Philosophy as Bildung

In a recent post, I claimed that we ought to defend a form of philosophical humanism. By this, I meant that we should confront a certain embarrassment concerning the human. One variety of such embarrassment is expressed in strident naturalism about philosophical explanation. Naturalisms of this sort seek to shift the locus of philosophical explanation, whether ontological or justificatory, to something more fundamental than the considerations given in everyday practices of explanation. For example, here I have in mind efforts to bring cognitive science to bear on moral psychology. Within many such debates, the ‘folk psychology’ possessed by normal agents is contrasted with the results of the modern psychological sciences, laden with the outcome of brain scans and other neurological research. The suggestion is that philosophy of mind ought to take off from these cutting edge results, which present us with the most accurate accounts of the mind available, rather than the messy self-understanding of ordinary agents which, although useful in practical situations, is often shot with delusions, simplification and convenient fictions. My reservations are not primarily directed at the cognitive sciences per se (and certainly not all forms of naturalism), only the thought that philosophical explanation must start from this point instead of the more familiar understanding of ourselves expressed in ordinary discourse. This is the conviction that, when it comes to philosophy, what we say when we chat with our friends, say, or the way that Sophocles characterises shame, leaves nothing out. In part, this conviction is founded upon a different way of approaching the tasks of philosophy.

If philosophy is to provide us with a maximally coherent account of how the world is, being a handmaiden to the sciences which works upon the more abstract and conceptual difficulties which they throw up, then the idea that it ought to accept the same reductive and naturalistic approach to explanation is much more palatable. That sort of activity may very well be a precondition of achieving the invaluable insights provided by science. Yet, I don’t think that attempts to reframe in this context traditional philosophical problems, concerning knowledge or practical deliberation, for example, are at all illuminating. This is because these problems are, predominantly, troubling in a different way to scientific problems. Once again, Wittgenstein expresses this idea well. In a heading of the ‘Big Typescript’, he writes: “DIFFICULTY OF PHILOSOPHY NOT THE INTELLECTUAL DIFFICULTY OF THE SCIENCES, BUT THE DIFFICULTY OF A CHANGE OF ATTITUDE. RESISTANCES OF THE WILL MUST BE OVERCOME.” He then goes to say, “Work on philosophy is – as work in architecture frequently is – actually more of a //a kind of// work on oneself. On one’s own conception. On the way one sees things. (And what one demands of them.)” (PO: 162-3) Without wanting to overgeneralise from these remarks, I think we can see within them a kind of schematic for philosophy. I shall now go on to say a little about how I propose we should think about philosophy, or at least one its central currents, and which connects this Wittgensteinian view with some which may seem like natural adversaries to it.

What might it mean to say that work on philosophy is work on oneself? Helpful here is a German term, important for understanding post-Kantian idealism, namely, Bildung. It can be translated variously as education, nurture, development, formation or culture. Such elasticity of meanings might serve to shroud rather than reveal the idea it seeks to capture though. In the Hegelian usage which I prefer, it can be taken to name a process of self-cultivation through which, in a struggle to understand who they are, someone achieves a more liberated mode of relating to themselves and therewith the world as a whole. This need not imply anything spooky is going on, nor that some imposing idealist apparatus is called upon. Instead, we might consider the sort of thing that happens in a Bildungsroman; the independence of maturity is achieved through the resolution of conflicts over the protagonist’s self-identity. Thought of in this way, we can contrast Bildung, qua self-directed process, with other ways of being developed or formed. As Allen Wood puts it, “the entire process of Bildung is fundamentally an inner or self-directed activity, never merely a process of conditioning through environmental stimuli, or the accumulation of information presented by experience.” (‘Hegel on Education’, p.4)

