Soft Serve Determinism: Definitions, Jamming, 31/08/2013

Because weekend posts never quite get the same numbers, I consider them slightly obligatory to my original mission (that will never change without disaster) of posting some selection of words every day about work that I’m doing. So in this case, I’ll post a short follow-up to Friday’s post, on the nature of determinism. Philosophy has often been described as a discipline of definitions; we work in inventing and solidifying and arguing over what the best possible definitions of words are.

So here are my working definitions for the key concepts in my thinking about the nature of scientific law, determinism, and freedom. Once they’re on the table, I think people (in professional philosophy at least) can understand why I never plan to write on the formal freedom/determinism problem.

Transcendently determined: Laws of nature are eternal, and exist in some form that transcends their articulation in particular events and movements. 

Free: Not affected by determination, and in some of the strongest versions, not even affected by causality; spontaneous action, so much so that it borders on arbitrariness.

Traditionally contingent: An event that unfolded in freedom, understood insofar as it could have been otherwise.

Contingent: A body moves according to its tendencies, effected and conditioned by its history and the context and conditions of its present.

Determination by tendency: Bodies with regularity according to their structures and the  circumstances in which they find themselves. We can predict these movements mathematically in the form of laws. But the laws are our tools. Bodies move as they will move, and one day, they may surprise us.

Soft Serve Determinism, Research Time, 30/08/2013

Economics is a tricky thing to write about when you’re not an economist. One either ends up pleading ignorance on one’s own part and deferring to economists, or else making far too many amateur mistakes in reasoning to be taken seriously.* This is why I don’t often talk about the economic factors or implications of my political philosophies, and in fact focus my political philosophy on less controversial topics, like social solidarity as an antidote to crime and racism, arguing against the rationality of retributive justice, and all the political implications of the ecophilosophy project. You know, the easy stuff.

* Earlier this year, I read these two pithy articles by journalist Matthew Yglesias at Slate that write about economic issues reasonably well. Yet they do stay away from the details, and mostly focus on the daily problems of working people or the social and ideological disconnect between the super-elite of American society and everyone else who can’t afford multiple yachts.

So when Jean-Paul Sartre got into the tricky business of writing about economic ideas in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, I was a little worried he might go off the rails for a few chapters. While there isn’t a lot in these sections that has direct relevance to my ideas for the utopias project, there are a couple of interesting ideas.

One idea of his was to critique a notion that is, unfortunately, still prevalent in a lot of philosophical discussions and pretty big swaths of the general population: that the mathematical laws that scientific investigations discover about reality necessarily determine all action. Ian Hacking covered this territory about 40 years later in The Taming of Chance, showing how silly it is. 

The traditional way of thinking about laws of nature goes like this. Scientists of various kinds work out mathematics that describe how the bodies central to their knowledge domains behave in various circumstances. We think of these mathematical systems as having always existed, and humans scientists discovered their existence. The laws existed separately from the bodies, the bodies and their movements being mere examples of the laws. Hacking showed that, at least in the case of statistical laws, this isn’t how the phenomena work. The laws are extrapolated from behaviour, and illustrate tendencies of motion for bodies of particular types. In other words, in the traditional deterministic picture, ontologically speaking, the laws come first and determine the behaviour. In the case of statistical laws, the behaviour comes first, and lets us extrapolate the laws.

Sartre is basically saying the same thing, except in the late 1950s instead of Hacking in the late 1990s, and it’s a passage in the middle of a 1400-page magnum opus. Except in Sartre’s case, he isn’t talking about statistical laws, but economics of supply and demand. The typical (or at least popular) way of thinking of this is that the law of supply/demand dynamics determines the development of prices on markets from the transcendent realm of mathematical law. But really, those dynamics are the effect of tendencies that occur when social bodies (humans, that is) buy and sell goods in an environment of resource scarcity. 

There may be some inevitability that is very difficult to escape thanks to the nature of the bodies in question, but certainly no transcendent necessity. 

There Is No Point to Doing Philosophy If You Don’t Care About What It Achieves, Jamming, 29/08/2013

I had an interesting conversation online with my friend P yesterday. Well, I should say it was my final conversation with my former friend P. I don’t know if this is an effect of my growing old, cynical, wise, or some blend of the three. But I no longer value universal popularity the way I used to. 

You know, I’ve never lost a friend over a philosophical dispute before. Most of the time, unless my colleagues are actively rude to me in a discussion, we consider ourselves as differing professionally and carry on as always. Even then, we quickly apologize for our rudeness once it’s pointed out, and the best of us improve our behaviour and are less confrontational next time (I do the best I can).

When I was a child, I had my friends, but I was afraid of bullies, so afraid that I hid myself away and lost all my friends. 

However, it’s fitting that P and I ended our friendship over the topic that we did, in the fallout from a conversation about a post on this blog. I knew when I started this project in July that it involved some kind of risk. I had reservations, worries that, as I hit the university job market again, prospective hiring committees would think me unprofessional for carrying on philosophical conversations in so casual a tone. But blogs like mine are one way in which philosophy can have a public profile and a public image. 

When I realized the bullies were gone, I made new friends because I had made myself terribly lonely. 

And our dispute was over what it is for a philosopher, and by extension the discipline of philosophy, to have a public image. In a facebook conversation with my friend R, who’s a political student activist, we were talking about some of the subtle distinctions of Marxist philosophy, following my post about my skepticism of the continued existence of bourgeoisie. I suggested that one of the biggest problems a Marx-inspired critique of contemporary capitalism faces is that it has such a poor public image. After all, the actual communist governments that have existed aren’t exactly paragons of political virtue, what with all the casual government brutality, systematic collectivization in dictatorial management, and a political culture of paranoia and habitual lying that would have given Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover pause to deal with their shock. So some of the generally useful critiques Marxism has offered over the years face a terrible problem of its public relations.

No one really had a problem with this suggestion that public relations was important to practical philosophy until P told me to shove it.

Nothing was more important than making new friends because I didn’t want to risk being friendless again. 

But I can’t think of philosophy as exclusively a pursuit for the life of the mind, if only because I’m trying to make a material living from philosophical work. Teaching is an inherently public activity, for one thing. Same with writing — no one is going to publish a book of philosophy if the writer isn’t interested in promoting it to a relatively wide public. And even if you do publish it without bothering with this, your work isn’t going to have an impact on philosophy as a living tradition if no one reads it. Public relations may be a crude term, but it’s required for our work as professional creators of knowledge. 

Beyond even the individual scale, philosophy as a discipline is in crisis precisely because of our public relations. Philosophy department budgets are cut, and sometimes the whole department has been threatened with dissolution (consider University of Nevada’s Las Vegas campus) because the administrators of universities do not consider philosophy to be productive or valuable to society. Michèle Lamont, the Harvard sociologist, has done research on the relation of different academic disciplines to each other, and found philosophy the most alienated, its vocabulary, central problems, and habits strange to all the other disciplines. Frankly, no one outside the discipline of philosophy itself knows what we’re talking about anymore. And in the most disgusting case, the technical language of mainstream philosophy is perverted to obfuscate and trivialize sexual harassment.

I always wanted to have somewhere to go in case someone I cared about decided not to be my friend anymore. 

In this sense, philosophy as a discipline needs a total public relations makeover, a demonstration that the discipline is relevant to human affairs and problems, that the discipline’s ideas are valuable. My own major projects bring the full weight of philosophy’s ontological, ethical, and moral concepts and traditions to bear on important problems of our time: the ecological crisis, public hostility to evolutionary biology, how to achieve political change without coercion or violence.

