on schools of thought

Thomas’s comment on my previous post got me thinking about how phenomenology is often cast as a school of thought or a ‘movement’. The same thing can be said about pragmatism, and in many ways (although this may ring as premature in some ears) OOO/SR. What follows from this is that these different schools get isolated from the history of philosophy and, as Thomas pointed out, often not given their ‘fair shake’. This is not true of phenomenology, even though phenomenology is arguably the one school that made an effort to break off, and begin again the history of philosophy. Pragmatism, I think, suffers from a relative lack of exposure precisely because it is seen sometimes as a side show philosophy with its own way of thinking about knowledge and truth, for instance…but those days are over and those problems and worldviews have been abandoned. So it goes.

Another thing that follows from the ‘school’ label is that historians and other outsiders become convinced, at least for a while, that there is a common thread running throughout the school. They thus seek it out. When you really dig into the pragmatist school, however, you quickly see that it’s extremely difficult to say what a pure pragmatism would look like. Peirce changed the name of what he was doing to ‘pragmaticism’ so as to distinguish it from James’s philosophy. If you look at OOO/SR today, you find a wide range of approaches to the ‘school’. They perhaps share a few principles in common, but that is even debatable. Even if you settled on the idea that OOO operates on the premise that correlationism must be rejected, you’re left to wonder if such a principle is applicable to, say, Meillassoux. And just as Peirce tried to distance himself from the school of pragmatism you see someone like Brassier doing the same thing. Perhaps OOO is just a ‘style’ (Merleau-Ponty) of philosophy; it certainly prescribes no method.

There are some dangers of thinking about groups of like-minded thinkers as schools. One is internal and one is external. The internal problem is that some of the persons working inside the school gain too narrow a perspective on philosophy writ large. This leads to caricatured interpretations of other thinkers and short-sighted philosophical endeavors. I don’t mean that school members tend toward specificity and technicality, as Anglo-American philosophy is often charged with (although that happens too), but that from the inside a lot of problems appear that might only make sense within the school. A lot of energy can be lost working on these problems, at the cost of never figuring out how this energy reaches out into the broader discussion. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that every philosophical endeavor has to have practical applications, or speak to the largest philosophical community. But it’s always possibility that you’re working not on problems, but on pseudoproblems. No one will warn you about this, because they all think that pseudoproblems are real problems.

The external danger is, of course, isolation and/or ostracism. If the school is perceived as something only the insiders are privy to…well, you know how that goes. This can easily lead to marginalization or rejection or, what may be worse, total indifference. It’s easy for those on the inside to assume that attitude that the outsiders just ‘don’t get them’, or that the uninitiated are in the grip of some prejudice. All of this is familiar to academics. It is largely a social effect, but it can also be reinforced by the individuals involved. This is its insidious aspect. Those players without an established place in academe perhaps risk suffering the most.

We should resist thinking of like-minded thinkers as belonging to a school. This is difficult, I know, and it’s often done purely heuristically. But it’s best not to isolate thinkers into hermetic schools, and to see the history of philosophy as a continuum. This is not to say that we should pretend as though there is nothing called speculative realism or object-oriented ontology, or that phenomenology does not exist. We should be clear, however, that those who are identified with a particular school are working on questions that extend beyond that school.

Now, phenomenology is a special case because it for some time purported to have a method. What is a method? I think we can understand a method as a device that allows its adherents to say certain things that are not authorized by nonadherents. The method, as it were, opens up a new domain of speech and is precisely what underwrites the legitimacy of that speech. Insofar as phenomenology is a method in this respect, it is necessary to ask what new statements are produced by the phenomenological method. If it is objected that phenomenology is not a method, then it is not in the position to lay claim to any sort of privileged statement-producing position. What defines phenomenology, then? This is precisely the question that I’m unclear about answering. I am tempted to say that the idea of phenomenology is a fiction that sparked and extinguished with Husserl, or it was born and died with Hegel. But now I’m just being provocative.

I’m not sure what any of this reflection is worth, but I figured I’d throw it out there.

what use is phenomenology?

Side Effects has a post up which raises questions about the values and ideology lurking within the phenomenological movement. The post comes on the heels of the recent meeting of the Merleau-Ponty Circle, which I was supposed to present at but in the end had to miss. The post is too allusive to really decipher, but it brings up a couple of points which should be weighed.

