Speculum Criticum is a decade old this month. Posting has fluctuated but obviously the trend of late has been towards more and more rarely. This isn’t because I am thinking or writing less; it’s because I have discovered that my habits of writing, which were laid down long before I took up the keyboard, proved less adaptable to typing – and especially to the continual instant-revisability afforded by the computer – than I had anticipated. McLuhan was not mistaken about the ways technologies shape, not just the form, but the content and process of our thought. I think as I write, and I write better with a pen in my hand. Transferring such scrawl into typed copy with HTML tags involves a number of extra steps, my time for which has been scant.
But I wanted to mark the occasion with something, and as I watched this lecture by Badiou, it came to me. In his tribute to Georges Canguilhem (chapter one of his Pocket Pantheon), Badiou calls him “the philosophical master of my generation.” In his lecture on The Immanence of Truths, which can serve as a short preface or advertisment to his book of the same title – volume III of Being and Event, due out in English sometime eventually – Badiou cites a remark by Canguilhem: “the great philosopher is the philosopher we know only by one sentence," and he adds: “if you have many sentences, its not a great philosopher.”
Well, doubtless I have many sentences. E.g., philosophy as the cool handling of hot matters. Or: Sapere aude, Laudare cura (dare to know; care to praise). Not to mention paragraphs, pages, whole essays unwinding into suspended inconclusion. But if I had to commit to some single sentence, to serve as a calling card, a palm-of-the-hand discourse, to be known by as one recognizes Pascal by the wager, Descartes by the cogito, Bergson by time as duration; Buber by “I and Thou,” Socrates by avowal of ignorance, and Nietzsche by yea-saying; Wittgenstein by “Whereof one cannot speak…” (yes, even “late” Wittgenstein), Kant by the Copernican experiment, and Anselm by fides quaerens intellectum, I would hazard this: Philosophy works by not-working. Everything I work on comes back to this intuition of philosophy as chiasm between the intentional (even the inevitable) and the ad hoc.
But there is “not working” and “not-working”, as it were. It would doubtless be a bit of preciosity to turn a little hyphen into the mark of a whole doctrine, but let us say, there is a difference between indolence and wu wei; between sloppiness and the light touch. Or, as I have said before, between acedia and apatheia. In fact, the not-working by which philosophy works is a matter of intense and difficult precision that yields, at the right moment, to the graceful blur of letting-go, even if that means falling over backwards. It is a radical discipline of whatever-you-can-get-away-with, the honor one may find among thieves, and only among thieves. Philosophy is a bricolage, a Rube Goldberg device that begins with that smallest and most indispensable of things, a mustard seed of one genuine question, culminates with the wallop of the zen master’s stick that cracks the whole thing from top to bottom, and only then – if at all – unfolds into the wabi-sabi realization of the perfect, broken, unfinishable whole.
Of course, for every great philosopher with their “one sentence,” one finds a shadow-sentence, and another and another. Pascal’s wager is dogged by “the silence of those infinite spaces…”; Descartes chose for his motto not “I think therefore I am,” but the line from Ovid, Bene vixit, bene qui latuit -- “he lives well, who lives well hidden.” One could multiply these B-sides. Moreover, one makes a mistake if one thinks that one has as it were “boiled down” a philosopher to the essential once one has decided, or hit upon, the “one sentence” so that one need not concern oneself with “all the rest;” this at least is or ought to be the lesson from Hillel’s ”the rest is commentary – go learn.” There is no royal road to philosophy, and this means also no Bartlett’s anthology of quotations that will unlock “the” meaning of any thinker. Canguilhem may have been right that a great philosopher is known by a single sentence. But philosophy is not comprehended by sentences at all. It can take a great many sentences – and then, suddenly, none -- to make that clear.