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

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Beyond alienation: in search of a theory

Have been giving some considerable thought to politics of late and wanted to post a few links to some recent discussion that, from various angles, have been informing my reflections. I have done this briefly before, but this is going to be a much longer post, with a good deal of quotation and comment.

To begin with a confession: The majority of my intellectual life was apolitical, a stance whose insufficiency I began to consciously register half a decade ago. Since then I have struggled to articulate a workable ground for engagement while still doing honor to the intuitions which occasioned my disaffection. This is not easy. This is in part because, in a sense which I shall attempt to indicate at the end of this post, apoliticism or political quietism is of a piece with philosophy in a perfectly legitimate sense. However, insofar as one is a citizen and not merely a philosopher, apoliticism is not apatheia but alienation. This is, following Marx, where I start.

This post from John Emerson on Trollblog does a good job of explaining my own cynicism on the bad days:
while the exotic conspiracy theories are usually crap, in a democratic society anyone who takes what their political leaders say at face value is a chump and a likely victim. Everyone in the biz knows this. Especially, above all, more than anyone else, the people who ridicule conspiracy theorists know this, because they’re almost always insiders and almost always have a stake in the insider game.
The anti-conspiracy theory message is “Sit down and shut up. You don’t understand, you’ll never understand, trust us!”
This sums up the paralyzing frustration one feels as an "outsider" to political process; but the hazard of conspiracy theory is that it seems to posit that there is no inside; that no matter how far in you've got, there's always another level, the above-33°-Freemasons, the Über-Bilderbergers, the fifth-dimensional fnords or lloigor-lizards on the throne of England, of whom one hears frightened whispers. Like Kafka's land-surveyor, we never get inside the Castle.

This is ultimately a self-defeating position, of course, and not because it leads to woo-woo spooky entities, but because it renders one completely disempowered and as such is not politics at all, but abdication. It is also, as I remark in my review of Wilson and Shea's Illuminatus! trilogy, finally self-contradictory, in a way I'll come back to below. This does not address any particular conspiracy-claims, which I believe are often dismissed in just such a tone as Emerson imitates; but it points to something else, namely the widespread alienation of which conspiracy theory is an index, albeit not its only (or most important) manifestation.

This alienation leads some to throw their hands up and say, "what's the use?" This kind of apoliticism is easy to mock, but such mockery is more cruel than anything else: since when is mockery the right response to despair? However, what's-the-use abdication is only the most obvious form of this alienation, which has more subtle and self-deceiving forms. Others adopt a curious sort of split personality in which they think they are "doing their bit" when they vote, but nonetheless regard this vote as empowering professionals or technocrats to do the real work. Sometimes this takes the form of almost no further engagement with politics; sometimes it takes the form of consulting the "voters' guide" in their publication of choice. In either case it can still be an abdication which cloaks itself in the Citizen's New Clothes, usually a button or a sticker that reads "I voted!" with a smiley face. What this means is that you are now certified to be able to complain when things don't go your way.

The Poseidonian has a well-wrought post up promulgating a very different kind of engagement, a real engagement which I respect highly:
Kazantzakis...conveyed this notion to me: the noble man takes responsibility for everything, not just what he can actually control. Which led me to think that the outsider stance was somehow too easy, not strenuous enough. ...I must, as a part of my conception of my own character, regard myself as responsible for my government. ...I strive within the limits of my ability to pretend that what the nation will do is entirely up to me, and that I will have to take the blame if I make a bad decision. I try to figure out what the best decision from the perspective of governance would be. And then once I think I have that, I tell people what I think. Because this regulative fiction governs my sense of civic virtue, people often find me overly accommodating of the status quo. But I in turn view many people as not really serious. When someone says something over the top or utterly defeated or cynical, however appropriate that may really be to their actual conditions of powerlessness, I ask myself, what would I think if, say, the president thought and acted exactly that way while in office? I’d think they were a lousy president, worse than lousy. Hugely irresponsible.
This is accompanied by a realistic depiction of the motives of most politicians:
I see no reason to think that the people in the positions of greatest power aren’t basically the same as the [local politicians] I knew first hand. They were fundamentally decent people with a tinge of ambition, and while the narcissistic side came out the most during campaigns, the rest of the time was just problem solving in the context of an inherited situation. True horrific evil, I thus suspect, is more often than not Arendt-banal, not seeing the forest for the trees. (There are exceptions.)
This feels very realpolitik, if I may use the word in a non-pejorative sense: a refusal to set politics apart as a special realm of extraordinary vice; an recognition that we operate in concrete situations fraught with a complexity that rules out in advance any ideal solution; and an insistence that this does not absolve us of nevertheless having to act.

This strikes me as a very commonsense view, and I want to give some account of why I drifted rather far from it before (partially) returning to it by hard effort. To do this I need to sketch the origins of my own disaffection insofar as I can reconstruct them.

My earliest political memory is sitting in the back seat of the car while the Watergate hearings were reported on the radio, and registering how shocked my parents were. I had no idea at the time what a Republican or a Democrat was, but I knew my parents were appalled at some great misdeed. later, as I came to poitical consciousness (under Iran-Contra), I was retroactively shocked, in turn, that my parents never seemed to connect the obvious corruption they were commenting upon every night around the dinner table with their own political commitments.

Thus my first independent political positions were, alas, predictably characterized by the generation gap. Certainly I felt my convictions keenly, but in my heart I knew that I was also reacting to the kneejerk republicanism of my family. This was not what eventually soured me on it, though. Committed and eloquent as many of my co-activists were (this was in the anti-apartheid divestment movement on US university campuses and, closer to my heart, the anti-nuclear arms movement), the indignation that seemed to fuel them always seemed (to me) tinged with a kind of surprise--as if they just could not believe that apartheid, or nuclear weapons testing, or etc, continued unabated despite the (to them) obvious moral case. The more I tried to engage with this, the more silly I felt. Yes, of course there was a moral case to be made, but if the disconnect was so entrenched, then outrageous it might be, but it was, alas, too common to be scandalizing.

My disillusionment was not primarily about the ineffectuality of activism, but about the unrealistic premises upon which it was based. However, as soon as I turned to available discussions seeking (apparently) to formulate more reliable or coherent accounts, I noticed something that almost always strikes observers of political discussion on the left: how entrenched it was in theoretical disputes. At the time, this was almost impossible to view as anything but an un-ironic version of what Monty Python spoofed so effectively in The Life of Brian. Endless arguments about fine points of exegesis of Marx (how Hegelian was he, really? Were you, perhaps, relying too much upon his early work?); on contrasts between versions of socialism, communism, and anarchism, when none of these was within light-years of being practically implemented; on whether race, or sex, or class, constituted the basic faultline (on this question, I did reach a conclusion--it's about class, stupid--on which I have never seen a reason to change my mind); on whether to take positions about various issues of the day or remain single-focus; all this tugged the left in a hundred directions and seemed to completely drain its energy.

