It seems to me that within contemporary academia, there is a good deal of anxiety among philosophers as to just what the vocation of philosophy is. Just as Kant famously observed that “time was when metaphysics was the queen of philosophy”, there seems to be an underlying anxiety, among continental philosophers especially, that “time was when philosophy was the queen of the sciences”. Any honest appraisal of philosophy today cannot fail to acknowledge that philosophy has been dethroned from its privileged position among the various disciplines. Where Kant could still teach geography, anthropology, physics, and philosophy, seeing all of these disciplines as, in effect, a part of philosophy, for us today philosophy has increasingly become pared down and marginalized in such a way that it often appears, to the outsider, as a sort of archaic curiosity. The various sciences, both as forms of serious research and in popular culture, have taken on the mantel of answering the questions of metaphysics, ethics, and politics. Thus, when the layman searches for answers to the question of the fundamental nature of reality, he generally looks not to the tradition of philosophy, but to popular science texts such as the works of Brian Green, Frijtof Capra, Stephen J. Gould, and Richard Dawkins. Where philosophy pursues a game of one upsmanship, presenting ultra-radical, whizbang critique to end all critiques, these figures dogmatically present their various accounts of the nature of reality. When the layman looks for answers to the most fundamental and basic questions of ethics, to the classical questions of Aristotle, Epictetus, Epicurus, Lucretius, and Spinoza, the layman looks not to the ethicist, but to the psychologist and self-help books or to mystogogues selling their latest permissive snake-oil. When the layman looks for answers to questions of politics, they look not to political philosophy, but to popularized works of the social sciences. Everywhere it appears that philosophy has become eclipsed by other disciplines, such that in its own disciplinary practice it becomes addressed only to other professional philosophers addicted to something like Magister Ludi’s glass bead game.

Not surprisingly, this state of affairs has led to rather tiresome and reactionary attitudes among philosophers. It is not uncommon to find a sort of “Luddite” mentality among philosophers, where the world is implicitly described as fallen, where the Enlightenment is seen as the pivot point where this fall took place, and where thought prior to this period was a Golden Age. The vocation of philosophy thus becomes a “recollection” or “retrieval” of this forgotten truth, of this ground of all grounds, that has been lost through the fall into the natural attitude initiated by the Enlightenment. As a result, philosophy in the classroom, journals, and books becomes the history of philosophy and the retrieval of this truth from errancy. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that far from denouncing a decisive errancy of thought, this posture is instead based on a combination of envy at the triumph of one philosophical school over the others (a victory that is very carefully suppressed and denied), self-importance, insecurity, and a phobia towards all things mathematical and scientific.

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In other tiresome postures, the philosophy claims to have the “truth of the truth” or an ultra-critical truth that is foundational (or destructive) to any other particular truth that might emerge from another discipline. In claiming to have the truth about the truth– whether it be the historicist recollection of the origins of our culture, the ultra-critical thought a particular correlationist school of thought, the phenomenology upon which all knowledge is grounded, or the endless wandering and play of the signifier –the philosopher can smugly puff up his chest when listening to his colleagues from other disciplines, believing himself to have provided the foundation of their discipline, and marveling at their unsophisticated and wooden ways of thinking and posing questions, so reflective of the fallenness of our contemporary age. Further, insofar as the philosopher has the truth about the truth, or that truth that precedes and conditions any other truths, the philosopher can rest content in simply ignoring these other truths as they are simply truths iterative of this ultimate Truth that he already possesses. Of course, in psychoanalytic terms all of this, no matter how elaborate its rationalizations and reasonings, looks all too much like a massive defensive formation designed to insure one does not see. Like the discourse of someone who has striven push all sex out of their thought and life which comes to be pervaded, nonetheless, by all sorts of double entendres (I think here of the conservative “Teabagger’s” movement that Schuster recently had so much fun with… listen carefully), everywhere anxiety about these shifts seems present in contemporary continental thought.

Within this context, it is thus deeply refreshing to come across a book like Catherine Malabou’s short, yet rich, What Should We Do With Our Brain?. Malabou does not give us yet another tired, reactionary denunciation of the sciences, showing us how we are warranted in dismissing them because they violate phenomenological givenness or because they are disseminated by the play of the signifier. No, Malabou instead embraces neurology. But in her embrace of neurology she does not engage in a dogmatic discourse that reduces all questions of mind, ethics, epistemology, etc., to questions to be answered by neurology, but rather, she asks how neurology summons our thought today, forcing us to pose the question of both what meaning neurology has for who we are, but also exploring how neurology is imbricated with contemporary capitalism (as analyzed by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello in the wonderful New Spirit of Capitalism), and what promise of emancipation neurology holds for us. As Malabou vigorously declares in the opening paragraph of her book,

The brain is a work, and we do not know it. We are its subjects– authors and products at once –and we do not know it. “Humans make their own history, but they do not know that they make it,” says Marx, intending thereby to awaken a consciousness of historicity. In a certain way, such words apply precisely to our context and object: “Humans make their own brains, but they do not know that they make it.

Malabou’s book invites us to think how neurology summons us to rethink what we are, what our possibilities are, and what possibilities of emancipation are here for us. In this respect, her book represents the best tradition of philosophy. The great Enlightenment thinkers– Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Voltaire, etc. –did not arise like hydra out of nothing, but were rather endeavoring to determine how thought is summoned by Galileo’s infinite and mathematizable universe, where the distinction between the laws of the heavens and the chaos of the earth had collapsed, where scholastic authority was falling to pieces, and where everywhere there was a dawning recognition of the primacy of immanence. These scientific transformations were not taking something away from philosophy, but were rather an occasion for philosophy, challenging us to ask what we are, what this universe is, how we should live our lives, and what sort of politics and emancipatory possibilities are now available to us conceptually. Rather than reactionary rear-guard actions not unlike a hysterical blindness insuring that one will not see, they embraced these new developments and saw them as the very soil and milieu of their thought. This is how it’s done. As Zizek likes to put it, quoting Wagner, we shall be healed by the very spear that smote us.

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