September 2014

tumblr_llgmterc1z1qgbm7jIt’s difficult for me to articulate my thoughts about anarchism because in many respects I’m not entirely sure what it is.  Perhaps this obscurity of anarchism belongs to its essence.  In ordinary language anarchy generally signifies chaos and disorder.  I do not think this is the case.  In my mind, anarchism isn’t the absence of order, nor law, but is a question of where order and law come from.  I’m not, however, firm on that hypothesis.  Perhaps anarchism could denote a form of social and political organization without any law, but that would require a number of qualifications.

My thesis is that anarchism is the form of political organization that haunts all politics.  However, this formula is liable to misinterpretation. “Haunting” generally has negative connotations.  Someone might therefore take this statement to denote the idea that anarchism is a danger that threatens all forms of political organization.  Under this characterization, anarchy would be something to be defended against.

This is not what I mean when I say anarchy haunts all forms of social and political organization.  Rather, I mean something closer to Marx’s claim that communism is a specter that haunts Europe.  To my thinking, anarchism haunts all political thought and all actually existing political institutions in two ways:  First, there is the positive way.  Anarchism is the political ideal– recognized as such or not –that all emancipatory politics aspires to.  All truly just political organization strives to be egalitarian and without hierarchy, whether hierarchy be organized around a privileged leader, economic class, privileged institutions (such as corporations or parties), a privileged gender, ethnicity, religion, etc.  When we think the concept of emancipation to its logical conclusion, anarchism stares back at us.  Anarchism is what emancipatory and egalitarian politics strives to be without being it.  It is the regulative ideal that both functions as the aim this politics strives towards and the standard it falls short of.

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PanopticonInstitutions are hybrids of corporeal and incorporeal machines.  Being can be roughly divided into corporeal and incorporeal machines, with further subdivisions on each side and a variety of combinations between them.  The distinction, however, is paradoxical.  Just as Freud said that both hysteria and obsession are subspecies of hysteriaboth corporeal and incorporeal machines are subspecies of corporeal machines.  In short, every incorporeal machines requires a body to exist.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet requires the paper upon which it is printed, the computer data banks within which it is stored, the neurons that retain it, or the sonic-bodies and physical bodies in which the play is realized through the voice of actors and their embodied movements.  What makes an incorporeal machine incorporeal is not that it is without a body, but that it is iterable, or capable of being instantiated in a variety of mediums.  Hamlet can be instantiated on paper, in a film, on stage, on a computer screen, on neurons, etc.  It is still Hamlet in all of these mediums, though the medium, of course, can significantly transform the nature of the play.  Here, for example, we might think of the variations of Beethoven’s Ninth in A Clockwork Orange.  While the score is the Ninth in each of versions, the instruments and technologies that produce these sonic bodies in these instances transform the music in a variety of ways.  There is both an identity and a difference here.  We are affected differently by the synthesizer version of the Ninth than the symphonic version.  The music produces subtly different affective and even signifying responses.

The corporeal dimension of an institution– a school, prison, hospital, government agency, library, etc. –is the architecture, place, or site in which it is housed.  It is literally brick, mortar, glass, wood, and wires configured in a particular way.  One will object that an institution like The New Centre has no building or site because it is online.  Alternatively, one could argue that it is purely incorporeal.  There are two ways of approaching this issue; both of which are valid.  First it can be noted that virtual institutions still need a site to exist.  They must have a web address, links, paths, a website, etc.  This is both an architecture and a geography.  The web design or configuration is its architecture, whereas its placement on the web through links and search engines is its geography.  Neither are without consequence and both generate real constraints and affordances.  We are all familiar with websites that are difficult to navigate and that affectively impact us in a variety of ways.  Script can be too small or large.  Color choices can be hard on the eyes.  Programming can be used that limits the technologies that can access it.  I can’t use on my smart phone because it’s set up in such a way that I’m unable to navigate it.  It’s as if it’s a building without doors or windows.  I see that it’s there.  I can navigate to it.  But once there I can go no further.  I have the wrong key.  The architecture makes a difference.  The geography makes a difference as well.  A website can be a dim object by virtue of being difficult to find due to a paucity of links or a name that is shared by many other websites.  Perhaps there is a website entitled “X-factor” that explores the paradoxes and antinomies that haunt thought.  Whenever one searches for it a variety of porn websites come up and because the website is devoted to a rather specialized philosophical interest it doesn’t appear high in Google searches because few people visit it.  Such a website is like a remote city, beyond a desert, difficult to traverse mountain range, swamp, or turbulent river.

