Begin the Begin, Research Time, 15/12/2017

Last week, I wrote a bit of a free-wheeling post. I’m writing about Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, so being a little free-wheeling and weird is generally acceptable. One thing I wanted to get off my chest was my frustration that Deleuze considered only the Western tradition to be real philosophy.

I mean, if you have a conception of philosophy as catching hold of chaos in thought, it makes sense that such an activity will take many forms besides this curious Hellenic tradition of writing, discourse, and thought.

That's what I take Western philosophy to be – the tradition of conceptual engineering that began with the sages / educators / scientists / mathematicians of Hellenic Greece.

A reproduction of a painting of Ibn Rushd, one of the
greatest philosophers in the history of Spain.
Now, that means what I count as Western philosophy is a bit larger than a lot of what I was taught in school. I don’t really expand the tradition by much.

I consider the medieval Muslim and Jewish thinkers of the Abbasid Empire the direct successors of Hellenic philosophical and mathematical traditions. More than only following the Greeks, Persia, Syria, and the Maghreb contributed major new creative directions in ontology, mathematics, medicine and the nature of divinity.

Also, I read some very interesting writing about Ethiopians’ contribution to the Western tradition of philosophy in the 1600s and 1700s. So I don’t just stick to Europe and America.*

* What an odd coincidence that these are the two regions at the top of the old global colonial hierarchy. Funny, isn’t it?

I’m not writing to catalogue the world’s traditions, though. I’m writing this to make a more straightforward account of my last problem with Deleuze. It was a vicious tension in this last work that I think he could (and should) have reconciled if he’d had a few more years of productive life after What Is Philosophy?.

As it is, he developed an insightful account of why philosophy developed in Hellenic Greece. Which is really an insightful account of why Western philosophy developed in Hellenic Greece.

That region had a curious and peculiar position in the Mediterranean world when philosophy and geometry developed in communities of sages – the Pythagoreans, Plato’s Academy, and the Lyceum.

Greece had a fluid, plural, and largely non-hierarchical cultural environment – they were close enough to the Persian Empire for maritime trade but, for the most part, were beyond the point where they could be easily conquered.

So Hellenic cities were free of subjugation to a monarch, and had a much more dynamic relationship among themselves than the static role of submission to an imperialist authority.

Being a seafaring society also encouraged a culture of friendliness and openness among cities and trading partners. There was a similar culture of friendly rivalry among the leaders of each individual polis – governed by argument and debate among a local parliament of jovial neighbours.

These were the unique conditions of one of the most philosophically vibrant and creative cultures of human history. They were not inevitable – a few inconvenient famines or a better Persian shipbuilding industry could have destroyed Hellenic philosophy when they were largely still mystics in the woods.

Western philosophy is a unique tradition, with many strange and surprising transformations. But it isn’t the only philosophical tradition. It simply happens to be mine.

The Full Meta, Jamming, 14/12/2017

The last week of philosophical reflection was actually very illuminating for me. It helped me get a better grip on a difficult idea of Deleuze’s – the conceptual persona. Same goes for his very evocative – but not always the most enlightening – metaphor for philosophy as grasping hold of chaos in thought.

I managed to clarify how I understood this very imagistic concept. The great thing about Gilles Deleuze as a writer was that, no matter how far into one project he was, his writing also involved new ideas that he’d expand and further explain in the future.

So you’d read early books and see vague treatments of concepts, then see them developed in amazing depth and complexity a few years later. The problem with Deleuze’s talk of thought moving at infinite speed and catching hold of chaos, is that the follow-up never came.

Even when we intend to die, life never ends
when we want it to. That's another thing that I
connect with Deleuze over – he had so many
more ideas for books to write, even when he
physically couldn't live anymore, even when
it had become impossible for him to write.
Which Deleuze considered the same thing.
I'll likely end up the same way. I could live
to 100 and I'll still be coming up with ideas.
His health declined massively, and less than four years after publishing What Is Philosophy?, he was dead.

But the legacy lives on, doesn’t it? Why else would you publish groundbreaking philosophical works at a damn near annual rate in your peak period? You want to have a massive impact in the world you devote yourself to, you could pick far worse role models than Deleuze.

Same with any thinker of that kind of calibre. There were plenty – Deleuze is one member of a literally multiple-millennium tradition of writing and thought.

I find it a little strange that someone who’d devoted himself to philosophy in his career and life to the degree and intensity that Deleuze did, only wrote one work of concentrated meta-philosophy. Where he gives an explicit argument about what philosophy is.

That’s why, in my list of tags, I haven’t used too many in these last few entries other than the proper names and ‘creativity.’ To me, meta-philosophy is built into every worthwhile philosophical project.

It isn’t often remarked on because a philosophical writer takes for granted that you all know what philosophy is. Of course, he’s only certain about his own conception of what philosophy is. But don’t think you can tell him that.

Deleuze gives his own answer to that question. There’s a lot to value in his response. I’ve been talking about it for a couple of weeks now, and I have enough material from my revisit to What Is Philosophy? for at least another week of posts. The main reason I’m not digging deeper today is because I’m writing this at the end of some very long days, and I'm a little tired before bed.

More details tomorrow.

But there’s also a few ideas in What Is Philosophy? that I can’t really get down with. His restriction of what philosophy is to the Western tradition definitely irks me. It’s based on a curious account of cultural / economic contingency, which I’ll talk about tomorrow.

Yet his conclusion goes well beyond the evidence he presents, and contradicts a lot of what he’s said before in his career. Seriously now, more details tomorrow.

Creative Energy VI: Riding the Lightning, Research Time, 13/12/2017

Let's begin that trip into what Gilles Deleuze called catching hold of chaos. The essence of philosophical thinking.

Try a little experiment in imagination.

Step One. Imagine your intuition is perfectly right every time. You naturally understand every practically important aspect of the world around you – the conditions of every action, the most likely effects of every piece of communication no matter the medium or institution.

Every decision you make in your life is perfect – not by luck or unthinking instinct, but because you understand every situation completely at first glance. Literally at first glance. I cannot emphasize this last part enough.

When thought itself becomes so fast, the distance between
your insights falls to zero. That's what Deleuze means by
catching hold of the infinite.
Image by Aykut Aydogdu. Check out his stuff.

The most important part of this illustration is that you understand every situation you encounter in your life completely and perfectly at first glance.

Now imagine the same kind of perfect intellectual intuition, but in thought alone. Nothing to do with the world of practical life, unfortunately – nothing to do with social interaction, dancing, home repair, finding a quick way home through heavy traffic. Nothing useful like that.

Step Two. Imagine the same kind of perfect intellectual intuition, but you’re just thinking about the abstract. Concepts, arguments, inferences, images, relationships – all the ways you can put them together as components in more complex arrangements.

You understand all the ways they can fit together and all the dynamics, processes, and frameworks for thinking and perception those abstract ideas would create. That’s in every combination, as you try out each new conceptual experiment, each new arrangement of thought components.

You think so well that you don’t need to doubt yourself or check your work, because you know in thinking it that you’ve understood everything perfectly.

