical or intellectual obstacles that have been set up -- either set up for me, or that I myself set up, but which in any case ought never to have been there.

Because of bad inputs for the algorithm.

M.S.: Exactly. But I think there are still good inputs, and to the extent that I concentrate on and process these, me getting closer to other human beings is not a matter of becoming better at philosophy, or becoming philosophically wiser. I have everything I need -- to the degree that I’m not lacking or broken somehow -- to make those connections work. I should pursue humanity as a human, not as a philosopher. That’s going on all the time, obviously; and if it’s being trampled, you’d better watch out.

So you’d aspire to live according to the adage of the ancients: "Live first, and then philosophize."

M.S.: I’d say, prioritize living first, prioritize philosophy second. As much as living is available to you -- as much as you can live.

It’s not clear how much that is?

M.S.: As with the analogy with medicine -- the problem is, we’re up shit creek collectively. When people get together, and they claim to be talking philosophy and what they’re actually doing is just connecting, or having an artistic experience, or whatever -- I might admit to this being a higher priority for whoever that is. ….But, if you’re going to do medicine, do medicine; if you’re going to do art, do art; if you’re going to do philosophy, do philosophy. Or at least have the division of when you are doing it seriously - and when you’re not - be a pretty clear one. Again, the process here is not to leverage something that is human to be more human, as if philosophy might be a really core element that, if we do it in the right, continental, experientialist way, we’ll become more -- and better -- human -- No. There are elements of philosophy that I think you could probably portion out into more human projects, that are just about experiencing. I think they’ve become entwined with philosophy because philosophy addresses these things, but I don’t think this is what philosophy should be used for; it should be used to destroy itself, to complete a process that should never have been started.

“The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking.” Maybe you are closer to Heidegger than you think. Or, better, to me -- we both, you and I, actually do see philosophy as not an end in itself. Though I’m quite ready to insist that philosophy is primarily experiential and not discursive -- that’s how I might have parsed out that distinction -- we started out the conversation by mentioning the experiences that people say “changed their lives,” and that really those sorts of experiences are so rarely the ones we seek out or expect to be decisive -- rather, they’re the ones that happen to us willy-nilly. And yet it’s possible to live, to comport oneself, in such a way as to make oneself more prone to the possibility of being changed -- to cultivate an openness. Your example was travel --

M.S.: Not just any travel. Go to a third-world country.

Right. Or even, possibly, a very different first-world country, like -- if you happen to be American -- Japan? If you conduct yourself in that way, you may bump into something that will shake you to your core. And I’d be willing to strongly defend the idea that philosophy is just such comportment; even that the tradition of philosophy is a kind of arsenal or cabinet of practices for doing this -- a set of tropes, thought-experiments, metaphors -- texts, but also practices -- for doing this. None of those are magical, by themselves, as if they guaranteed “openness” -- if you treat them as magical, they become just such a packaged “experience” -- a New Years’ Eve party. Or Burning Man. But if you employ them loosely, I guess I’d say, they become ways of conducting and examining yourself in ways that leave you open to the chance of having your life blown open. Now that arsenal, that tradition, is not an end in itself. It’s only useful insofar as it lets you have these encounters -- lets you realize your premises were flawed. And there’s no final conclusion, no moment at which one can say Now I’ve arrived. In that sense, I think, I’m willing to say there’s no progress -- no answer; no final answer, no moment when you can say Ah, now I’ve Solved The Problem, I’ve found the capital-T Truth philosophy was in search of. On the other hand, one can always live deeper and deeper. In that sense I’d say, there’s clearly a kind of progress that is real. You could stay where you are -- or not. You can say the same thing over and over again or not. For me, holding as I do to the medieval notion of philosophy as ancillary (though I’d qualify this) -- I too feel that philosophy should want to put itself out of business in a certain sense, though I think it’s indispensable and probably unfinishable. I’m much less inclined to see philosophy as an unfortunate requirement to put right a happenstantial bad turn in our history. I think its indispensable given the way we’re constructed. But I also see it as not an end in itself. It’s interesting to me that we both see philosophy as not final. Or self-justifying.

M.S.: What you’re saying makes me grasp better what you and your ilk, if I can say so, are doing -- something I both respect and disagree with. The overlap you mention is real but slim. What comes to mind is -- obviously philosophy is many things to many people, with many facets. There’s the discursive and argumentative facet which many see as obvious --

The close attention to logic, distinguishing it from rhetoric; avoiding fallacies; what people mean by “critical thinking,” parsing reasons and consequences and so on? And a strong concern for consistency.

M.S.: Yes. But there is also an aspect that i want to call conceptually esoteric --full of ideas that may not inspire passion, but are deeply weird, and challenging. Maybe no one is actually a solipsist, for instance --

-- or a mereological nihilist

M.S.: -- indeed; but these ideas aren’t like the crackpotism of being a snake handler. The ideas aren’t endorsed in real-world ways (like getting real rattlesnakes out of the box with your bare hands). No one is a solipsist like that; but it remains weird to take these ideas seriously anyway.

So you mean by “esoteric” in this sense not a Straussian writing-between-the-lines, but rather these weird, out-there and abstract ideas, counterintuitive and challenging and very hard to inhabit, but also not obviously stupid or counterfactual -- not like the moon being made of cheese. A kind of respectable crackpotism, almost.

M.S.: And then there’s a third aspect -- a kind of mystical or religious element of philosophy.

Meaning-of-life stuff. At least some of which resists being put into words, or exhaustively so.

M.S.: And those three things are each so prominent that philosophy could be defined at any moment by any of them. Which is why, throughout history, philosophy has frequently been dismissed as being too intellectual, too obscurantist, too abstract, too mystical -- any of those. I’m not going to argue that “philosophy” is really three wrongly conflated things; all of these are rightly philosophical. Traditionally, what one does is attempt to subsume one or two of these under another, and show how they relate and interact. And, if you want to do any of them philosophically, you have to engage all of them. Now it sounds to me like you come to philosophy -- the table of philosophy, this feast -- and you find there these aspects of mystical sustenance. And you say, first of all, these are important; I refuse to accept any assessment of this table that doesn’t feature -- and prominently feature -- these aspects. So you are resistant to any narrowly analytic views that shove such things off the table -- which they do, and rudely.

