Future, Present, & Past:



Speculative
~~ 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

Sunday, February 18, 2018

My teachers (1): Fred Hagen


Getting ready to present at the Awe and Attention Symposium put me in mind of my very on-again-off-again time at the University, and I decided to write a couple of brief (and belated) appreciations.

I have been very fortunate in my teachers. I have no academic certification, no diploma on my wall, no letters after my name, because during the years most people spend in college, I was doing other things -- mainly playing rock and roll, falling in love several times, living in a long-lived unofficial artists' commune (though we never called it that), and working in bookshops. (I also worked for ten years in a group home for a population which was then called "developmentally disabled;" I assume this is one of those phrases one "no longer says," but I have not kept up with the lingo.) Along the way I read a not inconsiderable amount (though far less than I am suspected of -- and far less than I wound up owning!), and I began writing in earnest. I did also manage to take a few classes at the University, thanks to the very kind forbearance of a couple of professors. I took the last course ever taught by the late, great Fred Hagen -- a class on Nietzsche, which was filled beyond capacity, but to which he very kindly admitted me simply because I had engaged him in coffee-shop conversation a few times. Hagen was a genteel, old-school pre-Stonewall queer. He enjoyed -- maybe a little too much -- hiding his keen acumen behind the persona of village atheist, much to the scandal of local Mormon culture; many times he took what seemed to a be purely provocative pseudo-blasphemous stance, only to pounce with an uncompromising rationality that was scary if you were the one it was thinking about eating alive. He had honed his logical chops in higher mathematics -- I remember trying unsuccessfully to follow as he walked some students through the Löwenheim-Skolem theorem -- and his mind was the sort for which the cliché about the steel trap was invented. Slightly more terrifying was his wit, which somehow managed to be as fast as the crack of a whip, and yet delivered in the lilting, aristocratic Texan accent he still had. There was a legend -- cultivated by Hagen himself, but based in truth (I have independently confirmed it from other sources) -- that in one lecture he blasphemously taunted the heavens during a thunderstorm that raged outside, upon which a bolt of lightning struck quite close, with a loud thunderclap. (In one version of the story it struck a nearby tree, but that at least may be apocryphal.) Unfazed, Hagen lifted the window and bawled out into the wind, "Your aim is getting worse and worse!" with a few other choice words about the divinity's increasing senility. A few days later, when called into the dean's office -- some of the more pious students had been scandalized -- Hagen raised an eyebrow and said, "But I don't understand the problem. Jehovah isn't the wielder of the thunderbolt, after all. That's Zeus."

But he could be astonishingly generous if he knew you were not a fool. I wrote an essay which was decidedly antipathetic to Nietzsche’s overt conclusions, a paper of which I am still very proud, most of all because despite how it provoked him, Hagen pulled me aside quietly to praise it, and gave me an A for the course. Once I said something about believing in deus absconditas. Hagen took a long draw on his long cigarette (he is the only person I've known who could pull off the affectation of a cigarette holder), let out a meditative plume of smoke, and hmmmm'd. "Well, He's gone somewhere, that's for sure," he said. For all his disdain for small minds, Hagen's bark was worse than his bite. He prized kindness above brilliance and knew that the victories of argument were often shallow and short-lived. What I have managed to track down of his published output is slight, and buried in old journals. I deeply wish this were not so. He was a fine scholar of culture (especially German) and was ignoring the analytic/Continental divide way, way before it was cool. He called himself an unabashed generalist. In the reminiscences of people who knew him better than me, I have consistently heard anecdotes of a surprising gentleness of spirit -- though not without a sometimes wicked sense of humor.

Fred Hagen died in 2002. May he forgive me, I still sometimes pray for his repose.

I had been going to end this post there, but yesterday after I finished my brief talk (essentially an expanded version of this post) and the panel discussion had wrapped up, I was talking to someone about a point that got raised in the Q-&-A when a woman walked up to the table and put a small note down on top of my sheaf of papers. I didn't get a good look at her because I was still engaged in what the other fellow was saying and there was a lot of milling about, but I wish I had been more attentive (and at a conference with "Attention" in the title, what could possibly be my excuse? I'm sure I knew her, but it's been a long time. I hope I get a second chance, but...) When I picked up the slip of paper I read: Fred Hagen would have loved that. I really can think of no greater compliment.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Reinhold and the need for interlocutor