So there was a dilemma: on the one hand, inadequate and almost anti-intellectual rage without articulation; on the other, infighting and distinctions that were, if not quite pointless, endlessly distracting.

Meanwhile, the best the Democratic party could offer was Clinton, a man whose much-despised "slickness" was merely the replay of Reagan's "Teflon-coating." Unable to stomach the right, unable to respect the left, unable to synthesize theory and praxis, I slipped into what Adorno predicted: the privilege of praxis (I had also been reading Wittgenstein, and there is a quietist streak in Wittgenstein which had its effect here too.) I served meals with Food Not Bombs, and stopped voting for major parties.

Pete Wolfendale's extremely articulate and rich reflections on Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism begin with an account of disillusionment or frustration similar to my own anecdote of failed activism; but honesty compels me to add that Wolfendale seems to have got reflective about it a lot quicker than I did:
I remember attending the big anti-war march just before the beginning of the Iraq war in London, the biggest peace protest in history at the time (I think), and seeing how easily it was assimilated and dissipated by the media-democratic complex. It struck me that a smaller number of people (with a smaller amount of public support behind them) brought down the Vietnam war, and yet this did precisely nothing. I was 17 at the time, and hoping to go into politics. That event disrupted my perspective and made me want to understand why it did nothing, and how it would be possible to do something.
Whereas, however, Wolfendale asked this second question, I myself retreated into a kind of disaffectedness. In retrospect I suspect it was a defensive position to shield myself from feeling foolish; a kind of psychic distancing that served to let me feel smarter than the dupes. I'm not proud of this, but it took me a long while to see that my jaded cynicism was a cover for (and a way of not acknowledging) my utter alienation and helplessness. This brings me back to my response to (which is not really a rejoinder, but a riff on) Emerson's post, for despite his legitimate point about the grain-of-truth in conspiracy theory, such theory itself is self-defeating. Pushed to its conclusion, such theorizing either dictates that there is no way to trust the evidence at all, including the evidence that leads to positing the conspiracy; or else it backs you into a corner where you can only cower. Both of these conclusions are unacceptable, the former theoretically and the latter practically. Fortunately, neither of them really bears scrutiny (a point which is independent of the plausibility of any given conspiracy theory, note); what it ultimately means is, as I wrote in the aforementioned review of Shea and Wilson, that "that fear can contain the seeds of its own dissolution." This review is from 2006, the same year I saw Who Killed the Electric Car?, a film that I had thought would provide some cynical laughs and instead left me dumbfounded at my own impotent rage. I finally faced my alienation and steeled myself to transmute merely being Mad as Hell into being Not Going to Take It Anymore. But this is easier said than done, for just acknowledging disaffection does not by itself alter the fact of disaffection, and it is not obvious what to do next in an effort to live responsibly.

What recourse? To just admit that my abstaining from voting was a symptom of alienation does nothing to address the alienation itself, which is grounded in very real causes. One wants to take responsibility, not lie to oneself in a whole different way. Pretending we are not facing some version of Long Emergency is not an option. The old roll-up-your-sleeves-and-do-something approach seems pitiable in the face of the cliff we are careening towards; it invites the response, "and what army?". Moreover, as Ross Wolfe points out with a little help from Adorno,
Those who participate in events such as the recent G-20 protests often leave with the sense of smug self-satisfaction that comes from knowing that they have “done their part” in order to somehow “make a difference” in the world.
The question then is how to realistically apply myself without merely denying how disempowered I feel. I have no appetite for pretending I am doing something important or worthwhile when it is just whistling past the graveyard.

My first step was to divest myself of the stupid caricature I had wrought of politicians. This effort bears resemblance to the thought-experiment I quoted above from the Poseidonian's post. I had to ask myself-- look, suppose I was possessed by some strong vision of how I believed things ought to be, and by a vision of a possible way to get there, and by enough charisma to give me a chance. Yes, I would try to get ahead, and yes I would likely face inevitable compromises along the way, but I would not have started out just fueled by power-lust. Perhaps, in the end, I would succumb to Arendtian banality, but--must I? The question is, is the current system such that this always happens, so that the closer you get to the top, there is no one who has not had to step over so many bodies that they are effectively ruined?

Some days my cynicism still wins and I sigh, "Stupid question." More often nowadays I can believe there are still good guys left--a development which I freely confess was catalyzed by watching The West Wing, and flowered in conjunction with reading the Jefferson-Adams correspondence.

This also rekindled my faith in constitutional process; I think there is a genius in the idea of harnessing disagreement to propel things forward rather than stall them. Moreover, because I grew up among conservatives, I also retained an awareness of their basic good instincts, and I remain myself a small-c conservative if by this we mean that I always ask what the cost of something is, in terms of giving up some good-- usually a cultural good. Most of my political economic instincts are localist (though I am not convinced that this is a workable model for global development); this stems from my reading of a great deal of Wendell Berry, as well as the transformative experience my encounter with Buber's I and Thou, which has made forever unignorable the significance of the irreducibly particular. Buber may also have contributed to my now-instinctive faith in the ability of people to work things out if they can stay honest and in-the-moment. This leads to some touchy-feely sounding methods but in practice it is capable of getting work done, albeit slowly. In my heart of hearts I am an anarchist, watching alertly for the American Spring; but practically speaking I am a classical liberal.

All of this may, however, sound more hopeful than it really is. While I can (sometimes) believe that there are human beings in high places who have not surrendered their moral compass as the price of admission, and while I can stipulate that a decision-maker must after all decide and not give in to mere cynicism, I am not at all persuaded that the class war in which such decision-makers are (wittingly or not) enrolled gives them the leeway they need to gain anything but Pyrrhic victories; and I do not see that the official lines of this struggle have much to do with its substantive issues (what Mao called its primary contradictions).