Do you think I go further and shove the other things off?

M.S.: No, you don’t do that. But we were having this conversation about what can cultivate changes in human beings -- and changes them positively; what lets them grow, what feeds them. And I wonder if for you and those who share this approach, if you discover this at the philosophy table, and it changes you, I’d say this is potentially an argument for the power of say, mystical experience; not one of philosophy generally speaking. And surely, just because something mystical or religious is found in philosophy, and has to be, this doesn’t mean you have to go to philosophy to get it. There are or could be cultures that are religious, or mystical, without being philosophical. That stuff is on other tables as well. So if this is your reason for coming to philosophy -- first of all, why philosophy? And secondly, if you don’t really engage with the other two aspects, there’s arguably some harm that comes from it, because we’re all at this table -- well, the analogy of the banquet breaks down. But we’re involved in a collective project, and if you aren’t doing all of it….

There’s a dialogic aspect that suffers.

M.S.: Exactly. Yes. And it’s not just you that misses out, the whole cooperative endeavor can go awry. To switch analogies: If you show up to work in a field with others, part of the effort is to get the job done, but part of it is also to (say) build community. And if you only “get the job done,” or only sing the work songs, or whatever, the whole endeavor goes slightly off, because it was always about more than one thing. So, just because you’re not pushing things off the table, does not mean that things don’t go wrong.

But then you’re arguing that this communal effort is somehow -- well communal. It’s human. And this is why it can go awry if it’s treated as something else. You’re being invaded by fuzzy borders.

M.S.: No; it’s a structural analogy. But working in a field with others is human beings doing a human thing; philosophy is human beings doing a non-human thing. Understand, I’m not saying that medicine or philosophy should be considered as separate from ordinary human endeavors -- I’m saying they are separate. We’ve set them up that way, and this is how they are. And I’m saying, we can acknowledge this, or not acknowledge it. I’m not making the decree from on high -- “this is how philosophy works; and this is how cultivating a field works.” I’m saying, if you look at it closely, they reveal themselves as having these differences.

So the “non-human” structure of philosophy is part of what’s “on the table.”

M.S.: But we still do it as human beings. This is what transhumanists, for instance, forget.

But it seems to me that there is something about philosophy that inherently challenges one to make progress as a person.

M.S.: Example?

Epistemic humility. The need to both be true to one’s convictions and intuitions and simultaneously know where one’s limits are -- what the limits of claims are. The capacity to be challenged by a position that is unpalatable and yet potentially true.

M.S.: Two narratives come to mind -- at least. One: you come to that conclusion intellectually and it makes no difference at all. This is a coherent possibility and I think there are clear examples of it. Two: you are changed, but not because philosophy changed you. Rather philosophy gave you the symbols -- it is rich in symbols and as we said, it has these elements on the table. But there were other reasons why you were ready to have this insight -- you were processing something emotionally, or religiously, or psychologically, and philosophy was there. It’s a powerful leverage point, and its tools provide a lot of torque, but it’s incidental to the change itself.

Sufficient but not necessary.

M.S.: And I think that philosophy is obviously -- tautologically -- not for those things, because you can get them elsewhere.

For instance: Despite your being able – obviously – to hold forth on all of this with aplomb, your education was not in philosophy, but in art. So I want to ask you, do you feel the same way about art -- the same personal investment, and the same general reservations?

M.S.: Yes. I love art, and I'm dedicated to creating the most sophisticated and challenging artwork that I can. But if an exquisitely sublime level of art is a necessary medicine for society (and I'm not saying that's obviously and uncontroversially true), then its value is to wake us up and inspire us - to push us towards societal structures where the good life is, again, natural and inevitable. To return to the point about an unsophisticated community, is it really necessary for such a community to create or even be capable of appreciating extremely advanced works of art? Or is a more rudimentary form of art enough to nourish the human spirit? I argue that the kind of art made by regular people is more than enough for a happy, healthy, and fulfilling human existence.

What media do you work in?

M.S.: Sculpture mostly - ceramic, polymer clay, and mixed media. But I've got a background in digital art and painting.

An Unnecessary Multiplication of Entities by Michael Shephard

S.: But if Philosophy -- at least according to certain accounts -- strives for articulation, conversely -- by some accounts -- art resists articulation. As Agnes de Mille said, “If I could say it I wouldn't have to dance it”. Is there sense to this notion of non-paraphraseable content in art? Or is this very question not of interest to you, qua artist?

M.S.: I'm very interested in it, even from an artistic point of view. Most artists are at least somewhat conscious of how, exactly, one courts the wild and murky potential of the subconscious. Salvador Dali famously held a spoon in his hand as he dozed, so that it would slip out just as he was in that in-between state between waking and sleeping - it would clang to the ground, and allowing him to drag surreal visions from the depths of pre-slumber free association.

That being said, I don't think art is inherently "ineffable". We often use the word "mystery" to refer to things that are mysterious to us, but not necessarily irreducible. Actually, most people don't even attempt to distinguish between "too complicated for human beings to consciously articulate" and "fundamentally inexplicable" (whatever that means). I think art is a different format of communication, but it's communication nonetheless. Personally, if something could be communicated without using art, I think an artistic format should be avoided. Because it operates at a level that, by design, tends to bypass conscious examination, it comes loaded with all sorts of crazy and messy superfluities.

If that's the only way something can be communicated, fine - and I believe that some things can only be communicated through art. But if not, steer clear. Especially because you, as an artist, don't always fully know what you're putting into your art. And also because the skill of an artist (like the skill of an orator), can lend an undeserved power to a political or philosophical message.

How is your philosophical drive connected to your artistic urge, and did it predate or postdate it?

