Mates of State of Nature I: Linking Concepts, Composing, 20/10/2014

I’ve followed up my reading of Robert Nozick with a little research into the theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. So I thought, with this short entry, I’d discuss some of my composition methods as I feel around the concepts that will motivate the third third of my Utopias manuscript. 

Bear in mind, this is an extremely amorphous document right now. It consists entirely of a notebook full of, well, notes, my past blog entries discussing it, a word processing file with a rough breakdown of the chapters and most of the component arguments of the first two thirds, and stacks of mostly primary research material on my own physical shelves and in electronic formats. I probably won’t have a manuscript for a few years, which is a reasonable thing to say for a non-fiction philosophical manuscript of this sort.

So here is how I’m structuring my research, at least insofar as it reflects how I’ll plot the argument. Utopias is a work of philosophy, which I consider different from a work on philosophy. Most philosophical books that are produced today, and really most philosophical books that have been produced for some time, are books on philosophy. Books on philosophy examine and critique key arguments and texts of a particular figure or movement in the history of philosophy or a contemporary sub-discipline. You could consider it, though it doesn’t isomorphically map onto, secondary material.

Then there are books of philosophy, creative works which vary in scope and ambition. Most books of philosophy would examine and venture some contribution to an ongoing debate in contemporary professional literature in a particular sub-discipline. I distinguish these from debates over historical figures and movements, because those are largely interpretive, trying to divine a clear right answer about what movement X or thinker Y was all about.* A book of philosophy has some ambition to progress behind it. If the aim of a book on philosophy is improving our understanding of the past, a book of philosophy has the aim of creating future knowledge. 

Part of what I admire about Deleuze is the
ambition with which he always approached his
writing. He never settled for an ordinary work.
* The pressure to carve a niche for oneself in a historical specialty in academic philosophy results in some conceptual gymnastics that I’m not entirely sure are all the productive. The first example that comes to my mind is Daniel Smith’s strange reading of Gilles Deleuze as a closet Kantian. Although there are elements of Deleuze’s philosophy, particularly regarding the importance of conditions over causes traditionally conceived, that make such a reading sensible, I’m just not sure what to do with it. Deleuze’s thought is ground-breaking and foundational on its own; saddling him with a label like that distorts the traditional short-hand of the description ‘Kantian’ and, in parallel, eliding the originality of Deleuze’s corpus to trivialize it.

The scope of a book of philosophy is a matter of its ambition. With nothing to lose, I decided to craft a very ambitious text with Utopias. It was always going to be an ambitious project, even under my original plans of writing it from a university post. Working outside that institution, I’ll be free to experiment with my writing. Hence this length prelude to a short idea.

I started thinking about the concept of the social contract when I saw what Robert Nozick did with it in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. I came to Nozick in the first place once I understood that the denouement to my own Utopias would involve an engagement with libertarian philosophy, and Nozick’s work was philosophically the most intense and rigorous treatment of the core ideas. If I was going to go to any classical source for reading after Nozick, it should be John Locke, whose work I have on my shelves. Nozick explicitly identifies all the organizing principles of his own conception of the state of nature in Locke’s work. 

But instead, I’m going to Rousseau, particularly Gilles Deleuze’s reading of Rousseau’s political philosophy, as expressed in a recent translation of an old course outline he produced on the subject for a 1959 class. This early text understands Rousseau’s conception of the state of nature very differently than typical interpretations do (more on that tomorrow). 

Deleuze’s thinking about the key concept underlying the purpose and implications of social contract theory helps undercut the more conventional way Nozick uses it, as an abstract counterfactual to illustrate a particular standard of historical justice and political right. So I go to Deleuze-on-Rousseau after reading Nozick to understand one possible element of the skeleton of the argument. 

The concepts themselves guide me through the research. More conventional uses of philosophical research, like using books and articles on philosophy to bulk up my accounts of the primary thinkers involved in my arguments, are for later in the research process. It makes most sense to go to these smaller works to supply the detail work after the broader points are established. 

I haven’t at all decided what role social contract theory would play in the argument of Utopias, so it’s only when I’m sure exactly how I’ll use the concept, which models of it will dominate my own argument, and how it relates to other elements in the plot, that I’ll explore those supplementary works for context. If I start on that route now, I’ll find myself distracted from the central goal early in a project of figuring out the basic structure of the argument itself. To Be Continued . . .

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