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

Friday, August 31, 2012

Ray Brassier interviewed at After Nature

There is a recent interview with Ray Brassier over at the After Nature blog, run by Leon Niemoczynski. It's not easy for me to name, off the top of my head, two philosophers who I would expect to get along less. Niemoczynski is a a Process philosopher, heavily influenced by Whitehead and Peirce, Hartshorne and Buchler; an advocate of Robert Corrington's Ecstatic Naturalism, who doesn't hesitate to speak in panentheistic terms of God and nature. By contrast, Brassier is openly hostile to such talk, or to any project of "restoring meaning." To him, Nihilism is not to be recoiled from but to be pushed all the way.
[N]ihilism is... the unavoidable corollary of the realist conviction that there is a mind-independent reality, which, despite the presumptions of human narcissism, is indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the ‘values’ and ‘meanings’ which we would drape over it in order to make it more hospitable.... Nihilism is not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity. (Nihil Unbound p xi)
This is the vision against which I have set my face. Dismissive of the "existential quandary" of nihilism, Brassier is also dismissive of the subject for whom the quandary would arise, and I sometimes feel his curtness about it betrays more than an intellectual stance -- I would almost say, an existential satisfaction. Note those scare quotes around ‘values’ and ‘meanings.’ He is not merely willing to accept and participate in the dismantling of the "manifest image" of our experience, but seems, at least to this reader, to take a certain positive if grim satisfaction in the demolition job.

He's also one of the most formidable of contemporary thinkers. Precisely because he formulates this (to me, wholly uncongenial) philosophy so strongly, he's someone who I knew, as soon as I encountered his thought, that I would need to read and wrestle with. Brassier has a force that you can't dismiss just because he doesn't make you feel all cozy and "at home in the universe." His integrity as a thinker is unimpeachable. For one thing, Brassier has given us some priceless translations of Badiou and Meillassoux, showing a sustained attention for very powerful thinkers not wholly in line with his own projects. He gives sympathetic and critical readings of sources which are surprisingly diverse -- e.g., Daniel Dennett and Francois Laruelle, Wilfred Sellars and Thomas Ligotti -- and he weaves them into a coherent and compelling whole. Above all, he writes clearly and cogently. Nietzsche or Ligotti can make you feel nihilism, but Brassier makes you understand the case for nihilism -- that it is, indeed, a "case," and not just a disposition or a dyspepsia.

I've never met Brassier; he doesn't have me in his cross-hairs when he voices his disdain for "re-enchantment." It is not, as they say, personal -- and indeed, much of Brassier's thinking is about the most impersonal thinking I can imagine. I do correspond with a number of people who have met him, some who see eye-to-eye with him and some who are like me strongly resistant to at least aspects of his thought. All tell me that, beside his rigor of mind, he is also an affable and approachable figure, frank but respectful and able to have a powerfully engaging conversation about disagreements. This is one of the most telling of marks for me of philosophy per se. There is a distinction between making a shibboleth out of "respecting differences," and on the other hand being able to talk to people you recognize to have reasons to maintain things you don't yourself maintain, even things you think are distressingly wrong.

I mention this here because there is not a trace of snideness or disdain in any of Brassier's responses to Niemoczynski, nor of implied rebuff in Niemoczynski's questions. The interview is brief, but reading carefully, one can see the tracings of tangential connections between their two projects. A shared interest in Bergson (albeit for very different reasons, I suspect -- Niemoczynski is I would guess sympathetic to some version of Bergson's vitalism, and Brassier in the interview is overtly critical of it); likewise, perhaps, in Plato, and again in naturalism itself -- doubtless a contested term. The interview whetted my appetite for Brassier's further work, for although I doubt he will be moving in a direction I will find altogether appealing, he's sure to formulate powerful and telling arguments. The way Niemoczynski posed the inquiries also makes me think again that there are always secret connections that can be brought to light between very disparate and apparently antagonistic projects.

There is some interesting commentary, especially on Brassier's mention of his work on Sellars, at Dark Chemistry.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A remark on the Greek motto of this blog

Just back from a week-long working vacation, helping facilitate a summer camp for kids between about five and twelve years old. We managed to do all right with the assistance of some very energetic and willing youth counselors. The fact that we were situated in gorgeous and semi-wild land and sea also helped, both with the energetic mornings and the afternoons' recuperation. There were swallows nesting on the house where we stayed, swooping all around sometimes three feet from one's nose. There were golden eagles that circled afar at nearly all hours. There were deer and sea otters; and on the domestic side, there were llamas and sheep, pigs and cows, and a number of friendly dogs and cats.

Most mornings before camp, I attended Mass at a small Benedictine monastery with a community of nuns and some other parishioners. This was a coincidence -- the camp wasn't religious -- but one for which I was very grateful; it started the day with a sane rhythm. As Christian monastics have done for the better part of two millennia, they sang most of their liturgy according to the ancient forms; in this case, Gregorian chant in Latin. I could follow along about a quarter of the time, but even when lost, one could, as it were, let the service carry one. The voices were quavery and tremulous but strong, and it was amazing to me that although the singing was imperfect by any number of criteria, the music itself somehow lifted the rendition. It had permeated the souls of those who were singing.

