On Garlic and Magnets

garlic-rawHaving 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.

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Hume’s Political Theory (Part 3 of 3)


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).

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Hume’s Political Theory (Part 2 of 3)

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)

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Foucault and Wittgenstein




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.

On Sudden Death

“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.

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Philosophy has no future

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.

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Befriending Thought

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.

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Strange Encounters II

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.

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Back from NewAPPS

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.

Degrees of Difference and Working Façades

This is cross-posted from NewAPPS (where I’ve been posting for a while, though I may begin posting more here)

John’s nice post has reminded me of the importance of repetitive series for Deleuze (an issue I also discuss here). Picking up on John’s discussion of the perception of colors, series play an important role in attempting to accounting for our use of predicates: in short, Deleuze will often place predicates within the context of a series of predicates – e.g., shades of blue. This pattern is most obvious in Deleuze’s Logic of Sense, where each chapter is titled “First Series of…” “Second Series of…” etc.… But why series?

Two short answers, which I’ll expand on below the fold: 1) a series of differences is precisely what provides, in good Spinozist fashion, the principle of sufficient reason for determinate phenomena; and 2) series in turn provide the metaphysics science needs.

Let us take a simple series of phenomena, E, E, E, E, etc. … Let us also assume there is no difference between the elements of the series. For Deleuze, however, each element, as an identifiable, determinate phenomenon, refers “to an inequality by which it is conditioned.” (DR 222). Thus every extrinsically distinct element presupposes an intensive difference, what Deleuze will call an “intensive quantum” (DI 88), and thus in the series E, E, E, E …, E itself presupposes the intensive quantum e-e’, and the element e presupposes ε-ε’, and so on ad infinitum. Deleuze will call this “state of infinitely doubled difference which resonates to infinity disparity,” which he then adds is “the sufficient reason of all phenomena, the condition of that which appears.” (DR 222; emphasis mine). One can picture this “state of infinitely doubled difference” by way of the graphs of Feigenbaum’s constant where functions approach chaos through period doubling:


Returning to the use of predicates, this difference or disparity that is the “sufficient reason of all phenomena” does not inhere in phenomena as their predicate, nor even as a separate or separable element, but it is rather the particularity of each element taken to the limit, or what Deleuze will call a “concrete universal.” For example, if we take a series of colors such as the several shades of blue one might find on a paint sample card at a hardware store, our tendency is indeed to consider each of these individual colors as a “shade of blue.” In other words, each particular color is differentiated from one another by a matter of degrees from one general color, blue, with these degrees running the spectrum from high to low saturation. Deleuze, however, argues that this is wrong. Following through on Bergson’s discussion of Revaisson (see DI 43), the universal is not an abstract concept distinct from each particular shade of blue, in which case we have an external difference, or a difference between the shades made possible by virtue of a universal that is external to them and of which they are varying degrees or shades. To the contrary, the concrete universal is the infinitely doubled difference that resonates and inheres within each appearing shade. In the case of a particular shade of blue, this concrete universal is “white light,” or it is the infinitely doubled difference (the far right of the above graph) that “makes the difference come out between the shades”; or,

…the different colors are no longer objects under a concept, but nuances or degrees of the concept itself. Degrees of difference itself, and not differences of degree. White light is still a universal, but a concrete universal, which gives us an understanding of the particular because it is the far end of the particular… (DI 43)

One can find further evidence for Deleuze’s metaphysics in Mark Wilson’s essay “Theory Façades,” (which can be gotten here) and in his subsequent book Wandering Significance. Wilson provides numerous examples, and with dizzying detail, to argue that throughout “scientific work” one finds that what is put to work in the effort to provide theoretical directives are “sheets of doctrine that do not truly cohere into unified doctrine in their own rights, but can merely appear as if they do if the qualities of their adjoining edges are not scrutinized scrupulously.” (“TF” p. 273) What may work well at one level and scale may begin to fail at a more detailed and enhanced level of description. As Wilson puts this in Wandering Significance,

…as our everyday descriptive terms become pressed to higher standards of accuracy or performance, as commonly occurs within industry or science, a finer and more perplexing grain of conflicting opinion begins to display itself within our applications of “hardness,” “force” and even “red.” (p. 7)

Put in the Deleuzian terms discussed above, the effort to produce accurate descriptions of phenomena encounters, with the increasing demands of more detailed and nuanced analysis, the substantive multiplicity or concrete universal that is the sufficient reason for the phenomena being described. The result is the failure of descriptive terms as these terms get pushed towards increasing particularity of detail; in short, as they are pushed toward the concrete universal that is “the far end of the particular.” (DI 43). What happens, Wilson argues, in our attempts to maintain “inferential headway” in the face of the difficulties that arise as the level of particularity increases, is that we often find it easier “to decompose the system’s overall behavior into descriptive fragments where the intractable complexities of the full problem become locally reduced to more tractable terms.” (TF pp. 273-4). Wilson offers the example of what happens when we attempt to use applied mathematics to understand the formation of spray on “the surface of a choppy ocean.” (WS p. 210, as are subsequent quotes). If the ocean is modeled as a continuous fluid, the partial differential equations will provide accurate descriptions to a point, but then it fails to track the phenomena for the equations continue “to plot an attached blob that never relinquishes its absurdly elongated umbilical tie to the mother ocean.” To offset this poor description, one solution is to run the model with an already detached blob that then separates from the ocean. This provides for a good description where the continuous model does not, but then the description is poor where the continuous model’s was good. If we combine the two models together, we can overlap them such that it provides a good description for the entire process. While this may be effective at providing an accurate description, Wilson argues that what is going on here is an exercise in “physics avoidance in that we do not directly describe the molecular processes that lead to drop separation, but merely cover the relevant region with an interpolating patch.” In other words, there is a repressed difference or boundary between the two patches that is then mistakenly held to be a unified account of water separation when it is not. Wilson is not arguing that no account of the water separation is possible. His argument is that an adequate account of the boundary where the different patches converge may well entail a complex mathematics beyond our ken at this point. As a result, and due largely to impatience, we are often tempted, Wilson claims, “to pretend as if our façade patchwork provides a wholly adequate descriptive framework solely on its own terms…” (TF 275)

Wilson’s point, however, and this is just what one would expect given the Deleuzian metaphysics and its use of the PSR, is that however detailed and nuanced the theoretical and mathematical description might be, there are underlying differences that subvert them as the level of description pushes to the “far end of the particular.” In other words, substantive multiplicity (or concrete universal) may be the sufficient reason for every phenomena, but it is also the reason our mathematical equations and theories which track phenomena will forever flirt with, and be challenged by the intensive differences that fail to be explicated and hence modeled by their equations. Wilson makes a very similar point in the early pages of Wandering Significance, and one quite in line with reading of Deleuze’s metaphysics offered here. Wilson argues that,

The main consideration that drives the argument of the book is the thesis that the often quirky behaviors of ordinary descriptive predicates derive, not merely from controllable human inattention or carelesseness, but from a basic unwillingness of the physical universe to sit still while we frame its descriptive picture. (WS 11)