On Garlic and Magnets

garlic-rawHaving recently read Daryn Lehoux’s wonderful book, What Did the Romans Know? (University of Chicago Press, 2012), I was led to revisit and reconsider a post from some time ago on Latour’s concept of factish. The term factish is a neologism Latour uses to combine ideas that are widely thought to be contradictory – namely, a fact and a fetish. The former refers to a reality that is independent of those who may come to discover facts; the latter is a human construction and is a projection onto objects of our desires, wishes, and hopes. Facts thus correspond to a reality that is what it is regardless of what we think about it; fetishes correspond to realities that are what they are solely because of what we think about them. A factish points to a central claim of Latour’s, and it was this claim that was the subject of the earlier post: namely, to be constructed and to be autonomous are synonymous; or, the more constructed the object, the more real and autonomous it is. This gradation of being more or less constructed, or more or less real, is captured by yet another term of Latour’s – relative existence. Lehoux’s book has reminded me of the importance of this theme.

Continue reading

Hume’s Political Theory (Part 3 of 3)

 

At the end of the previous post I claimed that understanding language as a fundamental convention helps us to understand Davidson’s controversial conclusion that language does not exist. More precisely, language as ordinary convention does not exist but language as a fundamental convention, I argued, does exist. This does not appear, however, to be Sabl’s claim. Sabl’s concern, as he states from the beginning (and as cited above), is to show how Hume’s History can be understood as a continuous meditation on ‘how conventions of political authority arise, change, improve by various measures, and die.’ (HP 7). Language tends to be treated as a convention, but as ‘equilibrium case’ that is ‘relatively static’ (6). As Sabl puts it, ‘In some of life and a great deal of politics, the right thing for each person to do is that which he or she has reason to think others will do: speak the same language, meet at the same rendezvous, use the same measurements, accept the same authority for choosing officers and making laws.’ (ibid.) The philosophers such as David Lewis and others who focus upon language as a convention, or the game theorists who accept that the identities and expectations of the relevant actors is already known, are each beginning with a static convention as the basis for their explanations. Sabl, however, turns to the challenges that arise in times of historical crisis when we do not have reason to think what it is others will do. It is in times like this when one turns to the focal points – the prominent, obvious markers that one can use to orient oneself (following Schelling as discussed in the previous post). Sabl argues that these are temporary, however, for as the fundamental convention that constitutes the political authority of government comes into being, these focal points increasingly become ignored and unnecessary. But it is this process that we seek to understand, and I think the account offered in the previous post concerning Davidson’s rejection of language is illuminating, even if the fundamental conventions that concerned Sabl were those concerning political authority and not language (he may even reject the very idea that language is a fundamental convention and follow Lewis and others and accept that it is an ordinary convention).

Continue reading

Hume’s Political Theory (Part 2 of 3)

Continuing from part 1, we turn now to the role of focal points play in solving coordination problems. Focal points emerge as a crucial piece in Andrew Sabl’s account of how Hume’s History should be read. Focal points, in other words, are integral to the solution of coordination problems and are essential, therefore, as Sabl will argue, to understanding Hume’s account of ‘how [fundamental] conventions of political authority arise, change, improve by various measures, and die’ (HP 7). The concept of focal points Sabl borrows from Thomas Schelling’s classic work, The Strategy of Conflict (1960), where Schelling addresses the problem of how two or more people are to coordinate, as they desire to, when they do not know where the other is and cannot communicate with them. If two parachutists need to meet up with each other after landing, but they don’t know where the other lands nor can they communicate with them, but they do each have a copy of the same map (as in the figure above which is from Schelling’s 1960 book), then the question is whether or not the parachutists will be able to coordinate their actions and meet. Schelling argues that they would, and that in many cases people resolve such coordination problems all the time. Schelling offers another example, of ‘a man who loses his wife in a department store,’ and Schelling argues husband and wife will likely ‘think of some obvious place to meet, so obvious that each will be sure that the other is sure that it is “obvious” to both of them.’ (Schelling, 54) Similarly in the case of the parachutists, each will likely think of an obvious place to meet, and as experiments have shown the most common place people pick, when asked what they would do if they were one of the parachutists, is the bridge. It is the most unique, prominent, and obvious place on the map. Such obvious places are focal points. ‘Most situations,’ Schelling argues, ‘provide some clue for coordinating behavior, some focal point for each person’s expectation of what the other expects him to expect to be expected to do,’ and the ‘prime characteristic’ of these focal points, Schelling continues, ‘is some kind of prominence or conspicuousness.’ (ibid. 57)

Continue reading

Hume’s Political Theory (part 1 of 3)