Of the many "minor figures" in the history of philosophy who have diverted my attention over the years, I am especially fond of Karl Leonhard Reinhold. Famous as a populariser of Kant, for attempting to give the critical philosophy a foundation and to accomplish scientific and systematic certainty in its context (an effort which gave a strong impetus to work by Fichte and others), Reinhold also had a number of less well-known later stages in his career after his expressly Kantian beginning. Serious criticism led Reinhold to set aside his so-called Elementary philosophy, but his pursuit of certainty, as well as a religious bent (he had been educated by Jesuits, took Roman Catholic holy orders, and was a Freemason) took him through a number of subsequent philosophical systems. He wanted, he said, a philosophy "without epithet." He engaged by turns with Jacobi and Fichte, then with Bardili (speaking of "minor" figures ...) and finally expounded an approach more grounded in linguistics, critiquing his own earlier standpoints from philosophy of language (in this respect, at least, not unlike the work of Herder and Hamann), until he died in 1823. His considerable influence on German philosophy arguably extended until the death of his student Trendelenburg in 1872.

Hegel's main engagement with Reinhold is in the early work on the difference between Fichte and Schelling, and it does not leave a flattering impression of Reinhold. Hegel faults him for inconsistency, for being a bad reader, even for not recognizing his own footprints. He cites a review of Reinhold that suggests that Reinhold's infatuation with Christoph Bardili (whose work, he said, helped purge him of the influence of the transcendental philosophy) was really unwittingly "going to school with himself" because -- surprise! -- Bardili had been influenced by Reinhold first! This is a double-whammy of a critique, because it's hard to avoid noticing that Hegel's estimate of Bardili is already not high, so he's really saying that Reinhold stands behind this second- or third-rank philosopher, and then adding that Reinhold isn't sharp enough to notice this himself. (Nothing by Bardili has been translated into English, to my knowledge, but there are a few secondary sources if you dig around. To spell it out in detail would be the matter for another post, but suffice to say I don't feel Hegel has been fair -- though scholarship does acknowledge that Reinhold may well have influenced Bardili first [he was, after all, the older thinker and had a head-start].)

Hegel is not alone in proffering the charge of inconsistency as reason for not taking Reinhold seriously, but you can't help but feel from the "Difference" essay that a good part of Hegel's polemic is just a little mean-spirited, which casts some doubt on his motives (even if Reinhold's reading does have some blind spots). In any case, Reinhold made no secret of his serial conversions, and inconsistency (when owned and acknowledged) is not a philosophical disqualification; it's hard to imagine this being held against Wittgenstein or Russell or Putnam, for instance. Speaking for myself, Reinhold's shifting stances were an effect of the reason I myself am so fond of him, and of why I feel close to him temperamentally: he read his contemporaries enthusiastically and broadly and as if they might genuinely teach him something. There is, to me, something very winning in Reinhold's unsettledness, and if we smile at his readiness to proclaim each of his successive lodestars the answer, one may still admire his perpetual openness, his hope, his willingness to begin again.

Now it's true that I read differently than Reinhold, who really did seem to have a series of discrete positions (though there's also a continuity from phase to phase). I turn repeatedly to one "new name" after another (new to me, anyway), not because I believe that the key to all the mysteries is just one elusive master thinker away, but because I'm not in the market for a master thinker at all. I'm hungry for serious engagement with the questions, and the names I haven't heard before tend to give me a slant (and sometimes much, much more than a slant) that I haven't yet encountered. It doesn't matter if this is an off-center contemporary or an overlooked or eclipsed past figure; I'm far more likely to get something unanticipatable from them than from someone like Heidegger or Quine precisely because of the ubiquity of Heidegger or Quine. (The suggestion that I'm just going to get watered-down, derivative Heidegger or Quine from most of my contemporaries is one of those dangerous half-truths that would require another post to engage it fully; for now let's leave it at saying that I do tend to shy away from reading secondary literature and "applications" ["...a Deleuzian account of..."] but I also do not regard thinkers as merely functions of, or reducing to, their "predecessors.")

Some read and re-read only (or almost only) the "big names" in the canon (or commentary on them), or some subsection thereof. Others read in their "field" -- keeping up to date in aesthetics, ethics, bioethcs, political philosophy, ecophilosophy, philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, philosophy of.... I am both more scattered, and more focused. My interest is philosophy per se, When I read a thinker who is definitely doing that, with the unspecifiable je ne sais quoi that is the hallmark of thinking -- a weird high-wire act of Kantian confidence and Keatsian negative capability -- the question of whether I "agree" or not becomes secondary. The example -- not the method, not the content, but the thinking -- is so invigorating, and essential to this is the fact that it's someone else, not me -- a thought I couldn't have anticipated and never would have.

Perhaps part of Reinhold was looking for the next "big name," but I think most fundamentally, he just needed that encounter. And to me, that feels just so much healthier than a one-man show like Kant or Hegel.