The Sheer Stultifying Weight of Our Traditions, Composing, 09/04/2014

Most of my philosophical activity today was spent working on a review/reply for Social Epistemology’s dialogical website. So I don’t really want to discuss in detail that issue, because it’ll be up next week on a site that’s far more official and gets much more visibility. However, I do have some more thoughts on Graham Priest’s old book, Beyond the Limits of Thought, that I figured were worth throwing online.

I’m extremely happy that Dr Arthur examined this book in his graduate seminar this semester, because I wasn’t familiar with it, and I’m glad it’s given me the opportunity. Priest’s book examined various thinkers throughout the history of Western philosophy (and the afterword to the second edition even included an engagement with the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna’s conception of nothingness) in terms of how they conceived of the limits of thought. One issue that I had with Priest’s book was that he skipped over many philosophers too quickly, and as a result badly misrepresented their own thoughts. 

No, philosophy isn't that kind of blood
sport. But we'd probably make more
money if it were that entertaining for
Now, Priest wasn’t going for complete or comprehensive pictures of these philosophers, only how a particular problem appeared in some of their key writings. But because he couldn’t fill out the full conceptual contexts of their work, it constitutes a vulnerability. Philosophy can become a bloodsport, especially when you express controversial ideas as bluntly as Priest does.* I discussed this winter how Priest’s account of Immanuel Kant includes fundamental mischaracterizations because it only refers to The Critique of Pure Reason and not the positive aspect of that broad argument in The Critique of Practical Reason. As well, his account of Georg Hegel refers only to the Logic, and not the Phenomenology of Spirit, which is the project that links the abstract conceptual framework of the Logic to a practical account of politics and history, the articulation of Hegel’s aufheben movement in real life. 

* Honestly, I kind of want to study the early history of Priest’s career just to figure out how he wasn’t completely marginalized out of the university system because of his radical and unintuitive innovations in logic.

However, here’s a list of the philosophers Priest covers in his exploration of the nature of the limits of thought and how the idea arises in various contexts and thinkers. In historically chronological order, including the afterword to the second edition:

Sextus Empiricus
Anselm of Canterbury
Thomas Aquinas
Nicholas of Cusa
Gottfried Leibniz
Bishop George Berkeley
Immanuel Kant
Georg Hegel
Georg Cantor
Gottlob Frege
Bertrand Russell
Frank Ramsey
Martin Heidegger
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Willard Quine
Jacques Derrida
Donald Davidson

That’s 22 of the most diverse and individually complicated philosophers who have ever lived. The most sustained treatment they ever get from Priest is when he gives two chapters over the Kant and a chapter and a half to Wittgenstein. And when each philosopher is treated separately, introduced with his own chapter and section headings, it looks as though you’ve mastered them, or that you’re at least giving what aims to be a definitive account. 

It doesn’t matter if you admit your partiality or the limits of your project; if you present “The philosophy of X with regard to A,” you’re expected to have the whole system entirely in the bag. You look as though you’re writing secondary material, even if, in Priest’s case, you’re writing primary material with a pile of historical references. You’ll be held to the standards of secondary material (which weirdly, are higher with regard to philological accuracy than primary material). So his incompleteness leaves him vulnerable.

The only way to engage this many ideas from this many philosophers constituting such a diverse set of perspectives is not even to mention the other philosophers, aside from footnotes. Don’t present your own work as giving an account of these other historical figures; just adapt the ideas into your argument, indicate their source, and concentrate on the ideas free from historical context. It will keep you out of the distracting argument about whether you got the figures “right,” and let you develop your new ideas in peace. That’s how you keep yourself rooted in the broad tradition without getting your progressive ideas bogged down in debates about historical accuracy.

The only philosophical writer I’ve seen do this successfully is Gilles Deleuze. Ironically, he’s one of the few figures who would have written a book with his historical influences as chapter headings and still gotten them right, so comprehensive and detailed was his knowledge of philosophy’s history. Read What Is Philosophy? if you want to see precisely what I mean.

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