Monthly Archives: December 2011

Truth and Philosophy on the Way

Not just Hannah Arendt’s teacher, Karl Jaspers is a great philosopher in his own right.  His work has been influential for many developments in twentieth-century philosophy, theology, and psychiatry.  Here are two quotations in which he provides basic (yet profound) definitions of truth and philosophy.

“Within time, truth is forever underway, always in motion and not final even in its most marvelous crystallizations.”     Tragedy Is Not Enough (1952, p. 104)

“The Greek word for philosopher (philosophos) connotes a distinction from sophos.  It signifies the lover of wisdom (knowledge) as distinguished from him who considers himself wise in the possession of knowledge.  This meaning of the word still endures: the essence of philosophy is not the possession of truth but the search for truth, regardless of how many philosophy may belie it with their dogmatism, that is, with a body of didactic principles purporting to be definitive and complete.  Philosophy means to be on the way.  Its questions are more essential than its answers, and ever answer becomes a new question.”   Way to Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy (2003, p. 12)

Monads: windowless glass houses

Graham Harman has a nice post up “On the Laziness of Comparing Object-Oriented Philosophy with Leibniz.”  One of the points he brings up is that, even though he and Leibniz affirm windowless monads, monads are still determined by their relations in Leibniz , but their reality is non-relational in object-oriented philosophy. 

Although I tend to follow Whitehead and Deleuze in thinking of monads as having windows, I also accept Harman’s Heideggerian conception of a non-relational reality, in which monads would have no windows.  If we are going to continue describing entities as having windows, it would be important to add that contact through these windows is never direct but only happens indirectly… through a glass darkly.  I am committed to affirming relational and non-relational aspects of monads, and I think that the image of windows with dark glass might help draw out the complex tension between relationality and non-relationality.  Really, though, the window still implies too much accessibility, even if the window has bars on it or is wired with a bomb.  Perhaps it would be better to say that a monad does not have windows at all but is a house of glass.  The glass is dark, and what appears dimly in and through the glass is not comprised of reflections but of diffractions (not totally unlike the diffraction glasses that people wear for light shows, raves, fireworks, etc.). 

Windowless and alluring, every object is a glass house of dark diffractions.

Schelling on the object of philosophy

This is a wonderful quotation from Schelling’s 1842 Philosophy of Mythology.  Here’s the German:

Bei jeder Erklärung ist das Erste, daß sie dem zu Erklärende Gerechtigkeit widersahren lasse, es nicht herabdrücke, herabdeute, ver kleinere oder verstümmle, damit es leichter zu begreifen sey.  Hier fragt sich nicht, welche Ansicht muß von der Erscheinung gewonnen werden, damit sie irgend einer Philosophie gemäß sich bequem erklären lasse, sondern umgekehrt, welche Philosophie wird gesordert, um dem Gegenstand gewachsen, aus gleicher Höhe mit ihm zu seyn. Nicht, wie muß das Phänomen gewendet, gedreht, vereinseitigt oder verkümmert werden, um aus Grundsätzen, die wir uns einmal vorgesetzt nicht zu überschreiten, noch allenfalls erklärbar zu seyn, sondern: wohin müssen unsere Gedanken sich erweitern, um mit dem Phänomen in Verhältniß zu stehen. 

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, Philosophie der Mythologie: Volume 5, Schellings Werke, ed. Manfred Schröter (C. H. Beck, 1984), p. 3.

A translation:

With each explanation this is first: do justice to that which is to be explained, and do not suppress it, interpret it away, belittle it, or mutilate it in order to make it easier to conceptualize.  Here the question is not, “At what view of the phenomenon must we arrive to explain it in accordance with one or another philosophy?”  Rather the reverse, “What philosophy is requisite if we are to live up to the object, be on a level with it?”  It is not a question of how the phenomenon must be turned, twisted, confined, or atrophied so as to become explicable at all costs on grounds that we have completely resolved not to surpass. Rather, to what point must we enlarge our thought so that it is in proportion to the phenomenon? 

