img127In response to my post on the emptiness of philosophy, Philip of Circling Squares writes the following great comment:

It’s true that scientists don’t need philosophers to put their abstractions in order. However, it’s also true that when scientists attempt to ‘do’ philosophy they often do so very badly. Just because they don’t need philosophers doesn’t mean that their own implicit (or explicit) philosophies aren’t dreadful and misguided, only that they function well enough for their purposes.

Actually, when thinking about what philosophy is I find it useful to start with what Geertz said of anthropology’s relation to philosophy, which was that the role of anthropology is not to provide answers to the ‘big questions’ but to provide a record of the answers that various peoples have given to such questions. If it is also true that, as Whitehead put it, the philosopher is the ‘critic of abstractions’ then it seems that we can anthropologise and pragmatise the practice of philosophy.

Not only scientists but even the denizens of remote, non-modern villages (i.e. the stereotypical subjects of anthropology) are perfectly capable of developing complex and sophisticated systems of abstractions. Anyone capable of submitting such abstractions to some form of critique could be said to be philosophising. What we call Philosophy is, then, simply the institutionalisation, formalisation and professionalisation of this function. Which isn’t to say that it is ‘universal’ but nor is it necessarily all that particular. Perhaps some people are without a socio-linguistic capacity we could call ‘critical’ in this sense but wherever there *are* people with this capacity we can say that there is philosophy as an anthropological phenomenon.

So, in this sense scientists are already philosophers of their own life worlds. As Latour has said so often, scientists are constantly doing metaphysics, constantly re-imagining how reality is stitched together. If they lacked this capacity then they couldn’t do their jobs.

But, then, how do I reconcile this with my previous point about scientists often making very bad philosophers? Well, we could say that philosophy as a formalised, institutionalised phenomenon — capital P Philosophy, if you like — represents a canon of thought against which present philosophers are judged and through which an ongoing assemblage of competing and overlapping systems of rules, preferences and traditions are impressed upon present philosophers.

Or, in short, maybe everyone does philosophy but only a few do Philosophy — only a few raise that basic anthropological function to a level of formality and deliberation that can be recognised as a distinct epistemic institution. Scientists, for their part, are expert philosophers — they have to be — but they don’t always make very good Philosophers — because that requires a whole other set of experiences and competencies.

The reason I don’t go all the way with Philip is because I think this fails to recognize the periodic nature of philosophy.  I don’t think philosophy (or Philosophy) is just a system of abstractions, but rather think it is a form of conceptual thought that only emerges under certain social and cultural conditions.  As I see it, the conditions for Philosophy are cultural rupture.  There has to be some sort of political transformation that marks a rupture with what came before and more or less overturns what came before, or similar sorts of ruptures in the sciences where our understanding of the world is, as it were, erased by some new set of discoveries, or a technological transformation that overturns prior social relations or ways of doing things (this type of rupture is somewhat new, though it did occur a bit in the past with certain agricultural revolutions), or an artistic rupture, or some combination of the above across which a “transversal” is drawn as Dan suggests in his comment earlier.  What I’m trying to say is that rupture is the condition for the possibility of Philosophy and that there is no Philosophy in the absence of ruptures.  In this regard, Philosophy is that form of thought that reflects the implications of these ruptures, what it means for what the Being of being is, what it suggests as to what sorts of beings we are, what it means for what politics ought to be, what it means for what justice and the good are, etc.  This is why I say philosophy always comes after, never before, and why I argue that philosophy doesn’t exist in all times and places.  There are literally periods where philosophy is entirely absent– I gave the 80s and 90s as an example –because we are not living in a period of rupture.  It is not Philosophy that effects these ruptures, but rather, Philosophy is one of the ways in which societies reflect these ruptures and try to come to terms with them.  In Luhmannian terms, it’s a form of second-order reflection that selects from certain tendencies in the social field, while excluding or abandoning others.  This sort of second-order observation, of course, can occur in any culture.  I think that if we look at the history of Philosophy, this thesis is well attested to.  We see it wax and wane, sometimes disappearing, sometimes reappearing, sometimes being present in certain geographical regions, at other times being absence, and so on.

read on!

I think it’s difficult to say with regard to the sciences whether or not they do Philosophy well or poorly.  There are certainly plenty of philosophers that do philosophy poorly because they are scholastics, tied to the authority of various figures or tied to the orthodoxy of a particular school of thought, that then prove unable to pose questions and generate concepts in response to the Real in Lacan’s sense.  Here I understand the real as a set of material resistances intractable to inherited and existing conceptual categories that commands conceptual invention.

In this regard, we can distinguish, roughly, between two styles of thought.  On the one hand, perhaps there’s “semio-discursive” thought that thinks from the symbolic, from the text, drawing out ever new “theorems” from within the framework based on the rules of that “discursive game” so that new cases might be subsumed under that symbolic system, e.g., the scholastic Marxist or Lacanian scholastic (and not all Marxists nor Lacanians are scholastics, mind you) that traces each new phenomenon he encounters back to existing moments in the text of Marx or Lacan, showing how they are just one more instance of what these thinkers already said.  This is what Lacan called a “university discourse”.  University or scholastic discourses show how such and such a new element is really just an instance of what we already know and integrates these new cases into the body of knowledge.  By contrast, there is what might be called “thinking from the Real”, which is a form of thought that thinks from a non-integratible instance or remainder, something that doesn’t fit with existing bodies of discursivity, and generates concepts out of the Real, rather than subsuming these aleatory instances to a body of existing discursivity.  This is what Lacan and Marx themselves did in their engagement with their analysands and contemporary society, respectively.  Clearly thinking from the Real doesn’t mean that the prior discursive tradition is ignored or abandoned, as those that think from the Real draw on prior fields of discursivity throughout their work (though usually in highly unorthodox and unexpected ways, cf. Lacan’s “return to Freud” which shares little resemblance to the Freudian orthodoxy of his time, and that brings in all sorts of disciplines such as ethnography, linguistics, mathematics, and little “p” philosophy that Freud never grappled with).  Rather, it means that this form of thinking does not aim to subsume yet one more case under existing categories, but rather opens a space where conceptual invention can take place in relation to elements– “Reals” –that do not fit with existing discursivity.  Big “P” Philosophy thinks from the Real with respect to the cultural ruptures of their day, e.g. Plato responding to geometry and how it marks a rupture with mytho-poetic thought, Descartes responding to the mathematization of science, etc.

