Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Wolfendale on transcendental realism

Pete Wolfendale at Deontologistics has put up a pdf of a paper in which he calls the bluff of anyone who thinks the only options are naive realism, idealism, correlationism, and speculative realism. It's a beautiful piece of work and I urge people to read it carefully. He's also, in an earlier post, provided a handy inventory of his engagements with Harman's work, and some of this thinking shows up in the paper as well.

I am most impressed by Wolfendale's construction of not one but two alternatives to correlationism that don't succumb (he claims) to Meillassoux's arguments-- a deflationary realism, strongly informed by Robert Brandom (Wolfendale is one of a small online chorus that has been urging people to read Brandom for a long while now), which sees (as I understand Wolfendale) the world and thought to be structurally dependent on each other, in the sense that it does not make sense to say that one understands the one without understanding the other. However, they are not dependent on each other in a different sense. Not everything that is true of the world is true of thought; but one cannot understand the one without understanding the other.

These two senses Pete distinguishes (again, following Brandom) as sense-dependence and reference-dependence, respectively. Obviously there is more than a touch of Frege in this distinction, and this is important later on, for Pete is going to offer an account of how we make and dispute claims that reads, to my mind, as a primarily Quinean main course judisciouly salted with Wittgenstein; behind all of this lies Frege. (Wolfendale’s account also has more than a hint of pragmatism).

For Wolfendale’s deflationary realist, the structure of the world and the structure of thought are reciprocally sense-dependent, but not reference dependent. Thus while one must understand either in terms of the other, it remains possible to say truly that the structure of the world is X without saying that the structure of thought is X, and vice-versa. (In an email before I posted this, Pete ventured took issue with this way of phrasing it; and I hope I have got him right now.) The deflationist takes the structure of the world to be reflected by the structure of thought. This isomorphism is, for instance, what is found (as I read him) in the Tractatus. Every fact about the structure of the world corresponds to a fact about the structure of thought. The fact that the world is composed of objects and properties corresponds to the fact that thought has a subject-predicate structure. (I think that this holds whether we take a substance/quality sort of metaphysics, or an actant/power sort, as does Levi Bryant, since the question is not the precise relation between object and property, but the distinction). However, the deflationist can also hold that a world could exist without thought, because this isomorphism between thinking and world is not thought (as in classical idealism) in ontological terms as an identity of Being and thought. Still, there is nothing to the structure of the world that is not to be found (in some sense) in the structure of thought.

I hope Wolfendale will correct me if I have mis-stated his account. However, deflationary realism is not where he stops--he's only getting started. Pete notes that these definitional terms of dependence and independence allow for what he calls a thin concept of reality; but the disputes we tend to have both in philosophy and ordinary life all tend to depend upon a thick notion of reality such as we seem to have intuitively (even though it is infamously difficult to articulate). When I first read this paper I got snagged here; I thought he was using “thick” and “thin” in a way more or less informed by the anthropological use of these terms, which Clifford Geertz drew out from Gilbert Ryle; a usage in which they tend to merge with "objective" description (=thin) and first-person evaluation (=thick). I still think this hangs in the background in a sense (I’ll try to explain why towards the end here), but this is not the primary sense Wolfendale needs as he goes on to show an alternative to deflationism, which he calls Transcendental Realism. This stance dispenses with the reciprocality of sense-dependence between world and thought; that is, one needs to understand the structure of thought to understand the structure of the world, but no longer vice-versa.

Deflationists, Pete wrote me in explanation, don’t take the word 'real' to be doing any genuine work;
For them, there's no real difference between saying 'numbers exist' and 'numbers really exist'. Their notion of 'real' is thus a deflated, or 'thin' one. The classical debates all need the notion of 'real' to do genuine work in order for them to make sense, precisely because it is this notion which articulates the difference between the various positions, e.g. platonism ('numbers really exist') and nominalism ('numbers don't really exist').
So the deflationists’ critique succeeds against classical realism (and indeed idealism) only insofar as we concede that there is no good ‘thick’ definition of 'real' which can do justice to these differences. This is one reason why so many analytic and pragmatist attacks on the philosophical debates can dissolve them into “pseudo-problems.” This, by the way, they do share with Meillassoux’s “correlationists.” But this is not sufficient to establish that they fall back into correlationism.

However, Wolfendale is unsatisfied with deflationism, and for good reason. He wants to do justice to the common-sensical experience that we have a good intuitive grasp of a 'thick' notion of real, one that makes sense of these debates. Adequatley defining such a 'thick' notion, and in non-ontological terms (as we can only understand what ontology is in terms of reality), showing how this would work, and drawing out its consequences (pointing to ramifications in fields from philosophy of mathematics to ethics), occupies the bulk of his paper.

Wolfendale’s account combines considerable care with ambition, and refreshingly moves quite at ease between the analytic and the continental, but never self-consciously. He has learned well from Brandom’s ability to see Hegel and Quine (for instance) on the same page, even as he criticizes what he sees as Brandom’s deflationism. (I should add that I defer to Pete in matters about Brandom as he is obviously more informed about him than am I.) I am struck by his recourse to the practices of revisability and how this chimes with the need to be able to account for the possibility of falsehood. For Wolfendale, genuine description (as opposed to interpretation) is possible if and only if we can give complete authority to the world over whether what we say is true or false. (I read this as Popperian at first, though Pete claims to feel much closer to Lakatos--“a strange hybrid of Popper and Hegel,” he wrote). I.e., real description is possible, precisely because misdescription is possible; because one can be wrong.

This resonates with a passage from Plato (Sophist 241) I recently cited as germane to the reading of both Harman and Bryant:
testing the strength of the philosophy of our father Parmenides, proving by force that in a certain sense, non-being is, and being is not...[for] unless these words are either disproved or accepted, no one who speaks about false words, or false opinion—whether images or likenesses or imitations or appearances—about the arts which have to do with them, can ever help being forced to contradict himself and make himself ridiculous.
Funny how it always comes back to Parmenides and "being and thinking are the same."

I have to leave out a tremendous amount of detail here, obviously, but I want to mention one important strain in Wolfendale’s paper, which I find personally refreshing, but also important. This is his rehabilitation of Kant. This is not a reactionary circling of wagons—no one online has engaged more with object-oriented philosophy in a spirit of non-hostile criticism than has Wolfendale, as one can see from his extensive posts on the subject. Rather, it is a sense of going to Kant to re-read him again in the wake of the coup that Heidegger staged against the neo-Kantianism of Cohen, Cassirer and Rickert. I like especially Wolfendale’s use of Wittgenstein and Nietzsche, including them in the lineage that descends from Kant. I have long thought that Wittgenstein and Kant are making similar moves: both are in effect turning the liability of thought’s limitation into an asset that becomes the very condition for the possibility of insight. As to Nietzsche, his reaction against Kant was so famously antipathetic that it must have concealed some too-close-for-comfort recognition.

One cannot help but notice that the anti-Kant animus of speculative realism provokes not only arguments but passions. "Am not!" and "Are so!" start to fly. (I assume I need not name names here.) I do not say there is something wrong with this; what it suggests, though, is that this is where the rubber meets the road. When people start to get riled, we are touching upon values. This is why I maintain that the “thick” of reality description Wolfendale wants to articulate does indeed have something to do with evaluations. Harman has argues that correlationism has been the default position for the past hundred years. Is it just coincidental that this has coincided with the famous, all-too-infamous “analytic-continental divide”? What’s right with Wolfendale’s paper however is that he doesn’t think of himself as “bridging” this gap; he just draws upon the material that’s there. But above all, he’s pointing the light at a place where we need to look.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


In dialogue with my recent post on epistemology, ontology & pragmatism, a few things got said that I want to reply to or at least point out.

First, Graham Harman responded to a couple of points. In answer to my position--
"I think that when Kant talks about ‘rational beings’ he means just that, not human beings per se..."
--he writes,
let’s assume that Kant’s standpoint covers all rational beings. Let’s assume it even covers dolphins, earthworms, even plants. That’s still leaving out the vast majority of relations that exist. In other words, the key point is not that correlationism restricts philosophy to the human. In point of fact it usually does. But animals are often thrown into the mix too, and it doesn’t change the central difficulty.
This is a very good point. In fact, you may count me as one of the heretical Badiouans who thinks that "events" of a sort can happen to marshmallows and to monsoons deep in Jupiter's red spot... or at least, who thinks that a well-wrought case for such would be interesting and worth pursuing. I doubt Kant would agree, but I would love to see a reading of Kant that extended him to pan-experientialist ends, or at least, tried to get away with it.