To the Poems Themselves

 I am always dissatisfied with definitions of poetry that focus on how poetry expresses connections between humans and the world (and maybe God, too). I have metaphysical objections to those kind of definitions, but aside from that, I just don’t enjoy the kind of analyses that follow from them. If you define poetry in terms of its expression of different human experiences or modes of thought, then your analyses of poems tend to talk a lot about humanity, culture, civilization, god, cosmos, etc., and the poems themselves get left out in the cold.  I prefer definitions of poetry that help us attend to poems themselves. To the poems themselves! Let’s attend to poems in their poeticity. In particular, I’m very influenced by Roman Jakobson’s approach to poetics. Although I would want to make a lot of changes to his structuralist thinking, I like the fact that Jakobson analyzes poems in a way that focuses on the actual sound and syntax patterns of the poems themselves.

Jakobson’s articulation of poeticity is situated in his account of the six functions of verbal communication. Alongside the poetic function, there are emotive, conative, referential, phatic, and metalingual functions. The poetic function of language, i.e., poeticity, “is present when the word is felt as word and not a mere representation of the object being named or an outburst of emotion” (Jakobson, Language and Literature, 1987, p. 378). The poetic function has its own autonomy, and thus needs to be differentiated from the other five functions.

Poeticity is not apparent 1) when the word is reduced to the emotions of the speaker (emotive), nor 2) when it is reduced to its comportment toward a listener (conative), nor 3) when it is reduced to the contextual reality that it supposedly represents (referential), 4) nor when it is reduced to the psycho-physical contact of those speaking and/or listening (phatic). In each of these four cases, poeticity is not apparent because the word is reduced to something other than word, e.g., addresser, addressee, psychophysical contact, and referential context. Furthermore, poeticity is not apparent when a sequence of words is reduced to the codified equations given in metalanguage, such as A = A1 (bachelor = unmarried man). In fact, the poetic and metalingual functions of language “are in diametrical opposition to each other: in metalanguage the sequence is used to build an equation, whereas in poetry the equation is used to build a sequence” (p. 71).

Of course, poetry isn’t only in poems. The poetic function is at work whenever the word is felt as word, when the message is felt on its own terms. It is not about the speaker, the poet, consciousness, humanity, the world, or anything else but itself. Poeticity is present “when words and their composition, their meaning, their external and inner form, acquire a weight and value of their own” (p. 378).

I’ll give an example. Jakobson discusses the old political slogan “I like Ike.” The combination of “I,” “like,” and “Ike” is not merely a matter of “like” being selected from its synonyms (e.g., “admire,” “love,” “support,” etc.) because it accurately represents the speaker’s emotions and/or psychological relationship to Ike, nor is it merely a matter of “I” being selected because it represents the subject more grammatically than does “me,” or “my,” etc. If the message “I like Ike” is understood as its own thing (to the message itself!), then the combination of “I,” “like,” and “Ike” manifests an equation of the three occurrences of the sound /ay/, wherein “like” paronomastically envelops both “I” and “Ike”—as if all liking always already implies that “I” and “Ike” are together within it. From a metalingual perspective, the meaning of the “I” in this sequence is given according to other words with similar meanings; but from a poetic perspective, the meaning of “I” is given according to its similarity (in this case phonetic) to “like” and “Ike.” It is in poeticity that sound symbolism is most intensely felt.

Because “I” is typically employed as an index referring to the person saying it, the sound of the word “I” does not usually appear particularly meaningful; instead, it appears arbitrary—as if another sound referring to the same person (e.g., “me,” “ich,” “yo,” etc.) would have an identical meaning. Poeticity, on the other hand, relates the meaning of speech sounds back to the word itself, and not to a human poet, an autonomous signified, or a contextual reality. “I like Ike” is easy to analyze because of the obvious repetition of /ay/. A more difficult pattern to recognize would be William Blake’s “Tyger,” where the liquid consonant at the end of the word “Tyger” patterns with the liquid consonant at the beginning of “Lamb” (“Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”). That is one of my favorite aspects of Jakobson’s poetics: to analyze a poem, you have to study phonetics and other aspects of linguistics. Doesn’t this make perfect sense? To study a poem, you have to study language. To the poems themselves! To the words themselves!