Step Three. Imagine that intellectual intuition in your thinking, but that intuition is in perfect tune because – as it assembles those concepts and abstract components – it’s creating its world.

In Step One – perfect intuition in daily life – you lived in a world and your intellectual intuition connected and flowed with that world in perfect harmony. In Step Two, you’re putting concepts together with perfect accuracy.

But Step Three is actually the same as Step Two. If you’re dealing with thought alone, you’re always retreating from practical life. The concepts are frameworks for thinking to be used in everyday life – that includes a grocery run, negotiating peace treaties, wiring an apartment building, and writing epochal philosophy.

The space where you do your experiments – where you see how the components fit together, try new arrangements, make new arguments, figure out new ways to infer, imagine, analyze, think.

Deleuze described the conceptual persona as something that you became when you were thinking this way, so divorced from the daily needs of your life that your personality could become the concepts you were using. Descartes truly was an idiot – absolute inward-turning – when he was planning and writing his most revolutionary work.

All the other greats likewise became the images of their own thought, at least while they were thinking so intensely.

Creative Energy V: Listing Some Categories, Jamming, 12/12/2017

I think I’ve at last figured out how to talk, in the fairly ordinary language of my blog, about the most intense kind of creativity in philosophical thinking and discourse. I had to talk around it for a while first – getting a sense of what it wasn’t before I could wrap my tongue around the idea.

When I was re-reading What Is Philosophy? I could understand the idea well. But I couldn’t just repeat Deleuze’s lines about catching hold of chaos. I wanted to take what, in his language, remains really weird, and make it more broadly understandable.

To catch hold of chaos and ride it as long as you can. That's what it
means to create at the speed of thought.
So let’s list what we’ve got here.

D) Your work becomes an object of historical study.

C) Other people pick up your concepts and elaborate them into more complex, versatile, multifaceted ideas and problem spaces – or else they devolve into sniping and arguing over each other’s interpretations.

B) Actively applying your novel logic of thought in more specific problems, or to issues in different disciplinary discourses.

A) Developing an entirely new logic of thought in the thinking, blurring the distinction in your thought between your own acts of thinking and the movement of the new logic itself.

Qualifier. When I say the phrase, ‘logic of thought,’ I’m not necessarily talking about a new symbolic logic.* I’m talking about inference in general, how you move from one idea to another. So a new logic of thought is a new way to infer from one idea to another, leading you to construct entirely new concepts to suit those new kinds of inference.

* But developing symbolic logics can be one way, among many, to develop a new logic of thought. Look at Saul Kripke or Graham Priest for examples.

My first education in philosophy, at Memorial
University's philosophy department in the mid-
2000s, had a very Kantian framework, simply
because there were so many Kant specialists
and Kant fans in the department at the time. It
didn't make me a Kantian, but I think the
influence is pretty clear in how I use the word
'understanding' on the blog and in my other
Also, if you want a print of this cartoon, or
any other funny pictures of great thinkers,
it's by Gary Brown.
Let’s go back to that example of Kant’s thought. After all, he’s a famous thinker in the Western tradition of philosophy, who also embodies very distinctly each category of how creativity begins and is received in philosophy.

Example of (D). Read any essay or book discussing Kant’s development as a thinker, or explaining his philosophical ideas and concepts.

Example of (C) – the bad kind. Go to a conference of tenured or tenure-seeking Kant scholars and listen to them talk to each other. It’s infuriating. “I’m right!” “No, I’m right!” “No, you’re both wrong! But I’m wrong too!”

Example of (C) – the good kind. Books and essays that adapt Kant’s ideas to contemporary problems in morality, politics, and science. They don’t even have to reference or quote Kant in any detailed sense – simply demonstrate your skills at applying the concepts.

Example of (C) – the best kind. Use Kant’s concepts as a launching point or components for your own attempt to build a new logic of thought. Think of the Kantian components of John Rawls’ liberalism, or Hannah Arendt’s fascinating spin on the Critique of Judgement that informs her own departure into a new language of political thinking.

Example of (B). Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals. Kant applies the concepts he developed in the Critique of Practical Reason to pretty much every moral question that mattered to Prussians in the 1790s.

Also, think about the later chapters of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, where he applies the concepts he developed in the first half of the book to the major debates of political and social philosophy in the 1970s.

Example of (A). Kant’s three Critiques. The concepts of empiricism, mind as a framework for understanding experience and empirically limited reason in the Critique of Pure Reason. The postulates and machine of universal moral reasoning in the Critique of Practical Reason. The positive account of empiricism and as-if concepts in the Critique of Judgment.

So we have our examples. Now what is actually happening in the (A) mode of philosophical thinking? This is where things can get super-trippy.

Creative Energy IV: Becoming Thought or Thinking, Research Time, 11/12/2017

I've talked about what it means for a philosopher to become an adjective or a noun. That’s a matter of social reception – how is your work received by those who study and continue your tradition.

That’s one aspect of what Gilles Deleuze calls the conceptual persona – what a thinker becomes in the tradition through his influence. It’s sometimes hard to get past this, because the whole field of influence includes how we’re taught about a thinker.

How they’re presented in class – Analytic or Continental? Rationalist or Empiricist? Liberal or Communitarian? – is part of that influence. But that influence also happens outside universities, through the general influence their ideas have had on everyday discourse.

To be most human, we have to be the most rational. Another twist on the
old definition from Aristotle, the rational animal? Ten Thousand Doctoral
Theses have been written on the subject. Do we need to prove it? Or
simply note the similarity of the ideas, and move on to more
important things.
Image by Renee Bolinger
One of the major ideas in contemporary extreme nationalism, especially its libertarian streak, is cultural marxism. This is their label for the common features of all progressive ideologies. It’s based on Andrew Breitbart having a very strange reading of Theodor Adorno.

That’s how we’re taught. If I want to dig into the heart of Deleuze’s idea – the conceptual persona – here’s a question I should ask. Having figured out their own core concepts, how did a great thinker use them?

Example. When did Kant become a Kantian? When he wrote The Metaphysics of Morals. That’s clear enough to me. The process goes like this.

In 1785, he publishes The Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals. It lays out in really simple language* the basic guiding principles he’ll use to build a comprehensive set of moral laws for his society. The moral imperatives of reason, which we have a duty to follow wherever they lead us in life – because reason is the highest human power.

* Compared to the Critique of Pure Reason anyway.

Three years later, he drops the Critique of Practical Reason, in 1788. It’s the shortest of all the Critiques, but incredibly dense. The entire book is, as far as this example is concerned, a single argument that the basic laws of human reason, expressed in the most abstract moral context,** describes a universal moral imperative.

** Or maybe call it a plane?

What did I just say? The argument is that we know there’s a moral law, and reason is how we deduce it. Reason, like Kant said in 1781’s Critique of Pure Reason, can’t apply to understanding how the world works because the physical world doesn’t run according to laws of logical deduction.***

I don't know how much I'll include of
these examples in the Utopias text. Kant,
for all the solemnity of his style, gets so
many academicians riled up when you talk
about him. It's like the community of
academics can't deal with people
speaking off the cuff about the ideas
you've spent your careers studying.
Now that I put it that way, I think I
finally see where they're coming
*** The most TL;DR sentence I think I’ve ever written.