This leads me to Harman's second point. He disputes my semi-Rortyan reading of his remark,
One good definition of philosophy is this: try to determine the dominant ideas of today that bore you the most, and then discover a way to make them obsolete.
Harman thinks I have made of this a mere aestheticism. While I don't agree with his gloss of my gloss, that's mostly just nitpicking on my part. His own clarification is what's interesting:
There is a realist impetus behind my advice to look for and attack boring ideas. Those ideas are a conventionalized shell of what was once a genuine attempt to grapple with reality, and the best way to get back in contact with that reality is to find some method for making those conventionalized ideas obsolete.
In some measure I think this must be what motivates every philosopher worth his or her salt. Voegelin says in several places (I'm thinking of his Autobiographical Reflections but there are instances all over his work) that the philosopher finds, in the culture about him, a host of "deformed symbols," a kind of atrophied fossil of genuine encounter, which he then has to critique. This isn't the first task of the philosopher, of course, which is simply to articulate the encounter afresh; but it is a necessary side-effect, and in some cases, my own for instance, the temperament of a thinker finds its best way of resonating when confronted with other symbols that are, slightly or jarringly, out of tune, and adjusting them into a (perceived) harmony.

In other words, I agree with Harman that his definition of philosophy is a good one, though perhaps not for exactly the reasons he offers it. I do have a more aesthetic take on philosophy, but I also think every artist is trying to respond to an imperative, to use Alphonso Lingis' term (itself obviously appropriated from Kant)--and now that I think of it, Lingis does sort of point the way to just such a pan-experientialist read of Kant as I dream of above.

On, then, to Kant. Another respondent was Mikhail, from over at Perverse Egalitarianism, who said in the comments that
to begin again to distinguish between epistemology and ontology is to intentionally and quite openly dismiss Kant's project, not to prove it wrong -- it is to do philosophy as if Kant never existed.
This is putting it quite tendentiously, but I like that, and there's something to be said for it. I don't think it's quite right, however, so let me get that out of the way first. Yes, Speculative Realism does have recourse to some pre-Kantian positions. Harman uses all sorts of things from Leibniz (which can only be a good thing as far as I'm concerned), and famously is drawing on Malebranche, Suarez, and so on. In the very first sentences of After Finitude, Meillassoux declares that it's time to recuperate the Lockean distinction between primary and secondary qualities. This is however not to ignore Kant, which after all can't really be done if you are (as I argue OOP is) relying on the distinction between noumena and phenomena (though Harman does derive this in some ways more from the tool analysis in Being and Time).

However, what Mikhail's characterization brought to mind was some reading I've been doing, sparked by a post on Immanence. Adrian Ivakhiv was thinking aloud about the intersection of Whitehead and Peirce; I suggested some things by Robert C. Neville, and as I hadn't looked at him in a while, I dusted off my copies of Reconstruction of Thinking and The Highroad Around Modernism. Neville's work stands in a tradition that includes
people such as Paul Weiss, Charles Hartshorne, John Findlay, Justus Buchler, Edward Pols, and Leonard Feldstein[,] who produced substantial bodies of metaphysical analysis during the decades when modernists and postmodernists said metaphysics is impossible.
In his blurb for Highroad, Edward Casey describes this tradition, all figures who descend from Peirce and Whitehead, using terms lifted right out of Latour: "Having never been modernist," Casey writes, "they cannot rightly be rejected or dismissed in the company of views which they have themselves effectively criticized."

Whitehead himself has an ambivalent attitude to Kant. One need not read further than the preface of Process and Reality to find him declaring "a recurrence to pre-Kantian modes," but elsewhere in the book Kant gets better appreciation, and here you won't be surprised if you've read it to know I'm influenced by Shaviro in Without Criteria, in which he tries to use Whitehead to mediate between Kant and Deleuze's Nietzsche-inspired inversion of Kant. In any case, my point here is that it is a perfectly respectable tactic, with a long tradition behind it, to write "as if philosopher X had not existed," in a certain sense. The thinkers Neville cites--Weiss, Hartshorne, Buchler and others (I'd mention John William Miller and Richard McKeon, for instance)--were carrying on practically as if Heidegger had not existed, and while they have yet to be really read deeply by people doing work in Continental philosophy (though Rorty had to engage Weiss--he did his dissertation under him), this doesn't make them negligible, just neglected. It'll change, eventually; I'm not accusing anyone of being uninformed, only saying that one can do one's work responsibly without being cowed by anyone, no matter how much others are saying that so-and-so is irrefutable or the must-read.

As to Mikhail's more philosophical point--he says, "I personally think that the distinction between epistemology and ontology does not exist after Kant"--I am tempted to agree [note added later: agree, yes, but with reservations--I would keep the distinction but not the hierarchical relationship]. This point is made again (albeit without reference to Kant) by Ivakhiv in a comment to his own post:
ontology/epistemology ... are best thought of as feeding and supporting each other. The world must be such a world that would allow for our knowing things in the particular ways that we know them. So it makes sense (as Levi is suggesting) that we try to understand what kind of world that would have to be, i.e., that we ontologize.

At the same time, to presume to know the world apart from our knowing it is to presume too much. So we must epistemologize as well. We must theorize about how we know at the same time as we theorize about the world in which we exist as entities that can know in such and such a way.
This is close to my own rough-and-ready way of approach, which is happy to call epistemology and ontology the obverse and reverse (or vice-versa); but I am aware that this is vulnerable to the critique of correlationism. What is needed is a way of thinking this through that either rebuts this critique, or makes it-- well, obsolete.

For this, however, we have to really think through the problem. I think Meillassoux gives us better traction here than Harman; the latter has more or less acknowledged he thinks correlationism to be transparently silly, and his attacks on correlationism are indeed yawns. "Correlationism thinks the moon is made of fingers" (PoN, p 185) is a beautiful bon mot, but it does give you a sense of how seriously Harman takes this position. In some moods, anyway, Harman seems indeed content to philosophize as if correlationism just wasn't there, in a way. Meillassoux on the other hand wants to stage an immanent critique of correlationism, a critique on its own premises--pushing it the way, say, Heidegger pushed Nietzsche and Derrida pushed Heidegger. While I don't concur with Meillassoux about the limits of thinking, this is at least engaging one's opponent. I'll have more to say on this in the future, but it needs some hard thinking first.

The last response I want to point out is not to me specifically, but Michael over at Archive Fire has put up what he promises is the first in a three-part series on the question of epistemology and ontology. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The euro and the tarantula

Thinking about the panic and unimaginable sums involved in the shaky European economy of late, I am reminded of the book An Eye for an Eye by Law professor and Norse saga scholar William Ian Miller. This may not seem an obvious book to shed light on the European Union, but bear with me. The E.U. is the fruit of the labors of statesmen and intellectuals and bureaucrats, Nietzsche's "exceptions," as Joe likes to call them, in trying to bring to realization the tendency Nietzsche named when he said that "Europe wants to become one" (BGE 256). Of all these thinkers, Kojeve stands out as a genuine philosopher. Kojeve's influential interpretation of Hegel held essentially that in the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel had correctly described the course and driving motor of history: mutual recognition, which became a possibility only under liberal democracy. Well, strictly speaking, Kojeve seems to have been an agnostic about this; he called himself a Stalinist. It was Fukuyama, of course, who argued that the toss-up Kojeve had seen between the rival (left and right) interpretations of Hegel had been clearly decided by the 1989 collapse of communism. History had ended; our understanding of justice as mutual recognition is complete. All that remained was to concretely establish de facto what Hegel had already described de jure. This Kojeve had devoted his life to doing, essentially laying the foundations for the spreading far and wide of the Code Napoleon. His own thinking on the question was given in his Outline of a Phenomenology of Right.

Kojeve's thought is infamously challenging, and my "sketch" above is a caricature; but my post is not about it anyway. Miller's book is more or less the opposite of this: a fairly unflinching "anti-theory" of justice. "Anti-," he says, because it is specific not general; it is actually very much like a Nietzschean "genealogy." (And indeed, it was by following a link on the Nietzsche Blog run by Brian Leiter that I first found Miller's book, an entry in a compiled list of the best philosophy books and papers of 2000-2009). Miller's book ought to be read and thought seriously about by anyone reflecting upon philosophy in "the City," as Joe likes to say. It is an extended meditation upon the history of lex talionis, the justice of retribution; the specific metaphors it depends upon and the specific practices it entails. The body, Miller points out, remains the focal point of lex talionis and the societies of honour in which it functions. Miller never mentions Fukuyama, Kojeve, or Strauss, but if one wants to grasp what Fukuyama means in The End of History & the Last Man by thymos from the old Greeks, one could do a lot worse than reading Miller.

