Rilke on Badiou

Zizek’s opposition to post-secular thought is made manifest in his reversal of Benjamin’s first thesis on the philosophy of history:

The puppet called ‘theology’ is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the service of historical materialism, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight.

But I think he, along with Badiou, still falls foul of a straight reading of the original thesis: that their historical materialism relies on an illegitimate theological supplement. We must be careful about raising a wholesale objection to their engagement with the religious tradition though, for it is not that which is the problem. Badiou’s book on Saint Paul and the foundations of universalism is wonderful in the round. But I cannot accept its central pillar as an independent position, namely the theory of the Event. I won’t say much about this here since others have written at length about the unacceptably mysterious relation between Events and their grounds and ‘sites’, or for Zizek the conditions of the Act (for example, Sinthome over at Larval Subjects and Alex Callinicos in The Resources of Critique). Of course, the inexplicability of such Events or Acts are their whole point, defined as they are as a break with an anterior structure that seems to exhaust the current field of possibilites. Edifying as such theories might be (though I have my doubts) in their implicit message that endless theorising is in vain without practical action, the further relation that they posit between theory and practice is unacceptable. But enough of all that for now.

Here I simply want to draw your attention to Rilke’s poem ‘The Angel’, which, almost entirely whimsically, I like to read as a comment on Badiou.

The Angel

He shakes his head as if he would dismiss
whatever might confine him or constrain him —
for each gigantic heartbeat brings more close
the huge event — forever orbiting.

All heaven shouts and swarms with presences
ready to summon him: Come! See and witness!
But do not burden with your heaviness
his weightless hands, for they would break your doors

and, raging in the night from room to room,
would seize you and search deep into your heart,
wrench you about as if to give you form —
at last would break your mould, would lift you out.

— Rilke, Neue Gedichte, trans. S. Cohn

Spinozist Joy and the Materialism of Public Space

A very welcome return of k-punk to political-philosophical analysis to be found in a blistering post here. He weaves together a discussion of affect and paternalism with reference to Supernanny and the role of the BBC, going on to bring a Spinozistic materialism to bear on the problem of the failure of late capitalism (with much more besides). Not to be missed!

Rethinking Autonomy and Nature: Notes on Strategy

In a previous post I outlined a potential antinomy between freedom and objectivity. It was generated by two claims: that as free beings we have authority over ourselves to determine how we should think and act; and that as rational beings situated in a wider world, we are also legitimately subject to authority exercised by others as well as that exerted by how things stand in the world at large. The question then is: how are we to understand the claims over us that are externally sourced in a way that is consistent with an account of our own claims over ourselves as self-determining subjects? Without attempting to answer that question here, I want to relate it some wider issues.

How are we as subjects related to each other and to the world we inhabit? This simply articulated question raises a dizzyingly complex set of issues, and is obviously not one that we can approach head on. One way of breaking it down is to ask, insofar as we engage with others and the world, what in that engagement can be attributed to us and what attributed to them. This is one way of understanding what Kant means by spontaneity and receptivity.

Our initial question can then be recast in these terms. If we are free, then this can seem to entail some sort of spontaneity on our parts; some contribution we make in shaping our engagement with others and the world. On the other hand, if we are accountible to authorities beyond ourselves, then this can seem to entail some sort of receptivity on our parts; some contribution something other than ourselves has to shaping our activities. In this case, we seem to be dealing with fundamentally normative renderings of spontaneity and subjectivity. This is because our question is not primarily a demand for a substantive explanation of the processes through which, say, we think about the world or are affected by the actions of others. Rather, we want to know about the responsibilities we are under, the authority we can legitimately exercise over ourselves and others, the commitments we have undertaken and those that we are rationally entitled to, and so on. Thus, our initial question is looking for a way to hold together our accountability to things beyond us with the thought that we have a special role in determining how and what we are answerable to. Giving an adequate account along these lines will show how our spontaneous contribution to determining the propriety of our activities is compatible with the receptivity that is necessary for us to be attendant to the factors outside of us that contribute to the propriety of these activities.