It is with this sort of understanding of Bildung in mind that I suggest we take up Wittgenstein’s idea that work on philosophy is work on oneself. Philosophy, practiced aright, does not seek to give us theories built upon our experience of the world (though it by no means operates independently of such experience), but nor does it counsel simply following the inclinations which we form just as inhabitants of the natural world. Instead, at least for the most part, it is about achieving a certain practical orientation towards ourselves, our fellows and the rest of the world. This practical orientation consists in both intellectual and affective sensitivity, and so it might be said to concern a way (or our ways) of seeing. Again, we might say that philosophy, so conceived, is irreducibly aesthetic, insofar as we adopt a broad understanding of the aesthetic. So characterised, the conception of philosophy I have outlined may seem either hopelessly broad and vague or intolerably strange and idiosyncratic. To make it more determinate, I shall point to two examples of what I take to be philosophy practiced in this vein. I’ve chosen to pick out Hegel and Nussbaum, though it may equally have been Aristotle, Adorno, Wittgenstein, McDowell, Anscombe or Marx.

Take Hegel to begin with. What we find in the Phenomenology is an analysis of a procession of forms of consciousness and forms of the world which are outgrowths of ordinary ways of looking at the world. The use (or embodiment) of the fundamental logical categories of particularity, universality and individuality within these forms shows them to be unstable, since none of them can overcome the difficulties of reconciling subject and object. Hegel’s aim is to lead us along a ‘pathway of despair’ (and therefore an intellectually and emotionally transformative narrative) which shows us how to recognise and begin to avoid these instabilities. The result is absolute knowing; not a megalomaniacal claim to comprehensive or divine knowledge, but a standpoint — a place from where to see the world — from where we can overcome the gulf between subject and object, as previously expressed as problems bridging mind and world, intention and action, inner and outer, and so on. Thus, the groundwork is laid for the task of re-cognising the phenomena previously encountered in our ordinary ways of seeing the world, critically reappraising and adjusting these ways of seeing such that we can come to an unalienated or homely (heimlich) relation to our world. Ultimately, for Hegel, philosophy is concerned with examining the concept, understanding the rational basis of things, and this redounds upon the rational being doing the examining, setting them free from the mere positivity of phenomena — being brutely confronted with them in their contingency, rather than grasping how they do and indeed must relate to oneself. But first one must learn how to look at the world rationally, where this is a long and difficult process fraught with as many practical and affective problems as cognitive ones, and which does not issue in a theory of everything but a mode of facing the world: not simply a set of propositions, but a practical way to confront it.

Nussbaum’s work is altogether more modest and it is undertaken in a rather different spirit. Nevertheless, there are important similarities which I would like to try and draw out. Again, there is a kind of aesthetic thread to be picked up — one that consists in cultivating a variety of perception, not in any empiricist or intuitionist sense but rather as a sensitivity to the world which takes the form of a kind of practical knowledge or phronesis. We see this method deployed brilliantly in The Fragility of Goodness. In it, Nussbaum undertakes a forensic analysis of the details of Greek philosophy and tragedy which she brings to bear upon questions of moral luck, tragic conflict and practical deliberation. What makes the book so great as philosophy, rather than simply historical scholarship, is how it manages to draw so much sustenance from the literature it considers whilst putting its ideas to work in providing vivid ‘reminders’ and ‘objects of comparison’ (to resort to Wittgesteinian terminology) with which to illuminate our ethical lives. Its approach to literature is deeply philosophical; and conversely too, with its philosophical proclivities being similarly literary. This is another example of what I have been calling philosophical humanism: a confidence in the narratives we tell about ourselves and what matters to us. Of course, we need (and ought) not take all these stories at face value, but an underlying trust in our ability to capture the fundamentals of life in the mainstays of human activity is on display here. Art, whether individually or collectively, can be contextualised and historicised, subjected to evolutionary adaptionist explanation, Ideologiekritik, and so on, but none of these things can explain it away as a whole such that it loses its respectability as a philosophical resource. Artistic activity retains its legitimacy as a tool for providing genuine, first-rate knowledge of truths about value, the mind, action, emotion — about human life in general — and insofar as it does, we must again question the rush to those reductionist accounts predicated upon an uneasiness with the merely human.