Public relations is incredibly important to philosophy, and any academic discipline. If we can’t demonstrate our relevance to the public, then philosophy risks becoming a lost practice, at best surviving as a metaphor. I care too much about philosophy to fix it incommunicado in the mind.

That’s a simple story that covers my life up until about 9.15 Wednesday morning. 
Some people are not worth being friends with.

The Accessibility of a Tight Intellectual Style, Composing, 28/08/2013

When I posted a few weeks ago about the process of transitioning a dissertation manuscript into a book that an academic publisher (or even just a publisher of books for smart people in general), I discussed the differences in style that can cause a writer difficulties in that transition. A dissertation is often thought of as an exercise, a proof for your department that you can actually do the research that is demanded of a working professional academic in the field. As such, you’re really only writing for a few people, your committee. The book From Dissertation to Book was written to aid people in this transition from an audience of the committee to an audience of whoever would find it interesting. And sometimes, it helps people realize that their work can’t make that transition.

I think a key factor determining one’s style of writing a project is based on your actual goal for what it will do. This is related to the question of audience, but with a different emphasis. A committee is often only interested in your presentation of information, and your ability to synthesize it into an argument. So that’s the goal of a dissertation, considered only as a dissertation. 

The nice part about the book transition is that presentation of information and synthesis into an argument is part of the goal of a book too. But only part. The most important additional goal (and I think possibly the only additional goal) is that the style of writing also communicate why that synthesized information is relevant and interesting to people who are under absolutely no professional obligation to read your work.

Because my eye was on publication as a stand-alone book from the beginning, I considered the ecophilosophy project to be en route to this third goal already. But it certainly hadn’t arrived.

I was back to work on some edits to Ch. 4 yesterday, which is most conceptually important to the central argument of the entire work. However, in its current form, it’s also the most desperately in need of an edit of any chapter in the entire work. The goal of the chapter for the argument is to connect the book’s two halves: showing that the strongest (if definitely not the easiest) answer to the moral and political dilemmas of the contemporary ecological crisis (the focus of the first half) lies in understanding oneself in every physical, personal, and social aspect of one’s life, existence, and subjectivity to be ecological in nature (the focus of the second half). 

Let’s not get into how I managed this in the original dissertation version by saying it was good enough for my committee. Again, their goal was to see whether I could do the work and present it coherently. Whether I made it fun to read wasn’t their problem. But a publisher, and a public, will need me to do that. 

The chapter is, at heart, about connecting the cosmological with the personal and political. I have to demonstrate that a change in one’s self-conception only works when it comes as one element of a change in one’s conception of the entire universe and the human role in it. This kind of writing goes beyond simply mastering a philosophical sub-discipline to the degree that professionals will respect what you have to say. It involves connecting with people in reconsidering the fundamental aspects of their perspective on the human place in the universe. It is, as I described on twitter Tuesday afternoon, going the full Carl Sagan. 

But as my esteemed colleague JEM, mastermind of the Vaka Rangi Star Trek blog (link at right), replied, talking like that tends to make a guy sound like “a total prat.”

Wise words, brother. There can only be one Carl Sagan, after all.

We’re Classless When We’re Dead, Research Time, 27/08/2013

I read some very interesting chapters in Maier-Katkin’s Hannah Arendt biography yesterday afternoon about her coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial and the composition of Eichmann in Jerusalem. But I think I want to hold off my detailed thoughts on this period of Arendt’s writing until I dive more into the books on totalitarianism myself. I will say this, though: Arendt will probably be a central source of concepts for the utopias project.

I’ve also had the opportunity to get back into the Critique of Dialectical Reason after a few busy days. One of the inevitable discussions of any piece of writing that operates in a Marxist tradition is class, particularly the term ‘bourgeoisie.’ Even when I’ve studied Marx’s work itself, this term has always proven very difficult for me. I just never really had a referent for the set of behaviours it discussed. It was really only on reading 19th century literature from England and France (particularly Dickens and Stendhal) that I really understood the type of person this referred to. They were the new wealthy moneyed elite, usually quite stuck up about it.

This is the first image to appear on the
Wikipedia page for 'bourgeoisie.' I will
never understand the fashion industry.
One of the fates that almost every work of human knowledge faces is that one day the world will make it obsolete. And this might be happening with the Marxist concept of the bourgeoisie. Now, I’m not nearly well-versed enough in the subtleties of the enormous corpus of Marxist philosophical and political literature out there to say this definitively. But I at least want to hazard a guess about this particular concept’s dance with obsolescence: I don’t think the bourgeoisie exists anymore.

At least not in the style that it did in the 19th century. Sartre makes an interesting point about this. Environmental damage and pollution affects all socio-economic classes pretty much equally. No matter how rich you are, we all breathe the same smog. Maybe the very rich can get away to tropical island vacations, but even there, an oil slick from a wrecked ship may not be far behind. Beyond this point, the well-being, or at least the social stability, of all classes depends on the health of the industries in which they work. And if ecological destruction affects an industry as a whole, then everyone is up the same creek.

Even so, if global climate change causes the average temperature of Earth to hover around 35ºC or higher, and humidity to hit 100% saturation regularly, it doesn’t matter what class you are. Under those circumstances, the human body is unable to dissipate heat, its electrical system will overload and break down. At that point, the human race will be dead. And socio-economic class distinctions will not be quite so relevant.

Thoughts on Hannah Arendt 42: What Is Philosophy?, A History Boy, 26/08/2013

If you have ever been in a meeting of a philosophy department where curriculum is being discussed, it can be terrifying sight. Now, of all the administrative duties that a department has to handle, my favourite is actually curriculum design. I love the details and activities of curriculum design so much that I’m willing to go through the horror of actually discussing my proposals and ideas with the rest of whatever department I’ll eventually end up working in. 

Because what happens when all the professors in the department start talking about curriculum is that everyone gets very passionate and no one really comes to consensus on anything. Each of us has our visions of what philosophy is about, and therefore what should be prioritized in the design of a philosophy program. And because we’ve devoted our entire lives to this mad discipline, we take the design of the programs we teach very seriously and very personally. 

A few years ago, I missed a meeting of McMaster’s philosophy department to discuss changes to the curriculum. I missed it for personal reasons, but there was a party at one of the professor’s houses that evening, where I almost started another fight. My incendiary words?

“Well, of course Hannah Arendt is a philosopher!”

We changed the subject with great speed, but I was happy that the party host (and one of my doctoral committee members) agreed with me.

Arendt is one of those names that, if you grew up in a reasonably intellectual household that had at least one member interested in the Second World War, you just heard at some point. She wrote one of the most famous and definitive books about the nature of Nazi Germany and the totalitarian mentality, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Then she did it again with Eichmann in Jerusalem. Most of her employment in the 1950s was working for organizations advocating and accounting for reparations for Jewish relations and survivors of the Holocaust. She was one of the most famous public intellectuals of her time. Yet sometimes, it’s an open question whether she belongs in a philosophy department. 

A young Hannah Arendt with a cigarette. I
honestly consider her death that wrecked The
Life of the Mind
to be the best advertisement
against habitual smoking ever made.
For myself, it only makes sense. The first (and so far only) works by Arendt that I’ve read are her openly philosophical works, The Human Condition, The Life of the Mind, and her lectures on Kant. I was originally introduced to the works of Arendt in a philosophy class at Memorial University, when I was an undergraduate taking a grad course, studying the Kant lectures to find what one could apply from them to theoretical writings on international humanitarian intervention.* I discovered in this class the unfinished nature of The Life of the Mind: the only part of its third volume, on judgment, that exists is a frontispiece containing a Cato quotation. She typed that page, then immediately had a fatal heart attack. I consider it the worst-timed death in the history of philosophy.

