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Speculative Realism Breaks Out, Breaks Philosophy?
November 17, 2009 7:25 PM   Subscribe

Since the Goldsmith's Conference of 2007 (which saw the formal embrace of the name), the movement known as Speculative Realism has, by some accounts, "revivified" philosophy. Led by the young philosophers Ray Brassier and Quentin Meillasoux, the movement is becoming known for its two-pronged critique of both the continental and analytic philosophical traditions. Speaking crudely, the goal is to fashion a "transcendental materialism" that puts the continental tradition in a better position to engage with the evolving insights of experimental science (particularly cognitive science, biology, and physics), while revising the analytical tradition's tendency to a "scientistic" and "naive" materialism. On the whole the philosophy tries to be less human-centric, acknowledging a world indifferent to human knowing and human being, while still acknowledging the problem of epistemic contingency. Brassier is also a leading proponent or investigator of nihilism, which will please Big Lebowski fans.

A good place to start for those serious about understanding SR is Brassier's 2001 dissertation (PDF). Unfortunately, the two major books known to develop the ideas of SR, Meillasoux's After Finitude and Brassier's Nihil Unbound, are available only in hardback, the latter a 60 dollar behemoth. But the paperback of After Finitude will be released in December. A lecture by Brassier on Heidegger, Deleuze, and the "philosophy of access" is also available on Youtube (1 2 3 4 5 6). Graham Harman and Iain Hamilton Grant were also important figures at the Goldsmiths conference. Harman's Tool Being and Guerilla Metaphysics, as well as Grant's Philosophies of Nature After Schelling are another way into understanding what the Speculative Realists are after. Or, if you prefer a less conventional point of entry, try Reza Negarestani's Cyclonopedia, which is described by the publisher as "at once a horror fiction, a work of speculative theology, an atlas of demonology, a political samizdat and a philosophic grimoire..."

The movement is also known for its embrace of blogs, including Speculative Heresy, Accursed Share, Planomenology, Naught Thought, and still other philosophy and science studies blogs are abuzz with posts about the movement (Larval Subjects, Anthem). The journal COLLAPSE (whose back issues are available online in PDF form) is something of an official organ of the movement, and it is remarkable for its openness to non-traditional and non-academic authors. People as varied as the mathematician Greg Chaitin and the "new weird" novelist China Mieville have had essays published there.
posted by macross city flaneur (79 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite

 
The COLLAPSE link is broken.

--


Harman’s ‘object-oriented metaphysics’ (outlined in Tool Being, 2002 and Guerilla Metaphysics, 2007) argued that the world is made up of ‘entities with specific qualities, autonomous from us and from each other’

While I am sure this is a serious and important philosophical idea not to be dismissed with superficial snark, I cannot help but wonder if this means that in 2030 we will be hearing about "agile metaphysics" or "extreme pondering".
posted by idiopath at 7:38 PM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


For me, it's Kant or nothing.

No, seriously, this is an interesting post and I look forward to digging through the links.
posted by double block and bleed at 7:40 PM on November 17, 2009


Sorry about the missing COLLAPSE link. You can find it here.
posted by macross city flaneur at 7:43 PM on November 17, 2009


"The thesis tries to define and explain the rudiments of a ‘non-philosophical’
or ‘non-decisional’ theory of materialism on the basis of a theoretical
framework provided by the ‘non-philosophy’ of François Laruelle. Neither
anti-philosophical nor anti-materialist in character, non-materialism tries to
construct a rigorously transcendental theory of matter by using certain instances
of philosophical materialism as its source material.
The materialist decision to identify the real with matter is seen to retain a
structural isomorphy with the phenomenological decision to identify the real
with the phenomenon. Both decisions are shown to operate on the basis of a
methodological idealism:- materialism on account of its confusion of matter and
concept; phenomenology by virtue of its confusion of phenomenon and logos.
By dissolving the respectively ‘materiological’ and ‘phenomenological’
amphibolies which are the result of the failure to effect a rigorously
transcendental separation between matter and concept on the one hand, and
between phenomenon and logos on the other, non-materialist theory proposes to
mobilise the non-hybrid or non-decisional concepts of a ‘matter-withoutconcept’
and of a ‘phenomenon-without-logos’ in order to effect a unified but
non-unitary theory of phenomenology and materialism. The result is a
materialisation of thinking that operates according to matter’s foreclosure to
decision. That is to say, a transcendental theory of the phenomenon, licensing
limitless phenomenological plasticity, unconstrained by the apparatus of eidetic
intuition or any horizon of apophantic disclosure;- but one which is
simultaneously a transcendental theory of matter, uncontaminated by the bounds
of empirical perception and free of all phenomenological circumscription
."

Oh, Alan Sokal, you crazy cat, when will you ever learn! *twists his nipple*
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:47 PM on November 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


I think this stuff is a neat fad, but I fail to see how this speculative realism stuff is what will break the analytic/continental divide. It is a gross simplification to say that the chasm between analytic and continental philosophy is between naive realism of the former and materialism of the latter. Analytic philosophy is by no means committed to "naive realism". It would be more accurate to describe the difference as something geographical and methodological as opposed to some cut/dry dichotomy that these new 'speculative philosophers' have managed to transcend.

Brassier's dissertation is obscure. This is continental philosophy moving onto its next fashion. I did appreciate this bit though: ‘correlationism’, the view that thought cannot have access to things-in-themselves, only to things as they appear for us. Yet I think overcoming this problem, which seems to be the major issue of post-Kantian philosophy, will not be solved by a "philosophy of access". The pragmatists addressed this long before these guys.

From the Frieze article:
"something that Harman has been doing on his own blog, where he has produced science fictional scenarios in which the future of philosophy is fought over by factions developing from the four speculative realists’ current thinking"

It seems to me that, in every culture, I come across a chapter headed "Wisdom." And then I know exactly what is going to follow: "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
posted by ageispolis at 7:55 PM on November 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


Good reading so far, especially the blogs. I always enjoy watching people apply farout theoretical concepts to stuff like Lady Gaga VMA performances.

But I'm still confused about what spec. realism is. Is it just deconstuctionism that allows that math is like, pretty cool? I got to the part about Marx and my brain shut off unfortunately.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:56 PM on November 17, 2009


This is continental philosophy moving onto its next fashion.

This.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:00 PM on November 17, 2009


This sounds kind of interesting and I can even sympathize with the general goal to some extent (I have yet to examine the quality of the arguments). However this gives one pause:

the UWE event promised to explore the differences between the four thinkers (something that Harman has been doing on his own blog, where he has produced science fictional scenarios in which the future of philosophy is fought over by factions developing from the four speculative realists’ current thinking).

Really?
posted by oddman at 8:02 PM on November 17, 2009


How does that saying go, that the fighting is so vicious in academia because the rewards are so slim?
posted by fleetmouse at 8:06 PM on November 17, 2009


"No ideas but in things."
posted by bardic at 8:09 PM on November 17, 2009


-blink blink- Well, this should be interesting to read. Just as soon as my brain isn't goo from trying to turn out Historical methods papers like a machine today.
posted by strixus at 8:15 PM on November 17, 2009


Oddman: I don't think this is that unusual in Europe actually, when I met deridda he was way into this tabletop Warhammerish miniature game which mostly about him and foucault's eldritch armies of indeterminacy smashing Karl Poppers troll brigade into nothingness. Really boring, but at least the combat rules were simple.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:18 PM on November 17, 2009 [5 favorites]


Btw, metafilter's own nasreddin has written a fair amount about S.R. on his blog.

A lot of this stuff strikes me as more polemical than philosophical; parts of Brassier's 2001 dissertation (with its use of the royal "we" and "our") in particular seem more like a manifesto. If one ignores all the theoretical fireworks, however, there are still some occasional flashes of insight. On the other hand a lot of this stuff is what gives "po-mo" philosophy its bad name.

Fwiw, the term "speculative realism" is not new; I'm pretty sure Whitehead used something like that term to describe his own philosophy.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 8:22 PM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


It sounds to me like the "movement" consists of exactly five people - the people who were involved in the Goldsmith's Conference and the subsequent event with the same personnel. The article about speculative realism in wikipedia has a section called "factions within SR" which just lists the four dudes and their positions. You say this movement "has, by some accounts, "revivified" philosophy" -- whose accounts? The dude in Frieze who is excited that these guys are talking about this stuff in blogs rather than universities?

It also sounds like the big discovery is that there's a real world out there, and it continues to be there whether we think about it or not. (And a bunch of other stuff that rehashes various pre-20th c philosophers' views.) I'm obviously not real sympathetic to the part of the continental tradition that prides itself on its opaque language, but man. If these guys are trying to back away from that kind of language, godspeed. It's very hard to distinguish from deliberate baloney.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:24 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


(though that's my crabby superficial take, and I'll leave it to others to evaluate more deeply, by ilke actually reading it.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:28 PM on November 17, 2009


"It also sounds like the big discovery is that there's a real world out there, and it continues to be there whether we think about it or not."

