Hi all. Just to let you know, my blog has moved to my new website: jeffreyabell.net
In my forthcoming book, An Inquiry into Analytic-Continental Metaphysics: Truth, Relevance, and Reality, I begin with four classic problems in metaphysics. The book unfolds from here, drawing from analytic and continental philosophers along the way, as I develop a metaphysics of problems, inspired by the work of Gilles Deleuze, to address these classic problems in metaphysics. I post the four problems here as a point for possible discussion, and as a basis for blog posts to come.
§1 Problem of the New
What is new, truly new? If we say that some event or phenomenon, A, is truly new, then by what criterion do we make this claim? The most immediate answer appears to be that what is new is unlike anything that preceded it, or there are no phenomena or events prior to A that include or harbor A, for if they did then A would not be truly new but would be simply the explication of what was already implicitly present. The problem of the new may therefore not even be a problem. One could echo the sentiments expressed in the book of Ecclesiastes and resign oneself to the view that ‘what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiates 1:9 New International Version). If one does accept that there can be something that is truly novel, a reality irreducible to what has preceded it, then we have other problems that come along when one accepts this.Continue reading
Only an expert can see there’s a problem
And see the problem is half the problem
And only an expert can deal with the problem
Only an expert can deal with the problemLaurie Anderson – “Only an Expert“
Having recently read James Williams’ most recent blog post, another excellent post as usual (this one is on Deleuze’s Timed Logic), I was inspired to resurrect my own blog from neglect. This post also reminded me of Laurie Anderson. Although I was a big fan of her early work (U.S.A. Live and Big Science), I hadn’t followed her recently, and hadn’t heard her song, “Only an Expert,” until James mentioned it in his post. It is particularly relevant given the problems in the world, but more importantly given the problem of how to deal with problems, of how to identify, address, or work with problems. Laurie Anderson notes the challenge of needing experts to identify problems but also using experts as a cover to ignore problems right before us – “The person who’s part of the 60% of the U.S. population / 1.3 weeks away, 1.3 paychecks away from a shelter / In other words a person with a problem.” This is an issue I take up in two books I recently finished, and these books are also why I have not posted in a couple years or more. I’ve been putting all of my writing energies into these books. They are both on the nature of problems, drawing from Deleuze, Plato, and the existential tradition, among many other people. The first, An Inquiry into Analytic-Continental Metaphysics, develops a metaphysics of problems to tackle some central problems in metaphysics–the problem of the new, the problem of the one and many, the problem of relations, and the problem of the new. I draw indiscriminately from both analytic and continental philosophers as I develop the arguments in support of the notion of problematic Ideas. The second book, Towards a Critical Existentialism, applies the metaphysics of problems to issues in social and political thought, showing how existentialism is relevant to thinking through the nature of problems.
In the posts I’ll be working on here I’ll lay out some of the arguments from my two books by plugging them in to what I’m reading at the moment. I may also just throw out new thoughts and problems that may or may not get legs. These will be rough drafts of ideas, incipient problems, or my digressions and impressions as Eric Schliesser might say, that I note along my intellectual path. Next up will be a post on a book I’m reading recommended by John Protevi – Habeus Viscus, by Alexander Weheliye. Weheliye adopts Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of assemblages and explores what he calls racializing assemblages. Along the way there are some important criticisms of Agamben and Foucault, and their argument also has resonance with the manner in which I understand the nature of problems. I’ll spend the next few posts thinking about race and problems.
Having 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.
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).
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.