Philosophical Therapy & Humanism

At a workshop on Wittgenstein’s methodology which I was at recently, Marie McGinn made a point of underlining the ethical stakes of much philosophical work undertaken in a Wittgensteinian spirit. I won’t try and rehearse exactly what she said here, and will instead examine the topic of naturalism which she raised in this context, but some of what I will say, ultimately, I take to be deeply sympathetic to her view (but be that upon my own head and not hers).

The question of ethics came up here in light of Wittgenstein’s remarks about philosophical problems arising when ‘language goes on holiday’ or is like ‘an engine idling’ rather than doing real work. For if we take philosophical problems to share this form — however diffuse their manifestation and origins — then it seems we are led to a conception of philosophy as a therapeutic set of practices which simply “bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.” (PI 116)

This makes philosophy look like a purely negative activity, and there are certainly places where Wittgenstein appears to embrace this idea. Take PI 118-9, for example:

Where does our investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important? (As it were all the buildings, leaving only bits of stone and rubble.) What we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand.

The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or other piece of plain nonsense and of other bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. These bumps make us see the value of inquiry.

So conceived, philosophy returns us to the everyday. We get back to baseline. This is not something just to be sniffed at since the temptations to fall into philosophical error are deep (and such inclinations are not products of stupidity), and the baseline we get back to is not forever fixed but shifts as our linguistic usage does, requiring some acuity in grammatical investigations to recognise. Nevertheless, something important can seem to go missing here.

Such a philosophy can appear very conservative, lacking the sort of critical function which has animated much of the best philosophical work. For those of us with an affinity to Wittgenstein as well as the post-Kantian tradition, through Hegel and Marx to the Frankfurt school, this presents something of a problem. How do we ensure that our philosophising respects the insights of a therapeutic approach and yet remains able to interrogate our everyday assumptions?

One attractive answer to that question would be to deepen our understanding of the sources of philosophical problems, not resting content with a linguistic turn alone. For language is, of course, a practice — one that takes place in a wider social world. Following this line, there may be room for a marriage of critical theory and therapeutic philosophy. For example, such an approach might try and trace a connection between the perennial temptation to forms of Cartesianism and the alienation engendered by the conditions of life in modernity. The upshot of such an approach would likely not be a philosophical therapy that tried to return the wayward philosopher to ordinary linguistic usage, but rather identified what social conditions would need to be changed in order to stem intuitive but misleading forms of thought. I don’t know much Adorno, but my suggestion here I think might end up sharing some aspects of his approach.

Without going this far though, there are still important tasks that Wittgensteinian methodology can be put too. Here, perhaps the most important is holding the line against virulent forms of reductive naturalism. Recourse to grammatical investigation can be a tool in defending a kind of philosophical humanism: a position which takes human life to be just as substantial and respectable as the domain studied by the natural sciences. Our ordinary activities are shot through with appeals to values, to our dispositions, to the contingencies of our history (a history which no less unfolds in nature than that of supernovae or trilobites). Anatomising these sort of appeals in the manner of a grammatical investigator can help us understand the place of humanity in a natural world, and can be drawn on in resisting the rabid reductive naturalist who wants to evacuate meaning in favour of mechanism. Bare appeals to the phenomenology of human experience are cheap, but grammatical investigation in a Wittgensteinian vein can help draw out the underlying patterns of human activity in a more substantial way. This sort of rich understanding of the role of our human qualities as something which are (and should continue to be) drawn upon without embarrassment in our explanatory endeavours can be employed to stave off the sort of naturalist for whom all this is merely folk psychological self-delusion. It is, of course, not enough to say that ‘this is just what we do’ and expect the reductive naturalist to be satisfied, but this can be an important first step in resisting the breezy dismissal of human attitudes as no more than mere projections onto an indifferent world which a properly scientific cast of mind can see through.

Draft Review of Hammer’s ‘German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives’

Comments, whether stylistic or substantive, very welcome!

Espen Hammer (ed.): German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives, London, Routledge, 2007, pp. 339. £18.99 pbk. ISBN 0-415-37305-0.

Update: I’ve taken down this post as the review is now forthcoming in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy in early 2009. Look out for it there…

Update II: The review is available online to subscribers here.