But morality works according to laws, Kant says. Let’s build a concept of moral law where the logical operations of reason show what actions you should do – show you your duty.

The Metaphysics of Morals is Kant, at extreme length, applying the duty of reason every moral law he could identify – from murder and lying through marriage and masturbation. It takes him nearly a decade to pound this one out.

So the project’s introduction is in 1785, he lays out the key principles in 1788, then spends – on and off – until 1797 on a massive application of those principles.

In 1785, the Groundwork was released to help create a few Kantians in the world. In 1788, Kant releases a work of profound and complex philosophy – Kant the person becoming Kant the philosopher. Then in 1797, Kant becomes a Kantian.

As a Kantian, Kant knew his own concepts better than anyone, so could apply them most faithfully and rigorously. In that, he was speaking through his conceptual persona – he was at the smallest possible remove from Kant as conceptual persona.

Most Kantians – all the ones who weren’t Kant – could be as rigorous as they wanted, but they’d inevitably put their own spin on becoming a Kantian. To be a Kantian is to think with the conceptual persona Kant created.

Hans is becoming a Kantian philosopher. Apply the machinery of Kant’s concepts to your own thinking and investigations – let the concepts he established become the framework of your thought. That’s what it is to adopt a conceptual persona.

How is a conceptual persona created in the first place? My next example will be about what Kant was doing in 1788.

Creative Energy III: Becoming Adjective, Research Time, 08/12/2017

When a thinker develops a concept comprehensive enough to think through as a framework for understanding the world, his activity changes from just regular old writing about philosophy. What I’m doing right now, obviously, isn’t writing at the intensity and density that actually creates new concepts.

Neither is writing a philosophical lecture. Neither is writing most articles for peer review in journals of philosophy. Creating new concepts is a weird enough process that it can only be snuck past peer review processes.

Imagine if you could achieve immortality. Ask what the
biggest jerk of a genie would do with that wish.
It creates by implication, always present in the text, but it only comes to a reader when she thinks for a second about what she’s read. The true weirdness of creative philosophical writing appears in disguise as something more ordinary.

Example. The key paper by Edmund Gettier is the best example I can think of. Looks like an absolutely mundane little thought experiment, built around some pretty clear symbolic logic. Read it. It looks utterly ordinary.

Think about it. A clear, easy-to-understand demonstration that you can have a justified true belief that isn’t actual knowledge of the situation. It’s a transformative moment.

You realize what he’s done in those three pages, and you understand what it means to break an entire discourse. The philosophy of pure knowledge would never be the same again.

Gettier had an immensely destructive effect. I’m not sure that pure epistemology can find a way out. Thinkers in that discipline frequently return to the problem of justified true belief, but are never able to develop a standard for what knowledge can be so apparently unassailable as the old one.

I don’t know that they ever will. My old friend Walther is a pure epistemologist. I’ll ask him what he thinks.

It’s a cheeky way to think about it, but it makes a good label. Gettier turned himself into a noun – the Gettier Case. Becoming a noun is a very dangerous thing for a person to do – imagine freezing thought in carbonite like Han Solo. That’s what Gettier did with himself.

Good way to secure tenure, but it’s sad that our era considers academic tenure so precious and rare that stasis is a fair trade-off. It’s a joke, but it’s true. There are already plenty of Gettier Cases. But there’s never going to be a Gettian.

Not everyone who looks like a marxist is one. Not necessarily,
There are plenty of Kantians – some willing, some unwilling, and some coincidental. A few Cartesians, some Platonists, plenty of Marxists but not nearly as many as most people think, Habermasians, Foucauldians. Some annoying Spinozists and some precious fun Spinozists. I have a friend who’s a Rawlsian, though I’ve never been able to understand why.

Whole traditions have become Aristotelians for centuries. There are all kinds of Platonists, a couple of deranged Heracliteans, plenty of Thomists, not enough Ockhamists, There might be one lonely Scotist left in the wild.

There are a few dull Quineans, intensely argumentative Wittgensteinians. Davidsonians who can never agree on what it means to be Davidsonian. The Arendtians are vibrant, but feel so sad. Countless Hayekians who won’t shut up even when they should.

When you pump out primary material – when you create concepts – you create texts that people can get lost in. There are countless nooks and crannies to explore in thinking about those concepts. You re-read a book, and it expands fractally for you, as different details emerge in the return.

That’s a philosophical concept – a framework for understanding the world should have the same infinite possibility to surprise as real life does. When people encounter this concept, they’re able to pick it up and use it to understand their lives, the cosmos, and the philosophical or theoretical problems they write about.

They may never be able to create a concept themselves – to become an adjective* – but they can become experts in carrying it forward, applying it, advancing it.

* Or at least having the potential to become an adjective. It helps to have a good publisher, or at least get into the right people’s hands.

Creative Energy II: When a Voice Speaks You, Research Time, 07/12/2017

Sorry for not having uploaded a post earlier today. I didn’t have time to write one because I was too busy writing. I’m working on my own piece in reply to a debate unfolding at the Reply Collective over the nature of the social. It might provide the discussion a new kick of energy to explore some intriguing theoretical territory.

I’m also fully prepared for my contribution to result in puzzled looks and scratching heads. My philosophical work has inspired both of those reactions in more or less equal proportions for as long as I’ve been in the field.

As it is, some more reflections on Deleuze’s philosophy (and meta-philosophy) today.
• • •
So about those incredibly difficult ideas. Tuesday’s post ended with a description of a type of inadequate philosopher – an inadequate thinker, really.

Call such a person a Master Debater.

There are few things more obnoxious than a self-declared Master
Debater. Yes, I know he'd say that's not an argument. And my response
would be to remind him that I never intended to make an argument.
My intention was to insult him.
I’ve written about these types of people before, in a post that remains one of my most popular. I think it’s because I very accurately described the essence of a specific type of extremely annoying person. These days, such a person can also be quite dangerous politically.

If someone takes to heart that the primary purpose of philosophical reasoning is critiquing and evaluating arguments, then he’s reduced all the world’s traditions of philosophy to a debate club about some of the weirdest ideas in the world.

Example. You ask whether Kant’s arguments for the specific limits he describes on legitimate human thought are logically valid, or look for critical or knockdown counter-arguments.

There are aesthetic aspects of philosophical thinking too, where you study the concepts and ideas of philosophical greats as creative artworks. This is the best approach to being a historian of philosophy – your methods carefully read philosophical texts to understand precisely their concepts.

Problem is, historians of philosophy tend to think that there’s only one true reading of a philosophical text or great figure. Or at least, that’s how much their papers tend to snipe at each other’s interpretations.

Example. Describe in detail the conception of the human mind that Kant develops in his Critical period.

Trying to become a primary literature philosopher is a different kind of process entirely. This is where the artistic meets the practical – you’re developing frameworks of thought to interpret and understand the world from mundane human experience to the fundamental nature of the cosmos. What would you call such a person?