M.S.: My artistic drive is mostly separate, although my artistic and intellectual facets contain refractions of each other. I feel no need to combine these things, or even interleave them. I will say that I originally saw my art in near-religious terms, I thought of it as a potentially genuine connection to a existent dimension from which visions were drawn. I thought there was a conduit. It was actually my first serious investigation into philosophy proper that led to a surrender (and not a painless one) to atheism. The writings of Joseph Campbell were hugely helpful in finding a way to preserve the mystical/"mystical" experience of art, while still committing myself to a physicalist ontology.

Do you make a living as an artist?

M.S.: I make pasta right now. And food is not art, I agree with Socrates on that question. I've been a professional illustrator and designer in the past. My fine art has never been very commercially viable, and I'm very wary of the temptation to change it in order to make money as a "real" artist. I think in order to absolutely and completely avoid that happening (which is my goal) I need to never expect to sell anything. That should never, ever be part of the equation in my head as I am creating a new work. I consider that to be corrupting and poisonous to the making the kind of art that I admire most, and that I think we need more of.

This opens upon a broader question of livelihood in general. What sorts of social and/or political structures do you aspire to live in? What, in other words, is the good life for you?

M.S.: To be clear, the good life for me might not be the good life for human beings. I was raised by a society that had/has a lot of strange ideas, and those ideas shaped me. I can intellectually, and thus publicly, question or condemn those ideas, but many of them are too deeply ingrained in me. I think gender is a good example - I believe I'm doomed to a certain inflexibility regarding gender identity. So for me, the good life requires a social structure which accepts (but doesn't endorse) some outdated notions of masculinity and femininity. I also think I'm doomed to be an urban animal, but I believe that cities -- especially cities of the size and density that many of us live in -- are fundamentally unhealthy for human beings, and antithetical to the kind of communities that human beings need.

And when I speak of "human beings", again, I'm speaking about a species -- a species which is defined by common characteristics. Any species may have its exceptions, and maybe some human beings don't want to be included in the category "human species", but it's pointless to talk about those kinds of outliers. Maybe someone has a genetic mutation that causes them to gain healthy nourishment from smoking two hundred cigarettes a day - that's fine, but I still get to say that the "good life for human beings" probably involves staying away from cigarettes (or use your own example of something that's clearly unhealthy). Maybe someone is so psychologically or neurologically atypical that any human contact whatsoever gives them a panic attack - that's fine, but I still get to say that the "good life for human beings" is probably compromised by extreme isolation.

To answer your question more directly, I think human beings have an emotional need to be living in real communities. By "real", I mean a community where people literally live together, sharing space, food, tools, struggles, and triumphs. A community where people stay together, so that problems must be worked out as opposed to walked away from. Ideally, a community where people work together, bound by a common purpose. Also, a community without entrenched power structures, so that people are directly and immediately accountable to the rest of the community.

I aspire to live in a community like that. I currently live in an "intentional community" (basically a hippie cooperative), and it's great, but it's still too loose to be what I would consider a real community. I could walk away from it without too many consequences, and in fact the turn-over is between two and four years, which really isn't a long time when you talk about the level of connection which human beings are capable of.
More pragmatically speaking, I hope to get as close as possible to the ideal that I endorse, but I think the best that the current adult generation can hope to do is point the next generation in the right direction. Honestly, though, I doubt that that's even going to happen.

I'd describe you, then, as having both a well-articulated and strong commitment to living as a “human,” given that this is what we are; and yet -- comfortable calling yourself a de-humanist -- you want us to be able to do the anti-human projects (medicine and philosophy have been our examples here but they’re just examples) and finish them. But there are still also, as you say, ordinary human projects which it would be nice to get back to, to be able to wholeheartedly and healthily get back to. I began by asking about biography and claiming a link between life and thought; and I might even urge that, in addition to the three elements you named of philosophy -- what you called the discursive/argumentative, the esoteric, and the mystical/religious -- there’s another aspect, the scholarly or historical, which is, again, linked to questions of biography. As we wrap this conversation up, I’m still wondering about the human connection of philosophy.

M.S.: Can you elaborate on this “human connection”?

Philosophy as dialogic. As the “examined life.” Philosophy as inherently concerned with the Good. And yet, -- It's interesting, I find (perhaps under your influence as we’ve gone through this exchange) that I don't really want to claim that philosophy is – in an inflated sense -- fundamentally "human," as if this term was particularly important. I'm not especially attached to becoming ever "more human," per se, though I would resist becoming "less" so. My own values direct themselves toward being – or becoming -- good, being a person (as opposed to an object of ideology or someone else's project -- this includes being free and being responsible), being "me" (authenticity), and truly meeting life - other entities, events, &c - honestly. It's not clear to me at all that "Human" is a privileged term in this. It might turn out to be if, in quest of a certain kind of consistency, I chased some implications down, maybe.

M.S.: I’m not sure if this is relevant to the specific thrust of your question, but I would say that philosophy is for human affairs, and again human-ness is special to humans, which we are. Philosophy must ultimately answer my human fears, it must lead you to some kind of "good life", and it must resolve our conflicts. However, the project of philosophy will not be successful if thought of and carried out as a primarily human activity. It will also, of course, not be successful if the humans-conducting-a-not-primarily-human-activity aspect is not kept in mind. A difficult problem, to be sure. But not an insurmountable one.

Digital Abstract by Michael Shephard

Sunday, February 5, 2017

"Whatever your questions are, the answers will extend from your definition:" Interview with Michael Shephard, part 1