* It’s weird that many of the single figures in philosophy who’ve influenced me most I’ve discovered through more marginal works. The first Arendt I read was the Kant lectures. The first Deleuze I read was his little book on Kant, then I got more into Deleuze starting from the seven-page Immanence essay that I read when I sat in on a class on biopolitics.

Of course, given Arendt’s general reputation, her philosophical works are actually more marginal. Origins of Totalitarianism is usually regarded as a work of political science and historical analysis, while Eichmann in Jerusalem has such an amorphous scope, I’m not sure that it can be easily fit into a single category of intellectual work. Yet even in these works, what we remember best about them is their philosophical aspects. They’re about the concepts of totalitarianism and evil, and how these concepts found life in one of the most terrible events of the modern era. 

So I’m left wondering why someone wouldn’t consider Arendt to be a philosopher. Because as far as I’m concerned, she’s a better model for philosophy in the 21st century than just about anyone else. This is a century that’s riven with horrifying political and social problems, whose roots are in the ontological concepts that lie at the foundation of all our various worldviews. Concepts like freedom, God, authority, knowledge, science, good, faith, and evil are at the heart of our ecological crises, drug wars, terrorist movements, surveillance states, and dictatorships that threaten the literal and complete destruction of the human species.

Arendt may not be considered a philosopher if you think philosophy has to keep itself separate from these political and social concerns. But philosophy is facing a disciplinary crisis today, with people from many walks of life and even other university-based disciplines wondering just what good is philosophy anymore. When the philosophy department at University of Nevada’s Las Vegas campus was almost shuttered a few years ago, the uproar was about how inconceivable it was for a university not to have a philosophy department. That uproar just barely saved it. But we can’t rely on that argument, that we should be there because we’ve always been there, for much longer. That only lets philosophy become a bastion and a symbol of the worst kind of conservatism.

Philosophy will find its public relevance again if we take a lesson from Arendt and use our conceptual creativity to engage with the modern issues of the world and use our writings to change how people think. Or at least make them consider themselves in a new light. We’ll never change the world if we don’t jump into it.

Thoughts on Hannah Arendt 17: Self-Absorbed, Jamming, 25/08/2013

I may have complained yesterday about Stranger From Abroad being pitched as a Heidegger book as much as an Arendt book, but a complete biography of Hannah Arendt really has to include her relationship with Heidegger anyway. My only real problem with the book is that she has to share billing with him.

He makes an interesting foil, though, which is a key element for the biography’s point. I know what you’re thinking — a biography should be an accurate account of a person’s life. It shouldn’t have foils and characters, as if it was a fiction book, you could say.

Yes, you could say that, couldn’t you. But you’d be wrong. Those elements of narrative construction are what separates a brilliantly written biography from a collection of correspondence and lists of notes. In this book, Heidegger is set up as a foil so we understand a key aspect of what Arendt was trying to engage with throughout her work: how someone could unthinkingly be complicit in terrible acts, how we can blind ourselves to complicity.

The book’s author, Daniel Maier-Katkin, makes connections between the emphases of Heidegger’s philosophy and his blindness to inability to be open about his inaction and conformity during the Nazi era. I’m not about to get involved in the swirling hurricane of Heideggerian philosophical interpretation. But DMK’s narrative isn’t so much about getting Heidegger right (again, that’s for the specialty scholars on his work in the history of philosophy community), as it is using one interpretation of that thought to illustrate a broader philosophical point.

Plus, his interpretation of Heidegger’s philosophy was based on Arendt’s own writings about him in professional journals, and to him in their personal correspondence, as well as discussions recorded and remembered by her friends. So you can’t exactly say that his ideas aren’t backed by a decent authority.

The key idea that the book emphasizes is that Heidegger was a profoundly self-absorbed man, and that he expressed this in his personal life, his public life, and his philosophical thought. At the heart of Heidegger’s philosophy, especially the emphases pre-WWII like Being and Time, is the alone-ness and isolation of individual people. Meditation on death leads one to disconnect from society, because of the simple truth that we always face death alone. 

The problem, of course, is when you find yourself in situations where your inclusion in society matters. Arendt’s rebuke to Heidegger, occasionally directly, but mostly indirectly through the emphases of her books, and her own life and character, was that our social relations — friendship, loves, community, interactions and associations — matter more to the meaning of human life than this existential problem. Indeed, there can be existential problems embedded in social life. Those existential issues are the very ethical questions of who I am, the full meaning and implications of my personality and how I live. If I want to get a little pretentious, I could call it virtu.

Heidegger’s thought, with its focus on ontological questions of nothingness and the empty — Why is there something rather than nothing? What is my relationship with death, my own inevitable nothingness? — isolates us within our own shells. The everyday interactions of humanity seem trivial compared to the weight of these problems. But the everyday is precisely where we live, and where who we are matters most.

The Morality of Rejection: Thoughts on Hannah Arendt 1, Jamming, 24/08/2013

My new fun reading is a book called Stranger From Abroad, a biography of Hannah Arendt.* I’ve had a fairly long history with Arendt’s thought, though most of the details of that will probably come in a more prominent History Boy post in the next month or so. But her ideas are becoming increasingly important to my own point of view in political and ethical philosophy.

* The book, ostensibly at least, is also apparently about Martin Heidegger, attempting to understand the strange relationship between the two, both pre and post Second World War. But Arendt gets the major focus of the book’s historical treatment, and is clearly the central figure for the author, Daniel Maier-Katkin. I think it’s possible that he was trying a little too hard to find an angle aside from the done-to-death straight biography of Hannah Arendt. I’m not a fan of obeying conventions, but given the quality of his Hannah-only chapters (the majority of chapters), I almost would have preferred straight biography. If only so that Arendt’s face could be the only one on the cover, and she wouldn’t have to share it with a photo of young Heidegger looking like a rat.

I suppose I should make a point, if I haven’t on the blog already, about the nature of ethics. Most of the time, the terms ethics and morality are pretty much interchangeable. But as I was composing the dissertation version of the ecophilosophy project, I found myself having to make a curious and very fruitful distinction. Taking a cue from some interpretations of Aristotle, Spinoza’s masterwork The Ethics, and some recent work by Kwame Appiah, I took ethics as the philosophy of selfhood, subjectivity, character, and personality. Morality, my cue this time from Nietzsche and Deleuze, is (or rather, are) the systems of rules and principles by which we try to govern our social relations as self-conscious creatures. Our social behaviour isn’t as autonomic as insects because of our self-consciousness, so we need moral concepts and principles as the framework for our social interactions. 

After all, even a rule as simple as “Don’t be a dick” needs a comprehensive and detailed definition of what it is to be a dick. Lots of work to keep philosophy departments busy.

What does this have to do with Arendt? Well, over the last few years, I’ve become somewhat disillusioned by the practice of moral philosophy. Many of the recent debates on the subject, at least in English-language moral philosophy which I’m most familiar with, have tended to be occupied with over-preciseness and hair-splitting on abstract principles. The material world too often seems absent from moral philosophy’s practice. This while we live in probably the most destructive era of human history.

