Archive for November, 2011

Zizek doing that Zizek thing

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There’s a million ways to be!

A classic! (with Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort)

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The philosopher is a passionate animal

The philosopher, therefore, is a passionate animal. His passion exhausts itself not in the accumulation of data, however, but in questioning. The fierceness of his inquiry determines his order of rank. A passion for unanswerable questions, and an inability to remain indifferent and distanced from them, is the mark of a true thinker.

–from Leslie Paul Thiele, Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of the Soul: A Study in Heroic Individualism, p. 116.


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On Edmund Husserl, his name

This morning, as it happens, I am standing, puzzled, in the kitchen, with a little book set down before me. I am in the midst of one of those moments where the folly of my solitary undertaking takes hold of me and, on the verge of giving up, I fear I have finally found my master.

His name is Husserl, a name not often given to pets or to brands of chocolate, for the simple reason that it evokes something grave, daunting, and vaguely Prussian. But that is of little consolation. I believe that my fate has taught me, better than anyone, to resist the negative influences of world thought. Let me explain: if, thus far, you have imagined that the ugliness of ageing and conciergely widowhood have made a pitiful wretch of me, resigned to the lowliness of her fate – then you are truly lacking in imagination. I have withdrawn, to be sure, and refuse to fight. But within the safety of my own mind, there is no challenge I cannot accept. I may be indigent in name, position, and appearance, but in my own mind I am an unrivalled goddess.

Thus Edmund Husserl – and I have concluded that this is a name fit for vacuum cleaner bags – has been threatening the stability of my private Mount Olympus.

–the thoughts of Renée the concierge, from The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, pp. 53-4.

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On taking up philosophy

It’s not a calling, there are choices, the field is wide. You do not take up philosophy the way you enter the seminary, with a credo as your sword and a single path as your destiny. Should you study Plato, Epicurus, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, or even Husserl? Esthetics, politics, morality, epistemology, metaphysics? Should you devote your time to teaching, to producing a body of work, to research, to Culture? It makes no difference. The only thing that matters is your intention: are you elevating thought and contributing to the common good, or rather joining the ranks in a field of study whose only purpose is its own perpetuation, and only function the self-reproduction of a sterile elite – for this turns the university into a sect.

–from The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, p. 252.

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Caputo and Marx (Groucho)

For getting in the mood to learn about John D. Caputo’s Against Ethics.

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Two Plays with a Jewish and Yet Universal Perspective

By coincidence – or, if the subject of one of them is to be believed, by design – we saw two plays this weekend with themes of God, truth, love, loyalty, friendship, family, freedom, slavery, and redemption from a Jewish perspective.

New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656, by David Ives, wonderfully performed at the Lantern Theater, tells the story of philosopher Baruch (“Bento”) de Spinoza (1632-1677), his trial for heresy, his expulsion from Amsterdam, and his excommunication from the Jewish people. Was Spinoza an atheist, or was he the most God-drenched of men? He saw God and nature as the same (“Bento’s Rule”: Never just say “God;” always say, “God, that is to say, nature…”.) He deemed sacred scripture to be superstition meant to direct the actions of people in a certain manner, and not as a conduit to truth. He advocated a determinism that struck his accusers as fatalism and the undoing of all ethical life. He believed the “peace” accord struck by the Jewish community and the “tolerant” Dutch protestants came at too high a price, and although he protested unceasingly his commitment and love for the Jewish people, he was unwilling to renounce his freedom to think his own thoughts. This made his love for a Christian woman and the loyalty of friendship impossible for him (the former in his refusal to convert to Christianity, the latter in his friend’s willingness to inform on and testify against him). The question that haunts me in this story – magnificently acted all around – is this moral and political one: Should Spinoza have been excommunicated? Spinoza himself, on his own views, could not really answer this question. Could we?