This is somewhat of a departure for my on-again-off-again series of interviews. You won't have heard of Michael Shephard unless you already know the non-University philosophy scene in Seattle, and even then, maybe not. Michael is founder and longtime organizer of Drunken Philosophy, a remarkably successful and populous local meetup group, devoted to philosophical discussion and other altered states of consciousness, not always in that order. Unlike many philosophy meetup groups, which are often more or less formal Q-&-A occasions, Drunken Philosophy is more or less a free-for-all -- you show up, find or start a conversation, and if you get bored, you move on. You may move through one or ten conversations in a night, and never meet the same viewpoint twice. Politics from Libertarian to bleeding-heart Marxist, ontologies from scientism to mysterian New-Age; atheists and "believers," English majors and coders, the stodgy rear-guard and the gender-obliterating avant-; and, maybe most significantly, newbies and veterans. By this last, I mean both with regards to the group, or to philosophy itself. I've spoken with Straussians who can go to town over Heidegger or Aeschylus, or readers of Chinese who can tell me why so-and-so's rendering of Li Po may be as apt as English semantics can get but really ruins the music; I've met a young man barely old enough to get into the bar who was reeling from his fresh break from the Jehovah's Witnesses a couple of months before, and a woman from Korea who told me she was astounded at the tremendous breadth of different standards of female beauty in the U.S. I've heard a stranger give me a coherent and confident pitch for the theory behind acupuncture and qi gong in under five minutes, and friend surprise me by revealing a hitherto-unsuspected encyclopedic familiarity with the minutiae of post-Civil War Reconstruction. You may be recruited for black-bloc anarchism or for an Orthodox kibbutz. As my favorite group review says:
Where else can you have back-to-back discussions of the meaning of consciousness, the significance of David Bowie, & the plausibility of medieval Arab alchemy's influence on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? There is in this group something extremely difficult to obtain by design: a lovely and always-shifting poise between breadth and depth; enthusiasm and expertise; inclusiveness and intensity. You needn't have a Ph.D in philosophy (or anything) but [even] if you do you'll find much to wrestle with. Nor need you drink, by the way. Longtime members take an interest in the experience of newcomers (I always meet one or two--it's a growing group!) Few here agree with me (Ha!) even about "what philosophy is," but conversation remains respectful in the midst of challenge, & has even changed my mind. Most important: I've made real friends here, & friendship is, as Aristotle tells us, essential to the good life. Had some good beer, too.
Okay, if this sounds Utopian, I guess it is, rather. It doesn't always go so smoothly, or so electrifyingly either. But the bit about friendship is one hundred percent true.

One of these friends has been Michael, and over the years I've become familiar with some of the rewards and the challenges of moving with him between the nitty-gritty and the stratosphere. He has a rather exasperating and altogether admirable tenacity, which he combines with a great sensitivity to the developing culture-of-two (or -of-however-many) which any ongoing conversation in media res is. This manifests in a kind of on-the-fly evolution of shared metaphors and accepted shorthand, which serve as useful markers for the conversation as it goes forward. It's one of the things I admire about him and it is on display in this interview. Indefatigable convener (quite emphatically not "leader"), somehow, while being totally committed to his own views -- except of course when he's either self-consciously experimenting, or suddenly brought up short and made to reconsider (I'm sure it happens) -- he's managed to establish and intentionally promote a culture in the group that makes for welcome and mutual respect between regulars and rookies, experts and neophytes, across all sorts of positions. This isn't to say that he hasn't had a good deal of frustration along the way. One of the risks of the come-one-come-all stance (with or without the "Drunken") is encountering a good deal of naïvete, or intransigence, or idees fixes. I've had, and heard about, conversations with boring or overbearing people who have a pet theory or a chip on their shoulder. These usual suspects are pretty quickly identified, and while they may not get driven out, they don't often become repeat offenders, and friends look out for each other and for the new folk who might otherwise be easy prey. But this sort of vigilance can take a toll on someone who really, really wants the group to succeed; and you can get tired of fending off someone's spiel about their theory-of-everything for the nth time. Shephard recently stepped out of the role of organizer for the group, though he still attends. It seemed as good a time as any to ask him about his own philosophical itinerary, as well as some of his underlying motivations.

This is part one of the Interview. Part two can be read here.

* * *

Skholiast: We’ve been friends for a long time, and I’m struck by the way that philosophy unfolds in the context of a friendship -- or vice-versa -- despite or even by way of intense disagreement. We met under explicitly philosophical auspices, at the meetup group you founded – Drunken Philosophy; and I think it’s accurate to say we’ve butted heads a number of times, intentionally and not --

Michael Shephard: As much as you ever butt heads.

S.: -- as a way of feeling out each others’ positions.

M.S.: We certainly don’t agree, on many things.

S.: Indeed. I was about to say that maybe I’m less committed to the notion of a “position” per se, but maybe I’m just irenic in my approach.

M.S.: Oh, and what does that make me?

S.: Less irenic.

M.S.: (Laughs).

S.: More acerbic?

M.S.: Ah, you went there!

S.: Irascible. I was working up to it.

M.S.: I like it!

S.: Drunken Philosophy is now the second-largest philosophy meetup group in the U.S. What do you think is the secret?

M.S.: I think I'd always have been willing to give some version of the following honest answer. Basically, smart and smart-ish people want to talk about "stuff" but they don't want to be intimidated by expectations. Both the word "drunken" and the word "philosophy" are pretty sloppy words, and so the intimidation factor is low.

More charitably, to the attendees and to myself, there is a notion that discussing big ideas can be done in a fun and bawdy way - that in fact certain important discussions about the human experience are actually stripped of vital potential by being restricted to a sober and academic setting.

Also, Seattle's Drunken Philosophy may have over 2,700 members, but over five years the average attendance has always stayed level at around 25, give or take five. Interpret that as you will.

S.: Why did you found Drunken Philosophy in the first place?

M.S.: It's funny, I actually have very clear memory of when I decided to do it. I was attending another philosophy-based meetup in Seattle, which was being held at a library. The discussion was reasonably engaging, but very stiff and overly polite. I kept thinking "I'm enjoying this, but what I really want is to have a beer in my hand." I think alcohol loosens people up and allows them to toss ideas around more violently and rapidly. When people've had a few, and feeling friendly towards each other, new ideas can be lobbed, skewered, accidentally knocked off the table, and picked back up and brushed off again.

Also, to again be very honest, I genuinely wanted to be having intellectual discussions which weren't dominated by people in their late forties, fifties, and sixties. This is less about ageism, and more about the kinds of people who go to discussion groups at libraries. There's a whole bunch of subtle (and not-so-subtle) social dynamics and ideological inertias that emerge when you get together a bunch of older, educated white men with often less-than-stellar social skills. By adding "drunken" to the meetup group's name, you drive away anyone who gets grumpy when it's too noisy and rowdy to get people to listen to them tell their story about that mule who used to wear a hat.

