Future, Present, & Past:

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

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Friday, December 29, 2017

"The best / worst thing there is."

My problem has never been finding things interesting enough to talk or write about them, it’s always been finding too many things interesting to talk or write about only one of them. ... But this is me. I like explaining things more than everything else, pretty much. I don’t study philosophy. I don’t teach philosophy. I am a philosopher. I philosophise. It’s what I do. When I can do it it’s the best thing there is. When I can’t it’s the worst thing there is.
This disarming and frank declaration comes in the midst of one of the most candid depictions of depression and philosophy I've ever encountered. Because it's Pete Wolfendale writing, and Pete is a philosopher, it is also about everything else: it's an account of his post-doc struggles with the academic market, a more general descriptive theory of academic career paths, a spot-on slam against the misappropriation of Spinoza by the vulgar Deleuzo-Guattarian left, a whirlwind inventory of SSRIs and assorted other neurochemical blunt instruments, a theory of thinking as navigation through fractal problem-space, a self-reflexive instance of its own narrative of possible "bad career moves," and a lovely and moving homage to Mark Fisher, whose suicide a little less than a year ago sent shock waves through the leftist blogosphere. There is no way I can do justice to it, you just have to go read it. I am sure that many will remark upon the courage it takes to write about one's mental health issues in a public forum, and they'll be right, but I feel only a little less queasy speaking that way about someone else than I would of myself -- getting called "brave" is obviously not the reason for writing such an account. I just want to underscore here a few of the things that rang true for me as I read Pete's post, and urge everyone to go give it the carefully (and patient) reading it requires and deserves.

Philosophy can be a really, really lonely business. Pete's post resonates strongly with me in the wake of my own meditations on melancholia. Melancholia feels isolating. Even when you are sociable, at parties and at home with your family and wherever else you may be surrounded by joviality, there's a sense of estrangement. It's not just that they eventually roll their eyes when there you go again, that they really don't seem to get the puzzlement with which you face an ordinary punch bowl or the fired-up enthusiasm you have for a question no one else ever thought to ask. It's not even just that to explain yourself -- sometimes even to reassure them that while you aren't merely "playing devil's advocate," you aren't the devil either -- you'd have to back up so far.... It's that when you philosophize you really do kind of "go somewhere else." Where are we when we think? Arendt asked, and part of her answer is -- nowhere. Tantôt je pense et tantôt je suis, she cites from Paul Valéry -- sometimes I think, and sometimes I am. No wonder philosophy is bound up with melancholia! Who can be with me when I am nowhere?

Somehow it does happen, though -- at least sometimes. I often think that friendship is simply the question of philosophy, maybe even of how philosophy is possible. (Aristotle arguably thinks this too). Of course, I think a lot of questions might be "the" question of philosophy, but maybe that's what philosophy is: seeing how every question is holographically encoded in every other. Maybe that's how we hear each other across the chasm, above the din of the party conversation and the wailing of sirens and the silence of centuries and the drumbeat of our own egos -- philosophy cues us into how your puzzlement opens onto (answers, mirrors, analogizes with, inverts, reframes, subverts, is a species of...) mine. At worst, this would just be appropriation and projection. But there is something about philosophy that can make it more, and I think that at least in part it's because we sense how fragile and precious the connection is. It's fucking scary out here. The chasm is real. (And who wants to cross it for someone who might turn out be on the devil's side?) Just that being seen and heard, regardless of approval or agreement, from across that chasm, is a lifeline to the thinker. And if it dissolves....

