April 2009


wffm040-wilddog-dingoOkay, not really, but there are rabbits all over the place around here and the horny little critters are getting into my garden, damn it! While I admire their horniness, I still don’t want them to eat my veggies. They’ve been nipping at my spinach and lettuces, and I’m just not willing to share. Any suggestions as to how to keep rabbits away without having to put in a fence? I really would prefer not to buy an air gun and go hunting. Besides, my friend Melanie would never forgive me were I to start shooting rabbits.

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As I have recounted in previous posts, I had a rather schizophrenic experience in my philosophical trainng. As an undergrad at Ohio State, I was trained in both the analytic and Continental traditions; and, in fact, most of my 116 hours of course work in philosophy was in analytic and Anglo-American philosophy. Although I found a great deal of value in this style of thought, I often found myself dissatisfied as the problems this style of philosophy dealt with often struck me as remote from the sort of “existential” concerns that first drive one to philosophy. Consequently, when I began looking for graduate schools– and deeply in the midst of an addiction to all things Heideggarian and Foucaultian –I looked for a Continental program that also had a healthy dose of Anglo-American philosophers in its faculty. As a result, I finally decided on Loyola of Chicago, where I would get to study with philosophers of mind like J.D. Trout and Moser, philosophers of science like Blachowicsz, Kantians like Paul Abela, and Continentalists like Thomas Sheehan, Patricia Huntington, Andrew Cutrofello, Adrian Peperzak, and David Ingram. Loyola also offered an excellent grounding in the history of philosophy which I believed vital to any philosophical education.

When I got to Loyola my coursework quickly became focused on Continental thought. I must have taken six courses with Peperzak, ranging from Kant, to Hegel, to Heidegger, and Levinas, whose mannerisms I still remember with great fondness and a slight smirk. I took a number of seminars with Cutrofello on Deleuze, Foucault, Kant, and Derrida. I took a number of courses with Huntington on postmodern feminist theory, Heidegger, and various existentialists. However, in the mean time I was reading a great deal of biology, physics, complexity theory, and neurology. I’ll still never forget the look of horror on the faces of my peers when they found out I was reading Dennett, Dawkins, and Gould. “Why”, they exclaimed, “would you possibly read that?” “What are you thinking reading Paul Churchland?”

Although I worked heavily on Deleuze throughout my five years in graduate school, the best description of my philosophical orientation at this time would be phenomenological. I think, maybe, I’m one of five people in the world that actually devoured Husserl’s various texts and lectures with delight. I suspect that means I’m cracked in some way. It is certainly a good thing that I eventually entered analysis with Bruce Fink. I delighted in the work of Merleau-Ponty. I thought Levinas was perhaps the most beautiful stylist of all the philosophers who had ever written. I shivered with pleasure at Jean-Luc Marion’s discussions of givenness. I ravenously read the work of Ed Casey. I guiltily read Sartre throughout, believing him to be gauche at that time, but still secretly loving his work. For some reason I had largely lost interest in Heidegger, wondering why I had been so enchanted with him. Perhaps it was his style. At any rate, my friends would joke that I was living in a permanent “transcendental epoche chamber”.

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As more and more information comes to the surface concerning the torture memos, I simply cannot fathom that we are having a discussion as to whether or not torture was effective in producing information and whether the United States has been endangered by releasing the memos. Of course, many of us already knew that this was going on and probably much worse. What is wrong with these people such that they can even situate the question in these terms? These people are sociopaths, yet they have presumed to lecture us about morality for the last thirty years. I really don’t know what to say. Words fail. All I can think of, in bleak despair, is Ethan Coen’s poem “The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way“,

‘The Drunken Driver Has the Right Of Way’

by Ethan Coen

The loudest have the final say,
The wanton win, the rash hold sway,
The realist’s rules of order say
The drunken driver has the right of way.

The Kubla Khan can butt in line;
The biggest brute can take what’s mine;
When heavyweights break wind, that’s fine;
No matter what a judge might say,
The drunken driver has the right of way.

The guiltiest feel free of guilt;
Who care not, bloom; who worry, wilt;
Plans better laid are rarely built
For forethought seldom wins the day;
The drunken driver has the right of way.

