In a recent offline a correspondent expresses ire at my post on Darwin, accusing me of explaining things away through rhetorical flourishes. As my interlocutor writes, “It just happens that neither… contempt, nor the rhetorical flourishes of some recent posts (and I include here the heart-achingly frustrating piece on Darwin and difference here) are particularly productive pieces of writing. There’s no way to save them Levi — and I say this as someone who respects you, not as someone trying to bring you down a notch.” Towards the end of his email he goes on to say, “all this said, if you want to engage in a serious transvaluation, that’s fine, but that’s a book-report kind of project: you need to work through material, not just condescend to chuckle at it for taking a set of problems seriously, or feel justified in hating folks — however repugnant — simply because you feel entitled to. These latter responses have no philosophical or intellectual value.” This is an uncharacteristically impassioned remark on the part of the person who wrote this post. Knowing a bit about this person’s intellectual background, he is, no doubt objecting to this passage in my post on Darwin:

From this perspective, the significance of Darwin for philosophy becomes clear: What Darwin’s thought challenges is the primacy of all essence/accident/individual and form/content theorization. After Darwin, it is difficult not to chuckle when we hear philosophers continue to harp on distinctions between form and content, scheme and content, type and token, essence and existence, norm and fact, and all the rest. One marvels at how legions of scholars continue to take Kant’s account of the role played by the categories in cognition, or how we get endless discussions of the aporetic relationship between scheme and content or type and token. For example, how can thinkers take seriously Adorno’s negative dialectic between form and non-conceptual differences? Have they not heard? Species-difference is an effect of individual difference, and species themselves are individuals, not ontological categories like essences that differ in kind from individuals. Somehow philosophy today has remained all too theological, all too Medieval.

This person’s email has the flavor of the “with all due respect” scene from Talledaga Nights. “I respect you and am not trying to bring you down a notch, but with all due respect…” Setting that aside, I would like to address the issue of “taking problems seriously”. There are situations, I think, where it is appropriate to chuckle at how a particular problem has been posed. Were we to encounter someone today who takes the issue of how species relate to individuals seriously, treating species as one being and the individual as another, we would rightly marvel and chuckle at their perplexity. “Haven’t you heard”, we would think to ourselves, “species are not enduring and eternal essences that differ in kind from individuals, but are statistically preponderant regularities among a reproductive population of individuals subject to change.” In other words, the person tying himself in knots over this issue would lead us to raise an eyebrow in surprise because a solution to this problem has been found. We would wonder why such a person continues to labor within such a framework.

Now, when a successful idea arises in the course of history, we suspect that perhaps elements of this idea can be successfully employed with respect to other problems. If the concept of species turned out to be a fiction in the case of biology, if it turned out that there was no difference in kind between species and individuals in biology, and if it turned out that species are the result of individual differences not the reverse, then perhaps something similar holds in the case of other form/content, essence/existence, type/token, norm/fact, scheme/content distinctions. This is, of course, only a hypothesis, but given the number of problems these distinctions have generated– problems not remarkably different from those generated by the relationship between species and individuals in Scholastic thought –it is a hypothesis worth pursuing. In short, these distinctions look suspiciously like carry overs of Scholastic metaphysics. Kant did the best he could with the tools that he had, but the fact still remains that Kant was working within the framework of a now discredited faculty psychology based upon occult entities like “categories” and “concepts” that you would have a very difficult time finding in Kant’s form anywhere in contemporary psychology or neurology. Rather, with the exception of certain cranks in philosophy circles like Jerry Fodor, contemporary psychology begins with the thesis that these sorts of abstractions do not explain, but rather must be explained. That is, they begin from the thesis that we must give a developmental account of these sorts of cognitive regularities from individual differences. What is painful is seeing so many talented minds– let us call them “normaholics” due to their fetishistic obsession with questions of normativity and their naive belief that normativity ever prevented anything terrible from happening –continuing to waste their energy on occult entities such as this and poorly posing problems and questions as a result, but so it goes. Should we really continue to take the scholastics among us seriously, or should we instead acknowledge that they do an important service with their work on intellectual history, reminding us of the curious follies of certain past thinkers with respect to questions of knowledge, metaphysics, and ethics?

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