Let’s start with that idea, person. A person is an individual sapient creature. Most of the people we know are humans. A historian isn’t a historian all the time – sometimes she’s a cook, an athlete, or a daughter. Likewise, an obnoxious philosophical debater isn’t an obnoxious debater all the time – sometimes, he’s a dog owner, a father, a lawyer.

He’s always obnoxious, but that’s another matter.

When these people start on their historical research projects, or launch into a debate, they’re adopting a persona – the historian of philosophy, the master debater. Likewise, the developer of philosophical concepts adopts a persona too, the philosopher.

Philosophy, says Deleuze, creates a particular kind of persona, though. A feedback loop starts to develop between the philosopher and her concepts. Immanuel Kant the professor and long-distance power-walker were ordinary personae. But philosophically, the concepts Kant later developed would influence his own thinking.

Not necessarily like an inference early in an argument or a logical proof would influence a later conclusion. When you develop a framework for thought, you begin to use that framework in your own thinking, analyzing its details by developing new aspects and applications.

Maybe you begin to see your own framework for thought through that framework itself. Maybe the wider application brings new additions and complexities to the simpler way of thinking that began the whole enterprise.

Example. The average philosophical reader in the 1780s and 90s couldn’t have foreseen a work like the Critique of Judgment coming based on the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant couldn’t either.

But thinking from the new perspective Kant developed, he wasn’t an ordinary philosopher anymore. He’d become the first Kantian too. Think on that for a day (or two).

Creative Energy I: The Problem With Philosophy, A History Boy, 06/12/2017

I’m getting back on my wander through What Is Philosophy? with a few of his difficult ideas. Gilles Deleuze’s approach to philosophical thinking showed me what I thought was the best way to deal with the whole tradition.*

Like looking for pictures in the clouds. I can see a pattern of light
that suggests Deleuze's face, as water flows over two rocks at the
centre of the frame, by the bottom edge.
* Traditions. Only one thing bugs me about Deleuze, that he makes philosophy itself a Western creation. Western philosophy is one tradition of a general feature of human society that develops anything you could call a tradition of wisdom. Creating frameworks for understanding the world is much more fundamental to human thought than this one contingent Hellenic vector.
• • •
I felt like I had to get that note out of the way. It was bugging me all the way through reading this book. That was the biggest difference between when I first read What Is Philosophy? and when I read it again this Fall. 

A man develops a way of thinking about philosophy that makes it central to some peculiar essence in humanity itself – the wisdom that separates us from the animals. That makes us an order above the other animals.

One man, steeped in the left-wing politics and intellectual environment of a country coming to grips with the loss of its empire – the spectre of radical equality. He’s also a keen mathematician, a careful student of sciences that depend on calculus – he understood intimately how fundamental dynamic differentials were to reality. 

A pure materialist who understood how profoundly stupid that metaphor of the clockwork mechanism really was. One of the very few. So he roots humanity’s remarkable nature in our ability to develop frameworks of thinking self-consciously – we can build intellectual machines to change our instincts. That’s the power of philosophy!

One man, steeped in profound ethnic national
culture, with deep feelings of connection to land
and soil, as if it were in his blood, understands
his chosen field of thought, philosophy, in the
same way – mystic wisdom of a people who
speak with the voice of being itself, revealing
its nature through the prophecies of a sage. A
sage we now call philosophers. This, he
thought, it what makes us an order above the
Deleuze's dark and terrifying mirror.
Yet it begins in Hellenic Greece. Like we wouldn’t have been doing that for the hundreds of thousands of years it took us to diverge from all the other hominids. 
• • •
There’s such a strange paradox that I see in philosophy. Maybe it’s just from my own experience, which is unlike anyone else’s. Maybe my experience is more typical. I’d like to know whether I’m on to something when I say this.

Side A. Here’s my experience of philosophy as it tends to be taught. You analyze texts to understand their arguments, you critique that argument using the different rules of reasoning. Has Descartes made a good argument that we cannot trust our senses?

Side B. The key works in the history of any tradition in philosophy are not always all that concerned with point by point rebuttals back and forth. But it’s very tough to get to the intensity of thought where you’ve built such a profound conceptual mechanism that you influence the character of your whole culture’s thought for centuries after.

Too many higher education programs teach philosophy as if it were training in argumentation. Now, that’s important, but it shouldn’t be taught as the primary skill, as the essence of the discipline.

The problem is that when you hear the professionals talking philosophy – the professors, grad students, nerdy upper-levels – they’re all arguing. It’s professional, it’s clinical, it’s sometimes a little too cold, it’s expert, it’s insightful. But it’s all the back and forth of argument, critique, counter-argument.

We’re not doing what the people we talk about did. Next couple of posts this week, I want to work out some ideas about what we should do to fix that.

Graphs of Our Ignorance, Jamming, 05/12/2017

I had a really nice moment with my students yesterday – I don’t often talk about my teaching here, for confidentiality reasons. But this was different.

We’re in a unit about how to write research reports of different lengths and formats for professional reasons and purposes. I’m teaching a class full of engineers, so I’m concentrating my supplementary comments on writing techniques and how to synthesize a big pile of ideas into a coherent, accessible picture.

If you're carrying out some work of research for your company, it’s going to have a purpose. You’re going to have to recommend actions, goals, and define some strategies for your company going forward.

I think of the subject matter as a practical epistemology class – how to gather and organize knowledge in the best way for action.

The most important part of any research is understanding what you actually have to learn before you know it. Let me explain that in a way that I tried for my class, in a way that gave me a little nostalgia.

You see, there are known knowns. . . . Yeah, I’m going there. Because it sounded ridiculous but was actually remarkably insightful and useful, like the most profoundly pregnant Bushism.

Known Knowns. You already know the answers. This is your starting point for any investigation – what you have actually learned, discovered, made sense of, and put to use already.

Known Unknowns. Your immediate targets for research and investigation. You’ve learned enough about your subject matter that you’ve formulated specific research questions. Your first major task in this project is to answer these questions.

You can’t always answer those questions univocally. But you at least have a research question in mind – you can understand how different variations in conditions can affect this aspect of your work going forward. You may not know how to handle it in advance, but you know enough about a problem to prepare.

Unknown Unknowns. You don’t even know how to ask the question. The notion isn’t anywhere in your thinking at all. You can’t prepare for it – You don’t even have any idea it could happen or exist.

What this amounts to is that the world tends to be more complex than we know. The invasion of Iraq itself, from the American perspective at least, is a really good example, unfortunately. The entire US military was, practically speaking, built for state-on-state combat. Total war, just like back in the Second World War.

Their ability to deal with a guerrilla movement was so pathetic for that exact reason. When you don’t even consider guerrilla movements a possible thing you could deal with, you won’t be able to fight them.

It’s a dramatic example for a business class, but the concept still works for more typical corporate priorities. For example, it’s difficult to prepare for your business model being disrupted by a wholly new technological development, or the law being changed to undercut your business practice or allow for more competitors.

You can’t ask people to prepare for future events which have literally no signs in the present. How can you plan for what you don’t understand?