As if in response, a post by Stan Goff of Feral Scholar argues for abstaining from the vote in the coming US presidential election. What I appreciate about this post is the way it manages to articulate a case for a kind of politically activist disaffection. The stance urged by Goff seems to be (if I paraphrase him aright) that disaffection can find its voice by refusing to participate in a bankrupt system-- that one can be actively, not merely passively, nonparticipatory. There's something paradoxical about this suggestion but I like the spirit of it. One thing I like is that Goff does not pretend there are no differences between the two ruling parties:
Given the powerful fears generated around these issues [Goff's examples are abortion, race questions, and social security], it is more difficult to make the case for simply not voting, when there are clear differences between the parties at least on some issues. It is dishonest to make the claim that there are no differences between the parties; and if this is the sole reason for discouraging voting, it can easily be invalidated.
That is not my argument for not voting. I don’t believe, however, that fear ought to be a reason for voting either.
One of my arguments for not voting is that participation itself in the process legitimates something that is not legitimate.
There is also an argument against the legitimacy argument that goes like this:
If voting makes any difference at all, then voting the lesser of two evils – while not a solution – does at least apply the brakes when the polity is headed in the wrong direction. Refusing to vote simply because it might legitimate the process is refusing to get one’s hands dirty and allowing the greater evil just so you can claim some moral high ground, while real people will be affected if the greater evil prevails in the election.
Again, this strikes me as a powerful argument, assuming one accepts a utilitarian moral standpoint – that is, that the ends justify the means.
This is refreshing, because the standard Naderite argument has lost a good deal of credibility after eight years of the junior Bush administration. Anyone who now insists that the Democratic and Republican party are indistinguishable on certain essentials must also be ready to countenance the response that if one is indifferent to the outcome of a contest between them on these grounds, one may have to put up with many, many real differences. Goff sees the logic at play, and bites the bullet:
The problem with the argument is that appeals to specific, short-term interests to continue to legitimize the process with our participation is never a one-time tactic. It is renewed indefinitely, as long as there is something that needs protection through rearguard voting. There will always be something that qualifies as an end that will continue to demand the same means. Meanwhile, many of those practices and policies that both parties agree on (Wall Street hegemony, foreign wars, subsidies for the rich, etc.) are perpetuated and legitimized along with those more narrow interests. ....There is simply no end to defensive voting; and what it has resulted in over time is a steady increase in power for the most powerful who control both parties. ...There is little doubt what Republicans will do in office when they control the executive and legislative branches. We have seen them in action. But what never gets mentioned in this equation is that we have seen exactly the same things happen, on exactly the same trajectories, when Democrats were in control, giving the lie to the idea that Democrats will defend anyone except Wall Street and the military-industrial complex....The only efficacious political group is the ruling class, no matter which party is in power. To believe otherwise is to ignore the empirical evidence of history. And voting for third-party candidates that don’t have a chance in hell of getting elected is just as silly an exercise of faith in the same system.
The problem is not electoral outcomes; it is elections. The things we call elections in the United States are not in the least democratic. They are a consumer choice between Coke or Pepsi. Why do we try to convince ourselves otherwise? Choose neither.
One difficulty is of course that not-voting is still (in a way) a vote, by which I don't mean the facile objection that "not to choose is to choose not to," as some would-be wit put it, but rather that for not-voting to have a strong effect, it must be many, many citizens not voting; generating this result effectively means a campaign, and this means (though I am now extrapolating from Goff's argument) money. A question that arises then is, if you're going to generate enough money to stage a campaign, why not have it be a campaign for someone? Well, perhaps because the amount of money (and red tape) is couple of orders of magnitude less for a don't-get-out-the-vote campaign than for a candidate who will after all wind up being slotted into a pre-assigned role in a rotten system. Or perhaps because of a suspicion that the amount of money in question cannot but ruin a human soul under capitalism. I'm not sure. But when I read Goff's proposal as of a piece with the obvious fictional parallel, Saramago's Seeing, I almost don't care. I am heartened just by the realization that one can perform active non-engagement (in the electoral system--at least on the national level (there are differences on the local level)) as a mode of political intervention. For too long my own disinclination to participate has only reinforced my self-perception as alienated and powerless. It is different to see abstaining as a political action.

The problem with being disaffected, aside from how it hurts the soul (and the mind too, as it provides an excuse for not educating oneself), is that it also winds up looking like support for the status quo. This is also the case for me even in my renewed efforts to divest myself of cynicism, for I don't fit very well on the political map. (Even as "disaffected"--the actual category in which I fall according to this poll by Pew research--I do not quite correspond to the stats outline that Pew provides, aside from not following NASCAR racing, which apparently 77% of these "official" dissaffecteds, like me, wisely don't.) In fact I don't see myself as a centrist, but as an a radical who's getting back into shape. My radicalism, however, is localist and particularist. I maintain (1) that currently existing goods should not always be sacrificed for envisioned goods, (2) that there are always practical considerations that force us to choose between priorities, and (3) that these practical considerations are not always what they seem, because they frequently serve entrenched interests and ought to be questioned. This does not make them unreal however, or mean we can have everything we want for free.

In this connection I find a lot to admire and agree with in a paper of G.A. Cohen's (pdf here) on "small-c" conservativism. Cohen argues that (and exemplifies how) it is perfectly possible to be conservative with regards to all sorts of concrete instantiations of value, and to harbor grave reservations concerning any number of proposed changes, while remaining a committed egalitarian and a radical as regards justice:
I have for decades harboured strongly conservative, that is, strongly small-c conservative, opinions, on many matters that are not matters of justice.... (I do not have conservative views about matters of justice because what conservatives like me want to conserve is that which has intrinsic value, and injustice lacks intrinsic value (and has, indeed, intrinsic disvalue)....I join the ranks of the complainers down the ages who say: “Things ain’t what they used to be.”
Do not suppose that, because that lamentation is perennial, it’s misplaced. Anti-conservatives say, “Oh, well, people have always said that things are getting worse”, and anti-conservatives mean thereby to convey that the conservative lamentation expresses an illusion. But it is entirely possible that at any rate certain kinds of things have always been worse than they were before.
The conservative impulse is to conserve what is valuable, that is, the particular things that are valuable. A salient, though not the only, alternative to conserving what is valuable is to maximize value, but clear-thinking conservatives are resolved to conserve the valuable at the expense of maximizing value: what we distinctively value are the particular bearers of value. A commitment to the conservation of what has value is at the centre of the specific conservative attitude that I am seeking to describe....
“Conservation of what has value” is the canonical phrase here, not “conservation of
Cohen's paper shares a certain esprit with a pair of posts by Amod Lele:
I’ve sometimes found it perplexing that in the contemporary right wing, social and cultural conservatism is often joined with economic libertarianism, extreme liberalism in the classical sense (and the inverse is true on the left). The justification for this connection is...[that] government social intervention on behalf of the disadvantaged, the centrepiece of a left-wing political problem, makes people worse. It discourages people from working hard and being thrifty, makes them lazy, less virtuous. Under a left-wing social-democratic government, the good people who work hard and save to get rich are punished, while the lazy are rewarded. And where I depart most from such a viewpoint is not in the idea that the government should avoid the promotion of virtue, nor in the belief that social programs may discourage work or thrift. Rather, it is in the idea that hard work and thrift are themselves virtues.
...Hard work and thrift are often associated with real virtues, such as temperance and patient endurance. To put in long hours earning money, one must have the ability to put aside the desires of the moment and endure present hardship for future benefit; this ability is an excellent character trait. But it is not a virtue in itself; indeed, especially in the US, it often becomes a characteristic vice.
The literal meaning of the word “conservative” should be fairly obvious: it is about conserving, preserving, existing states of affairs. That’s what it would have meant in the time of Edmund Burke, considered the father of modern conservatism. The problem with the word is that in the ensuing two centuries, the world has changed drastically in ways that Burke would have wished it hadn’t. And that means that if one wants the kind of society that Burke tended to advocate – especially if one wishes “small government” – one will need to change society in quite drastic ways from what it has become. Which, in turn, means not being conservative – not in the literal sense of the world.
....So to be literally conservative today means something very different from what it meant in Burke’s time; it may well mean supporting the things that Burke opposed, because they are now part of our social fabric. But...what are the reasons behind a literal conservatism?
To my mind, the biggest and most important reason is a pragmatism based on historical experience: revolutions screw things up. ... Drastic attempts at social change cause great misery in the short term, and don’t necessarily make things much better in the long term.
...This isn’t to say literal conservatism is the answer to all our political problems. There are cases where it seems to work poorly indeed. Perhaps the strongest case against literal conservatism was made by Martin Luther King in his Letter from Birmingham Jail.:
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.”...when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
Sometimes, it would seem, radical change does need to come quickly. But it seems to me that the situtations calling for such changes are relatively rare – and a conservative worthy of the name will not engage in them over a matter as relatively trifling as lower taxes.
The overlap between Cohen and Lele is certainly not complete. This last citation may suggest that there is a difference between them on what counts as a matter of concern for a conservative. What I relate to in both of them, though, is the rejection of pre-determined loyalties. I was pointed to Cohen by Simon Hewitt of Latte Labour, whose Christian Marxism sometimes reminds me (e.g. here) of the fundamental contention of Andrew Schmookler at None So Blind, that no account of politics can be adequate that does not honor certain intuitions of both the right--that the distinction between good and evil is as pertinent as ever--and the left--that this distinction means defending the powerless against the powerful. That is, that politics cannot do without normative (i.e., moral) categories.