But I take it these guys are trying to re-define the relationship between mind and the world and up-end the traditional hierarchy of the active, vital mind and the cold, inert object.

Which is kind of interesting in relation to guys like WC Williams and Ezra Pound. But I was an English major who got bored of philosophy classes so YMMV.
posted by bardic at 8:30 PM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Posts and comments like these are why I love this place.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:54 PM on November 17, 2009


Speculative Reality sounds somewhat like Virtual Reality without the investment in hardware.
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:56 PM on November 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I'm always torn about stuff like this. On the one hand, I find the reading really interesting and it makes my brains feel all sexy and nice; on the other hand (no Moore pun intended), I can't help but be a little, "are you fucking serious, people. really."

Philosophy in general would be much improved if many of its practitioners didn't take it so very seriously. I'm guilty as any.

And as long as we're quoting Wittgenstein for good measure, "all explanations come to an end somewhere."
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:10 PM on November 17, 2009


You'll be pleased to know that Nihil Unbound is available in paperback for roughly half the price.

Or maybe you won't. I was pessimistic after reading the publisher's description: This book attempts to push nihilism to its ultimate conclusion by forging a link between revisionary naturalism in Anglo-American philosophy and anti-phenomenological realism in recent French philosophy...short-circuits both traditions by plugging eliminative materialism directly into speculative realism. ...and Brassier's dissertation has so far rewarded my expectations handsomely.

Although Brassier writes well and his stated goal is the increase of political liberation, and I appreciate that he's writing for other academic philosophers rather than a general audience, I have real doubts about the substantive weight of what I'm reading. Some of it comes across as 'dualism, oh noes' and some of it seems like a wordy restatement of Godel's incompleteness theorem. Valid though such explorations are, what political use are they if they cannot be succinctly applied to the basic questions of how to live?
posted by anigbrowl at 9:12 PM on November 17, 2009


but in all seriousness, this is a great post, thanks.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:12 PM on November 17, 2009


"Philosophy", exhorts Brassier, "would do well to desist from issuing any further injunctions about the need to re-establish the meaningfulness of existence, the purposefulness of life, or mend the shattered concord between man and nature. It should strive to be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem. Nihilism is not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity."

-- from the Wikipedia page for Mr. Brassier

This seems to dovetail neatly with the scientific philosophy of instrumentalism (not to be confused with ethical instrumentalism or the instrumentalism of Dewey or economic instrumentalism).

From what I think I understand of it, the idea of instrumentalism is that we don't need to presume access to messy things like truth or universality or questions of whether we can ever really experience some aspect of reality (or even questions of what exactly reality is). On the contrary, we have some idea about how something might work, and some metric for evaluating the relative success of our endeavor, and that measurable level of success and a set of shared terms is all we need, the epistimological stuff about truth and reality etc. may be emotionally appealing but don't really make much difference, and is likely to be an impediment or at the very least a waste of energy.

Or at least that is what I think when I consider the implications of nihilism used as a descriptor for a specific potentially useful way of thinking rather than an insult.
posted by idiopath at 9:14 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


ageispolis: I think this stuff is a neat fad, but I fail to see how this speculative realism stuff is what will break the analytic/continental divide.

I tend to leave the room mentally at the mention "the analytic/continental divide." For the life of me I've never been able to find definitions of "analytic philosophy" and "continental philosophy" that don't boil down to, respectively, "hard, rigorous English philosophy" and "that Frog and Kraut stuff we're sure is nonsense."

Note: I'm not talking about the analytic philosophy of Bertrand Russell et al but rather the idea that all of modern Western philosophy can be divided into two traditions, analytic and continental, which is absurdly reductive. The analytic school is one part of a vast tapestry that includes, for example, structuralism, post-structuralism, feminism, phenomenology, deconstruction, Nietzchean philosophy, critical theory, existentialism, semiotics, marxism etc. Anyway, I suppose I should stop ranting.

Further note: I'm not calling out your smart and informed comment, ageispolis, but using your phrase as a jumping off point into my rant.

posted by Kattullus at 9:23 PM on November 17, 2009


I always enjoy watching people apply farout theoretical concepts to stuff like Lady Gaga VMA performances.

Which link was this. I have a minor obsession with Lady Gaga and would enjoy a bean-plating of her VMA performance.
posted by empath at 9:25 PM on November 17, 2009


It's pretty interesting stuff...but what is up with him in the video?

He rocks around, at times almost violently, makes these very erratic movements with his hand, and doesn't make any eye contact with anyone whatsoever, but reads directly from the paper. I don't know why its disturbing me, but it is. I couldn't focus on what he was saying because I was too focused on the way he was moving.

Not like someone has to be good at interacting with others to be an incredible thinker, but I find it interesting. Lots of philosophers were eccentric, but almost every one I've seen have been good at interacting, engaging an audience, etc. You can Youtube Heidegger, Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, even Delueze (hell, he was batshit insane, but could still hold a great interview).

Was he just having an off day? Whats his deal?
posted by HabeasCorpus at 9:29 PM on November 17, 2009




Kattullus: I think that some people have the impression that the analytics were busy in England and America laying the ground for a philosophy of science based on the premise of a real external world while everyone else over in Europe was indulging in this big epistemological orgy where they were mixing up their structuralism and semiotics and marxism and deconstruction and post-freudianism and their schizoanalysis and all that wacky stuff and dropping all this acid and just partying like there was no tomorrow and mixing up ideas and meanings like philosophy was some giddy game of connect the dots.
posted by idiopath at 9:30 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wait that sounds really fun they didn't make it sound fun in the classics department.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:44 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


OK, so. Analytic philosophy basically exists as a reaction to Hume. Continental philosophy basically exists as a reaction to Kant (who, amusingly, was in some ways reacting to Hume).

Hume was kind of a dick and kicked over a bunch of sand castles and said "holy shit, there's no good reason for science to work but it seems to work anyway". Analytic philosophers ever since have been obsessed with being dicks to everyone and trying to come up with good reasons why science works.

Kant was kind of a scary brooding intellectual and kicked over a bunch of sand castles and said "holy shit, we can't know things as they really are, except for tautologies. Oh, and be nice to each other." Except he said it in such tortured, obscure language that it had to be translated before even his fellow Germans could make sense of it. Continental philosophers ever since have been obsessed with being scary brooding intellectuals and coming up with even more tortured and obscure language than Kant.

As for this stuff? Well, I want to award it to the continental school on account of the language (I've got a degree in philosophy and I'm still having to fight for every sentence of the dude's thesis), but it's missing some of the telltale cues. It seems vaguely postmodern in that it's built around rejecting established dualisms, but it also seems very classically Hegelian in method.

I do find myself wondering whether these folks are just putting one over on philosophy. Maybe over the weekend I'll get good and drunk and see if it makes any more sense then.
posted by ubernostrum at 10:05 PM on November 17, 2009 [7 favorites]


Seems to me that if you can't explain it to a literate lay person more clearly than this at the level of abstraction appropriate for a Metafilter post, than either you don't understand it (and should leave the post to someone who does), or it can't bear abstraction due to being either illogical or tautological (and isn't worth posting).

(And if you Google "speculative realism" revivified you get one article, and this post.)

I picked the 4th Brassier video at random and got this far:
This pre-individual field must comprise at least two heterogenous orders of intensive differences; Delous defines intensities as differences of differences, or unequalizable quantities. When the disparity of potential between series crosses a critical threshold of disequilibrium it causes a sudden exchange of information between series; it effects a coupling between terms of a series and allows them to enter into relations of mutually reinforcing internal resonance. So this synthesis of space involves an asymmetrical dynamism whereby an undifferenciated — and Delous writes 'undifferenciated' with a 'c' here — but fully differentiated — 't' — there's an actual differentiation or the differentiation of actual species and parts — occurs on the basis of a virtual space or an intensive space which is... were completely differentiated or it incarnates these... ideal multiplicities, these differential structures — which remain purely virtual. But it's on the basis of its... own... the catalysis of individuation that space or extensity becomes apprehended in terms of volumes, sections, individual qualities, etc.
Alan Sokol, indeed — you're going to have a hard time convincing me that this isn't just physics-word salad. Nice work if it gets you laid, I guess.
posted by nicwolff at 10:13 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I tend to leave the room mentally at the mention "the analytic/continental divide."

I feel the same way, but the roots of the division are nevertheless somewhat more complicated than what ("hard, rigorous English philosophy" and "that Frog and Kraut stuff we're sure is nonsense") you've described: the roots are in the German-speaking world of the late 19th Century, and specifically they can be seen as stemming from the work of two philosophers who had backgrounds in mathematics: Frege and Husserl.

Frege's work (such as the Begriffsschrift of 1879) and Husserl's early work (the Logische Untersuchungen of 1901) share a fundamental anipathy for "psychologism," and both deal with the foundations of logic, but beyond that they diverge dramatically: the former, influenced by Bolzano, sought to develop a propositional calculus, and was tremendously influential on Russell's logical atomism, as well as the work of Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle (such as Carnap); the latter, influenced by Brentano, sought to develop something like a new science (a "phenomenology") of intentionality or first-person consciousness, and was tremendously influential on Heidegger, Gadamer, and the French existentialists.