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Deleuze and Guattari coin the term “conceptual personae” in What is Philosophy?  My aim here is not to retain true to their signification of the term, though I am vaguely influenced by it.  In other words, I’m not interested in a discussion of what Deleuze and Guattari really meant by “conceptual personae”.  If I’ve gotten it wrong, so much the worse for them.   A conceptual personae is a type of subject that operates with concepts.  Here the term “subject” is misleading.  Subject does not refer to minds or psychology, but is closer to the concept of “offices” or “subject-positions”.  In the social world we talk about offices and occupations.  There are teachers, police officers, priests, managers, presidents, senators, etc.  Although these offices are always occupied by persons that have bodies and minds, the office itself is not a person.  The office is rather a set of duties, obligations, and capacities.  The duties, obligations, and capacities of a police officer are different than those of a teacher.  Moreover, the office of police officer and teacher relate to the world and others in very different way.  “Subject”, perhaps, isn’t the best word; but I don’t know another.

This is how it is with conceptual personae in philosophy.  The conceptual personae aren’t minds or persons or individuals.  Rather, conceptual personae are normative types that operate on concepts in particular ways.  It is a set of norms governing how concepts are to be operated on.  Philosophy is inhabited by three main conceptual personae, but there are others as well.  There is first the conceptual personae of the philosopher.  Here it’s important to proceed with caution, for all three conceptual personae are referred to as philosophers in ordinary English.  Moreover, hybrids of all three can be formed, where a conceptual operator is a philosopher in one matter and an anti-philosopher in another.  Perhaps I need a different word.  The philosopher operates on concepts with a set of normative premises:  reality, divinity (if it exists), and morality, the philosopher holds, are rational.  In claiming they are rational, the philosopher claims these things can be known through reason and observation, and that a demonstration is possible for each and every true claim.  They hold that there is a true reality, and that real truth exists.  The philosopher holds that we are capable of ruling ourselves because we are capable of knowing reality and moral law through our own reason and observation, and that therefore we do not need leaders to guide us.  That is, the philosopher thinks wisdom is available to everyone if they pursue it.  Philosophers don’t necessarily claim that they know reality, the moral law, or divinity, only that it can be known.  Hegel was a philosopher.  Spinoza was a philosopher.  Aristotle was likely a philosopher.  Surprisingly, it looks like Deleuze was a philosopher (if we take his Spinozism seriously).  Philosophers fell into disrepute in the 20th and 21st century.

Anti-philosophers argue something very different. I draw this term from Badiou, but again with no intention of representing his thought.  Where philosophers hold reality is rational and knowable, anti-philosophers hold that reality is fundamentally irrational and therefore is something that can ever be known.  Where philosophers argue that there are truths, that it’s possible to be mistaken about justice or the nature of reality, anti-philosophers argue that there is only opinion or doxa.  Where the philosopher argues that we can be persuaded by reason and that we can govern ourselves by reason, the anti-philosopher argues that there is only force or power.  If I’m convinced by something, the anti-philosopher says, it’s not because the reasons given entailed the truth of the claim, but because I’ve been seduced by a certain discourse and habituated to associate in this way.  I’ve been interpellated.  Where the philosopher argues that there is a reality (or a few in multi-verse hypotheses), the anti-philosopher argues that reality is a construction.  Where the philosopher argues that there are objective truths about morality and justice, the anti-philosopher argues that there is only custom and power.  The philosopher, using reason and observation (which is what makes her work philosophy) operates on concepts in an attempt to demonstrate these things.  Hume was an example of an anti-philosopher.  Nietzsche was another.  Late Wittgenstein was an anti-philosopher.  Baudrillard and Foucault were both anti-philosophers.  Derrida probably was an anti-philospher as well.  Kant was an anti-philosopher in the first Critique (though of a very unusual sort), and was a philosopher in the second Critique.

