What is Philosophy?

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

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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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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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Philosophy as Resistance: Commons for All

Thinking of philosophy as resistance, one might think first of the philosophical activities of Marxists, feminists, and environmentalists.  I would add process philosophers to that list.  For Bergson, for instance, philosophizing is a violent inversion of the status quo.

The mind has to do violence to itself, has to reverse the direction of the operation by which it habitually thinks, has perpetually to revise, or rather recast, all its categories.  But in this way it will attain to fluid concepts, capable of following reality in all its sinuosities and of adopting the very movement of the inward life of things.  Only thus will a progressive philosophy be built up, freed from the disputes which arise between the various schools, and able to solve its problems naturally, because it will be released from the artificial expression in terms of which such problems are posited.  To philosophize, therefore, is to invert the habitual direction of the work of thought. (Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics [trans. T. E. Hulme. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912], p. 51).

That’s not very different from Whitehead’s claim that philosophy “reverses the slow descent of accepted thought towards the inactive commonplace” (Modes of Thought, p. 174).  The question I’m left with is to what extent Bergson and Whitehead can facilitate resistance to a particularly obstinate habit that pervades late modernity: the enclosure of the commons (the becoming-inactive of the commonplace).  For Bergson, resistance to enclosures might have something to do with love, reminiscent of his famous saying, “The motive power of democracy is love.”  In Whitehead, maybe the notion of conformation provides a sense of the commons.  Consider a few quotes from Process and Reality:

The philosophy of organism holds that, in order to understand “power,” we must have a correct notion of how each individual actual entity contributes to the datum from which its successors arise and to which they must conform. (p. 56)

The pragmatic use of the actual entity, constituting its static life, lies in the future. The creature perishes and is immortal. The actual entities beyond it can say, “It is mine.” But the possession imposes conformation. (p. 82)

..and from Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, “Time in the concrete is the conformation of state to state” (35).

Some discussion of the DeleuzoGuattarian concepts of Hardt/Negri would help elaborate on the role of process thought in resisting enclosures and recuperating the commons, as would a discussion of Anne Pomeroy’s work on Marx and Whitehead and the anthology Bergson, Politics, and Religion, edited by Alexandre Lefebvre and Melanie White.  I’ll have more to say about this later.  In the meantime, I’m enjoying the essays in The Wealth of the Commons, edited by two wonderful defenders of the commons, David Bollier and Silke Helfrich.

Deleuze and Wolves

Between Deleuze’s individually written works and his co-written works (with Guattari), he deploys a swarm of concepts.  With that supernumerary distribution of concepts, one might think that there are thus many entry points into readings of Deleuze.  However, some concepts seem to stand out and receive more attention than the others.  The obvious example would be the rhizome.  Everybody likes to bring up the rhizome, whether favorably or critically (e.g., Badiou’s “The Fascism of the Potato”).

It seems like Deleuze’s affinity for human-wolf multiplicities (i.e., werewolves) is another favorite.  I can think of three examples off the top of my head.  First, Catherine Malabou’s “Who’s Afraid of Hegelian Wolves” brings up D&G’s affirmation of wolf multiplicities to criticize Deleuze for doing to Hegel what Freud did to the Wolf Man: homogenizing and totalizing his encounter with plurality and difference.

Second, Jacob Sherman (“No Werewolves in Theology?”) brings up werewolves to critique Deleuze’s rejection of transcendence and to offer an alternative vision for which contemplative engagements with transcendence provide the sort of liberation of becoming that Deleuze was seeking.  In short, becoming-wolf is much closer to becoming-divine than Deleuze admits.

Third, in When Species Meet, Donna Haraway brings up becoming-animal and becoming-wolf to criticize Deleuze (and Guattari) for privileging wolf-human becomings over dog-human becomings (privileging the wild over the domestic, smuggling in a wildness that looks way too much like transcendent divinity).  She thinks that becoming-animal should be much more affirmative of domestic companions, mundane reality, and old women with lapdogs.

Interestingly, Haraway is the only one to challenge the wolf trope and thus challenge the fascination that the rest of us have with Deleuzian wolves.  Malabou and Sherman seem to say that, contra Deleuze’s critiques of Hegel and theological transcendence, Hegel (Malabou) and contemplative mysticism (Sherman) are just as good as Deleuze (if not better) at becoming-wolf.  Haraway, on the other hand, suggests that looking for wolf multiplicities might not be a good way to valorize a philosophical or theological position.  We should be attending instead to the ontics and antics of companion species.

Whether Hegelians and contemplative mystics can get along well with companion species is a question to which Malabou and Sherman surely would respond masterfully.  In any case, the point here is simply that the alarm that gets our attention need not be “There are wolves!”  It reminds me of a fable about a scholar who cried wolf.

Inhuman Perspectivism: A Truth of the Relative

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari distinguish between the relativity of truth and the truth of the relative in their concept of partial observers.  Unlike claims of a relativity of truth, for which truth is relative to different subject positions of human observers, the truth of the relative is inhuman, constituted by the experimental/experiential forces of the things themselves.   Consider their conceptualization of perspectivism in light of quantum physics. 

Heisenberg’s demon does not express the impossibility of measuring both the speed and the position of a particle on the grounds of a subjective interference of the measure with the measured, but it measures exactly an objective state of affairs that leaves the respective position of two of its particles outside of the field of its actualization, the number of independent variables being reduced and the values of the coordinates having the same probability. […]  Perspectivism, or scientific relativism, is never relative to a subject: it constitutes not a relativity of truth but, on the contrary, a truth of the relative, that is to say, of variables whose cases it orders according to the values it extracts from them in its system of coordinates. […]  In short, the role of a partial observer is to perceive and to experience, although these perceptions and affections are not those of a man, in the currently accepted sense, but belong to the things studied. […] Partial observers are forces. […] Partial observers are sensibilia.  [What is Philosophy? (1994) pp. 129-131]

Tool, Deleuze-Guattari, Dionysus

For about a year, I’ve been slowly developing a pop analysis (Deleuze and Guattari) of the music of Tool, particularly with reference to Nietzsche’s hope for a Dionysian future of music.  The good people at Nomos Journal have published a short piece I wrote on that topic (thanks, Seth).  You can find it HERE.