First, what is phenomenology? I think this question can at this time be reformulated to ask, What use is phenomenology? It is obviously useful for staving off reductionism, but if it cannot deliver essences to us, then what is its real promise? It seems most useful as a tool or a bridge to some other mode or method philosophy, but it cannot be philosophy itself because it remains now and forever about human experience. The discipline of philosophy is about so much more than human experience that phenomenology can be, at best, one sliver of the discipline. It gets us provisional results, kind of like clues toward actual answers to philosophical problems.

So, what if it is admitted that phenomenology is a method or a ‘style’ (Merleau-Ponty) of doing philosophy? This is not much better because, in so far as method determines subject matter, the phenomenological method begins its endeavor by restricting the given to what is given to us qua human. This is all I’ll say on this front because it is clear that my objection to phenomenology is its humanist attachments. Its commitments have ethical and political implications; more broadly, it strangles the potential of ontology/metaphysics.

If I am understanding him correctly, Side Effects is relating the disturbing fact that some phenomenological circles encourage their attendants to appreciate the matter at hand in the same way and with homogeneous enthusiasm. He writes:

‘…it never occurred to me to modify the findings in order to fulfil a pregiven mission of what phenomenology ought to conclude. This kind of thought of sculpting a conclusion in order to contribute to a generalised ethos is totally foreign to me, and it is also foreign to my sense of doing phenomenology. What I discern in a particular reading or experience as disagreeable to my “self” as a human person in the world, is neither here nor there. Honesty must underscore phenomenological work, and personal psychology must be put to one side. In short, pleasure and pain ought to be totally indifferent to the work of phenomenology, with only the experience of strangeness as a guarantor of the fruits of inquiry’.

There’s no reason why phenomenology cannot pursue ethical conclusions. But to begin by presupposing or enforcing a certain ethos, this is problematic. To reiterate, however, if the ethical potential of phenomenology–that is, what it can say about human beings and their myriad relations with other beings–is in some sense predetermined by the human-centered method of phenomenology, then we should hold our applause.

Second, I’m wondering if the revolutionary force of phenomenology has not turned sour to the extent that its limitations forbid us from speaking of realities beyond the human scope. Of course, yes. Phenomenology’s French critics have been showing this for decades. And yet the anonymous body and ‘inhuman nature’ invoked by Merleau-Ponty (and cited by Side Effects) still remains undertheorized. It is as if Merleau-Ponty didn’t really mean anything when he employed these terms. What is he doing speaking about such things, as a phenomenologist, anyway?

Third, Side Effects concludes this:

‘After all, there is a world prior to ethics, prior to politics, and above all, prior to gender, in which, if phenomenology is to have an ethical duty, then it ought to be toward uncovering that prepersonal world.’

The premise of this statement is strictly off limits to a phenomenologist because the prepersonal world is never given, never appears. It can only be inferred from experience; it cannot be intuited. This is just as true for Kant as it is for Husserl. I like the idea that phenomenology’s ethical concerns should be toward guiding us toward the prepersonal world. Two things arise in this notion, however. On the one hand, were phenomenology to say something about the prepersonal world, it would thereby cease being phenomenology. It would be speaking of a world which is nonphenomenal. On the other hand, phenomenology’s ethical duty can only be directed at the world which it knows, which is to say the world as it appears to human consciousness. This is a personal world, which means that its ethical duties can only be exclusively oriented toward the personal. It can aim to achieve an intuition of our common humanity, and thereby extend its sympathy beyond the immediately personal. But it will still remain bound the world of the person. That is, the human and its relations. This is okay if we are willing to concede that human relations constitute the totality of worldly relations.

In short, I think we need to interrogate phenomenology to see precisely if, and in what sense, it can make ontological statements that really say something about the things which it purports to speak about–the things themselves.

oh, grow up

Education is about growth. Meaning what? The movement is from immaturity to maturity in thinking, analytical skill, problem management, intellectual ability, and so forth. But education is not about the fulfillment of an intellectual destiny, at least not for Dewey. Immaturity certainly has negative connotations, implying as it does the absence of maturity and all of the ideological and cultural significance wrapped up in that term. Dewey interprets immaturity in a positive sense, as a capacity or power. Just as Merleau-Ponty will argue that the indeterminate is not a negative state, but a positive phenomenon, Dewey argues that immaturity harbors its own internal force. He affirms the productive logic of the immature. This is in Democracy and Education, chapter 4, and it ties into my earlier post about what a child can do.

