Enlightenment


Seventy more essays to grade and a mind that has been reduced to mush as a result of reading student writing. At least I’m finally making some progress in the face of the pile of grading that’s been haunting me for the last couple of weeks.

As I reflect on a number of debates surrounding Speculative Realism and, in particular, its object-oriented variant, it seems to me that a few distinctions haunt all of these discussions, rendering them very difficult. A couple weeks ago, in the middle of me venting frustration at the tendency for any evocation of realism to be understood in terms of representational and epistemological realism, Melanie– who always sees what I need to see but am not yet ready to see –asked if this is a battle that I really want to fight again and again, a point that I endlessly want to reiterate with each new audience I encounter. She has a point. And as Graham suggested a while back– I can’t find the original post now –perhaps the term “realism” has outworn its usefulness. Given the historical resonances this term has, the question arises as to whether this term doesn’t obscure more than it illuminates. The problem is that I’m not really sure what to replace it with.

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Stanley Fish has a new post up extolling the virtues of Terry Eagleton’s new book Reason, Faith, and Revolution. He writes:

In the opening sentence of the last chapter of his new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution,” the British critic Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed. “What other symbolic form,” he queries, “has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?”

Eagleton acknowledges that the links forged are not always benign — many terrible things have been done in religion’s name — but at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions, for its “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.” And it is only that great subject, and the aspirations it generates, that can lead, Eagleton insists, to “a radical transformation of what we say and do.”

The other projects, he concedes, provide various comforts and pleasures, but they are finally superficial and tend to the perpetuation of the status quo rather than to meaningful change: “A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.”

I find this line of argument deeply perplexing. On the one hand, it seems to me that there is something deeply cynical in this approach to religion. It seems to run something like “I don’t really believe these things but my other approach to revolutionary transformation doesn’t work, this seems capable of motivating people, therefore I’ll try this.” On the other hand, and more significantly, I think, this line of argument seems to ignore the fact that the dominant forms of Christianity in the United States have been extremely comfortable bedfellows with neo-liberal capitalism and consummerist forms of life. I am not suggesting that there aren’t, occasionally, revolutionary forms of Christianity. For example, this would be the case with MLK and the way in which Ghandi drew on the teachings of Jesus. But I think these are the exception rather than the rule. All too often Christianity seems to function as a support for reigning ideology rather than something that functions to undermine this ideology. Especially objectionable is the thesis that somehow science and reason are intrinsically linked and equivalent to liberalism and capitalism.

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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From Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

But this obscurity in the profound and abstract philosophy, is objected to, not only as painful and fatiguing, but as the inevitable source of uncertainty and error. Here indeed lies the justest and most plausible objection against a considerable part of metaphysics, that they are not properly a science; but arise either from the fruitless efforts of human vanity, which would penetrate into subjects utterly inaccessible to the understanding, or from the craft of popular superstitions, which, being unable to defend themselves on fair ground, raise these intangling brambles to cover and protect their weakness. Chased from the open country, these robbers fly into the forest, and lie in wait to break in upon every unguarded avenue of the mind, and overwhelm it with religious fears and prejudices. The stoutest antagonist, if he remit his watch a moment, is oppressed. And many, through cowardice and folly, open the gates to the enemies, and willingly receive them with reverence and submission, as their legal sovereigns.

But is this a sufficient reason, why philosophers should desist from such researches, and leave superstition still in possession of her retreat? Is it not proper to draw an opposite conclusion, and perceive the necessity of carrying the war into the most secret recesses of the enemy? In vain do we hope, that men, from frequent disappointment, will at last abandon such airy sciences, and discover the proper province of human reason. For, besides, that many persons find too sensible an interest in perpetually recalling such topics; besides this, I say, the motive of blind despair can never reasonably have place in the sciences; since, however unsuccessful former attempts may have proved, there is still room to hope, that the industry, good fortune, or improved sagacity of succeeding generations may reach discoveries unknown to former ages. Each adventurous genius will still leap at the arduous prize, and find himself stimulated, rather than discouraged, by the failures of his predecessors; while he hopes that the glory of achieving so hard an adventure is reserved for him alone. The only method of freeing learning, at once, from these abstruse questions, is to enquire seriously into the nature of human understanding, and show, from an exact analysis of its powers and capacity, that it is by no means fitted for such remote and abstruse subjects. We must submit to this fatigue in order to live at ease ever after: and must cultivate true metaphysics with some care, in order to destroy the false and adulterate. Indolence, which, to some persons, affords a safeguard against this deceitful philosophy, is, with others, overbalanced by curiosity; and despair, which, at some moments, prevails, may give place afterwards to sanguine hopes and expectations. Accurate and just reasoning is the only catholic remedy, fitted for all persons and all dispositions; and is alone able to subvert that abstruse philosophy and metaphysical jargon, which being mixed up with popular superstition, renders it in a manner impenetrable to careless reasoners, and gives it the air of science and wisdom. (“On the Different Species of Philosophy”)