The mysterian is a sort of hybrid between the philosopher and the anti-philosopher.  The mysterian is a sort of point of indiscernibility between religion or myth and philosophy.  His mode of operation resembles that of the religious, yet he still uses careful argumentation to illustrate his claims.  Like the philosopher, the mysterian holds that there is a Truth (usually of a divine nature).  Like the anti-philosopher, he doesn’t think this Truth can be demonstrated through reason and observation.  Rather, the mysterian holds that a special encounter or intuition is required to know this Truth.  The mysterian traffics in gnosis not episteme.  The two most famous mysterians today are Levinas and Marion; Levinas with his encounter with the Other, Marion with his saturated phenomena.  Wittgenstein, at the end of the Tractatus, is mysterian.  Badiou with his doctrine of the event sometimes seems mysterian.  Plato is a mysterian in Book VI of the Republic when he talks of the Good beyond being and reason.  Heidegger often sounds like a mysterian when he speaks of sendings of being.  There are others.

It would be a mistake to think that philosophy should banish so as to side solely with the philosopher.  With Badiou, we can say that philosophy passes into terror whenever it attempts to banish the anti-philosopher and the mysterian.  Rather, these three subject operators are integral to philosophy.  The philosopher forever pushes us to provide good reasons for our claims and to take seriously that perhaps some claims are better than others, more sound than others, where reality, ethics, and divinity are concerned.  The anti-philosophy perpetually points out the pretensions of reason and those places where reason really hasn’t produced an argument for its claims but is instead just advancing a privilege, ideology, or myth.  Anti-philosophy reveals obscurantist roots at work in the philosopher and the philosopher, in response, is forced to become better.  There is no Kant (a philosopher) without Hume.  The mysterian perpetually points out the limits of reasons and raises the question of whether Spinoza and Hegel are conceptually possible (Goedel, a mysterian, for example) or whether there is a beyond that reason can never touch.  The three produce a tension with one another that everywhere propels thought towards inventiveness.

In my view, Badiou brings something valuable to the table with his concept of “truth-procedures”.  This can best be understood, I think, by looking at some of the United States and English political axioms of the 90s.  Increasingly, people on the center-left came to the conclusion that communism and socialism are impossible.  The failure of the Soviet state, coupled with the horrors of things like the Khmer Rouge and the Gulags, led people to believe not only were these forms of social organization impossible to realize in practice, but that any attempt to do so would end in catastrophic disaster.  As a consequence, we saw a rise of “political pragmatism”.  The political pragmatist– not to be confused with the philosophical school from which it derives its name –was a hard-nosed realist about what is and is not possible politically (we saw the rise of this rhetoric again following the election of Obama).  Arguing that these other political systems are impossible and lead to horror if pursued, the political pragmatist restricted his activism to promoting what is possible.  This amounted to working within the system of neoliberal capitalism, promoting policies that would still be slightly left leaning, while leaving that economic system intact.  Of course, the outcome of this politics is that policy has increasingly moved to the right, continuously eroding the rights, benefits, and salaries of workers, while also undermining the ability of workers to voice their grievances.  The political pragmatist defends a gradualism, arguing that if we do what is possible now, preventing the perfect from being an enemy of the possible, we will slowly establish a more worker-friendly economy and political system.  On the one hand, this politics is completely ineffectual in dealing with something like climate change which requires dramatic action that will clearly challenge neoliberal capitalism.  On the other hand, the track record of political pragmatism reveals the emptiness of its hypothesis.  Things haven’t moved left.  They’ve gone further and further to the right, eroding worker protections, jobs, salaries, and ceding disproportionate power and representation to big corporations.  Meanwhile, we’ve also witnessed the pervasive explosion of a police state, as well as a world characterized by perpetual warfare.