Zizek hit the last category, in his depressingly Freudian style. Unknown Knowns. His example was the return of the repressed – the best example being Abu Ghraib.

We now know that it was much worse, the head of Blackwater being a radical Christian extremist. It’s a much better example of the Unknown Known – our blindnesses to how our own nature corrupts us. In the example of the war, it’s the American exceptionalist presumption that their military power brings good, that it liberates.

But that triumphalist vision of America ignores the horrors of slavery and religious extremism that were just as much parts of America’s origins as their heritage of liberal democracy.

Of course, I didn’t really discuss it that way in class. Instead, I talked about corporate issues – blindness to your own flaws, weaknesses that you don’t discuss or confront in the name of, maybe, maintaining company morale. Or just plain hubris.

Practical epistemology. A study of human stupidity.

Shame to Be So Very Ordinary, Research Time, 01/12/2017

Here’s why I think Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy is ultimately pragmatist – philosophy begins in ordinary life.

It’s not a special communion with being, as the early Greek sages and some modern revanchists saw it. It isn’t a tradition that seeks absolute truths or God’s truths, even though a terrible majority of philosophers in the Western tradition think so.

I'm glad exploring for concepts isn't as dangerous as exploring in
real life. I won't end up like the Franklin Expedition developing
posts for SERRC or book ideas.
When you're trying to say what is philosophy,* Deleuze says you shouldn’t think about the tradition itself and the lofty – sometimes, a little too lofty – pronouncements about philosophy’s purpose. No, look at philosophical thought itself and examine what it’s doing – philosophical thinking creates, analyzes, and maps concepts.

* Narrator: “Hey! That’s the name of this book I’m talking about.”

That makes philosophical thinking ultimately pragmatic – you’re building new concepts, new frameworks for understanding the world. The focus is on navigating problems, and different frameworks for understanding the world make up different ways to make sense of problems, different tools to reveal their complexities from obscurity.

Different substances are visible under different kinds of light. What one lighting condition obscures, another will reveal. Same with concepts. There isn’t one absolutely better set of concepts than another. You get that idea when you think philosophy is about accessing the truth. Because what isn’t true is false.

But when you’re talking about concepts – frameworks for understanding – you have only different models that reveal different aspects of the world. Everything that’s revealed is true, but there won’t be one concept that reveals every truth or all the greatest truths.

That’s why I once said – and still believe – that Deleuze’s thinking carries forward philosophical pragmatism. American pragmatism had a complex account of the production of truths and the plural nature of truth and reason. But the tradition couldn't escape the problems of relativism that kept creeping into John Dewey’s mature thinking.

Don’t think I’m being dismissive of pragmatism. It’s one of the few philosophical -isms with which I self-identify.** The landmark ontological work of his career, Experience and Nature, is a masterpiece that captures the spirit of his whole philosophical movement.

** Even though when I do, I run a decent risk of people thinking I just write commentary and other secondary literature on Dewey.

But that American tradition of pragmatism through its secular trinity of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey could never get through to the other side of that skepticism – how many truths could still be true, even when they weren’t all coherent with each other. Truth is fractured, but no less true for all that.

The Deleuzian idea repairs this issue by showing how you can throw universal mutual coherence among every truth out the window. All you had to do was demonstrate the logic of philosophical thinking is compossibility. Coherence is a framework of logic and thought, not reality itself.

Reality itself is chaos – understood in the abyssal sense – and philosophical thinking is the best set of techniques humanity has developed to try to think chaos. Coherence is how you make maps and draw paths in chaos – plotting the order that does exist in any chaos by investigating what can and cannot fit together.

A small patch of arid desert can’t develop surrounded by a lush rainforest without a mountain range around its rim. That’s a possibility condition for a desert in the centre of a rainforest.

Mapping a plane of immanence is to do the same survey with concepts.

Constructing a Geometry of Thinking, Research Time, 30/11/2017

Let's actually get a little bit into this idea of a geometry for philosophy. I talked yesterday about what a plane of immanence is – now let’s get into how particular planes work.

So Gilles Deleuze’s term, plane of immanence, is a map of concepts, a map of their mutual possibility. If you can develop a coherent philosophy out of a set of concepts, then that set all exists on the same plane of immanence.

That they can cohere means that their components and structures can all fit together without internal contradictions that make nonsense of the conceptual machinery. But that’s just one philosophical system that fits on the plane.

Imagine that you’re Bernhard Riemann. Sitting in your office, doing mathematics, like a mathematician would. You’re setting up some guidelines for how a particular type of space would work. You can extrapolate from those mathematical rules what types of shapes can exist in your space.

Deleuze: "The components of the schema are as follows:
1) the "I think" as an ox head wired for sound, which
constantly repeats Self=Self; 2) the categories as universal
concepts (four great headings): shafts that are extensive
and retractile according to the movement of; 3) the
moving wheel of the schemata; 4) the shallow stream of
Time as form of interiority, in and out of which the wheel
of the schemata plunges; 5) space as form of exteriority;
the stream's banks and bed; 6) the passive self at the bottom
of the stream and as junction of the two forms; 7) the
principles of synthetic judgments that run across spacetime;
8) the transcendental field of possible experience,
immanent to the "I"; 9) the three Ideas or illusion of
transcendence (circles turning on the absolute horizon;
Soul, World, and God).
A shape that fits a spherical-section space – space curved like a planet – will flay apart, unable to hold itself together, on a negatively-curved space – curved like a saddle. Same goes for shapes that work on saddle spaces splitting apart on spheres.

Now imagine that instead of setting up the boundary conditions for this geometric space, you had to figure out its parameters by trial and error. Try constructing different kinds of shapes and see whether they can exist together. If they can’t, then they each project from themselves a different type of space.

Well, that’s Gilles Deleuze sitting in his office, doing philosophy. But instead of shapes and spaces, he’s working with concepts – frameworks of organizing perceptual and cultural thought to understand our experiences and lives in different ways.

In philosophy, there’s no function to set the boundary conditions for the concepts you develop first. Philosophical concepts have many components organized in complicated ways. Check out this example of Kant’s philosophy. It’s a ridiculous-looking diagram, but it’s a genuinely pithy description (and depiction) of his concept of subjectivity.

Analyze this concept. Think about all of its components and their dynamic relationships with each other. How does this concept help us understand our own subject-hood, mind, personality, and experience? Once you understand all the concept’s components, internal dynamics, and practical effects, then you can start the next step in the process.

Yeah, I know. You’re not even done after all that work. At least this is only one possible process for philosophical thinking – it might be the most admirable, if you consider only the dedication to such a strange and difficult task. So here’s the next step.

Figure out its plane of immanence. Extrapolate from those components, dynamics, and practical affects what other concepts are compatible with this particular way of thinking. If you’re lucky, the thinker you’re studying has done a lot of the work for you. Like Kant, who developed concepts in morality, aesthetics, theology, and philosophy of science alongside his central concept of subjectivity.

Maybe you’re a bit less lucky, and the map expands across the work of many thinkers. You might study a particular tradition of thinkers, like the Abbasid-era Aristotelians.