Modern figures like Mach, Stumpf, Fechner, Meinong, Cassirer, Scheler, Kasimir Twardowski, Bergson, and others (such as British "idealists" like Whitehead or Collingwood) do not fall neatly into either camp, and so the Frege/Husserl split is not without its problems. But as a locus to the split between anglo-American philosophers (both "ordinary language" philosophers like Austin and those who followed Quine or Kripke) and Continental philosophers (such as those who came after Merleau-Ponty, Sartre or Ricoeur; or those who came in the wake of Foucault and Derrida, Deleuze, Marion, etc.) the Frege/Husserl split is useful.

Again, many philosophers (Otto-Apel, Blumenberg, Turgendhat, or Goodman, Cavell, Bachelard, Chisholm, etc.) do not neatly fit this split, and furthermore there is often more agreement on key issues than may be realized. It's more a shorthand for emphasis now than anything. But I share your mistrust of the meaningfulness of this division.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 10:15 PM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


"extreme pondering".

Epic win.
posted by rodgerd at 10:15 PM on November 17, 2009


If nothing else, the division is important for understanding various sociological facts about academic philosophy especially in the Anglo-Am world. It's a convenient shorthand for a package of assumptions and thinkers and buzzwords that you need to tip your hat to (or that you should probably NOT tip your hat to). People are always saying "oh the distinction is overblown" but the current state of the profession is impossible to understand without understanding these social facts (eg if you're working in the analytic tradition, you should NOT refer to Slavoj Zizek because you will immediately be less credible).

I think there are other genuine differences too, which make something like this distinction be worth at least being aware of. (Which I'm not going to elaborate on, because I should be working rather than writing this comment at all)

Plus, I don't think anybody thinks "all contemporary philosophy neatly divides into these two camps"; I think the idea of the divide is more of a spectrum or a very loose kind of categorization, and there are a lot of projects that don't obviously fall into one or the other, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:37 PM on November 17, 2009


Seems to me that if you can't explain it to a literate lay person more clearly than this at the level of abstraction appropriate for a Metafilter post, than either you don't understand it (and should leave the post to someone who does), or it can't bear abstraction due to being either illogical or tautological (and isn't worth posting).

I am far from understanding SR thoroughly. In fact, I'm just beginning to grapple with it. However, several posts here have repeated the oft-levied accusation of nonsensicality at continental philosophy. And I just wanted to respond to that briefly here.

This tack reflects either simple ignorance or strategic refusal of a basic contention of much of the phenomenological tradition - which is precisely that we must invent new language to get at new and difficult presentations of thought because the old words are too fraught with the baggage of colloquial and past philosophical usage. It is also part and parcel of the historicizing tendency of much continental thought - which explicitly maintains that understanding any contemporary argument requires a careful and thorough engagement with the history of philosophy. In other words, though it can hardly seem so to a layperson, the difficulty of the language of continental philosophy is the result of an attempt to be more, not less, clear. From this perspective, the real problem is when the shallow "transparency" of an argument convinces unsophisticated readers that they "understand" something they don't. We might observe (with irony) that people who read, say, Heidegger, one time through, rarely have that particular problem.

Now, there is obviously another side to this - Foucault's famous description of Derrida's use of language as terroristic. Undoubtedly this choice of approach in phenomenology cuts many ways. It does seem to contribute to making phenomenology an even more hermetic field than philosophical skills already are. And, I think, we are right to be suspicious of this tendency. It has a cultish or cabbalistic quality.

But to dismiss something so superficially because it's difficult to understand the sentences just isn't very serious. It also reflects a fatuous expectation of immediate understanding that characterizes anglo-American intellectual weakness in general - in world affairs, for example. So it goes: if you can't explain to me in three sentences what the situation is in Iraq, or Israel/Palestine, or Pakistan, then there mustn't be any real problem there. So I'm left to conclude that Iraqis are simply crazy, or deliberately ornery, or the Israeli/Palestinians are just trying to vex me and my fellow citizens of the USA. Why else would they make themselves and their problems so hard to understand? It can't be that there's a lot of specific information that I'm missing, because I refuse the right of other people (and cultures and nation-states and fields of inquiry and religions, etc) to have complex problems with complex backgrounds and histories.

Television much?

I tried to word the post in a way that would reveal the reason a broad range of people might have an interest in the topic, but wouldn't (fatally) attempt to "explain" it. If you don't want to understand SR any better, more power to you. Go on about your day. There is no doubt that this stuff is mostly for specialists. If you do want to know more, then read on. And read more. And more. It's tough; there is no end point after which you will be certain you "get" it. Everyone's ability and level of interest differs, it's true. But reading more is the only way you will ever understand any more.
posted by macross city flaneur at 10:45 PM on November 17, 2009 [6 favorites]


there are a lot of projects that don't obviously fall into one or the other

Unfortunately it is just these kinds of things that often tend to fall through the cracks. I'm often really surprised at how many early 20th century thinkers (many of whom actually circulated in the same circles as their better remembered colleagues) have been mostly forgotten. This neglect is unfortunate, and I'm always pushing lesser known figures because I think it opens up a whole new appreciation for how complicated the historical origins of this "a/c split" are.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 10:49 PM on November 17, 2009


Thanks, HP LaserJet P10006, for a very cogent explanation. Though I think that in the mainstream of European philosophy Husserl would just be considered one important ancestor of modern philosophical thought rather than one option at a fork in the road. It seems to me that the idea that there's been any kind of split is rather odd.

That said, the lumping of, say, Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze into one philosophical school is kinda weird to me (except, I suppose, a grouping based on them being French and alive at the same time) but I've learned to live with the term post-structuralist (much like I've come to terms with the idea that the structuralists Barthes, Kristeva and Lacan are somehow fundamentally similar). So I suppose I shouldn't get too het up about "analytic/continental."

Yeeargh! Who am I kidding? Just typing "analytic/continental makes my soul rise in GRAR. I suppose it's best to go to sleep
posted by Kattullus at 10:49 PM on November 17, 2009


Was he just having an off day? Whats his deal?

He's bullshitting, if you ask me. If you can't articulate your ideas clearly then you haven't got an adequate grip on them yet. That's not the look of someone who has confidence in his ideas or his ability to explain them. I find this perplexing since I'm in sympathy with his basic ideas and can't understand why he has to resort to this obscurantist language to explain them. He sounds as if he'd much rather be doing maths or something; maybe someone should give him a copy of Spencer-Brown's Laws of Form.

On the other hand, Cyclonopedia sounds terribly interesting, perhaps because Negarestani puts ideas in a context to see how they get on there, or not. Just reading about it makes me want to wrestle with the author's ideas (and makes the FPP worth its weight in gold - thanks, mcf).
posted by anigbrowl at 11:01 PM on November 17, 2009


Macross: ignoring your somewhat condescendng tone, I do agree that people dismiss writing like foucalts without trying to understand it. However: do you agree that some followers in this line are actually alchemists rather than chemists? I am reading these gentleman with great interest, but sometimes it strikes me that certain elements of their language are employed not to get at an abstract and newly defined concept but to make a pretty flash in a pan and charm the lords and ladies into believing that they've created gold. Much of this stems from pretentious translations of the early decon bros, which made complex but discernable french terms sound like bullshit, but some of it is just plain old fashioned quackery.

Anyway, again, great post, very interesting. Time ll tell if they're breaking new ground or reheating old tea in new mugs.

Good day to you.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:29 PM on November 17, 2009


This tack reflects either simple ignorance or strategic refusal of a basic contention of much of the phenomenological tradition - which is precisely that we must invent new language to get at new and difficult presentations of thought because the old words are too fraught with the baggage of colloquial and past philosophical usage.

I guess you'd have to chalk me up under 'strategic refusal' along with Foucault, because this process of inventing new language is exactly what I find objectionable about religion and pseudoscience. As you say further on, this hermetic approach does give much continental philosophy 'a cultish or cabbalistic quality' and it's deplorable for that reason. I take your point about how such language is often based in an attempt to make things more, rather than less clear, but I contend that it's a clumsy and inept attempt which ultimately fails (not least because a great many people simply give up reading). This is not to say that things should be simplistic, but that they should be coherent.

Unlike the poster above, I do not think you should shy away from exploring these ideas just because you're still exploring them, and indeed I'm very grateful for your opening post on this subject. However, I have a problem (obviously) with fellows like Brassier; if he wants transcendent materialism to be less humanocentric and more about the expression of knowledge, then why is he going on about its potential for 'political liberation'? I'm sorry to be such a neanderthal, but the longer I sit through his lecture the more I feel like I'm trapped in an elevator with a stoner who badly needs to take a physics class, where he'd find that many of his speculations had been formalized years ago.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:58 PM on November 17, 2009


However: do you agree that some followers in this line are actually alchemists rather than chemists? I am reading these gentleman with great interest, but sometimes it strikes me that certain elements of their language are employed not to get at an abstract and newly defined concept but to make a pretty flash in a pan and charm the lords and ladies into believing that they've created gold.

