Bad Habits: The Philosopher as Concept-Monger

You don't understand me...

In the analytic tradition, one popular characterisation of philosophy has been that it is conceptual analysis. After the Quinean attack on the analytic-synthetic distinction, this view has become less popular, but it still has its adherents. The idea is that philosophers take a problem (e.g. free will) and then decompose it into a set of pertinent concepts (e.g. responsibility, determinism, freedom, agency), clarify what these concepts might mean and how they relate to each other, and thereby hope to remove the air of mystery which hangs over the unanalysed problem. Ordinarily, at most, such a philosopher might recommend we use a word in a different way (e.g. talking of ‘free agents’ but not ‘free actions’ or vice versa), or stop invoking certain concepts at all (e.g. final causes). But there is another less conservative model of philosophy which also takes its object to be concepts, most often associated with recent continental thought.

Deleuze thinks philosophy is the “continuous creation of concepts.” (WIP: 8.) In part, this is meant to align philosophy more with productive activities, which make and create, than those that test and observe — philosophy is to be more poesis than theoria. Deleuze brings his own inflections to the notion of the concept, and thereby philosophy as concept creation too. But the details of Deleuze are not my concern here. Instead of criticism of Deleuze, my focus here is the kind of uses (or misuses) to which this idea of philosophy as concept-creation has been put.

The main ill-effect of the idea of philosophy as concept-creation which I want to point to here has been its reinforcement of one way of approaching philosophers. So, we get the philosopher-as-conceptual-toolsmith model. At its worst, we end up with synecdoche run amok, where one prominent idea comes to dominate everything else about a philosopher’s work — Wittgenstein = language games, Foucault = power-knowledge, Levinas = the Other, Badiou = the Event, etc. For example, Simon Critchley describes the post-Kantian landscape thus:

you get the Subject in Fichte, Spirit in Hegel, art in the early Schelling, and then in later nineteenth and early twentieth century German philosophy, Will to Power in Nietzsche, Praxis in Marx and Being in Heidegger. (New British philosophy: 187)

Similarly, Graham Harman claims that Heidegger only really had one idea which he endlessly repeats, namely the tool-analysis. But even without this extreme hermeneutic reductionism, there is a real coarsening which can go on when we chisel down a philosopher to a handful of headline concepts.

All of this is not to say that philosophers do not produce new concepts. Nor is a plea for endless textual analysis and scholarly ensconcement such that we never put a philosopher’s ideas to work in a new context. And neither does it display a blindness to the realities of communicating philosophical ideas in circumstances where people do not have the time or inclination to master more than the headline ideas of many thinkers. Instead, all I want to do is make the observation that emphasising the concept-creation model of philosophy too much can promote some dubious tendencies in both historiography and contemporary critical debate.

Firstly, unsurprisingly, it often leads to trading in caricatures and straw men. Second, it tends to drive a mechanical style of philosophy, whereby the aim is to ‘apply’ the concepts of the master-philosopher to a given material rather than approach it afresh — ‘I will now give a Foucauldian/Wittgensteinian/SR analysis of x’. Third, it tends to occlude the historical dimension of much philosophy (responding to a certain set of material circumstances; intervening in a historically evolving tradition). Fourth, it can also shroud what is valuable in philosophical work, which sometimes is the purchase which a new concept provides, but is often dissolving a bogus problem, reframing a question to allow it to be answered, effecting a more diffuse change of perspective on an issue, instilling a sense of Entfremdung with respect to something we’ve taken for granted, and so on. All these dangers make me wary of overplaying the image of the philosopher as a forge for concepts.

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The New World

Philosophy Department at NYU.