S.: And now, five years later, you have handed over the position of organizer. Are you just tired of that role, or do you feel you have encountered the limits of public philosophy discussion in this forum?

M.S.: Well, full disclosure: I've become disenchanted... but that being said, mostly I'm tired of having the same conversations over and over again, and of conversations that get derailed before they have a chance to develop. If I was still having great conversations, I'm sure I would still be sufficiently enthusiastic about organizer duties (duties which are absurdly minimal anyway for this particular group).

Given the angle of your question, I guess I could say my personal fatigue probably does stem, ultimately, from the "limits of public philosophy discussion" in the Drunken Philosophy forum (and probably in the forum of discussing-philosophy-while-drunk, more generally speaking). Part of this depends on the people who show up - at its best, Drunken Philosophy had a core group of five to eight people with the ability to be very serious about a philosophical issue, while still having a good time. But on the whole, most conversations are subject to any number of limitations. Anyone completely new to a given topic might require a ground-up introduction, often devolving in a meta-conversation about the proper definition or scope of said topic. And then, many people are familiar with a philosophical issue, but stubbornly defend an opinion which they formed long ago, usually without a huge amount of skepticism or analysis.

And in addition to loosening people up, alcohol lends itself towards tangents, jokes, and various other disruptions. In the ideal scenario, these things enliven a conversation, spicing it up but not destabilizing it entirely. In reality, though, it usually means you end up having twenty-five different fragments of conversation over the course of a night. So I guess I see "drunken philosophy" as a kind of "gateway" experience. Like marijuana, if you haven't done many drugs before, it's a good place to start. And even heroin-addicts will smoke a joint when they're hanging out with their friends. But those of us who are into a more hardcore, intravenous type of philosophical inquiry tend to crave something significantly stronger.

S.: So a bit ago, before I turned on this recorder, you said, about experiences that may be said to fundamentally change one, and those that don’t, that those we actively seek tend to not be the ones that wind up changing us.

M.S.: Right.

S.: So one way we could talk about philosophy is as this strange kind of interaction -- a largely discursive interaction -- between people, in which people might, and sometimes do, change their minds. In which we might become different people --

M.S.: No.

S.: “No!” Already!

M.S.: I’m the irascible one, it’s my prerogative.

S.: I know you have some reservations about the importance of philosophy itself -- you've said in conversation before that it's perfectly possible to live a fulfilled life without it. What is the role of philosophy in the good life? And (conversely) what leads you to say it is dispensable?

M.S.: Philosophy is like medicine - if someone's sick, you give them medicine, but if someone's healthy, giving them medicine might actually make them sick. My claim is that it's perfectly possible for human beings to live a fulfilled life without philosophy, but that modern cultures (and even many ancient cultures) make that impossible.

First of all, I think it's condescending to consider some unsophisticated community (actual or hypothetical) that lives simply from day to day - finds food, cares about each other, celebrates births, grieves deaths, and enjoys life through dancing, singing, laughing, and fucking - and say that they're missing something. Second of all, I think that doing philosophy properly requires a lot of work. Like many things, if asking regular people to do a lot of work is your "solution", then I think you ought to go back to the drawing board.

Take diet for example. Modern societies spend a lot of time discussing what a healthy diet looks like. This is important because modern people are faced with a unusual choices. Many approaches to this problem emphasize more effort on the part of regular people - in addition to our everyday stress and drama, the ups and downs of being a human being, we are asked to be disciplined, wary, and informed about what we eat. But just like philosophy, the conversation about nutrition involves a convoluted landscape of conflicting ideologies driven by politics, money, individual biases, and cultural values.

I think it's too much to ask. Unfortunately, the problem does exist, and it is compounded by various traditions, assumptions, and agendas. So we can't get to good nutrition without disarming the landmines strewn throughout modern society (in the form of ideas, and also in the form of tantalizingly delicious noms). But if we set up society such that good nutrition (whatever that is) was the natural and inevitable thing, then the whole field of "nutrition" becomes moot.

My feelings about philosophy are similar. If some people in a society can figure out what the good life is, and then articulate it in a way that can be understood by many others, perhaps a general movement towards societal reconstruction can be instigated. Once the work is done, though, there's no need for anyone to be a specialist, intellectual or otherwise. And in fact, I would claim that such specialization is, ironically, only possible in societies that have become disordered to begin with. I would go even farther and suggest that such specialization isn't really good for the individual - we often praise a certain level of skill or intelligence that can only be achieved by an unhealthy obsession, and I think unhealthy obsessions typically only exist in unhappy people.

S.: I'm curious how this huge and yet ambivalently-held value for you arose biographically.

M.S.: Since I was around thirteen I've been compulsively trying to formulate and test systems of thought about how the world works. My drive to do this comes primarily from an extremely dysfunctional desire to have a sense of control over events and human relationships which would (I unconsciously theorized) allow me to steer clear of what felt like an ever-threatening cloud of dangers, failures, and embarrassments. In my twenties and thirties, I've found ways to largely heal (or at least manage) that desperate need for control, but the habit and interest in forming and testing systems remains.

I think I also have a sort of "natural" curiosity, and growing up with two PhD-ed parents (biology and physics) probably gave rise to much of that. I like taking things apart and figuring out how they work, and I like imagining complex scenarios or solving weird problems that don't need to be solved. Much of this probably still stems from escapism, but it's also been part of my identity for as long as I can remember.

S.: Does it relate to your cross-cultural experiences, e.g., as nonreligious Jew? Or, as sometime sojourner in Japan, where part of your childhood was spent?

M.S.: If these kinds of autobiographical details have any relevance to my intellectual trajectory, they're part of a much larger set of factors which contribute to me feeling like an outsider and, all too frequently, feeling like I was not quite human. If anything, I've had to consciously and intentionally examine what being human means, including love, happiness, goodness, and all the rest of the things you might see as the "human connection" in philosophy. I'm not autistic or sociopathic -- it's not like I'm learning to fake these things, but I think I've had to kindle them from low-burning coals, and much of that required, for me, deconstruction and reconstruction.