Having set them out thusly, it seems possible to transpose these issues to another level. Here we should introduce a distinction between the space of reasons and the space of nature (leaving these notions relatively intutitive at first). The space of reasons is rationally ordered, being governed by principles or norms such that explaining activity that is assesable with reference to the reasons for it, such as asserting that P or performing a deliberate action, makes essential reference to norms and principles. The space of nature (as traditionally conceived), on the other hand, has a law-like structure such that explaining an event in purely natural terms will be a matter of adducing what caused it and what it in turn goes on to cause. To highlight the difference, following a Kantian formulation we can say that nature can be explained by laws but, insofar they engage in properly rational activity, agents’ interventions into the space of reasons should be explained by their conception of law. In other words, agents as reason-mongering creatures are not (or not merely) explicable in terms of the causal necessity of what they do but in terms of its rational necessity: the way it follows from what they take as laws or maxims.

Although woefully underexplained here, the distinction between the logical spaces of reason and nature can, on one line of thought, be seen to roughly correspond with spontaneity and receptivity respectively. If rational agency is essentially a matter of following concepts of laws (i.e. of acting on the basis of norms), and this is something that requires us to actively take up some orientation towards others and the world rather than being passively determined by laws, then rational agency seems to require a moment of spontaneity. Conversely, merely natural happenings seem to be characterised by a lack of such an active component to them; they simply are, rather than having being brought into being. So too, as we encounter them, it can seem that they come to constitute a horizon of giveness for us. That is, we face them as brute matters of fact, receptively imposed.

Jumping forward a little, we now have on the side of spontaneity freedom, reason and agency whereas on the side of receptivity we have external constraint, nature and causality. I think an adequate resolution of a potential antinomy between freedom, as self-direction, and objectivity, as external direction, must be pursued at the level of spontaneity and receptivity encompassing these further notions connected to the logical spaces of reason and nature as well. Insofar as nature and reason remain diremptive, as I think standard Kantian, Humean and scientific naturalist approaches leave them, trying to account for our autonomy alongside our responsibility to ‘get the world right’ and to acknowledge the claims of others over us, will leave us disappointed. At least, so I suspect.

Part of the reason for my worries centre around something both Adorno and McDowell emphasise. This is the conception of nature that arises with modernity, as something disenchanted and mechanical, bereft of the meaning that was once found in it. The rise of science put pressure on a hermeneutic approach to the natural world, which could find significance in the order of the seasons and the setup of the food-chain, seeing them as signs of divine providence or the natural order of things. But swept away along with this rightful demystification of nature was also the resources for finding certain sorts of normative significance in nature. ‘Rationalised reason’ thus brought with it a sharp division between the subject and the rest of the world, reconstructing ‘oughts’ only from resources to be found within individuals, such as desires or categorically imposed ends or rules necessary to act or think. Freedom then becomes a matter of following or achieving ends that are constituted by the individual — the material world (and often other agents) being mere instruments or blocks to such a process.

The modernist demand for autonomy is thus fundamentally coloured by the modern conception of nature, since its notion of freedom has been conditioned by what it thought the only resources to understand normativity were. Putting this conception of nature under pressure will, I hope, allow us to step away from the one-sided individualism that many conceptions of normativity (and therefore freedom) are pushed towards. While we cannot go back to the Greeks, so to speak — individualism as a value cannot and should not be ignored or wished away — hopefully we will be able to situate it more frutifully when the artificial pressures of a misleading diremption between agent and world are overcome.

This post has been rather messy, impressionistic, clunky and light on argument. Also, it is probably riddled with errors and equivocations. However, it is only meant to outline a very rough trajectory of thought rather than any settled conclusions. Hopefully, in the the future I can polish up the rough edges and provide further connecting tissue for the issues raised.

Robert Brandom: a few links


1. Brandom’s Locke Lectures 2006, ‘Between Saying and Doing: Towards an Analytic Pragmatism’ (audio [currently unavailable] ¦ text)

2. Brandom’s Woodbridge Lectures 2007, ‘Animating Ideas of Idealism’ (text)

3. Articles on Making It Explicit here (see under ‘Readings’).

4. Special issue of Pragmatics & Cognition on Brandom here (subscription required).

I look forward to reading Selbsttatigkeit’s promised reflections on the Woodbridge Lectures. For my part, I think they have some serious flaws as a reading of the idealist tradition, which is much less social-pragmatic than Brandom makes out. (Something that I think is shown by the strength of the readings given by Allen Wood, John McDowell and, one of my supervisors, Bob Stern.) Nonetheless, Brandom always does a good job of presenting a clear story and his readings of the history of philosophy are usually far more interesting for what they reveal about his own project; if only because he often frames others as so many failed attempts at articulating something resembling his system. I’ll try and comment on the Woodbridge Lectures myself when I have the time, probably focussing on the reading of Hegel he puts forward.

