Affects, Bodies, Religions

Some people use affect theory to challenge the notion that religion is inextricably linked to belief and language, proposing instead that body and affect are more primary. It’s good to affirm bodies, feeling, emotions, affects, but that isn’t the way to do it. It’s a red herring, challenging a notion about belief that nobody really believes (i.e., the notion that religion is inextricably linked to language and belief). Continue reading

The Aesthetics of Publishing

There are a lot of reasons to dislike academic publishing if you are trying to write philosophy or any kind of theoretical or scholarly work. Nonetheless, it’s still the best way to disseminate work with high standards of rigorous research, intellectual accountability, and meaningful communication. A couple of the usual reasons people give for disliking the publishing industry in general are that it is too slow and, more to the point, too elitist, whereas self-publishing platforms work more efficiently and give the author more creative control. That’s far from the whole story. It fails to mention the aesthetics…and the lunchmeat. Continue reading

What is Phenomenology?

The opening of Merleau-Ponty’s Phénoménologie de la perception (1945) still rings true today. “What is phenomenology? It may seem strange that this question has still to be asked half a century after the first works of Husserl. The fact remains that it has by no means been answered.” The only different today is the “half a century”; it has now been well over a century since the first works of Husserl and over seventy years since Merleau-Ponty wrote those words. The fact remains that the question has by no means been answered. Merleau-Ponty gave a response, but that response is not a final answer. It is itself open to interpretation, as indicated by the different ways in which Merleau-Ponty’s own thought changed over time and the different ways his thought has been received in contexts like neurophenomenology and ecophenomenology.

What is phenomenology? On one hand, it seems like everybody has their own idiosyncratic definition of phenomenology, which does whatever work you want it to do, like Humpty Dumpty saying that he pays words extra to do what he wants. In that sense, it means almost anything. On the other hand, insofar as there is agreement about what phenomenology is, it is subjected to a rather crude leveling that turns it into a synonym for “study of experience,” thus equivocating between a wide variety of theories and methods in empiricism, pragmatism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, and philosophy of mind. Between Humpty Dumpty phenomenology and crudely leveled phenomenology, the practice of phenomenology is exceptionally loose. Some looseness can be good, facilitating openness to the mystery of what shows itself. However, too much looseness and phenomenology loses its perspicacity. You could blame the excessive looseness on some of the popular (mis)interpreters of figures like Husserl and Merleau-Ponty (pace Evan Thompson and David Abram). The issue is deeper than that though. Part of the problem is that phenomenology has had conflicting meanings throughout its entire history. Because people do not know this history, they are doomed to repeatedly dilute phenomenology in a sea of equivocations. What, then, is phenomenology? Continue reading

Freedom and Thymotic Politics in Sloterdijk

Peter Sloterdijk has written extensively about the political function of thymós (the spirited part of the soul in Plato’s three-fold schema of intellect-spirit-appetite). Here his reflections on that term open onto a discussion of freedom (libertatem). It turns out the liberals and neo-liberals are getting it wrong.

This term [thymós] referred to an inner affective centre that motivates people to reveal themselves to their social surroundings as owners of giving virtues. Yes: thymós, as a liberal mentality of the giving life, offers the only declaration of freedom that has nothing to fear from any naturalistic reduction to exogenous causes and neurological conditions. People have usually searched for freedom in places where one cannot possible find it—in the will, in the act of choice or in the brain—and overlooked its origin in the noble disposition, in uplift, in generosity. In reality, freedom is simply another word for nobleness, by which I mean the mindset which takes the better and more difficult as its point of reference under any circumstances, precisely because it is free enough for the less possible, the less vulgar, the less all-too-human. In this sense, freedom is availability for the improbable. Freedom still remains true to its essential negativity in the turn towards practical action, because everything it does expresses its rejection of the tyranny of the most probable. Whoever acts out of freedom revolts against the meanness they can no longer bear to see. This freedom is the opposite of everything envisaged by those who see it as a licence to let themselves go into the ordinary, all-too-ordinary.