Indeed, though he hardly advocates a return to the bad old days of behanding or blood feuds, Miller makes a very strong case that we have sublimated our ways of "getting even," specifically by reducing damages to money, to our detriment, partly because we no longer can speak with a good conscience about retribution. Since any notion of justice as "getting even" hinges upon valuation (because any penalty I pay you for a wrong I caused must be reckoned--valued--as "equal" somehow to the wrong), thinking of justice depends crucially on values in general, and Nietzsche was (once again) just calling it like he saw it when he said that the crisis of his day, and ours, was precisely a crisis of valuation. Our contemporary monetarization of justice, in the shape of fines and "damages," is clearly a blunt instrument at best, and a strong case could be made for its being a wholesale evasion. I'm even tempted to say that the (near?) shipwreck of the Euro zone is a direct consequence of the attempt to force a false consensus of values by way of the idols of the marketplace, as though spending a single currency could make E pluribus unum. I'm not a neocon or even a paleocon, but I am struck by the recent observation of George Will, the public intellectual of the American right who I respect the most, that the bridges and monuments on the Euro are fictitious and precisely "utopian," and his diagnosis of what this means. In particular, Will contends,
If money represents, as Emerson said, the prose of life, the euro reflects a determination to make European life prosaic. It is an attempt to erase nationalities and subsume politics in economics in order to escape from European history. The euro pleases dispirited people for whom European history is not Chartres and Shakespeare but the Holocaust and the Somme. The euro expresses cultural despair.
One need not go this far, but clearly the debate over the identity of Europe and its "others," in particular its Arab and Muslim others, turns obsessively if subliminally upon the possibility of saying who "we" are and what we value, which in the end is the same thing.

Nietzsche dreamed, in Zarathustra's discourse to the tarantulas, of the delivery of humankind from revenge. I am still a long way from having thought all this through, but clearly the Christian notion of forgiveness suffered in the West from being brought under the ruling metaphor of the law court, rather than the hospital. I do not want to argue in any simplistic sense that "Europe's woes" are to be attributed to the loss of its religious culture. But I am quite sure that the picture of God the righteous judge could not survive the Code Napoleon. Not for the first time, I am moved to reflect that what the church needs is more Buddhism. But more real Christianity would do, too.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Outflanking Parmenides: epistemology, ontology, pragmatism

One of the live issues in the Speculative Realist online debate of late concerns "relations" vs. "objects:" is an object constituted by the totality of its relations, or not? This is sometimes equated with a debate between a doctrine of "internal" or "external" relations, respectively. An internal relation is a relation that is constitutive of the thing in question, as on some accounts the fact that I am my parents’ son has a great deal to do with my genesis. Bradley formulated a radical version of the doctrine of internal relations that held that in some sense any given thing was its relations and nothing more; that all relations were internal. There is something about the doctrine of internal relations I find attractive (it is closely isomorphic with certain characterizations of sunyata – emptiness or “mutual arising” in Buddhism), but I am also very sympathetic to the argument that relations without relata is an incoherent proposition. I tend to think that Harman’s insistence that every object is always infinitely more than its qualities, or its relations, might be able to mediate this apparent impasse, but I am not yet sure.

Jeremy Trombley characterizes the discussion (in a comment on Steven Shaviro's blog) as "no longer a debate about epistemology versus ontology, but...wholly in the realm of ontology." This description is at the heart of the anti-Kantian side of Harman's position. Harman is pro-Kant when it comes to the thing-in-itself; anti-Kant when it comes to the claim that the divide between the in-itself and the phenomenon is the same as that between nature and the human mind. I am not confident enough to attack Harman's exegesis of Kant here, though I feel sure that one could argue that Kant need not be read as privileging the human so thoroughly (I think that when Kant talks about "rational beings" he means just that, not human beings per se); but the point isn't one of interpretation anyway. I am suspicious of the critique of epistemology in general. I don't accuse Harman of this, and Trombley's line is a single sentence in a comment so I don't assume this characterizes his whole position either. But I do notice in some Object-Oriented rejoinders to critique, frequent recourse to the distinction between epistemology and ontology. It isn't always as brusque as "Look, this isn't about epistemology, we're doing ontology here," but the distinction is drawn and drawn quite often.

I want to be clear about my motivations. I don't believe that Levi Bryant or Graham Harman has stupidly forgotten that whenever a human being does philosophy, there's a human mind at work. I'm not interested in critiquing OO thought as such; I believe in engaging any philosophy to see what can be done with it, to see what follows if, in Harman's words (Prince of Networks p121), we ask "what if this book, this thinker, were the most important of the century? How would things need to change?" Rather, what concerns me is that the distinction between epistemology and ontology can become, for those who are excited (as am I) by the possibilities of this revitalization of metaphysics, a kind of shorthand that does not need to be thought through. It is all too easy to gloss over this step. What follows is part of my attempt to think it through.

In the recent online debate, several times the OO side has claimed to be able to integrate the relationist side. Baldly put, this seems to come down to a claim that one must have relata in order to have relations; to reduce the object to only its relations is to make the object disappear; and then, lo and behold, so too do the relations. But grant that there are objects, and there can be relations too. Thus, it is held, the object-oriented philosophy can include the claims of the relationists, but not vice-versa. As I have said, I find congenial the claim that “relations without relata” is incoherent, or at least very problematic. I am less sanguine about claims of one side to be able to easily integrate the other.

I do find it notable that this is just what is also said about epistemology; we can have epistemology if we start with ontology, but if we start with epistemology we can never get to ontology because we are stuck in the human-world interface. While of course not all relationists champion epistemology against ontology, the epistemological relation itself can be held to be a particular kind of relation which either is, or exemplifies, what is essential in relations per se. This in fact is one way of describing what Meillassoux calls correlationism; and Kant, the founding figure of correlationism in Meillassoux's genealogy, started precisely with foundations of knowledge; what we can talk about and make claims about is the phenomenon, because this is what we can know; the thing-in-itself is forever beyond our grasp.

Speculative Realism, in whatever guise, has its sights fixed upon the mutated Kantian claim (mutated because Kant himself does not put it so strongly) that we cannot think what is outside thought. The argument that when we do so, we turn it into something inside thought, is deemed a tautology, and a mere tautology. Kant had banished ontology to the realm of the noumenal: there is a thing-in-itself, but we know nothing whatsoever about it; what we see and how we can think of the thing is what & how our minds oblige us to think. Meillassoux invented the word "correlationist" for this; correlationism holds that we cannot ever think reality in itself, but only the correlation between reality and thought. For Meillassoux, this is crazy-making; it means that you can't understand science the way science understands itself. You always have to insert a little caveat, under your breath, along the lines of "well, it looks that way to us." This is the opposite of Galileo's apocryphal eppur, si muove; whereas Galileo covertly asserted that the earth did really move, the correlationist asserts (again covertly) that we're in no position to say what might really be the case. It is as if Meillassoux thinks that the correlationist really thinks that the world came into existence a moment ago, complete with fossils, records, and memories.

Meillassoux’s argument is not merely that this is nonsense, but that it makes nonsense of science. It is not what science means. Much like Roy Bhaskar, Meillassoux argues that to understand science as science understands itself, you have to grant that it is making realistic claims, not claims about how things look but claims about what happened and what happens. Similarly, the ontologist in Harman's or Bryant's way of seeing things is talking about how things are, not about how things seem to us or about how we get our impression of how things seem. And could this perhaps be what correlationism is: the eliding of the distinction between epistemology and ontology?

This is not to say that the OO philosophy has no account of how we get such impressions; it has. This is what allows the claim of integration to be used against correlationism in just the same way as it is against epistemology. For instance, Bryant maintains that OO-thought can absorb, "integrate," whatever objections the correlationist throws at it, because it systematically outflanks the correlationist:
The battle cry of OOO is “don’t reduce objects to subjectivity!” What OOO objects to is not the thesis that when humans relate to objects they color it with their subjectivity in all sorts of ways. This is one of the reasons that OOO is so sanguine about correlationist critiques of realism. It’s not that we think that what these theorists are pointing out is outright false ...rather it’s that OOO theorists can integrate all of these claims while maintaining a realist stance. It’s already built into our ontology.
While I broadly agree with this account of Bryant's, there is something in this formulation that troubles me. The difficulty is in the "realist stance," and in "building in" the claims correlationists make. This difficulty hinges on an ambiguity in the use of the word "ontology;" do we mean here the actual field of ontology, or do we mean the discourse thereof? For, since the discourse of ontology is itself a human construct, it really doesn't matter what claims you build into it, if it's you building them in. What we need is "the things themselves." We want, in short, not a stance we adopt, but an ontology dictated to us by the things.