While issues of truth might seem remote from these political issues, political pragmatism is, in fact, based on a particular epistemology or theory of knowledge.  Representationalist and empiricist, political pragmatism derives the ground of its political prescriptions from the assertion of reality.  It appeals to the spectacular and catastrophic failure of the Soviet state as evidence of what is and is not possible.  When we reflect on this a bit, we notice that it’s a strange sort of argument.  Somehow an appeal to a fact (“the Soviet State was a failure that led to horror”) is supposed to generate a modal conclusion or conclusion about what is possible.  Clearly facts can allow us to deduce impossibilities in some circumstances because the properties of a thing will constrain how it can interact with other things, e.g., the properties of an atom like nitrogen will determine what it can and cannot interact with.  However, it’s hard to see how facts about Soviet socialism allow us to infer what is possible for socialism as such.  The claim is somehow that socialism inevitably leads to the Gulag, failed economy, and the Khmer Rouge.  Yet how can that follow from an instance?  We’re never told, nor does the centrist ever engage in an onto-cartographical analysis of the specific circumstances and conditions that led to the Gulags and Khmer Rouge.  No, it’s just the ideology.

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As a good cosmopolitan or citizen of the world, we commonly assert that all value terms are relative.  We say this because we look at the multi-cultural world about us, and see that different cultures (what’s a culture?) have different sets of values.  I can very well see how I could decide an issue like whether or not the world is round through an appeal to evidence, I reason, but I can’t see how I could resolve disputes over different theories of what’s right and valuable.  There’s no apparent referent that would allow me to decide these things.  Thus, when sitting in my chair, reflecting on these things, I say it’s all relative.  I say that just as society determines the value of a dollar bill and that the value of that bill doesn’t reside in the bill itself, every society decides what is of value, what is just, what is good, what is beautiful.  I then congratulate myself for being tolerant and being able to recognize this.  If everyone just understood this, I think, there’d be no war.  “You have your values, I have mine.”

I then walk out the door.  A man mugs me on the way to work.  He takes my wallet.  I’ve lost my identification and now have to make calls to the bank and credit card companies.  I find myself uttering “his action was wrong”, but then I remind myself that what he did was good according to his set of values and wrong according to my system of values.  I’m slightly heartened by this wisdom.  Next I go to work and discover that my family’s health benefits have been cut because the company hasn’t been increasing profit this quarter, but that pay has been increased for the CEO of my company.  This strikes me as a contradiction, but I remind myself that those that run the company have one set of values and I have another.  Our dispute really arises, I say, because we just have different interests.  My daughter joins the Peace Corps and goes to another country.  She’s abducted and sold into slavery.  I remind myself that these are just conflicting sets of values concerning different cultural attitudes towards people and women.

In each case I try to console myself by saying that the different groups of people just have different sets of values.  If that slaver just understood that my daughter doesn’t share his values, he wouldn’t abduct her.  He’d recognize that he should recognize that his own values are his own and are not those of others, and wouldn’t abduct people who don’t advocate the value of abducting people.  But then I’m stunned.  I realize that in saying he should respect other systems of value, I’ve evoked a trans-e-valua-tive norm that he ought to obey.  But my relativity thesis forbids me from doing this.  How can I reconcile this?  I thought my relativity thesis would bring peace, but only at the price of imposing a trans-cultural value…  Respect for differing valuing systems.

