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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Bad Habits: Pedantry

Graham Harman, on his voluminous blog, considers some types of philosophical pedantry: Heidegger’s pedantry of attitude, Husserl’s pedantry of terminology, and Gadamer’s pedantry of indigestion.

Where to draw the line between pedantry and rigour can be a tender issue for philosophers, since most philosophy can appear vulnerable to accusations of pedantry from some points of view. Consider the height of the tedious analytic-continental divide, when both ‘sides’ would accuse each other of shallow pedantry. The deconstructionists’ close readings, aiming to tease out the contradictory oppositions texts were based upon, were dismissed as sophistic trickery, founded more upon subterfuge than subtly. But the accusation was readily slung back at supposed logic-chopping charlatans who had retreated from engagement with the world into scholasticism. This ought to be unsurprising though. Where there is a de facto pluralism of method, there are bound to be accusations that some people are excessively fixating on trivial matters.

Jon Cogburn asks for suggestions of names for a Brandomian pedantry, where we get ‘italics in lieu of argumentation’. How about ‘pedantry of emphasis’? Or maybe a little more suggestively, we could say this is a ‘pedantry of discernment’. The idea here would be that if only we lay the right stress on what we say then its truth will be self-evident, shining forth unaided.

Pedantry aside, Brandom’s formatting, which streches beyond italics to emboldening, underlining and the occasional font change, drives me mad. I guess he must think it’s helpful, but it often gives his texts the rhythmn of a Powerpoint presentation. It’s made me learn to use emphasis very sparingly, and my rule of thumb is now ‘if it’s not sufficiently clear without emphasis, just rewrite it’.

Bad Habits: Capitalisation

One of the stylistic tics I find most frustrating when reading philosophy is overeager capitalisation. I’m reading Korsgaard’s new book, Self-Constitution, at the moment, and it’s driving me to distraction. For example, she keeps capitalising Objective Reason and Objective Values. Rorty is forever doing this too, talking about Language and Truth, say, in contrast to language and truth.

Presumably, the point is to contrast reified or hypostatised ideas with more workaday ones. So, in a Wittgensteinian spirit, it will be meant to help us “bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.” Great — but it rarely turns out like that.

Wherever you see this sort of capitalisation, it’s usually a sure sign that there is a bait-and-switch going on. This is because, after making such a distinction between two ideas (objective and The Objective, reality and Reality), there is an almost irrestitable temptation to set up a straw man. This is because the second term becomes a magnet for all the most implausible ideas that might be attached to the word. It’s almost a license to create some Frankenstein’s monster position — because, after all, one is not talking about the plausible version of the concept in question, but the fishy capitalised one.

Again, the intentions may be innocent, but the execution of them rarely is. The actual effect is usually to wildly caricature any view that has the merest whiff of metaphysics about it. (Think how often you see references to Realism and Idealism — often a good indication that you are not dealing with a view which anyone actually holds.) Many of these views are guilty of related problems, but this is no honest way to convict them. So, next time you see a stray capital letter, it’s worth stopping to ask yourself whether you are dealing with a fair characterisation of the position in question. In fact, the same goes for rhetorical questions: it’s a good rule of thumb to try and answer them literally. Like wayward capitalising, they’re another tool used to paper over the cracks of the weak point in an argument.