Also while there I heard a band of four early teens and pre-teens playing bluegrass. Their performances were occasionally rough and never astonishing technically, although the beautiful and soulful voice of the singer was clearly fraught with genuine talent and real instinct. It was clear was that this gorgeous instrument combined with real music with deep roots -- and country music goes very deep -- was enough to again lift and carry the musicians into a space in which they felt something real and powerful, and their listeners did too. It didn't matter if they hadn't quite learned one of the songs or if one couldn't help but smile at a 13-year-old singing about lost love and a broken heart -- the music itself had brought them into a relationship with itself and each other that was powerful and palpable.

It isn't all music that can do this, and I'm not quite able to put into words just what the difference is; but it has something to do with music not serving as the vehicle of egotism. The nuns were not singing for their own self-expression or their own gratification; and on some level those kids were aware, precisely by virtue of their neophyte status, of being in the service of something "bigger than themselves," as the over-used phrase goes -- not just the group, but the songs. There are some musicians who never lose this awareness, no matter what level of virtuosity they attain. Schopenhauer said that all art aspires to the state of music. The amazing thing is that this "state" is available at every step of the way. If there is a royal road to philosophy, it's music: the closest we can come to the articulation of a silence that is not the absence but the condition, and even the overabundance, of meaning.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Grammar of the real

(I borrow my title from the literary criticism of James McAuley, part of whose work is featured here.)

Nietzsche held that our "beliefs" in God, Being, causality, and much else, were functions of grammar. He seemed to consider this a bad thing. It took Wittgenstein to invert this move and show us how to read the recourse to de facto assumptions, i.e., grammar, in a less pejorative way.

E.g.: the experience of feeling moral compulsion or recoil simply means the experience of a reality; not a phantom, not a preference, not a sublimation, but a simple fact. I don't pretend that the status of this fact is easy to explicate -- it is hard, like the status of Hamlet's psychology, or whether there is a series of twenty-five 0's in the decimal expression of pi, or the nature of qualia -- but when someone says "it's wrong to steal," this does not mean "I don't like it when people steal (from me)" or "In my culture, we consider stealing something not done." The grammar of "It is wrong to ---" is different from that of these other claims. This grammar is not in itself sufficient to establish the case for moral realism but it is enough to establish that naive attempts to dissolve such realism into something else are, well, naive.

Similarly, I am not a metaphysical Monist (despite great temptation in that direction), because I do not see how monism can account for the meaning of the experience of encounter between I and Thou. When I look into my friend's or my enemy's eyes or at the height of a mountain or a sum on a piece of paper, I encounter something, someone, not-me. This experience has a "grammar" to it that is simply not accounted for by any Thou-art-That-ness. Again, this is not in itself sufficient to refute monism, but all I am trying to establish here is that the experience of encounter is not corrigible in the same way that Lewis Carroll's "Mad Gardener's Song" illustrates:
He thought he saw an elephant
that practiced on a fife.
He looked again and found it was
a letter from his wife
However implausible such a realization might be, this is not the same as thinking one meets another person and having this meeting dissolve into being (with) oneself (however expanded a sense of oneself this entails). In the former case, one meeting has been replaced by another; in the latter, meeting itself has vanished. The point here is that "meeting" has a grammar, and Monism claims that this grammar is (ultimately) meaningless.

One could multiply examples: The Anselmian, a.k.a. "ontological," argument for God's existence, also appeals to grounds one might construe as grammatical. The reason why people have such difficulty accepting quantum mechanics is that it contradicts certain grammatical conditions about what we mean when we use certain terms -- the ordinary grammar of conditions tends to imply a kind of "object permanence" which apparently fails at the sub-atomic level, so that it becomes more and more difficult to meaningfully sustain talk about what an electron, say, is doing when one isn't looking. Even the appeal of poetry often turns upon the revealing of a grammatically permissible but surprising use of language:
A stranger always has
his homeland in his arms
(Nellie Sachs, "Someone comes")
a song
is an ever-hostile tree
across the border
(Bei Dao, "Midnight Singer")
Bark be my limbs my hair be leaf
Bride be my bow my lyre my quiver
(Susan Howe, "Pythagorean Silence")
The acknowledged prince of such effects is of course Celan:
As one speaks to stone, like
from the chasm, from
a home become a
sister to me...
(Paul Celan, "Radix, Matrix")
It is not sufficiently recognized that Meillassoux's initial argument against correlationism is such a grammatical argument. This will probably raise some eyebrows. But what the argument amounts to is this: the correlationist cannot understand science in science's terms, but must always add a "codicil," implicitly or explicitly: "The formation of the solar system occurred x billion years ago, for us." This "for us" completely re-frames the scientific assertion in a way that makes it mean something else, something so different as to be almost the opposite, Meillassoux insists. In the grammar of science, an assertion means that what it asserts happens, as it were, on its own. To append the correlationist codicil is to invert the meaning of whatever scientific assertion it is attached to.

I am still thinking over what this grammatical re-framing of Meillassoux might mean for his overall argument. As many have observed, the argument about "ancestral" assertions is not the strongest part of After Finitude (the essential portion of the book is chapter 3). But the prominence of the role of grammar, even for a thinker who is widely taken to have hurled the gauntlet down before the Linguistic Turn, ought to remind us that it is no simple matter to shake off the shadow of language, or indeed of the human practices of which it is a paradigm.

Samuel Johnson's refutation of Berkeley usually raises a condescending smile, even though few people really believe Berkely these days. But what Johnson was getting at was that there is a grammar to claims about reality -- a grammar that is often implicit, and, as Wittgenstein saw, extends to practice in general.