Kantian Gloom-Watch: Dialecticians of Valhalla Edition

A nice passage from the first Critique:

There is properly speaking no polemic in the field of pure reason. Both parties beat the air, and wrestle with their own shadows, since they go beyond the limits of nature, where there is nothing that they can seize and hold with their dogmatic grasp. Fight as they may, the shadows which they cleave asunder grow together again forthwith, like heroes of Valhalla, to disport themselves anew in the bloodless contest.

Kant, A756=B784

Brandom’s master strategy

Below the fold are my attempts to get a better handle on Brandom’s overall strategy. I also revisit some of the same themes with respect to autonomy outlined in the previous post on Brandom, although I haven’t quite digested all of Shawn’s helpful comments on this material yet. Shawn has some posts of his own up on Brandom’s Woodbridge Lectures over at Words and Other Things for those of you who have not already seen them.

Continue reading

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

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.

Indeterminate Thoughts on Determinate Negation

Note: I have been somewhat pre-empted before finishing this post by NP’s redemption of a promise to write on a similar topic here (see also Sinthome’s reply). Hopefully, there should not be too much redundancy in the content here though.

Given the recent discussions of Zizek’s use of negation (links at antigram), now might be a good time for me to set out some of my own thoughts on this concept. To begin then, consider Steve Shaviro’s suggestion with respect to what is really at stake in the argument:

The crucial point is not to affirm, but to move in new directions. To create.* We need to get out of the trap of merely reversing, or giving the exact opposite of, a dominant discourse. The important thing is not to reverse direction, but to move in another dimension altogether. Any three points describe a plane, a flat field upon which vectors of antagonism may be locked in battle (excuse the mixed metaphors). Obliqueness means, not staying on the plane, but moving off along another axis, in a third spatial dimension.

It is readily understandable how this sentiment might arise in response to Zizek’s often lazy and predictable — if still occasionally electrifying — negative formulations. The pattern is a familiar one, with Zizek’s infamous rhetorical inversion being along these lines: “Amongst all quarters, today there is no more universally acknowledged assumption than this, but is not precisely the opposite the case?” (Incidentally, compare Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said [such-and-such] but I say to you [this-other-thing]”) Thus, we get complaints that Zizek remains parasitic upon the very object of his critique such that he can effect only a mere reversal of an existing element or tendency whilst what must remain unchallenged for him is the thematisation of the field of possibilities into which the critical intervention takes place. The call for ‘obliqueness’ is a call for a creative reconceptualisation of these possibilities that does not remain trapped within the internal logic immanent to an already given individuation of the elements of the situation. Insofar as Zizek’s contrarian impulses remain wedded to such a logic — merely inverting the conclusions arrived at within its strictures — then they are thought to be unable to fashion us with an adequately rich and productive mode of critique.

Setting aside the question of how fair this is as a characterisation of Zizek’s avowed or implicit methodology, we can go on to identify it as being just one form of negation. To cast matters in Hegelian terms, it belongs to the broad class of negativity proper to the dialectic: it is determinate negation. For negation to be determinate is for it to have a content and so for it to be intentional, thus being the negation of one thing but not another.

By way of contrast, indeterminate negation would be negativity without ties to the specific character of the negated object. We might go on to delineate two possible modes of this indeterminate (or ‘mere‘) negation. The first of these would stem from the nature of the normative standard employed in the critique that precludes any real engagement with the determinate features of the object. Here, for example, we might group scepticism, nihilism and ‘Beautiful Soul’-ism, which in their own ways negate the object abstractly — a rejection pre-determined by the very co-ordinates the critique would take place within that entails that no matter what the object is it can never qualify as the True, the Good or the Righteous.