This is one place where Wolfendale is pertinent. Despite the length of my post, I want to stay with Wolfendale's essay for just a bit, though I cannot do it justice, because (as is typical of Pete), he has spelled out in detail a huge array of premises and applications that, while I don't share all of them, do help me to situate some of my own convictions and aspirations. What Pete does is offer one way of theorizing how normative thought can inform political theory, in a way which I must say is refreshingly unlike the various marking-off of theoretical positions that so turned me off before. This is the sort of theorizing that I believe needs to happen, precisely in order to provide a workable platform that avoids the relativism towards which the left so often slips. Of the very many rich threads in Pete's post I am going to highlight just one, his insistent and surprising rehabilitation of Foucault, whose ethics he describes as "the most advanced form of virtue ethics yet developed." This is a counter-reading of Foucault against the many claims that he allows no room for freedom, a view which Wolfendale thinks misreads Foucault egregiously; it is a stark challenge to those condescending dismissals of him from, e.g., Camille Paglia (whose multi-fisted barrage cast aspersions on Foucault's scholarship) or Stanley Rosen (who reads Foucault, in the last chapter of Hermeneutics as Politics, as one more postmodern relativist against the sober wisdom of the Foucault's [and Rosen'] teacher Kojève). Both Paglia and Rosen think to contrast the decadent Foucault against the noble ancients, and Wolfendale's characterization of Foucault as presenting a formulation of virtue ethics--albeit one which is routed through an idiosyncratic Kantianism--is a gauntlet thrown down, not primarily of course for the sake of Foucauldian exegesis but for the sake of the project of self-construction in a context in which social and political power and the technologies of control are constantly at work. This is a project to which Foucault devoted much energy. But to read this project as a kind of virtue ethics--as a legitimate descendant of Aristotelian moral thinking--puts it in a context which goes counter both to those who want to celebrate Foucault as preaching a kind of emancipatory counter-gospel to the repressive discourse of Christianity, and to those like Rosen or Paglia who regard Foucault as starkly on the side of the (post)moderns. It re-casts Foucault's thinking of self-invention (not his term) in a context that goes back to ancient preoccupations with, as he would have put it, "the care of the self," a concern that is certainly authentically philosophical, not to say Platonist. I am halfway persuaded that Wolfendale is right about Foucault, and certainly that Foucault can be profitably read this way; but I am less sure that Foucault gives us a helpful way of thinking of constructive political deliberation--a deliberation necessarily dialogic--as opposed to resistive political discourse which is (in what he may have considered an outmoded term) individualist; a discourse not necessarily abdicatory, but at least abstentious.

In this post I have, in my disjointed way, tried to indicate my sympathies with positions left and right. I haven't detailed these here, but some examples are: I am a Greenpeace- and Sierra Club-supporting environmentalist. I a support gay civil marriage; but I think churches should decide the question on theological grounds and in any case ought not take their cue from the state. I recommend the decriminalization of most drugs; I am not sure about prostitution. I lean towards opposing hate crimes legislation. I am pro-life, and pro-family planning. I oppose the death penalty and am a member of Amnesty International. I support third world debt cancellation; I am strongly inclined to oppose Wall Street bailouts (and wish, but don't expect, to see vigorous prosecution of every last dishonest CEO, corporate board member, banker, and broker). I have mentioned my occasional work with Food Not Bombs (though I admit, it's been a while). I support nuclear disarmament. As a Christian I oppose the war in Afghanistan and--with qualifications--in Libya (and you bet it's a war); as an Westerner I admit that I am frightened --disproportionately, the way I'm frightened of shark attacks-- by militant Islamism. I am on record as having no objections to building the Cordoba House and finding scurrilous all such objections. And (though this is not a "political position"), I am confessedly agnostic about 9/11 "truth". Above all, I am dubious of anyone's claim to predict my views on anything else based upon any of these positions--or indeed even my rationale for these positions here listed. My counter-prediction is that you are likely to be surprised. Me too, for that matter.

At the same time I've indicated that (and, to a lesser extent, why) I find both right and left (as represented by Republican and Democratic parties in the US) to be utterly inadequate and unacceptable, and as time goes on more and more alarmingly alike economically and politically, despite different social constituencies and the provisional (albeit sometimes genuine) commitments they make to them. Both embrace economic neoliberalism; both are interventionist at their convenience (or that of the ruling class); both welcome the expanse of Federal power despite rhetoric; and, ditto the rhetoric, both defer to corporate interests and selectively to larger unions which more and more resemble large businesses. Both, make no mistake, are perfectly ready to play fast and loose with civil liberties and, when it comes right down to it, human rights (at least if they can outsource the abuses) -- not that I believe there is "such a thing" as human rights (that's a whole 'nother philosophical discussion). Above all, both major parties are willing to tell you whatever it takes, and to spend whatever (and whoever's) money it takes, to get elected; and are utterly unwilling to face the reality of impossible debt, vanishing resources, and the indifference of nature to industry lobbying or government decree. (Publicly unwilling, that is; I shudder to think what private contingency plans they have made around the bonfires of Bohemian Grove.) These similarities are doubtless in part functions of what I was calling realpolitik above; but there comes a time (and economic and environmental realities may fast be visiting it upon us) when practicing business-as-usual is no longer commitment, but cowardice.