“Abstruse philosophy and metaphysical jargon mixed up with popular superstition”, saying exactly the same thing as that superstition, but clothed in fine fabrics in much the same way that a con artist disarms his mark through a nice suit and a plainly displayed crucifix.

In response to my recent diary on the public, Shahar of Perverse Egalitarianism writes:

the “pedagogic” comments are all too irritating, but then again, the hazard of the public is of course, nothing less than the perverse egalitarianism of the internet.

Recently, in an argument or line of reasoning that makes me suspicious or somewhat uncomfortable, I’ve been thinking that democracy is the one “true” form of the political. This line of reasoning arises in response to Socrates’ question in the Euthyphro where it is asked “is piety pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is pious?” Under the first option, we get the logic of sovereignity, where the sovereign is the first term (whether that sovereign be the gods, God, the emperor, the priest, or the leader) such that the sovereign makes the good what it is. That is, under this first option there is nothing intrinsic to the nature of the good, but rather it is the will of the sovereign that makes the good what it is. Thus, for example, it is impossible to claim that the actions of Caligula or Nero are wrong in themselves, for Caligula and Nero, as sovereigns, are those who decree and create the law. By contrast, under the second option– moral realism –there are transcendent standards by which sovereignity itself can be evaluated. If the actions of the Greek gods or the Christian God can be said to be wrong, if it is possible to claim that the caesar is a bad emperor, then this is because there is some standard that transcends the gods, God, and the caesar. All of this is bound up intimately with previous diaries I have written on Lacan’s graphs of sexuation and, in particular, the masculine side of the graph of sexuation.

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There are works of philosophy and theory that help clarify the thought of a particular philosopher or a particular concept without unsettling our presuppositions about the nature, key assumptions, and primary aims of philosophy. There are then works of philosophy that remind us what philosophy itself is, which call us to philosophy, and which have the effect of unsettling those assumptions that are so proximal, so basic, that they are all but invisible. Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency certainly belongs to the latter category. Regardless of whether one agrees with his conclusions (and I am not at all decided), should Meillassoux never write another book– this is his first –he will have already made a substantial contribution to the history of philosophy.

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This book looks interesting.

The must-read exposé of America’s love/hate affair with French theory.

During the last three decades of the twentieth century, a disparate group of radical French thinkers achieved an improbable level of influence and fame in the United States. Compared by at least one journalist to the British rock ‘n’ roll invasion, the arrival of works by Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari on American shores in the late 1970s and 1980s caused a sensation.

Outside the academy, “French theory” had a profound impact on the era’s emerging identity politics while also becoming, in the 1980s, the target of right-wing propagandists. At the same time in academic departments across the country, their poststructuralist form of radical suspicion transformed disciplines from literature to anthropology to architecture. By the 1990s, French theory was woven deeply into America’s cultural and intellectual fabric.

French Theory is the first comprehensive account of the American fortunes of these unlikely philosophical celebrities. François Cusset looks at why America proved to be such fertile ground for French theory, how such demanding writings could become so widely influential, and the peculiarly American readings of these works. Reveling in the gossipy history, Cusset also provides a lively exploration of the many provocative critical practices inspired by French theory. Ultimately, he dares to shine a bright light on the exultation of these thinkers to assess the relevance of critical theory to social and political activism today—showing, finally, how French theory has become inextricably bound with American life.

“In such a difficult genre, full of traps and obstacles, French Theory is a success and a remarkable book in every respect: it is fair, balanced, and informed. I am sure this book will become the reference on both sides of the Atlantic.” —Jacques Derrida

“The Atlantic Ocean has two sides, and so does French Theory. Reinvented in America and betrayed in its own country, it has become the most radical intellectual movement in the West with global reach, rewriting Marx in light of late capitalism. Breathtakingly moving back and forth between the two cultures, François Cusset takes us through a dazzling intellectual adventure that illuminates the past thirty years, and many more decades to come.”—Sylvere Lotringer

Stanley Fish discusses it here.

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