The most attentive and unfailing
Carefulness is unavailing
Wheresoever fools are flailing;
Wisdom there is held at bay;,
The drunken driver has the right of way.

De jure is de facto’s slave;
The most foolhardy beat the brave;
Brass routs restraint; low lies high’s grave;
When conscience leads you, it’s astray;
The drunken driver has the right of way.

It’s only the naivest who’ll
Deny this, that the reckless rule;
When facing an oncoming fool
The practiced and sagacious say
Watch out — one side — look sharp — gang way.

However much you plan and pray,
Alas, alack, tant pis, oy vey,
Now — heretofore — til Judgment Day,
The drunken driver has the right of way.

This is the world we live in.

Over at the sublime Frames/Sing, Kevin has an interesting post up on philosophical dialogue. I have been hesitant to link to this post as I’m directly implicated, but I think his observations are worth posting here as they go straight to the heart of what I would describe as a sort of philosophical sickness or disease. Kevin writes:

In the comments section of Larval Subjects attempt to deal again with Kantian normativity, 8&$@## [name redacted as a gesture of friendship] repeats the authority of his reading of Kant, after the claim that someone simply is an embarassment:

You either don’t get it, or your pretend to not get it – you don’t understand such simple matters as “form” vs. “matter” in Kant’s philosophy in general – are you serious? For such a great reader of Kant, you seem to be spewing nonsensical readings of him right and left, I mean you’ve become a joke around the pub with “Have you read this latest comment by Levi about Kant?….I interpret my Kant the way most of Kant scholarship does, I’m not a genius with innovative ideas, I’m dull and boring – if you knew your Kant, you would see how regular and annoyingly mediocre my views are.

It is not particular to Kant that I want to speak, but to simply the way that philosophy is discussed. I suppose we all feel this way. If someone disagrees with us (or “us”), they simply do not understand us (it is not that we are wrong). When they show us that we were wrong, if ever, we realize that we didn’t understand us. We all grow frustrated when disagreement cuts to the very roots of our suppositions. And the same may be said when it cuts the very roots of a thinker we greatly admire.

Personally, I find it difficult though, in the particular case of the Kant Krew at *#$$%##$# [redacted out of friendship], is that the appeal is ultimately to a kind of “you are an idiot”, “you don’t even understand the very basics of Kant” when Kant is criticized to the root. All this, while they also fall back upon the idea that they themselves are not even Kantians, that they are just telling the world the orthodox position of Kant, in fact regurgitating it in a fashion. It is not so much the entrenchment of such a position I am troubled with (”I am simply repeating Kant Orthodoxy to you, if you question it it is merely that you do not understand him”), but the unengaged nature of this kind of talk. It is as if one is no longer even actively thinking about Kant, taking a critical view, pulling the threads apart, running it through your fingers. If the thought is dead in your hands, and one is simply repeating Orthodoxy stuff you read in commentaries (and how much of philosophy is done like this, wherein one talks like one knows because one repeats what someone “who knows” says), what is the point?

I think Kevin is right on the mark here in his analysis of why this mode of discourse is so troubling. 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.

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Back in January, Nick wrote a post arguing that questions of ontology and questions of politics should be sharply delimited. Nick’s controversial thesis– which looks obvious to me –is that ontological and metaphysical questions should not be decided by political considerations, nor do ontologies entail any particular politics. In my book, Difference and Givenness, I groped towards something similar without quite being able to put my finger on the problem. One of my great discontents with so much of the secondary literature on Deleuze was that it seemed to decide ontological and epistemic questions on normative grounds, rather than grounds internal to their theoretical coherence and adequacy. Thus you’ll come across books and articles that denounce Kant or Hegel because they are “State Thinkers”, but what does being a State Thinker have to do with the adequacy of Kant or Hegel’s metaphysics or epistemology?

In the spirit of Hume’s famous Is-Ought Fallacy where ethical reasoning encounters a logical leap when it attempts to derive an “ought” from an “is”, it seems worthwhile to coin a converse fallacy called the “Normative Fallacy”. The Normative Fallacy would occur wherever one seeks to either discount or infer an “is” from an “ought”. To be clear, one is not committing the Normative Fallacy when they judge some state of affairs as being unjust or unethical. If this is not an instance of the Normative Fallacy, then this is because the person is not denying the existence of what is, but rather arguing that things should be otherwise. This is perfectly legitimate and is operative in nearly all our reasoning about the world insofar as we must perpetually think in terms of potentialities in order to reason about anything at all.

