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.

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Uncanny Philosopher part 2

Last time I wrote about the uncanniness of the philosopher, I left things with a citation from St Paul: "I became all things to all men, that I might by all means save some." This "all things to all" posture is apt, but the implication that it involves a kind of salvific message is double-edged. It leaves the possible implication that the philosopher has a very specific agenda, with their eye on some far-ff moving target, and that it's this which leaves everyone else unsettled. This is true so far as it goes, for the philosopher would indeed willingly induct everyone else into philosophy; but philosophy is not a set of doctrines. That post discussed how the philosopher looks from the outside. But what is the philosopher actually doing?

Making mistakes, mostly; but mistakes in a certain style. The philosopher -- again, I will treat of an ideal philosopher, a fictional collage -- isn't pursuing some aim of her own that is well-defined; she isn't subtly trying to get you to sign on to a program that is kinda-sorta like a given political platform or a religious dogma, but tweaked in this way and that way. It isn't here that the uncanniness inheres. Rather, in a certain sense, the philosopher isn't trying to get you to sign on to anything at all. She's doing her own thinking, pursuing an insight that is elusive and possibly not in the offing at all. She is conducting her uncertainty in public. What the philosopher needs from you -- and is willing to give you in return -- is not a set of conclusions, but confidence in search of them, a confidence in radical insecurity -- or perhaps better, a way of deploying relative security in such a way as to move through radical insecurity to a (hypothetical) position that is neither secure nor insecure.

This uncertainty is initially bewildering -- the numbing sting of the sting-ray -- and while the philosopher may seem to have adjusted to it, this doesn't mean she doesn't feel it. If the philosopher had attained a kind of self-sufficient wisdom, she wouldn't need to blunder about like this, unsettling people -- irritating them, making them squirm -- and saying stupid things, culturally insensitive, politically incorrect, borderline-heretical, socially inept. But there she goes. Her friends have learned to give her plenty of room to improvise.

And why does the philosopher need friends?

There is a leeway that is given by friendship, a mysterious permission to exceed. Think about the very best conversations you have had. Everyone is being brilliant, somehow, as if spontaneously following a script by Woody Allen, Whit Stillman, and Sarah Ruhl. In these conversations you feel a freedom to improvise, to follow a thought through, to dare a risky approximation, to ask a forbidden question. No one is concerned about microaggressions -- not because they don't happen, but because if someone's feelings get hurt, that too can be handled with grace. You shuttle lightning-fast between humor and earnestness, you are aware of the slightest little cues between people, and one person may hold forth for a good long stretch, or interrupt with a joke or a demurral, without breaking decorum. The topics turn on a dime, from Should-we-order-another to Did-you-hear-about-what-happened-to to But-how-can-you-possibly-think-that? Above all, in these conversations, you can hear, feel, yourself thinking your way through a question, improvising the tools you need to think out of thin air, and getting somewhere you wouldn't have guessed -- by way of a series of questions you wouldn't' have anticipated ten minutes before. And sometimes you feel that amazing, almost-perfect gratification of the issue coming into focus, a perfectly-phrased question or a new set of concepts or a new way of balancing old ones, that you have collaborated upon almost without realizing it.

Not all conversations between friends attain to this, and not of the philosopher's volleys in such an exchange are actually brilliant. By far the majority of them sort of limp; but even here, there is a freedom, an un-selfconsciousness, that lets one try things out and see where they go. And this permission to make serious errors also allows her to reach much higher than ordinarily she could.

Emerson called the friend "one before whom I may think aloud," and the emphasis here should be on think.There are friends who call out of us some voice, some insight that we didn't know we had. After a while, we find we've internalized these voices to some extent -- we can imagine (how accurately is a secondary question) the objections that so-&-so would make, and this objection spurs us further. Or sometimes, we can almost imagine them, we're sure they'd have something to say -- something wrong, probably, maybe even something maddening, and yet, Damn, we wish we could talk to so-&-so about it.

It's this kind of rapport between thinkers who may agree on nothing except the importance of their disagreement, which is the real medium of philosophy.

Right here, we slam into a major trope of 20th-century philosophy though: Davidson's principle of charity. Disagreements only transpire, he points out, against a background of "massive agreement;" if we disagreed about very much, we wouldn't even be able to talk about disagreement. Now we can go in a number of directions from here; Ranciere for instance talks about politics itself as the way disagreements unfold, and more recently Sergey Dolgopolski put forward an intriguing and fruitful description of Talmudic reading and study as the art of disagreement, as in some wise meant to preserve disagreement rather than aim toward agreement. Or one could ask about Davidson's principle, broadly Wittgensteinian, with a comparison to Gadamer, who proposed what he called the "good will to understand," an readiness to encounter a matter afresh as a way of making a connection with one's interlocutor, as one of his requirements for the very possibility of dialogue. The point here is simply that the very nature of and import of disagreement is itself something that philosophers can disagree about. No wonder the outsiders rolls their eyes about pointless discussions in which everyone is out-meta'ing each other!

No doubt the ordinary back-and-forth among friends presupposes a great deal, a tremendous amount of consensus or assumption that goes unremarked. The point however is that the philosopher's weirdness, her unsettling questions,can turn even upon this very foundation, and yet it's precisely within the abyss that is suggested by this volte-face that the real, albeit meta-stable, groundedness and freedom of philosophy is shown. It is not for nothing that Derrida's longest and most moving meditation on politics turns on ringing the changes on Montaigne's citation of Aristotle: O my friends, there is no friend.

What are the limits of this? What is the circumference of such a radius? If you can have a real philosophical discussion about solipsism, or cannibalism, how real is that? Where does this suspension of security and insecurity resolve? What are the limits? Here is where the uncanniness lies. For as Aristotle also says, The friend is another self. And philosophy transpires here, in this radical closeness and distance.
Socrates: Have we not also said, Euthyphro, that there are quarrels and disagreements and hatreds [even] among the gods?
Euthyphro: We have.
Socrates: But what kind of disagreement, my friend, causes hatred and anger?
The limits? I don't know, but this is the very question of philosophy itself. And if you are preoccupied with some other question -- or, God help us, with what do do about those who disagree with you about the answers to some other question -- the philosopher is at best going to seem irritating, or distracting, or beside-the-point; and at worst, may creep you the fuck out, or make you angry enough to stone them. All without even trying.

That last bit is important. The philosopher may write a horror story (I don't see why not), or an unpopular screed, or sit in a tub on a street corner masturbating even, but this is incidental. If creeping you out, or pissing you off, becomes the main thing, we aren't doing philosophy anymore. But on the other hand, if avoiding pissing you off or creeping you out becomes the main thing, we aren't doing philosophy anymore either.

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