April 23, 2009

Philosophy literally saved me and gave my life an entirely new direction

Is Dialogue Possible in Continental Philosophy? Somehow every contestation of a philosopher’s position is transformed into a misreading or misinterpretation of that position. In a manner not unlike how Torah is read, the text is treated as unquestionable, and instead we are required to engage in endless acts of interpretation with respect to the text. As a result, what you get are “competing species” in Continental philosophy where one sides with the Deleuzian text or the Foucaultian text or the Husserlian text or the Heideggerian text, etc. We have all of these various textual ghettos and the rule is that none of these texts ever directly confront one another.
from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects

I had first discovered philosophy some time between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. As many of these stories go, my discovery involved a woman or broken heart, coupled with a period of deep personal upheaval where I failed a year of school, became heavily involved in drugs, and was homeless. Philosophy literally saved me and gave my life an entirely new direction. Where prior to this I had thought school to be some grand ideological conspiracy, I now found a value in what I was pursuing.

If I turned to philosophy it was because I wished to discover how I should live my life, what is worth pursuing, what is right and wrong. However, I did not think these questions could be answered without first knowing my own nature, the nature of being, and the nature of the social world. It was Spinoza, in his Ethics and Theologico-Politico Treatise who first pointed the way for me, even though Husserl’s Ideas was the first work of philosophy that I ever read.

However, here’s the deal. In studying these philosophers– by the time I had graduated I had read Being and Time, James’ Pragmatism, Husserl’s Ideas, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, The Critique of Pure Reason, Whitehead’s Process and Reality, Spinoza’s Ethics and Theologico-Politico Treatise, Schopenhaeur’s World as Will and Representation, various works by Ortega y Gasset and Unamuno, and many more works besides –my aim was not to understand these philosophers, but the world. I was interested in these philosophers not for their own sake, but with respect to how they could help me to understand the world, my self, society, and what the “good life” might be.

I think this, in a nutshell, is the problem with Continental academia. While it is certainly an eminently reasonable proposition that we must understand a philosopher to critique that philosopher, continental philosophy programs never seem to get to that moment of critique. The very idea of evaluating a text in terms of its truth claims is a scandal, and any disagreement with a text or philosophy– so long as it’s coded as “continental” (the continentals know all those Brits and Anglo-American philosophers are just batshit crazy insane and wrong) –is scandalous.

  • But at the end of the day, did we begin studying philosophy and pursue studies in philosophy to understand philosophers?
  • Or are the great philosophers rather fellow travelers who might help us to understand the world around us but whom, the study of which, should never be an end in itself?

At a certain point it seems to me that we should be able to cease the work of interpretation, agree that there are certain root claims and positions, and that these root claims and positions are susceptible to critique and disagreement without being based on misinterpretation. I cannot help but feel that 90% of the time, charges of misinterpretation are, in fact, an acknowledgment that one does not have a counter-argument, but still wishes to maintain their position. Socrates is turning in his grave.

Home About Larval Subjects March 12, 2007
Scattered Thoughts on Dialectical Reason Posted by larvalsubjects under Boring Stuff About Me, Games, Hegel, dialectic [3] Comments In Negative Dialectics, Adorno writes, “the most enduring result of Hegelian logic is that the individual is not flatly for himself. In himself, he is his otherness and linked with others” (161).

For me, Hegel’s Science of Logic has always been the great white whale, Ulysses, or Finnegans Wake of philosophy. What interests me in Hegel is not what he has to say about Spirit or reconciliation or the formation of a total system where nothing escapes– as absolute knowledge is sometimes thought to be (incidentally, I finally attained absolute knowledge back in 2004 when I, at long last, completed the Phenomenology, yet sadly I received no raise and many strongly encouraged me not to put this on my CV).

No, what interests me about Hegelian dialectics– especially as formulated in the Logic –is its capacity to think otherness, relation, and an immanent tension within a system pushing it to the point of auto-critique. Anyone who musters the will to read the Science of Logic with open eyes, free of the invectives that have been levelled against Hegel by figures such as Lacan, Deleuze, and Derrida, will be deeply rewarded with the conceptual clarity he brings to the table and the various conflicts that he unfolds and which repeat again and again in a variety of different structures of thought. Despite its Joycean prose, it is a work worth studying carefully and returning to again and again as an endless source of ideas. One can literally say, “oh there’s Deleuze, there’s Quine, look there’s Badiou”, and so on.

But my fascination with Hegel is, I hope, more substantial than this. The philosophical tradition I come out of is primarily Cartesian and phenomenological in its orientation. That is, it is a tradition that privileges the immediate evidences of consciousness or the immediate presentness of consciousness to itself in its experience of itself and the world. Indeed, this is true of non-Deleuzian variants of empiricism as well, where prior to Sellars, another form of immediacy was discovered in the form of the “impression” as origin and ground of all other cognition.