My sympathies lands me in a kind of apparent centrism that is really anything but. My dissatisfaction (not to say disgust), on the other hand, pan out in a kind of alienation that has in the past led me to a nigh-absolute apolitical stance; but this apoliticalness is no cure for the alienation. The different positions I have drawn on here do not all add up to a single compatible stance, but they are all informing an effort at a discourse that can be theoretically rich enough to do justice to the intuitions that ground both my commitments right & left, and my sense of alienation--without just leaving me with it.

That said, I want to add one final sense in which the apolitical stance is philosophically justified, because I maintain that one cannot coherently defend any political position philosophically without acknowledging this. This sense has to do with the Foucauldian project of self-construction, whether or not we agree that Foucault's vocabulary will finally be sufficient to describe it. It is clear to me that the appetite for power over people is incompatible with the love of wisdom. (In this regard as in many, Christian theology --ecclesiology in particular is relevant here-- must regard philosophy as praeparatio evangelica, for the church-as-community is in one sense a community that is a crucible for just such asceticism as the philosopher undertakes alone.) This is not to say that actual power is incompatible in this way; Socrates clearly had power, as Alcibiades testifies, but he had no interest in using it or increasing it. This does not contradict the analysis I offered above--that a person possessed of what they believe is a workable vision for political society can in authenticity and good faith pursue it without being a slave to ambition--but it means that, insofar as they are also a philosopher, such a politician would engage in politics in a sense without caring.

J.D. Salinger, in "Seymour: an introduction," gives the eponymous character a reflection upon the inter-relations of poetry and apatheia:
indiscrimination...leads to health and a kind of very real, enviable happiness. Followed purely, it's the way of the Tao, and undoubtedly the highest way. But for a discriminating man to achieve this, it would mean that he would have to dispossess himself of poetry, go beyond poetry. That is, he couldn't possibly learn or drive himself to like bad poetry in the abstract, let alone equate it with good poetry. He would have to drop poetry altogether. ...no easy thing to do.
Something like this is true of politics as well (and indeed of science and even love, to throw in the rest of Badiou's occasions). Insofar as one is a philosopher one must in politics cultivate a letting-go of what some strains of Buddhism like to call "attachment to results."

One might debate this; the discussion would turn upon how one interprets Socrates' death: was it an act of political submission, or of a kind of amor fati, or simply a case of Socrates' final becoming-Socrates? I believe all these interpretations are possible. On the first, Socrates is a kind of Creon passing judgment on himself; on the second, he is Antigone. Only on the third reading is he Socrates. But in this instance, he is neither an apologist for the state (neither the "ideal state" nor the "second best" which are the object, respectively, of the Republic and the Laws), nor an activist who opposes the state, even for the sake of the most worthy of causes. He is the philosopher, whose disaffection has attained a kind of silent articulation which marks it as precisely not alienated.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Weird tales

Trent Dougherty has a good post at the Prosblogion where he cries foul on the attacks on the case for mental causation, or the existence of God, or etc., when such attacks base themselves on the grounds that the objects of their attack are "weird" or "spooky." Dougherty finds this dismissal unacceptable. "If anyone should be able to get past the weird, it is philosophers," he says. This cannot but remind me of Harman's reiterated point that "The real is much weirder than common sense can imagine."

This calls to mind some recent posts by Fabio Gironi at Hypertiling and by Ben Woodward at NaughtThought, regarding the pertinence of the category "weird." Gironi wants to urge caution when it comes to weirdness, e.g. a frequent recurrence to Lovecraft in certain quarters of the philosophical blogosphere (on which fad I have weighed in here). Certainly, Gironi concedes, the world is very strange, and exceeds our capacity to theorize it; but this does not mean that there is no knowledge. Both philosophy and weird fiction share a focus upon the meaningless of the in-itself, Gironi thinks, but this overlap is a potential liability for the philosopher who is tempted too strongly in the direction of a kind of overwrought style in which connotation swamps precision.
[A] balance must be reached. An excessive emphasis on the weirdness, inaccessibility and incomprehensibility of reality in itself (re)produces a secular form of a vacuous mysticism of darkness (which is more self-congratulatory than philosophically fertile) and undermines naturalism by re-imbuing nature of ‘supernatural’ traits. On the other hand, we should be cautious with hyper-rationalisms, relying on the sheer power of pure thought to comprehend everything, for that is just the flipside of the old theological coin: on the one hand negative theology (which is always about meaninglessness for-us), on the other confidence in the lumen naturalis of reason (which ultimately banishes meaninglessness in-itself). The limits of our epistemic grasp cannot be overcome via either poetic talk nor via a mysteriously efficacious intellectual intuition. They can only be probed and pushed by rational inquiry.
This fine paragraph, which in some ways is the center of Gironi's contention, not only lays out his via media between effusive weirdness and triumphalist apodicticism, but also suggests that the weird is a contemporary modulation of ancient apophaticism ("negative theology"). This is certainly right in one sense, and several thinkers are starting to re-appropriate certain moves of medieval negative theology. (I am thinking, for instance of Eugene Thacker's engagement with pseudo-Dionysus and Nicholas of Cusa in After Life.) I can only agree with Gironi that the moves of negative theology will not accomplish anything by themselves-- but I obviously disagree with him if he means that apophaticism per se is a cop-out or a symptom of a discredited rationalism. I would sooner say that the discreditation of rationalism is a symptom of the abandonment of a real apophaticism-- negative theology that was aimed not at formulating an ingenious system for the intellect to recite, but at leading the whole person, including the intellect, into the cloud of unknowing. This is not the conclusion of an argument but an experience.

To some degree this would seem to put me more on Woodward's side, when against Gironi he invokes Pierre Hadot in his account of why Lovecraftian weirdness is useful in his own philosophical project. Hadot, too, believed in the cultivation of philosophy for experiential ends, though he came to hold a somewhat chastened estimation of the availability of mystical experience. But of course this alliance is not perfect, as Woodward's account of his motives indicates:
I do not see myself as making nature supernatural – Lovecraft and the weird are extremely useful for me in cracking the dense aesthetic/affective shell around nature, nature as caught between what Pierre Hadot has set up as the Orphic and the Promethean. That is: to weird nature, to set it as something which gives rise to and eventually undoes thought, is not to make it supernatural, it's to de-supernaturalize thought, to break a certain degree of the (ungrounded) transcendental quarantine on thought.
Woodward here is referring to Hadot's distinction, in The Veil of Isis, of two attitudes towards nature, the technological "Promethean," and the poetic "Orphic." It's an oversimplification but one may gloss this by saying that the former tries to wrest nature's secrets by force (the famous Baconian move of putting her to the rack) while the latter is an attitude of attentive listening.

As I read Woodward, he sees the weird is an unsettling effect, which enables him to reject a legacy of (perhaps unexamined) supernaturalism in the self-thinking of thought. I on the other hand am willing to bite the supernaturalist bullet--at least as an admissible description of the weird reality we inhabit. To say "admissible description" does not mean that I am agnostic about this--nature is grounded (I hold) upon something deeper, and something which is neither Nietzschean nor Meillassouxian hyperchaos--but I am open to various vocabularies for discussing this ground, since for me the relevant category is not causality but meaning.

