Monthly Archives: January 2011

philosophy and pedagogy

In the comments to my previous post on clarity, a number of good points were made, especially about the relevance of teaching and teachers. It seems to me that we need to emphasize more seriously the relationship between philosophy and pedagogy, and I don’t just mean the educational institutions and the threats they are under in terms of public funding, their corporatization, etc. (although these are certainly important and relevant points), but rather I mean the essential relationship between philosophy and pedagogy itself. One of the consequences of the German university reforms of the early nineteenth century was that it resulted in a split between teaching and research. This split is manifest in our very academic institutions, as we academics know all too well. We have the research one institutions where there is a reduced teaching load and where much of the teaching and student contact hours is transferred to graduate students, and then there are the universities that emphasize teaching, and where teaching loads are such that it is not expected that one would be able to produce the same type of research as a colleague at a research one institution. But even at the teaching institutions (and I teach at one of these) the split is still apparent and is integral to tenure and promotion decisions, for example, or it is reflected simply in the general attitude of professor themselves, many of whom would rather be researching than grading exams and papers.

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On Clarity

When I first heard Brian Eno’s album Another Green World I found the rhythms and musical textures so odd and disconcerting that I felt like jumping from my friend’s car. In time, however, this became one of my favorite albums, one I would listen to again and again, and I soon came to recognize why many consider Eno to be a musical genius. What happened here? Now you could say I became familiar with Eno’s music and that I began to see an inner logic, a musical sense, that first escaped my notice. But to get to this point required repeated listenings. What did I become familiar with? And what were the disconcerting layers that needed to be worked through to reveal the inner logic and sense? Hume’s answer to this question is that with repeated experience I became increasingly sensitive to differences and patterns that were initially experienced as a muddled, confused mess. With a developed and refined ‘delicacy’ of taste and imagination, Hume argues that one’s taste can be affected by subtle differences that are missed by others for whom what is present is ‘all mixed up with other such qualities, so that one can’t pick out all the particular flavours from the jumble in which they are presented.’ There are thus qualities in the work of art, according to Hume, that prompts pleasant feelings, feelings that may, on many occasions, only be accessible to one with finely tuned perceptual capacities – in short, to one that has the power to be affected by this music, a power others may lack.

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paradox of expressibility

The paradox of expressibility is quite simple – it involves saying what cannot be said. For Priest, much of twentieth-century philosophy, and especially the best of twentieth-century philosophy, the philosophy and philosophers that have truly plumbed the depths and limits of expression, has for this very reason ended up within the paradox of expressibility, though usually without embracing it if not outright avoiding it (which inevitably leads to another paradox). From Frege to Derrida, and for most of the philosophers in between, this is how things have gone. Take Frege, for instance. In his landmark essays, ‘Function and Concept’, ‘On Sense and Reference’, and ‘On Concept and Object’, Frege modifies the traditional subject-predicate distinction by differentiating instead between a name, which extends beyond the traditional understanding of subject in that it now includes noun-phrases that may appear within the predicate phrase itself; and concept-expression which replaces the traditional use of the term predicate, which is ‘what is left,’ as Priest puts it, ‘when the names are deleted from a sentence.’ Priest gives the example, ‘Oswald was framed for the murder of Kennedy,’ where ‘Oswald’ and ‘the murder of Kennedy’ are names and ‘was framed for’ is a concept-expression. Where difficulties enter the scene is when Frege differentiates between sense (sinn) and reference (bedeutung). The reference or denotation of a sentence or a statement, which includes both a name and a concept-expression, is its truth-value. The reference of a name for Frege is an object, and for a concept-expression it is a concept. The sense is that which enables us to determine which truth-value, object, or concept is the correct referent. The problem arises when we name a concept, using an expression such as ‘the concept “horse”’ to denote the concept we have in mind. Since a concept is not an object, for Frege, but is rather a function which allows us to map an object to a truth-value, the question then is: how can we name a concept? What concept enables us to correctly map our name to the concept named? And so on. Frege was aware of his predicament, and Priest cites Frege on this point:

By a kind of necessity of language, my expressions, taken literally, sometimes miss my thought: I mention an object when I intend a concept. I fully realize that in such cases I was relying on the reader who would be ready to meet me half-way – who does not begrudge a pinch of salt.

It’s game, set, match for Priest at this point, and the pattern is set for the analyses to follow. In his analyses of Wittgenstein (both of the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations), Quine, Davidson, Heidegger, and Derrida, Priest argues that each in the end will paradoxically tell us a lot about what can not be told. Wittgenstein will say a lot about what we cannot say but can only show; Quine very clearly and with great precision of reference undermines the very notion of reference and determinacy; Davidson argues that ‘true-in-English’ is not expressible in English despite the fact that Davidson expresses it with the phrase ‘true-in-English’; and Derrida, finally, has a lot to say about the inexpressibility of différance.

This quick summary is not meant as a defense of Priest’s arguments. I would be interested to hear what people make of his claims concerning Frege, Heidegger, etc. But as Priest himself admits, he is not interested in an exegesis that will necessarily sway scholars who have devoted their entire professional careers to the study of Heidegger for example. Priest’s point is to highlight the pattern he sees, the paradox that arises at the limit of expression; and the fact that this paradox arises among thinkers as diverse as Frege, Quine, Derrida, Heidegger, and Nagarjuna is evidence for Priest that there is something going on.