And that’s really the problem.  In my relativism I thought I could stand above the fray, outside of what my judgments commit me to, surveying all the different cultural systems of value.  But I’ve found that my attempt to stand outside still committed me to a norm that wouldn’t be advocated by all of those different cultures.  I now realize that I’m never outside and that while it is good to be tolerant, I still have to choose.  I recognize that my choices might not hold up well under scrutiny, that I might turn out to be wrong, but I also realize that there’s no other way and that if I do turn out to be wrong, at least I can revise my positions on value and norms.  I find that even if I’m baffled as to how we would ever decide which value system is true or just, I nonetheless have to attempt to formulate criteria.  From this is borne an new concept:  what peoples believe to be right and what is right.  It might be that something is right even if no one has knowledge of it.  And it might be that it is possible for us to be mistaken.  All of our actions and judgments, when not sitting in the comfort of our home, suggest that we’re really committed to this; we just don’t know how we would ever acquire this knowledge and rational means for demonstrating such claims.

Every claim and action we take commits us to other things.  If I make the claim “my father murdered a servant” (Plato’s Euthyphro), I am committing myself to a concept of murder.  Euthyphro’s father bound a servant who had killed another servant, and threw him in a ditch while waiting for the authorities to arrive.  During this time the servant died from exposure to the elements and hunger.  Is this murder?  For example, is it manslaughter?  Or is it something else.  Has Euthyphro properly categorized this occurrence?  For Euthyphro, it seems that a dead body resulting from the action of some human being is sufficient to categorize an event as murder.  But is this true?  The question is not idle speculation.  Categorizations of happenings as murder or manslaughter come with very different sets of duties and entail very different punishments.  The question is not one of whether Euthyphro has accurately or veridically categorized his father’s action as murder, but more profoundly is a question of how we should respond to the action of Euthyphro’s father.  Euthyphro’s categorization presupposes a concept of murder, and part of the work of philosophy would consist in 1) getting clear on just what his judgment of his father presupposes (prior even to raising questions of whether it’s correct or not), and then, 2) determining whether these are good presuppositions.  The stakes are high.  If Euthyphro’s presuppositions are mistaken, yet he manages to persuade the court that his father did indeed commit murder, his father’s reputation might be ruined, or his father might wrongly be put to death, or Euthyphro might even bring the wrath of the gods down upon the city (recall how Oedipus brings the wrath of the god for failing in his duties to his mother and father).  This is why questions of knowledge are never just questions of knowledge.  They are also questions of of just action, because the concepts we deploy in acting in the world.  Mistaken commitments will lead to bad action.

Despite the crudeness of Euthyphro’s concept of murder and his confusion surrounding what piety is, he nonetheless has one trait that is commendable.  Euthyphro understands commitment.  Socrates is astonished when Euthyphro tells him that he’s indicting his own father.  “How could you do this to your own father!”  Socrates’s utterance– and I don’t think he really believes it –presupposes that we have one set of rules for family and perhaps friends and another for those outside those circles.  Euthyphro will have none of it.  The moral and legal law, if it exists, applies in exactly the same way for all people regardless of whether they are kin or strangers.  Euthyphro is a universalist.  He understands that his advocacy of a law– regardless of how misguided it is –holds in all cases regardless of whether the case is a member of tribe.  He has a concept of justice in germinal form.  He understands that his position on the law commits him to treating members of tribe, kin, in exactly the same way as strangers.

Our claims and actions also commit us to “future” judgments.  I claim that God, by definition, is a perfect being.  From this a number of other commitments follow.  I ask myself, “what would a being have to be in order to be perfect?”  Well such a being would have to be omniscient because certainly a perfect being wouldn’t be perfect if such a being didn’t simultaneously know all things past, present, and future.  I further reason that such a being would have to be omnipotent, because a being limited in its power could not be perfect.  Likewise, such a being would have to be eternal because the capacity to die would be an imperfection.  Such a being would also have to be rational because it is more perfect to be rational than irrational (look at how people evaluate those in the grips of a drug addiction).  Finally, such a being would have to be morally perfect, because it’s impossible to see how a perfect being couldn’t also be good and just.  Here my commitment to the thesis that God is a perfect being entailed my commitment to all sorts of other things about God (omniscience, eternity, omnipotence, eternity, goodness).  These things followed from that first posit.

