Inspired by the Original Wu II: Creative Philosophy Is About Thinking Differently, Composing, 21/04/2015

Continued from last week . . . Here’s the short version of what I’m thinking of doing with Sunzi’s Art of War for the Utopias project. I literally thought of this idea on a subway Friday morning, so it won’t be very well-developed or investigated, barely even thought about beyond the initial notion that it sounds like a cool idea. This is an idea so raw, it smells funny.

The United States, for example, has not been very good
at waging war without relying on brute force.
Sunzi stresses the centrality of deception for war. By deceiving and tricking your enemy, you can minimize the human and material cost of war by enormous measures. It’s a way of managing conflict using intelligence and interventions in the initial conditions of phenomena before they grow out of control. The powers of individuals working together, applying their individual ingenuities and skills to a common goal, is the centre: generals, spies, soldiers, technicians, and citizenry all contributing individually.

The general remains central in Sunzi’s own text, appropriate for the authoritarian political traditions of ancient China. But the importance of ingenuity and intelligence to succeeding in conflict offers an alternative, and probably more successful, model of global conflict and intervention. The American government could certainly learn that there are many more subtle methods to undercutting your enemies than the blunt force of economic sanctions and bombing campaigns.

Bouncing ideas of Sunzi off of a philosophical exploration of the First World War would, according to many conversations I’ve had about academic rigour, never fly. Jünger, to take an example that I’ll visit in detail soon, never had any detailed engagement with Sunzi’s writing, and himself had little intellectual engagement with Clausewitz, being only an ordinary soldier. But this is, perhaps one advantage to coming from outside the university system. 

Be aware that I’m not trying to excuse actual sloppiness in scholarship. I actually see Barry Allen as doing something similar with Vanishing Into Things, where comparative philosophy becomes not about historical influence or conceptual cataloguing alone, but seeing if some interesting new concept can emerge from the collision of thoughtful readings of texts that are otherwise alien to each other.

Barry’s third chapter is a dialogue of Sunzi’s with Clausewitz’s thought, with just the framework I’ve described. There’s no historical evidence that Clausewitz ever read Sunzi himself, and if he did, he probably would have found it irrelevant frippery, what with all the Chinese scholar’s talk of intelligence and deception when only physical force and the brutality of character to finish the job is needed for war. He plays the texts off each other to see what we can learn.

Alan Sokal with the best descriptive caption he could get.
I see Steve Fuller offering a similar philosophical technique in the closing section of his Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History.* I’ll talk about this in more detail on Friday when we publish our last dialogue on the blog. But it has to do with his last word (even though it’s never the last word as long as someone keeps trying to have it) on the Sokal Hoax.

* Given how much Barry couldn’t stand Steve’s book, I think he’d understand my impish smirk when I identify something in common between his thinking and Fuller’s. I have some pretty serious issues with the content of Fuller's philosophy, although I find much to admire in his method and approach, broadly conceived. More details on Friday.

Essentially, his critique of Alan Sokal’s largely successful denunciation of humanities scholars trying to discuss scientific ideas in the context of humanities scholarship, is that Sokal didn’t understand the audience that the humanities is written for. Philosophers in the intellectual circles of cultural studies who gave political readings of scientific concepts weren’t talking to the scientists themselves, but trying to craft more populist versions of the essential concepts of new scientific principles. 

Let me put it this way. How many actual physicists in the 18th century literally thought of the universe as a clock? Probably not many, and none of the good physicists. But the clockwork image of the universe dominated the popular philosophy of the post-Newton era. It inspired the ontology of mechanical determinism. The cultural studies model was trying to craft the same broadly applicable popularly-aimed intellectual concepts for the modern sciences like quantum physics.

Here’s a cheat code for my own work. Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity does the same kind of thing, crafting politically actionable, popularly understandable (if still a little intellectual and pretentious) conceptions of core concepts in ecological science.

It’s as if I’m saying to the reader, “Here is a different way of thinking than we’re generally accustomed to. Let’s consider its meaning, implications, and capacities, and see if there’s anything we can learn from it to adapt to the situation we face here and now.” This is philosophical creativity.

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