"OOO theorists can integrate all of these claims while maintaining a realist stance. It’s already built into our ontology." How so, integrated? By virtue, again, of being based upon Kant’s noumena/phenomena distinction, but universalizing it. There is nothing shocking for OOO in the claim that we don’t ever see the thing in itself, because nothing does. Any two objects bumping always and only ever encounter each other as phenomena.

But if that’s the case, how does OOO ever justify its talk about objects in the first place? How does it know there are any?

Bryant says in a different post:
Knowledge and inquiry are fallible. In other words, there’s no guarantee that our representations of the world will map on to the world or carve the world at its joints. But again, this is an issue of epistemology, not metaphysics. Metaphysics does not tell us what objects exist (that can only be known through inquiry), it only tells us that to be is to be a generative mechanism or an object.
Metaphysics here is opposed expressly to epistemology, but it is also foundational for a certain kind of epistemology: it dictates how we must think about "objects" and how we must think about "being." I take this to mean, when we say "object," this is how we use the word; this is how the concept shall work. As mentioned, Bryant (like Meillassoux) is following or at least resonating with Bhaskar here: to say that that "object" always means an "object-of-thought" simply drastically misconstrues what science means.

Thus the OO-theorist thinks they can outflank correlationism. But that's exactly what the correlationist thinks, too. To every brusque dismissal of epistemology in the name of ontology, the correlationist can respond "how do you know?" From here we can either appeal to evidence (which lands us with either Hume or with "naturalized epistemology" a la Quine); or to reason. If we take this second path, we meet another fork in the road: we can appeal either to an a priori option (Husserl takes this) or a grammatical one. Harman takes the phenomenological path, and he believes he has guarded enough against the idealist temptation in Husserl to be safe. The grammatical option is to rejoin, "that's what we mean when we say 'objects'." This, as I (mis?)read him, is the tack Bryant, following Bhaskar, takes in the citation above. And from here, we're back to a question of hermeneutics and interpretation--back to Quine's ground (indeterminacy of translation). It is possible of course by continued encounter and dialogue to persuade one's conversation partner that we have to adopt such-&-such a meaning to talk coherently, that to to otherwise is to fall into contradiction. But is this Socratic ploy a mode of persuasion alone, or is it something stronger? How do we know?

The sharp-eyed will have spotted that the moment we make this distinction between the actual matter of ontology on the one hand, and the "discourse" of ontology on the other, we have left ourselves wide open to whatever linguistic turn is coming around the bend. Once we concede that any given philosophy is a way of talking, there is a "merely" just waiting to be inserted. Neo-pragmatic ways of treating it as just another fashion are not going to be parried by distinguishing ontology from epistemology.

Of course, for a time, it may be that most thinkers will not be interested in this objection; the Rortyan moment may have more or less passed, and Speculative realism may well come to hold the field, so these kinds of relativisms may just be boring--for now. Rorty, the bad boy of American Pragmatism in the last generation, scandalized a lot of folks by urging us all to get over talking about capital-T Truth and just worry about making convincing and interesting conversations, and, also, playing nice with each other--refraining from cruelty. Rorty acknowledged that, having abandoned the claim to any theory of What the World is Really Like, or of How We Should Really Act, he couldn't try to rationally convince anyone that rationality, or indeed cruelty, was "Wrong;" he just wanted us to see that "talking that way" wasn't getting anywhere, was a bore, and that we should move on to something more diverting.

Rorty's talk about style and good taste in philosophy makes a lot of philosophers want to climb the walls; did he really think there were no damn criteria for a good argument?! What the hell was he going to say to the person who asks "why be moral?" or "why be rational?" Rorty thinks talk about realism is just that--talk, and talk with no good purpose. But the S.R. bunch all, in different ways, want to sweep all the preoccupation with language and talk aside, and revitalize an full-blooded metaphysics with unapologetic discussion of real entities and real qualities. Rorty held that in the wake of Hegel, we could now dispense with such talk:
In practice, though not in theory, [Hegel] dropped the idea of getting at truth in favor of the idea of making things new. His criticism of his predecessors was not that their propositions were false but that their language was obsolete. By inventing this sort of criticism the younger Hegel broke away from the Plato-Kant sequence and began a tradition of ironist philosophy which is continued in Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida.(Contingency, Irony, Solidarity pp 78-9)
or again:
To think of Wittgenstein and Heidegger as having views about how things are is not to be wrong about how things are, exactly; it is just bad taste. (Philosophy & the Mirror of Nature p 372).
This would seem, at first, to be the sort of thing no Speculative realist would have any truck with. But scratch the surface and you discover a remark like this from Graham Harman:
One good definition of philosophy is this: try to determine the dominant ideas of today that bore you the most, and then discover a way to make them obsolete.
This remark seems to me to be of a piece with of Harman's inheritance from Latour.
Nothing is by itself either logical or illogical, but not everything is equally convincing. There is only one rule: 'anything goes;' say anything so long as those being talked to are convinced. (The Pasteurization of France, p 182)
Harman is not naive about the price involved in making ideas obsolete. In citing this passage in Prince of Networks (p 23) he comments:
Perhaps we can [even] show that Lamarck was right and Darwin was wrong, but there will be a high cost in theoretical labour and initial public ridicule, and our efforts may ultimately fail.
As he notes, one needs to "convince" not just particular human listeners but also any number of other things. The effort to rehabilitate Lamarck would involve alliances with fossils, long strands of genetic and epigenetic molecules, research grant bureaucracies, Drosophila melanogaster. One significant difference between Latour, Harman, and Bryant on the one hand, and Rorty on the other, is that the former believe that such non-human actants can raise objections to our claims. In other words, for OO philosophy, certainly science at least is not just a "way of talking," since talking is not the only way persuasion happens.

But what about ontology (or onticology) itself? What kind of persuasion happens here? Is raising the question merely obtuse?

When Meillassoux poses the problem of strong correlationism, he juxtaposes it to Parmenides:
"Being and thinking are the same" remained the prescription for all philosophy up to and including Kant, [but] it seems that the fundamental postulate of strong correlationism can be formulated thus: "being and thinking must be thought as capable of being wholly other." (After Finitude, p 44.)
For all its critique of correlationism, OOP does not want to reinstate the Parmenidean equation. Indeed, it strikes me that at least one way to take Harman’s argument that one never encounters a real object is that OO thought is still at the old task announced in the Sophist, (241d):
testing the strength of the philosophy of our father Parmenides, proving by force that in a certain sense, non-being is, and being is not.
[Addenda 5/12/10: The internet is a good way to fine chop any pretensions one has to originality. Here is a post from Levi Bryant, that certainly did not have my own in mind, but is responding to a comment (on Adrian Ivakhiv's blog Immanence) by Michael, of Archive Fire (who has also responded). Bryant says:
Michael writes:
OOO seems to have a strong tendency towards an anti- epistemological stance, in that they seem to continually philosophize away the every-present issue of HOW we know reality ‘frames’ WHAT we can possibly know. An aversion to “correlationism” seems to justify this ‘leap of faith’ into, what I would call, a brute realist ontology.
[But]....What OOO objects to is the thesis that epistemology is first philosophy in the sense that questions of epistemology must precede any inquiry into being. For OOO it is ontology that is first philosophy. Moreover, there can be no hope of a coherent epistemology without ontology as first philosophy.
…If I follow Michael’s criticism correctly, he is falling prey to the common fallacy or line of reasoning that we must first know objects in order to make claims about what they are and that therefore epistemology precedes ontology.
After a lengthy and articulate explanation of his own project and how it draws upon Bhaskar's philosophy of science (and which makes me impatient for The Democracy of Objects), Levi concludes his post thus:
Michael’s criticism, I believe… is based on a fallacious bit of reasoning because, quoting Bhaskar, it trades on a conflation of philosophical knowledge and scientific knowledge. Philosophically we can articulate what being must be like in order for certain practices to be possible… ultimately the premises of our knowledge are ontological in character, such that ontology is first philosophy and required to render our practices intelligible.
(A side-effect of my late discovery of this recent argument from Bryant is that my post now weirdly reads to me as though it is a lot more about Bryant than it was before. So I want to clarify that I have no particular theorists in mind, especially not as targets for attack; if anything, I'm critiquing my own incipient (and perhaps incoherent) speculative realism.)