At the end of the month, I will be travelling to New York and New England for a few weeks. Whilst there, I would like to fit in at least some philosophy — not least because the hard-boiled temperaments of American grad students have made me curious about the intellectual climate there. I’ll be travelling with my housemate (a non-philosopher), and our rough schedule is as follows: NYC 26-28th Oct; The Adirondacks 29th Oct-3rd Nov; Boston 4th-7th Nov; NYC 8th-13th Nov. I know there’s various things happening in the area around then (only some of it I can catch):

Charles Larmore seminar, NYC, 5th Nov
Jonathan Lear, Tanner Lectures, Cambridge, MA, 4th-6th Nov
The Foundations of Morality Conference, NYC, 6-7th Nov

If there’s any other philosophy events which you think I might be interested in, then it would be great if you could let me know. And anything else besides too (post-punk gigs, riot grrrl nights, modernist art exhibitions…) would be helpful, though I don’t imagine being at a loss for things to do.

Disenchantment

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Modernity is often associated with disenchantment. But what does this mean? Ancient thinkers had tended to ascribe teleological principles to the natural world: the stone strives for its home at the centre of the earth; the eclipse communicates divine displeasure. The monotheistic traditions which then gained ascendancy in Europe and the Near East retained something of this, finding God’s plan suffusing nature: God creates walnuts to resemble brains, signing to human reason that the former is good for the latter; gold and silver lie beneath the ground and the sun and stars shine in the heavens above, displaying a divinely ordained symmetry (both these latter examples are taken from Foucault’s The Order of Things). But with the rise of the mathematical sciences, natural teleology and divine order came to be treated with increasing derision. Aristotle was to be banished to the libraries of the Schoolmen, and if God was to have daubed nature with language, he would speak to us in mathematics and not dainty allegories. For philosophers such as Descartes, matter was extension, and must yield its secrets to a physics taking mathematisable form. This approach to the natural world was further buttressed in the minds of natural philosophers by the successes of the Newtonian revolution. In biology, by 1828 even the demand for a vital force — said to divide the organic from inorganic — proved empty, Wöhler having proved that the organic could be synthesised from inorganic components.

Everywhere, meaning fell under the sword of mechanism, and myth and mysticism with it. But suspicion hung over this evacuated nature, for was it not also our home — perhaps even the very substance of our being? If so, what remained of freedom, providence, value, beauty or morality in all this? The very meaning of life appeared to be under threat, since there seemed to be no room for God, rational harmony or true righteousness amongst the icy torrents of indifferent particles. The height of the Enlightenment saw the most avid articulation of these worries, with Jacobi coining the term ‘nihilism’ to describe what he saw as Godless and fatalistic Critical philosophies, which in his eyes provided little more than a fig-leaf covering their destruction of a transcendent source of value.

In all this, there are both progressive and regressive currents. The rise of modern science has been a near-unparalleled breakthrough, on a par with the development of agriculture, city dwelling or the institution of constitutional legal codes. In so doing, it has rightly banished God-talk from natural philosophy and much else besides. So too, it has helped deaden the appeal of any view of freedom wherein it consists in some contra-casual power to intervene in the world (quantum mechanical gymnastics aside). But there is a risk of the burning light of science blinding us to the proper significance (or even existence) of certain equally natural phenomena. My own interests here settle on normativity — what we are committed, entitled or prohibited from thinking and doing; how we are subject to the ‘force of the better reason’; why we not merely do but should follow certain rules and conventions — ethical, theoretical, aesthetic, affective — whilst rightly rejecting others. Often, attempts to understand normativity suffer from a scientism which extends far beyond a healthy respect for the natural sciences, and which commonly has its roots in a problematic conception of disenchanted nature.