This brings me back to Dougherty's post. What follows is the gist of a comment I posted there, which has yet to appear (and may not, I suppose). The out-of-hand dismissal of "weirdness," as if this ad hominem sufficed by itself to refute an argument, is not a logical move but a rhetorical one--it appeals to a shared culture, and is the equivalent of a knowing look or a raised eyebrow. This does not make it illegitimate (appeals to shared mores of discursive communities are certainly in-bounds), but it is a move based in opinion and as such it is more or less the opposite of philosophy strictly speaking. I don't say that philosophers cannot avail themselves of such moves (philosophy is always having to re-invent the distinction between itself and sophistry), but they ought to be clear on what they are about. What I like about Gironi's and Woodward's discussion, though I ultimately disagree with both of them (with Gironi because I reject his account of theology and Woodward because I don't share his motivation for recourse to weirdness, which is more or less the opposite of mine), is that it's a discussion of the overlap between philosophical style and content, a discussion which acknowledges that the boundary between these is itself a point of negotiation.
Heisenberg's account of physical explanation seems pertinent here:
It is impossible to explain...qualities of matter except by tracing these back to the behavior of entities which themselves no longer possess these qualities. If atoms are really to explain the origin of color and smell of visible material bodies, then they cannot possess properties like color and smell.
This really is just to say that one cannot explain how opium works by postulating a dormative property.

Analogy is dangerous, but I want to suggest, in the spirit of Aquinas' cosmological arguments, that all ordinariness will be satisfactorily accounted for only in terms of the not-ordinary; which is to say, some version of the weird. Dougherty puts the reason for this very succinctly:
we face a choice among mysteries, not a choice between mystery and something else.
However this choice may be delineated, the most relevant terms I see are those between a weird that is meaningless, or a mystery that is meaningful. The present age is dominated by the drive to explain the latter in terms of the former. I am concerned to understand the former in terms of the latter.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A little bit from Žižek, a little bit from....

In conversation with Glyn Daly, Žižek remarks:
I do consider myself an extreme Stalinist philosopher. That is to say, it's clear where I stand. I don't believe in combining things. I hate the approach of taking a little bit from Lacan, a little bit from Foucault, a little bit from Derrida. No, I don't believe in this; I believe in clear-cut positions. I think the most arrogant position is this apparent, multidisciplinary modesty of 'what I am saying now is not unconditional, it is just a hypothesis,' and so on. It really is a most arrogant position. I think the only way to be honest and to expose yourself to criticism is to state clearly and dogmatically where you are. You must take the risk and have a position. (Conversations with Žižek p45)
Two different ills are attacked here. Žižek is opposed to eclecticism ("combining things... a little bit from [X], a little bit from [Y]"); he is also opposed to what he here calls "apparent, multidisciplinary modesty" which merely offers hypotheses. The latter, he thinks, is, beneath its veneer of humility, "the most arrogant position."

A bit ago, I commended, with reservations, a breezy little book called The World is Made of Stories by David Loy. I referenced there a mostly-positive review which nonetheless had problems with the way in which Loy presented his case:
what a curious tale it is: a kind of mystical hotch-potch in which Sartre rubs shoulders with gnosticism, psychotherapy with Advaita Vedanta...
I suppose this is sort of thing Žižek has in mind; and while I think it's an approach that risks shallowness on the one hand and pedantry on the other, and while I share some doubts about the default relativism which I think Žižek is targeting, I think (to take a dogmatic position) that Žižek is simply wrong in his brusque dismissal of "combining things." (I confess I do not understand why Žižek thinks this must go hand-in-hand with the "arrogant" relativism he denounces, but here I want to address just the point about eclecticism.)

One indefatigable and loyal commenter to SCT, (Ombhurbhuva), recently urged meto "try venturing out without the bodyguard of authorities," which I take to be a suggestion to forgo engagement with a preexisting literature and simply start, as it were, from scratch. (He'll correct me if I've got him wrong, I trust.) One reason why I believe my approach does not collapse into mere commentary despite being a quite continual engagement with what I have read (and continue to read), is that I am unapologetically eclectic in precisely the way Žižek abhors-- in fact, far more so. I don't even find Žižek's example especially eclectic. "A little bit of Lacan, Foucault, Derrida...": could anything be more predictable, or more dated? Fast forward a decade or two, and we have: a little bit of Deleuze, a little bit of Badiou, a little bit of Žižek. There is hardly anything "multidisciplinary" about this. But take "a little Badiou, a little Strauss, a little Levinas," and we're further out--despite the fact that all three of these are admitted platonists of one sort or another. And taking a bit of Longinus, a bit of Wittgenstein, and a bit of St. Maximus--this, I should think, is in danger of being billed as merely syncretic. So be it. I have no truck with reducing philosophies or religions or etc. etc. to any one perennial message, but there is in my mind no question that there are perennial perplexities; and if I read Aurobindo back-to-back with Thomas Reid, it is not because I expect them to agree with each other (or with me!) but precisely because in navigating their differences, I may be more likely to triangulate towards the experience of insight.

So I have more than a passing interest in thinkers like Victor Cousin or Hermann Lotze, who were both called eclectics by contemporaries (Cousin, to be sure, also by himself). Both were philosophers of extraordinary influence in their day, whose stock has now fallen till their thought is only the concern of specialists. Perhaps this has more than a coincidental connection to their eclecticism; maybe Lotze's realism-idealism was so influential for a while for the same reasons that it eventually fell from favor--that it was so clearly a synthesis of doctrines of its time. Maybe.

On the other hand, one man's eclecticism may simply be another man's anomaly. I'm frequently bemused by the dismissals or critiques of this or that--say, a strain of ecological or economic thinking--on the grounds that it's somehow tainted with something suspect or impure, that it tumbles you in with strange bedfellows.

The most recent example I encountered is the one I mentioned last post, when I recounted being lumped in with a right-wing attack on public education. But further examples abound. Can one espouse a Heideggerian-inspired ecology without getting tripped up on the slippery slope into fascism? Can one preach localism or particularism in my political economy without aiding and abetting the white-collar scions of the Republican Party? Can one draw upon Marx and Sartre and Žižek without wanting to line those same scions up against the wall?

Žižek himself, incidentally, knows better than to practice the anti-eclecticism he preaches. If you put Lacan back-to-back with Damasio and Turing and St. Paul, you are an eclectic in my book.

I spend a great deal of time reading figures with whom I deeply disagree, but whose positions I do not feel I can in good conscience leave unconfronted. This isn't just "good form." I respect the uncompromising nihilism of Brassier, or the cheerful scientism of Dennett, or the fierce fury of Nietzsche, but I not only respect it-- I learn from it, I want to do it justice, I try to put myself through its fire.

