Planomenology Returns

Over a the long dormant Planomenology, Reid Kotlas has just announced his return to the blog with a very frank and eloquent post on his continuing philosophical development (here). In it he promises to take us all through his foray into the analytic tradition, including a number of it’s more important thinkers. I’m looking forward to reading these posts immensely, and I’m sure that others who’re unfamiliar with, but curious about, this material will find Reid’s thoughts on the matter useful. Despite the humility he displays in the post, I know Reid will provide some top notch analysis, so watch this space. Reid also touches on a number of interesting themes in his post that I’d like to briefly address.

In his post Reid describes a perspective shift that he’s undergone over the last couple years, and I have a great deal of empathy with him on this point, as I went through a very similar perspective shift myself a few years ago. I was not always the unabashed transcendental philosopher I am now. I was once a thoroughgoing correlationist/relativist, initially under the spell of Wittgensteinian quietism (anti-metaphysical), and then of radical materialist/anti-transcendentalist Deleuzianism (metaphysical). What united these different and seemingly incompatible phases was a certain commitment to the primacy of practice over theory, or the idea that theory is just another form of practice. This vulgar pragmatism is what Reid calls soft-Nietzscheanism.

This kind of position (exemplified also by certain strands of Derridean and Heideggerian philosophy) can be motivated from a number of different directions (for an example of one such path, see Brandom’s excellent paper on Rorty, here), but it inevitably ends up either chasing its own tail theoretically speaking (i.e., theorising the practice of theorising the practice of… etc.) or devolves into mere poetico-practical gestures, usually steeped in eschatology and negative theology (see the Derridean/Heideggerian axis alluded to above). In essence, all these positions strive for a kind of humility that is so radical as to be vacuous. False epistemic humility (‘but we can’t be certain that…’) can lead us from fear of error into fear of truth, in precisely the way that Hegel so perceptively criticises in the introduction to the Phenomenology, whereas false ontological humility (‘but we can’t be special…’) can lead us from deflating our own metaphysical standing to inflating the metaphysical standing of everything else (e.g., the universalisation of thought in panpsychism and the universalisation of agency in some forms of neo-Spinozism).

Again, as Reid notes, there are many worthwhile insights in the thinkers that inspire this loose conglomeration of positions. Despite my own transcendental turn, I still acknowledge (and intend to do more work on) penetrating insights to be found in Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Deleuze, Heidegger and others (though I’ve yet to find much use for Derrida, personally). However, the most insidious aspect of this loose conglomeration is that it tends to discourage us from adopting these specific insights, precisely because of their specificity. Despite the simultaneously detailed and systematic approaches of many of the great thinkers of the ‘continental tradition’, such as Hegel and Husserl, there is a pervasive trend among some members of this tradition to ignore details in favour of overarching insight. This is nowhere more obvious than in the gradual diminution and ultimate abandonment of the detailed analyses of the structure of reason found in Hegel’s logical project and Husserl’s phenomenological one. That the overarching insights of their successors (Heidegger and Derrida) are used to legitimate ignorance of such details (e.g., by denying the possibility of universal structures of reason) merely demonstrates how far they have fallen in this regard. There is most often a vicious circle hovering in the vicinity of these arguments (e.g., that it is absolutely true that there is no absolute truth), which true to form is taken to indicate some deeper poetico-practical horizon.

There are of course those in the continental tradition who are willing to deal in details, and there are increasingly more of them (say what you like about Badiou, but he has been a good influence here in a number of respects). As Reid notes also, there is an equally pervasive trend within the opposing ‘analytic tradition’ to focus on detail at the expense of systematicity. This trend manifests itself both in the philosophy of thought (i.e., logic, semantics, and epistemology) and in metaphysics (which is much less well defined), where myriad debates have done a good job of feeling their way around the conceptual terrain to be explored – uncovering problems, developing analytical tools, and making connections between seemingly disparate issues – without thereby necessarily identifying what their subject matter is (e.g., what we mean by ‘thought’ and ‘reality’) or the appropriate methodology for exploring it (e.g., whether it is empirical or otherwise). If we are to set out on such explorations, we must be willing to make use of the problems, tools, and connections these more or less haphazard expeditions have stumbled upon, but we must equally aim to be more regimented in our own pursuits.