What I’m interested in is with the something that is going on, for I take there to be something ontological going on, a paradox at the heart of reality. In Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos and in my earlier book The Problem of Difference I argue much along these lines, adopting Deleuze as my ally for in Deleuze we find one who repeatedly affirms certain paradoxes. One merely need look through the table of contents to Logic of Sense to discover the importance of paradox in Deleuze’s thought – the first two chapters on becoming and surface effects are about the paradoxes of each, and these set the stage for the remaining discussions of the book. This is not to say that Deleuze and Priest are of the same mind. Priest sets out to incorporate the ‘true contradictions’ that arise at the limits of thought and expression into a broader and more encompassing logic, what he calls dialetheism; whereas Deleuze on my view is more interested in affirming the paradox at the ontological level, at the level of becoming and process rather than at the level of logic. It is interesting that Priest ends his book with a chapter on Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna is significant for Priest (and presumably for Jay Garfield with whom Priest wrote this chapter) because he affirmed an ontological paradox. Agreed. This is important and ought to be stressed. But then they argue that what Nagarjuna is doing here in affirming an ontological paradox ‘is quite distinctive, and to our knowledge is found nowhere else.’ (269). Now there are no doubt aspects of Nagarjuna’s thought that are distinctive and are not to be found in the western tradition – such as the use of the tetralemma – but if my reading of Deleuze is correct then Nagarjuna is not alone in affirming an ontological paradox.

the nondenumerable

The work of Graham Priest and Gilles Deleuze (and Félix Guattari) converge in significant ways on the concept of the nondenumerable.

Turning to Priest first, and to his Beyond the Limits of Thought especially, one finds in this book an interesting history of philosophy, and one with a particular narrative at work; namely, he uncovers numerous contradictions that are encountered as certain unthinkable limits to thought become the subject of thought itself (e.g., primary substance for Aristotle, God for Cusanus, the noumenon for Kant, among other examples). In the history of thought prior to Hegel, according to Priest, these contradictions were largely denied, primarily through a denial of the very limits that gave rise to them. But with Hegel there is an open recognition and affirmation of the contradictory nature of the limits of thought. It is for this reason that Priest claims that the ‘chapter on Hegel [in Beyond the Limits of Thought] is therefore the lynch-pin of the book.’ (7).

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4 minute mile

In the first paragraph of his Beyond the Limits of Thought, Graham Priest notes that we have long speculated about limits, limits that may be unknown but are known to be there nonetheless. ‘For example,’ Priest claims, ‘we can only guess what the limit time for running a mile is; but we know that there is a limit, set by the velocity of light, if not by many more mundane things.’ For the longest time, the 4-minute mile was thought to be such a limit time. From 1852 to 1954 race times slowly crept down from 4:28 to 4:01.3 by Gunder Hagg in 1945. It was nearly 10 years later when, on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister ran a time of 3:59.4. Here’s the race, with commentary by Bannister.

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Geology and Second Nature

In Mind and World McDowell describes Gareth Evans’s ‘master thought’ as follows:

Frege’s notion of sense, which Frege introduces in terms of modes of presentation, can accommodate the sorts of connection between thinkers and particular objects that have been recognized to make trouble for the generalized Theory of Descriptions. 106.

A consequence of this ‘master thought,’ as McDowell reads Evans, is that ‘the right gloss on “conceptual” is not “predicative” but “belonging to the realm of Fregean sense”.’ I agree that this point is extremely important. In the appendix to Mind and World, McDowell offers clarification that draws out the importance I see in the implications of Evans’s ‘master thought’. McDowell there argues that ‘The realm of sense (Sinn) contains thoughts in the sense of what can be thought (thinkables) as opposed to acts or episodes of thinking.’ Up to this point the Fregean theory of sense is much in line with Husserl’s theory of the noema. The noema as Husserl understands it, including the perceptual noema as I argue in The Problem of Difference, is not to be confused with ‘acts or episodes of thinking,’ including perceptual acts, nor is it to be confused with the objects that are thought about, the objects that consciousness is consciousness of to stick with the Husserlian way of putting it. Deleuze himself will stress this Husserlian theory of sense, noting how the noema is neutral with respect to subjective acts on the one hand and states of affairs in the world on the other; moreover, as Deleuze will go on to point out, it is precisely the noema that makes possible the relationship between subjective acts and the world, it is what puts them into relationship with one another, or as Deleuze will also put it: it is the relationship that is external to the terms. Graham Harman has rightly stressed this aspect of Husserl’s thought, and in his hands he extends Husserl’s understanding of the noema as a noematic correlate or object in order to explain how withdrawn objects can come into communication with one another – they do so by way of another object, e.g., the noema. McDowell’s reading of Evans’s ‘master thought’ is much in line with this Husserlian point; however, as McDowell goes on the problematic reading of Frege occurs when sense is taken to be an object, and here McDowell would break sharply from the Husserlian account, as does Deleuze for whom sense is not an object but an event (more on this below). For McDowell ‘objects belong in the realm of reference (Bedeutung), not the realm of sense,’ for it is only in the realm of sense where, on McDowell’s Fregean view, ‘thought and reality meet.’

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