Beyond this, though, I read many, many figures who apparently disagree with each other. This is not for the sake of eclecticism; philosophy is not a hodge-podge of Bartlett's quotations (and it has to be said that Loy's book does risk reading like such a mix-tape, with commentary). But it is one thing to illustrate one's claims or argument with what seems supporting testimony from someone else; it's another to spend the time in the crucible of another's thinking, not only "seeing the world through their eyes," but seeing why anyone would want to see the world thus, and then trying to articulate a worldview that keeps integrity while acknowledging the force of this vision. It may be too much to ask of a philosophy that it account for and accommodate (which does not mean satisfy), say, both Marx and Oakeshott, or Barth and Suhrawardi, or the Buddha and St. Paul; but if you don't understand why one would want to do this, you aren't really trying.

My own utterly disorganized and meandering thinking-out-loud is, in short, a messy dialectic. There is contradiction in it, and there's no getting it out.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Guilt by association

The sentiments I recently expressed regarding the question of whether higher education is worth its skyrocketing costs might sound like arguments for scrapping public education funding ("after all, what's the point?"), arguments put forward by a side on the class war with whom I have no sympathy. I do sometimes wonder if, as Peter Thiel opines, higher education is a "bubble," but this can mean more than one thing: say (to put it in almost stupidly simply terms), that the costs of higher education are too high, or that the benefits are too low. In fact, even these low benefits are far from negligible. A college degree still correlates with higher income, for instance; and in particular for children of the working class, the university is still a way to ascend a social ladder. Whether that's the best way to do it, or indeed the best goal; whether this has much, or anything at all, to do with education; these are further questions, and I don't think I am asking them in the same way that those who'd like to gut education funding.

I don't know whether Thiel thinks we should fund public education, though I suppose his libertarianism rejects it in principle. I too have a certain interest in libertarianism, and a fierce critique of public education as well, but I suspect our motives are different. If Thiel awarded two million dollars to some non-Ivy League students, or even to neophyte literary critics or philosophers instead of to aspiring venture capitalists and inventors, I'd be more interested in what he was up to. (Till then, we have the Ammonius Foundation.) Then again, I do share Thiel's esteem for René Girard. (N.b., Thiel's awardees are all remarkable and no doubt deserving, and it seems quite plausible that Thiel's investment in them will bear fruit. Let's just not pretend that, had they not won, their lot would have been lives of abject struggle in a philistine world indifferent to genius and unrewarding of hard work. I don't begrudge them their awards; I'd just like to see someone with Thiel's rhetoric and means reach out to people who might be far more hard-pressed to make it in the absence of his largesse.)

The more proximate, occasional, point here is that I should not wish to be thought an ally of the right-wing assault upon public higher education (and not just higher), even though I sometimes voice, if it were possible, even more strident criticisms of academe and of public education in general.

The more fundamental point, of which this is only an illustration, is that surface agreements in terms of policy or in terms of inspiration are not indices of some deeper alliance. One would think this were obvious, but it's amazing to me how often one sees an argument with the shape somewhat like: "you draw on Heidegger for your ecological thinking; but Heidegger's thought is inherently fascistic; therefore your own position is either that of a willful reactionary or a useful idiot." (Another example: "You say X. You know who else said X? The goddam Inquisition! And no oh-but-that-wasn't-real-Christianity cheating, either!") I am not saying that these objections are inadmissible from the get-go; I just refuse to grant them the status of knock-down arguments. It's amazing to me how often they are presented in that spirit. Guilt by association (an idea with which I probably have more sympathy than most--remember, on most days I believe in original sin) is alive and well.

(Reflections occasioned by some recent conversations--not all with the same people--mainly off-blog. I apologize if my exposition leaves some of the context unclear.)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

"Wonder does not subside."

I regularly check over at Daan Verhoeven's blog for translations of his father's work, often illustrated with Daan's own gorgeous photography. Cornelis Verhoeven was a Dutch philosopher whose one book which has been Englished, The Philosophy of Wonder, was very important to me when I first began doing philosophy in earnest; I keep coming back to it.

There is something about the figure of Verhoeven that gives me hope. His quiet dignity, his wryly amused humility, his sense of scale. He is not cowed, either by the "towering figures" of the philosophical tradition, nor by the intractability of the tradition's questions. So far as I can tell, he never bought into dour prophecies about the death of philosophy, though there is a quiet tone of resignation that runs through his work I have read--a modulation of his meditations upon Seneca, perhaps--a gentle demurral from take things too seriously, combined with the acknowledgment of real pain and a deep gratitude for every, always-passing, beauty. He knew that these realities were too quick, too vivid, too overwhelming, to be articulated, but he did not think this absolved him from the need to speak:
Our phrases are always more clear than our living thoughts, and our incurable wonder does not subside through calculations of probability and sharp logic.
This is a kind of phenomenology of philosophy itself, keenly aware of the limitations of its own project in the face of infinity, yet unapologetically taking "one more step," as Badiou was to famously urge; and then another, and another.

Cornelis Verhoeven died ten years ago today. His son Daan has put up a new blog where he intends to put his translations. May they continue.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

In which the question is raised: in what sense are we doing philosophy?

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil 30:
The difference between exoteric and esoteric [was] formerly known to philosophers.
I subscribe to this interpretation of the history of philosophy, associated most (in)famously with the name of Leo Strauss, though I did not come to it through him. One danger of it, however, is that one starts to think that if one is a philosopher one must practice esotericism; and if one doesn't, one isn't doing philosophy. Another danger is that one starts to think that one can only understand the philosophers if one is oneself a philosopher in this sense. But this is to misconstrue the Nietzschean taxonomy.

In my very first post I cited Strauss and said that, like him, I claim to be "only a scholar;" after all, what is more insufferably pretentious than insinuating that one has a secret doctrine? But of course this is not quite right; are we or are we not doing philosophy here? (I am not asking this because of some recent voices--who should know better--seeming to claim that philosophy doesn't happen online, that what do here is journalism and not philosophy--an argument which has force but not measure on its side. Online media have some debilitating restrictions when it comes to philosophy, but no more than other forms.) The issue for me is that I do acknowledge the force of Strauss' analysis, however much I may quibble with the details--I see a "between the lines" strategy occurring in philosphical texts going back to Plato, and indeed far beyond the confines of what is usually considered philosophy; I struggle with this and indeed feel a keen inadequacy; and I certainly have no gnosis to impart. But at the same time, I do not want to surrender the claim to be an aspiring lover of wisdom. I've been trying to put my inchoate objections to the Straussian formulae into words.

In the wake of Nietzsche, many, many of his "disciples" took over the rhetoric he used, speaking of "we hyperboreans," we philosophers of the future. Most of these have by now been mercifully buried with the past. Those we still read either grew up and found their own voices or started out with other intuitions as well. But the seed had been sown for the elevation of philosopher into a seer.