Silence is Golden

Commenting on the previous post, Dave M from DuckRabbit says:

I also see a connection between McDowell’s “anti-anti-realism” and his “quietism,” but I don’t think it’s quite as direct as you make out. Naturally if a question is motivated only by a false assumption one will spurn demands from both sides that one give one’s own answer to it. That doesn’t make one a quietist.

Of course, Dave is correct that the connection is not a direct one. Evidently, it was misleading of me to say that McDowell’s rejection of what he takes to be an erroneous assumption common to realism and anti-realism was “a sign of McDowell’s quietism” without making it more clear that I do not take his quietism to be a simple consequence of making this sort of move. To see why quietism does not follow, we can consider three sorts of philosophical strategy that proceed in this way.

Firstly, we have the simple identification of a loaded question — the familiar fallacy of asking a complex question with a false or highly questionable suppressed premise (e.g. ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’). Obviously, examples of this argumentative strategy are ten-a-penny, and exposing a logical fallacy of this sort does not make someone a quietist.

Secondly then, we have what Michael Williams calls ‘theoretical diagnosis’. This sort of analysis attempts to give a genealogy of the problematic assumption. As such, it is not content to simply point out that an inquiry rests upon a questionable premise, but goes further in explaining how this premise came to be implicitly or explicitly accepted. Where appropriate, an analysis of this sort may tell an historical story, or demonstrate the inquiry’s dependence upon some substantive practical attitudes, or some combination of the two. The idea being that once we can see that the demand for explanation we faced is a conditional one, dependent upon a whole backdrop of beliefs and values that are not simply given, then we can loosen the grip that a problem has on us — the sense that by refusing to answer it something important goes unexplained.

As a slight aside: Rorty is someone who often proceeds in this way, especially when confronting what he takes to be epistemology. So, for example, in his attempted dissolution of the modern epistemological project, he provides us with a historical narrative that tries to show how we are led to an impasse by a set of distinctively modern assumptions about our relation to the world arising out of the Cartesian and Lockean programmes. These assumptions are supposedly alien to older philosophers, such as the ancient Greeks, and only arise in response to a particular set of problems introduced by the rise of modern science. Having recognised this, we are meant to see that engaging with the epistemological tradition founded upon the assumptions introduced by Descartes and Locke is, to use a Rortian term, ‘optional’. If we can see that the problem we are facing is not imposed atemporally, it is up to us to decide whether we want to engage with it or rather instead drop the presuppositions that motivate it, redescribe the phenomena in question and get on with something more useful.

Although this is a greatly simplified take on Rorty’s position, it nonetheless allows us to see why he has been accused of ‘decisionism’ by Charles Guignon, amongst others. The charge here is that Rorty overestimates our capacity, both normatively and psychologically, to simply drop problem-generating assumptions and think about the issue at hand in a different way. That is, we should be wary of accepting an unqualified version of Rorty’s claim, “man is always free to choose new descriptions.” (PMN: 362n.7) Following on from this, I am tempted to claim that Rorty is often like a psychoanalyst who is content to tell his new patients that he is sure that their troubles are the result of deep psycho-social traumas and sees no need to work through their particular circumstances with them. This is compounded by statements like the following, where quoting James Conant he says, “‘Rorty’s recommendation appears to be that one should leave the fly in the fly-bottle and get on with something more interesting.’ Conant here gets me exactly right.” (PPv.3: 47n.17)

How would the fly be shown the way out of the fly-bottle? Well, perhaps via the third approach, which is a genuinely therapeutic diagnosis. Recapping, the first approach simply pointed out that an inquiry is based on a false or otherwise questionable premise. The second tried to show how the adoption of the premise was conditioned. Therapeutic diagnosis countenances a further possibility though, that the adoption of the dubious premise is not conditioned, at least not in the way that the theoretical diagnostician tries to show. That is, such an approach does not insist upon tracing the adoption of the premise to some specific point, instead holding out for the possibility that the temptation to error is a diffuse one, arising perennially and not tied to a specific set of beliefs or desires (with the implication that we are free to dismiss them with relative ease).