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In the face of the disenchantment of nature, we can easily succumb to that curious form of philosophical vertigo that Wittgenstein diagnoses so well. We then grasp about for a solid handhold. Confronting frigid nature, operating with lawful or law-like regularity, one response has been to cast aside concepts like freedom, obligation and representation as folk-psychological detritus which we can do without. For example, Stephen Stich has claimed:

intentional states and processes that are alluded to in our everyday descriptions and explanations of people’s mental lives and their actions are myths. Like the gods that Homer invoked to explain the outcome of battles, or the witches that inquisitors invoked to explain local catastrophes, they do not exist. [quoted in a recent article by Dwyer]

This is the eliminativist approach: the world is nothing like the fantasies of religion and art had led us to believe — it is the indurate ground of animal life but not our ‘home’. For the eliminativist, there is no need to sweeten the pill of the disenchantment brought on by the scientific mind-set. As Ray Brassier has recently written, “Philosophy should be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem.”

Drawing back from eliminativism, another response has been to reconstruct those concepts suspected of anthropocentrism in a more respectable vocabulary for the naturalist. So, there is no need to ditch freedom, say, but let us just be clear what we mean by it, where this might legitimately be causation along certain biochemical pathways and not others, or action in light of knowledge of the conditions under which it was caused, or whatever natural-scientific form of description best approximates actual or ideal folk-psychological usage. The manifest image of humanity is not entirely wrongheaded, just naïve. Properly regimented, it captures something important about human patterns of understanding, behaviour and our place in the world. Let us call this view naturalistic revisionism.

Different again from eliminativism and revisionism is expressivism. The expressivist agrees that the world is a cold, dead place when contrasted with the animisms, platonisms and providentialisms of old. However, the human animal ‘stains’ and ‘gilds’ reality with its sentiments (to borrow Hume’s terms). For the expressivist, it is we who project value on the world, and this can give us the resources to explain ethics, freedom and aesthetics outside of the tight net of the scientific naturalist’s privileged nomenclature. There is nothing unnatural about our caring about (or disdaining) each other, our projects and our environments; but that need not force us to redescribe ourselves in natural-scientific terms alone — our passions have their own logic and significance that subsists upon but grows out of its natural base.

Yet another response to disenchantment has been to foreground not human emotion but reason and autonomy. For constructivists, the legacy of disenchantment has been to show us that we are alone in the world, with no divine firmament above or promontory below that would help us surveil a normative order. But unlike expressivists, we should look to our activity of trafficking with reasons stretching beyond our structures of passions. We forge obligations for ourselves through the exercise of autonomous legislative capacities, claiming ownership of our actions through drawing them into an unfolding plan which we grant authority over our desires, projects and identities as a whole. In doing so, we act with the dignity proper to creatures capable of self-determination, who are not merely buffeted around by events, beliefs or desires, but who manage to establish some sort of purchase and sovereignty over themselves and thereby lead their lives.

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Now, you need not be a platonic boogeyman to be uneasy about this collection of options. My own thinking about these issues is heavily indebted to John McDowell. His suggestion that we need “a partial re-enchantment of nature,” as with many of McDowell’s trademark phrases, is a little unfortunate though. He stridently rejects the idea that ‘re-enchantmant’ has a “crazily nostalgic” character which gives any ground towards a “regress into a pre-scientific superstition” which would encourage us to interpret the fall of a sparrow like we would a text. But nevertheless the associations surrounding ‘enchantment’ remain — something spooky gets evoked. Talk of ‘re-enchantment’ is misleading, and a better McDowellian phrase would be resistance to the “interiorization of the space of reasons.”

Disenchantment makes it seem like reasons are illusory or are at best absorbed into the activity of subjects. What we get is meaning, and the rational relations it makes intelligible, restricted to meaning-conferring subjects. At most, so understood, we project reasons into a world of rationally inert objects. The car-crash is then only a reason to phone an ambulance in light of human ethical practices; the ionized radiation in the cloud chamber only justifies belief in the presence of an alpha particle in light of the construction and testing of electromagnetic and particle theories. Now, there is something right and something wrong about all this. We cannot intelligibly think from a perspective of cosmic exile and must accept the finitude of our cognitive capacities (contra SR and OOO). All of our truck with value, reasons, justification must proceed from local and situated circumstances and continue to lean upon human forms of knowing and valuing. But that does not mean we should rest content with the idea that these are ‘merely human’ standards whose shadows fall upon an apathetic world. Our finitude, properly understood, ought not impugn normative realism, and we should not be carried away by the characterless world presented by natural science.

