April 2009


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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I will be gone for the next few days to attend a wedding in Ohio. During that time I will have limited computer access, so if comments are slow to post (or don’t post until Monday), this is because I’m away. Enjoy your weekend, folks!

Over at Perverse Egalitarianism there has been a heated, and I think important, debate over the nature of normativity. At one point the debate turned a bit sour and I temporarily walked away. I apologize to Mikhail for my ire and heated words, and hope the discussion can resume without any distracting ugliness. Like anyone else, my blood pressure rises on occasion and I lose my cool. Resuming the discussion from my end, I thought I’d take a few moments to outline how I understand the debate.

It is clear that for Mikhail normativity is a deeply important issue, if not the most important issue, for he seems to measure all other branches of philosophy and the world against this question. The discussion first began a few weeks ago in response to one of my posts (I don’t recall which) on realism. Mikhail asked me something along the lines of where normativity or the “ought” is in my realist metaphysics. Perplexed by the question, I responded hastily by observing that I didn’t think it was anywhere. Now, if I responded in this way, then this is because, where metaphysics is concerned, I don’t see what the atomic constitution of salt has to do with questions of ethics. That is, if we begin from the premise that metaphysics raises questions about what the real is, what existence is, it seems to me that these questions are independent of questions about ethics and justice. My remark, which should have been more well thought out, was simply pointing to different domains of questions. Metaphysics asks one set of questions, ethics asks another set of questions.

I take it that Mikhail took my response as excluding questions of ethics altogether, which simply isn’t the case at all. My point was simply that when I have my metaphysics hat on and am endeavoring to determine what the real might be, I do not have my ethics hat on. The question of the “ought” is elsewhere. In good Spinozist fashion, I begin from the premise that terms like “good”, “evil”, “just”, “unjust”, “beautiful”, “ugly”, etc., are not first-order predicates belonging to entities themselves, but rather relational predicates pertaining to the relationship between humans and the world around them. In order to see the difference between, say, an apple considered metaphysically and an apple considered normatively, consider the apple first in its independence from the body and second in relation to the body. I choose the example of apples because they are far less affectively charged as a matter of discussion than, say, questions of murder.

Considered metaphysically, the apple is value neutral. It just is what it is, much like Yahweh in the Bible. Metaphysically, if the apple is ripe this doesn’t make it “good”. Likewise, considered metaphysically, if the apple is rotten this doesn’t make it bad. The ripeness or rottenness of the apple is purely an outcome of physical cellular processes that are, in and of themselves, value-neutral. When we wish to understand or know the apple, these processes are what we are after. Nature, then, is in and of itself a kingdom without ends or purposes.

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In recent discussions here and elsewhere surrounding neurology, I get the sense that many approach neurology with a highly specific set of assumptions that very much color their reaction to this field. Turn the television to the Discovery channel on any given evening and you will find documentaries dominated by the theoretical orientation of psycho- and socio-biology. Within this theoretical orientation, any particular human practice, psychological phenomenon, or form of social organization is explained in evolutionary terms as a biological adaptation that promotes reproduction and survival. As a result, this form of psycho- and socio-biology ends up naturalizing and essentializing human practices, social organizations, and forms of subjectivity in ways that can only be described as reactionary.

Those of us who have developed intellectually in the milieu of the last century’s revolution in the social sciences– whether in fields like ethnography, psychoanalysis, cultural studies, linguistics, etc –cannot but encounter this form of theoretical explanation profoundly ignorant by virtue of the way it is commonly unaware of both the findings of ethnography where we discover that if you can imagine it there is probably some group of people somewhere or somewhen that have organized their social, exchange, and kinship relations in this way, and, as a consequence, ideologically debilitating as it ends up naturalizing the contingent forms of subjectivity, social organization, amorous relations, etc., that characterize our contemporary historical and cultural moment.

