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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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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Is Sloterdijk Conservative?

In terms of his social and political views, Peter Sloterdijk is sometimes described as a conservative thinker. Is that right? Is Sloterdijk a conservative? That question itself depends upon the hermeneutic question: What do you mean by “conservative”? He’s definitely not a neocon or a paleocon. He’s not a Reagan conservative. But he’s not exactly a social democrat, progressive, or libertarian either. He doesn’t easily fit into conventional definitions of political positions, as he interrogates, displaces, and redesigns those positions. So, is Sloterdijk a conservative? I’d suggest that he can be described with the same phrase he uses to describe Theodor Adorno, an “ambivalent conservative” (Foams, 630). A crucial difference between him and Adorno is that Sloterdijk aims to carry out a transition from critical theory to a more affirmative theory of General Immunology (by way of a Nietzschean-Deleuzian sense of affirmation). Of course, the idea that he’s a conservative who wants to protect immune systems (Whose? How?) does not necessarily inspire confidence. It demands some explication. Continue reading

Whitehead in the Clouds: Objects and Relations

Graham Harman and other proponents of object-oriented ontology (OOO) follow Whitehead in taking up the task of articulating a speculative metaphysics, which is a relatively untimely task, situated amidst multifarious post-Kantian prohibitions against metaphysics. In particular, OOO follows Whitehead’s “ontological principle,” affirming the irreducibility of actual entities. The relationship between OOO and Whitehead looks mutually beneficial. OOO benefits by getting support for its metaphysical orientation toward entities, things, i.e., “objects.” [Does it need to be reiterated that this is a general sense of object as entity, not the modern sense of object in opposition to (or participation with) subject?] Whitehead benefits by getting a boost in popularity, making Whitehead more relevant and interesting for contemporary thought. Despite this opportunity for mutual benefit, both partners aren’t totally into it. Harman refers to Whitehead regularly (including in his latest, Immaterialism), acknowledging Whitehead’s unique contributions to metaphysics. How do Whiteheadians respond? Let’s face it. It’s not the mutual admiration club. Guess what, OOO? Process philosophers just aren’t that into you. Continue reading

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

Take Your Turn

What’s with all the philosophical hokey-pokey?  I hear a lot about putting some things in and taking some things out and turning around, so much turning around.  How many turns have there been in the last hundred years?  Remember the linguistic turn in philosophy?  Then Habermas argued for some kind of pragmatic turn.  In the philosophy of religion a few folks tried to initiate a participatory turn, and of course, the ontological turn has been getting some attention lately.  Has anybody really thought through all of this turning?  Is the turning trope a handy substitute for thinking?  Is the philosophical tradition a boat that needs to be turned around lest it shipwreck on the shores of existence?  I would prefer the shipwreck.  Is it a game where everybody gets to take a turn so that nobody feels left out?  I’m not sure if such a game is worth playing.  As everybody is taking their turn, how many realize that they are under the spell of Heidegger’s Kehre?  Among so much hokey-pokey, Heidegger was the only one to turn to the turning of the turn, like an existential DJ spinning on the turntables of Being.

It’s only teaching, but I like it

The last month has been a busy one.  I’ve graded roughly 400 pages of student papers, and I’ve given about 60 hours of lectures.  I haven’t spent much time writing, and I feel good about that.  Well, I suppose I’ve done some writing, if you count lecture notes, syllabi, and emails to students.  To adapt a phrase from Mick Jagger, it’s only teaching, but I like it.  This is what I do. 

I consider myself a teacher far more than I would consider myself a writer.  Along those lines, I feel an affinity with Heidegger: my work is not to write, but to teach, where teaching is understood not as advising or instructing (belehren) but as a practice of letting learn (lernen lassen).  Foucault is also a companion in that regard.  I often recall his statement that he is a teacher and not a writer or a public intellectual or a philosopher.  This isn’t to say that being a teacher precludes writing.  Heidegger and Foucault wrote quite a lot.  But they were not writers.

I would say that teaching is more difficult than writing.  Indeed, teaching is even more difficult than learning, since the teacher has to learn how to let students learn.  The teacher has to be more teachable than the students.  I feel like that’s almost verbatim from one of my favorite Heidegger books: What is Called Thinking?  Not incidentally, that book is a series of lectures, like so many of Heidegger’s works.

I’m sure there are some possible rebuttals to what I’m saying here.  Nonetheless, I simply can’t shake some of my Heideggerian convictions… after so much walking along the path, still coming into the nearness of distance…  Hier stehe, ich kann nicht anders.