Nature is not exhausted by natural scientific description, and so it is misguided to require human interests for any more juice to be squeezed out of it. The predominantly nomothetic explanations offered by natural science are pearls without price, but they have no claim to speak for the totality of nature. Human life is obviously in some sense ontologically decomposable into organic compounds, atoms, quarks and electrons, and so on. But the explanatory matrix which most often befits it is normative and not immediately natural scientific (whatever the prospects of reductionsism about normativity). Again, there is nothing unnatural about humans as they fall under normative descriptions, appraised in terms of their intentions, virtue, beauty or freedom. We come to employ these concepts in the course of our biological maturation, supplemented by a process of socialisation which is no less a part of the natural history of humanity.

The temptation towards the modernist division between meaning-conferring subjectivity and intrinsically meaningless nature arises when we think that we can only have meaning on human terms — the human forge of meaning being the correlate to the frozen world of mechanism. If the logical space of nature and the logical space of reasons are irreconcilable, then this would seem to follow (assuming naturalistic revisionisms are moribund, which I think is very plausible). But this is only so if nature is also exhausted by natural scientific description. And it is not: natural events can be legitimately characterised in normative terms without a regression to pre-scientific rationalism. This is the sort of re-enchantment McDowell seeks, and rightly too. The claim to be defended is thus: “the natural world is in the space of logos.” My optimism on this count is rarely shared though.

Cold World

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The world of the happy is quite another than that of the unhappy.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.43

My copy of Dominic Fox’s Cold World: The Aesthetics of Dejection and the Politics of Militant Dysphoria arrived on Wednesday, unexpectedly early. It’s brief but potent, much like its recent and upcoming fellows in the Zero Books series, such as Owen Hatherley’s excellent Militant Modernism. The theme is artistic and political forms of deep sadness. It ranges from music (Codeine, Xasthur) to poetry (Hopkins, Coleridge, Larkin) to politics (Ulrike Meinhof and the RAF). This week Dominic has been posting excerpts on his blog, which give a good feel of the book as a whole. For what it’s worth, it comes highly recommended by me.

3 Quarks Daily Final

My post on Philosophy as Bildung has somehow made it through to the final of the 3 Quarks Daily philosophy prize. The judge is the esteemed analytic philosopher of mind Daniel C. Dennett. Some of the other finalists have expressed excitement at Dennett reading and possibly commenting upon their post, though I must admit that the prospect of coming to the attention of regular 3QD reader David Byrne (of Talking Heads) is the more exciting one for me as a New Wave and post-punk fan. The nine finalists are as follows:

  1. 3 Quarks Daily: Penne For Your Thought
  2. Der Wille Zur Macht und Sprachspiele: Nietzsche’s Causal Essentialism
  3. Grundlegung: Philosophy as Bildung
  4. Justin Erik Halldór Smith: The Fundamentals of Gelastics
  5. PEA Soup: Scanlon on Moral Responsibility and Blame
  6. The Immanent Frame: Immanent Spirituality
  7. Tomkow: Blackburn, Truth and other Hot Topics
  8. Underverse: Refuting “It,” Thus
  9. Wide Scope: Emotions and Moral Skepticism

Update: Winners announced here alongside some grumbling by Dennett.

Rorty Interviews

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A number of wide-ranging interviews with Richard Rorty can be found here:

‘A Talent For Bricolage’
‘Realists—Grow Up’
‘The Next Left’
‘North Atlantic Thinking’
‘Without illusion, but with conviction’

Rorty is laconic throughout, with my favourite example being when Joshua Knobe asks him why Putnam thinks he is a relativist: “Beats me. I wrote an article about it, but that was as far as I got.”