The tremendous impression Heidegger made among his contemporaries owes something to this legacy of Nietzsche's (as he recognized very well). One gets a sense of this impression from Arendt's well-known memoir, "Martin Heidegger at Eighty", in which she recalls his growing reputation:
There was hardly more than a name, but the name traveled all over Germany like the rumor of the hidden king....word spread that thinking is alive again....there is a teacher; one could perhaps learn to think.
I read Strauss' scholarly humility as a defensive move against the undeniable force of Heidegger's oracular debut. (Like any number of others, Strauss was bowled over by Heidegger's debate with Cassirer at Davos; he later said that Heidegger was "the only great thinker of our time"-- which was, he added, just the trouble.) Strauss was a very deep and perceptive thinker, but he was certainly not that kind of thinker, and to contend with Heidegger on that ground would have been to repeat the defeat of Cassirer, or the Pyrrhic victory of Jaspers (in which he kept his honor but lost the war), or the long war of attrition of Adorno. So he adopted a different strategy, proposing an alternate series of readings of the history of philosophy to the series proposed by Heidegger, readings which did not explicitly engage with Heidegger at all but which always implicitly called into question, in their understated and modest dignity, the Heideggerian animus against Plato.

There remain to this day scholars--Laurence Lampert, Seth Benardete, and so on--who make this distinction between scholarship and philosophy in such a way that leaves one with a slightly uneasy feeling. When Lampert suggests (e.g. here, p 1) that
we have to read philosophers differently, abandoning the notion that--like us--they tried to make everything as clear as possible to everyone, and we have to entertain the unpalatable and unwelcome possibility that they hid their real meaning and that they had good reasons for doing so[,]
he is postulating a very specific difference between "philosophers" and "[the rest of] us," a much starker division than I admit. I am one who holds that philosophy lurks to one's right and one's left at every moment; that to decline it one must actively decline it.

A friend of mine recently made a mix-tape of what he called "any-mood songs," songs he could confidently expect to always want to hear, no matter what. My friend is a guitarist and composer and has thought more about music than most people have listened to it; he has emphatic likes and dislikes and is astonishingly articulate about them. His compilation exercise, he told me, required a tremendous honesty. Honesty? Indeed: one can be attached to a song for all sorts of reasons, and yet not consider it an "any-mood" song. The nature of these attachments, the severe and open-eyed awareness needed to think about them--who would have thought that questions of self-deception and aesthetics would be so deeply entwined as to come into relief when making a mix-tape for oneself? And yet, he found, there was opportunity and even a strange incentive to deceive himself about his own aesthetics, a matter on which I might have thought him able to operate even without thinking. But this is just it. Every circumstance of our life is fraught with occasion for reflection, for thought--fraught with philosophical import merely by virtue of our own sentience. If we do not find ourselves, each and all, spontaneously voicing the wisdom of Socrates (which is to say, articulate ignorance), this is not because our lives are not philosophical but because we are not; we are divorced from our lives, leading in them in, precisely, a manner of un-examination.

But then, does this not mean that Lampert and Strauss are right--that those who endeavor to live the examined life are different? And if so, then, how different? Was Hume still a philosopher when he turned from skepticism to billiards?

To be sure, this ambiguous adulation of philosophers that wants to decode their secrets is preferable (if one must choose) to the ressentiment towards the dead white males which presumes that feet of clay must go "all the way up." Such is, for instance, the pitiable contention that Fregean logic was tainted by anti-semitism, and abetted National Socialism:
Hitler...guided by sentiments not unlike the ones expressed in Frege's diary, worked out the master-logic of National Socialism...National Socialism thought like Frege's, did not concern itself with empirical content....No personal experience could negate [its] body of truth. The applications of logic to action that Frege had promised came readily to hand. If Jews are a mongrel race, they must be exterminated. 'A thought like a hammer' [in Frege's words] demanded instant obedience to the dictates of logic." (Andrea Nye, Words of Power: A Feminist Reading of the History of Logic p 169)
Well! Yes, this sort of broadside (and there's more where that came from) is simultaneously hard to answer and an easy target. (Those of you who missed the late '80s and early '90s may require a strong White Queen effort to believe it, but this sort of thing was ubiquitous on university campuses then.) But the question, what about Heidegger's Being and Time?, is not so clear-cut; simultaneously harder to brush off and harder to make stick. Oh feet of clay!

And yet, isn't there something similar between unriddling the hidden teaching of Vico or Bacon or Avicenna, and finding the skeleton's in Frege's or Heidegger's closet? Let me be clear: the question of anti-semitism in Heidegger or in Frege can indeed be asked philosophically. If I think Nye fails in Frege's case, this is not because she asks a poor question, but because she doesn't ask it as a philosopher. She knows very well what conclusions she wants to come to, and Frege's anti-semitic writings (mainly his diary) offer her an occasion to get there. And yet even these motives can serve philosophy, for the strong desire to question logic, and to recruit any occasion to its aid, is itself a mode of philosophical eros.

This post is not primarily about the prejudices of philosophers (or of their sophistic critics); it's about the alleged differences between philosophers and "the rest of us." Nye's critique is a way of abolishing this difference, a way I think fails, but this doesn't mean the difference is purely phantasmal.

Wittgenstein said that what he sought was a way to stop doing philosophy when he wanted to. If there is something that sets off philosophers from "the rest of us," it's this--that the vast majority need no prodding to stop doing philosophy, to decline to follow the logos "wherever it leads". For a few, it is not so easy. We get distracted by things, but it's precisely a distraction into thought. Every concrete occasion offers us, not a way to a specific end, but a lure towards God-knows-what-end. To take an aesthetic example: for me, the question of why a beautiful vista is beautiful is part of its beauty. I cannot even begin to respond to the quietist objection "why can't you just 'let it be' without asking these questions?" The response the vista calls forth from me includes the question every bit as much as it includes my admiration--the question is the shape of my admiration. The incentive to ask is woven into the very texture of the experience. This, I maintain, is what makes a philosopher, a lover of wisdom--not that we feel this itch but that we can't leave it alone.

This doesn't mean we can elaborate doctrines of teachings. Most of continue to grope and struggle, to pick up one bad reason after another for what we believe on instinct, to question our instincts without knowing what else to fall back upon. There is indeed an esotericism involved here, which may be elaborated into some sort of agrapha dogmata, but if so, who cares? Plato's unwritten doctrines were not "secret" because they might fall into the wrong hands but because they "could not be put into words." And as Wittgenstein knew, "if a question can be asked, it can also be answered."

Strauss maintains that Nietzsche followed a long tradition in distinguishing between the 'herd,' the exceptions, and the philosophers. This goes back at least to Machiavelli, who probably got it from Averroes. Among non-philosophers, the herd declines to ask the question; the exception asks, but with an end in mind--it wants an answer, very frequently a particular answer. The philosopher knows that every question will be answered by another; the search is endless, though there can be a realization of this inexhaustibility that goes beyond questions and answers (and in a sense leaves them just where they were). (There is a philosophical truth to quietism too.) "To be able to stop doing philosophy when I want to" presupposes that one has been doing philosophy; it is to come out the other side of it--an experience of deliverance, not of denial.