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.
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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.
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.
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 --
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?
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 it 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 miscommunications 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 if 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)