Never before have such terms as ‘liberal’ or even ‘neo-liberal’ taken on as nefarious a connotation as in the last few years. Never before has liberal thought, especially in our country, been so far from the noble pole of human possibilities. Never before has freedom been so narrowly and fatally associated with the possession of humans by the stress of greed. But what does that prove? One thing alone: that the cause of liberality is too important to be left to the liberals. This restriction does not apply only to a single political party; the cause of the real and its reform is too important to be left to parties. Caring for cultural tradition is thus too comprehensive a task to be entrusted merely to conservatives. The question of preserving the environment is too significant to be considered only a matter for the green parties. The search for social balance is too demanding for social democrats and leftists to be given sole responsibility for it. Yet each of these elemental motifs requires one main party voice.

Peter Sloterdijk, Stress and Freedom, trans. Wieland Hoban (Polity Press, 2016), 54-56.

Whitehead as Existentialist

I recently stumbled upon this 2007 Philosophy Now article by Colin Wilson, “Whitehead as Existentialist,” thanks to a retweet from Matt Segall—a Whitehead expert and the brilliant blogger (and soon-to-be PhD!) behind Footnotes to Plato. There’s never been any secure border separating who is in and out of existentialism, so why not? If someone wants to include Alfred North Whitehead, it’s fine with me. In our time of radical uncertainty and uncanniness, existentialist ways of thinking and being are perhaps more relevant than ever, so I don’t see any reason to close the door on Whitehead’s participation in any movement related to existentialism. In some sense, all you need to do to be an existentialist is exist, so including Whitehead seems pretty easy. Right? Not really. Although I appreciate Whiteheadian alliances and solidarities, it is more accurate to say that Whitehead is not an existentialist. Whitehead is in fact not an existentialist, not a representative, exemplar, or example of existentialism. Continue reading

Philosophy on the Edge

I’ll attend the Pacific division meeting of the American Philosophical Association later this week in San Francisco. Even though it’s only a division meeting (not national), it’s a massive event nonetheless. There are a few panels I’m very excited about, including one with Al Lingis and Tony Steinbock, focusing on Steinbock’s recent book, Moral Emotions, which is something like a sequel to his Phenomenology and Mysticism.

I’ll be presenting Friday evening in a panel about philosophy on the edge. Preview: I’ll say something about how coexistence in the Anthropocene is without center or edge. With the ongoing and inevitable erosion of anthropocentric subjectivity, countless beings are crowding into center stage. Everything is a center, being centered amidst multiplicities of centers with a circumference that is nowhere; but this could also be formulated by saying that everything is not a center, being on edge in a world whose center is nowhere and circumference everywhere. In some sense everything is both a center and an edge, but in another sense, everything is neither a center nor an edge. What this means it that coexistence in the planetary era is fundamentally ironic, ambiguous, and uncertain. My main point will be that this situation does not just call for humans to give up anthropocentrism. It calls for philosophers to give up philosophy, to give up the power of philosophy so that philosophy might become possible again, and still for the first time. Giving up power is about becoming vulnerable to intimate encounters outside of philosophy and outside of the occidental context of philosophy.

I’m thinking with Foucault here, specifically this remark he made in an interview during a stay at a Zen temple in Japan in 1978. “The crisis of Western thought is identical to the end of imperialism,” which is also “the end of the era of Western philoso­phy. Thus, if philosophy of the future exists, it must be born outside of Europe or equally born in consequence of meetings and impacts be­tween Europe and non-Europe.” Adding some specificity to his comments, I want to make a couple of small incisions to open up some possibilities for a philosophy of the future. The incisions use the cutting edges of deconstruction and Buddhism, that is, the blades of the mohel and manjushri. There are a few different lines of thought to bring together here, at least three, including Keiji Nishitani’s work on the encounter between nihilism and emptiness (shunyata), the work of Robert Magliola, Jin Park, and others facilitating an encounter between Derrida and Nagarjuna, and Tim Morton’s invocations of Derrida and Nagarjuna in his dark ecology. The point is not to help solve any problems with some Buddhodeconstructive tag team. The point is to become vulnerable, weak and powerless. The point of the blades of the mohel and manjushri is this: surrender.

The Grander the Narrative…

Reports of the death of metanarratives have been greatly exaggerated. Critiques of grand narratives (metanarratives) often have the respectable intention of protecting the specificity of different peoples and places from the homogenizing and totalizing effects of universal claims that are supposed to apply to everyone in all times and places. But these critiques fail on numerous accounts. Continue reading