The more of Arendt’s work I read, the more I find truly productive for the kind of effective role that a practice like philosophy can have. I’ll probably follow this up with further reflections tomorrow (and possibly even Monday as well), but here is what I think is a key concept in her thinking. The foundation of moral practice is ethical practice. It isn’t enough to seek justice in the world or act in a manner that is morally good according to various principles. You also have to shape your personality in such a way that your own desires will spur you to seek a more just world and act, at least in the relatively small venues of your own life, to achieve it.

It’s a very noble task, if extremely rare in success. I don't think I'll ever manage it. I just finished the chapter of Stranger From Abroad that details Arendt’s falling out with the Zionist movement over the late 1940s. The reasons for her rejection from the movement were largely that she did not want the establishment of Israel to create a regime of second-class citizenship for the Muslim Arabs who lived inside it. Her idea was that racism is not articulated only in the form of one specific group against another specific group, which focusses on individual acts of hatred. Hatred itself is a phenomenon that can occur in any context. It’s a social process of the creation of scapegoats from communities that are vulnerable or already economically disadvantaged. It’s any act of creating an in-group and an out-group, the privileged and the dejected.

The extra step she took was that this dynamic can occur even within an already-ostracized group. Maier-Katkin discusses her relationship with the Zionist movement as an example. Leaders and well-moneyed interests within the movement cut her off as punishment for her dissent on the issue of Arab rights within Israel. Her own act of speaking against racism and social hatred caused her rejection and vilification within a community that was itself rejected and victimized.

More Sunday, I think.

The Immense Power of Matter, Research Time, 23/08/2013

At the moment, I’m working on a jointly written piece to go up at Social Epistemology’s online review section discussing some of the philosophical implications of a new book, Curtis White’s The Science Delusion. It’s not a very good book, but one of the things it demonstrates really clearly (by its existence, not by anything it explicitly says) is the power of a particular cultural narrative in our society. This is the idea that materialism, the idea that the only substance that exists is the matter/energy of atoms and light, is an inherently reductive notion.

In other words, it’s the idea that to say humanity is made entirely of matter robs us of some dignity. That it makes human life crude and mechanistic; that it conceives of a person as a clockwork mechanism. That only when there is an immaterial aspect to human existence can we truly live with all the freedom and dignity we should. Humanity’s material nature is something that represses us and holds us back.

Sartre, at least in this particular chapter (about page 180 of my edition) offers a cackling retort. He says that unless humanity were wholly matter, we wouldn’t be able to act in the world. Acting in the world is, in a very basic sense, the manipulation of matter. And you can only manipulate matter if you are in fact matter. In this sense, it’s our material nature that frees us because it gives us this power to act in the world. We are embedded in the material world so intimately because we are part of the material world. 

It’s a wonderful atheist counter-argument to one of the most powerful cultural narratives of our time: the notion that only the immaterial can elevate us, and that the only genuine dignity lies in rising above or escaping from the world. When you think about it, this notion is remarkably widespread in our society and history, to the point where it’s almost common sense. Yet Sartre easily points out (in a paragraph half filled with rhetorical questions, no less) that the greater dignity is the physical power to change our own world. 

And within a couple more pages, he’s moved on again to another idea. Whole books could be written about the ideas he passes over so casually. It’s rare that I’m this impressed by the everyday fertility of one person’s mind.

Poo-tee-tweet! A History Boy, 22/08/2013

Kurt Vonnegut has been one of my personal heroes since
I first started reading novels when I was 7 years old.
My first experience of intense unconditional love for another that enraptured the soul was with a book. It was Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Ever since I read that tale of beautiful and pathetic apocalypse, his vision and style stayed close to my heart. I haven’t read everything Vonnegut ever wrote, but in some form, I have loved everything he has written as I’ve read it. I don’t think it’s good to be obsessively completist about the art we love, especially when the artist has died and won’t produce any more work. You forget too easily the experience of discovering what you love again if you’ve already completed everything. Each book is singular, and while they have in common the Vonnegut voice, the meaning of the voice is different with every book.

A while ago, a copy of Vonnegut’s Jailbird came into my possession. It’s a late-period Vonnegut, written and published long after he became ridiculously famous, so famous that no human could live up to the ideal image so many fans had dreamed. Jailbird, like a lot of his late-period work, didn’t have the best reputation. But one of the reasons why Jailbird lies fairly low on the rankings in Vonnegut fandom is because it runs against the established continuity about the nature of Kilgore Trout. I remember that when I was younger, this is a reason I never sought out Jailbird. Then I grew up physically and mentally. Some people never grow up mentally.

So, having not read a fresh-to-me Kurt Vonnegut novel in years, what did I discover?

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book as pessimistic as Jailbird. I’m including books that I’ve read about the popularity of active involvement in movements of violent ethnic cleansing. Yes, I consider Jailbird more pessimistic about human nature and potential than Shake Hands With the Devil and Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Its protagonist is Walter, a frail little man who’s had a few good things and a few more bad things happen to him because never really made his own decisions in his life. He starts the story at the end of his jail sentence, one of the shortest of any of the Watergate convictions. The reason he went to prison was because he never thought to speak up when a couple of guys stored huge bags of cash from illegal campaign contributions in his cramped office in the White House basement.

Walter has no will of his own, and no real ideals of his own. He does what he does largely through the influence of other people in his life: his father’s employer, his college girlfriend, his wife. That’s fine enough. It’s basically the central concept of my protagonist for my novel about St. John’s, A Small Man’s Town. Thinking on the literal meaning of what it would be to live through others. What depresses me about this book runs deeper than this character.

One character in the story becomes remarkably rich and powerful through good fortune in the business ventures of her husband. She has played a significant role in Walter’s life, and after her husband died, she took direct control over this conglomerate that controlled a fair chunk of the American economy. But she never lost her ideals, as she gives several key figures in the novel well-paid positions in the corporation because they were kind to her and Walter at various times. She rescues many of them from undeserved destitution, simply because they displayed genuine kindness at otherwise inconsequential moments. She even dictated in her will that her company’s holdings be left to the American People for the benefit of all. 


After that will becomes important, Walter makes the only wise decision of his life. He hides it for years. He hides it because he knows that the conglomerate of his last benefactor, once left to that nebulous entity called the American People, will be possessed by the government and sold off piecemeal at auction. He hides it because he knows that once this happens, he and the other people she helped will be downsized and kicked to the curb again. And once the will is discovered, that’s exactly what happens. He’s absolutely right. 


Here’s Vonnegut’s message to humanity with Jailbird: All the ideals that we hold dear and that make us beautiful and deserving of true dignity? They aren’t worth shit. As soon as you take a risk based on your ideals, you’ll be betrayed, beaten, kicked, and curbstomped. The only people who can succeed in life are the people who can use violence, whether of the gun or the legislature, to take what they want and crush the people who want a fair share. That’s the way the world is, and no matter how hard we might want to, we’ll never change it.

God damn you, Kurt Vonnegut.

When Machines Have Intentions, Men Become Machines, Research Time, 21/08/2013

The more Jean-Paul Sartre I read, the more I appreciate his prescience. As I read more of his exploration of scarcity and its material articulations, I find ideas that would become momentous in major philosophies in subsequent decades casually thrown around as Sartre makes his points and moves on. This time, it’s a curious idea about the actions of inanimate objects and systems of bodies.

He discusses what he considers a curious way of speaking that he says only became prevalent after Karl Marx, but which has become ubiquitous and ordinary by now. In his first illustrative example of this, Sartre describes how the workday in industrializing Europe expanded beyond daylight to reach fifteen to sixteen hours. This is because gas-powered lighting was invented, and these lights enabled workers to stay in the factories past sundown. 

