Shahar Ozeri of Perverse Egalitarianism has written a very interesting post responding to my diary Language and Passivity, and Paco’s diary Is Philosophy Irrelevant?

This question really, at least for me, cuts to the heart of the problem. For one, the traditional idea of liberal education is to foster a critical consciousness. Yet, if Paco is correct about the decline of the broader structure of the University–from a marketplace of ideas to a bottom line minded business–the university simply reflects the broader culture, which is largely anti-intellectual, disapproves of critique and as a whole tends to reward social status not talent. One thing is certain: many of our students simply refuse to think things through, or think, in the most Heidegarrian sense. I don’t know how to produce such a critical consciousness in my students either, other than trying over and over to point it out. This is interesting, one of the more odd things that my students could just not wrap their minds around was the emotive use of language, that it’s not necessarily mere emotion.

Anyway, all of this has gotten me thinking about two figures I haven’t thought about in quite some time: the (under-rated) Roland Barthes and (always interesting) Louis Althusser, who both point to this very phenomenon of the passivity of language I think.

Unfortunately, I am far too exhausted this evening to comment at length, but I did want to throw out a couple of thoughts for future development. I do not know whether this situation is unique to our age. Following Lacan, I am inclined to think that ignorance is one of the three passions… That we have a passion for ignorance. Thus, while I am sympathetic to the thesis that the decline of print culture and the rise of the spectacle has also had a developmental impact on the nature of our cognitive structures, I suspect that by and large things were not much better in the past. I’ll get to this in a moment.

Read on

It seems to me that the issues developed in these three posts go far beyond the classroom and issues of pedagogy, and go straight to the heart of questions about the nature of thought and what it means to practice philosophy. In a subsequent follow-up post to Language and Passivity, I made some brief remarks about the formation of habitus as a necessary condition for the possibility of engaging in certain sorts of intellectual work.

Perception is not simply a given or a gestalt, but something that must be developed and cultivated. My friend Carl tells me of his visit to Egypt, and how people drive and walk in the city of Cairo. For him there seems to be no order. Cars zoom about willy-nilly. People walk into oncoming traffic. Yet strangely it all seems to work out well. There is an order amidst this noise of which he is unaware. I have had a similar experience in the Indian-Pakistani part of Chicago, on Devon Avenue. Everything there presents itself as a buzzing confusion for the agent that does not have a “know-how” of this place. In developing a knowledge of psychoanalysis, we do not simply gain new facts, but we cultivate perceptions. Certain items in a person’s speech become salient where before they were merely noise that we filtered out. So too in the case of the physicist, the chemist, the engineer. There is a process of phenomenalization, a breaching of a realm of being, where before there was only noise.

There is thus an anxiety that accompanies all education. In learning– rather than knowing –one confronts the undifferentiated void, where saliencies do not reside. In teaching we bring our students before this noise, confronting them with a field of phenomenality where, as of yet, there are no phenomena for them. Some of us recoil from the passions this anxiety releases, celebrating rote memorization as a way of relieving the anxiety. Here no new field of phenomenality appears. Everything remains at the level of the familiar, doxa. All of us, regardless, must handle this anxiety, administering it in doses, guiding our students through the indeterminate so that the phenomenon might appear, by grace, on the other side. It is a dance that can easily go astray, leading the student to recoil in horror in much the same way that Plato describes in the allegory of the cave, where the escaped prisoner is painfully blinded with each subsequent step he takes. Somehow it is necessary to manage that blinding so that it doesn’t lead to flight. Yet holographically, a phenomenon gradually comes to stand forth from this buzzing confusion… Something becomes distinct and a grammar begins to appear. It might be a grammar of wood (in carving), of sound (in music), of the unconscious, of chemical relations. Where before there was indifference, now there is difference. Yet how is it that something begins to stand out from the white noise on the television screen? Where does the difference that makes a difference come from? Is it possible to think that which precedes the given, that gives the given, and that is anterior to phenomenality? Or must that which is anterior to the phenomenality of the phenomenon– the es gibt –be doomed to be an unthinkable abyss? More to the point, what would a pedagogy that takes this abyss into account and which guides the student to the discovery of singularities within the undifferentiated look like?

Not only must all sorts of perceptive dispositions be developed in order to engage in certain sorts of intellectual work, but it is also necessary to develop certain affective dispositions as well. Anyone who has gone through the process of learning how to play a game like darts knows this. The issue isn’t one of discursive rule following– indeed, over-consciousness can ruin one’s game –but rather the development of certain dispositions, a habitus, a feel for the game. This feel for the game is also the development of the body in a particular way, a formation of the flesh. The situation is no different in the case of learning how to read a novel, works of philosophy, films, works of art, or in posing logical, scientific-experimental, and mathematical problems. In all these cases we can evoke rules, but really what takes place over the course of developing these skills is a certain in-sight into a particular field. If I hyphenate the term “in-sight”, this is to emphasize that one begins to “see-in” to a particular field, to grasp a set of relevancies, where before one saw nothing. That is, you become acquainted with singularities or distinctive points that clue you in on how to proceed. Just as when working with a particular piece of wood, you discover the singularities of that wood– the pattern of its grain, its density, its flexibility, etc –and work with those specific singularities in developing a carving (a particular knot might serve as a good place for an eye or nose), so too does one gradually discover certain singularities in literary texts that allow one to grasp that text and work with it. Yet there are not hard and fast rules for discovering these singularities. Such a “knowledge” only arises in working-with and we cannot see what we cannot see and we do not see until we see.