Arendt responds in part to the displacement of the thinking self into the void by counterposing our temporality to our spatiality:
The everywhere of thought is indeed a region of nowhere. But we are not only in space, we are also in time, remembering, collecting and recollecting what is no longer present ... anticipating and planning.(see The Life of the Mind, pp 197-202)
In other words, our character as temporal can also orient us in our thinking, and provide a direction that will guide us in what might otherwise be nothing but vertigo. It's noteworthy then that Wolfendale's account of his own condition includes a point-by-point description of how memory breaks down during depressive states, and the way -- for him, at least -- this feels like another sort of spatial estrangement:
memory becomes strangely dissociative. You remember facts about yourself. I know this. I can do that. But if you try to call it up it isn’t there. You can recall what you think but not why you think it. You can’t traverse the argumentative tree. ... you can’t find the connections that normally carry your thoughts forward, generating the possibility spaces you used to explore. After a while, you stop even trying to reach out. It’s just too jarring. The intimations of stuff that should be there but isn’t, a sort of cognitive phantom limb syndrome, slowly fade away.
None of this is to say that philosophers are more prone to depression, or suffer it more keenly (or God forbid "more authentically"), than others; or that (vice-versa) those who must deal with depression are any more likely to be drawn to philosophy. I don't know that this is or is not the case and I don't know what it would indicate if it were. Pete does speculate that
one of the reasons a lot of philosophers struggle with depression is that we spend so long sharpening our knives they cut deeper when we turn them on ourselves.
What I am sure of is that philosophy was meant to challenge the deadening sense that life cannot be lived well. Philosophy has taken the measure of the tragic account of life which doubts that life can be good, and says: it can, if.... If what? If we embrace what Socrates called examination, what Malebranche and Simone Weil refer to as "the natural prayer of the soul": attention. (And this attention is not to be reduced to that sharp-knived analysis, though that may be what remains -- a technique -- once the wonder is bled out.) This does not mean that we encounter no misery, that we "can be happy on the rack," as the Stoics aspired to be; it means our life is worth living. It is literally not a "waste of time." But philosophy is a dangerous cure, a "hair of the black dog," as it were. The name of the noonday demon is sometimes given as Panic. And philosophy contends against this enemy by confronting Pan, the All. Pete gives an account in which I recognize very well the obsessive tracking-down of ramifications, the exhaustive and exhausting chase of the argument "wherever it leads," which can be merry hunt indeed with friends as the night wears on and the pints keep pouring, but can also feel lonely and obsessive and hopeless when you look at all the books stacked up and the pages marked and the half-finished drafts and the unfinished, unfollowed trails....
I furiously chased up every possible lead regarding the provenance of the terms ‘ontology’ and ‘metaphysics’, all the way through Calvinist theologians and the Arabic appropriation of Aristotle, to the subsequently titled Metaphysics itself. I burned out so badly I can only half-remember most of it. There’s another unfinished paper for the folder. Another possible choice. Which one should I pick up and have another go at? Will it burn me again if I stare into it too long?
"When I can do it, it's the best thing there is. When I can't do it, it's the worst thing there is."

Pete follows this declaration ("... when I can't do it....") immediately with an acknowledgment of the role the philosopher's community plays:
This is not the bipolar cycle talking, this is the core of my self-image. It’s also how other people see me. I don’t know about anyone else, but the sort of mutual recognition I get from my academic peers means a great deal to me. That moment when someone else understands what you’re saying and thinks it was worth saying, whether they agreed with it or not.
This rapport is crucial and the validation it provides is far deeper than what follows from any mere agreement. I can trace, to the day and the hour, my self-identification as "philosopher." A trusted friend of mine was raising gentle but insistent and serious objections to an argument I was making in print (it was a short review of Ken Wilber's Sex, Ecology, Spirituality). In an email, he wrote to me: Yes, he had practical concerns about the sort of thing I was arguing about, which I was defending and he was attacking; but then he also wrote:
But also, because you are a philosopher, I care that you might be making logical connections that ultimately don't hold.
I felt the inner pause as I read this. Because you are a philosopher.... Was I? For a long time I had taken the Straussian line: "I am only a scholar." But as I re-read that sentence, I felt myself assent to a kind of inner inevitability; a re-alignment in my psyche. Something in me stepped out of self-protective faux-modesty as if from a chrysalis. (It took a while to complete the transition. In my inaugural post on this blog, I repeated the "only a scholar" line, and I still make use of it now and then; but it differentiates me, now not from love of wisdom per se, but from the much different claim of being a "great thinker," which is also I think how Strauss meant it.) I think it is important that this recognition came precisely in the midst of a disagreement; not someone saying, Whoah! What a stunning insight! but rather, Friend, as a philosopher, you can do better.