Sartre’s critique is in the active word given to a lamp. Lamps don’t enable anything because they don’t think or move. At the moment, Sartre critiques this way of thinking for attributing intentionality and the ability to act to a set of inanimate bodies. The lamps had no malice toward the workers who were cajoled into brutally longer workdays after their advent. They weren’t capable of thought and planning, therefore incapable of action as traditionally conceived.

I’ve read this idea in analytic moral philosophy as well, in regard to problems that come up in environmentalist philosophy. In describing ecosystems, it’s often required to discuss how a river or some other feature of a landscape affects surrounding bodies. And sometimes, a philosopher who will appear saying that inanimate objects can’t act. They’re entirely passive because they define action using a common sense definition: if a body can’t think or plan what it does, then it can’t be said to truly act. This is the reasoning behind the classifications of killing in our judicial system. The degree of severity of the punishment you face for killing someone varies according to your planning and foresight. 

Of course, just because one conception of action works in one venue (such as judicial morality) doesn’t mean that same conception will work in another venue (such as understanding ecological relationships). And ecological relationships don’t only occur in natural systems like river valleys and deserts, but in factories, towns, and farms. Economic systems are ecosystems too.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the greatest conceptual transformation that the twenty-first century and ecological philosophy has brought us: the ability to understand nonhumans and even the nonliving as actors in the world. That way, we can better conceive of how the messes we’ve gotten ourselves into through the unintentional activity of humanity and other bodies operate. People who still think according to this radical separation of humanity and nonhumans are hobbled in their ability to understand the material relationships and dynamics that actually constitute our world.

People are also machines, and machines can be understood as different kinds of people. What Sartre discussed, Gilles Deleuze and I embraced. 

And Kraftwerk seem to have lived it.

Scarcity’s Reality and Its Dangers, Research Time, 20/08/2013

There is a long, detailed discussion of scarcity and its social and historical effects in Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason. I have not yet finished it, but I’ve already found some very interesting ideas, not only for the utopias project, but that may apply to further directions I may want to go after the ecophilosophy project is finished.

After all, philosophy may be similar to art in some interesting ways, but here’s one way it’s different. When an artist finishes a work, she can release it and promote it, and eventually it goes in the back catalogue, and she doesn’t see it again until a reissue or a box set comes out, or a fan brings it to her for an autograph. But when I finish, publish, and promote my ecophilosophy project, that won’t be my last word on environmentalist philosophy. It’ll be my biggest word on environmentalist philosophy, but university workers need to follow up their research and maintain their authority in the field. We may be creators of concepts, but we’re also knowledge workers. We’re the people who also should lead the direction in the application and refinement of our concepts. 

I see two possible directions for my research to follow after the ecophilosophy project is released to almost-certain critical acclaim. One path, which is more directly empirical and involves a lot of crossover with other disciplines, is examining the nature of urban development, critiquing the shapes of these strange, sprawling ant colonies of concrete and glass we call cities, how they fit into the world and how they might do it better in future.

The other path I’m thinking of pursuing is an analysis of scarcity. This is well-trod territory already, but I think it’s incredibly important for understanding the material nature of the world we live in. Sartre discusses scarcity in very simple terms from which he plumbs a profound exploration. His definition of scarcity, given on page 128 of my edition: “There is not enough for everybody.”

A simple ecological idea, easy enough to understand. Populations, or at least their demands, can grow large and/or diverse enough that they outstrip the resources they depend on. This is when, to quote Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles, “We in trouble.”

Because Sartre doesn’t talk about actual material effects of scarcity just yet, only what happens when someone uses the concept of scarcity as an essential element of how they see the world. Everyone becomes an enemy, or at least a potential enemy, because when you see the world through the concept of scarcity, the success of one person necessarily requires the failure or starvation of another, possibly you.

Now here’s the kicker. Here’s the term Sartre uses to describe how you see a person when you see them in terms of scarcity: The Other. If you check out the stereotypes of continental philosophy, this term is one of the most famous. You almost can’t be covered in a course on continental philosophy without at least one essay or book that involves our relationship with the Other in any detail. The matter of ‘our relationship with the other’ is the key phrase by which continental philosophy is understood as dealing with the nature of society, social and political relations, morality, hate, and love. 

It’s just an initial reaction. But when I read this section, I could see Sartre giving a very pure and simply described version of this common convention of continental philosophy before its use explodes into a stereotype. He depicts The Other as the totally impersonal, abstracted way of dealing with people in a society when we view their existence as a threat. And from a perspective dominated by a conception of scarcity, we constantly fear everyone else, because their success can take success or even survival away from us. We no longer see a person as a person, with all their singular traits and idiosyncrasies. A person in this view is something to fear, someone who might take just enough out of the common pool of resources for living called the world, that you’re left with nothing. I have yet to read the chapter far enough to see what Sartre eventually makes of this concept and the associated perspective.

I have a lot to get done Tuesday and Wednesday, but if I can get a marathon reading session in, I’ll try to give a good summary of this long and intricate meditation on scarcity and materiality. If not, I’m preparing some surprises that you’ll see eventually soon anyway.

Nietzsche My Frustrating Friend, A History Boy, 19/08/2013

I was going over some old notes for revisions on my ecophilosophy manuscript when I came across something I had written down about Friedrich Nietzsche. In particular, in Timothy Morton’s book Ecology Without Nature, he writes that Nietzsche’s thought is inappropriate for environmentalist philosophy because he conceived of the proper role of the most powerful people as dominating all around them. And a couple of weeks ago, I came across a facebook post by another friend of mine who considers Nietzsche a useless conservative reactionary because of his hatred for 19th century European socialism.
I consider Nietzsche the greatest philosopher
of 19th century Europe. No joke. Just praise.

I’m so sick of people screwing with Nietzsche.

Again, I’m not going to get everything I think and have thought about Nietzsche in a single blog post. The first essay I wrote that was published (not the first to be published, but the first successful submission) was about Nietzsche's concept of the übermensch and how this figure grows beyond the need for resentment. Check it out. I'm chapter 22.

But I can certainly complain about the way he’s so often misinterpreted as a worse thinker than he really was. Given my fight over my interpretations of Hegel last week, you might want to call me on some hypocrisy here. And you’d have sort of an angle, but I think the reading of Hegel that I defend and find most productive for my utopias project is of a very different kind than the kind of thoughts about Nietzsche that upset me.

Because while my interpretation and appropriation of Hegel may not fit with what some of my friends think is most interesting about the philosophy, I never disrespect Hegel. I think that some implications of his concept of world-spirit are philosophically problematic and that his account of the histories of Asian, African, and indigenous peoples are loaded with orientalisms. But he’s never worth dismissing. If I thought he was worth dismissing, I would never have included him in my research.

It makes me so sad to hear Nietzsche dismissed easily, regarded as if nothing he wrote was of any value. He’s a profound thinker who used his critiques of his era’s mainstream Christian morality to bridge legitimately into a set of ontological concepts that were on the philosophical cutting edge. If you ever read Gilles Deleuze's book about Nietzsche, it'll teach you a lot in very clear (if sometimes pretentious) language about the subtleties of his system. While I find Brian Leiter's and Maudemarie Clark's work on Nietzsche defangs him a little too much, I'd recommend that too. Also recommended is anything by Barry Allen (the philosopher), and not just because he was my doctoral supervisor. When my friend K eventually publishes some of his Nietzsche scholarship, you'll be able to learn incredibly interesting things about how he incorporated innovative ideas in the science of his time into his ontology.