Or maybe you do comparative philosophy, looking for conceptual compatibilities across cultures and civilizations – analyzing structures of thought developed in Chinese Legalism of the Warring States period and contemporary authoritarian philosophies like those of Carl Schmitt, Giovanni Gentile, or Vladimir Lenin.

Most terrifying task of all in mapping planes of immanence – straight-up creating concepts from near-scratch and testing them for mutual compatibility. If they fit, you have another few points on the map. If not, rinse and repeat.

Mathematical Images As Alive As You Are, Research Time, 29/11/2017

So I'm getting back to talking about Gilles Deleuze again – running back over the ideas in What Is Philosophy?. I first read this book about ten years ago. It was the first long book of his or Guattari’s that I’d ever read.

I didn't understand all of it at first. I mean, you’re never supposed to understand a genuinely good book completely – otherwise, there’s no value in returning to it, which means it isn’t genuinely good. One thing that I had trouble wrapping my head around the first time I read it was Deleuze’s concept of the plane of immanence.

From chaos the plane of immanence takes the determinations with
which it makes its infinite movements or its diagrammatic features.
Consequently, we can and must presuppose a multiplicity of planes,
since no one plane could encompass all of chaos without collapsing
back into it; and each retains only movements which can be folded
together. – Gilles Deleuze, What Is Philosophy?, Ch 2, Pg 50.
Reading it again now, my superior knowledge has totally enlightened me – No, that’s a fucking lie. It’s still a super-difficult chapter. I have a better handle on it now that I have an extra decade of experience and practice. But holy hell.

Let’s get one stupid objection to this concept out of the way – Deleuze doesn’t think the plane of immanence is some supernatural field of thought. You call this guy a textbook Platonist, I’ll fight you.

The plane of immanence is an image of thought.

Remember Difference and Repetition, Deleuze’s first big solo book? Remember how the only chapter you didn’t need a pure mathematics degree to follow closely was called “The Image of Thought.” It was a critique of a way of thinking that unifies all worthy thought along a single vector.*

* The chapter did a lot of other things as well – Difference and Repetition was probably the most dense book of Deleuze’s entire career of writing stupendously dense books. But I want to concentrate on this one thing here.

Call it truth, the real, correspondence, the mind of God. The ideal of thinking was to converge on a unified universal. It wasn’t that Deleuze wanted this gone, or thought it was wrong, or had no value. He just didn’t want this image of thought to be the only legitimate one.

Which I guess means he did end up wanting it gone. Someone says they’re the only boss, then if you (and you, and you, and you) want to be the boss too, you’ll have to fight them for it.

Can we say that one plane is 'better' than another? Or at least that it
does or doesn't answer to the requirements of the age? What does
answering to the requirements of the age mean? What relationship
is there between the movements or diagrammatic features of an
image of thought and the movements or socio-historical features
of an age? – Gilles Deleuze, What Is Philosophy?, Ch 2, Pg 58.
Start instead from a plural perspective about thought. You can organize thought in many different legitimate ways, each of which opens some avenues and closes others.

It’s analogous to perception. Bats can experience the world with echolocation, for example, and we can experience the world with words. That doesn’t make either the bat’s perception or the human’s perception better or worse than the other in an absolute sense. Bats are able to do some things and not others. Same goes for humans. We each have our niches in the world.

It works the same way in thought. Let’s explain this starting with concepts. A philosophical concept is created when you snatch an idea from the chaos of life, abstract it enough from your own for pretty much anyone to apply, refine it to mathematical accuracy through careful writing and tough self-interrogation.

Then you have a philosophical concept – a thought that can serve as an interpretive framework for thinking and living – a schemata for your understanding.

Like I said a few days ago, concepts can work together, they can conflict, or they can blatantly contradict each other. The plane of immanence is a map of those concepts – their component ideas, how they’d interact when used in a single subjectivity or a single society, or a whole planet.

A map of compossibility space – of the limits and conditions of how concepts can work together in a single, very complicated, system. You could almost call it a philosophy’s geometry.

Making New Differences, Composing, 28/11/2017

I’m working on a few different creative projects right now. One of them is a little indie publishing project of essays about the Capaldi years of Doctor Who – Essays Critical and Temporal.

The Lights of David, by Rebecca Bergson,
a depiction of divine illumination, as much as
should be allowed for human safety.
That's a literal description of the book too. They adapt the philosophical reviews I’ve written of each episode of Doctor Who since the 50th anniversary show. But I'm revising them pretty radically to match the retrospective nature of the book.

When I was first writing them, they were off-the-cuff – almost stream-of-consciousness, dredging up ideas from my years of (over-)education and reading, throwing them all at the keyboard. Same way that a lot of Doctor Who stories are absolutely mad ideas thrown at the screen to see if they stuck.

The opening credits, for one. And the Méliès-inspired The Web Planet. The tradition continued up to the present day.

I’m working on the revised essay for Into the Dalek now. It was Capaldi’s second story as the Doctor, and a very strange story. You can check out my old review, which is getting a radical, radical rewrite. Probably more so than a lot of the rest of them.

Into the Dalek was a weird story with a very straightforward idea at its heart. The visuals were absolutely trippy, from the cybernetic antibodies of a Dalek’s body, the reality-bending image of the Doctor’s hand melting, bending, and extending into the watery eye of the Dalek as he was shrunk and went inside.

There’s a moment where Peter Capaldi’s face appears in high resolution, video effects making his image appear deeper, more intense – the lines and crags of his face were so dark that he looks singular and cosmic at once. Like a full-colour hyper-realist sketch of a living god.

As I work on the new Into the Dalek essay, I’m revising some ideas of Henri Bergson about the nature of creativity. See, the episode’s plot is – convoluted fantastic voyage aside – ultimately about shepherding a rebellious Dalek to the realization that his species’ life mission of destroying all trace of difference in the universe is wrong.

In the event that this fantastic voyage should turn to erosion, and we'll
never get old – Remember it's true that dignity is valuable, but our
lives are valuable too.
The Doctor performs a kind of cosmic ethical psychotherapy, demonstrating the value of creation to a creature whose ideology – whose own creation’s original purpose – was the destruction of everything. Reducing all of being to a single, unchanging template.

So the essay will be a sketch of what an ethics where the creation of difference – variety, the new, proliferation, and the conditions that enable and sustain these processes – is good in itself. It’s a notion common to Bergson’s approaches to ethics, as well as much of pragmatist thought, and continues in post-colonial thinking and the traditions influenced by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.

I’m still synthesizing all these together in my thinking, though. So it’s going to be a while until my Patreon sponsors see the finished product. Probably only a couple of weeks, really. But I try to be as productive as I can.

As I’m working on this revision and rewrite, I’m imagining a plan to crowdsource illustrations – combing through DeviantArt and other fan art web platforms for sketch donations to include in the ebook. Maybe I’ll even do a small Kickstarter to fund artist commission fees for some key pitches.

We’ll see. Do please keep paying attention.