The back-&-forth between objects and discourse which Harman refers to in his remark that one needs to “convince” objects, is what Bryant calls science, as opposed to philosophy or metaphysics; it tells us about specific objects and their relations, rather than "what objects must be." But I am not sure that a confusion about this is what motivates the epistemologist to ask "how do you know?" As Bryant writes in his rejoinder to Michael,
ultimately the premises of our knowledge are ontological in character, such that ontology is first philosophy and required to render our practices intelligible.
Now one might object that our science is not possible, that it doesn’t really exist. That’s fine so far as it goes. I am not a foundationalist and am not making claims to unassailable foundations. I believe that this desire for unassailable foundations is what got philosophy into the correlationist deadlock.... [I]f we begin from the premise that we have these capacities and that science exists as something more than a pseudo-practice, then these are the ontological requirements for these capacities and practices.
Or, as Plato's Stranger says (op. cit. 241e):
Unless these words are either disproved or accepted, no one who speaks about false words, or false opinion—whether images or likenesses or imitations or appearances—about the arts which have to do with them, can ever help being forced to contradict himself and make himself ridiculous.
Here Bryant comes very close to the place where, as Wittgenstein would say, our spade is turned. Explanation comes to an end; we are left with practices--or, indeed, the assumption of practices. My feeling is that relationism (the argument that every thing is only its relations), pressed to its conclusions, does indeed mean that science stricto sensu doesn't exist, that it is (in Bryant's terms) a pseudo-practice. I wonder how close I am to just accepting this as the way things are. In a deconstructive mood, I might argue that that every practice is such a pseudo-practice, or is "already contaminated" with such a "pseudo-". This is to have recourse to a kind of argument that I doubt will appeal to the ontologist qua ontologist; but it might leave open the possibility of a sort of Hegelian aufhebung between ontology and epistemology.]

Sunday, May 9, 2010


A recent study on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (abstract here) suggests that trauma may in some cases cause epigenetic changes which switch on (or off) certain genes, for instance those pertaining to vigilance and defensive behavior, or to the immune system.

A more full account of the research lends some support to the notion that the condition investigated--the methylation or non-methylation of genes-- is unlikely to precede the occurrence of PTSD. This is important. If methylation merely correlated with PTSD, it could easily be an index of susceptibility to the disorder, rather than being itself an effect of the trauma. But, as Sandro Galea, one of the study's authors, notes,
[W]e have evidence for dose response between traumatic event exposure and methylation. The more traumatic events people have, the more methylation changes they have — which of course would [make it] unlikely that the methylation changes preceded the traumatic events.
Galea recognizes, however, that more research is needed before the results are considered established.

When I listened to the NPR report on this research, one word seemed to me conspicuous by its absence. One name, actually: Lamarck.

Lamarck, of course, was the biologist who suggested that species had evolved by virtue of changes in the individuals during their lifetimes; giraffes had stretched their necks and passed on the longer neck to their offspring. Modern further consideration of Larmack suggests that there are mechanisms by which certain instances of so-called "soft inheritance" might transpire, but Lamarck's name is still close to a hiss and a byword amongst many scientists. So it is not surprising that it would be avoided in presenting these new findings, however tentative they might be.

There is a further distinction, of course. The changes Galea postulates are not to the genes themselves, but to the mechanisms by which genes are activated. Still, it is striking to find the mainstream media suggesting that events in the organism's environment might have such an impact. After all, if a gene can be turned on or off on the molecular level by the environment, it is a very short step to saying that the gene in its new state can be passed on, or that a gene might itself be effected by environment.

This is admittedly something of an overstatement. A "short" step can still, of course, be formidable in molecular biology. Moreover, while Lamrackianism is more likely to find a foothold in epigenetic shifts as these, they are not just-breaking news, and don't by themselves constitute evidence for it, though the study of epigenetics and inheritance is still ongoing of course.

One final, more speculative note; Darwinism has recently expanded its influence far beyond the biological, not merely into the sphere of ideas (memetics), but into cosmology. Lee Smolin might be the most famous name here (followed by Quentin Smith) but many physicists now seriously consider the plausibility of cosmological accounts by which universes could be considered "fit" or "unfit", i.e., likely (or unlikely) to survive for long enough to generate sentient life. Smolin points to the similarity between the pre-Big Bang singularity and black holes to suggest that black holes might birth universes. And, since black holes also tend to proliferate in a universe as it gets older (thus letting more and more stars explode, providing the elements that go into making biological life), there is at least a plausible correlation between black holes, duration of universes in time, and the occurrence of life.

There is also an unrelated notion called "Quantum Darwinism," which hypothesizes (and produces some evidence for) the notion that the infamous transition from quantum to classical phenomena transpires by way of a kind of natural selection.

Both these notions are interesting and potentially fruitful. Always, however, looking ahead to the next step, I find myself wondering whether Lamarck may yet have a surprise for investigators of the very large or the very small.

Like many psychiatric diagnoses, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is controversial. There are those who oppose psychiatric diagnoses on principle, as a medicalization of what is essentially emotional or existential; to these, PTSD is an even worse offender, in that its political ramifications are many and volatile. Now, who knows, perhaps PTSD will grate on a different set: Darwinists. And maybe even cosmologists. After all, there is little that would be more traumatic than being sucked into a black hole!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Pierre Hadot, R.I.P.

I was very sorry to read of the death of Pierre Hadot last April 24.

Hadot's work made available to me a tremendously articulate and documented case for what I had come to suspect from piecing together Strauss' tendentious claims about esotericism, Voegelin's continually re-worked account of the struggle between philosophy and system, and de Santillana's impressionistic reconstruction of the ancient mythic worldview. I doubt he would have agreed with every guess I have made; but his main point about the spirit of ancient philosophy was what moved me.

Socrates did not argue that examined life was in some limited or pragmatic manner an "improvement" over other modes; he claimed that in the absence of examination, life was not worth living: ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ.Twenty-four centuries later Camus could still write that the only serious philosophical question was suicide. (It is often forgotten that Camus, who wrote a book on the transition between Hellenism and Christianity, was very much engaged with the thought of the ancients.) The continuity between these two claims was the ground of Hadot's concern.

Hadot began his work with a book on Plotinus, and he remained engaged with his thought to the very end. In his final lecture at the College de France, his final words were "In the last analysis, we can scarcely talk about what is most important." Asked about this, Hadot explained:
I was saying that about Plotinus, for whom the most important thing was not his teaching, but the unutterable experience of union with the One. For Plotinus, abstract teaching could allude to this experience but could not lead to it. Only asceticism and a moral life could truly prepare the soul for such a union....
Hadot's career was devoted to making the case that philosophy was "a way of life;" not an academic "subject" to be studied without having an impact on the student, but a discipline that would shape and change one from within, that had consequences upon ones comportment and the very mode in which one experienced the world. The view he challenged was very old:
some...want to read Plato–not in order to make their lives better, but in order to adorn their language and their style; not in order to become more temperate, but in order to acquire more charm.
This was said not by Hadot, but by the Platonist philosopher Taurus in the 2nd century AD. It would seem that even then, cocktail-party, coffee-house intellectuals were plentiful. (Honesty compels me to add that I type these words in a cafe even now). However, philosophy was also not a matter unpacking the meaning of science, or grammar, or showing how these things are possible. Philosophy is neither an explication of science, nor explication du texte. It was deeper. To "study" philosophy because you happen to like arguing or because you are good at logic or because you are ambitious, is from Hadot's point of view to miss the one thing needful, though, he would probably concede, it might provide a way in.