A second mode of mere negation would fail to treat the object with the requisite specificity through a failure to relate it to the conditions that make its appearance a necessity; an error Hegel introduces us to in the very first passages of the Phenomenology (Preface, 2). One of the multiple reasons why this negativity remains shallow is that it is left with meagre resources to explain falsity and semblance. That is, given that the object of critique has been discovered to be somehow inadequate, we are faced with the question of why no-one had realised this heretofore. Is it that people ‘just have’ been mistaken or are stupid or exceedingly gullible? The systematic regularity of such purported ‘errors’ calls for a more precise examination of the conditions undergirding them such that we do not remain content to wield an external critical standard, judging upon truth and falsity without accounting for the necessity (or for the faint-hearted, increased probability) of these so-called mistakes. This will involve critique in the task of determinate negation which proceeds to engage in a qualitative (i.e. more fully ‘contentful’) investigation of the negated object.

With respect to Zizek, I want to raise two intertwined potential criticisms — ones that, for now, remain both hesitantly put forward and very underdeveloped — that would stem from a possible failure of his work to meet the standards immanent to determinate negation (presuming that it is this sort of negation that can be taken to be the correct characterisation of Zizek’s methodology). That is, I want to suggest that there is a mismatch between his existing practice and the standards proper to that practice qua critical determinate negation — that at heart it remains mere negation. (This is a slightly different charge than that Zizek is involved in a simple performative contradiction whereby he does one thing but says he does another: rather, it is a more Hegelian one that does not necessarily shy away from the ‘non-coincidence’ of object and concept of the sort challenged by Sinthome here, although I cannot defend this position fully in this post.) My broader intention in doing so is to mount a limited defence of the concept of negativity, showing that even if Zizek’s employment of negativity is problematic, this may not be too much of an issue for its prospects as a critical concept in general.

Firstly, I want to echo a sentiment often expressed with respect to Zizek — that his analyses are sometimes somehow ‘mechanical’ and overly formulaic — but to try and situate this criticism in terms of falling short of the determinacy required for dialectical negation. As a preliminary, an obvious criticism should be raised that would claim that it was perverse to challenge Zizek over a lack of determinacy in his work; for who spends more time than he does examining concrete phenomena? And this is combined with the eschewing of disengaged philosophical and psychoanalytic abstractions insofar as they remain divorced from the details of pop culture, political history, academic trends and so on ad infinitum. However, taking the recent review of 300 as an example, arguably Zizek does not really thoroughly engage with the content of the film and its leftist analysis, effectively remaining at the level of a formal operation of reversal. In one sense the analysis does involve a determinate negation, taking the conventional leftist wisdom about the film (as homophobic, racist, etc.) and inverting it into its opposite (the film as depicting militant communist struggle, as exemplifying the true political opposition to rightist forces). The result is something determinate — the claim that in a sense the film champions the socialist cause or its central values. Yet, insofar as it remains tied to this formal operation of reversal it reproduces the internal structure of the leftist critique; all the elements of the film read it as a deeply politicised battle between left and right remain in place, only the Master-valency is reversed. Again, the structure remains the same — ‘obliqueness’ is absent.

Thus, there is a limited analogy to be drawn between the first mode of indeterminate negation outlined above and my characterisation of Zizek as often engaging in merely formal operations of reversal. The analogy falls short since there is a determinate result of the critique — its negations are not empty ones but fashion us with a negation-of-something and a specific result, being some sort of ‘reversal’ of the initial object of critique. Yet, the stance embodied has a certain similarity to those of scepticism, nihilism and ‘Beautiful Soul’-ism in that it does not treat its object in its full specificity, in this case merely latching on to its fixed formal relations and not its full content. This means that its results are more-or-less preset, lacking a certain critical flexibility. In this respect this mode of critique is like a mathematical function.

Furthermore, if it is not unreasonable to render this employment of negation as analogous to a function or operation then my second point might begin to be able to be formulated, if still very sketchily. Prompted by some of Hegel’s remarks in the superb Introduction of the Phenomenology, there may be a way of formulating analysis in the form of negativity such that it avoids the criticism of leading to stale, acute and stodgily reactionary results. To see this we can contrast my crude sketch of some of Zizek’s uses of negation with the sort that Hegel seems to point to. So, I have claimed that often Zizek seems stuck on, as it were, a singular ‘field’ of analysis, left to rearrange its ‘elements’ but not to break out of an already-given individuation of those elements. (Evidently I am struggling and failing to find the right vocabulary here!)