The case really is no different with mathematics or logic. When working with complex equations or proofs, there are no real rules that a professor can give you to tell you how to begin or how to proceed– which step to take first. Rather, after working with equations and proofs for a while, you literally develop a certain sort of vision. You glance at the givens and you “see” what to do first. “How did you know to start there?” “I don’t know, I just did.”

However, the formation of habitus is not enough for the development of certain forms of know-how. Or rather, it is not simply an issue of reading enough philosophy and literature, or doing enough logic, to develop know-how in these domains. Everything here spins on what we understand by thought. Descartes famously declared that thought is the most universally distributed human characteristic:

Good sense is mankind’s most equitably divided endowment, for everyone thinks that he is so abundantly provided with it that even those with the most insatiable appetites and most difficult to please in other ways do not usually want more than they have of this. As it is not likely that everyone is mistaken, this evidence shows that the ability to judge correctly, and to distinguish the true from the false– which is really what is meant by good sense or reason –is the same by innate nature in all men; and that differences of opinion are not due to differences in intelligence, but merely to the fact that we use different approaches and consider different things. (Discourse on Method)

It is notable that Descartes here treats thought in terms of the ability to judge. However, those of us in the classroom teaching literature, cultural studies, often various social sciences, and science, logic, and mathematics often discover something quite different. In many cases there seems to be a constitutive inability to think, despite students otherwise showing a number of other signs of intelligence.

Are we to conclude, as some do, that these students are stupid or that only certain students are capable of university level work? Such a conclusion seems to presuppose that thought as a natural attribute of persons that we all have in greater or lesser degrees. But why should we make this assumption? Why should we assume that thought is a natural or ordinary thing?

It seems that this concept of thought arises from asking the question “what is thought?”, rather than attending to the question “when is thought?” Rather than seeing thought as an ordinary activity we engage in on a day to day basis, we should instead ask ourselves when we think. As Deleuze puts it,

Artaud said that the problem (for him) was not to orient his thought, or to perfect the expression what he thought, or to acquire application and method or to perfect his poems, but simply to manage to think something. For him, this was the only conceivable ‘work’: It presupposes an impulse, a compulsion to think which passes through all sorts of bifurcations, spreading from the nerves and being communicated to the soul in order to arrive at thought. Henceforth, thought is also forced to think its central collapse, its fracture, its own natural ‘powerlessness’ which is indistinguishable from the greatest power– in other words, from those unformulated forces, the cogitanda, as thought from so many thefts or trespasses in thought… He knows that thinking is not innate, but must be engendered in thought. He knows that the problem is not to direct or methodically apply thought which pre-exists in principle and in nature, but to bring into being that which does not yet exist (there is no other work, all the rest is arbitrary, mere decoration). To think is to create– there is no other creation –but to create is first of all to engender ‘thinking’ in thought. (Difference and Repetition, 147)

So long as we think thought as innate, as an equally distributed attribute, we overlook the necessity of engendering thought within thinking. It may be that there are certain disciplines, certain forms of engagement, that first require a forcing of thought. When I refer to a forcing of thought, I am not referring to a professor forcing a student to think. Rather, I am suggesting that there must be something on the order of a shock to the system or an encounter that engenders thought within thinking. Most of our engagement with the world is characterized by inertial habit. This can be discerned most readily in the case of driving long distances, where both the self and the distance traveled seem to disappear. I lose myself in driving, forgetting that I exist, unaware of the distance that I have traversed. When is it that I become a subject once again? When is it that I become reflectively aware? Precisely at that moment where something shifts. Another car approaches too closely. An animal runs across the road. In these problematizing moments I am drawn forth from oblivion, I come into being, and I am posited. Thought is not that which emerges in relation to the ordinary, but rather emerges in the interstices where things break down.

In the Science of Logic Hegel argues that the first step in grounding a phenomenon consists in positing a tautological ground.

