Get Your Hate On I: Problems of Reference, Research Time, 03/01/2018

Yes, I took the Xmas week off from writing on the blog, especially when I was in Montréal to visit my father’s side of the family. But I’ve kept up my research, of course, and I’ve been working through different ideas on how Gilles Deleuze’s thought affects my own thinking.

I want to talk, over the next day or two, about an argument that takes up the sixth chapter of What Is Philosophy?. Deleuze could find inspiration for his own projects in pretty much any field of the Western tradition. Except one.

It’s difficult to give a precise name to the tradition, because there were writers who called themselves and were called Analytic Philosophers whom Deleuze respected. Bertrand Russell was among them. Ludwig Wittgenstein, not so much.

My interpretive allegiances are a little different, because my own memories of having learned the great figures and history of Analytic Philosophy™ are very different. I was educated in North America, and my senior colleagues and teachers included people who thought almost all the work of Deleuze and others lumped under the near-meaningless heading of “Continental Philosophy” was nonsense and charlatanism.*

* Most of this comes down to writing style, but I want to leave questions of style aside. At least for a day or two.

Willard Quine, one of the most consistent reductionists in the
recent history of philosophy. It is no coincidence how boring his
books are.
But I do broadly agree that the tendency in self-identified Analytic Philosophy is unfortunate for actual philosophical creativity. Deleuze discusses it directly in What Is Philosophy?.

Let’s start from one important question. What is empiricism anyway? Deleuze calls himself an empiricist, but the major thinkers whose ideas defined typical Analytic Philosophy™ considered themselves empiricists too. And the latter would never have considered Deleuze a true empiricist. Marketer in obscurity, more likely.

To me, empiricism means that the ultimate purpose of creating philosophical concepts is building frameworks to understand the world. Deleuze would call it thinking immanently, where thinking is about understanding what you and everything else in the universe can do.

What are our capacities? What are our abilities? How can thinking in different ways open opportunities for understanding and action that wouldn’t have come about if we weren’t thinking in those ways.

The empiricism of Analytic Philosophy™ is very different, in Deleuze’s account of it. Under this model of thinking, being an empiricist means your concepts are always rooted in direct reference. Concepts are about meaning, and meaning is rooted in referring accurately to some part of the world.

I consider Willard Quine the arch-empiricist of Analytic Philosophy™, because he was so uncompromising in his brutal reductionism. Here’s a representative quotation, from his book of essays, From a Logical Point of View:
“As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience.”
You might find it a funny coincidence how so many of the most
esoterically dry and reductionist philosophers were white male
academicians from the upper or at least aspirational crusts of
their societies.
I don't think it's a coincidence at all – I think it's a possibility
condition.
Philosophical creativity becomes impossible when you consider the only purpose for thinking as correct reference. The only philosophical thoughts you can have legitimately, in such a framework, are the building blocks of quantificational logic. “There is,” “For all,” “For some,” and build from there.

Once you consider reference and the quantificational logic that grounds mathematics the only purposes for philosophy, philosophy becomes – relatively speaking – dead ground for thinking.

You can’t find meaning or meaningfulness in more complicated ideas or concepts than the frameworks for understanding truth conditions. So social, psychological, political, and moral concepts are out the window.** Even the energetic metaphors of scientific and mathematical thinking are gone because what matters is only truth conditions and reference.

** But there is an Analytic™ tradition of moral and political philosophy. Maybe so, but G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica reduces ethical and moral thinking to problems of reference – What acts and situations are good? As for the political, remember why John Rawls broke so big with A Theory of Justiceno one in philosophy departments had done original creative political thinking in decades because the Analytic™ model made it illegitimate. Rawls found a way that would work on that model.

Who wrote Waverley? What colour is this cup on the table?

I share Deleuze’s frustration here. Who cares? The school of Analytic Philosophy™ began with a lot of remarkable potential. But it was all squandered on the pursuit of problems irrelevant to people’s lives, as if those were the most important problems imaginable. What matters is what’s interesting. What’s needed.

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