Wittgenstein’s suggestion that philosophical problems appear when language ‘goes on holiday’ might serve to illustrate this. On this sort of account, we cannot explain the myriad temptations to platonism, reductionism, behaviourism, cartesianism, etc. as merely a series of contingent mistakes — of propositions we simply endorsed in error but can now see are false. Rather, these temptations will be seen as more deeply rooted within us than that, as habits fostered by the misleading analogies suggested by language that offer themselves to us when we turn to philosophical topics. As such, they are something that needs to be tended to so that they do not become overgrown. Less metaphorically, this will mean actually reflecting in concrete cases, catching ourselves when we go on to demand and then supply ourselves with explanations for phenomena that can be perfectly well acounted for by way of careful description rather than a theory that seeks to expose the essential nature of the phenomenon at hand. By doing this, we would develop a certain habitus (in the sense of cultivating a comportment towards the world) that means that we are no longer troubled by what we once thought were problems demanding our attention as constructive philosophers.

If we think that philosophical problems are usually amenable to some form of this latter treatment, then quietism — understood as the refusal to assert philosophical theses — ought to seem more reasonable. This is because if philosophical problems stem from near-inevitable tendencies entwined with some fundamental aspect of our existence, such as language use, once we have accounted for and dismissed such ‘anxieties’ then there is nothing left to explain. There would be no philosophical theses because such things would not add to our knowledge; they would not be seriously contestable. But instead of theses, we may need reminders. This is because a reminder does not add to knowledge, it is a prompt which allows us to do something else: to orient ourselves in the right way, silencing our philosophical anxiety — something that it is a practical achievement as much as an epistemic one.

What underlies McDowell’s quietism is, I think, a refusal of a certain demand for explanation which arises from a philosophical anxiety. Again without going into the full details of McDowell’s views, in the case of the traditional debate between realism and anti-realism, the common assumption that he rejects seems to be that either of these views explain anything at all — that they are capable of doing any philosophical heavy lifting. The anxiety is the longing for foundations — the worry that we need an account to show us that our practices are safe; that science really is in order because it connects up with mind-independent entities or that morality can after all be on a sound footing simply by virtue of social practices within certain communities. But giving a philosophical explanation at this stage is always too late in the day. I take McDowell to suggest that we ought to be able to nip these demands in the bud by coming to see how our common-sense platitudes, properly marshalled, do not sell us short, leaving us with something further to explain. Once we dispell the anxiety, the need for a substantive explanation vanishes along with it.

Sophisticated Naïveté

Trying to situate McDowell’s work within the rickety old categories central to the debate between realism and anti-realism can be quite tricky. McDowell himself has said that his position is not so much realism as anti-anti-realism. I take this to be another sign of his quietism, with the idea being that he wants to oppose an assumption common to realism and anti-realism. For both these positions might be understood as giving different answers to a question that McDowell would want to reject. That question being something like, “what makes the statements in a certain domain true or warranted?” The realist will typically point to something about the world — some fact or other truthmaker — where the anti-realist will typically point to something about our practices or world-view. I think McDowell, on the other hand, would want to reject purported explanations or theories of this kind as misguided. In Wittgensteinian terms, we might say that he thinks it enough for there to be an internal relation between norms and propositions and what they concern; something that a philosophical theory cannot offer a weighty explanation of.

A full exploration of McDowell’s position would encompass his readings of Hegel’s idealism and the Tractatus as well as his thinking about conceptuality and experience. All that aside though, I just wanted to mention a phrase that Crispin Wright uses in his review of Mind and World. He calls McDowell’s position a ‘sophisticated naive realism’. Although Wright no doubt uses this phrase in a barbed way, I think it has a certain charm. As such, I’d like to reclaim it as a positive description of the McDowellian enterprise. So, if McDowell has to be atop some horse in the realism vs. anti-realism race, I’ll think of his as a sophisticatedly naive one.