What this means is that we must be able to properly combine systematic scope with analytic detail, or to exemplify the virtues of each philosophical tradition while avoiding their vices. However, in truth, the best way to go about achieving this is to recognise that these virtues do not really belong to either ‘tradition’, but to philosophy as such. We do not need to ‘build bridges between traditions’ by translating their ideas into one another’s favoured terminology, but rather to strive to do philosophy as such, as it should be done. We will find our inspiration and our tools wherever they lie. What is important is what we can do with them, not in the vacuous sense of what effects we can produce (philosophy as pure praxis), but in the sense of what further arguments we can construct, and what further insights we can deduce with them (philosophy as theory).

Luckily for us there are many who are already striving to do just this. I find the renewed interest in German Idealism in analytic circles (e.g., in Brandom and McDowell) and the renewed interest in logic and mathematics in continental circles (e.g., in Badiou and Meillassoux) to be good indicators of this. This way of going about things is of course more difficult in many ways, but no one ever said philosophy should be easy.

8 Responses to “Planomenology Returns”

  1. […] more towards analytic philosophy. Peter Wolfendale has a follow up post addressing similar issues here as […]

  2. What united these different and seemingly incompatible phases was a certain commitment to the primacy of practice over theory, or the idea that theory is just another form of practice. This vulgar pragmatism is what Reid calls soft-Nietzscheanism.

    Hey Pete – it seems to me that you and Reid are describing somewhat different phenomena with the term “soft-Nietzscheanism”? Reading Reid’s (very powerful) post, I got the impression he was using the phrase principally to denote a discursive emphasis on poetic and affective resonance, as opposed to argument? Whereas you seem to be using the phrase to refer to a set of philosophical positions about the relation between practice and theory (an analysis of theory in terms of practice)? I realise that from some theoretical perspectives these definitions are naturally associated – and that substantive philosophical positions and discursive resources used to advocate them are in any case never wholly dissociable (because what discursive resources we regard as most legitimate and persuasive will depend on our understanding of the nature of philosophy – itself a substantive philosophical question). Even so, I think it’s worth keeping these points distinct.

    Cheers…

    • reidkane Says:

      I think Pete’s definition is compatible with mine. The justification for valuing ‘poetic resonance’ over the force of the better reason comes from the kind of vulgar construal of rational force as simply a kind of causal force, and hence reduces the strength of an argument to a sort of ‘physical’ strength. Not all attempts to explain theory as an unremarkable species of practice have to take this reductionist route, but those that do tend to put more currency on the poetics of an argument over any other aspects.

      • Yes, sorry, I agree they’re compatible – and I agree there are reasons they’re often taken as fitting together well. I just think it’s also worth keeping the distinction in view – since, as you say, there are philosophical options where the two options don’t align.

      • To expand slightly: an emphasis on poeticism rather than argument is indeed often associated with the substantive position that theory should be understood in terms of practice. However, there is no necessity to this association, and there are plenty of figures who are strongly committed to rational discursive norms, yet who aim to account for those norms in practice-theoretic terms. Brandom is an outstanding example of this. So, to my mind, is Marx. I think it’s important not to elide the possibility of this position by suggesting an intrinsic association between the priority of practice and anti-rationalist poeticism.

      • deontologistics Says:

        Hi Duncan,

        Sorry for not responding sooner. I must emphasise that the position I was talking about is *vulgar* pragmatism, rather than the well worked out methodological pragmatism of Brandom, Marx, and perhaps even the early Heidegger. I took this to be somewhat obvious insofar as I’m a Brandomian (and heavily influenced by the early Heidegger).

        I suppose the problem is that I didn’t explain what I meant by saying that such ‘vulgar pragmatists’ take theory to be *just* a form of practice. What I mean is that they use the claim that theory is a form of practice to perform a kind of equalisation between it and other forms of practice (e.g., poetical expression, political decision, etc.), without actually accounting for the specific features of theoretical practice that properly differentiate it from these. In essence, vulgar pragmatists are vulgar insofar as they shirk an explanatory responsibility to work out precisely what kind of practice theory is, and what the consequences of this are.

        Does that make more sense?

  3. vulgar pragmatists are vulgar insofar as they shirk an explanatory responsibility to work out precisely what kind of practice theory is

    Yes, that’s much better, thank you!

  4. Dennis Balson Says:

    Is anyone interested in a different poin of view?
    I think that a nonphysical entity existed long before human consciousness came into being and that it is part of the mystical, intelligent and timeless dimension within nature. This concept of consciousness first came into being on this planet when living cells had the (intelligent) ability to adapt and change.

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