Few would deny that Hume regards both private and public law as matters of convention; Hume repeatedly uses the word himself. But few have recognized that he regards certain conventions as fundamental; immune to alteration (except in the extremely long term, at least generations and more likely centuries) by the usual methods of political power and social change. The claim that Hume does believe in fundamental conventions, that he rests a distinctive form of constitutionalism on the foundations of custom and mutual advantage. It finds little support in Hume’s philosophical works, only in the less familiar History…The development of fundamental conventions…could be seen as the central story of the History of England. These conventions are both below and above ordinary laws. Below, because their fundamental status can never be codified as such. Above, because they limit, at least arguably, the authority of the lawmaking body, whose own right to enact positive law itself derives from fundamental conventions. (Andrew Sabl, Hume’s Politics [hereafter, HP], 121-2)

In his book, Hume’s Politics, Andrew Sabl provides a fresh look at Hume’s History that not only makes a strong case for reconsidering the importance of Hume’s political theory but also, and perhaps more importantly, he offers a critique of a many of the presuppositions of contemporary political theory. Central to doing all of this is Sabl’s reading of Hume as one who develops a concept of fundamental conventions to address the coordination problem associated with who ought to have political authority, and thus government, as a fundamental convention, is an answer to a coordination problem.

Continue reading

Foucault and Wittgenstein

 

 

 

I’m dusting off my wordpress site and will begin turning to this as a place where I’ll sketch ideas as I begin to work on my next project. I’m not sure what the final form of this project will be but at the moment I’m beginning with some ideas related to Foucault and Wittgenstein (the picture in this post is from where Wittgenstein’s Norway cabin stood). I’ve been teaching an existentialism class this term, along with a political theory class, and as a result I’ve been immersed in Wittgenstein and Foucault. I also recently gave a talk at Memphis on Wittgenstein and subsequent work has begun to crystallize around some of the ideas I introduced in that talk. In particular, as strange as it may sound, I’m working on a Wittgensteinian political theory. In many ways this is not faithful to the Wittgenstein who insisted on leaving everything as it is, calling upon philosophy to simply describe our grammatical practices in order to remove the confusions that come from wrongly applying rules of grammar where they do not naturally fit. The key concept here, however, is grammar, and this concept can be repurposed in a way I find harmonious with Wittgenstein and with the work of Foucault and Deleuze. It is this concept of grammar that will be central to the political theory I’ll be working on. Among many other sources, recently I’ve found inspiration in Stuart Elden’s book, The Birth of Territory, and from Geoffrey Ingham’s Nature of Money. I believe there should be some fruitful work to be done in applying my Humean insights (from this book) to this project. This blog will become a depository for rough, partially formed ideas and concepts, but as Hume and his colleagues of the polite culture of eighteenth century Scotland might have said, these rough thoughts may become more refined and polished through their encounters with others.

Deleuze on Learning and Skill

When it comes to learning, Deleuze argues that “it is so difficult to say how someone learns.” (DR 23). More dramatically, Deleuze adds, there “is something amorous – but also something fatal – about all education.” (DR 23). In learning to drive a stick shift car, for example, it is not sufficient simply to be told by the instructor to “do as I do,” or to follow the rule as they have stated and/or exemplified it in their actions. Learning is not a matter of following a rule or of doing what someone else does; to the contrary, what one encounters in learning to drive a stick shift car is the task of connecting various elements – namely, the hand, foot, clutch, accelerator, slope of the road, etc.—and of connecting them systematically so that the foot releases from the clutch right when the accelerator is being pressed, etc. Similarly in learning to swim it is a matter of establishing connections between the various parts and motions of one’s body with the resistance, currents, and buoyancy of the water. As Deleuze puts it, “To learn to swim is to conjugate the distinctive points of our bodies with the singular points of the Objective Idea in order to form a problematic field.” (DR 165)

In clarifying what Deleuze means by conjugating the distinctive points “in order to form a problematic field” will offer, I argue, what I take to be a helpful perspective from which to understand Merleau-Ponty’s example of the expert organist as well as Jason Stanley’s recent work on skill.

Continue reading

A Higher Life; or No Future Revisited

In an earlier post I argued that one way to think of Foucault’s project is as an extension of Camus’ thought, or as I put it there, as a philosophy with no future. Just as Camus sought to encourage the recognition of the absurd as a prompt to live life with more passion and consciousness of the present, so too Foucault’s project sought, through his archaeological enquiries, to unearth from the past a problem contemporaneous to our present field of experience. For both Camus and Foucault, therefore, a philosophy that has no future is not a philosophy that denies the future, or a philosophy that denies the importance and relevance of an awareness and orientation towards a future – that is, foresight – but rather it is a philosophy that subordinates the future to the concerns of the present, to a problematization (Foucault) and consciousness (Camus) of the present, for it is in the present where life unfolds, and where change begins.

This same emphasis on the present is also found in Seneca’s fifth letter to Lucilius.

