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)
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.
“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.