The Whipping Man, by Matthew Lopez, performed at the Arden Theatre, tells the story of a seriously wounded and on-the-run Confederate soldier returning to his home at the close of the Civil War. He, Caleb, is a Jew, and he finds one of his slaves, an older man named Simon, still occupying his home, both of their families (slave owner and slave) gone away. Another young now-former slave, John, enters the story, and he also seems to be on-the-run. The former slaves are Jews, too, having been raised and educated as Jews in the Jewish slaveowner’s home. A recurrent question is: Are we Jews or are we slaves? Scripture teaches that Jews could have slaves but not Jews as slaves. So what is the truth of their status (or former status)? The situation and context of the play provides ample space to pursue the intricacies of slavery, freedom, religion, family (the twists and turns of the plot are dizzying at times, as evidenced by vocal reactions from the audience at points). The older man, Simon, has kept the faith, despite intense trials, but the young Caleb has lost his belief in God. He saw the horrors of war, and fell into despair. John, who has been looting the abandoned homes in the area, is also troubled by his past, wanting explanations that are not forthcoming. Both Caleb and John, intertwined in a classic master/slave dialectic, are seeking their freedom by demanding certainties. “Two peas in a pod.” Simon tells them, in effect, that our freedom does not consist in having the answers but in being able to ask questions. To lose the ability to ask questions – especially about ourselves – is to lose our freedom.

Spinoza would have agreed.

The Whipping Man ends in silence, in a situation in which nothing meaningful can be said. But the characters must live on, despite the deep uncertainty, guilt, failure. The play left me thinking that we are John and Caleb. We cannot un-live our own histories, cannot wrest free from our past, cannot really know what to make of all our intentions and entanglements. But we must live on, find love when love is in question, help each other when we don’t really know ourselves. It is our only hope.

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The Big Year

As a birder who has just finished his “First Year”, I was very excited to see this movie. I read the book, and I was both delighted and disturbed by the obsession to see as many species of bird as possible in a year’s time – the goal of a “Big Year.” Delighted, because there are so many species, each with its own beauty and its own story (“life history,” we birders say), and the book fascinated me and helped me learn. It certainly stoked my desire to see all of the birds there are. Disturbed, I must admit, because I find I not only want to catch just the tiniest glimpse of a bird to get it onto my life list, but I want to linger over a bird, if possible, to watch it, to delight in it. This is a recipe for losing a Big Year competition. For me, the “big” in big year would be the amount of time afforded to birding, not to the length of the list that results.

The movie did not make fun of birders, did not depict us nerdy goofballs, although it might easily have given in to such temptations. The actors, Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson, are always fun to watch, and this movie was no exception. The filmmakers conveyed the excitement of seeing a sought-after bird quite well. And the movie asked the right questions: What does it mean to succeed in life? What does it take…and what does it mean…to “win”? This is a family movie, I think, and I can easily imagine it would spark an interest in birding in its viewers. I enjoyed it very much.

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On the Society of Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy Conference

I recently attended the 50th anniversary meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP), held in Philadelphia. I hadn’t been to SPEP in a while, so it was interesting to me to see the kinds of papers being presented. One interesting feature of this year’s meeting was a series of “Then and Now” sessions that were meant to look back over the history of both the organization and the important philosophical “sub-fields” of interest to SPEP-oriented philosophers. So, for instance, there were sessions like, “Existentialism Then and Now,” “Critical Theory Then and Now,” “Feminism Then and Now,” and “Philosophy of Technology Then and Now,” among others. Some presenters in these sessions (the ones I was able to attend) gave straight-forward philosophical papers, but many presenters did try to give a retrospective (along with something like a prospective what-may-come-next view). Often these looks back were quite personal, the speakers recalling the transformative books and thinkers they encountered early in their careers and how these shaped their own original contributions. In this regard, I particularly enjoyed and learned from David Rasmussen’s and Lucius Outlaw’s presentations. Most instructive were the recollections of the women philosophers, particularly those of Nancy Fraser and Kelly Oliver. They were not all happy memories. In fact, having been a member of SPEP for about half of its lifetime, I only lived in the years after women philosophers’ revolutionizing of the organization, which had been (like most of academia) just an old boys club. From all accounts they are directly responsible for the professionalization of SPEP, and not only were feminist philosophers the beneficiaries but all of us have been made better by their efforts.