Getting Old and Feeling Surly, Research Time, 25/11/2017

Right now, I’m working on a short article for the Reply Collective. If I’m going to solicit contributors as Digital Editor, I may as well contribute some content myself. Especially since I’ve been a regular contributor since the place started up.

Recently, we published two articles that pick up a conversation which began last summer. I mean, there was a pretty big gap between instalments, but the conversation was pretty linear. It’s a discussion of John Searle’s theories of human rights.

John Searle's aggressive, unsubtle style of writing
turned out to be very influential throughout
analytic philosophy during the 1980s, and continues
to shape the approach of many philosophers in North
America. I consider that a damn shame, because
Searle first became prominent as one of the thinkers
bringing metaphysical and ontological issues back
into the analytic tradition.
I’m not going to link every single one individually, but you can start from the most recent two, by Gregory Lobo and J Angelo Corlett. You can also look through Raimo Tuomela’s recent piece, because the whole chain started from a review of his book Social Ontology, that SERRC published last year.

That’s what I love about this platform.

Anyway, there are some ideas in this debate that are good food for thought in my own research on utopian drives and concepts in contemporary ideologies. Now that I had the chance to engage with the exchange a little more closely, I could see some interesting convergences with my own work.

So this week, I’m drafting a more formally-written contribution to the discussion. And I’m going to sort out some of the ideas in it here.

Here’s what I latched onto in the discussion. The ideas and concepts floating around make for good elements in a non-reductive materialist conception of how human society works. Let me lay that out for you.

Materialist – Generally,* you don't think any supernatural substance or being is needed to explain things like life, consciousness, human intelligence, or the conditions of the universe’s existence (questions like, ‘What caused the beginning of the universe?’).

* And I’m talking extremely generally.

Non-reductive – You don’t think being a materialist about reality means you have to explain away some aspect of human experience, ability, spirituality, or identity.

As I looked into Searle's late-period social-political thinking, I saw what was in many ways kind of an inadequate system. A few years after Searle’s first book on this project, The Construction of Social Reality, Neil Gross wrote a pretty solid essay showing how wrong-headed the project was because of what it ignored.

I think Gross’ conclusion can apply to the later Searle material that focusses more directly on questions of human rights as well. It’s because Searle’s major creative philosophical works all fit together as a continuous development of a single grand theory.

The return of metaphysics to analytic philosophy had the potential
to create beautifully weird and creative ways of thinking and
writing in that tradition. Instead, such  fantastically strange thinkers
as Saul Kripke and David Lewis became outliers in an increasingly
stagnant stylistic field.
The concepts he developed during his first creative works carrying forward John Austin’s analyses of speech acts were a foundation for his arguments about the nature of mind and intentionality, how people direct their action in the world.

The decades he spent developing those theories laid a groundwork for his account of the social world as shaped by collective and shared intentions. The conception of shared intentions as the atoms of society became the basis for his theory of human rights.

Here are the problems I have with this, which Gross helped me put a finger on.

Problem one – Searle’s insularity. Remember, Searle developed all this theoretical machinery largely as building blocks from his own older work. He’d established his theoretical system, and like the old system-builders, he expanded those concepts and theories to apply to new areas, eventually to give an account of all human phenomena.

So he didn’t think he had an incentive to read the works of other authors as equals. In response to critics – well-versed in social and sociological theory – who said Searle’s ideas didn’t go much beyond what Emile Durkheim developed a century ago, Searle said that he didn’t really read much of Durkheim.

Why? Because what little he’d read of Durkheim convinced him that one of the founders of the entire discipline of sociology didn’t make much sense. No attempt to understand Durkheim’s very different intellectual world or priorities. No attempt to understand why he wrote the way he did. Because Durkheim didn’t write like a doctrinaire analytic philosopher, he didn’t make sense. That’s it.

Which brings me to problem two – Searle’s arrogance and hypocrisy. Searle is infamous for having convinced pretty much everyone in analytic philosophy that everything influenced by Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, or any other philosopher from continental Europe’s traditions is empty charlatanism.

Because those ideas, even though they were sometimes
written in very strange ways, turned out to be very
useful to the social sciences. It was almost as if the
hermeneutic and post/structuralist theories were
philosophies of the social sciences, waiting for the
social scientists to catch up a bit. Just a thought.
The obvious arrogance is in the conclusion that, because I don’t understand something, it’s nonsense. In his exchange with Jacques Derrida, they both talked past each other to epic intensities.

Searle was convinced that Derrida spoke nothing but nonsense. Derrida was convinced that Searle was an arrogant hypocrite who made no effort to understand the vulnerabilities and blindnesses of his own position and thought.

When I read Gross’ critique of Searle’s social theory, I understood how these two threads – his insularity in his own corpus, and his arrogant, dismissive attitude to ideas and styles he didn’t immediately understand – connected.

The ideas that were at the forefront of social theory for sociologists come from hermeneutics, structuralism, post-structuralism, and philosophy of the intensive sciences. The schools of philosophy that Searle has aggressively dismissed as nonsense and fraud for literally decades.

By this late state in his career – when he had also become more untouchable than Harvey Weinstein for his sexual exploitation of young, female students – Searle had become incapable of the humility required to catch up on social theory. He would have likely seen what trends had influenced contemporary sociology and dismissed it all as nonsense without bothering to read any of it.

So he’s a fellow traveller in giving a materialist theory of human thought, society, and institutions. But his arrogance and self-certainty keeps Searle from having anything useful to say to anyone else.

I doubt he’d care. If they think differently from him, he’d likely say they were all simply wrong.

An Engineer Has No Use for Relativism, Research Time, 23/11/2017

Back in my academy days, I’d sometimes get into insufferable conversations about the truth. “What is true?” “What does it mean to be true?” “Truth is all important.” “The purpose of philosophy is to find out the truth.”

By the time I started my doctorate, I had about settled into my approach to philosophy – as conceptual engineering, the creation and exploration of frameworks to understand the world. When I’d talk about this approach with people, I’d often – not that often, but often enough – get questions from other scholars about what that had to do with the search for truth.

Well, it has nothing to do with the search for truth. Truth doesn’t really play an essential role in this activity. If you were learning about a philosophical concept – René Descartes’ cogito, for example – accuracy is important.

Accuracy is a kind of truth – you have to make sure that you weren’t making errors, that your interpretation of the relevant words doesn't run roughshod over the page. But if you were to ask me if I thought the cogito was true? Back in 2009, I’d tell you that I didn’t think it mattered.

I’ve met some philosophy scholars who believe that the ideas of their focal primary material are true. I’ve known people who think Descartes was right. Straight-up philosophically correct about the nature of the mind, world, and existence. Same goes for Spinoza, Kant, Hegel – I’ve met people who genuinely believe that these writers were right. Full stop.

I find that attitude tends to get in the way of understanding other thinkers. You always judge them inferior to the object of your faith. And it is faith. Ultimately, we’re not investigating the real world when we study great works of philosophy. We’re reading books.

So that was 2009. These days, I’m even more radical about this. Ask me now about whether the cogito or any other particular philosophical concept is true – in 2017, I’ll tell you that the question isn’t even proper to ask. Like asking a geologist about the diet and exercise habits of sedimentary rock formations.

