Gilles in LA V: Speculate Pragmatically, A History Boy, 27/11/2015

Since this series on the LA Review of Book's essays on Gilles Deleuze is done, I'm going to include all the links to my other posts. Here's Deleuze, Guattari, and the fluidity of identity; the self-destructive habits of academic scholarship today; how philosophy helps us understand our world in ways we've never thought of before; and why everyone should read philosophy, but not the way it's taught in schools.
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Brian Massumi wrote one of those essays in the LA Review of Books about Gilles Deleuze. I remember reading one of his books, Parables of the Virtual, just over three years ago. It was remarkably dense, and a little too long for its purpose, but a wonderful book.

Massumi is one of the most metal philosophers working
in the academy today.
It took me a while to read it because I had just started work at an answering service, and I hadn’t yet adjusted how I scheduled my days around it to get enough reading time in. Reading is part of how I relax. 

Massumi talks about how Deleuze took so long to take off among the American followers of upstart French philosophy. He says a major reason was because there were so many different concepts, ideas, and inquiries threading across Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s works, you couldn’t focus on one single theme that stands out among them and could define the whole.

But there is, says Massumi. I agree with him, even if I think his essay is too long for what it ultimately achieves. I suspect this might be a feature of Massumi’s work.

Anyway, Massumi calls Deleuze’s philosophy, in its buzz-worthy phrase, Speculative Pragmatism. As he unpacks the label, it fits quite well with how I’ve come to understand Deleuze’s ideas and what they can do in the tradition of philosophical writing and discourse. 

Here’s a little story about philosophy. It’s really simple. So simple, it doesn’t really explain anything, except why I think Deleuze was our last real vanguard of thought.

Jean-François Lyotard came up with the term post-
modernism, so blame him if you have a problem.
So post-modernism was a thing that happened in the intellectual scene. The ideas this tradition developed were really useful to understanding the limits of human knowledge and how our knowledge can be manipulated. 

But the philosophy could never quite escape charges of relativism. It was the first school in the Western tradition to go all the way in rejecting transcendent sources or grounds of knowledge (like God, or eternal being, which amount to the same thing). 

Without this, it was left without any hooks to secure our knowledge. No to distinguish the truth from my, your, our, and their truths.

Postmodernism developed through the 1970s into the 2000s. It was largely French, though the German Martin Heidegger was an important influence. It gained a few American adherents, like Richard Rorty in philosophy, and became a standard framework in literature studies. 

Postmodernism makes contemporary meta-textuality in fiction possible. So thank you, or damn you, depending on what you think of that.

The relativism problem had a solution, but it had been developed decades before among the American pragmatists. Charles Sanders Peirce was the first to articulate the problem and engage with it. William James dealt with it as an ethical problem, and came up with the definitive pragmatist solution.

I'm always a little saddened that William James didn't
live longer than Charles Peirce. Peirce was older, and
did much more cocaine.
Stop thinking about knowledge as having the ultimate goal of being true. Knowledge is instead fundamentally about being useful. Knowledge is a tool to work in the world.

After James died, John Dewey expanded and applied this idea in fantastically interesting ways through pretty much every domain of human knowledge. The man’s archives are enormous, and he kept writing steadily until he died in his 90s. 

The Big Three American pragmatists were the only group of historically noteworthy writers in philosophy to solve the postmodern relativism problem. But no one realized it* because they never engaged with it explicitly. How could they? They wrote decades before postmodernism existed.

* Until Larry Hickman, in his book Pragmatism as Post-Postmodernism. In 2007.

Pragmatism had two problems. After Dewey, no one really rose to be his equal, the way he did to James. So by the time we reach today, pragmatism as a sub-discipline in academic philosophy consists of mostly of commentary on Peirce, James, and Dewey. The ambition’s gone out of it.

More than this, pragmatism doesn’t really leave room for philosophy. The project that used to be called metaphysics, thinking about the fundamental structures of reality, gets relegated to science.**

If philosophy can be said to progress, then its greatest
writers push the tradition in new directions. Deleuze
pushed farthest of anyone in the direction he wanted.
Many others had many different directions, but none
pushed harder and farther than Deleuze.
** Like the analytic philosophy school that adopted all the basics of pragmatism while ignoring the Big Three’s names. And frankly, science is more conceptually inventive than a lot of analytic metaphysics, because the metaphysicians rely on our intuitions as a guide to truth. Because quantum physics has made so much progress following our intuitions about reality.

At a conference four years ago on pragmatism and wider American philosophy, I told the organizer, Colin Koopman, that Deleuze clarifies all the mysteries and problems that Dewey’s thinking left behind.

So we’re back to speculative pragmatism, the theme-as-buzzword of Deleuze’s philosophy. He made philosophy itself a practical matter: we create concepts that help us adapt human nature to a changing world. All the metaphysical systems and ideas we develop amount to these profound transformative agents. 

Philosophy as the most powerful conceptual tool in human capacity.

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