Morton’s and my friend’s naughty things to say about Nietzsche are related in an interesting way, however. Both of their dismissals are based on reading Nietzsche’s sense of ‘aristocracy’ as referring to the actual aristocrats of the 19th century. But it wasn’t by a long shot. Nietzsche’s conception of aristocracy referred to a type of person who was actually the most noble, remarkable, and brilliant. This description didn’t fit the aristocracy of his time at all, who were inbred, imperialist, anti-semitic nincompoops. These people thought of domination as might makes right.

Nietzsche didn’t. To Nietzsche, domination was a function of how well you lived in the world, how well you adapted to the changing conditions of your world. Domination was a function of intelligence and cunning to preserve your own life. Nietzsche respected the 'might makes right' style of domination, which he saw exemplified in ancient Greek ideals of heroism. But that style of domination had already been defeated by the cunning resentfulness of Christian morality. He wasn't about to advocate its return if for no other reason than that it would always be vulnerable to Christian moral critique. A proper Nietzschean aristocrat develops a cunning nobility, and is an intelligent person who forges their own way of living wisely. 19th century Europe had quite a deficit of this kind of person. Even Nietzsche often admitted that he rarely lived up to his own ideals.

Cunning nobility. A trickster and a liar who treats his friends with the deepest love and keeps his promises. Why do you think the first essay I wrote to get published basically said The Doctor was a paradigm übermensch?

Both the aristocrats and the proletariat leaders of Nietzsche’s day could never have been called wise. His assessment of the actual aristocratic class was that they were a bunch of self-entitled greedy fools. His assessment of the proletariat class was that they were jealous and resentful. Their resentment was deserved, because of the hideous conditions of their working lives. But it was still a resentment, a mind-set that pollutes and damages people, making them petty and vengeful. The vision of equality that came out of the socialism of the 19th century was couched in propaganda that made equality petty. "From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs," was the slogan, but Nietzsche was sensitive to the idea that a good human life amounts to more than the satisfaction of needs alone. 

The politics of 19th century Europe really had no alternatives to endorsing the life of either the robber baron or the drone. The socialist movements of the day were admirable in that they fought poverty, but there didn't seem to be a place in the genuinely public (not just aristocratic intellectual) debate on socialism that considered the working class as capable of anything beyond the supposed dignity of a hand-to-mouth existence. The problem of labour in 19th century Europe was that so few people even had that. The socialist perspective Nietzsche railed against was the one that saw hand-to-mouth existence as all that anyone should have. Whatever might have been the subtleties of Marx's and Engel's texts never filtered to the daily activity of socialist agitation. Nietzsche wanted and needed nuance, but lived in a culture where everyone else thought in extremes and absolutes. 

We can learn a lot from Nietzsche, even if you might have some serious critiques of him. But he’s someone who should be respected.

As the Sun Is New Each Day, A Manuscript Is New Each Edit, Composing, 18/08/2013

Saturday afternoon, I was editing the most difficult chapter of my ecophilosophy manuscript. It’s difficult because it was the most ambitious. It was the most ambitious because it didn’t rely on authorities and studies to makes its point, and wasn’t an account or direct adaptation of another writer’s ideas. It was an entirely conceptual argument for why an ecological philosophy must have two particular principles at its heart.

One of those principles is that everything plays some role, direct or indirect, in the generation of everything else. Right now, I’m calling this the principle of co-constitution. I derive from this the second principle, that because bodies and processes interact to generate each other only through relations, relations (not things or bodies themselves) are primary in the constitution of reality.

A few philosophers throughout the history of the tradition have touched on this idea (essentially, it reformulates and continues process philosophy, as I conceive it, an irregular and sometimes accidental tradition from Heraclitus through Spinoza, Nietzsche, Whitehead, possibly Peirce but I haven’t yet read enough of him in detail to tell, Bergson, Deleuze, and DeLanda). However, I didn’t want my ecophilosophy project to be perceived a continuation of an earlier tradition or following the path of another major figure (making my project “insert-name-here”-ian). 

This is, in part, my ego again: I wanted a potentially wide audience, so didn’t want to risk being written off as irrelevant to discussions in environmental issues and philosophy that didn’t reference these figures. It also serves my goal to push philosophy to become less polarized and over-specialized: I want new works of philosophy to cut across established camps, so how better to do that than write such a book myself. There’s also career opportunism involved: If I can show that I have competent knowledge in diverse areas of research, I’ll display my abilities as a versatile teacher who can handle many different courses in a given department’s curriculum. Being too specialized in your knowledge means fewer job opportunities in the academy are open to you, and the only way your application will be successful is if you land a job with a large enough department that they’ll never ask you to teach outside your narrowly defined area. Being able to speak as many philosophical languages as possible is a great asset for a working university philosopher.

The way to get there, however, involves what is at times some very difficult editing.

No Priority Between Humanity and History, Research Time, 17/08/2013

A short post for the weekend, once again featuring Jean-Paul Sartre. He’ll appear here a lot over the next two to three weeks, because The Critique of Dialectical Reason is a very long book. (And technically speaking, he didn’t even finish it!)

Today, I’m mostly just adding details to Thursday’s post in light of some further reading of the book. I had written about Sartre’s idea that a person is literally the currents of material history that created them. As I spelled out my so-dense-as-to-be-incoherent closing sentence from that post in the comments, it’s based on a simple premise, one that I explore in the ecophilosophy project as well: the conditions of a body’s generation are themselves a part of that body. If I can take myself as an example, the historical event of the post-WWII Italian immigration to North America is part of my identity because my father participated in that immigration when he was nine years old, making that historical event a condition for the possibility of my existence. 

But this doesn’t mean that humanity is entirely determined by its history. T in the comments to Thursday’s post suggested that with his use of the term ‘fossilized’ to describe a person under the weight of her cultural/historical heritage. That would make humans passive, and Sartre certainly doesn’t want to see us consider ourselves passive. 

Instead the relationship of humans to their cultural and material histories is reciprocal, with no side taking precedence or priority over the other. A person is a product of history because the only way she can exist is in the material contexts and conditions of her world (shades here of Heidegger’s concept of humanity’s fallen status in the world, but let’s not get into Heidegger or I’ll be here ranting for weeks). However, historical relations and developments are themselves products of human activity, because it’s the social interactions of individual humans over time that produce history. History and humanity are co-constitutive.

To Me Good Philosophy Writing Is Thematic Density, Composing, 16/08/2013

And that’s good fiction writing to me as well, but I want first to concentrate on my philosophical writing. I spent much of Thursday afternoon editing the third chapter of my ecophilosophy manuscript. One of the reasons why editors are skeptical when someone pitches them a manuscript based on a dissertation is that dissertations usually stink. They’re written on a highly specialized, extremely technical topic, and their purpose isn’t to be readable or approachable to the public, but to demonstrate that the writer knows how to do research and organize ideas in a reasonable manner. 

I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to write a doctoral dissertation like that. In part, it was because of my ego: I didn’t want to write a work of such a size and investment of time that would only have an audience of my committee, examiners, and my mother. But it was also a pragmatic calculation. I was entering a labour market where the only successful people are the ones who distinguish themselves from the crowd as soon as possible. To thrive in academia, you have to become remarkable.

I got a decent amount (not a lot) of advice throughout my doctorate that the best way for me to have a good career was to go to conferences only in my exact specialty, and have a very tightly focussed dissertation that was very deferential to the major names in my specialty. In other words, be a good little student and don’t stand out. You can guess that was the advice I didn’t take.