The way that Hegel seems to envision the role of negativity within the dialectic is as marking a gap between the object and its essence or concept (Notion, Begriff) — its explicit properties being ‘out of joint’ with its implicit nature. In terms of the forms of consciousness and the world that are met in the Phenomenology this means that they are not ‘identical’ in- and for-themselves (anundfürsich) and so are not ‘at home’ (zu Hause). What arguably prevents this from degenerating into an extravagant metaphysical essentialism is a certain situational embededness (the word ‘perspective’ is inappropriate here for numerous reasons) of the so-called essence; it is somehow relative (or rather, immanent) to the field that the object is individuated within and does not mark a pure thing-in-itself external to this field.

So, one way of casting the difference between what Hegel might want to do and what I have characterised Zizek as sometimes doing would be as follows. For Hegel, negation marks the need to radically transform the analytic field, whereas for Zizek it is often just a move within this fixed field. (Hegel is notoriously sceptical of attempts merely to fix dumb reality so that it matches up with its underlying ideal: deficiencies in objects are deficiencies in their concepts.) So, I would claim that the notion of negativity in play for Hegel implies the need for the very ‘obliqueness’ that can seem lacking in Zizek, requiring upon a discovery of the object failing to meet its essence a reconceptualisation of what the object is, where this involves a transformation of the normative standards by which the object is judged. Yet, in reformulating the problematic in light of such negation we are not left with only the flash of creative genius nor a mad scrabble in the dark for new values. By thematising the conditions that have conditioned the history of critique hitherto we can place previous failures in some sort of developmental process (perhaps even a necessary one) that indicates the most promising successor which would hold the most hope in avoiding previous problems.

A coda: again, my own critical stance seems to be insufficiently situated here according to the criterion I gesture towards — but that will have to wait.

Emotivism and Capitalism Revisited: Discourse on Method

My last post, in which I posit some sort of relation between capitalism and MacIntyre’s ’emotivist self’, was intended as little more than a placeholder for that indistinct thought. I am indebted to the ever-perceptive N Pepperell who, in the comments to it, correctly locates a certain methodological ambiguity in the analysis. This ambiguity is at the heart of at least one of the reasons why the post is rather unsatisfactory. For, as NP points out, on the one hand I engage in a ‘functionalist’ task, pointing to capital as a beneficiary of a certain emotivist form of subjectivity, while also identifying a more straightforward ‘structural’ homology between an emotivist form of subjectivity and the liberal-individualist form of subjectivity that capitalism ideologically posits and practically engenders. I want to take this opportunity to expand on these insightful comments–ones which I will draw on heavily in what follows.

It is a familiar trope of critical discourse to ask of the object of analysis whether–and if so, which–interests are served by that object. Thus, in my post, I ask of the formation of emotivist subjectivity what ends it helps achieve, suggesting that it reinforces a certain [quasi-]utilitarian logic that smoothes the operations of the social form of capitalism. We can consider this form of critique in more detail, examining the problems that it tends to get entangled in with respect to the legitimacy of the standpoint it presupposes as well as going on to point to some systematic blindspots it can encourage. These are distilled in the essence-appearance distinction it tempts us to adopt–at least, insofar as essence and appearance remain dichotomous here. The critique will often be articulated something like this: ‘Although x seems innocent, it is really exploitative/patriarchal/racist.’ This is a common sort of ideological unveiling whereby the theorist seeks to penetrate to the core of the object of analysis to reveal its essential workings as against its deceptive semblance.

Often problematic features of such analyses can be traced back to their reliance on certain–commonly tacit–assumptions with respect to a dualism of subject and object. These problems centre around the failure of the analysis to treat subject and object as items individuated within a unitary field (or ‘situation’) and thus leads to us seeing them as separated by a gulf that problematises their relation. This can occlude two important issues.

