“What is an amoeba word?” Amoeba words include many of the words thrown around when people are talking philosophically. The philosopher-priest Ivan Illich explains:
I take the term from the work of Professor Uwe Pörksen of Freiburg, a linguist and medievalist. During the second part of the 1980s, he came to the conclusion that there are certain words in all modern languages which ought to be labelled in a special way when they are put into a dictionary. A dictionary will tell you that a certain word in its common meaning means this; in its antiquated meaning it means something else; when you combine it in a particular way, it becomes vulgar; in another sense it is technical. He came to a conclusion that one major category of word usage had been overlooked, and for it he created the term plastic words. A plastic word, an amoeba word, he found, is a term which has about twenty-five precise characteristics—Pörksen’s very German—and he doesn’t admit any word into the egregious category unless it fits all these twenty-five. A plastic word has powerful connotations. A person becomes important when he uses it: he bows to a profession which knows more about it than he does and he is convinced that he is making in some way a scientific statement. A plastic word is like a stone thrown into a conversation—it makes waves, but it doesn’t hit anything. It has all these connotations, but it does not designate anything precisely. Usually, it’s a word which has always existed in the language but which has gone through a scientific laundry and then dropped back into ordinary language with a new connotation that it has something to do with what other people know and you can’t quite fathom. Pörksen puts sexuality, for instance, into the category of amoeba words, or crisis or information.
He has found these words in every language. There’s only a couple of dozen, and they’re always the same. When I came to Pörksen and said, “Uwe, I think I’ve found the worst of them, life,” he became very silent. For the first time in my life, I had the impression that he became angry with me, disappointed in me. He was offended. And it took about six months or mine months before he could speak about that issue again, because it is just unthinkable that something as precious and beautiful as life should act as an amoeba word. I came to the conclusion that, when I use the word life today, I could just as well just cough or clear my throat or say “shit.”
Ivan Illich in Conversation, with David Cayley (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2007), 253-254
If you want to know whether something or someone possesses a capacity for self-recognition or self-perception, a common test to use is the mirror test. Put people in front of a mirror, and see if they can recognize themselves in their reflections. Can you tell that your reflection is your image, that is, an image of you yourself? If so, you would see that the reflection of your nose is not another’s nose. Rather, you would recognize that it refers back to your actual nose. If you wanted to touch your nose, you wouldn’t touch the mirror. You would touch your face. That implies that you can recognize yourself, hence the official name of this test: mirror self-recognition (MSR). That test has some problems. Ultimately, the mirror test says very little about the self of those who do or don’t recognize themselves in the mirror. It says more about the self of someone who thinks mirrors are adequate tests for selfhood.
Wisdom is not a mind-hack or life-hack or any kind of hack. It’s not a way of cutting through life’s difficulties with tips or tricks. It’s not a set strategies or operations that can be adopted in piecemeal or applied in pertinent situations. It’s more of a path than a hack. It’s a way of life. As a practice, wisdom demands a total change of lifestyle, or it is nothing at all. What is that lifestyle? With characteristic Judeo-Platonic-Stoic syncretism, Philo of Alexandria gives an exemplary description of the practice of wisdom in this passage from On the Special Laws [trans. F. H. Colson. (Loeb Classical Library), 2.44-49].
When people talk about the end of nature, what exactly is this nature that has ended? It’s not like the whole universe imploded. Earth is still spinning. Nature isn’t the universe, and it’s not a planet. It’s nature. Nature is an idea, a word, a symbol, which is not to say that it is merely those things. Nature is also whatever reality people were referring to when they used the idea, word, or symbol of “nature.” That reality sufficiently degraded so as to indicate to many people that it has ended. There are still organisms, ecosystems, lakes, rivers, atmospheric conditions, roots, fruits, and all kinds of things, so what ended? What is the reality to which ideas of nature were pointing or in which symbols of nature were participating? An answer can be found by returning to the beginning, to the earliest appearances of the idea of nature.
What is philosophy? There are so many definitions of philosophy. It is not altogether unlikely that the “What is…?” question is not the best way to approach a definition of philosophy. There are many other important questions for defining and describing philosophy. Who are philosophers? What do philosophers do? How does one become a philosopher? How, where, and when does philosophy happen? If you want to keep the question of being (ti esti, “What is”), maybe you could at least pluralize or verbalize philosophy, so that “What is philosophy?” becomes “What are philosophies?” or “What is philosophizing?” (“What are philosophizings?”). In any case, all of these questions hover around the same point. Whatever philosophy is/does, it seems particularly involved in defining itself, maintaining itself, like it has to keep turning on the engine in order to keep driving, continually initiating itself, bringing itself back to itself. In short, philosophizing maintains a constant connection to its own beginning. Philosophy is perpetually preparatory, programmatically provisional. Continue reading
Hegel gives an apt description of this salient difference between ancient and contemporary approaches to philosophical study. It basically goes like this. Under the weight of several centuries of tradition, philosophical study today finds ready-made theories and answers everywhere, a plethora of prefab homes for thinking. Whereas ancient philosophers learned to let a theory grow out of their concrete existence, the task today is the opposite: to free ourselves from our prefabricated principles and to impart to theory once again the enactive and enthusiastic energies of existence.
Here is the relevant passage:
The manner of study [Die Art des Studiums] in ancient times differed from that of the modern age in that the former was the proper and complete formation [Durchbildung] of the natural consciousness. Putting itself to the test at every point of its existence, and philosophizing about everything it came across, it made itself into a universality that was active through and through. In modern times [neuern Zeit], however, the individual finds the abstract form ready-made [vorbereitet]; the effort to grasp and appropriate it is more the direct driving-forth [Hervortreiben] of what is within and the truncated generation of the universal than it is the emergence [Hervorgehen] of the latter from the concrete variety of existence. Hence the task nowadays consists not so much in purging the individual of an immediate, sensuous mode of apprehension, and making him into a substance that is an object of thought that thinks, but rather in just the opposite, in freeing determinate thoughts from their fixity so as to give actuality [zu verwirklichen] to the universal and impart to it spiritual life [zu begeisten].
G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford University Press, 1977), 19-20. Phänomenologie des Gesistes (1806), ed. J. Hoffmeister (6th ed.; Hamburg, Felix Meiner Verlag, 1952), 30.
I’m doubling down on doing deconstruction, and apparently I’m doubling down on that phrase, “doubling down,” which I already said once (too much) in the title and have now used way too much at this point. I promise not to use it again here, but the excess is part of my point: an exercise in exorbitance, a propensity for verbosity…it’s all part of what draws me to deconstruction. There is something about the double movement, speaking in two directions at the same time, writing in a way that avoids the temptation to resolve ambiguity and paradox into something easily digested by normal opinion (doxa). That is stylistically interesting, like the apophatic rhetoric used in mysticism and negative theology. But it’s not only a matter of style. It’s never merely style for mystics and theologians either. The simultaneously inventive and destructive movement of deconstruction discloses something about wisdom, about the way things really are, about the basic orientation around which philosophy takes place. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Continue reading