S.: It’s true that I see biography and philosophy – “the life and the thought” – as strongly, interconnected, and this interconnection as philosophically relevant. Be that as it may, though, I do think that possibly one of the differences between us, is that I think of philosophy itself as more experiential than you do.

M.S.: Yes. You and others are part of a school that I respect, that does see things that way. I don’t think of myself as one of the “opposite” school, either. I’m not anti-experiential, I just -- I think that the power of philosophy is significantly less. You know that in medieval art, the size of a figure is indicative of their significance?

S.: Yes

M.S.: So I think that for thinkers like you, the figure of capital-P “Philosophy” looms very large in their internal depiction of the world. But for me, as much as philosophy is one of the central things in my life, I don’t let it, want it or like to loom so large. And I think there’s a danger in it so looming. I think that one of the philosophical insights that’s given me the most leverage in my thinking, is a certain suspicion of human excitement about things. Passion is a good thing, it’s wonderful, but when it comes to philosophy, I’m suspicious of what that claims to tell us about what is and isn’t important. Moreover, even looking at the most central and even brilliant philosophers, one can see that their ideas often stem from who they are already. And that over time, they don’t tend to have philosophical insights which dramatically change who they are as people. More often -- and it’s probably more controversial to argue this -- but I would argue that if there is a change, it goes the other way: a personality change alters the philosophy being espoused. That’s fine -- I don’t have a problem with this; we’re not friends with Kant, or Plato; we can just look at their ideas. They’ve contributed the ideas, now the ideas are in the mix. And sometimes someone’s had to sacrifice their whole life to put that idea out into the mix -- even if their reason for doing so was purely personal.

S.: The link you’re suggesting between personality and doctrine seems surprisingly Nietzschean; it’s very reminiscent of Nietzsche’s extensive claims that one’s doctrine has its roots in one’s psychology. This would just be, then, my style of the Will to Power. And Fichte too says that one’s philosophy derives from the type of person one is.

M.S.: Except that what I’m saying doesn’t include the relativistic implications that often are taken to derive from this. Nietzsche for instance goes on and on in some places about how truth is a poor goal. And I don’t believe that. I just believe that part of what the truth is, is a fundamental weakness in human beings, a bias in human beings -- and that this isn’t something to be overcome, here. It’s something to be recognized. But -- if I wanted to return to that, somewhat impolite, division between the experiential and the reductionist, or “Analytic”, notions of philosophy -- it seems that what the reductionist wants to do is to really and decisively overcome -- There are some who get excited about philosophy because they feel it’ll supercharge them, as thinkers and as human beings. Some people take this so literally that it leads on into transhumanist notions -- potentially biological change. But for most people it’s: how can I become a better person -- a more moral human being, a more powerful human being, a more wise human being? And philosophically deconstructing the way reality works, is their sort of power-up for that project. Then there’s the other camp, which says: No, no, you’ve got that wrong -- backwards. You’re going to mislead yourself and fall into a trap. You can’t get around the fact that we are human beings -- that’s where all this ambition is coming from, and to pretend that you’re in charge, that you’re driving, is the opposite of accurately assessing the situation. The experientialist view tries to embrace humanity qua humanity, the human experience as a wonderful beautiful, powerful thing -- and tragic, sad, as well, but --

S.: -- fraught with meaning. The only place where meaning happens.

M.S.: Not just fraught, but ripe with meaning, pregnant with meaning. But I reject both this view and its apparent opposite. On the one hand, I agree that the former view is unbelievably hubristic, and that it does get things backwards -- claiming to drive the car when it isn’t and can’t. I do believe that the apparently “magical” quality of human experience for human beings is not evidence of it being magical -- meaningful -- in any other sense. But -- my rejection of the latter view says: it’s magical for human beings. So the question I would ask is, Well, what are human beings? It is hard to get underneath that question, because we do feel -- shockingly! -- a great deal of meaning in human experience. But this doesn’t make it meaningful in any other sense. What is meaningful for a dog is meaningful for a dog; what’s meaningful for bees is meaningful for bees. It automatically scales. And this is a good thing; the fact that it scales means that the satisfactions available to human beings are available to human beings. It would be terrible if the meaning human beings needed scales to something other than the needs of human beings.

S.: I think this is one of the fears that haunts critics of transhumanism -- or perhaps, the flipside would be, critics of radical eliminativism. The worry is that what’s meaningful to one in the first gobsmacked weeks of true love, or being moved to tears by a symphony, reduces to what’s “meaningful” for -- I’ll put it in quotes -- or what “moves” some atoms of sodium and potassium in our neural synapses. The eliminativist shrugs at this; the transhumanist thinks they can leverage it somehow by getting in there with some silicon or some quantum switches.

M.S.: Sure. Increasing our intensity of aesthetic appreciation; increasing our “sphere of empathy;” those are some of the projects I’ve heard. I’ll drive home the point; those projects are self-defeating. Things scale in tandem. It’s like any common-sense argument about when you’ve been exposed to a higher-quality thing, that becomes your new normal. There may be an initial boost that comes from novelty, but in general our appreciation scales to the new standard. … I don’t think that the pitch of satisfaction, or empathy, can keep rising and rising.

S.: It’s even possible we could reach a kind of sound barrier.

M.S.: That makes it sound kind of -- metaphysical.

S.: What I mean is, there’s a granularity beyond which you can’t progress. You bump into problems with the actual medium. (Does it even makes sense to speak of an aesthetic appreciation of a musical number that lasts three nanoseconds? Or a major cultural upheaval like the move from print to internet, over three days?)

M.S.: This does however begin to skirt questions such as: between, say, a microbe and a bee, at what point does “satisfaction” become part of the equation? I think those are interesting questions, I’m happy to engage them; but at the level of the issue of what philosophies we embrace, as far as what we think is good for the philosophical health of human beings -- what is the best philosophical diet, so to speak -- the philosophical regimen that will best serve human beings -- in that case it’s not a question of how high can we go; even the notion of “going higher” is, I think, misguided. And yet I think it takes up a lot of energy, unfortunately. It’s part of this narrative of how important human experience is. And whereas I also think that human experience is important, tautologically, to human beings, I think this is not a problem in search of a solution.