Yes, I agree that the reception of the phenomenological tradition in American universities created a fad for a particular style of writing and, at some journals, a fetishism for certain words and turns of phrase that came close to a litmus test for publication.

However, there is shallow parroting, nepotism, and ideology in every field. People who think that any academic enterprise is a pure search for truth without the normal human distortions and contingencies, are dupes or ideologues. In the sciences, it often assumes the form of gratuitous data collection, the following up of known spurious leads, the silent exclusion of experiments that might contradict favored hypotheses, etc. I had a friend who was a post-doc in cell bio who did cancer research and told me that much of what he was told to do in his lab was "ruling out" of possibilities to create a body of work that would justify future grant proposals in an area of inquiry that his lab director knew was bankrupt. He was keeping his lab going, stalling for time until he could find a more fruitful line of research. Scientists, like all academics, can be petty, political, motivated by the need to secure or preserve reputation, ego, etc,, and scientific inquiry is full of squabbling and provincialism.

The humanities are just as bad. Maybe, at times, worse. This isn't the problem.

The problem is that when people don't understand the difference between good and bad science, they blame their own ignorance. When they don't understand the difference beteween good and bad philosophy, on the other hand - mostly again in Britain and America - they blame the philosophers. The childish namecalling of big names in philosophy (Russell being the biggest culprit) has given carte blanche to a wider range of people to do the same. Add to this the general anti-intellectualism and resentment of learning in America, not to mention the continental embrace of Nietzsche's way of doing philosophy "playfully", and you create an ambience of great misunderstanding.

You can't tell the alchemists from the chemists by who has a furrowed brow, a lab coat, and lots of graphs, unfortunately. Any more than you can tell good literary criticism by the number of Derridean locutions sprinkled throughout.

But the architecture and criteria of "good" work goes right to the deepest divergent cultural commitments of the analytic and continental traditions. The one to "serious knowledge" of a world that has proven mostly tractably intelligible, the other to softer investigations of human psyche, aesthetics, and human life that have proven less tractable to scientific methods.

If we are "ready" for any kind of detente between them, it might just be because artists and sociologists and writers are becoming as interested in science, at this moment, as the scientists are. And for their part, a small number of scientists are becoming interested in the creative dynamics of their work, thematized mostly in "fringy" fields like cognitive science and complexity, but increasingly in a wider range of fields. And, in fact, certain "weird" developments in mathematics, biology, physics, etc - seem to point to less tractability to the methods experimental science has used thus far. There is, then, a sense of the need to reach beyond in the area of method.
posted by macross city flaneur at 12:23 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


> which is precisely that we must invent new language to get at new and difficult presentations of thought because the old words are too fraught with the baggage of colloquial and past philosophical usage.


So it goes: if you can't explain to me in three sentences what the situation is in Iraq, or Israel/Palestine, or Pakistan, then there mustn't be any real problem there.


It can't be that there's a lot of specific information that I'm missing, because I refuse the right of other people (and cultures and nation-states and fields of inquiry and religions, etc) to have complex problems with complex backgrounds and histories.

Television much?


Actually, our complex philosopher's decision to avoid difficulty-- in this case, skepticism or misunderstanding of an unfamiliar idea-- by way of constructing an alternative world, mimics the structure of the approach taken by television. Instead of dealing with the pressures of the rat race and keeping up with the Jones's by imagining being shipwrecked on an island with Maryanne and Ginger, these many many tiers of abstraction just build up another safe and private little world, one erected by language.

To be honest, I tend to assume that if you, as a specialist, cannot explain to me, as a layman, a) the difference between the falsehood of what I have thus far naively believed and the truth of what you have through effort or epiphany discovered, and b) the practical implications of this difference... you are being insufficiently critical of your own understanding, and have not found the proper level of abstraction that would enable you to communicate your understanding. (Or, less charitably, that you are keenly aware of the level of abstraction that would communicate your argument, but sense that communicating the argument clearly would render it too vulnerable to criticism.)

Note: I'm not saying this is the case with the original post, which makes a good effort at concision and clarity; I am saying this seems to be the case with the topic of the post, S.R.

Ultimately, the New Thoughts Deserve New Words! approach seems to boil down either to laziness or willful obscurantism.

This is especially so because philosophy is about understanding one's relationship with the world, and the units it deals with are large: existence, or not; consciousness, or not; matter, or not; truth, or not; my perspective, your perspective, their perspective. Certainly we can peer through intellectual kaleidoscopes and fracture these big chunks into infinitesimally tiny sub-units of category and abstraction, category-within-category and abstraction-upon-abstraction; certainly we can feel a certain thrill at the cleverness and finesse with which we do so; but do you really believe that such ever finer distinctions loop back to the initial concern, and give us more information with which to make accurate judgments about the world? It's a conviction that seems not unlike believing you can map the stars just by using the very best of microscopes.

It is also part and parcel of the historicizing tendency of much continental thought - which explicitly maintains that understanding any contemporary argument requires a careful and thorough engagement with the history of philosophy.

Note that this is the same strategy that seems to animate all the garish and ridiculous stunt-clothes of haute couture... and, bluntly, the stuff fashion models are made to wear on the runway I would not wish into the closets of my worst enemy.

Well, actually, maybe I would.
posted by darth_tedious at 12:25 AM on November 18, 2009


darth_tedious: "To be honest, I tend to assume that if you, as a specialist, cannot explain to me, as a layman, a) the difference between the falsehood of what I have thus far naively believed and the truth of what you have through effort or epiphany discovered, and b) the practical implications of this difference... you are being insufficiently critical of your own understanding"

There are things I know about digital audio synthesis and programming algorithms that I probably could not explain to you without teaching you a bunch of jargon. And if I was able to, I would be doing you a disservice not to introduce you to the jargon that is standard in the field. And I know it works because the programs compile and make the sounds I want. But then again you probably wouldn't like the sounds it made anyway so you would consider it a waste of time without "practical application".

I hope you can at least accept the possibility that there are things in the domain of philosophy that would similarly need their own jargon and be similarly obscure in practical application, but also important within a larger philosophical schema.
posted by idiopath at 12:53 AM on November 18, 2009 [3 favorites]


these many many tiers of abstraction just build up another safe and private little world, one erected by language...

To be honest, I tend to assume that if you, as a specialist, cannot explain to me, as a layman, a) the difference between the falsehood of what I have thus far naively believed and the truth of what you have through effort or epiphany discovered, and b) the practical implications of this difference... you are being insufficiently critical of your own understanding, and have not found the proper level of abstraction that would enable you to communicate your understanding. (Or, less charitably, that you are keenly aware of the level of abstraction that would communicate your argument, but sense that communicating the argument clearly would render it too vulnerable to criticism.)

This is a problem that many academics are well-aware of. In fact, the problem is far more acute in the sciences than anywhere else, because the proliferation of knowledge and concomitant specialization is so much faster.

It's not simply a problem of laypeople and specalists either. Many scientists are unfamiliar with key developments (and terminology) in their own fields and would be completely out of their depth at a conference on a topic relatively close to their own.

The major driver here is not the desire to keep people out, but the fact that there is a great deal to be known and understood. Your criticism of those who can't communicate with you is very idealistic (in the colloquial sense), but unfortunately it requires a significant underestimation of the complexity and scope of the conceptual frameworks at play. Not only can many arguments not be summarized for the layperson, but even after a four-year undergraduate degree, students in a broad range of fields are only barely prepared to begin to have an understanding of the most important concepts in a given area of study.

But on to the human dynamics. I just want to make two points:

1) At what point does a responsibility fall upon you, as a layperson, to motivate and direct your own inquiry into the subjects at hand? By putting all of the onus on the hypothetical philosopher, you would seem to be disavowing your own responsibility to drive your own understanding of things.

2) I think it is all too true that the formation of new terminological shorthand that is initially designed to make complex subjects tractable winds up dovetailing nicely with the desire to hedge out criticism by non-specialists. But it seems very difficult to disentangle the one from the other. What would you do to prevent this very human tendency against a backdrop of relentlessly increasing conceptual complexity?

As food for thought, I would also point out that working scientists frequently disavow the responsibilty to explain their knowledge to a broader public, instead choosing to rail at the quality of science journalism, or the chronic laziness of the masses and politicians, etc. No doubt this represents a large measure of duplicity and concealed guilt about the responsibility of scientists themselves to communicate their knowledge. But when you spend 12 hours a day in the lab, who has time to blame themselves?
posted by macross city flaneur at 12:56 AM on November 18, 2009


By the way, I forgot to mention the number one distorting factor in all academic work, one which is far worse in the sciences because there is simply more of it: money.

This is one reason I have always found Alan Sokal's outrage about the supposed "corruption" in humanistic journals so full of false consciousness.

There is so little money in humanistic publishing that it's laughable. If you want to be outraged, follow the money in science. Follow the money.