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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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I have a brutal headache this evening due to lack of sleep and grading student papers and still have a pile of essays to get through this evening, so I won’t be writing too much. That aside, when I was younger, perhaps around the age of 15 or 16, I discovered Spinoza’s Ethics. I am not sure why I found myself so obsessed with this book at that time in my life. That year I read the Theologico-Politico Treatise, the Ethics, and the Treatise on the Endmendation of the Intellect. These are certainly strange texts for a 15 year old filled with raging hormones to become obsessed with. Perhaps it was that Spinoza dared to say “One” in his description of the universe. I have always gravitated towards holistic conceptions of the universe, fascinated with the interdependence or interconnection of things among one another. That same year I found myself [trying to] read Whitehead’s Process and Reality, and Leibniz’s Monadology and Discourse on Metaphysics for similar reasons. Although I had standard teen fascinations with existentialism, devouring Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Nausea, Heidegger’s Being and Time, and the standard works by Camus, Kafka, and Dostoyevsky, my real love was these wild and wooly metaphysicians. Spinoza, Leibniz, and Descartes motivated me to buckle down and actually learn mathematics so that I might read them.

Yet in addition to Spinoza’s beautiful holistic and process oriented metaphysics, I was, no doubt drawn to his work due to the magnificent appendix to Part I of the Ethics, and the biting and corrosive critique of religious belief in the Theologico-Politico Treatise. The time was the early 90s. I lived in a small coal mining town in Ohio (having lived all over the country). At this time the Religious Right was in full ascension– quietly growing in power and pervading the country without anyone really knowing. I was raised in a rather secular family. Although my father was raised my Southern Baptist and my mother was raised devoutly Catholic– the Bryant boys had, like all good Southern Baptists, been forbidden to date Catholics, but let’s be honest, who can resist those uniforms? –and although I was raised in the Episcopal church (they cut the difference), religion was never a real presence, as far as I can recall, in our family. Yes, I went to church on Sundays– I think –but I don’t really remember much if anything about it beyond groaning when I had to get out of bed and sneaking out of the services under the alibi of having to use the restroom so that I could explore the enticing forests around the church in New England and in Ohio; primitive feeling, primordial forests with grounds covered with ferns, muted sounds of animals, the greening of green speaking to some hidden vitality, and towering pines all about. A much better form of worship, I think.

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Over at Perverse Egalitarianism, a discussion that has been extremely productive and, I think, valuable, has taken a turn for the worse. In response to Mikhail’s entirely fair question about whether or not the realist would banish religious debate from the public sphere, I made, what I believe, to be the entirely obvious observation that among the vast majority of religious folks (and I’m Southern so we’re all “folks” us) are realists where they’re beliefs are concerned. Just as I am a vulgar naturalistic materialist, the religious believer is not a correlationist in their belief, but is committed to the thesis that the claims they make about God, the soul, the afterlife, and spirits are claims about real things, not simply phenomena or appearances. In other words, in the public space we have many competing versions of realism duking it out amongst one another. Yet somehow this rather obvious (I thought) claim got transformed into the thesis that all of these realisms are true or, we might say, the thesis that we should let a thousand realisms bloom.

I think this Rubic’s cube appropriation of my claim reveals something fundamental about the difference between realist and correlationist approaches to thought. Put in the rhetorical frame of a Zizekian mode of speech, I’m led to wonder, who’s really dogmatic here. As a realist I’m committed to the thesis that if something is knowledge, then it is not simply a claim about phenomena as they appear to us but has rather revealed something deep and real about things independent of us that would belong to these things regardless of whether or not humans existed to know them. Where the correlationist is committed to the thesis that these properties can never be said to belong to objects themselves but only objects for us, the realist says no, these things are in the objects themselves. That is the ontological thesis. But from the standpoint of epistemology, I think the realist is extremely modest. The realist says we are trying to discover the nature of the real, we’re fairly sure we’ve discovered a few properties of the real, we conclude that there are certain properties belonging to the real based on the best available evidence, but we also recognize that subsequent discoveries might entirely overturn these conclusions. In addition to that, the realist, of whatever stripe, recognizes that they are obligated to duke it out in the public space, providing reasons and arguments for their position, and that their reasons might ultimately fail to persuade or be based on faulty evidence.

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