S.: So, when you talk about what’s meaningful or good for human beings, as a species, are your categories here biological? Anthropological? Or are they -- philosophical? Or do you reject my terms here?

M.S.: My categories of humans versus dogs versus bees versus microbes?

S.: No, your categories of what-is-good-for-, or what’s-meaningful-to- .

M.S.: What I’d stress is that, whatever we mean by “human” -- and I would emphasize, I don’t need to speak in terms of biological species here -- but whatever you mean by it, unless you’re a diehard solipsist, you hold that there are other entities out there. If you’re someone who says, I don’t distinguish between, say, a dog and a human -- they both appear to me to be conscious, have feelings, etc., I’ll say cool -- I may question you to see if that’s really what you’re doing, and I may have doubts, but that’s not most people. Most people make some distinctions - they identify a category, a set, which they identify as “human beings,” and there are ideas, characteristics --

S.: -- a profile.

M.S.: -- that make for human beings as being a certain thing. Now parenthetically, I think that for certain purposes, we shouldn’t do that -- we shouldn’t identify human beings as “one” thing, “humanity -- there’s just a bunch of organisms, with a similar structure, more or less shared family resemblances. In that sense, there is no such thing as “humanity” -- no one “thing” we can call that. Now, to explore this would raise a whole host of other considerations. If we do go down that road, I can say that the structure determines the satisfactions, as it were. But even if we avoid that road, as soon as anyone agrees that there is a group of beings we decide to call a common name, forming a set, “human beings,” as soon as they’ve agreed to this, I can say OK, you have already set up a definition, an outline of characteristics, defining qualities, and so on. You did that, I didn’t. And whatever that thing is, whatever you maintain about how those entities belong to the same set, there is, tautologically, a common outline to how those entities unfurl, and however that occurs, however they develop, navigate their lives, they way they share all those will in in the definition. Generally speaking, such definitions tend to be rich --

S.: -- not restricted to a single characteristic but to whole clouds of characteristics.

M.S.: Right; not “any of and only those who like ice cream,” for instance. An enormous number of traits fall into it.

S.: There’s a whole indefinite complex Venn diagram implied.

M.S.: Now anyone can come up with edge-cases, fuzzy-boundary-cases -- “You said that all human beings desire connectedness, here’s one who doesn’t” -- and I can address those, issues, but that’s not what we’re talking about. Those “common” -- statistically common, if you want -- characteristics, are going to be there in the definition.

S.: Regardless of the exceptions, which are offered precisely as exceptions to the definition.

M.S.: And not only is this tautologically true, it’s necessary; if you and I aren’t talking about the same thing, it’s wholly pointless for us to have an argument about what’s good for “human beings”.

S.: Sure. You can never get anywhere if you aren’t talking about the same thing, and if you don’t know you’re not talking about the same thing, all apparent progress is illusory.

M.S.: Yes. If we’re both speaking of “dogs” but I mean cats, we’ll get nowhere. We both say, “They make great pets.” I say, “They love milk,” and you might say, Uh, sure… But if you say, They love to catch frisbees, I’ll go, Uh, I’m pretty sure you mean mice. We won’t get anywhere, unless we dig down and find the mistake, or unless we back up definitionally and agree to just talk about, say, mammals -- then we may make progress on a different level. But I don’t need any agreement on content of the definition -- I need no correlation beyond “Do you believe there is something called human beings?” -- in order to assert that there’s something for that set, that is -- whatever: good for them, healthy for them, appropriate for them. Even if we’re wildly talking past each other in terms of content, even if when I say human beings you think tin cans, there’ll be something appropriate to ascribe to that set.

S.: And among those characteristics there’ll be things that pertain to their continuance, and dare I say their flourishing?

M.S.: And those things are necessary to the notion of a set.

S.: Inherent in the commonality?

M.S.: Yes. The commonality is entailed in coherently talking about a set. If every human being is different, then in what way are they all human beings? So it’s important to establish that, whatever definition you have, there must be conclusions that can be derived from the definition, that pertain to each member of the set.

S.: And some of those conclusions have to do with what’s good for them, in whatever way things are good for them.

M.S.: Yes. I don’t enjoy the conversation that implies that this is somehow an oppressive circumscription. I think it follows automatically from the notion of a set. It happens immediately when you use a term implying that several things are one kind of thing.

S.: So you’re not interested in the fuzzy borders -- not as counter-examples that undermine the definition.

M.S.: Well, that gets into mereology. You’ve consented, by using a term that corrals things into a wider group, you consent to ignore the fuzzy borders. That’s the price of playing the game. And you needn’t do that -- you can decline to play that game, and then we won’t make progress in that direction, but that’s OK. If you think there’re no distinctions to be made between human beings and dogs, again, I may question you to see if you are actually doing that, but by all means, stick to your weird guns.

S.: After all, there may be other fruitful directions. But here at this level we’re at a very high-altitude and abstract level of talk, about human beings for example -- because we’re not really talking about human beings, we’re just talking about what-it-means-to-talk-about-X.

M.S.: Well the reason that’s worth going into, is because it introduces the question of what do you mean by human beings?

S.: Forces it, in fact.

M.S.: And I think that’s actually a fairly easy conversation. But also, it means no one gets to backpedal, to start talking about the exceptions, to appeal to the fuzzy borders. I think this is one of the most common problems in philosophy. One person puts forward a claim, and probably they don’t do it very strongly or maybe very skillfully, and then someone disagrees and cites a fuzzy border. And that’s interesting as hell in certain epistemological or metaphilosophical senses, but that’s not where most people are wanting to go, and it tends to be where the conversation ends. “There is no God.” “How do you know there’s no God?” “There’s no evidence for God”. “What do you mean by ‘evidence’?” And the conversation's over. So I’d prefer for people to either be willing to go there, and be willing to resolve those epistemic and metaphilosophical questions, or to just stipulate -- “I admit, I said we were going to have a conversation about human beings, so let’s do that.” Then we can exchange the ideas and consider them, evaluate. And let’s concur, only to work with ideas we both have agreed are shared -- don’t slip in something else without telling me. Don’t start telling me how prayer and worship is necessary for a fulfilled human life, if I haven’t conceded that the connection to a God is part of the definition of a human being.