What Hadot means can be illustrated by way of a useful distinction made by Ken Wilber. (And note that Wilber refers specifically to Plotinus.) Some "paths" of knowledge, he says,
can be engaged without a demand for interior transformation (or change in level of consciousness); one merely learns a new translation (within the same level of consciousness). More specifically, most researchers have already, in the process of growing up, transformed to rationality... and no higher transformations are required for empiric-analytic or systems theory investigations.
Other modes of inquiry, however, are into the nature and conditions of experience itself, and they do not allow for such "objectivity." Such paths,
at the point that they begin to go postformal, demand a transformation of consciousness in the researchers themselves. You can master 100 per cent of quantum physics without transforming consciousness; but you cannot in any fashion master Zen without doing so. You do not have to transform to understand Dennett's Consciousness Explained; you merely translate. But you must transform to actually understand Plotinus' Enneads. You are already adequate to Dennett, because you both have already transformed to rationality, and thus the referents of Dennett's sentences can be easily seen by you (whether or not you agree, you can at least see what he is referring to, because his referents exist in the rational worldspace, plain as day). But if you have not transformed to (or at least strongly glimpsed) the causal and nondual realms (transpersonal and postformal), you will not be able to see the referents of most of Plotinus' sentences. They will make no sense to you. You will think Plotinus is 'seeing things' -- and he is, and so could you and I, if we both transform to those postformal worldspaces, whereupon the referents of Plotinus' sentences, referents that exist in the causal and nondual worldspaces, become plain as day. And that transformation is an absolutely unavoidable part of the paradigm (the injunction) of an integral approach to consciousness.
(Here "formal" and "postformal" refer to stages in Wilber's quasi-Piagetian theory of stages of development). We don't have to concur with every aspect of Wilber's approach to make us of his translate/transform distinction; it is likely that Hadot would have wished to differ on some points regarding Plotinus. But Hadot was more than a scholar, concerned with "translating;" it was "transforming" that really interested him, and, he claimed, was more or less the essence for ancient philosophy in general. This was a philosophical practice, bound up with what he called "spiritual exercises" (he seems to have been inspired by his wife, the historian Ilsetraut Marten, here). Such exercises included but were not exhausted by discursive or intellectual drills. These were, he wrote in What is Ancient Philosophy,
practices ... intended to effect a modification and a transformation in the subject who practice them. The philosophy teacher's discourse could be presented in such a way that the disciple, as auditor, reader, or interlocutor, could make spiritual progress and transform himself within.
Such exercises were, however, not merely discursive. Depending upon the context, they included, I fancy, moral reflection, memory work, physical and mental meditation (I am thinking of Indian disciplines like tapas and yoga, for instance), and prayer.

The emphasis upon transformation was not unique to the ancients, though Hadot devoted considerable thought to the question of the comparative eclipse of "philosophical practice" in the modern era. It is not coincidental that Hadot was instrumental in introducing the thought of Wittgenstein to France. Wittgenstein early and late appealed to Hadot, who must have sensed in him the seriousness and struggle of genuine philosophical engagement. The emphasis on practice in the Philosophical Investigations was in this sense of a piece with the famously "mystical" strain in the later passages of the Tractatus; in both cases the emphasis is upon the meaning of philosophy for the conduct and experience of the one doing the philosophy. (Indeed, Stanley Cavell comes close to reading the Investigations as a book of spiritual exercises in itself.) Hadot also gave attention to spiritual exercises in Foucault (who made use of Hadot's researches in his History of Sexuality). One might also think of Gramsci's prison writings, or the work of Camus' teacher Jean Grenier, or Georges Friedmann, whom Hadot more than once cites:
To take flight every day! At least for a moment, which may be brief, as long as it is intense. A “spiritual exercise” every day – either alone, or in the company of someone who also wishes to better himself. ...try to get rid of your passions, vanities, and the itch for talk about your own name, which sometimes burns you like a chronic disease. Avoid backbiting. Get rid of pity and hatred. Love all free human beings. Become eternal by transcending yourself....Lots of people let themselves be wholly absorbed by militant politics and the preparation for social revolution. Rare, much more rare, are they who, in order to prepare for the revolution, are willing to make themselves worthy of it.
But not the least exemplar of the survival of this "ancient" ideal was Hadot himself.

Here is a very moving and extensive tribute in two parts, by Hadot's student and translator Michael Chase; and a review of Hadot's most recent book, of interviews.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Terrorist liberals, or, The Smudge of Ambiguity

[as close to a rant as I've made so far. Ill-constructed, rambling, with far less philosophy and far more jeremiad than I'd at first intended. Well, it's written now.]

I read Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism in 2004 with a mixture of respect and caution. I always note when the expected party line is not towed, and Berman seemed to me to be making a fairly responsible hawkish case, but ostensibly from the American left. This, I grant, is not all that left by some standards, but as this was during the Bush years when Democrats were trying to present a united front, it was enough to make me notice. I was also impressed that he had "gone to the sources," done his homework on Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian intellectual credited with laying many of the foundations of modern Islamist thought. Berman notes that he could find only three volumes of Qutb's enormous commentary In the Shade of the Qur'an translated into English. A couple of years after Berman's book was published, a few cheap paperback editions of translations of brief works by Qutb began trickling through the used book store where I worked, a development I think can be partly credited to Berman. At the time he was writing, few American intellectuals had tried to inform themselves of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamism, and to the degree that they are better-informed now, it is largely due to Berman's example.

But I was not wholly swayed. There was something about the tone in which Berman addressed his fellow liberals, people who couldn't get behind the White House's call to arms because they were worried about "America’s imperial motives, about the greed of big corporations, and their influence in White House policy; and could not get beyond their worries." Note: not "They had ill-founded worries," nor even, "they had worries that were respectable, but here are the answers to them." Rather, they couldn't get beyond their worries, they were stuck in some (emotional) concern that maybe the hoist-the-flag-boys rhetoric we were suddenly hearing again was maybe drowning out something more subtle we should be paying attention to? In other words, the anti-war case reduced to fretful shudders, a kind of being scared of the dark.

This is of course a polemical ploy, a way of infantilizing one's opponents. And there is no question that Berman considers himself engaged in a polemic.

Much, much later I read a quite bewildering array of reviews on Terror and Liberalism. It seemed to be one of those books that prompted the question, Will the real [title] please stand up? Evaluations fell out in more or less predictable ways: if you supported the war, you liked the book; if not, thumbs down. No one I remember admitted to having had their minds changed by it (I'd love to hear from someone). And, as it turned out, my respect for Berman's scholarship somewhat lagged, particularly due to one exhaustive review. What has remained is my sense of him as a fighting man.

His latest book, with the Benda-esque title The Flight of the Intellectuals, has been getting compared of late to the old glory days of intellectual sparring back in the '40s and '50s, back when you could choose if you liked to be "wrong with Sartre rather than right with Aron." The first notice I saw of it, in the NY Times, cites Ron Rosenbaum in Slate likening it to "those old Partisan Review smack-downs." Everyone who mentions the book seems to like this comparison, which indeed seems invited by Berman himself when towards the end of his original article in The New Republic, which is in some ways the core of his book, he compares Ramadan to Sartre in just such a context. It's as though we were getting a whiff of an old scotch whose last bottle we just found down in the cellar. Are we really that nostalgic for the days when intellectuals had clout?

The object of Berman's pungent critique is mainly Tariq Ramadan, with some disdain also reserved for Ian Buruma, whose N.Y. Times Magazine interview with Ramadan Berman singles out as pulling its punches, being charmed by Ramadan's smooth presentation, and failing to probe enough. (This despite Buruma's calling Ramadan on more than one error of judgment including at least one that could be construed as anti-semitic). Berman's New Republic article is a fuming piece of journalism-cum-jeremiad, part righteous indignation and part forensic analysis, in which he scrutinizes Ramadan's right to look like a reasonable, "moderate," friend and critic of the West and of Islam, with a foot in both worlds. Ramadan dissimulates, Berman claims, about his family's ties to the very extremism from which he tries to distance himself in the public eye. His grandfather Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood (of which Qutb was a member); his family is connected through both well-established fact and innuendo to Hamas and possibly Al Qaeda. He was barred from entering the U.S. (and so prevented from accepting a visiting position at the University of Notre Dame) for suspicions of contributing money to terrrorists, and granted a visa, after a drawn-out court battle, only earlier this year.

I don't know how sincere Tariq Ramadan is; how heartfelt his calls for a "European" Islam that embraces a kind of universalism while remaining true to its spiritual vision. I don't know if he is a misogynist, or an anti-Semite, or a covert fellow-traveler of terrorists. I do think the answer matters. But I do think Berman is playing a pretty low game, no matter how nostalgic it may make us for the old smack-down days.

One has to grant that Berman has a good eye for the righteous cause and knack for picking the right opponent. Buruma is a casualty, but Ramadan is exactly the right size; an intellectual who's moving between Muslim and European worlds, who can thus be called out for hypocrisy when he speaks like a Muslim to Muslims and like a Westerner to Westerners. He cites both postmodernists and imams (the worst of both worlds, one might think). Importantly, he has made strong criticisms of Israel. And his notoriety is rising ("one of the world's top 100 contemporary intellectuals", said Foreign Policy in 2008); he is just about due for being taken down.