In my view, we have to be careful to distinguish between Philosophy as a sort of function and activity, and philosophy.  Capital P Philosophy is not tied to departments or the academy (though it can occur there), but rather can take place anywhere and through anyone, regardless of whether or not they were academically trained as “philosophers” (academically trained philosophers are often just intellectual historians and intellectual biographers, not Philosophers, and this form of training in philosophy departments can even work to discourage the happening of Philosophy insofar as departments or disciplines are autopoietic systems that often function merely to reproduce themselves and their own discourse, rather than to encounter the Real).  I would even go so far as to say that much of the best Philosophy in recent years has been done in departments and disciplines other than Philosophy.  Here we might think of Women’s and Gender Studies departments, Media Studies Department, Literature Departments, Sociology and Political Science departments, Anthropology departments, and so on.  Why is this?  What is it that has led these disciplines to produce Philosophy?  I would say that it’s because where, in the discipline of Philosophy, Philosophy– especially in Continental departments –only has its own history to reflect on, these other disciplines are all organized around the Real of an object that eludes them and that demands conceptual invention:  Women, minorities, queer bodies, new media, literature, and so on.  At their best, they encounter intractable Reals that demand to be heard and that can’t simply be reduced to prior and inherited fields of discursivity.  This would also be why a lot of Philosophy takes place in the sciences.  They think from the Real or encounter that which doesn’t fit with pre-existing models of worldly understanding.

It’s important not to confuse the Real with “true reality” or that which some form of knowledge might try to represent.  The concept of the Real refers to something that is purely functional and relational, not reality.  It refers to an element that does not fit with existing discursive categories, something that upsets and disturbs those categories, and therefore to something that ought not exist.  Within the Newtonian framework, for example, the irregularities in the orbit of Mercury were an example of the Real.  They indicated something that shouldn’t be according to Newton’s laws of gravity.  Within an Einsteinian framework, those irregularities are no longer “irregularities”, nor instances of the Real.  A protest group can be an instance of the Real if they articulate a set of demands and criticisms that don’t fit with reigning ideology or standard discourses about what people are concerned about, what is possible in a particular society, and so on.  As Lacan likes to say “the Real is a missed encounter.”  It always carries a bit (or a lot) of surprise.  By this he means that our cognition is structured in such a way as to anticipate that things will continue as the did in the past.  A missed encounter takes place not so much when we miss something like an appointment, but when something takes place or presents itself that doesn’t fit with any of our expectations or anticipations.  A tuche, a swerve.  Most of the time we try to deny that the Real even took place, to pretend it isn’t there, or attempt to integrate it in our existing system of discursivity in an ad hoc way (epicycles).  Thinking from the Real entails the resolute refusal to deny the irregularity or to domesticate it with epicycles, but rather to allow the Real to begin dictating conceptual production (“ah, space and time must bend as a function of mass!” not, “Mercury must have a hidden moon.”).

In addition to this, with any text, I think we need to distinguish between the meta-text and the text.  Meta-text is how the text understands itself, articulates what it’s doing, conceives itself, and so on.  Text is what a text actually does.  Take a man in analysis that goes on and on about what a good husband he is, how much he loves and wants to please his wife, and so on.  This is the meta-text of the analysand, or what Bruce Fink calls his “ego-discourse”.  It’s how we re-presents himself.  Now look at what he actually does, how he really speaks to his wife, how often he’s there rather than being lost in work, television, outings with friends, etc.  This is his text and is also the truth of his desire.  There is often a wide gap between meta-text and text, just as Derrida and Paul de Man taught us to see.  It’s no different in the case of the sciences.  At the level of meta-text or a “philosophical” work written by a scientist about, say, his epistemology, we might find that it is absolutely crass.  He talks about sense-data impressions, has a simplistic view of experiments, etc., that shares very little resemblance to what he actually does.  It’s as if he’s succumbed to facile commonplaces of doxa or popular opinion about what knowledge is that don’t at all resemble the radicality and novelty of what he actually does.  After all, the scientist isn’t here a reflector or second-order observer, but a doer.  At the level of text, however, we might find that his working epistemology is incredibly novel, sophisticated, doesn’t refer to individual perceivers really at all, but to armies of scientists working together, to all sorts of unheard of instruments like supercollidors and whatnot, and so on.  This is why sociologists of science who do ethnographic fieldwork among scientists like Latour and Pickering can be illuminating.  The set aside the meta-texts of scientists when discussing epistemology and ontology, and instead attend to the working epistemologies and ontologies of scientists, even where they themselves don’t register these things (fish probably don’t notice the water they swim in either).  It’s there that we ought to look for the “good” Philosophy of scientists.