‘Taken absolutely, instead of comparatively, immaturity designates a positive force or ability–the power to grow’. Immaturity has two primary components, dependence and plasticity, both of which are powers. Note that plasticity is not interpreted here as flexibility or malleability. The child is decidedly neither a parasite nor a repository. He or she is a producer, the product is the force of thought. We can speak of their growth as a form of metabolization of knowledge and skill, which is acquired from the educational environment and converted into intellectual energy. This is not mere coping or consumption. (Following Foucault, we could conceive the disciplined body as a site of growth.)

Dewey defines the plasticity of the child as something like ‘pliable elasticity’, suggesting that it is like how ‘some persons take on the color of their surroundings while retaining their own bent’. ‘But’, he adds, ‘it is something deeper than this’. Deeper: plasticity is more substantial than indeterminate adaptability. It denotes a real property of the child’s constitution; it is an ontological structure, as we can discern from the following passage: ‘[Plasticity] is essentially the ability to learn from experience; the power to retain from one experience something which is of avail in coping with the difficulties of a later situation. This means power to modify actions on the basis of the results of prior experiences, the power to develop dispositions. Without it, the acquisition of habits is impossible’. Dewey is here echoing the ‘Habit’ chapter of James’s Principles, wherein James speaks about the plasticity of the brain. Habits are like the fundamental mechanism of the body. Dewey seems to want to stress again the reality of the body’s plasticity, so as to account for how it is possible for body’s to take on the mechanism of habit.

This interpretation of the body is decidedly nonreductive because it takes instinct and the responsiveness proper to instinct as essentially learned action. Reactions and instincts are all habitual and result from trial and error. This means that experimentation, especially at an early age, is crucial to the growth of the child. The child’s plasticity enables them to develop a wide range of instincts and responses: their childhood is a powerful, explosive laboratory. The possibility of variations in the instinctual armature is immense, which means that the basis for and results of evolution (taken in a broad sense) are powerfully indeterminate. This indeterminacy is influenced and acted upon by the social network in which the child is physically situated. Aristotle, in the Ethics, recognized that this social milieu has a grand impact on the ‘original’ disposition of the child, and that beyond a certain threshold of moral development the child’s character becomes almost irremediably set. Dewey and James follow up with material base of this capacity for dispositional metamorphosis, and it is quite interesting to consider the ontological status of both this material base (plasticity) and dispositionality itself.

To close, Dewey notes that habits become methods. A method is like a generalized habit, applicable to a range of similar situations. What is key for the child is that he or she acquires the habit of learning. The child ‘learns to learn’. The educational evolution of the child will depend upon the reach and intensity of their time in the laboratory of learning, that is, in immaturity and dependence. Which is simply to say that the power of the child is directly proportional to the diversity of their experimental milieu. This does not imply a rejection of discipline, but rather the importance of a disciplined method.

‘take joy in your digressions’

Massumi on the virtue of not knowing where you’re headed:

‘If you know where you will end up when you begin, nothing happens in the meantime. You have to be willing to surprise yourself writing things you didn’t think you thought. Letting examples burgeon requires using inattention as a writing tool. You have to let yourself get so caught up in the flow of your writing that it ceases at moments to be recognizable to you as your own. This means you have to be prepared for failure. For with inattention comes risk: of silliness or even outbreaks of stupidity’.

massumi on academic writing

This passage from Brian Massumi‘s Parables for the Virtual says a bit about why we do and do not continue to pursue academics, and what it means to apply an affirmative methodology:

‘If you don’t enjoy concepts and writing and don’t feel that when you write you are adding something to the world, if only the enjoyment itself, and that by adding that ounce of positive experience to the world you are affirming it, celebrating its potential, tending its growth, in however small a way, however really abstractly–well, just hang it up’.

getting back to arguments

For some time now I’ve been writing a dissertation in phenomenology which deals particularly with Levinas and Merleau-Ponty. Not only is the phenomenologist’s argumentative mode one which adduces its evidence, rather than deducing or inducing, it tends to forgo the pursuit of arguments as we typically find them in classical philosophical texts. This is less true about Levinas than Merleau-Ponty. Perhaps we can call phenomenology a kind of ‘adduction’. Now that the new semester is upon us, I’ve been preparing to teach ethics, and have chosen some standard texts–Aristotle, Epictetus, Kant, Mill, Nietzsche. And I’ve been delighted to sit down and trudge though good old-fashioned argumentation. In fact, I can say that I’ve acquired a bit of a thirst for analytic philosophy, partly due to an allergic reaction to the limitations of phenomenological method. The irony here is that I was initially attracted to phenomenology as an undergraduate because of what I perceived to be the limitations imposed on thinking, or rather experience, by the analytics.