(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.
Skholiast: 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.
S.: 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.
S.: See, he’d say that thought qua thought –
M.S.: -- which is not a thing.
S.: -- 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.
S.: 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.
S.: 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.
S.: 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.
S.: 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.
S.: 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.
S.: -- 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--?
S.: 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 --
S.: -- 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.
S.: 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 --
S.: -- 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. .
S.: Hence what you’ve said about how people should be able to dispense with philosophy.
S.: 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 –
S.: "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.
S.: 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.
S.: 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 --
S.: -- 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.
S.: Wittgenstein, again, says in the Tractatus -- Six-point-something --
M.S.: What, you can’t remember the exact number of the proposition?
S.: 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.
S.: 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.
S.: 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!
S.: But you feel you’ve done both?
M.S.: I’ve done both, but I’ve done both separately.
S.: 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.
S.: 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).
S.: 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.
S.: 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.
S.: 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.
S.: 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.
S.: “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.
S.: 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 --
S.: 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 --
S.: -- 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.
S.: 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.
S.: 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.
S.: 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….
S.: 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.
S.: 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.
S.: 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.
S.: But it seems to me that there is something about philosophy that inherently challenges one to make progress as a person.
S.: 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.
S.: Sufficient but not necessary.
M.S.: And I think that philosophy is obviously -- tautologically -- not for those things, because you can get them elsewhere.
S.: 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.
S.: 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.
S.: 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.
S.: 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.
S.: 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.
S.: 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”?
S.: 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