And quit picking on the poor saps who, however flawed their criteria of "good" work may be, are doing it at the end of the day because they love it. God knows there's no other reason to do it.
posted by macross city flaneur at 1:08 AM on November 18, 2009


I understand the sentences just fine, thanks; he's speaking English. And I am completely comfortable with the fact that specialized fields of study extend the language with jargon, adding and overloading words to help them describe clearly their new ideas — and exhaustively, reductively cataloguing those new definitions, both so that other experts in their field can understand and evaluate them, and so that lay people can see that their thinking is rigorous and their conclusions creditable.

Here's some jargon from another field that I don't understand, also picked at random for its opacity:
The terms "Hausdorff", "separated", and "preregular" can also be applied to such variants on topological spaces as uniform spaces, Cauchy spaces, and convergence spaces. The characteristic that unites the concept in all of these examples is that limits of nets and filters (when they exist) are unique (for separated spaces) or unique up to topological indistinguishability (for preregular spaces).
but I guarantee you that a mathematician who understood it well could prove it by describing the underlying concepts in simpler — if less precise — terms.

So from this:
When the disparity of potential between series crosses a critical threshold of disequilibrium it causes a sudden exchange of information between series; it effects a coupling between terms of a series and allows them to enter into relations of mutually reinforcing internal resonance.
tell us what precise meaning the leader of this important new movement has made clear to you with his specialized language, and how. What does he mean by "disparity"? By "information"? "Coupling"? "Terms"? "Relations"? "Resonance"? Which of these, in this context, retain their colloquial meanings, or their meanings as scientific jargon; which are philosophical jargon that you understand; and which are new SR language whose definitions only he and his collaborators understand?

I have no "expectation of immediate understanding" of a speech given by a top philosophy boffin to a room full of such — of course I don't; it's just misdirection on your part to pretend that I might — but I think I can tell by its structure and presentation that Brassier is pulling most of that out of his ass. It is because I understand the sentences that I believe that he does not intend for anyone to understand the words.

Look, you brought this to Metafilter, presumably for the delectation of its wide audience; if you wanted to discuss it with other experts I assume there are fora for that. So "I'd love to explain but television has rendered your brain unable to understand" isn't an answer to be proud of. Isn't it at least tempting to humble me (and all Americans and presumed lovers of war) by demonstrating the benefits of all that reading?
posted by nicwolff at 1:20 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


> There are things I know about digital audio synthesis and programming algorithms that I probably could not explain to you without teaching you a bunch of jargon.

There are degrees of understanding, and therefore degrees of explanation. It's a near certainty that there is nothing you could say to me in an hour, or a day, that would enable me to use, let alone reproduce or extrapolate from, the more complex algorithms you are using. But is there some possibility that you could explain to me, in an hour or even a few minutes, the difference between this X and what I had previously thought, or had never considered, and what you are suggesting; and having defined, in rough silhouette, that difference, that you could also describe-- again, in approximate, high-level language, how this X can affect my experience?

> the possibility that there are things in the domain of philosophy that would similarly need their own jargon and be similarly obscure in practical application, but also important within a larger philosophical schema.

Look, the following might read as sarcastic, but it absolutely is not. I'm trying to be somewhat precise, but am a complete layman in this field.

Accept the possibility? Yes.
Need their own jargon? Well... "need" starts getting dicey.
Important within a larger philosophical schema? There are some large leaps here: "Important"... why? Important to whom, and towards what end, and compared to what else? Put another way, does the jargon exist only to protect the integrity of the schema? If the schema itself should collapse, but actual lived human experience does not noticeably change, what does that say about the importance (not even to say accuracy) of this schema?

Bluntly, there's an obvious progression between the works of Euclid and Stephen Hawking, and how they affect human experience. The difference between the works of this fellow and Plato, in terms of their effect and application, seems much less clear-cut.
posted by darth_tedious at 1:22 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


darth_tedious: "If the schema itself should collapse, but actual lived human experience does not noticeably change, what does that say about the importance (not even to say accuracy) of this schema?"

If the concept is essential to the schema I would suppose that means that understanding or using the schema is impeded by not having the concept available. If we presume that the phenomena that the schema describes exists independently of the schema, the collapse of the schema would mean, simply, that you no longer have the schema available for your use. Alternately it could be a generative schema where the thing it describes cannot exist without the schema (such things as "a thing that cannot exist without the existence of the thing that describes it" do exist in philosophy, and could even be useful), then the schema's collapse is also the collapse of the thing it describes. In either case, collapse does not mean refutation.
posted by idiopath at 1:32 AM on November 18, 2009


I could make a deep philosophical commment, but instead I will merely note that the college in the first line of the post is properly referred to as Goldsmiths' or Goldsmiths. Yes, I am an arrant pedant.
posted by Jakob at 1:55 AM on November 18, 2009


>
This is a problem that many academics are well-aware of. In fact, the problem is far more acute in the sciences than anywhere else, because the proliferation of knowledge and concomitant specialization is so much faster.

Yes. Of course, in the sciences, the creation of new terminology is directly connected to ever-finer measurement of things that are, well, measurable-- genes, bonds, particles. Given the progressive discovery of ever more physical things to study, it's not simply justifiable, it's inevitable.

Philosophy, though, is not in the process of discovering new proteins; it is not, these days, determining the mechanical properties of the eye, and how accurately humans perceive the visual world. It is examining thought, turning and refracting perspectives and emotions and interpretations; it is tracing the trains of cogitation; it is not yielding up new objects of study, but finding new names and systems for considering long-known and inescapable objects of study. In this sense, it is not science, but art.

Joyce's work is more complex than that of Homer; but though Joyce might claim that this complexity was compelled by the tenor of his times, on another level, it was Joyce and not his era that set his pen to paper. If today's philosophy is more complex than that of the Greeks, this seems to flow from a choice made by its practitioners, rather than a change in the nature of the world.

While I can appreciate the desire to liken philosophy to science, with all the latter's burgeoning, ever-escalating, and unavoidable complexity, it seems important to remember that this likening is just that: An analogy, a metaphor.

> Your criticism of those who can't communicate with you is very idealistic (in the colloquial sense), but unfortunately it requires a significant underestimation of the complexity and scope of the conceptual frameworks at play.

Actually, I assume from the outset, perhaps erroneously, that modern philosophy is almost incomprehensibly complex-- because the incentives, in terms of prestige and mystique, would tend to skew new works toward ever greater complexity. On the other hand, I don't assume that either the complexity or the scope of a conceptual framework-- and certainly not the complexity and the scope of that framework, taken together-- is a good index of that idea's explanatory power.
posted by darth_tedious at 2:05 AM on November 18, 2009


Important to whom, and towards what end, and compared to what else? Put another way, does the jargon exist only to protect the integrity of the schema?

The answer, of course, is "it depends".

The sort of jargon you'll find in modern philosophy tends to exist for one or both of the following reasons:

1. Because no term existed previously which expressed the desired idea in the desired way, or

2. Because existing terms were too loaded with undesirable connotations.

A good example of the first issue is "metaphysics": as the (apocryphal) story goes, scholars were trying to catalog the works of Aristotle, and came upon an untitled book which covered subjects that didn't quite fit into anything they'd seen previously. It came after, or was placed after, his book on physics, and so was called, literally, "the one that comes after the Physics" -- in Greek, "meta" signifies this sense of "beyond" or "after", and so both the book and the subject matter with which it dealt became "metaphysics".

A good example of the second issue is my mention of modern philosophy a couple sentences ago, which is technically a misnomer: "modern" philosophy began in the seventeenth century, which is rather a different thing from what most people would consider "modern" (and, in turn, "modern" philosophy doesn't match up, time-period-wise, with "modern" literature or "modern" art, etc.). So ideally we want some term which doesn't have the baggage of the everyday sense of "modern". If you find one, do let me know.

Philosophers have been doing this for just about forever, and there are a lot of specialized terms you pick up as you go through even the oldest parts of the standard canon. More recently, there's been something of an explosion of this creation of jargon, especially because a lot of recent philosophy is trying very, very hard to either describe things which (the authors claim) have never really been described before, or to get away from the baggage of older terminology (quite a lot of postmodernism is concerned with this, and consciously uses strange language to avoid falling into the old Platonic dichotomies).

And it's worth noting that continental philosophy hasn't been alone in this. The analytic and English-speaking traditions have gone off the deep end plenty of times as well -- see logical positivism for an example (tellingly, many of the positivists later repented of their attempts to invent rigorous languages in which non-empirical statements either couldn't be expressed or were clearly meaningless: it was far more trouble than it was worth).

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that not being able to explain something in simpler terms isn't always an indicator of rank bullshit. Sometimes (depressingly often, perhaps, these days) it is, but in many cases there's a good reason for the jargon to exist, even if it does sometimes seem to require voluminous explanation.

Except "Weltanschauung" and "hermeneutics". People who use those get punched in the dick, as far as I'm concerned.
posted by ubernostrum at 2:05 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


> In either case, collapse does not mean refutation.