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171103065Over at Perverse Egalitarianism, Shahar has a brief post up on Mach and realism. Mach, in his The Analysis of Sensations, writes,

It has arisen in the process of immeasurable time without the intentional assistance of man.. It is a product of nature, and preserved by nature. Everything that philosophy has accomplished…is, as compared with it, but an insignificant and ephemeral product of art. The fact is, every thinker, every philosopher, the moment he is forced to abandon his one-sided intellectual occupation…immediately returns to [realism]. Nor is it the purpose of these “introductory” remarks to discredit the standpoint [of realism]. The task which we have set ourselves is simply to show why and for what purpose we hold that standpoint during most of our lives, and why and for what purpose we are…obligated to abandon it.

I think Shahar here draws attention to an important point with respect to the speculative realist movement pertaining to what it is and what it is not. It seems to me that it is important to distinguish between naive realism and other variants of realism. In the passage you cite above, Mach appears to be referring to naive realism. His remark here is not unlike Hume’s famous quip about his skepticism. As a philosopher, he remarked, he is a skeptic, unable to demonstrate the necessity of cause and effect relations, etc. However, the moment he plays billiards (i.e., is no longer doing philosophy), he believes in the absolutely necessity or reality of these cause and effect relations.

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duchamp_bride1Based on the recommendation of my friend Jerry the Anthropologist, last week I picked up a few books by the neuroscientist Gerald Edelman. Yesterday, during the day and on the flight from Dallas to Dayton, I was able to get through about half of A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination. Like most of Jerry’s recommendations, the book does not disappoint, and presents a rich and sophisticated discussion of consciousness at both the phenomenological level and the neurological level, which is informed by debates surrounding mind in the history of philosophy and contemporary philosophy of mind, along with a vast array of material from neurology and psychology (Edelman himself is a Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist). Edelman and Tononi are at pains to develop a neurological account of consciousness.

If their approach is so interesting and provocative, much of this has to do with a simple shift in how they pose the question. I have been taken to task by some for claiming that the neurological foundation of consciousness is a done deal or largely established conclusion. It has been pointed out to me that this remains a hotly debated issue and that, as of yet, we do not yet have a neurological account of how consciousness emerges from neuronal activity. I am, of course, aware of this. If I am led to claim that there is no serious dualistic contender for the physicalist hypothesis, then this is not because we have an account of how consciousness arises from the brain, but because massive bodies of observational evidence have emerged with respect to various brain injuries and whatnot showing that consciousness is a physical phenomena. The state of neurology with respect to its ability to account for consciousness is analogous to the state of biology following Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution through natural selection. All of the evidence gathered in the wake of Darwin’s theory indicated the truth of his account (broadly construed). What was lacking was an account of the mechanism by which traits could be passed on. Despite Mendel, we would have to wait nearly a hundred years before that mechanism was discovered and before we began to understand how, precisely, it works. The situation with neurology is very similar. We largely know that brain produces consciousness, but there are a number of big and mysterious “x’s” as to how the brain does this.

One of the things that makes Edelman’s approach so promising– and such a departure from many other assumptions about consciousness –is that he shifts the issue from the question of how consciousness is produced, to the question of when consciousness is produced. To be sure, an answer to the question of “how?” is still the ultimate aim, but if the question of when is so promising, then this is because it helps us to zero in on those processes and their structures generative of consciousness. Edelman’s enquiry proceeds along both phenomenological and neurological axis. Phenomenologically he is attentive to the lived experience of consciousness, its indivisible unity, our sense of self, its internally differentiated nature (not unlike Bergson’s description of multiple durations in Duration and Simultaneity), etc. But most importantly, he is attentive to when consciousness arises at the phenomenological level of experience and when it passes away or disappear. The issue here isn’t simply one of falling asleep, but ranges throughout a number of states in our lived experience. Thus, to take a trite example, when I was learning to type I was highly conscious of the movements of my fingers, the letters on the keyboard, the screen, and the text that I was transposing on to the computer screen. Now, unless I am typing about typing, I am non-conscious of most of these activities, simply doing them in an automatic way.

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