Periodically, or not so periodically, I go through a crisis, wondering what it is that I do and why it is that I do it. On the one hand, I perpetually feel as if my thought is haunted by chaos or an inability to think. Where to begin? What questions to ask? For what purpose or end? I feel as if my thought proceeds by sudden bursts of insights, perpetual new beginnings, but lacks in systematic elaboration, a guiding question, or even a sense of what it is that I’m supposed to be doing. I am able to try on philosophies in much the same way that one might try on different outfits. The equivalent would consist in dressing now like a chef, now like a doctor, now like a police officer, now like a judge, now like a hippie, now like a punk, where each of these garbs implies a particular code and grammar pertaining to a social identity. On this day I am a phenomenologist, the next a rationalist, the next an empiricist, the next a pragmatist, the next a semiotician, the next a Hegelian, etc. The only constant is an abiding love of Lucretius, Spinoza, Whitehead, and Deleuze, coupled with an abiding distrust of those philosophical approaches which make the subject, language, or various cultural formations the lens through which everything else is filtered.
On the other hand, I perpetually feel crushed by the impotence of philosophy. I confess that I should know better. I confess that I should know that reason and persuasion are impotent. Yet I can’t help but yearn for these things. I can’t help but entertain the dark Platonic desire that philosophy have the power to transform the world and society through the power of persuasion and discourse. I wonder why it is that discourse is so fraught, why it seems to be perpetually so hostile and contentious. I have answers or hypotheses to these questions. I think I know why based on what I understand about the human passions, desire as elaborated by psychoanalysis and Deleuze and Guattari, and ideology. Yet I can’t quite accept my own answers. I still yearn for it not to be this way. I think of the earnest and beautiful Spinoza, that prince of philosophers who only lived for forty five years yet still managed to say so much and with such elegance and brevity. I think about the Theologico-Politico Treatise and what he was trying to accomplish with that magnificent text. I marvel at how he managed to be so naive in his ambitions with that text despite his account of the human emotions in Book III of the Ethics.
Whether in heated philosophical discussions or political discussions, the same principles can be observed everywhere. In the Ethics, Spinoza writes, “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being” (3p6). From this, it follows by implication that “The mind as far as it can, strives to imagine those things that increase or aid the body’s power of acting” (3p12). As a consequence, “When the mind imagines those things that diminish or restrain the body’s power of acting, it strives, as far as it can, to recollect things which exclude their existence” (3p13). Within these three propositions is really contained the entire comedy of “communicative reason” or its perpetual failure. Just as massive stellar objects bend and distort movement in their vicinity, intense love (Spinoza’s name for our attachment to those things we believe enhance our body’s power of acting) functions like a gravitational singularity that bends and twists thought with respect to everything in the vicinity of the beloved object. As Freud puts it, we overestimate the worth of the love object such that thought swerves in the vicinity of the beloved object, endeavoring to ignore or miss any negative features attached to that object. This would be the root principle of the criticism of those who support Obama, arguing that they are hypnotized or have fallen into a cult in their idealized love of him. Likewise, when confronted with one who does not share our love, thought endeavors to imagine those things that exclude the existence of the thing threatening the beloved object. “From the mere fact that we imagine a thing to have some likeness to an object which usually affects the mind with joy or sadness, we love it or hate it, even though that in which the thing is like the object is not the efficient cause of these affects” (3p16).
It would thus appear that thought is haunted by a two-fold unreason that perpetually undermines the possibility of dialogue from within. On the one hand, in its love it idealizes what it loves, seeking to exclude in thought those things that detract from the action enhancing qualities of the beloved object, such that it is unable to properly evaluate the beloved object. On the other hand, in its hate, thought is unable to attend to the claims of the hated, seeking instead to imagine what would exclude their existence. Often the situation is a bit like that depicted in The Sixth Sense. The boy can see the ghosts, but everyone else is blind to them. Likewise, in our love (and why would we pursue anything without loving it?) or in our hate, entire segments of the world become downright invisible, as if they don’t even exist, such that their effects is only discernible by the neutral observer, watching in perplexity at the odd behavior of those involved. One could write an entire theory of the various rhetorical techniques and informal fallacies, a physics of sorts, showing not how they are the products of the malicious and dishonest manipulator of language, but are rather effects, similar to gravitational effects on motion produced by mass, that arise from various distributions of love and hate in the Spinozist sense. It turns out that one cannot trust one’s own thought (as it is always love and hate that spur thought) nor the thought of the other, nor trust in the possibility of consensus, as thought is always plagued by its passionate (dis)attachments.
Yet if this is the case, if truth is an infinitely receding horizon by virtue of the swerves produced by the love and hate that haunt thought, what possibly can be the aim of philosophy? What is it that philosophy ought to do?