So if a tree, or a philosophical schema, falls in the forest...
posted by darth_tedious at 2:08 AM on November 18, 2009


nicwolff: " When the disparity of potential between series crosses a critical threshold of disequilibrium it causes a sudden exchange of information between series; it effects a coupling between terms of a series and allows them to enter into relations of mutually reinforcing internal resonance.

tell us what precise meaning the leader of this important new movement has made clear to you with his specialized language, and how. What does he mean by "disparity"? By "information"? "Coupling"? "Terms"? "Relations"? "Resonance"? Which of these, in this context, retain their colloquial meanings, or their meanings as scientific jargon; which are philosophical jargon that you understand; and which are new SR language whose definitions only he and his collaborators understand?
"

By "disparity" he means difference in measure, so "a difference in measure of potential". He is talking about "Information" in the Shannon and Weaver sense. "Coupling" describes a kind of mutual relationship between cybernetic systems, IIRC it is shorthand for "structural coupling", it is a specific way that two systems exchange information or energy (I could be wrong here, coupling could have a more general meaning separate from structural coupling in cybernetics). "Terms" is used in the mathematical sense, terms of a series are individual elements of that series. With "mutually reinforcing internal resonance" he is is referencing a feedback regulated equilibrium between two elements of a system (the previously mentioned "terms of the series").

None of these terms are new to SR, and all of them are standard terms from cybernetics, used in the standard cybernetic sense. He is describing a homeostatic mechanism of some sort, without enough context here to see if he means electronic, mechanical, biological, or...
posted by idiopath at 2:08 AM on November 18, 2009


darth_tedious: "> In either case, collapse does not mean refutation.

So if a tree, or a philosophical schema, falls in the forest...
"

A conceptual schema is a tool. If it is usable, then it may provide you with a way of understanding something otherwise opaque. The fact that the real world does not change immediately when you lose the capacity to use the schema does not refute the schema.

You refute a schema by showing that it is not useful, not by denying it the conceptual vocabulary that constitutes it.
posted by idiopath at 2:11 AM on November 18, 2009


> More recently, there's been something of an explosion of this creation of jargon, especially because a lot of recent philosophy is trying very, very hard to either describe things which (the authors claim) have never really been described before

Well, yeah. But that claim is exactly what's at issue. The point of language is commonality; to declare that all the words commonly known and understood are so tainted, so laden with associations flagrant or subliminal, oppressively obvious or insidiously unconscious, that each new and subtle diffraction of perception calls for a new coinage, is to step away from the philosophical project, to step away from inquiry into the world, and to retreat into a world of one's own.

It's not clarifying the world, but competing with it, and compensating for it.
posted by darth_tedious at 2:22 AM on November 18, 2009


> You refute a schema by showing that it is not useful

Okay. What must happen in order to show that a given schema is not useful?

I'm not assuming that you're a defender of this particular system-- but if you were, what would you have to see, with your own eyes, in order to know that this philosophical system was not useful?
posted by darth_tedious at 2:30 AM on November 18, 2009


darth_tedious: "what would you have to see, with your own eyes, in order to know that this philosophical system was not useful?"

That it provided me with no tools for understanding the world I see around me.

I find algebra helpful (among other reasons) because it helps me understand cybernetics. I find cybernetics helpful because it helps me understand recursion and equilibrium. I find an understanding of recursion and equilibrium helpful because it helps me understand audio synthesis. And so on eventually possibly ending with something like "feeling like I have a meaning to my life" or "getting laid" or some such.

It is not all that common that you have to buy in on the whole system level. A philosophical construct is not useful to me if it fails to predict the outcome of the thing it purports to describe more often than a coin flip would, or if the thing it describes is not through some chain of connections useful to me. Or if the buy in is too high, ie. if it requires too large a cognitive dissonance or comes with a creed that demands too many sacrifices.

Every intellectual field is more complex than it was in Plato's day. I find it hard to believe that philosophy is the only one that got more complex for no good reason.

So far this particular system is useful to me because I like stretching my brain and trying to understand new things. Eventually I will either forget what I picked up because it wasn't useful, or keep learning more.
posted by idiopath at 2:45 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


> So far this particular system is useful to me because I like stretching my brain and trying to understand new things.

Fair enough; that makes sense to me.
posted by darth_tedious at 2:52 AM on November 18, 2009


At what point does a responsibility fall upon you, as a layperson, to motivate and direct your own inquiry into the subjects at hand? By putting all of the onus on the hypothetical philosopher, you would seem to be disavowing your own responsibility to drive your own understanding of things.

My test is the following: will the understanding I gain from this be worth the time put into reading it?

If a philosopher wants me to put a good chunk of my life into grappling with their book rather than the millions of other books published each year, the onus is on them to express their ideas clearly.

Using professional jargon when necessary is fine by me, but philosophers need to note that it's jargon, take time to explain how they are using it, and use it consistently. If they don't, they better have some pretty amazing ideas that are worth me spending hours working out for myself what they should have explained explicitly in the text.
posted by nangua at 3:09 AM on November 18, 2009


darth_tedious, you at least have Chomsky as an ally,

"There are lots of things I don't understand — say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. — even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest --- write things that I also don't understand, but (1) and (2) don't hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of "theory" that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) ... I won't spell it out."
posted by afu at 4:14 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


philosophers need to note that it's jargon, take time to explain how they are using it, and use it consistently

All you're saying is that the criteria and characteristic use of language from the natural sciences, which takes language to be an empty and transparent vessel for the transmission of self-consistent meanings - is the one you prefer.

Continental philosophy does not have this model of the function of language. However, the fact is that a great deal of continental philosophy does amount to the explaining of terms. In a way, Being and Time is nothing but a big dictionary. But Heidegger doesn't explain the terms that other philosophers use (unless he is choosing between senses or explaining his interpretation of those terms) because he assumes you can get those meanings from those other philosophers.

Yes, he assumes you've read Husserl, and Aristotle, and Kant. Also that you read a bit of ancient Greek. He does not, however, tend to assume you've read the pre-Socratics - since that is a rarer thing, even within philosophy. These are reasonable expectations given his audience.

If you, like Chomsky, truly have no idea how you could go about understanding these things, then you're either being obtuse, or you're just obfuscating your unwillingness to read and grapple with a lot of philosophy.

Now, that said, plenty of people who have read the work in question still find Heidegger difficult - but far less difficult. And, in fact, it's only people who have read these things who have a genuine sense of how difficult Heidegger really is, and on what terms. Unfortunately, when these people also say that Heidegger is difficult, people like Chomsky who are ignorant of the texts in question in a far more basic way

But please, don't sit there and behave as though this is impossible, folks. It's basically and transparently disingenuous. As Idiopath pointed out above, a seemingly impenetrable sentence becomes quite tractable when you are acquainted with the frame of reference. nicwolff wasn't, so it seemed like a lot of obfuscation to him. Brassier's colleagues in science studies, however, would be intimately aware of the shift in allusive modaliity to information theory. All of a sudden Brassier's magically gone from a "charlatan" to someone who's simply referencing something you don't understand.

RTFM.
posted by macross city flaneur at 6:46 AM on November 18, 2009 [3 favorites]


Isn't it at least tempting to humble me (and all Americans and presumed lovers of war) by demonstrating the benefits of all that reading?

No, it's not tempting. Not least because my goal isn't to humble anyone, but mostly because, unlike you, I am humbled by the attempt to grapple with things I don't understand, and I don't dismiss them because I don't understand them. I don't have the expectation that, without a lot of work on my own, I will be able to engage with them in a productive way.

People who want other people to explain to them what only a lot of work will ever help to unearth are simply lazy. That on its own is understandable. But when people are both lazy and insistent that their lack of understanding is the fault of the work in question, it rises to another level of onerousness.

And pardon me if I find in your attitude a certain common cause with Cable news, but ignorance combined with aggressive scoffing and questioning of the motives and legitimacy of those who know better is pretty much the paradigm of conservative American ideologues these days.
posted by macross city flaneur at 7:12 AM on November 18, 2009


Also, I'd like to point out - because I've found this attitude pretty endemic on metafilter when discussions of supposedly "high brow" topics are broached - that the handmaiden of intellectual bullying is inevitably the "oh, so you think you're better than me" line.

This working through of this configuration of social/class anxiety and combativeness is not interesting.

You can't out-box your way into better understanding. No amount of arguing at this level of distance from particular texts and particular philosophical questions is ever going to enlighten anyone.

And metafilter is obviously not the forum for getting closer to the details that might in any thorough way. But I hope that, on their own, people will find a few points of access to those details in this post.
posted by macross city flaneur at 7:38 AM on November 18, 2009


This working through of this configuration of social/class anxiety and combativeness is not interesting.

Wow

I really want to hear you expand on that point.
posted by afu at 8:45 AM on November 18, 2009


(eg if you're working in the analytic tradition, you should NOT refer to Slavoj Zizek because you will immediately be less credible).

Hey now, there are some things we can all agree on. Zizek references don't make anybody credible.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:24 AM on November 18, 2009


macross city flaneur, have you read analytic philosophy? I assume you have, at least enough to get a sense of the writing style. Is it fun and easy to read? Does it really sound to you like American TV news reports?

