I already began to develop this thesis somewhat in an earlier post yet didn’t completely drive it home. Some people seem to think that the function of philosophy is to rigorously ground claims so as to get at The Truth(tm). As an empiricist that values actual concrete empirical research whether it be the political activist engaged in affecting the social assemblage in which they’re entangled, the artist experimenting with a new style, the ethnographer or sociologist investigating a social assemblage, the person in the humanities plumbing the archives, the engineer working at the invention of a new technology, or the biologist, physicist, or chemist doing laboratory work. Indeed, I’m even fascinated in the young person exploring the affects produced in a rave or a rock band, or two lovers inventing a new form of singular relation between one another. These are all empiricisms in their own fashion. They’re all explorations of the wilderness of being.
For me philosophy is a parasitic discipline that is without an object beyond the Present of its historical moment. It is beyond truth or falsehood in the referential sense, instead striving to think the sense of its Time. With Badiou I thus hold that Truths always come from elsewhere, outside of philosophy, from politics, art, love, and science. Philosophy has no Truths of its own and is thus a sort of empty square that travels an aleatory course throughout history. In this regard, there are no “questions of philosophy” that could be summed up in a textbook for all time. The questions of philosophy will always be a function of its Time or the eternity of its Present. Nonetheless, philosophy strives to think that which is singularly eternal and concretely universal in its Time or the Present. With Deleuze and Guattari, I thus hold that philosophy is a creation of concepts. As they write in What is Philosophy?, “…philosophy is the art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts” (2). Concepts do not fall ready made and fully formed from the sky, rather they must be built.
Concepts are not representations, nor are they ideas in minds. Rather, they are lenses and tools. They are apparatuses, every bit as tangible and real as hammers. It makes as much sense to ask “is this concept true?” as it does to ask “is a hammer true?” Drawing a concept from Ryle, this question constitutes a category mistake. And it is a category mistake that constitutes some of the most tiresome and fascistically terrifying attitudes in all of philosophy. Everywhere with this question of whether a concept is true, whether it represents the world, we encounter the desire to police, dominate, subordinate, and render subservient. Like Kafka’s Court or Castle, these philosophical technologies everywhere seek to trap, ensnare, halt, and limit. They create the illusion of free movement and autonomy, while everywhere weaving a semantic web about engagement seeking to fix it. The question “is it true?” is the insecure and narcissitic fantasy of academic philosophy wishing to redeem itself by functioning as master discipline, legislator, and judge of all other disciplines, practices, and experiences. The artist, physicist, ethnographer, and activist get along just fine without this type of “philosopher” to examine their papers. The proper questions when encountering a hammer is not “is it true?”, but rather “what does it do?”, “what can I do with it?”, “is it put together well for these tasks?”, and so on.
William James somewhere famously speaks of the buzzing, blooming confusion of experience. Being is a jumble that in and of itself provides no vectors of its joints. Concepts are lenses and apparatuses. The question to ask a concept is not “is it true?” but is closer to the sorts of questions we ask of a microscope, radio telescope, or hammer. Nothing in the world tells me what to attend to or what to see. The question to ask of a concept is “what does it allow me to see?”, “what risks does it involve?”, “what does it allow me to do?”, “what affective attitudes and personae or human types does it generate?”, “what social relations or new forms social collective does it create?”, “what practices does it invite?”, “what affective attitudes towards other persons and nonhumans does it produce?”, “what hierarchies does it embody?”, “what new paths of invention, practice, research and invention does it breech?”, and so on. Concepts are meant to work and only live in working. They aren’t meant to represent.
So many philosophers seem to desire to legislate and judge, rather than listen and hear. At any point in history the world is populated by Truths, yet Truths have the peculiar property of not being reflexive. In the domains of art, love, science, and politics they are haphazardly lived and enacted while, as it were, remaining unconscious. Philosophy strives to bring a little reflexivity to the Present. It strives to grasp that which is concretely universal and singularly eternal in the Present (Truths) so that these Truths might appear a little more intensively in the world, a little more legibly, and so that these Truths might become capable of enjoying new aleatory adventures and inventions in the order of Time. Concepts are performative or enactive, not representational.
The other day Mel told me a story about her students in one of her English classes. They said that they had never heard of structural patriarchy. They had sensed a number of things were wrong in the world and in their lives, yet had experienced these things as either being the way of the world or a fault of their own or the people they are involved with. Structural patriarchy is a concept, and as a concept it selects something from chaos or the buzzing confusion of experience, and functions as both a lens and a tool calling for us to attend to certain relevancies or significant points in the world. With this sad concept the possibility of affirmation follows. The students are now able to stitch together a series of seemingly disparate phenomena in their social world, to recognize their contingency and injustice, and to begin devising strategies to transform them. Atwood’s Handmaiden’s Tale is now, for them, no longer a harrowing science fiction story about a terrible universe involving the travails of this particular woman, but is instead an exploration of the tendencies active in our world. The eternity of the singular jumps into relief. This concept both grasps something of its historical present, but also points the way to a set of practices for changing it. The Truth of the concept is not that our present is defined by structural patriarchy, but rather the egalitarian practices that emerge from this naming allowing another future to become available. There, before the concept, was yearning for something else and suffering, yet in inchoate form. With the concept, this yearning and suffering take on determinate form allowing for the emergence of practices and invention. Concepts are precious things and do not fall from the sky ready made. The only relevant question when they do appear is whether something can be done with them and whether the practices they invite are worthwhile.