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, December 31, 2019

Many sentences on one sentence on no sentences at all.

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.


  1. So I want to both agree and disagree with your characterization of philosophy here. You suggest: "Philosophy is a bricolage, a Rube Goldberg device that begins with the smallest and most indispensable of things, a mustard seed of one genuine question, culminates with the wallop on 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." I hear you. This is beautifully said and, I think, quite true. No doubt this experience is one of the things philosophy does quite well and one of the things we love it for. But is it the *main thing* philosophy does? Is it *why* we engage in philosophical inquiry? I'll leave aside the first, more general question and answer the personal one for myself. No. I love this experience of "the perfect, broken unfinishable whole" emerging into view out of the inevitable (partial) failure of my inquiries. But it is the equally partial successes that keep me going. I continue the inquiries because I really want to know whether nature is mechanical or teleological, whether the best regime is democratic or aristocratic, how it is possible to know what we do not know. I want answers! Yes, every answer turns out to be another question. But that doesn't mean it's not also an answer. Each day, I am trying to run farther and higher into the hills above my home. My goals are concrete. I want to get there -- to the top of *that* hill. Just because, from the top of that hill, it turns out I can always discover another, larger and more enticing one, doesn't take away from the accomplishment of surmounting the first. What you describe seems to be to be like the runner's endorphin rush, which gives us that beautiful and redemptive sense of connection to the ineffable, which makes even our failures and weaknesses look noble. A lovely compensation prize -- and probably necessary for weak and ignorant beings like us. But I still want to get to the top of that next fucking hill.

    1. Kgbd,

      Drafting a response got a bit tangled.... and long....
      Here you go.

  2. Pushing the authority of Derrida is a shallow. Always to be ahead of oneself...

    Pushing the evil lie about Leo Strauss shows the shallowness in particular acts, not having read him. But, appealing to the wicked slanders.

    Not understanding Wittgenstein correctly because you don't grasp that in ignoring the question of Historicism he doesn't overcome it all. It's clear that someone with the same ipsissimosity or peculiar character, being born in Plato's time, would have been out on another track of research than that prepared by Russel and his time. That Wittgenstein stays with simple observation only conceals the difficulty for the shallow researcher who doesn't know of it.

    Your infinite praise and defense of Zizek is a best a praise of as Rathenau calls it, the Talmudic intellect, as against the bringing forth of forms. French-Gothic architecture, German music.

    You don't learn because you don't struggle. But, high hat.

    Plato's "third man" is not the result of the development of a lifetime of directive thinking, carefully on one subject matter, not some dash out randomly. Again, having no knowledge of Plato, you make a shallow use of this. dixi

    1. Thank goodness there are still those like you who truly struggle. Most people just think -- struggle, schmuggle. Who has time for that? Shallow folk that they are, they get into philosophy because of the great career track, or the guaranteed salary & benefits package, or (usually) because it's a way to impress girls. Or boys. You drop a little reference to al-Farabi or Avital Ronell, and they're hanging on your. every. word. You know?

      Seriously: what do you think you know about me, given that I believe in secrecy?