One of the more interesting talks was given by John D. Caputo. In it, he gave his take on the history of SPEP and on continental philosophy in general. I will briefly summarize it, but I cannot do justice to his engaging presentation. Caputo said that what we call continental philosophy originated among American Catholic intellectuals in the wake of Vatican II. As Caputo put it, “Pope John XXIII thew open the windows of the Catholic Church, and everybody jumped out.” Catholic colleges and universities had been insular institutions, steeped in Thomism, but in the new openness Catholic philosophers were looking for alternative ways to think about perennial issues. American academic philosophy (analytic philosophy), however, was dominated by logic, linguistic philosophy, and an affinity with the natural sciences. The “big questions” were not being addressed, so Catholics turned to their European cultural heritage for resources by which to think their questions – without recourse to specifically religious answers. In other words, continental philosophy wanted more or less to jettison religion without adopting the materialism or logicism of their analytic colleagues. For many years, the only place one could study continental philosophy was in Catholic universities. Of course, it was not only Catholics who developed an interest in thinkers like Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre. Caputo cited Paul Tillich, for instance, as a key Protestant thinker who engaged with Heideggerian thought, and there were Jewish thinkers as well. Eventually, however, there was a return to the religious in continental philosophy. Perhaps it was inevitable, given the nature of the kinds of questions being pursued. The “religious turn” was always controversial, but became widespread and influential. Caputo himself has spent the most recent years of his career re-thinking the religious in the light of Derrida’s thought (and not only Derrida’s). But today, Caputo said, the tide is turning. There is now a strong reaction against this religious turn, but not only that. There is a general turn against continental philosophy itself and even analytic philosophy by a younger generation of thinkers loosely grouped under the umbrella of “Speculative Realism.” Among these philosophers are Graham Harman, Quentin Meillasoux, and Ray Brassier, thinkers who have been influenced by Alain Badiou and Alphonso Lingis, among others. The gist of the complaint about the whole of 20th century philosophy is that it is still too Cartesian, Kantian, subjectivistic. The world, say these thinkers, is not simply a set of objects for human subjects. The world does not need human subjects, indeed, does not care for human subjects. Their metaphysics is that of natural science; their ontology is that of mathematical logic and set theory (Badiou). Their two main complaints (to simplify extremely) are what they refer to as “correlationism” (that the world is an object for subjects, and that truth consists in the correlation of the two) and “fideism” (the idea that philosophers can put faith in things that reason cannot contain or attain, opening a door for religion to sneak back into philosophy).

I hope that all the papers from the “Then and Now” sessions are published – I think there are plans to do so – so that you can read for yourself all the details of Caputo’s paper.

I want to make a couple of observations about the current state of continental philosophy as it showed itself at SPEP that bear out Caputo’s reading of where we are now. First, though, a pre-SPEP piece of evidence. Caputo has been holding an annual conference entitled, “Religion and Postmodernism,” first held at Villanova University and most recently at Syracuse University. This past year – the year of Caputo’s retirement – he read a paper on the future of continental philosophy. More or less he wonders if it is not, in fact, dead. You can hear it here. In the paper, he discusses some of the issues raised by the Speculative Realists (or Object Oriented Philosophers, as they are sometimes known). I just want to make one point about it. He says, in effect, that if you need a metaphysics, then physics will do. He says only the physicists and cosmologists are really “wowing” us with their creativity and insights, that philosophy does not seem to have anything more to say to us when compared to what the sciences are showing us – a point Caputo reiterated during the discussion following his talk at SPEP.

