In his second letter to Lucilius (discussed here), Seneca encourages him to linger over the texts of “master-thinkers” and “select one [thought] to be thoroughly digested that day.” (Letter 2). We are to befriend thought rather than be merely an acquaintance of thought. Yet the question arose as to how best to determine which thoughts to befriend. How do we select our thought for the day? In Letter 3 we begin to get an answer to this question when Seneca challenges Lucilius for his use of the term “friend.” When Lucillius had a friend – “as you call him” Seneca adds – deliver a letter to Seneca, Lucilius goes on in the next sentence to warn Seneca “not to discuss with him all the matters that concern you, saying that even you yourself are not accustomed to do this.” Seneca’s conclusion: “in the same letter [you have] affirmed and denied that he is your friend.” A true friend is one with whom we share everything. As Seneca puts it, “I would have you discuss everything with a friend; but first of all discuss the man [friend; jb] himself” (ipso prius).
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.
To begin with Seneca and take on board the problems that motivated his philosophical writings, we can start with the concluding paragraph of his first letter to Lucilius. The paragraph begins with the question: “What is the state of things, then?” to which Seneca answers that we are not to “regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him,” and then he directly advises Lucilius “to keep what is really yours.” The problem then for Seneca is a problem of loss, and of keeping and having enough, and that which can and is most frequently lost and which we seem never to have enough of, and yet which is most ours, is time. “Nothing, Lucilius,” Seneca urges, “is ours, except time.” This problem, however, is a substantial problem, a problem of substance and being (ousia), and connected to this problem is a relationship to time, to that which belongs to us more than anything else, and yet it is time that is least appreciated and most frequently lost. Thus the subject of Seneca’s first letter is to caution Lucilius to be wary of the ease with which we lose time, and hence lose ourselves.
Since much of the impetus for Deleuze’s approach to the PSR stems from a critique of representation, I thought it would be good to post a quick summary of this critique. In short, Deleuze argues that for representational modes of thought difference is always mediated by an already presupposed identity, when it is precisely the conditions for the possibility of identity itself that most concerns Deleuze. The mediation of representation by identity occurs in four ways, what Deleuze calls the “fourfold root” (see DR 29): namely, identity, analogy, opposition, and resemblance.
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.
One of my favorite passages from Hume actually occurs twice – in the Treatise and the Enquiry. This is the passage where Hume offers up the example of the man with normally functioning faculties who is suddenly placed into a strange, unfamiliar environment. This is the lesson Hume draws from this thought experiment:
For ‘tis evident, that if a person full-grown, and of the same nature with ourselves, were on a sudden transported into our world, he wou’d be very much embarrass’d with every object, and would not readily find what degree of love or hatred, pride or humility, or any other passion he ought to attribute to it. The passions are often vary’d by very inconsiderable principles; and these do not always play with a perfect regularity, especially on the first trial. But as custom and practice have brought to light all these principles, and have settled the just value of every thing; this must certainly contribute to the easy production of the passions, and guide us, by means of general establish’d maxims, in the proportions we ought to observe in preferring one object to another. (T 2.1.6, 293-4)
In the Enquiry Hume slightly modifies the example:
Suppose a person, though endowed with the strongest faculties of reason and reflection, to be brought on a sudden into this world; he would, indeed, immediately observe a continual succession of objects, and one event following another, but he would not be able to discover any thing farther. He would not, at first, by any reasoning, be able to reach the idea of cause and effect; since the particular powers, by which all natural operations are performed, never appear to the senses; nor is it reasonable to conclude, merely because one event, in one instance, precedes another, that therefore the one is the cause, the other the effect. Their conjunction may be arbitrary and casual. There may be no reason to infer the existence of one from the appearance of the other. And in a word, such a person, without more experience, could never employ his conjecture or reasoning concerning any matter of fact, or be assured of any thing beyond what was immediately present to his memory and senses. (EHU 36).
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.