The Task of Philosophy

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.

 

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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

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.

A Hegelian Laxative

I finally got around to attending to some of the wonderful essays in Hegel and the Infinite: Religion, Politics, and Dialectic, edited by Slavoj Žižek, Clayton Crockett, and Creston Davis (Columbia UP, 2011).  Incidentally, this is one of about four of Clayton Crockett’s books I’ve read in the last year.  I’ll have more to say about his work later.  For now, I’ll just say that this book on Hegel is a must-read…for Right-Hegelians, Left-Hegelians, post-Hegelians, anti-Hegelians, etc. 

For all of those who are stuck in an interpretation of Hegel as a totalizing thinker who appropriates and assimilates all difference and alterity into his own absolute knowledge, this book would be a great place to start loosening up—reopening your interpretation of Hegel and letting go of that overused straw man argument. 

It turns out that Hegel is not an extremely constipated thinker who appropriates reality into himself without remainder, nor a coprophagic thinker reappropriating that remainder.  Hegel is much more open-ended, radically affirming the irreducible contingencies of the real.  Žižek makes this abundantly clear in his chapter, “Hegel and Shitting: The Idea’s Constipation.” 

The matrix of the dialectical process is not that of excrementation-externalization followed up by swallowing up (reappropriation) of the externalized content, but, on the contrary, of appropriation followed up by the excremental move of dropping it, releasing it, letting go. (p. 231)

The move of letting go is like the movement of God, letting go of divinity in the process of incarnation, which is an act of emptying (kenosis).  This letting go opens a space for inquiring into religion and the complex political relationship between the sacred and the secular (where the secular is the sacred letting go of itself).  This movement of letting go (in the vernacular, “shitting”) also “opens up an unexpected space for ecological awareness,” a scatological ecology according to which nature is experienced “as something to be left to follow its inherent path.”

“What critics of Hegel’s voracity need is, perhaps, a dosage of good laxative.”  True as that may be, as I recall, William James let go of some anti-Hegelianism with a dosage of nitrous oxide, not laxative. …in any case, a dosage of good something… 

For 2012: Hegel and a New World to Come

Close to what, for some, is a date inscribed with an apocalyptic script, I’m reminded of Derrida’s comment that we will never be done reading and rereading Hegel.

“Besides, it is not difficult to see that ours is a birth-time and a period of transition to a new era. Spirit has broken with the world it has hitherto inhabited and imagined, and is of a mind to submerge it in the past, and in the labour of its own transformation. Spirit is indeed never at rest but always engaged in moving forward. But just as the first breath drawn by a child after its long, quiet nourishment breaks the gradualness of merely quantitative growth—there is a qualitative leap, and the child is born—so likewise the Spirit in its formation matures slowly and quietly into its new shape, dissolving bit by bit the structure of its previous world, whose tottering state is only hinted at by isolated symptoms. The frivolity and boredom which unsettle the established order, the vague foreboding of something unknown, these are the heralds of approaching change. The gradual crumbling that left unaltered the face of the whole is cut short by a sunburst which, in one flash, illuminates the features of the new world.”

—“Preface” to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit