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.


About plasticbodies

Contemporary philosopher.
This entry was posted in Object-Oriented Philosophy, Phenomenology, Pragmatism and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to on schools of thought

  1. dmf says:

    can we still make sense/use of “facticity” as something beyond the reach of pragmatism(s) ?


  2. plasticbodies says:

    Could you say a little more, dmf?

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