Continue reading

On Sudden Death

“Rehearse this thought every day, that you may be able to depart from life contentedly; for many men clutch and cling to life, in the same way that those who are carried down a rushing stream clutch and cling to briars and sharp rocks.”   —  Seneca, Letter 4

“A free man thinks of death least of all things; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.”  — Spinoza, Ethics 4P67

“One would require a position outside of life, and yet have to know it as well as one, as many, as all who have lived it, in order to be permitted even to touch the problem of the value of life; reasons enough to comprehend that this problem is for us an unapproachable problem.” — Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

It’s been more than ten years, but the memory is very much alive of the night my stepmother called to tell me that my father had died, suddenly, while on a run the day before he was to race in the L.A marathon. Of the many overwhelming thoughts and emotions that came upon me that night, one of the first was the realization that everything had suddenly and irreversibly changed; things, I realized, will no longer be the same. This thought was much more than an intellectual grasp and insight; it felt much more real than that. Within 24 hours I was on a plane and back home in Laguna Beach. Walking in town that beautiful March night I couldn’t help but think of how, despite the fact that my father was no longer walking the streets of Laguna, the moon and stars that lit up the night sky were the same as the night before and will continue to be the same long after I succumb to the same fate as my father, the night sky being implacable and unaffected by the changes that affect our lives. It is no wonder the Ancients referred to the night sky as the heavenly sphere, the eternal realm distinct from the earthly sphere of changing human affairs.

I know that my thoughts and feelings regarding my father’s death are not unusual – it is from what I can tell a very common reaction to the loss of a significant person in one’s life. My reaction is also probably not unique to sudden deaths either. I had a similar reaction to my stepfather’s death from colon cancer. Although we knew his death was coming, the actual event of his death left me with a similar feeling of the transformative nature of what had happened. But there is something about sudden deaths that accentuates, or brings to an extreme, an important truth about our relation to death.

It is this truth about our relation to death that motivates, I would argue, the claims made in the quotes that lead off this post.

Continue reading

Philosophy has no future

This is cross-posted at NewAPPS

With a provocative title such as this, it is easy to imagine how the rest of the story will go. Philosophy, one will read, no longer has an effective role to play in society. One could perhaps draw on the authority of Stephen Hawking and argue, as Hawking does, that philosophy is dead and serves no purpose for it is now physics that best provides the answers to the questions that were once the focus of philosophers. The title may also lead one to anticipate the economic argument where philosophy is portrayed as being one of the most useless of the humanities degrees with the subsequent encouragement that one pursue, for the sake of their professional future, a more economically viable degree.

If either of these arguments are what the “philosophy has no future” title intends, then there are counter-arguments at the ready. With respect to the first, there is plenty of room to argue, as many have (see Laurie Paul’s essay for example), that the physics Hawking encourages presupposes a metaphysics that leaves plenty of opportunity for traditional philosophical questions to gain traction and in turn foster cooperative engagement between philosophy and science (Roberta’s excellent post along with Eric’s post on dark matter are cases in point of just such cooperation). There is also plenty of evidence to challenge the common assumption that philosophy is not a good degree to pursue in order to get a lucrative job upon graduation. Far from being a hindrance to future economic success, philosophy majors on the whole earn more than graduates with other degrees (see this story [h/t Catarina]). Philosophy majors also outperform students from other majors when it comes to standardized tests – e.g., LSAT, GRE (see this).

These counter-arguments are persuasive and as far as I’m concerned definitively undermine the two assumptions that may appear to motivate the title of this post. These assumptions, however, are not what motivated the title. What motivated it instead is not the notion that philosophy has no future because it has been displaced by competing forces that have now taken over the future that philosophy could once claim, but rather that the very attitude that philosophy ought to have such a future is itself derivative of a philosophy that has no future.

I would propose defending, to state the thesis more directly, a contemporary reworking of Camus’ philosophy of the absurd.

Continue reading

Discursive and Non-Discursive Philosophy

In his very kind and generous response to my post Eric is right that in the passages I cite from the Treatise and the Enquiry I do “not remark upon” Hume’s claims that “custom and practice…have settled the just value of everything.” My concerns in this post were to sketch the manner in which a Deleuzian metaphysics of multiplicity offers a rapprochement of Spinozist monism and a Humean affirmation of multiplicity. But since Eric is correct to point out that Hume’s comment occurs both in one of the passages I cite and yet again in his dissertation on the passions, it’s worth exploring the implications of Hume’s comments.

What Eric finds surprising in Hume’s claim is that, contrary to what Hume says, it appears that “custom and practice” will not always “produce just values in philosophy” Eric offers an example from early on in the Treatise where Hume claims that in his opinion there has arisen a “common prejudice against metaphysical reasonings of all kinds,” an opinion that can be justified only by “the most determined skepticism, along with a great degree of indolence.” For Hume this prejudice is not justified, and this is for the reason, Hume will conclude a few passages later, because “‘Tis evident, that all the sciences have a relation, greater or less, to human, nature.”

It is this relation that I’ll turn to in order to uncover what gives rise to the apparently conflicting claims that Eric finds surprising.

Continue reading