A Real Spectre II: Spiralling Writing, Composing, 09/09/2015

Continued from last post . . . So where do these ghosts of Marx come from? Well, I only just started reading Spectres of Marx, so I can't exactly tell you that. As of when I'm writing this post's draft, Jacques Derrida is only just introducing an analogy to Shakespeare's Hamlet to describe the concept of being haunted.

Pictured: The inescapable, unfulfillable obligation
of memory: the ghost, spectre, haunting.
I've skimmed throughout the book, so I know that he comes back to this narrative of Hamlet's relationship with the ghost of his father the king many times throughout the book. It'll illustrate some other aspect of how a set of ideas can haunt a society each time it comes up.

This is basically how Derrida writes. And I think it's the foundation of why people, particularly in philosophy, think he's confusing. It's been called meditative writing. I give it a more descriptive name of writing in a spiral.

Most of the time, when you've taken philosophy courses, or been introduced to philosophy some other way, you learn that it's written as arguments. We're all familiar with the argumentative essay.

You state a thesis, then assemble a series of premises and inferences. You infer further propositions from your premises, and infer more propositions down the chain, until your essay ends with an inference to your thesis.

For a book-length work, four or five premises will sometimes interact in different ways throughout a complicated argument. And you might have more than one thesis. But the process is basically the same. It moves in a straight pattern of steps from premises through inferences to conclusions.

Spiralling writing works a little differently. It's less about proving a thesis and more about understanding a concept. So you have your basic idea at the beginning when you introduce it. But it's hazy, unspecific, difficult, or opaque. So you move forward by explaining the idea.

This Friday, I'm doing an interview with KZYX radio in California to promote Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, and I might talk about how I use this spiralling technique in my own philosophy writing. The book is about a few different concepts, so here's a rough guide to how one spiral runs there.

A central concept is a half-neglected idea in North American environmental philosophy, the intrinsic value of nature. I introduce the idea in that context, particularly focussing on how it was developed by its most profound advocate, Arne Næss. I also talk about how it was criticized by the academic establishment, why those critiques were so successful in marginalizing the idea in the discipline.

Then I describe how this idea of the intrinsic value of nature can work, which is by distinguishing ethics from morality. The words are usually interchangeable in the academic discipline, but some members of the tradition distinguish them. Benedict Spinoza and Gilles Deleuze.

Morality is, in this explanation, about the rules and laws through which a society governs its social behaviour. Morality is a source of authority. Ethics would be about identity, who you are and what that who is. The intrinsic value of nature doesn't make sense as a moral principle, but it does make sense as an ethical principle.

You're literally meditating on a concept, thinking it through, and making a story of how you think it through.

Begin with an idea. Introduce it. Examine a problem that the idea stumbles into, given what we understand of it as it's been introduced. Figure out a solution to that problem. Explore how that solution changes how we understand that idea. The introductory version is still part of how we understand the idea. But we also have this more comprehensive understanding: we now know more of what the idea can do.

This is how meditative writing works, clarifying piece by piece a big, complicated concept. So how do I see this spiralling or meditative writing in Derrida? He was a main developer of the technique, so how is it most effective? To be continued . . .

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