When reflection, in dealing with determinate grounds, sticks to the form of the grown we have reached here, then the assignments of a ground remain a mere formalism and empty tautology which expresses in the form of reflection-into-itself, of essentiality, the same content that is already present in the form of an immediate being, of a being considered as posited. Such an assigning of grounds is therefore accompanied by the same emptiness as the talk which restricts itself to the law of identity. The sciences, especially the physical sciences, are full of tautologies of this kind which constitute as it were a prerogative of science. For example the ground of the movements of the planets round the sun is said to be the attractive force of the earth and the sun on one another. As regards content, this expresses nothing other than what is contained in the phenomenon, namely the relation of these bodies to one another, only in the form of a determination reflected into itself, the form of force. If one asks what kind of force the attractive force is, the answer is that it is the force that makes the earth move round the sun; that is, it has precisely the same content as the phenomenon of which it is supposed to ground… (458)

While tautological ground merely repeats the content using different words, it would be a mistake to suppose that nothing new is added to thought in this moment. The key to this passage is to be found in the transition from immediate being to reflection-into-itself. While the content remains the same, the form of this judgment has changed. Now the phenomenon is seen as doubled, as differing from itself, as in need of explanation or grounding. The rephrasing of the phenomenon (movement about the sun –> attractive force), marks the site of a problem. This is precisely the site of thought. Thought is what doubles the phenomenon, transforming what is immediate into something that is no longer self-evident or obvious.

Yet what is it that effects this transformation? How is it brought about? Despite the tendency of philosophers to treat thought as a natural attribute, we invariably find another vision of thought in these same philosophies. Each of Plato’s dialogues begin with a sort of encounter in the world that provokes thought. Aristotle begins the metaphysics by saying all thought begins in wonder. Descartes talks about the affect of astonishment as a necessary condition for thought, and speaks of his travels throughout the world as having the effect of hystericizing him and causing him to question his own identity and values. Heidegger speaks of the broken tool that suddenly illuminates the system of equipmental relations characterizing the worldhood of the world. More recently Lacan speaks of trauma or the missed encounter that animates thought, Deleuze speaks of the encounter that forces thought, and Badiou speaks of thought following upon an event. In each case there is something that jars us, that shocks us, that involuntarily forces thought.

It is in relation to this encounter that critical consciousness begins to emerge. Paco writes,

Like many other people, I always hope that when I teach logic it would help my students to argue more effectively, more critically, and really, more logically. I am not the first I am sure to be disappointed. Even the students who can understand and conceptualize the techniques of logic often can’t seem to execute these skills in day to day situations. What they learned in the logic classroom becomes irrelevant. All that ” logic stuff:” truth-tables, syllogisms, Venn diagrams, existential factuals etc. were of no use to the reasoning students face day to day, whether in another course, or while listening to our country’s leaders prate upon god knows what. The addition of critical thinking to the term logic, thus creating the Logic and Critical Thinking course, which was supposed to curb some of these problems by making it more relevant (let’s look at arguments found in our lives using some fancy techniques), but it is more of the same. Many of my students are all too ready to take things at face value, often misunderstanding rhetoric as rhetoric, misunderstanding the role ideology plays in daily life, and often have trouble recognizing the difference between a nicely constructed argument and a fallacious one when we compare them side by side. While I understand this as the my role as the teacher, e.g. to teach how to dissect, analyze and critique an argument, it’s rather disheartening sometimes.

In light of the foregoing, it seems that we are faced with two possible pedagogies. If we assume that thought is a natural attribute, an innate disposition, then we will pursue a pedagogy that assumes it is sufficient to explain in order for students to engage in certain forms of intellectual engagements. This seems to lead to much frustration, for in the humanities and social sciences, at least, we discover that very few of the students seem capable of benefiting from our explanations. However, if we begin with the premise that thought is an involuntary result of an encounter that disrupts our habitudes, then we will not be surprised that students have a difficult time distinguishing rhetoric from arguments, recognizing ideology, or discerning deeper strata of texts. Such students have not made the transition from the immediacy of the being in question (language, social organization, texts), to the reflection-into-self that problematizes these phenomenon and turns them into a question.

The issue then will become one of how to form a pedagogy that artificially creates encounters, that doubles phenomenon, that presents them in their non-identity, allowing the site of a question to emerge. In-sight into rhetoric, ideology, argument, meaning, being, etc., only emerges in response to the emergence of a question that doubles phenomena and calls forth the ground. Bluntly, it is difficult to become fascinated with rhetoric if you’ve never been screwed by rhetoric (by language that differed from itself) or if you have no desire to screw someone else with rhetoric. In much of our day to day life the non-identity of the identical does not appear at all, as things present themselves as immediately self-identical– Simply being what they are. These artificial encounters need not be traumatic or negative. They can be playful, ironic, surprising. What is important is that they perpetually challenge the identity or immediacy of phenomena, presenting the phenomena in question in such a way that they differ from themselves, so the site of a question might emerge. As Deleuze puts it,

Something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recognition but of a fundamental encounter. What is encountered may be Socrates, a temple, or a demon. It may be grasped in a range of affective tones: wonder, love, hatred, suffering. IN whichever tone, its primary characteristic is that it can only be sensed. In this sense it is opposed to recognition. (DR, 139)

In recognition we are filled only with images of ourselves, of our habits, of our prejudices. That which forces us to think is a difference that presents the phenomenon as differing from itself and which opens us to difference.