The New Republic has a penchant for this sort of thing; a while ago editor Adam Kirsch tried to rally folks against Slavoj Žižek even calling him "the most dangerous philosopher in the world;" the most impressive thing about the piece was its bestowing this sobriquet upon Žižekwith a straight face. Now that Jacques Derrida is dead, I can think of no safer intellectual in the world to denounce than Žižek. A more craven example of preaching to the choir would be hard to find. Could it have been supposed that any of the readers of The New Republic might have been on the fence about Žižek? They already knowthat they hate the radical left and the "incomprehensible" cant of Hegel-Marx-Lacan that Žižek writes in. Kirsch scores for looking brave at stepping up to the big brazen loudmouth, with extra points for the Emperor-has-no-clothes shtick, while never having to risk that anyone among the people who count for him will seriously call him on his pose. It's cowardice posing as David-versus-Goliath. Nice work if you can get it. And if you can still respect yourself.

So, credit where it's due: Paul Berman actually does take some risks with his attack on Ramadan, who is not yet so assured of his place in the pantheon of modern intellectuals (though he's getting there) as Žižek; and it's possible that some readers might be fence-sitters. In other words, there are real stakes here. But they may not be the stakes Berman says.

Berman's opening rhetoric tracks his opponent, as though leafing through a file. He recounts Ramadan's early itinerary as a series of tactics:
in 1995...Ramadan had already established his social base in Lyon, at the Union of Young Muslims and the Tawhid bookstore and publishing house. These were slightly raffish immigrant endeavors, somewhat outside the old and official mainline Muslim organizations in France. Even so, the mainline organizations seem to have welcomed the arrival of a brilliant young philosopher. He built alliances. He attended conferences. His op-eds ran in the newspapers. He engaged in debates. Eventually his face appeared on French television and on the covers of glossy magazines, which introduced him to the general public in France, a huge success. And yet—this is the oddity about Tariq Ramadan—as his triumphs became ever greater, and his thinking came to be more widely known, no consensus whatsoever emerged regarding the nature of his philosophy or its meaning for France, or Europe, or the world.
Note the build-up; a young intellectual making ordinary choices in his academic career is "building alliances," as if carefully crafting the machinery that will position him eventually to make his coup. There's even the hint of something strange happening behind the scenes--Ramadan is "welcomed" by the establishment despite his "slightly raffish...endeavors." And "eventually," all his maneuvering pays off, he has acheived something of prominence--here he is on magazine covers, on T.V.! The "general public" is starting to eat out of his hand, he's "a great success." And all while--if only we had noticed this "oddity" earlier!--there's been this slipperiness, this imprecision about what he actually means, for (note again the ascending buildup) "France, for Europe, for the World." Ah, the clarity of hindsight. Thank God we have Paul Berman. It may not be too late.

This is very subtle, but it is not far from character assassination.

Here's another interview with Ramadan, this courtesy of The Immanent Frame. (The link goes to an excerpt; click here for a more extensive version in pdf.). Fairly early in this interview (page 4 of the pdf), Ramadan refers to an episode that has been certainly one of the defining and haunting moments in his career so far. In a televised debate (the excerpt I quote below is from Berman's article) with Nicholas Sarkozy, then the French Interior Minister, Ramadan was asked about his brother, Hani Ramadan, also a Muslim intellectual but of notably more conservative stripe, who had the year before written an editorial in Le Monde condoning the stoning of women for adultery. Sarkozy inquired what Tariq thought of this same issue. Ramadan responded that there should be a "moratorium" on such punishments, whereupon the surprised Sarkozy interrupted:

Sarkozy: A moratorium.... Mr. Ramadan, are you serious?

Ramadan: Wait, let me finish.

Sarkozy: A moratorium, that is to say, we should, for a while, hold back from stoning women?

Ramadan: No, no, wait.... What does a moratorium mean? A moratorium would mean that we absolutely end the application of all of those penalties, in order to have a true debate. And my position is that if we arrive at a consensus among Muslims, it will necessarily end. But you cannot, you know, when you are in a community.... Today on television, I can please the French people who are watching by saying, “Me, my own position.” But my own position doesn’t count. What matters is to bring about an evolution in Muslim mentalities, Mr. Sarkozy. It’s necessary that you understand....

Sarkozy: But, Mr. Ramadan....

Ramadan: Let me finish.

Sarkozy: Just one point. I understand you, but Muslims are human beings who live in 2003 in France, since we are speaking about the French community, and you have just said something particularly incredible, which is that the stoning of women, yes, the stoning is a bit shocking, but we should simply declare a moratorium, and then we are going to think about it in order to decide if it is good.... But that’s monstrous—to stone a woman because she is an adulterer! It’s necessary to condemn it!

Ramadan: Mr. Sarkozy, listen well to what I am saying. What I say, my own position, is that the law is not applicable—that’s clear. But today, I speak to Muslims around the world and I take part, even in the United States, in the Muslim world.... You should have a pedagogical posture that makes people discuss things. You can decide all by yourself to be a progressive in the communities. That’s too easy. Today my position is, that is to say, We should stop.”

Sarkozy: Mr. Ramadan, if it is regressive not to want to stone women, I avow that I am a regressive.

Berman remarks: "The seventh century had suddenly appeared, poking out from beneath the modern rhetoric of feminism and rights. A moment of barbarism. A thrill." To Berman it is clear: Ramadan's mask has slipped.

But is it really so hard to grasp what is happening? Ramadan is strategizing about creating a context in which one could condemn, and be heard and listened to in condemning, the stoning of women, rather than rejected out of hand by the very community that needs to come to this conclusion--a conclusion that Ramadan no less than Sarkozy believes must be reached. He is aiming for a situation in which the Muslim world itself condemns the stoning of women.

Sarkozy, on the other hand, is eager to make it stop, stop now! By any means necessary! Who can blame him? Who would prefer to have a single woman stoned to death for the sake of some "pedagogical" process by which imams came to decide to call off stoning once and for all, if we can stop stoning once and for all with a condemnation and a law fashioned in good parliamentary fashion?

It is clear that what offends Berman in this exchange is precisely Ramadan's strategizing. Because Ramadan must "present different faces" to the Muslim world and the liberal West, and if he's on our side, he must, absolutely must, tell us what he means, tell us straight. Does he condemn stoning, yes or no? And Ramadan's position is precisely that he's not going to give us his position, because "my position doesn't matter here;" it's the position that is going to emerge from the community that's going to matter.

The irony is thick here. What is it that liberalism stands for? What is the watchword of the well-intentioned West? Gradual change. To the indignant protesters every May Day, to those who marched in Seattle demonstrating against the WTO, to those who said No over and over again even as United States was turning Iraq upside-down and shaking it to find weapons of mass destruction, the assurance has always been: Things are getting better! Yes, there are problems, but look, the turn of the last century, women couldn't even vote in the U.S.! Blacks were being lynched! There was no minimum wage! And now...look! Look at all the progress we have made! Yes, there are still sweatshops over there...[waves vaguely]...and yes, China may have invaded Tibet, but you see we have to work in the real world, we're working on these things behind the scenes, we have to be careful not to offend or we'll lose the ground we've gained. There will someday be a solution in Gaza, there will someday be a thriving rainforest and a restored ocean, there will someday be "an end to hunger" and a "green economy" and Victory in the War on Terror. But you must be patient. Change is gradual.

What "gradual" means is on our terms. (And to whom does this "our" refer to?) "Gradual" means, at the rate we specify. Immediate or glacial, so long as it causes us no inconvenience. And thank you for recycling.

What is, in fact, accomplished by the "condemnation" that Sarkozy declares? Does it save women's lives while Ramadan's snail pace leaves them to be buried under rocks? Or did it, just possibly, serve to buttress the Interior Minister's popularity and appeal to the "general public" and get his face on a few more magazine covers, with an eye to an election a few years later?

Berman, at any rate, knows what the righteous position is. He's aghast that Buruma doesn't press Ramadan on the matter, that he lets him have the last word; that other intellectuals can't even get their story straight about why Ramadan was right but are all sure he was. This is the trahison des clercs that Berman sees and calls out. Not only Ramadan but, by implication, all the other academics and journalists in his fan club, have, in the name of some elusive and slippery and ultimately meaningless respect for the abstract "other," failed to respect the concrete other; in this case, the woman targeted by extremism and hatred.