Now I read a sacred text like the Bible.  Perhaps I am committed to the truth of the Bible.  Yet I quickly find that my commitments revolving around the essence of God conflict with my commitments to the truth of this holy book.  I open the first few pages of this book.  It tells me that God created Adam and Eve and placed them in a garden called Eden.  In that garden he placed a fruiting tree that he forbade them to eat from.  A creature tempts Eve, she eats and then Adam eats.  God, full of wrath at this defiance, exiles them from the garden and condemns them to suffer from disease, hunger, cold, menstration, death, etc.  I recall my commitments.  Can my commitment to the perfection of God be squared with my commitment to the truth of the Bible?  The two are in conflict.  Since God is omniscient, God already knew they would eat the fruit.  “But”, one objects, “it wasn’t God that did this, they had free will and the serpent tempted them.”  But God created that creature and knew they’d eat the fruit, regardless of their free will.  God created the circumstances in which this could occur, knowing full well how things would turn out.  This sounds like the action of a sadist, like the antagonist in the Saw films, not the actions of a morally good being.

At this point we have to choose.  Our commitments require it.  Will we abandon our commitment to God’s perfection so as to maintain our commitment to the truth of this holy text?  If we do that we’ve abandoned the best reason for remaining committed to God:  he’s perfect and therefore good.  Will we abandon the truth of this story?  Will we say it’s just a creation of misguided poets as Plato often said of the Greek poets?  Wouldn’t this entail abandoning the entire book?  Will we try to reinterpret the story to make it logically consistent with our commitment to the perfection of God?  Perhaps God did it for the good of Adam and Eve.  However, it’s hard to see how this action was good for Adam and Eve.  That’s like saying it was good to lose one’s loved one because it allowed you to grow as a person.  Will you say the story is only allegorical, attempting to teach a moral lesson through metaphor?  That’s probably the best option– we’ll call it the “Joseph Campbell/Jung thesis” –but now you’ve also called into question the truth of all these other stories and the entire ontology presupposed by that book.  Regardless of what strategy you adopt, the point is that your commitments commit you to other things and that in these circumstances you have to choose.  You can’t have it all.  You can, of course, revise your commitments– that’s what critique is all about –but those revisions will now commit you to yet other things.  A great part of the work of philosophy consists in determining just what we have committed ourselves to, what follows consistently from these commitments, where these commitments conflict with one another, and how we ought to revise our commitments to resolve these conflicts.

A standard critique of  universalism in the domain of politics is that the universal is really a veiled particularity.  For example, one might speak of “universal rights” such as those outlined in The Declaration of the Rights of Man, yet a critic might rightfully point out that when these rights are carefully scrutinized, they’re not really universal at because in reality they favor the interests of Western European men, and are actually exclusionary to women and people from other cultures.

I think this is a good argument.  The problem is that from this observation people often make the entailment that universals don’t exist.  After all, if every proposed universal we’ve ever come across turns out to be a veiled particularity, then it would seem to follow that universals are always fictions, shams, lies, rhetorical constructs.  “Universals” (note the scare quotes) would really just be, as Nietzsche argues, rhetorical techniques through which one group advances their power and privilege over another group.  While this argument appears plausible on the surface, the main problem is that it fails to recognize that it is arguing from the standpoint of the universal.  In other words, the critique of the false universal, presupposes a concept of true universality.  The person who dismisses the Rights of Man on the grounds that they really embody a veiled particularity or privilege, is actually presupposing a concept of the universal.  They’re saying that this “universal” fails to live up to what universality ought to be.  Universality, despite the attempt of the Nietzschean to banish it, strikes again.

It’s been a long time since I read Laclau and Mouffe, but if memory serves me right, it seems to me that they say something similar.  While Laclau & Mouffe emphasize the way in which different groups struggle with one another over who gets to fill out the empty content of the universal term (e.g., who gets to say what freedom really means, communists or capitalists?), they also seem to suggest that there’s something of the universal that always exceeds and escapes particularity.  I’d like to suggest that this dimension of the universal (and maybe they already said it; or maybe it was Zizek) is what Lacan referred to as Real.  There is something Real about the universal, which is to say that the universal is impossible to represent in the world, impossible to represent, but that it nonetheless always returns to its place.

