“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.
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.
If the lesson of Seneca’s first letter to Lucilius is to recognize, in light of the fact that we are “dying daily,” that our time is precious (see this post), the second letter cautions Lucilius to avoid what is no doubt a likely consequence of this recognition: namely, the conclusion that we ought to hurry up and live intensely and in haste for there is precious little time. This is the opposite of how we are to live if we are to live to our “purpose” (Letter 1). For Seneca to live in such haste, to hurry about from place to place, person to person, and book to book, “is the sign of a disordered spirit.” The key is for one to “remain in one place and linger in one’s own company,” be content with a few friends, and read just a “limited number of master-thinkers.” Hurrying about from place to place, person to person, text to text, may give one a vast number of acquaintances but no friends, and yet if we are to live to our purpose and fulfill “today’s task” (Letter 1), we will become a friend to ourselves, persons, and texts. In short, and most importantly, we will become a friend to thought.
As I concluded the previous post, I argued that the Deleuzian extension of Hume’s project entailed both the affirmation of monism (Spinoza) and multiplicity (Hume). This point is made crystal clear in A Thousand Plateaus when Deleuze and Guattari announce that “pluralism = monism” (ATP, p. 2; see this earlier post where I discuss this theme in the context of William James’ radical empiricism). This effort to bring Hume and Spinoza together, however, is fraught with difficulty, or at least apparently so, in a philosophical landscape that has been forever altered by Kant’s project. Since Kant was woken from his dogmatic slumber, Hume and Spinoza have come to be rethought, if rethought at all, in the context of the conditions for the possibility of experience. In the case of Hume, this has largely led his philosophy to be read as a project in epistemology. Hume comes to be seen as a precursor of a Bayesian epistemology whereby knowledge comes to be constituted through a process of induction that constitutes degrees of belief. Spinoza, at worst, is thrown into the refuse pile of philosophical dogmatists, one of the philosophers who accepted, without question, that guarantees of our knowledge. Spinoza, in fact, goes much further than either Descartes and Leibniz in that while they accept God as the unquestioned guarantor of our knowledge of the world (Descartes) as well as the harmony of the world itself (Leibniz), God remains inaccessible and unknowable; Spinoza, by contrast, argues in the last half of Part 5 of the Ethics that even God can be known.
To state the contrast between Spinoza the dogmatist and Hume the skeptic, one could say that Spinoza presupposes the identity that grounds knowledge while Hume argues that this identity comes to be constituted. Husserl remarked upon this aspect of Hume’s thought, and it is for this reason that I have argued for a Humean phenomenology (see this). So how then can one bring Hume and Spinoza together? Put simply, through a rethinking of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR). And this brings me back to the issue that in part spawned the New Hume debate – to wit, Hume’s claim that the “particular powers, by which all natural operations are performed” are powers that provide the reason for the regularities of nature but these powers “never appear to the senses.” What are these powers? The simple answer to this question is that these are the laws of nature that are the subject of natural science, and it is precisely the nature of these powers that are revealed, over time, through the process of scientific enquiry. We could say that this is a scientific explanation of facts. That which appears to the senses, therefore, would bring in our mental faculties and the epistemological problems of how we come to know the “particular powers” of nature. With this we have an epistemological explanation, and form here we are not too far from the Bayesian epistemology mentioned above.
After a good couple of years posting at NewAPPS, although less and less frequently of late, I’ve decided to return to my own blog as the site where I’ll put up some of the ideas and concepts I’m working on, opening them up for discussion and hopefully helpful feedback. Although I’ve greatly enjoyed being associated with NewAPPS – NewAPPS has done and will continue to do great things to help improve the philosophy profession – it is no longer the appropriate place for me to have the freedom to put forth the tentative, experimental thoughts and ideas that I find myself working on at the moment. As a result I’ll now be posting here on a more regular basis and I welcome whatever comments anyone might have.
What I’m working on at the moment, and what one might expect to see in the way of posts in the short term, is a Deleuzian metaphysics of problems. I’ve just given a few talks in Australia on this subject and will churn out a few posts drawn from these talks. In short, I’ll be attempting to lay out the metaphysical presuppositions that were at play in my Deleuze’s Hume book, especially as this book draws upon the concept of historical ontology. This concept, I must admit, was not as fully developed as it could have been, and this largely because I needed to come to grips with the metaphysics this concept presupposes. I was concerned with other problems in Deleuze’s Hume and historical ontology, along with Latour’s notion of “relative existence,” helped me to address and respond to them. It’s now time to focus on the metaphysics historical ontology entails, and that’s what I’ll be up to now. I’ll also probably write some posts on Seneca, Nagarjuna, and other writers I’ve long had an interest in and whose thought I’d like to clarify for myself without the need to produce a perfect, publishable piece. I may be following in the footsteps of Eric Schliesser’s Seneca posts as I venture down that path, but that’s neither a bad path nor are those bad footsteps to follow.
The Fifth International Deleuze Studies Conference in New Orleans now has its own website – http://deleuze2012.com