Firstly, under this dualist assumption, the critical theorist can become fixated on the attempt to uncover the object of analysis as it is in-itself. Their conception of their task thus becomes to determine whether their object really is as it appears to be–say, whether capitalist relations of production really are just, as it has seemed to many economists. This ‘functionalist’ model, which merely compares functional essence with appearance, is rather limited though. The deeper and often more interesting question is that given that sometimes there is a mismatch between essence and appearance–that something appears innocuous/pernicious when it is not–why does it take that specific appearance? For example, why has it (or alternatively, must it have) appeared to so many economists that capitalism is not exploitative but paradigmatic of just distribution? Ultimately we must ask how semblance can arise at all (for as Hegel recognised, it is this that is the real mystery!)? Fully answering these sorts of question, I believe, requires us to reject a dualistic opposition between subject and object, instead embracing a categorical framework that treats subjectivity as situated within and in some sense contiguous with the material world. This would provide a fuller set of resources for explaining the complex interplay between the subject and those material and intersubjective forces that shape its orientation towards the world.

The second issue relates to the situatedness of the critical theorist themself. For the functional analysis that reduces the object of critique to an essence (its functional role with respect to the interests of certain actors and systems) distinguished from mere appearance (those qualitative features subjects apprehend) we are left with a further question. That question is: given that the object does not make itself manifest immediately as it is, how does the theorist come to discover its essential nature? If the relation between subject and object is one in which the object appears to the subject as something other than it essentially is then it seems that the theorist must somehow stand outside the context of the subject-object relation–occupying some transcendent standpoint–if they are to discern the true function of the object (e.g. what interests it serves). Reformulated outside of the assumptions of a subject-object dualism, we can rehabilitate such a question in much more finessed terms, supplementing the crude essence-appearance model with an analysis of the whole field in which subject and object are situated within that explains how the critical methodology employed by the subject becomes available to them but not to others who remain misled. (Relevant here are Sinthome’s characteristically excellent discussions of ‘transcendental stupidity’; for the difficulties of successful normative appraisal of the object of critique are rarely ones of deductive errors or lack of empirical data.)

Returning now to the content of my previous post, the ‘functional’ question appears somewhat tangential to the more structural concerns which centred on emotivist and liberal-individualist forms of subjectivity. Worse, insofar as it encourages a crude essence-appearance dichotomy then it abstracts away from what NP calls the ‘qualitative form’ of these subjectivities, subsumtively reducing their features through analysis into mere instruments of the overriding function. Preferable to the functionalist strategy, suggests NP, is one that pursues the thought that: “something about the collective practice of capitalism involves, or renders more likely, or suggests the possibility, or similar, for the practice and concept of an emotivist self.” This was my central thought that was clouded by my clumsy articulation of the issue. One potential caveat is the possible implication that there is a uni-directional relation of influence: that it is merely capitalism that creates a suitable context for an emotivist subjectivity. Rather (assuming MacIntyre’s thesis holds, etc.) the two forms of subjectivity–liberal-individualism and emotivism–would seem to be interpenetrative, or at least mutually reinforcing.

The relation between the two forms of subjectivity could be hypothesised as follows. Capitalist social practice encourages an unreflective, instrumental and pleonexic mode of engagement with the world, constituting an enculturation that privileges certain forms of perception. This provides a climate amenable for the emotivist self which substantially shares these perceptual tendencies and forms. The form of emotivist subjectivity itself informs a practice of moral reasoning that also forges these forms of perception, which in turn nurtures the liberal-individual form of subjectivity that conceives the world according to real-abstract capitalist concepts. Thus, through a joint Bildung, the modern individual would acquire a second nature in which their instinctive mode of relating to the world becomes a dual emotivist-liberal one. Other modes of worldly engagement are by no means ruled out but rather marginalised. The combined ‘direction of flow’ of these two modes of engagement would, as it were, cut channels into the subjective landscape that create a path of least resistance that privileges and naturalises certain values and behaviours. Moral traditions with some sort of hard moral kernel would then come to seem alien–their critical norms as unwelcome impositions on the ‘obvious’ order of things.