No matter how thoroughly we debunk the universal, no matter how completely we show that every known claim that something is a universal is in fact a veiled particularlity, the universal still seems to return.  The universal is like the ghost of Hamlet’s father calling for us to overcome the injustice of particularity, of unfairness, of inequity, even if we don’t know what true fairness, equality, and universality would be.  The universal does not so much exist as insist.  It insists both as something that calls us to make it real, but also as something that everywhere and always seems to recede while nonetheless being present.  And perhaps this is the whole problem surrounding the universal.  When we think we know and have it, when we think it is established in the world, we can be certain we’re in the domain of veiled particularity.  However, when we think the universal as an ever receding horizon, as something that perpetually calls to us, that insists, despite the fact that it is not yet actual or real in the world, then we know we’re in the domain of true universality.  Universality is a problem to perpetually be addressed.  It is a problem that perpetually addresses us.  It is not something that is already here.


The skepticism I’m speaking of here is that sort that denies that we can know whether the world exists, whether any of our theories are true, whether other people exist, whether the moment before now really occurred and whether the moment after now will occur, and so on.  Let’s call this sort of skepticism “decadent skepticism”.  The decadent skeptic wins every argument.  I’m not referring to the sort of highly valuable skepticism we find in Derrida, Lyotard, certain moments of Wittgenstein, Latour (yes, I think he’s a huge skeptic), Hume, Nietzsche, Zizek, etc., where suspicion is called on a variety of our claims about reason, what we can know, what morality is about, etc.  These latter anti-philosophers are absolutely vital to the philosophical project of discerning how far we can get with reason (without having to make appeals to gods and whatnot).  I’ll call this latter sort of skepticism “critical skepticism”.  This skepticism, I think, does real service to thought and society by revealing biases, prejudices, assumptions, and illicit forms of power behind claims and institutions that claim to be acting on behalf of the good, public welfare, and the true.

The problem with decadent skepticism is that it makes no difference.  I guess here my assumption is that good philosophy makes a difference in how we do things.  Good philosophy leads you to see different things than you would have otherwise seen, pursue the formation of different types of institutions, regard different things as being ethical obligations, etc.  Good philosophy makes a difference in what we believe to be of value, how we judge, how we cognize, how we build, and so on.  Decadent skepticism ultimately makes no difference (at least as far as I can tell).

Suppose we’re unable to refute the extreme skeptic in his claim that the world does not exist, that there are no other people, that we’re just a brain in a vat hooked to electrodes, that yesterday really did not exist and tomorrow will not happen, etc.  The decadent skeptic always wins his arguments because he’s undermined any possibility of evidence through his skepticism.  The thing is, though, my life wouldn’t be any different were all of this true.  I’d still have to behave as if there are cause and effect relations, as if tomorrow will happen, as if yesterday I placed myself in debt, as if there are other people, as if I need to work in order to eat, etc.  This is why I call extreme skepticism decadent skepticism.  It is “philosophical” in the worst vernacular sense of the term:  that sense which wonders about things that ultimately make no difference whatsoever.  So no, I have no idea how to refute the extreme skeptic, but nonetheless neither my life nor that of the skeptic’s is any different if he’s right.