A New Philosophy for the 21st Century

What is becoming of philosophy in the 21st century?  There’s a great piece on that topic that just came out in the Chronicle of Higher Education Review. It is written by Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, who both teach at my alma mater, the Philosophy and Religion Studies department at the University of North Texas.

We have devoted our lives to philosophy. We want the field to survive and, if possible, prosper. But it is increasingly doubtful that academic philosophy can thrive in an era of declining budgets, soaring debts, antipathy to tax increases, and new technologies such as distance education.

Of course, philosophy is secure at America’s elite universities. But what of the vast number of universities whose future is tied to the decisions of state legislatures or other financial conditions?
Field philosophy, found philosophy, public philosophy, experimental philosophy, philosophy of/as interdisciplinarity—these are all expressions of a growing feeling that change is afoot. We seek to promote this change. We view 20th-century philosophy as an aberration—academically challenging work that forgot half of philosophy’s task. It is time to strike out in new, intellectually exciting, and socially useful directions.

I did my BA and MA at UNT, and I am continually impressed with the developments taking place in my old department. I can think of no better place to study philosophy and religious studies in a way that is cutting-edge, rigorous, and socially relevant, especially in light of contemporary environmental issues (they specialize in environmental ethics). They are making incredible strides toward “integrating philosophic insights with problems on the ground.” In short, if you want to see 21st century philosophy at its best, you’ll need to take a look at UNT.

Integral Dabbling

The word “integral” connotes wholeness or completeness, like an integer.  What interests me is that, etymologically, integral also means un-touched.  The prefix “in” has a negative force (like “un-“ or “non-“), and “teg” comes from the Latin tangere (“to touch”).

An integral philosophy would be a philosophy of untouched unity or untouched units.  How, then, can we philosophize about that which exceeds the limits of our touching, grasping, and reaching.  Theorizing the untouched is a way of paradoxically touching the untouched.  Jean-Luc Nancy has a lot to say about touching, including the way touch makes contact with that which is intact, untouched.  If you touch too much, then the intact is no longer intact.  If you touch too little, then you haven’t made contact.  The question is how to touch with tact, making contact in such a way that a connection is made without assimilating the intact core of the other.  It’s important to note that I am not referring to human touch exclusively, but to all kinds of contact, human, nonhuman, and otherwise.  I’ll have a lot to say about this in the future, as the name of this blog indicates.  For now, I want to talk about a kind of light touch, dabbling.

Dabbling touches without penetrating the depths.  The dictionary definition of dabbling describes it as an act of moving one’s hands or feet around in water.  In other words, it is an act of getting partially wet.  It also refers to movement in shallow water (ducks that feed in shallow water dabble therein).    

From this basic definition comes the extended definition of dabbling as any kind of partial involvement in something.  Like dabbing or daubing, dabbling is a partial touch, a slight and light touch.  That partial involvement connotes superficiality in some cases, as if one is “merely” dabbling and not “really” doing it, like a hobby as opposed to a career.  However, dabbling is not necessarily superficial.  It might be a very effective way to forge connections with the untouched cores of things.  Perhaps touching things any deeper would just slow down the process of making and breaking connections.  Even worse, it could do violence to the one touching or to the one touched, or to both of them.

What is this effective kind of dabbling?  Integral dabbling.  I think Jean-Luc Nancy practices integral dabbling, but it is not to be found only among philosophers.  I think you can also find integral dabbling in pop culture.  I’ll post more later on a pop analysis of integral dabbling.

a god, a fetish, a thing

I often find myself thinking about the worship of fetishes.  By definition, a fetish is an artificial or made thing (feitiço, facere, making).  At the same time, it is a deity.  What is a deity if it is itself a created object?  What is an object if it can function as a deity?  When I’m thinking about fetishes, I often think of Legba, a trickster deity and fetish in the African diaspora religion of Vodu (Vodun, Voudoun, Voodoo).

As one story puts it, Legba wasn’t always a deity (a vodu).  He was a magician and pharmacist that got in trouble.  The gods (specifically Mawu) did not appreciate him disseminating his magic and drugs to other people, so they turned Legba into a vodu so that he would be invisible, thus making it harder for people to make contact with Legba’s charms, spells, herbs, and potions.