A useful book for the
sadly normal.
I think it’s with this bad advice in mind that the book From Dissertation to Book was published. It’s a guide to do exactly what it says in the title, and from the first time I approached editors or other university-based authors about what I wanted to do with my dissertation, I was told to read this book. I did. I’m always open to good advice. And it offered great advice. Most of it, I had done already in conceiving of a complex, politically relevant project that would be interesting to a wide intellectual audience. Precisely because so few doctoral candidates approach their dissertations this way is why such a book is needed.

Chapter three is a case in point of my aim for a wide audience from the start. The ecophilosophy project, like everything I write, is pretty complex. I could summarize it in a blog post pretty easily, but I don’t really want to right now. I prefer to tease the blog with my big projects. But chapter three focusses on what I call, in its title, “Two Paradoxes of Practical Philosophy.” Paradox one is that environmental philosophy emerged from a tradition of political activism, but as the environmentalist movement caught on throughout so much of our society, the style of philosophical discourse actually alienated environmental philosophy from the activism that gave birth to it. We were still talking, trying to figure out how best to change the world. Meanwhile all the disciplines that were later adopters of environmentalist conscience had surpassed philosophy in actually working to change the world.*

* Yes, this is the one Thesis on Feuerbach Marx wrote that most people actually remember. But I don’t want my ecophilosophy project to be pigeonholed into Marxism, because only other Marxists read Marxist books. My eye was on the general audience.

Paradox two examines another aspect of philosophical styles of discourse and their incompatibility with practical action: the niggling nitpicking of philosophers. We write our theories of moral philosophy paying intense attention to nuance. Our texts (and blog posts) become longer as we consider all the possible interpretations of our simple statements, and continually add qualifiers and counterfactuals to make our ideas more precise. But the practical politics of social movements like environmentalism are motivated by simple slogans and images that inspire popular anger and empathy. People aren’t motivated to action by a complicated moral investigation; they’re motivated by sloganeering and advertising. The nature of philosophical discourse isolates us from the political engagement that environmental philosophy was developed to be part of.

I examined these paradoxes in the context of a wider problem in philosophy: the perception of philosophy’s irrelevance to the world and to other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. So I had written the chapter not only to examine this problem I saw in the sub-discipline of environmental philosophy, but to make a larger point about philosophy as a whole in the present time. The chapter also introduces my solution (which can be one of many, it just happens to be the idea I thought of), a solution whose structure maps out the entire rest of the manuscript. 

If I had written a manuscript that focussed only on a single specialized problem and didn’t include any reference to wider relevance, I wouldn’t be able to make the points that I did. Instead of writing a perfectly serviceable but unremarkable dissertation about a specialized problem in environmental moral philosophy, I wrote a manuscript thematically dense enough to touch on wider aspects of our knowledge institutions. That’s how you stand out.

What the Past Produces Contains the Past, Research Time, 15/08/2013

Getting back to Jean-Paul Sartre, I have a distinct feeling now that The Critique of Dialectical Reason is going to be very important for my analyses in the utopias project. I discovered one fascinating idea Wednesday night that can be very useful for the conception of history I’m looking to develop, although Sartre has some precedent for his thought.

The central analysis of the utopias project is understanding the ethical and political implications of various conceptions of time, particularly the human relationship with time. When we’re dealing with humans, there are always at least two dimensions of analysis, which I think are the two most fundamental dimensions. I’m starting to think that any philosophy that has humanity in its analytical focus at all will be disastrously incomplete if it doesn’t include these two dimensions of analysis.

1) The fact of the matter at hand. 2) How humans conceive of the matter at hand, how they approach, make sense of, or ignore the facts, and how our conception of those facts condition what those facts can do for us.

This doesn’t separate the order of humanity from the order of facts. That would be absurd, thinking as if we didn’t live in the world. This is the philosophical problem of self-consciousness in the context of epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge. A complete philosophical analysis of any human institution or activity or concept will have to address what the facts are and how we understand those facts. 

While most photos of Sartre show him as a young or middle-
aged man, I think he was most handsome when he was older.
What I found in Sartre yesterday was the notion that historically constituted bodies actually contain their own histories. Take me as an example. I am the product of millennia of human cultural development. Try a less ambitious assessment: I’m the product of centuries of development of Western culture through its growth in the revolutions of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the rise and fall of the European and American colonial empires, how these movements in world history crafted the culture that made me. That process of development is the fact of the matter of my cultural history. Here’s part two, one way to understand that fact: because the process of cultural development through history that constituted me was centuries long, I am, in a manner of speaking, centuries old. I contain the history that constituted me, as do you the history that constituted you (mostly the same, but probably with some important little differences).

One of the possible implications of this idea, an idea which as of my composing this post I only read an hour ago, is that it is impossible for us to disregard our culture’s history in understanding who we are. In terms of a political principle, we can’t absolve ourselves of the harms and destructive effects of industrialization and empire, because that history, as it produced us, is just as much a part of our identities as our individual personalities. At the same time, the positive accomplishments of our cultures’ history are part of our identity too, but it’s easier to take credit for benefits than to accept shame or responsibility for harms. 

Also, and this is just me being cheeky, this is an incredibly Bergsonian idea. In fact, the whole idea that the present contains all of the past latent within itself is the central argument of Matter and Memory. Sartre’s innovation lies in having used the principle that the conditions of one’s existence are themselves elements of one’s existence to extrapolate the containment of history in the present to the containment of cultural history in the individual’s present and identity.

And no, I am not entirely sure if that last paragraph made any damn sense.

The Genres of Philosophical Writing, Composing, 14/08/2013

I've been thinking a little more about my friendship-testing argument about my interpretations of Hegel, and I don’t think my post yesterday was as clear as it could have been on what distinguishes my approach to the works of the great philosophers from the kind of advice I was getting from P and B.

However, I told a story in the comments section that reminded me of a way I thought of to map what kinds of philosophy get written. By this, I don’t mean the typical divisions of epistemology, ethics, ontology; I could call these fields or domains. And I don’t mean divisions like analytic, post-structuralist, materialist of mind, internal legal positivist; I could call these camps. The best word I can think of to describe these divisions is genre. I hope you’ll see why.

To be clear, I don't think any of these genres are better or worse than any other. It's just that I'm better suited to working in some, and less so to others. All three are essential for philosophy as a discipline to remain vital and vibrant. And it's incredibly important that professional philosophers are open to the contributions of all genres as equally legitimate.

History of Philosophy. These are communities of academics structured around a single great philosopher or group of affiliated great philosophers in history. Their discussions revolve around interpretations of those great philosophers, either with their eye on their target’s entire corpus (usually a matter for book-length works due to all the details and complexity involved) or some specific essay, work, or idea. Or even, in the case of a lot of contemporary historical work on ancient Greek philosophy, some specific sentence. They produce secondary material. The major concern of an argument in history of philosophy is to get the community’s target philosopher ‘right.’ I have occasionally encountered historians of philosophy who believe that this is the only acceptable way to do philosophy. These people are quite rare, because I think it’s pretty clear to most folks that if everyone in philosophy only did history of philosophy, then we wouldn’t produce any more works that historians of philosophy would consider worthy of study.

I think this was the source of my disagreement with P and B. I believe they interpreted my engagement with Hegel’s conception of time to occur with the priorities of the history of philosophy, when my utopias project actually works in a different genre. If you’re reading this, you can let me know, in the comments section or over facebook, if I’ve hit the cause of our argument.