Indeed, there is a way in which the entire philosophical tradition can be read as a struggle between immediacy and mediation. Take, for instance, Plato’s famous allegory of the cave. One way of reading this allegory would be as the journey from mediation (the shadows, the ideological puppeteers carrying the cut-outs back and forth behind their backs, the games the prisoners play with one another seeing who can name the next image first, and so on) to the immediate or luminous self-presence of the Idea or Form within thought, just as the mathematician no longer need make referential claims to the world in order to manipulate the objects of their thought and arrive at truth.

Who does not see that Plato’s profound theory of reminiscence, his account of learning, is formulated in the name of immediacy or out of the necessity of giving an account of wisdom that does not require the mediated detour through the world in order to arrive at knowledge. The history of philosophy has been a long history of experimentation with different models of self-presence. And if this project has been so vital, then this is because it has been the project of escaping, once and for all, from authority, whether in the form of the parent, the monarch, the Church, sacred texts, myths, popular opinion, or any form of knowledge where knowledge is mediated by what is said and asserted. It has been a project predicated on becoming a free man or woman.

I am not a good philosopher. I began studying philosophy when I was about 15. The first work of philosophy that I read was Husserl’s Ideas, which fired me up with the idea of a reduction to pure consciousness. This was quickly followed by Descartes’ Meditations and Discourse on Method (which saved me in math), Spinoza’s Ethics, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, Heidegger’s Being and Time, and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, all of which I completed before graduating highschool. I would spend days in a local coffee shop, Aberth’s, in the small town of New Philadelphia, Ohio, reading from early in the morning until late in the afternoon, seldom attending my classes. The school even tried to bring legal action against me for my attendence, but the teachers intervened on my behalf.

But while I read these things, I also spent a tremendous amount of time with psychoanalysis (I discovered a collection of Freud’s metapsychological papers on an aunt’s bookcase), sociology, anthropology, history, and literature. I cut my teeth on history with Will Durant’s massive 11 volume History of Civilization. I found a dusty copy of Durkheim’s Division of Labor in Society at a small and foul smelling used bookstore in a town named Zoar. I read everything by Dostoyevsky I could get my hands on, and read a good deal of Kafka as well. Back in those days we did not have mega-bookstores or online bookstores, so you read whatever you happened to find. My first copy of Kant’s Critique was so ancient that I had to cut the pages. Each book I found was like a rare treasure and I assumed that it was this way with all great books… That there were very few of them to be found throughout the world and only a handful of people had read them.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that from the very beginning I experienced a strong conflict or tension between literature (I originally wanted to be a novelist but lack talent where writing is concerned), the social sciences, and philosophy. At a purely methodological level, how can the claims of the various “human sciences” be reconciled with those of philosophy?

Sociology, anthropology, and linguistics, for instance, investigate what Plato would have referred to as doxa, the ungrounded, the shadows of the cave wall. If we begin from a Cartesian standpoint, what are we to do with Lacanian claims about the status of the ego being constituted in and through identification with the other in the mirror stage, and the subject being produced in the field of the Other or language?

These are things that are anterior to phenomenological experience or the self-presence of the cogito. As such, from a certain philosophical orientation, arguments advanced on historical, sociological, or psychoanalytic grounds are inherently dogmatic. Regardless of how much statistical evidence one amasses, regardless of how much empirical material one collects, this remains the case due to the mediated nature of these domains.

This, I think, is the real hope and lesson of Hegel’s dialectical reason, for Hegel does not begin from the stance of this sort of immanence– immanence to consciousness –but rather begins from the split nature of that which posits itself as self-identical. Take the following remark on self-relation: “As self-relating in its determining, it is itself that which it posits as negative or makes it into a positedness” (SL, 558).

The “negative” here is what the self-relating is not or the other. Hegel’s point is that in order for the self-relating to relate itself as a self it must relate to an other or distinguish itself from this other. Cogito, for instance, contains its other within itself as the world and other cogitos that it is not. The identical is constituted in and through the different, and as Hegel shows in the dialectic of being-for-self and the One (SL, 157-184),

“…the fate of a self-identical (or a ‘diverse’) entity is to disappear and render itself into nothing” (David Gray Carlson, A Commentary to Hegel’s Science of Logic, 28).

Even that entity, the One, that holds fast to its identity and rejects any relation to the Other is by that very activity relating itself to the Other and constituting itself in and through that relation. [...]

What is of interest in Hegel is the manner in which dialectic is able to demonstrate these imbrications or mediations at work in constitution in their necessity, thereby exploding a philosophic tradition that demands immediacy as a point of beginning. Indeed, even beginning is a failure for it would not have to depart from itself and develop or unfold were it complete and adequate.

As Derrida has shown us, a good deal of social thought revolves around the function of the trace at work in the constitution of the immediate. Dialectical reason shows the necessity of the trace, its ungrounded ground, rather than championing its dogmatic assertion. In this regard, it continues the philosophical project while overcoming the constant threat of solipsism embodied within it. But more powerfully yet, it shows how thought might be led to the point of immanent auto-critique. [My question now is where to go from here. 9:48 AM]

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