reculer pour mieux sauter

Whether knowingly drawing from Nietzsche’s claim or not, from Human All-too-Human, which asserts that ‘He who strays from tradition becomes a sacrifice to the extraordinary; he who remains in tradition is its slave. Destruction follows in any case’, David Lewis’s advice to his then graduate student, Robert Brandom, was that to carry the tradition forward one needed to go back to tradition, and more precisely to its first principles. To jump forward one needs to back up and get a running start (and somewhere Nietzsche says much the same thing though I can’t find the quote)–hence, ‘reculer pour mieux sauter.’ As Brandom summarizes Lewis’s advice, he claims that

The way to understand some region of pure philosophical terrain is for each investigator to state a set of principles as clearly as she could, and then rigorously to determine what follows from them, what they rule out, and how one might argue for or against them. (Tales of the Mighty Dead, 114-15).

If I am going to understand Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, or Deleuze; or the Federalist Papers, the pragmatists, and perhaps even analytic philosophy more generally; the key in each case is to determine the guiding, predetermining principles that can account for what is said. This is how Brandom seeks to balance the de dicto and de re readings of the philosophical tradition. The de dicto readings are to be limited in their interpretations only to what a particular author is committed to as is evidenced by what they have written, and more generally to what they have read and to the problems and concerns of their intellectual milieux. The de re readings base interpretations upon what are taken to be true principles and facts that may or may not be acknowledged by a de dicto reading of a given text. Once one has backed up and found the principle or set of principles that best accounts for much of what can be found within the works of a given philosopher or a certain ‘philosophical terrain’,  one then deduces the conclusions that follow from these principles, regardless of whether or not the actual, de dicto conclusions one actually finds in the texts are in line with these conclusions or not. Brandom’s historical essays in The Tales of the Mighty Dead are quite faithful to Lewis’s advice, and he applies this methodology to his readings of Spinoza, Leibniz, Hegel, Frege, Heidegger, and Sellars, drawing along the way a number of interesting conclusions. Brandom’s leap into these texts thus involves quite a running start.

As much as I am attracted to Lewis’s advice for doing intellectual history, I find that it is only half the story. First, and most importantly, it seems to me that creative philosophical work does not begin with a set of first principles from which one then deduces their conclusions. Brandom would probably agree with this claim; after all, he refers to his reading of the tradition as an exercise in ‘reconstructive metaphysics’. But the implication nonetheless is that despite the perhaps wanton creative process associated with a philosophical endeavor, there is nonetheless a set of guiding principles that illuminates the true significance of the project, even if only after the fact (as if such principles were the unconscious directives of what is written). Such an approach is integral to identifying the critical moves in a philosophical argument, or in determining the essential relations between key components of one’s thought; however, such identifications only actualize the processes associated with the philosophical developments of a position, and the continuing and ongoing transformations of this/these position(s). What is overlooked, and this is the other half of the story, are the concepts that philosophers create. A philosophical concept cannot be reduced to a predetermining set of principles; moreover, a philosophical concept cannot even avoid giving rise to contradictions, or to intellectual mitosis as was discussed in an earlier post. I may be over-generous, but the Lewisean/Brandomian approach is indeed an important after the fact way to set forth a discursive account of the inferential premises and conclusions of a particular philosophical argument/position, but to become truly creative such an approach needs to encounter problems that resist such a reduction to principles; and for this reason, and others besides, philosophical concepts are not to be confused with first principles.

Spinoza, appetites, and inferentialism

Appetite, as Spinoza makes clear, is nothing but our striving to persevere in our being, and this striving, “as related to the mind and body together, it is called appetite” (3P9S). As related to our body, therefore, our appetite is the striving to persevere in a given proportion of motion and rest. Spinoza refers to this striving as the “actual essence of the thing” (3P7), as opposed to the formal essence of the thing which is “the essence of each thing insofar as it exists and produces an effect, having no regard to its duration” (4Preface). The formal essence, or our proportion of motion and rest, is independent of its duration in the face of external objects, objects which could, if they caused our body to lose this proportion, kill the body (Note Spinoza’s claim, in the Short Treatise (I/53): ‘…if other bodies act on ours with such force that the proportion of motion and rest cannot remain 1 to 3 [for example], that is death, and a destruction of the soul…’). The formal essence of the body is the idea of the body as comprehended under the attribute of extension, in contrast to the actual essence of the body that has durational existence. Understood in the context of other bodies, that is actually rather than formally, our striving to maintain the proportion of motion and rest is a striving in the face of external differences (that is, other objects). One of the functions or effects of our appetites, therefore, is to select against excessive differences, to filter and navigate relations in order to ‘maintain the proportion of motion and rest’. Such a selection process is simply part and parcel of the striving to persevere in one’s own being with its proportion of motion and rest. God, on the other hand, as absolutely indeterminate, self-caused substance is the infinite enjoyment of existing that is the affirmation of all differences, or as what Deleuze refers to in Spinoza’s Ethics as the ‘logic of purely affirmative difference and without negation.’ Since God is not absolutely indeterminate substance in potentia, but in actu, and because God does not have to select against difference (i.e., there is nothing lacking in God), God is the most perfect being. Finite and determinate beings, however, must select against difference if they are to persevere in their being. This is its appetite, its proper goal and end. At the same time, however, it is not clear what differences we must select against, or how much we can endure and still persevere in our being in the face of differences.  It is not known in advance what a body can do. Consequently, through processes of experimentation and learned association we can become more perfect; that is, the more difference we do not have to select against, the more perfect we become; and it is in this light that Spinoza argues, in 3P12, for the existence of ideas that “aid the body’s power of acting.” By arguing for the effectiveness of such ideas, Spinoza is not being inconsistent with his earlier claims that the “decisions of the mind are nothing but the appetites.” To the contrary, the decisions of the mind which aid the body’s acting by selecting against difference, or by reducing difference to a common, known form, is nothing but the appetite itself, or our striving to persevere in our being.

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