No, of course not. It's long, complicated, technical, and overflowing with jargon, like most other fields. New words for new concepts, just as you say. The difference is in how jargon is used: after being defined, consistently, and only when it's really needed. (Sure, some analytic philosophers are horrible writers, but for more mundane reasons.)

There is a considerable advantage to treating language "merely" as a medium of communication, rather than as a Nietzschean playground or as a target for semantic terrorism—namely that your audience can understand what you're saying, so they can evaluate the strength of your argument. That is how progress happens, and how philosophy becomes more sophisticated and precise.

No doubt there is something to be gained by the Continental approach to writing, but if it means that it's truly impossible to explain what you mean without giving your audience a thorough indoctrination in the Continental way of life, I'd say it's not worth it.
posted by k. at 10:07 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Surely this puts paid to the idea of not being able to describe complex things in simple language.

Yeah, I'm not particularly philosophically educated (not completely ignorant, but I've not seen much formal philosophy), but I've never met someone who knew what they were talking about that couldn't explain it to me, albeit sometimes in a simplified or analogised, form (I don't need to know the precise calculations for using radioisotopes to measure petroleum mass flow rate to understand how and why it works).

So, this seems like a great post, with lots of background, but I don't know what I'd have to read to understand the Wikipedia pages that provide the background to the the main article. At the very least I'd like some key questions to which these different schools of thought offer clearly different answers. Little help here?
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 10:30 AM on November 18, 2009


Ah, this would be a new brand of continental obscurantism: It's not obscure, you're just stupid.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:30 AM on November 18, 2009


It's not clarifying the world, but competing with it, and compensating for it.

To be fair, quite a bit of philosophy is concerned precisely with "compensating for" the world, because the world is a pretty messy place. As for "private" language, commonality, etc., well, that's been the subject of some interesting work :)

Personally, I'm OK with the fact that there's a lot of jargon and that breaking it down takes a lot of time and effort, because there are some major questions in philosophy which -- when expressed "simply" -- seem trivial or absurd, and only start to reveal their subtlety and importance when you spend a lot of time thinking through them. My favorite example of this comes from Quine, in the opening paragraph of an article on metaphysics:

A curious thing about the ontological problem is its simplicity. It can be put in three Anglo-Saxon monosyllables: "What is there?" It can be answered, moreover, in a word -- "Everything" -- and everyone will accept this answer as true.

Of course, he's not content to leave it just at that, and spends the rest of the article exploring the nooks and crannies of the problem. In doing so, he frequently makes use of jargon which he makes no attempt to explain, assuming that if you're reading his article you'll put in the time to learn the terminology. And that's fine by me, although it might seem to others that he just enjoys being obscure or using big words.

But in a larger sense, I think the problem is that most people don't have the background of even very simple philosophical jargon. In the sciences, you can start breaking things down and explaining them and sooner or later you'll get to terminology which -- while still "jargon" -- is familiar to the average person from a high-school class in chemistry/biology/whatever. Philosophy doesn't get this luxury; to take an example relevant to the Quine article, I can't start talking to you about it and assume you already know what the problem of universals is or the major schools of thought on it, because there isn't a ubiquitous high-school philosophy curriculum teaching it to every student. And so philosophers end up having to explain much, much more up-front, and philosophy seems more often to simply be so much obscurantism, with endless jargon piled upon jargon.

(which is not to say that there aren't any philosophers hiding fluff behind impenetrable language -- there certainly are, and I'm still not sure whether these "speculative realists" are doing exactly that -- but simply that lots of jargon does not automatically equate with someone trying to cover for the fact that there's no "there" there)
posted by ubernostrum at 11:11 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


A good point k.;
One of the wonderful characteristics of the math papers I read is that everybody defines any language or notation t hat they use that is anything less than completely well-known and standard. And then uses that language and notation in a precise way. Yes, it means every paper in my area defines the descent set of a permutation. But that's ok, because it makes the paper readable, without going to pick up three other books to check on definitions that might not line up exactly. By defining my terms up front, my arguments stand on the strength of those definitions.

There's a line of thought that says that good definitions write their own proofs. Finding the right definitions is a huge and difficult problem in most research areas.

But it's quite clear that the relationship between math and language is quite different from that of philosophy and language. Wikipedia an excellent resource for the casual reader; it's Chomsky's 'friend who explains stuff' available to everyone. Here's the article on post-structuralism; it's quite readable, I think. Perhaps it could be compared with the page for combinatorics.

My approach to the language problem in philosophy is thus: The problem isn't simply the words, but the language itself. Subject-verb-object is a limited format, and inherently flawed for expressing non-dualistic ideas. The paradox of escaping from dualistic notions is expressed in this very sentence! In order to escape dualism, we must also not-escape. Inventing new words isn't going to overcome the fundamental problem of the language. Additionally, new words that are not-fraught today will almost certainly be overburdened with inconvenient context tomorrow; it's just how language works. The solution, then, is to eschew language and move to a different format entirely.
posted by kaibutsu at 11:28 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


The solution, then, is to eschew language and move to a different format entirely.

I can't tell if this statement is meant to be tongue-in-cheek or not, but the idea of working out the kinks and semantic ambiguities inherent to natural language by formalizing it and/or replacing it with a more precise language (such as logical notation) is not new. But these projects are all bound to Promethean failure, while being nevertheless fascinating.

To fix meaning in such a way is make language isomorphic to thought--so transparent that misinterpretation is impossible--such a dream animates a lot of wonderfully futile projects: the "rectification of names" idea in ancient Chinese thought, Pythagoras and his table of opposites, Bhartrhari and the ancient Indian grammarian problem of sphota, Leibniz with his "characteristica universalis," Peirce with his semiotics and existential graphs, Carnap's "logical syntax," Churchland and his plea to replace "folk psychology" with a kind neurolinguistics of brain states ("I'm not in pain, my neural c-fibers are firing,,,"), James Joyce and his attempt to invent his own language, Wittgenstein's desire to be silent about anything not capable of propositional clarity, etc.

All these things share a desire to purge language of its ambiguities, its inconsistencies, its conceptual knots, its hermeneutic polyvalence, etc., but all must eventually come to terms with these two metasematic facts: first, that what we lose in precision in ordinary language we more than make up in semantic plasticity, and second, logic and mathematics are only intelligible because they are embedded in, and emerged from, ordinary language.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 2:13 PM on November 18, 2009 [4 favorites]


I find this "Speculative Realism" appealing. "Continental philosophy" (with the kind of scare quotes continental philosophers seem to enjoy) rubs me the wrong way but I also see that "analytic philosophy" sometimes seems too cut off and arid. I say this as a scientist, not a philosophy professional. And yet I think some of the quotes here are a bit damning, and I wonder whether this synthesis might keep too many of the problems of continental philosophy.

I don't mean that the language is meaningless; I mean that the way the jargon and intuition develop seem to make it easy to express things that are wrong--in an attempt to go deep, it's seemed to me that the continental philosophers often go deeply wrong. Developing a consistent jargon can fool you into giving your world-view too much credit for its mere consistency. Similar to the way in the Middle Ages it seemed natural to debate (or worse, accept as a given) that Substance had to have Extension while all the intuitions packed into these terms depended on accepting the science of the day as a given. The problem is not in accepting the science as a given, the problem is the reliance on faulty intuition. (Similarly Kant assuming geometry was a priori.)
posted by Schmucko at 3:10 PM on November 18, 2009


So part of the problem with understanding the issue of language as the continental tradition is using it is framing the "problem" to be solved.

Whether you buy that it can be done, or that it's the right philosophical approach, the fact is that, since Kant, many people have been trying to get at the genuine and unmistakable architecture of thought (or accusing others of doing the same in the name of their own putatively less "metaphysical" or "foundationalist" system).

This is something that started out relatively "clear" in the ancient world. But clarity had its price. In Aristotle, the categories of experience were a litany that seemed fairly straightforward - pulled almost from ancient greek "common sense" - and even today these categories are highly recognizable to us (whether this is because these categories are really approaching some stable body of commonly held understandings or because Aristotle has been so universally taught throughout western history). But they were unexamined - simply presented as the indisputable word of the great master - and easily knocked over with a little examination. And Kant was really the first person to knock them over in a highly rigorous and systematic way, only to replace them with his own hard-won system. His method, culled from Descartes, was to proceed by separating out as much of the sensible world as possible to focus only on his own mind and its access to that world.

But the more any such architecture was examined, the more elusive its categories became and the harder to talk about. Nonetheless, various and compellingly recognizable accretions and revisions were made to the original Aristotelian litany, incredibly useful ideas.

Even those who think that a foundationalist impulse drove Hegel and Husserl and the post-Kantians, and that this was wrong-headed (you were never going to end the discussion about the architecture of thought, having found the "really real" structure), they will admit that these philosophers unearthed some truly amazing and recognizable elements of the "background" of human thinking and being. In the process, the ancient un-self-conscious "representational" assumptions about the structure of the mind were criticized. Concepts from evolving late 19th-century psychology and mathematics (mereology and set theory, etc) were brought in, not to mention aesthetic conceptions.

