The Problem with Descartes: It’s Not Dualism

Some people, a lot of people, treat René Descartes as a sort of bogeyman of modern philosophy. Somehow, in the first half of the seventeenth century, Descartes sundered the seamless fabric of Being into two factions, mind and body, a thinking thing and an extended thing, res cogitans and res extensa. With that dualism set in place, soul was thereby evacuated from the universe…except for a tiny piece of property that soul could rent out in the human head, accessed through a steep driveway in the pineal gland. In a universe devoid of soul, humans lost any motivation or justification for caring about anything beyond the solipsistic ego. Thanks a lot, René! There’s no concern for other humans, for community, or for the natural world. Mechanistic thinking thus spurred the rapacious destruction of ecosocial integrity through the development of industrial technologies and market economies. Now, as humans are sawing off the environmental limb that we’re sitting on, it’s more urgent than ever to overcome Cartesian dualism and find a way back into the seamless interconnectivity of existence. No, not really. Something is very wrong with that story. “In order to seek truth,” as Descartes says in his Principles of Philosophy, “it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible, of all things.” Well, one of the things of which I’m doubtful is the idea that dualism is what’s wrong with Descartes.

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The Practice of Irony in Pierre Hadot

Pierre Hadot is well-known for his idea that philosophy is not a merely professional endeavor or simply a system of ideas but is a way of living, a practice for which one must engage in “exercise” or “training” (askēsis). That point is evident throughout Hadot’s writings, but it is especially emphasized in Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Philosophy isn’t just about talking and thinking; it’s a way of being in the world. It’s not just a vocational choice; it’s an existential choice. It’s not just about ideas; it’s about one’s entire self. Hellenistic philosophy provides the bulk of Hadot’s examples of this kind of philosophy, and the figure of Socrates plays a prominent role for Hadot. Of course, an important part of the Socratic way of life is Socratic irony. Reading over notes from Adam Robbert’s recent panel presentation on this topic, it struck me: Hadot’s presentation of philosophy as a way of life includes a profound sense of irony: “Ye gods! Here we have the well-known irony of Hadot” (cf. Plato’s Republic, 337a).   Continue reading

Nine Theses on Fire Politics

In his Theses on Feuerbach, Karl Marx includes eleven statements expanding on the materialist philosophy of Ludwig  Feuerbach. Marx does not mention the material burning within the German name Feuerbach: the elemental materiality of fire (Feuer). More than 150 years later, Jacques Rancière’s Ten Theses on Politics proposed an aesthetic definition of politics as dissensus (not consensus), a distancing of the aesthetic from itself: a partition, distribution, or sharing of the sensible (partage du sensible). Between these materialist and aesthetic political philosophies, there are cinders, remnants of another politics: sharing fire (partage du feu). Theses are burning down, from Marx’s eleven theses, down to Rancière’s ten theses, down to the following nine theses on Feuerpolitik.
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Treating People Like Individuals

It’s not uncommon to hear someone propose the ethical injunction to “treat people like individuals.” It’s mostly used in reference to the complicated ethico-political problem of negotiating intersecting group dynamics: ages, genders, sexes, races, classes, ethnicities, religions, abilities, capabilities. What does it actually mean? Continue reading

The Danger of Thinking: Nihilism

In volume one (“Thinking”) of her unfinished three volume work, The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt thoughtfully describes thinking. In the following excerpt, she focuses on nihilism and the danger of thinking:

What we commonly call “nihilism”—and are tempted to date historically, decry politically, and ascribe to thinkers who allegedly dared to think “dangerous thoughts”—is actually a danger inherent in the thinking activity itself. There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous, but nihilism is not its product. Nihilism is but the other side of conventionalism; its creed consists of negations of the current so-called positive values, to which it remains bounds. All critical examinations must go through a stage of at least hypothetically negating accepted opinions and “values” by searching out their implications and tacit assumptions, and in this sense nihilism may be seen as an ever-present danger of thinking.

But that danger does not arise out of the Socratic conviction that an unexamined life is not worth living, but, on the contrary, out of the desire to find results that would make further thinking unnecessary. Thinking is equally dangerous to all creeds and, but itself, does not bring forth any new creed. Its most dangerous aspect from the viewpoint of common sense is that what was meaningful while you were thinking dissolves the moment you want to apply it to everyday living. When common opinion gets hold of the “concepts,” that is, the manifestations of thinking in everyday speech, and begins to handle them as though they were the results of cognition, the end can only be a clear demonstration that no man is wise. Practically, thinking means that each time you are confronted with some difficulty in life you have to make up your mind anew.

However, non-thinking, which seems so recommendable a state for political and moral affairs, also has its perils. [….]

Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (San Diego: Harcourt, 1978), 176-7.

Year in Preview

My first book came out in September 2014, and my seventh book was released last week. Seven books in a little less than three and a half years. I wrote three and edited four. That’s one—or more like seven—of the reasons that I haven’t posted much to this blog in the last few years. With these books behind me, I’m starting to focus more on smaller pieces. Continue reading

Provocation and Interruption

Provocation and interruption are, respectively, the origin and goal of philosophy. This sense of philosophy finds expression in the following quotations from Peter Sloterdijk, the first of which suggests that philosophy is a trace of an unavoidable provocation, while the second articulates the function of the philosopher as an interrupter.

It is a characteristic of humanitas that human beings are confronted with problems that are too difficult for them and that nevertheless cannot be left unaddressed on account of their difficulty. This provocation of the human being by something that can be neither avoided nor mastered left an unforgettable trace behind already at the beginning of European philosophy—indeed, perhaps philosophy itself is this trace in the broadest sense.
(Sloterdijk, “Rules for the Human Park,” Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger [Polity Press, 2017], p. 211)

We live constantly in collective fields of excitation; this cannot be changed so long as we are social beings. The input of stress inevitably enters me; thoughts are not free, each of us can divine them. They come from the newspaper and wind up returning to the newspaper. My sovereignty, if it exists, can only appear by my letting the integrated impulsion die in me or, should this fail, by my retransmitting it in a totally metamorphosed, verified, filtered, or recoded form. It serves nothing to contest it: I am free only to the extent that I interrupt escalations and that I am able to immunize myself against infections of opinion. Precisely this continues to be the philosopher’s mission in society, if I may express myself in such pathetic terms. His missions is to show that a subject can be an interrupted, not merely a channel that allows thematic epidemics and waves of excitation to flow through it. The classics express this with the term ‘pondering.’ With this concept, ethics and energetics enter into contact: as a bearer of a philosophical function, I have neither the right nor the desire to be either a conductor in a stress-semantic chain or the automaton of an ethical imperative.
(Sloterdijk, Neither Sun nor Death [Semiotext(e), 2011], p. 84-5)

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