Second observation: I listened to a talk at SPEP by Donovan Schaefer on a French philosopher and student of Jacques Derrida, Catherine Malabou. Malabou has a recent book called, What Should We Do With Our Brain?, which is interesting in that it tries to combine neuroscience with continental philosophy. Schaefer’s paper provided a very clear presentation of Malabou’s thought, with which he is in general agreement. Collectively, they argue that philosophy needs to become more deeply engaged in the natural sciences, particularly the neurosciences, if it wants to make any advances whatsoever. They would get no disagreement from thinkers like analytic philosopher John Searle – although perhaps that truth ought to give them pause (given the hostile relationship between Searle and Derrida). Schaefer’s only significant criticism of Malabou is that Malabou was still laboring under a “metaphysics of freedom” that ought to have been undercut by the turn to neuroscience and the determinism of physics. Malabou wants to use findings in neuroscience politically. She finds that the “plasticity” of the brain offers resources for reconfiguring itself in the service of overthrowing capitalism. Schaefer complains that her goal still valorizes “freedom” — and that is the kind of thing that libertarian capitalism uses as a stick with which to beat most of us. During the question period, Slavoj Zizek’s name came up, and it was wondered whether he, too, undoes his own materialism with remnants of a Sartrean decisionistic subjectivism. The turn to the neurosciences ought to put an end to all that, evidently.

There is much that can be said about all this. First, Malabou’s understanding of neuroscience is apparently rudimentary and her awareness of all the work among Anglo-American philosophers of mind and neuro-philosophy over many years seems slight. Not to mention that her political philosophy is naive. It seems to me a triple fail: philosophically, scientifically, politically. Scientifically, because her use of term “plasticity” (as in neural plasticity) has nothing in common with how that term is used in neuroscience and the philosophical considerations of it. The problem there is not uncommon. It consists of taking one provocative line out of a rich context from some philosopher or scientist or mathematician and trying to make hay out of it. People did it with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Goedel’s incompleteness theorem. People do this theologically, too (like trying to make an entire ecclesiology out of “Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together” [Heb.10:25] or an eschatology out of “Absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” [2Cor. 5:8]). This kind of thing is bad policy. Second, it is either absurd or dangerous to try to draw inferences from processes at the neuronal level to a grand politics like the overthrow of capitalism. No one can explain the fact, say, that they voted for Obama in the last election with reference to acetylcholine (I take the example from Searle). True, if you were missing the requisite amount of that neurotransmitter, you would not be voting (or doing anything else, for that matter). But this kind of explanation was disappointing to Socrates (see the Phaedo), who did not think Anaxagoras’ materialism would explain why he was sitting in prison instead of running away (which he easily could have, bringing relief probably even to his captors), and it is disappointing – to say the least – now. But it could be worse than disappointing as a framework for understanding. Is it not a short step to a technologizing of this neurochemical perspective on action, leading to, say, Republican ideologues who want to get rid of flouride in the water system to replace it with something that reconfigures the plastic minds of the citizens so they will vote straight Tea Party? Which leads me to Schaefer’s remarks about Malabou. He first passionately insists that we need to have an even greater concern for neuroscience in our political philosophy, which evoked dutiful, solemn nods of agreement from several in the audience. I am skeptical, to say the least. Second, he chastised scientists who dared to have a philosophical thought, seeing as they are not philosophically trained. And yet, philosophers like Schaefer and Malabou have no compunction about making comments and criticisms about the sciences in which they, I sense, have not been adequately trained.

Even if I am wrong, though, about Schaefer and Malabou, it is clear that the natural sciences are “leading” their thought, if I may put it that way. SPEP was started because a group of thinkers were not satisfied to have the thinking of the natural sciences lead their own thought. This is a definite change.