Berman's primary example here is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch citizen (and former Member of Parliament), who has quite vocally left Islam and become an outspoken critic of it, though Berman feels that this aspect of her work is overplayed. An enormous amount of Berman's article veers from Ramadan to condemn Buruma for his "attacks" on Hirsi Ali, especially in his book Murder in Amsterdam: the death of Theo van Gogh and the limits of tolerance. Theo van Gogh was a filmmaker whose last work was a film with Hirsi Ali called Submission. Famously including Qur'anic verses projected onto female nudes, this was a film calculated to provoke and offend the radical Muslim. It succeeded. Van Gogh was gunned down in broad daylight in November of 2004 by a Moroccan-born Muslim. Pinned to van Gogh's body with a knife was a note promising that Hirsi Ali was to be next.

Hirsi Ali has also led a courageous campaign to end clitoridectomies (sometimes wrongly called "female circumcision.") This ancient and barbarous practice has little to do directly with Islam (and indeed is held in a number of traditions), has, in the words of this smart article by Yael Tamir in the Boston Review, become
the trump card, taking over the role once played by cannibalism, slavery, lynchings, or the Indian tradition of Sati. "Is this the kind of tradition you would like to protect?" liberals ask embarrassed multiculturalists.... Clitoridectomy defines the boundary between us and them, between cultures we can tolerate and those we must condemn.
In his New Republic article, Berman doesn't make so much of this campaign (there may be more in the book); what he notes is the apparent failure of the intelligentsia to defend Ali with the same aplomb that he remembers coming back in the days when Salman Rushdie fell afoul of the Ayatollah Kohmeini. Instead, when Hirsi Ali spoke in a public documentary about having lied when she applied for refugee status and Dutch citizenship (she told a false story about why she was applying, and used a different name), it was said that she ought not to have received citizenship. Ultimately her citizenship was not revoked, but Hirsi Ali resigned her seat in the parliament.

Berman more or less accuses Buruma of saying that Hirsi Ali had her death threats coming, and of shrugging off her fate. She was rude, what did she expect? He approvingly quotes the French intellectual Pascal Bruckner's article accusing Buruma of harboring "the racism of the anti-racists;" Buruma has responded, and also commented on Hirsi Ali's citizenship case; it's very hard to glean from his words any waffling about the right to dissent or to criticize Islam or any other religion. (See too his recent volume Taming the Gods.) In Murder in Amsterdam, Buruma does have stronger words for Hirsi Ali. Is his attitude tinged with sexism, with racism? Not irrelevant questions. Nor simple questions to answer. Not questions that I think need to go unasked.

And yet. And yet, I can't help notice that when Berman turns his fury against Buruma, the focus of his article starts to falter. The target here is Tariq Ramadan, right? Why all this animus against someone who published one interview with the man?

It turns out, it's the contrast Berman needs, between Hirsi Ali and Ramadan.
Hirsi Ali’s books raise the issue of women’s rights, and not from an outsider’s point of view, regardless of how many times she has been denounced for making herself an outsider to Muslim life. Hers is a story marked by knives—the knife at her own genital mutilation, and at her sister’s; the knife at the murder of her friend and colleague, pinning to his chest the sheet of paper threatening her own life. This is not a Swiss professor! Here is the actual insider; the real thing. ...Something about those knives takes away the quality of abstraction that allows a social issue to be shrugged off. It is always good to be subtle and nuanced, but Hirsi Ali’s writings have the effect of making a large number of nuanced subtleties look ridiculous.

About Hirsi Ali we do not have to wonder: where does she stand on the question of stoning women to death?
And here we are, at the issue itself. Berman wants no ambiguity on liberal values--the sorts of things we might find in a declaration of universal human rights--and Hirsi Ali allows him to ask, "What, and you do?" Hirsi Ali is more than his expert witness; she is his his exhibit A. Authentic victimhood and authentic indignation. "The real thing!" (Not a Swiss professor!) Enough of this nuance, enough of being subtle.
Tariq Ramadan himself disapproves of terrorism. But there is a cost in having it both ways, in noisily affirming his place within the salafi reformist tradition while pretending that terrorist components of the movement belong only to a distant offshoot; or in affirming his own disapproval of violent action while exalting his grandfather’s memory; or in condemning the terrorist aspects of the Palestinian resistance while still revering Qaradawi and even, with his prefaces, bedecking himself with Qaradawi’s prestige, and bedecking Qaradawi with his own prestige. The cost is a little smudge of ambiguity in Ramadan’s own position. It is the little smudge that makes the various allegations regarding the Ramadan family...look not more convincing than before, but also not outlandish.
Well, there's nothing unsubtle or nuanced about that, is there? No insinuations, no sly half-alluded hints. The ellipsis in the above block quote is a long parenthesis that names names, in good old plain-talk fashion:
(in connection with the al-Taqwa Islamic bank in Switzerland, accused and later cleared of financing Al Qaeda, though the lawyers for some families of September 11 victims have lodged a lawsuit; in connection with a Qaeda financier who has been jailed in Spain since 2002, under the authority of the great Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, who ordered the arrest of Augusto Pinochet; in connection with a Qaeda militant who came from the Lyon region; and so forth)
Hmmm, what's this? (Thumbing through the file again): "Accused and later (ahem) cleared..." "lawyers for some families have lodged a suit..." "the judge who also ordered the arrest of Pinochet..." (what's he doing in there?)... "in connection with...." Ah, real intellectuals coming out swinging. Just like Partisan Review.

What Berman can't abide here is the "smudge of ambiguity." Ramadan did his dissertation on Nietzsche, that master of masks, and while I don't concur with his reading in every respect, I suspect he's putting to work a thing or two he learned about "esotericism," as Strauss would have said.

Ramadan's family is indeed implicated as Berman suggests; his grandfather founded the MuslimBrotherhood; Qutb (a figure not unlike Strauss in some ways) was a member. And as Strauss knew, "esotericism" in philosophy has deep Islamic roots. Tariq Ramadan is every bit "the real thing." I don't say that Berman should get beyond his worries. He may be right; perhaps Ramadan is a dangerous, or a hypocritical, man. But he's far more likely to be listened to by the ones who want Hirsi Ali dead than is Berman.

"Ambiguity" per se isn't what makes Berman uncomfortable; it's a swear word. For the slow process or "hard choices" (like, say, the invasion of a foreign nation) that he happens agree with, he'll say, "careful consideration" or "weighing" or "getting beyond worries." Well, if he wants to argue with philosophers, he'd better get used to ambiguity. But in fact, there may be even better reasons.

I understand very well the kind of smudgey ambiguity Berman finds so objectionable. It is indeed a feature of any religious thinking when it directs its discourse both inward towards those who share it, and outwards to those who do not. I argue in different ways when I speak to fundamentalist Christians or to "liberal" ones; in different ways still when I address Jews or Moslems, or again Buddhists or Jains or Hindus; and in still different ways when talking with friendly or hostile atheists. One's concerns are different in each of these cases. The much-misunderstood notion of taqiyya (roughly Arabic for "guarding") has been interpreted by some both with in and without Islam to mean that the Muslim may lie to an "infidel" without compunction. Faced with this, Ramadan is asked in another interview, why should anyone take what he says seriously?

And what is the alternative? To wait for every last Muslim to apostatize?

Ramadan may be one of the hundred most important intellectuals today, if such a rating has any meaning at all, which I doubt. But his "rock-star" status (to use a cliche one hears from time to time regarding him) probably does count against his being one of the most important intellectuals of all time. (Can anyone imagine Kant or Confucious being called rock stars?) Berman's creepy ressentiment notwithstanding, though, Ramadan's thought warrants some heed, and not because it's some siren-song lulling us to doze off before the box cutter gets to our throat. Let us suppose Ramadan is indeed being less than forthcoming, is snagged on some conflict of interest or some limit to what he can admit; faults of his grandfather, perhaps, or faults of Islam itself. He would not be the first important thinker to be caught in some bad faith. (I know my position is not universally held, but I'm not ready to throw Heidegger over either, despite some, um, lapses of his.) It is even just conceivable that Ramadan doesn't mean a word of what he says about a tolerant Islam, a reasonable Islam, an Islam that has made its peace with multiculturalism and feminism and critical hermeneutics. Even supposing this were the case, even if this program contradicts every word Ramadan says when he speaks in Arabic, I believe one could take these outlines of Ramadan's and run with them. In fact, I think, we'd damn well better.