S.: But in real conversations, one never starts with all of the terms or ground rules laid out beforehand. Because one can’t. You talk for a while, and then you bump into something that makes you say Oh, here’s a question where something clearly remains to be negotiated. You wind up panning back or zooming in, or working underneath -- whatever the spatial metaphor is -- and oftentimes --

M.S.: But it’s not mysterious. That’s my problem -- one of ’em; I got multiple problems. But the problem relevant here is that I think there’s a notion that what it means to be a human being is somehow fundamentally mysterious, and that’s --

S.: -- ah. You’re not saying there’s something mysterious to the issue of renegotiating.

M.S.: No, that’s fairly straightforward.

S.: Or should be. But that’s not the straightforwardness you’re asserting here.

M.S.: No; as you know, in Drunken Philosophy I’ve had many, many opportunities for very frustrating conversations, and when you have these miscommunication s or disagreements, my response is -- maybe not in the moment -- to back up and ask, OK where did that go wrong? So, as I started out with this abstract notion saying, OK What’s X? Because whatever X is, if you agree X is a thing, you already have ideas about X, and so whatever your questions about X are, the answers will extend from your definition of X.

S.: Metadiscursive stipulations.

M.S.: Right. Very dry. But the problem is, in conversation, when people appeal to the fuzzy borders or to exceptions -- again, if you want to have that discussion, I’m eager to, but usually this crops up in a conversation of a different order. People aren’t usually raising these matters of epistemology, or mereology, or semiotics, because that’s what they want to talk about. I’d love it is they did.

S.: No, they don’t. It’s a move of a different sort. But you and I have different responses to such moves. Say someone makes a step like this, one might even call it a faux pas, though they don’t think of it as this -- they’re making a bid to outflank or undercut, by way of an exception, or by appeal to an assumption you hadn’t both stipulated. Your rejoinder to those moments, from what you’re saying and from what I’ve observed, is very often to say: Whoah, wait a minute: Metadiscursive norms! “If you’re going to talk about such-and-such, then…” and then you explain why the fuzzy borders don’t count, not in this instance but by definition.

Whereas I have a different instinct. I’m interested in the question -- hold up, why did they just do that? Why did they just bring in this other thing? Now there’s a way I find it appealing to deploy this, and a way I don’t wish to see it deployed -- or perhaps I just don’t want it deployed that way on me! -- but they are separated by a knife-edge. It’s a psychoanalytic moment of sorts. In which the sense is that something is motivating bringing up this extraneous criterion. Because we do already know that the fuzzy borders don’t apply. We know we’ve stipulated a core, an X. We know that to say, oh there are exceptions everywhere, what about this? doesn’t really undercut -- or if it does, then what’s interesting and what we’d really be wanting to do is to expand the definition -- or perhaps there was just some perverse enjoyment in pretending there was something when there wasn't. But if you’re raising the point of the exception, or definition, to try to make a knock-down argument that drives to the very heart of your opponent’s position -- you can’t really believe (I say) that that’s going to work. Now I think this is more interesting. There’s something motivating you to do this -- it’s a defense. (Or again, even a sort of perversion -- that's a strong word, but let it stand.) And I think that more interesting than these “very dry” issues of metadiscursive norms -- more interesting and more profitable, because it yields more traction -- is to find that motivation. They’re really deploying it as a kind of defense. Something is making them uncomfortable. Now as I say, this can be argued in a condescending and insufferably knowing way -- a reductive way that merely dismisses the objection -- or in a way that’s curious, open, and mutually implicating -- that asks about the very issue of desire, of what one wants; but the question it raises is: So, what’s making for this discomfort? Because that move is a diversion; it’s like throwing sand in the eyes.

M.S.: That can happen. I mean, either I’m being sociopathic in not being interested in the psychology of my interlocutor, and being blind blind to the experiential aspect of the philosophy blossoming between two people --

S.: -- right there, in real time and color!

M.S.: -- and I keep searching for it and not finding what’s right there in front of me; or, on the other hand, you’re expecting quite a lot from people. I’m sure that defensiveness happens quite often. But it could also simply be that it’s hard to see more than four or five interconnected big concepts at once. So I guess i consider myself as being charitable to my interlocutor. These conversations are not machines; we’re trying to juggle many moving parts, and being open to associations that might help us to cut through Gordian knots and give us revelatory new pieces of information; so if your brain gives you an idea like -- Oh, what about this exception? -- it might seem relevant; it might be relevant, despite how many times I find it frustrating or consider it track-jumping, just as many times it could be brilliant and surgically incisive. It’s up to each of us to monitor our incoming contributions if we’re hoping for it to be productive. Something comes up and you think about it for a moment. Does it apply or not? Will it be distracting? Inflammatory? Do I want to go off in that direction and talk about language or epistemology?

S.: “You really wanna go there, bro?”

M.S.: Ha! Yeah, you’ve probably seen or heard me say those very words before. And what’s going through my mind when I used them was probably along the lines of, we don’t want to go there -- we were having a perfectly good conversation about aesthetics, or politics, and we could have made some good progress, which is unlikely to happen now. Now we’ve got to go down two levels, do a bunch of excavation. And given the way these conversation s work -- we’re not colleagues or professionals, we’re not obliged to return to it, and we’re likely not going to bump the conversation back up again. We’re not going to go down to “mammal,” figure out what mammals are, and then go back up to cats and dogs. We’re going to go down to mammals –

S.: And get lost in DNA.

M.S.: Or at best, someone’s going to have to leave. Nothing gets resolved. What I want is to have one conversation at a time.

(Click here for part 2 of this interview)