Pete's essay is long, and (notwithstanding his craft) it is raw. It starts with and circles back to Mark Fisher, who most certainly got cast as being "on the devil's side" more than once; and whose own candidly described battles with depression ultimately led to Fisher's suicide. (When it happened -- last January -- it was only months after my brother's death; I couldn't muster the energy to face writing about it.) In between it is shot through by wonderful writing (by turns wry, frantic, understated, desperate, and completely disarming), and draws all sorts of other things into its net. Pete suggests that this wide-ranging scope is one more instance of his turning the hypomanic energy to good use, but he also acknowledges that this same energy has plowed itself under many times. To me, though, it is also very clearly an index of philosophy itself: the assumption that everything pertains to everything. (It makes me almost spitting-angry to think that this omnivorous "weirdness" of Pete's might be, as he intimates, one of the things getting in the way of his job prospects. To me it is blazingly obvious that this is how philosophy works, and if you don't like it, you're probably a bit scared of philosophy -- albeit, yes, with good reason, but if you feel that way you shouldn't be on a hiring committee for philosophers.) Is there something obsessive about this energy? Well, speaking for myself: Of course. Could it do with a bit of gelassenheit? No doubt. But anyone who has really wrestled with the thrill and desperation of philosophy will recognize something of themselves in Pete's account, and -- just as importantly -- see how different, how very specific, is his particular circumstance. I don't want to suggest that Pete's story is to be reduced to a universal stencil to which "everyone can relate," any more than he wants to appropriate Fisher's story to illustrate his own. It's a matter of recognition, across a chasm. And without that, the loneliness of philosophy is unrelieved.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

very brief note on form, content, and scare quotes

The stance of many of Socrates’ opponents -- Callicles and Thrasymachus being the most obvious -- seems to have been that if you were fortunate enough to have the wherewithal to take what you wanted, you were a fool to waste time on those you took it from. You are happy; enjoy it while it lasts. To these opponents it was also plain that the stories about right and wrong were tools to be exploited. Persuade others that it is wrong to struggle, and your own work is all the easier. This critique of ethics follows upon, and is abetted by, a critique of religion. It is a short step from the cultural relativism that was making the rounds -- the observation that the nations’ gods all tended to resemble the nations’ respective inhabitants (for example, their kings), and the observation that the laws vary from city to city as well -- to the conclusion that laws and gods alike are mere stories that serve the interests of the powerful and distract the weak, the gullible, and the fearful. Atheism has not evolved very much since then. Neither, incidentally, has superstition -- i.e., “religion” as a human instinct; but that is not surprising, for atheism is simply a special case of superstition.

But faith has indeed “evolved,” if by this we may mean become deeper, more encompassing, more profound -- and also more wise. (More cunning, Nietzsche would rejoin -- and he’s partly right, but not for the reasons he thinks). This does not mean that “the faith once given,” as Jude 1:3 calls it, has changed, but the language for it has indeed developed, responding to one cultural shift after another. The critique of religion was not merely propounded by the sophists and tyrants and opportunists like Thrasymchus. It was also -- and perhaps even primarily -- propounded by philosophers themselves, albeit in a different spirit. But parallel to this philosophical critique of religion, there was developing another critique -- what I have called the religious critique of religion, which has kept deepening not just as its object adapts to and parries its moves, but as it skirts and avoids nihilism itself.

The other human endeavor that has certainly “evolved” is science. I would say -- in a from-the-hip sort of way that I might regret for its possibly too-easy symmetry -- that whereas faith has evolved precisely as regards its “form”, the cultural apparatus it uses, science on the other hand has evolved in the way faith has not -- and only in this way: as regards its “content,” which is (as is continually averred by scientists) corrigible and revisable in a way that “the faith once given” is not.

The scare quotes within which I enclose “form” and “content” here are meant to indicate that I'm using a rough and ready distinction. It needs to be queried. But one possible formulation might be that faith is to form as science is to content -- this comes through, for instance, in a certain reading of Meillassoux in which he holds that it is precisely the content of a scientific assertion with which correlationism cannot cope, and precisely the form of faith which is ascendant in correlationism, because it has remained committed to the the idea of sufficient reason even after any possible candidate for such a reason has been abandoned. What this underscores is that the very idea of form and content are philosophical and when they are applied to faith they are a function of the philosophical critique.

Or -- possibly -- the very split between philosophy and faith is itself a function of religion fighting back -- a divide-and-conquer strategy, or a desperate cornered slashing.