In any culture of Vodu practitioners, Legba can be found guarding all sorts of crossroads and thresholds, especially entrances to towns, villages, and houses.  There are thus many Legbas.  In Haitian Voudoun, the crossroads are represented in mirrors and in the pole around which ritual trance dances take place.  Songs for Legba often open and/or close ritual dances.  At crossroads, boundaries, and edges marked by Legba, the worlds of the visible and the invisible conjoin.  Legba can be placed at any crossroads or limit, thus joining together that which is limited and holding it in the place of one thing, one fetish. 

This joining of the visible and the invisible is evident in the way a clay Legba appears visually.  The outward manifestation of Legba’s appearance is a simple shape.  It is anthropomorphic but sometimes amorphous, similar to Hermes for the Ancient Greeks or the lingam (Shiva) for Hindus.  But this shape is the exterior of a clay object that also has an interior filled with herbs, animal parts, and other things.  Legba cannot be reduced to his outward appearance or to his inward contents.  The outward manifestation and inward contents of Legba are parts of the visible world, which Legba holds together with the invisible world.  In other words, Legba as a visible fetish is always already held together with Legba as an invisible vodu.   

The visibility of the fetish opens it up for exploration from innumerable and inexhaustible perspectives.  The real power whereby the fetish grants such exploration, grants an apparent outside and a hidden inside, does not itself appear.  It beckons at the limit of sense.  Thus, the visibility of the Legba-object is precisely the visibility of some powerful depth, of an invisible force that never reaches the visible.  The unfathomable invisibility of Legba does not appear, yet Vodu practitioners can contact it indirectly through their relationship with the visible fetish.

This visible/invisible tension could also be described in terms of surface/depth.  The visibility of the fetish has a thickness.  The very color of its surface has a depth.  As the different visible aspects of the fetish are explored in different lighting and various surroundings, one notices different adumbrations of the fetish’s color that were previously invisible.  The color reflected to any one perspective is the nearness (i.e., the surface) of a visibility that can reflect numerous aspects of itself as its depth is interrogated, including its very power to appear colored at all.  Although Legba is near to us as we see his visible surface, this nearness does not merely bring the surface of the fetish near.  Nearness brings near the profoundly distant power of the invisible, its power to be.  One cannot get closer to the real (distant, invisible) power of Legba.  Practitioners contact Lega by building relationships with the nearness of his manifestations, indirectly feeling Legba’s hidden power in different ways depending upon the circumstances of the contact. 

I suppose my point here is that Legbas are “things” in Heidegger’s sense of “things” (Dingen) from his essay “The Thing”: “Nearness preserves farness.  Preserving farness, nearness presences nearness in nearing that farness.  Bringing near in this way, nearness conceals its own self and remains, in its own way, nearest of all.”  (I’ll have more to say later about Heideggerian explorations of African diaspora traditions.)

As the surface of a clay Legba reflects its color, it indirectly reflects the distant power of this invisible deity (vodu) to become manifest in living color.  The presence of a Legba does not exhaust, but in fact, implies Legba’s power to appear in other ways and distant places (in other fetishes, other Legbas).  A visible Legba signifies that the trickster is afoot and anything can happen.  The distant invisibility of Legba can be continually expressed and reiterated.  There are a lot of Legbas made around the world. 

Where is Legba if people don’t make the fetish?  Nowhere.  Practitioners consider this to be a problem of the death of gods.  Practices of making fetishes (or becoming possessed) are necessary for the existence of these gods.  Perhaps, though, they don’t simply die.  Maybe in death they still have some dormant reality that can be reactivated.  This is a very real problem for contemporary practitioners, as these diaspora traditions are undergoing constant transformation in the face of globalization.  Some gods are dying.  If Legba were to die, what would happen to his trickster powers, his magic, his pharmacological knowledge?  Of course, the Christianized world has its own dead god problem.  What should we do when gods are dying?  Make more!  This reminds me of Bergson’s remark that the cosmos is a machine for making gods.  Latour’s factish gods are around here somewhere, too, as is Cusa’s vision of all things as created gods.