By the time you get to the juncture between Husserl and Heidegger, you're not only talking about dealing with the really hard-to-talk-about-ness of the architecture of human thinking/being, you're dealing with this whole long tradition of accreted ways of talking that serve to make the discussion even possible, and those accreted ways of talking touch in important ways (and borrow important terminology) from far-flung fields in mathematics, logic, the social sciences, and literary and cultural criticism. And no one takes the time to explain which frame of reference is being invoked - in part because there isn't space to do it, because the frames are too numerous and situated - but also because the dizzying experience of facing down this allusive complexity testifies to the real condition of intellectual life. It's really simple honesty. Because it's not really possible to fully situate the frameworks in question in an adequate way - it's only possible to present the illusion that you have done so successfully, as a "sop" (to use Brassier's word) to our anxiety about what is possible to be known. It's not only laypeople that must face down these anxieities, but intellectuals as well, and most of the works I'm discussing are intended for intellectuals.

So in the early 20th century, philosophers in the continental tradition are beginning to see their role, alongside avant garde art movements, as "concept formation" (inspired by this background situation of ontology, but also by Nietzsche, the most self-consciously "creative" philosopher in history). To investigate and understand (with varying degrees of rigor) the most important intellectual categories of the day, put them in (perhaps uncomfortable, but necessary) juxtapositions and seize from the unarticulated background of human being the unstated and elusive "frames" of human experience. Even to create them anew (which is ultimately not seen to diverge with "identifying" them - to identify is to create).

This is hard work for language to do. It is also something that language must be put to use doing "as" the concepts are being formed. To read Husserl, for example, is to see someone in the process of understanding, not someone who has it all figured out and is now just trying to present it to someone else. Other ways of working increasingly came to be seen (in the continental tradition) as disingenous, as a false witness to what philosophical work really was. It was, ultimately, the problem with Aristotelian philosophy - the authoritarian and unself-critical illusion of certainty and unquestionability. To this day, the analytics seem embarrassed by the "spectacle" of Husserl, to see the messiness of a philosopher working something through in front of you - not just "re-presenting" it to you in some mystically perfect coherence. But the continentals are okay with that. Not just okay with it - they are suspicious of anything that looks much neater than Husserl.

So we're not talking about what several posters have described as "describing something well-known and well-understood". Quite the contrary - we are talking about an enterprise that no longer recognizes an intelligible difference between describing and creating the pre-conditions of human thought. Thus, like art, continental philosophy is a creative endeavor. It's not botany. It's not taxonomy. It's a working-through. It's process crystallized in words. And it's not ever complete, nor is it ever intended to be complete, or to seem complete. It's an endless dreamscape junkyard, an open wound, an unstable and partial mess (though, contrary to what's been claimed again and again, not a hopelessly indecipherable one) - because it's a reflection of what this tradition has increasingly come to understand as the condition of human thought and being.

The analytics want tidiness, just like early 20th century bourgeois audiences wanted the neat little tales of Guy de Maupassant - perfect nuggets of craftsmanship and intelligibility. The dadaists and surrealists wanted instead to give them dynamite - to blow their worlds apart and essentially, fuck them up, and cover them in blood and mud - because this, they believed, was closer to the way the world really was. Tidiness was an illusion that needed to be smashed in order to break through the stultifying laziness cultivated by post-enlightenment culture. In short, dynamite, not bricks and mortar, was the primary and most genuine tool of real, rigorous thinking.
posted by macross city flaneur at 5:07 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


mcf: when you write things like "the analytics seem," or "the continentals are okay with that," or "the analytics want tidiness," you help reinforce a false sense of unity to these two "camps" (which aren't even really camps). That kind of language distorts the historical record, and is misleading b/c it paints with such a broad brush. I understand the narrative you are trying to build here, but in your haste to build it you are sacrificing a lot of really relevant complications and devilish details.

If anyone still reading this thread wants to gain a better understanding of the divisions that occurred in early 20th century philosophy, I would recommend this short book.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 6:43 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


sacrificing a lot of really relevant complications and devilish details

Guilty as charged.
posted by macross city flaneur at 7:06 PM on November 18, 2009


just like early 20th century bourgeois audiences wanted the neat little tales of Guy de Maupassant

A more sympathetic reading of Maupassant might notel that his relations with the bourgeoisie were, like his mentor Flaubert's, almost terminally ironic and that the moral dimension of his work was at best ambiguous, but as apparently he is being damned for an excess of clarity I see there'll be no need for a jury on this matter. At any rate, dying as he did at the age of 42 barking mad from syphilis, having attempted suicide first by shooting and then when that failed, jamming a knife into his throat, he has been spared reading the evidence of the bourgeois shallowness he flattered in his readers in this thread.
posted by Wolof at 8:30 PM on November 18, 2009


The analytics want tidiness, just like early 20th century bourgeois audiences wanted the neat little tales of Guy de Maupassant - perfect nuggets of craftsmanship and intelligibility.

Well, speaking as someone who earned his degree in the analytic tradition: you're giving us more credit for being unified than we perhaps deserve :)

I think a solid counterexample to this is the pragmatists -- not just the more modern incarnations, either, but the whole school all the way back to Peirce and James. Peirce had a wonderful knack for pointing out that even the scientific method (assuming you can nail down what it is) gives nothing more than an eternally-ongoing process, never a finished result (and, spectacularly for someone in the English-speaking world, he didn't base this on Hume). And James, of course, was perfectly at home with the messiness of actual humanity; his philosophy really only begins to make sense in the context of that messiness, and has that feel of work-in-progress you've mentioned, as if many of his essays are just his way of thinking out loud.

Since its beginning, pragmatism has never really fit neatly into an "analytic" or "continental" box. You get some thinkers who are very clearly analytic (like Dewey) and some who feel like they belong with the continental school but were born on the wrong side of the pond (like Josiah Royce). More recently, this tendency's become even more pronounced, especially with the works of Rorty; he can talk the talk of both sides, and seems like he really wants to throw that dichotomy (along with many others) out the window.

(and I should admit that I consider myself a pragmatist at heart, but I hope that doesn't influence my view of the pragmatic school as a whole)
posted by ubernostrum at 11:53 PM on November 18, 2009


Where is Wittgenstein when you need him?
posted by Vibrissae at 12:05 AM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


On the note of pragmatism, I think this approach (an "ongoing process, never a finished result") is far better than the continental approach for understanding consciousness.

The OP writes, "The analytics want tidiness, just like early 20th century bourgeois audiences wanted the neat little tales of Guy de Maupassant - perfect nuggets of craftsmanship and intelligibility."

Tidiness is how we come to a clear understanding of things. For example, when someone like Ned Block asks a question (like "Is consciousness sparse or rich?"), he appeals to work in empirical psychology to explain a theory about phenomenology and our cognitive access to this phenomenology. We are conscious of our experience, and in this sense it is rich, but our cognitive access to this conscious experience is sparse. (So we do not conceptualize the person in the gorilla suit walking across our visual field while we count how many times people in white t-shirts pass a basketball. Yet, according to Block, we are still conscious of this phenomenon.) To me, this is to offer a possible answer to a question about consciousness. What kinds of answers can Brassier provide, and in what way are they illuminating?

When Brassier says (and I quote from above)...
This pre-individual field must comprise at least two heterogenous orders of intensive differences; Delous defines intensities as differences of differences, or unequalizable quantities. When the disparity of potential between series crosses a critical threshold of disequilibrium it causes a sudden exchange of information between series; it effects a coupling between terms of a series and allows them to enter into relations of mutually reinforcing internal resonance. So this synthesis of space involves an asymmetrical dynamism whereby an undifferenciated — and Delous writes 'undifferenciated' with a 'c' here — but fully differentiated — 't' — there's an actual differentiation or the differentiation of actual species and parts — occurs on the basis of a virtual space or an intensive space which is... were completely differentiated or it incarnates these... ideal multiplicities, these differential structures — which remain purely virtual. But it's on the basis of its... own... the catalysis of individuation that space or extensity becomes apprehended in terms of volumes, sections, individual qualities, etc.
...all I am getting is a labyrinth of a language. These are undoubtably thoughtful intuitions, but they are inflated into an intellectual bulwarck, and they are not backed up by data. This stuff is "cool" to wrap your head around, like playing in a conceptual playground, but I can understand experience in this sense better by way of art or literature.
posted by ageispolis at 1:08 AM on November 20, 2009


As I described above, that quote uses vocabulary from cybernetics.

He is also describing ideas of Gilles Deleuze, misspelled as Delous in this transcript (my familiarity with Deleuze is not sufficient to tell you whether he is connecting cybernetics and Deleuze or if he is describing cybernetic ideas of Deleuze). At the very least, I can tell you that the cybernetic terms have specific meanings and he is using them in a way that seems to make sense in context, and that these terms are even backed up with mathematics in works by folks like Norbert Weiner and Heinz Von Foerster. Regarding Deleuze's vocabulary, I would have to let someone else take a crack at that.
posted by idiopath at 1:30 AM on November 20, 2009


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