I've been in some cramped seminar rooms before, but this is ridiculous.
Does this make my way of thinking philosophy relativist? No, because I’m indifferent to truth in philosophical thinking. You don’t ask if a concept is true in the same sense that you don’t ask if a computer program, or a lamp, or an engine, or a shoe is true. You ask what it does and how it works.

Logic – should I say logics? – still applies to concepts. But that’s because logic isn’t about the truth of any of its propositions, only about how to infer among propositions.

Concepts can contradict each other – you can’t include some concepts together in the same big apparatus of understanding. Deleuze gives a beautiful example, the kind of simple yet comprehensive statement about the field that a long-practicing expert can make.

He says that you can’t build a philosophical system that combines a Descartes-style cogito with a Plato-style ontology of Ideas. For the Platonic Form or Idea to exist, being must be primary – but the cogito’s purpose is to provide a foundation for being and exists in each subject.

Ideas – thought comes to be because Ideas exist. Cogito – thought provides the guarantee of existence. They contradict, so they can’t both be part of the same philosophical framework, the same thought machine.

The logic of conceptual engineering is that of conditions and creations. Such logic maps compossibility.

What to Do With a Real Problem, Research Time, 22/11/2017

So yesterday, I was riffing on the nature of the concept. Concept – an expression in thought of a transformative collision of forces and processes. If you think a concept is just another word for a general idea, Gilles Deleuze is very particular to describe the concept in mathematical terms – vectors and relations.

A mathematical formula expresses a relation in thought – we’ve developed a very good notation for writing mathematical formulas, so we can put a very complicated relation in a single line of writing that way.

Concepts have the same precision, but they don’t function mathematically – Concepts are frameworks for everyday human thought, the schema of our how we understand our nature, everyday life, values, and place in the universe. Philosophy is the practice of developing new concepts – new frameworks for understanding experience.

That’s about where we are now. You know, this is why you could plausibly call me a Deleuzian. Because when he explains the nature of concepts and the purpose of philosophy like this, to me, this is incredibly obvious and makes perfect sense.

Storytime. A few years ago, I was at a philosophy conference in Oregon
and many of the attendees were pragmatist thinkers and scholars. In an
off-handed, but very sincere, comment to the conference organizer, I
said that many of the philosophical problems that the pragmatists were
stuck on found their solutions – or at least their next steps – in the
work of Deleuze and Guattari. It's those solutions – about the nature
and purpose of philosophical thinking – that I'm talking about in my
posts about What Is Philosophy?
It’s the only mission statement for “What philosophy is” that doesn’t sound empty, dissatisfying, and ultimately leave you shrugging your shoulders.* It’s the only one that actually can be a mission statement for the discipline going forward.

* The question that I find most insufferably annoying in all the philosophical traditions I've studied has to be, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" My response – Fuck! Who cares?! If there wasn't anything, it wouldn't matter, so neither does the question. There clearly is, so start there.

Given the absurd pressure that exists on humanities and social science departments today, the disciplines should at least fight back instead of retreating inward. Take on an active role in public life – bring your knowledge skills to the problems of our time.

That itself – what research disciplines that have been stuck in ivory towers so long that the disciplines themselves are under attack – is a philosophical problem.

Problem – a situation, whether in thought or practice or more often both, that constitutes obstacles, dangers, puzzles, mysteries to us. A concept is a framework for our understanding that lets us act such that the obstacles aren’t really in our way. Like someone who moves to a cold, wintery region and has to learn to walk well on snowshoes.

Eric Weber is a philosopher I know in the United States, who co-hosts a podcast called Philosophy Bakes Bread. One of the questions he always asks guests is whether philosophy can bake bread – whether and how it has a practical dimension.

As for me, I think it’s only worth calling philosophy if it has a practical dimension. Philosophy creates conceptual tools for solving problems in action with thought. Components of those concepts can include versions of all the traditional topics of philosophy – God, cosmos, being, the good, truth. But those tools are always there.

Conceptual engineers – designers and testers of guides for thinking.

Thought: An Uncanny Precision, Research Time, 21/11/2017

Gilles Deleuze has an awful reputation as an impenetrable writer. And I mean fucking impenetrable. Not like it isn’t his fault. Some of Deleuze’s sentences – especially in his super-dense late 1960s works – are the kind of language you grind your teeth on.

Working with Félix Guattari made his words more poetic, more like a teacher than a researcher. But the flow of this jazz was sometimes a little too out-there. Deleuze’s language was looser in his solo works during his last decade alive, though he never met the fever pitches of those collaborative works again.

I do sometimes think of their collaborative style like jazz musicians
riffing on each other's improvisations, or rappers freestyling in tandem.
Deleuze and Guattari's collaborations do have a very musical feeling
to their language.
But he doesn’t have a reputation for precision. Mostly stereotypes about being either immensely difficult or bizarrely weird. Which is too bad, because he’s actually a very precise writer.

When you read What Is Philosophy?, it isn’t just a book of philosophy – it’s also a look at Deleuze’s own method of philosophical thought.* Start by describing what it is he makes. Concepts.

* Why not Guattari too, even though his name is on the cover? A reference to the history. Their collaboration was pretty light on this one, nowhere near the intensity of their work in the 1970s. They were old by then, Guattari deep in a years-long depression. He’d die of a heart attack at 62 the year after it was published. Félix didn’t do too much.

A philosophical concept is an account – in thought and as best you can in words – of the full range of possible variations when several different processes collide and interact. It’s like a mathematical description, but without variables or constants, using only the ranges of all the relevant vectors.

A concept has no X, Y, and Z; no e or π. A concept has maximum and minimum ranges of development from a decisive, transformative point. There’s a collision of forces, a moment of change constitutes from its complex dynamics and turbulence a new system of those forces. The range of possibilities that event sets in motion is its concept.

Let's be honest with ourselves, however. They'd never be as cool as
actual jazz musicians.
A concept is an expression of this knowledge of the ranges of potentials, but in thought. When you ask what these thoughts make possible, you’re doing practical philosophy. Exploring what a particular way of thinking – a framework for understanding the world – enables you to do.

What does such a framework – the ability to understand the world using these ranges – open our minds toward? Practical philosophy – philosophical thinking and analysis going to work in the world.

But in this book, Deleuze is thinking only of the nature of concepts. He’d written enough about their development and use. What Is Philosophy? is Deleuze doing meta-philosophy. Trying to describe what philosophical thinking actually is, and what philosophers do when they’re actually doing philosophy and not just writing about it.**

** The occupation of way too many people who call themselves philosophers.

Studying a concept means examining how that concept is expressed, how it’s written, other explorations of it in different philosophical (or philosophically-inclined) literature.

Once you understand the writing, you can mull over its mechanics – its processes, the activities it suits, what it makes visible and invisible, the relationships and dynamics of all its components, how its structure can affect how someone would think through it.

You survey it, like a drone flight over a mountain range. It has to be a very careful survey, because of its complexity. Incredibly precise knowledge, but only after careful, attentive study. A survey to map thoughts themselves.