The final session at SPEP featured John Sallis and Alphonso Lingis, two of the more prominent continental philosophers in the U.S. Sallis has written a shelf-full of books, and Lingis, besides producing his own original and provocative work, is an important translator of Emmanuel Levinas. Sallis, who is a very sensitive reader of Heidegger and Derrida, proceeds to give a paper on black holes. BLACK HOLES! And not in any metaphorical sense. He talked about the limits of phenomenology when faced (is that the right word?) with something that does not and cannot show itself. Again, I feel fairly certain that what he knows of black holes he got from popular accounts. That’s where I got my knowledge of them, despite the fact that I’ve met and talked with the “black hole guy” himself, John Archibald Wheeler, whom Sallis mentioned in his talk. Sallis was called on his understanding of the science involved during the question period, but I am convinced that the scientific criticism of his presentation might go much further. This seemed like another foray by a philosopher into science in the hopes of pulling out of some hard-won scientific insight something that might have cash-value in philosophy. But to what end? To bring legitimacy to the philosophical enterprise? Does philosophy really need to ask that permission? Theology does this, too, from time to time, but we know the dangers of theology’s aligning itself too tightly with the latest scientific theories and hypotheses of the day, selectively read. There were all kinds of problems with Sallis’ paper, mostly the good kind (about the being and presence of the invisible, etc., the kind that are philosophically debatable), but the core problem is this naive turn to physical science. Or maybe that is not quite right. Maybe it was just a matter of Sallis showing the limits of phenomenological philosophy when confronted by a key component of physical cosmology. Either way, though, it does not bode well for what SPEP philosophers had been doing. Mathematico-physical science will either inform or outstrip philosophy.

And then, the last word at SPEP: Alphonso Lingis’ paper. Lingis is, you will remember, named by Caputo as an inspiration for Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Philosophy (Harman was a student of Lingis). And yet, what was the title of Lingis’ paper? “The Return of the First Person Singular”! If I have interpreted all I’ve been presenting here correctly, then that is just what is NOT returning to continental philosophy. Both the continuation of poststructuralist thought and this new materialism weigh heavily against such a return. If Lingis really is an inspiration for Speculative Realism, I cannot help but think its adherents would be disappointed with his paper.

I am going to go out on a limb here: As I look around the world today and as I believe that, even if a philosopher’s inspirations lie in the work one’s long-dead predecessors, one’s task as a philosopher is to understand oneself and one’s world as it is for us now, I think the return to something like the first person singular (and plural) is just the return that is needed. The deaths of subjectivity and the metaphysics of freedom play right into the hand of those who benefit from a passive, non-reflexive, machinic citizenry. Otherwise you may as well go ahead and change the name of SPEP to something that includes neither the word “phenomenology” nor “existentialism.” In fact, you can drop the word “philosophy,” too, especially with this return to a myopic materialsm. That is a sign of the retreat of philosophy. Perhaps we can call our organization, the Society for Philosophy in Retreat (SPR).

On the other hand, though, there could be a silver lining: maybe some Templeton Foundation money will come SPR’s (I mean SPEP’s) way, with its new-found interest in the physical sciences so much in the fore.

Of course, there were dozens and dozens of sessions at SPEP, and by no means were all of them entangled with what I have been discussing here. I have been looking at a thread…but a prominent one, nonetheless. Maybe it is just a passing fancy.

I have to say I wonder about the legitimacy of one of the complaints of speculative realism: Did we have to take up the Cartesian problematic? Did we have to take the Kantian turn? Is “correlationism” (the world as an object for subjects) really our best philosophical standpoint? If not, is the direction of the Speculative Realists the only option? Perhaps we can acknowledge the problem as they describe it, but deny the solution that they propose. And if one could propose a creative alternative, it might take the “fideism” charge out of play. Anyway, that is something to think about.

One last observation from the SPEP conference: One way to try to find out “what’s happening” is to check out the publisher’s exhibits. Being a bibliomaniac, I spent a good deal of time browsing the book tables. There were the “classics” of continental philosophy, for instance new Heidegger translations from Indiana University Press and a good back list of Merleau-Ponty, Schutz, etc., from Northwestern University Press. There were lots of books by Badiou, Deleuze, Negri, Ranciere, and even the Speculative Realists. But as far as topics were concerned, there seemed to me to be a lot of books on animals and our own animality, from Derrida, Kelly Oliver, Jakob von Uexkull, Agamben, Haraway, and others. In itself, that’s certainly no bad thing. It will be interesting to see where it leads.

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