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.

another way of framing it

Numerous folks have noted the parallels between phenomenology and pragmatism. This raises the question: What does phenomenology give us that pragmatism cannot? Someone must have answered this question, so I guess I’ll have to track that answer down. If you know it, or know where to find it, I’m all ears.

the ambient method

Thinking about method, I’m inclined to say there are three dominant approaches to figuring things out. You can proceed deductively, of course, as Descartes and Spinoza. You can proceed inductively like the empiricists. Or you can proceed adductively, which is to say, you can forgo the deduction and induction in favor of adducing enough evidence that your readers are convinced of the truth of your case. This, I think, is what phenomenology is up to. And part of its way of proceeding is to evoke the ambience of the phenomena it chooses to describe. This is one way it carries out the adductive method, and it has done so with no small degree of success.

against phenomenology

This summer I’ll be writing a brief book that will probably be called Against Phenomenology. The title is meant to be provocative, but it is not a wholesale rejection of phenomenology by any means. Instead, by looking at representative passages regarding phenomenological method in Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Henry, and Marion, I will argue that phenomenologists are incapable, qua phenomenologists, of defending metaphysical realism. The paper I gave recently at Villanova, which focused on the realist rhetoric scattered throughout the corpus of phenomenology, was a precis of this book.

This will not simply be a rehashing of Janicaud’s complaints, as I will not be focused on the so-called theological turn. I want to take phenomenological method seriously in order to figure out what kinds of statements it permits and prohibits. It seems that a prohibition of metaphysical statements is germane of phenomenology. I will also take seriously Meillassoux’s claim that phenomenology represents the strong version of correlationism. If he’s right, this poses a problem for the theological turn. As indicated in the title of my Villanova paper, I’m especially keen to adduce the realist rhetoric, or what I’m calling the ‘rhetoric of concreteness’, at play in phenomenology. This rhetoric is best understood as a species of what Tim Morton calls ‘ambient poetics’. It is often employed by phenomenologists sympathetic to realism as a way around the enunciative prohibitions demanded by phen. method.

With any luck, the book will only be 100 pages or so. Barring any obstacles, it might be written by summer’s end.

what, then, is a quality?

The question is Peirce’s, from his “The Principles of Phenomenology.” His answer is one I endorse, but I would quibble with him about it is one born out of phenomenology. Against those who would have qualities depend upon the mind of their observer, Peirce thinks of qualities as dispositions inherent in objects. He does not use the language of disposition, but rather the language of potentiality. But he is clear that by ‘potentiality’ he does not mean potentiality as lack of actuality, but potentiality as a real capacity, and not merely some dormant can-be-actualized-but-that-depends-on-actualization. His whole discussion hooks up with Shaviro’s recent commentary on Molnar’s Powers, and works in support of my account of sensations. Here’s Peirce:

[A quality] is not anything which is dependent, in its being, upon mind, whether in the form of sense or in that of thought. Nor is it dependent, in its being, upon the fact that some material thing possesses it. That quality is dependent upon sense is the great error of the conceptualists. That it is dependent upon the subject in which it is realized is the great error of all the nominalistic schools. A quality is a mere abstract potentiality; and the error of those schools lies in holding that the potential, or possible, is nothing but what the actual makes it to be. (‘The Principles of Phenomenology’, in Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler, Dover, 1955, pp. 84-85)

Peirce argues in the following way: an object that is red in the light is, by common sense, believed to be red when the lights go out. Now, if you believe that they are no longer red in the dark, then you must hold that they assume some other color in the dark, or that they become indeterminate with respect to their properties. Or you may believe that the object is no longer red, but that it has taken on some other determine color in the dark. In the latter case, there is no reason to suppose a specific quality that is not red; under the former, you still maintain the the object has some qualities, in which case you believe that the object possesses qualities that are not dependent on the perceiver.

As to the question of the indeterminacy of unperceived qualities, he reasons thus:

If, however, you hold that the bodies become indeterminate in regard to the qualities they are not actually perceived to possess, then, since this is the case at any moment in regard to the vast majority of the qualities of all bodies, you must hold that generals exist. In other words, it is concrete thins you do not believe in; qualities, that is, generals–which is another words for the same thing–you not only believe in but believe that they alone compose the universe. Consistency, therefore, obliges you to say that the red body is red (or has some colour) in the dark, and that the bard body has some degree of hardness when nothing is pressing upon it. (p. 85)

I’m in agreement with this ideas that red and hardness persist as real qualities even when no one is around to perceive them. It coheres with my idea of what sensation is, as I began to outline in brief here. What I’m keen to defend is the view that sensations really reside in things; that things emanate to radiate sensations, and that an object is in one respect a conspiracy of qualities whose autonomy is embodied in its singular capacity/disposition/power to effect other objects. In the end–and this will constitute my attempt to think objects in their own right–I’m working toward a speculative aesthetics that will try to imagine a world where qualities conspire into objects and exchange sensations without the facilitation of humans or other sentient creatures. Peirce, I think, is an ally in this project, although his phenomenology is not really an object-oriented ontology.

where’s the new phenomenology of perception?

Several years ago we caught wind of a new translation of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, which was undertaken by Sean Kelly. He was blogging about the experience here until the blog went defunct. If I remember correctly, there were some heavy critical comments made in the commentary section and then he stopped making his progress public.

Does anyone know when the new translation is set to appear, and if Kelly is still the translator?

phenomenology and ambient poetics

I’ve also been reading through Morton’s Ecology without Nature. One of the things that I find compelling in his analysis of ‘ecomimesis’ (nature writing) is his deployment of an ‘ambient poetics’ (this is, I think, his term).

Ecomimesis involves a poetics of ambience. Ambience denotes a sense of circumambient, or surrounding, world. It suggests something material and physical, though somewhat intangible, as if space itself had a material aspect–an idea that should not, after Einstein, appear strange. (33-34)

A lot could be revealed about phenomenology with ambient poetics, with its six elements of rendering,, the medial, the timbral, the Aeolian, tone, and the re-mark. That’s my intuition at this point.

In a related note, Morton gives a defense of (alien) phenomenology at his blog.