B_S_no._13H_bevel_gear_cutting_machine_blueprint_drawing_bIn Onto-Cartography I propose a machine-oriented ontology.  “Machine” is a synonym for “entity”, “thing”, “object”, or “being”.  Machine-oriented ontology– or more simply, “machinism” –is the thesis that all of being is composed of machines.  I make the argument for this thesis in the first chapter of The Democracy of Objects; though there I use the term “object”.  Clearly the term “machine” is here used in a sense quite a bit broader than it’s used in ordinary language.  In natural language we thing of a machine, above all, as something that is built by humans.  Such a view implicitly holds that there are three broad categories of entities:  natural beings such as trees and stars, tools such as forks and ice pics, and machines.  We can then ask what it is that distinguishes a machine from a tool insofar as both machines and tools have humans (and other similar entities) as their condition of existence.  If, however, I make the claim that all of being is composed of machines, it is clear that I have distorted the use of this term as it occurs in natural language.  Clearly stars, planets, tardigrades and trees are not produced by humans (allowing that farming is a different form of cultivation than designing and building a car).  And clearly, trees are very different types of entities than blenders, computers, and garage door openers.  Certainly a work of art is a different type of entity than a garbage disposal.  A machinic ontology would have to be sensitive to these differences, articulate what they are, and develop a machinology (akin to a zoology) of the different types of machines that exist and what their distinguishing features are.  Just as reptiles are different types of animals than mammals, but both are nonetheless animals, automobiles, hammers, stars, buildings, and butterflies are all different types of machines, belonging to different genuses, but are nonetheless machines.

The choice of “machine” for “entity” is certainly a rhetorical choice.  What matters is the concept behind the signifier, not so much the signifier that’s chosen to nominate that concept.  If the term doesn’t appeal, you’re welcome to choose others.  There are few debates as irritating, worthless, and superficial as those over terminological choices.  What then, if any, is the rhetorical payoff of referring to entities as “machines”, beyond perhaps irritating vitalists and luddites?  If I’ve chosen the term “machine” rather than “thing”, “entity”, “object”, “event”, or “process”, then this is because I think “machine” comes closest to drawing our attention to how things operate and what they do.  “Process” comes close, though still doesn’t do as good a job, I think, as the term “machine”.  Machinism is an essentially operational perspective on being.  It asks not what things are, but what they do.  In this regard, machinism is an analytic framework similar to the manner in which phenomenology is an analytic framework.  It is a framework of concepts designed to analyze beings in a particular way.

NPCA_posters3Machinism can best be understood by contrasting it with what might be called a “substantialist” approach.  A substantialist approach asks what a thing is.  Here before me I have a marker.  The substantialist asks “what is a marker?”  He then proceeds to describe the marker.  “It is long and cylindrical.  It is made of plastic.  It has blue along its body and cap, spelling the word ‘Expo’.  It has a felt tip.  It is used for writing.  Etc.”  The substantialist might ask “what constitutes the essence— if there is one –of markers?”  The concept of essence has a bad reputation, but really all one is asking when inquiring after essence is “what set of features determine that that entity is a member of a kind?”  Or alternatively, “what distinguishes this type of entity from all other types of entities?’  For example, “what makes a marker a marker rather than a pencil or a pen?”  It’s difficult to see why this question is so objectionable.  What’s objectionable are misattributions of essence, or the claim that some type of thing has an essence when it really does not, e.g., claiming there’s an essence to “American” beyond being a citizen of a particular country (“Americans are like…”).

Without discounting substantialist analysis– there are circumstances where it’s entirely appropriate –machinism asks a different question.  Rather than asking “what is it?”, machinism asks “what does it do?”  Now one might suppose that this question was already covered under substantialism.  After all, when analyzing the marker, we said markers are used for writing.  However, writing is something we and other apes do with markers, it is not what markers do.  A machinic orientation asks what the marker does, how it acts and operates on other things?  For example, we might ask how writing instruments operate on us?  Does years of using writing instruments change a person’s bone and muscle structure in their hands?  Are the hands of writers different than those of non-writers?  Do writing utensils change our neurological structure?

read on!


Why does philosophy, dealing with such apparently abstract issues, generate so many controversies?  Because philosophy is essentially debating what counts as a publicly admissible reason as a ground for persuasion and governance.  It essentially discusses what is free game (or a personal preference beyond law) and what is binding or public. Philosophy is meta-politics, or the question of what can count as a reason, whether there are any reasons, who ought to be authorized to speak, whether everyone should be authorized, etc. It explores the boundary between reasons and violence (tyrannical imposition) and is politics before politics.

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