Contributive Philosophy. My friend R once met a young professor at University of Alberta who told her proudly that he had never read a single philosophical text written before 1980. This is an incredibly intense and pure (so pure as to be counter-productive) example of someone who writes what I call contributive philosophy. You have the expertise and general knowledge to contribute to one or several philosophical fields. You contribute by reading the latest material in the top and middle-tier journals of your field, understanding the particular philosophical problems they are discussing, and writing articles contributing to those discussions. The articles either positively critique, spin in a different direction, or object to some previous contribution. There are books of contributive philosophy, but I find them sometimes dull to read. This is because the author will usually focus his first chapter on some interesting new idea of theirs, but then spend all the later chapters responding to objections encountered in earlier discussions of their new idea when they first floated it in a journal article. Historians of philosophy also usually write this way, but I distinguish the two genres because the historians produce secondary material, while the pure contributives produce primary material. I consider pure contributive philosophy to work by incremental advances in conceptual problems.

Creative Philosophy. This is the most rare, the most difficult, but I also think the most personally rewarding approach to philosophical writing. This is the most exemplary primary material: its ambition is to be primary material that gets historians of philosophy writing about it. The most successful of these are the great works of philosophy. The Critique of Pure Reason. Principia Mathematica. A Thousand Plateaus. Summa Theologica. Experience and Nature. A Theory of Justice. The Republic. The Ethics. Short essays and journal articles can do this too, but it’s more difficult to get article-length works of creative philosophy published. I think it’s just because journals function so much in a contributive mode, peer reviewers tend to put too much burden on writers to prove the relevance of their essay to ongoing debates. That’s difficult to do if the purpose of your essay is to change the ongoing debates or start an entirely new one. Still, every now and then, an essay like “Freedom and Resentment” or “On Denoting” drops. The other two genres aim to continue the great debates of philosophy. The creative genre aims to shift and change the great debates of philosophy. 

I see myself primarily as operating in the creative philosophy field for my larger projects, and being a minor writer of contributive philosophy for my articles. Books (of both paper and e varieties) can be pushed to larger audiences: not only other university researchers in the field, but students, and the general audience of intelligent people who like reading challenging books. 

We Can Think Differently Without Putting Each Other Down, Composing, 13/08/2013

After the last few days of controversy over my recent posts about Hegel’s philosophy, I began to second-guess whether I should include the Hegelian conception of temporality in my utopias project at all. While I don't personally know a lot of people in the professional community of Hegel scholars, some of my friends have done some deep readings of his philosophy for longer than I have. These friends have told me that my reading of Hegel is superficial and lazy, that I’m ignorant of Hegel and Marx, and that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Then I ate lunch and realized that I’ll probably get people yelling the same things at me when I get to the part of the project that has to do with philosophy of physics and the interpretations of relativity theory on the nature of time. My attackers will just swap the names of dialectical philosophers with the names of physicists. One disheartening aspect of the philosophical community is that when you start a new project in an area where you haven't already established your expertise, someone usually accuses you of being ignorant or stupid or that what you have to say is otherwise illegitimate. It occurs at every level of the hierarchy: I've seen long-tenured professors do this to each other, sometimes even to their faces.

Many graduate students develop something called impostor syndrome. They receive so much negative reinforcement about whether anything they have to say in a professional discussion is legitimate that they doubt their own abilities to say something worth listening to. If I have any problems of this sort, it’s of an opposite type. My first reaction to negative reinforcement is to question what entitles my critic to say these terrible things about me and my abilities. 

I don't yet know much of the biographies of
Alexandre Kojève (pictured) and Jean Hyppolite,
but they both died in the poetically appropriate
year of 1968.
My appropriation of Hegel’s ideas for this project aligns with the interpretations of Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Alexandre Kojève. My facebook interlocutors tell me these interpretations are inferior to those of Jean Hyppolite and Jacques Derrida, and that Kolakowski’s book on the Marxisms was a capitalist hack job. So that’s what you tell me, P and B. But I’m into slippery territory about how to judge who’s right, who’s wrong, and whose judgements of right and wrong are best to listen to. Because it’s not like there’s a single unified and unvarying consensus within the community of Hegel studies itself.

Kojève, for example, still has followers in the community of Hegel scholars. One of them was my first teacher of Hegel’s philosophy, Dr Antoinette Stafford, and she was very good. Because if your question is “Who gets Hegel right?” and you want your answer to avoid falling into the harsh academic sniping that the more unfortunate historical philosophical specialists’ conferences become, then I think there’s only one answer that can stand up to critical scrutiny.

Who gets Hegel right beyond all possible dispute? Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Substitute for Hegel whatever creative philosopher you want in the canon and the question works the same way. Who gets X right beyond all possible dispute? X him/herself. 

You might say that’s ridiculous. The possibility of multiple valid interpretations of a complex corpus such as Hegel’s (or any noteworthy creative philosopher in the history of the discipline) shows that the text itself is ambiguous. But it’s a creative kind of ambiguity. Apart from clear mistakes and faulty reasoning, I don’t see how any attentive, careful, and creative engagement with a text that can have multiple interpretations can be right or wrong in a simple sense. Kojève may emphasize different parts of the Hegelian philosophy than Hyppolite, for example. But I don’t see how difference of interpretation makes one reading bad and the other reading good. They’re just different.

The works of the great philosophers encourage multiple interpretations and uses because that's what good philosophy does. And I don’t approach these interpretations as being right or wrong. Again, if you want to know what a particular philosopher says, read them and ask yourself why they write as they do. An interpretation is one account among many possible accounts. And with figures as complex as the great philosophers, many divergent interpretations are possible. B commented on Monday’s post that if multiple interpretations of a great philosopher can be valid even if they diverge from each other, then Hyppolite’s brilliant, insightful, and detailed interpretation can be no better than Bertrand Russell’s hack job of Hegel as a cheap mystic in his History of Western Philosophy. If disagreeing interpretations can still be valid, said B, then you can think whatever you want and there's no point even in reading the philosopher who interests you.

This is just the facile “Relativism!” attack. It presumes that without a single absolute truth of some subject matter, then all we have are arbitrary thoughts and writings, none of which are better than any other. Humanities scholarship since the 1970s has confronted this problem and already taken care of it. 

The evaluation criteria for an interpretation of a philosophical work does not include whether that interpretation excludes every other interpretation from validity. Workable evaluation criteria include comprehensiveness, attention to detail, the ability to draw materially meaningful conclusions, and sparking further creative developments in thinking. They do not include an interpretation’s ability to show all divergent interpretations to be false, facile, superficial, and stupid. 

I’m not interested in arguing over which interpretation of a great philosopher is the one that makes all the others not worth reading. I’m interested in using these conceptually creative works to craft conceptually creative works of my own. And I'll develop my own interpretations through attention to detail, a comprehensive outlook, and careful critical engagement, just as the best interpretations do. I think Kojève’s and Sartre’s readings of Hegel can be productive for my project on the political and social implications of various conceptions of temporality. Having productivity for a more complex project as my priority doesn't make my writing or reading lazy, superficial, or unworthy of being read. My utopias project is not a Marxism. It’s not a work of Hegel scholarship. It’s not philosophy of physics or philosophy of art. It’s not communist, conservative, or liberal. It’s not Deleuzian, Bergsonian, Arendtian, or any other adjectival name. It’s also all of those and a lot more.

I’ll welcome Alexandre and Jean-Paul to my party not because they make all the other guests unwelcome, but because they have interesting and productive things to say. Just like everyone else I invited.