The academic and the philosopher

There is a book being advertised at Starbucks (The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein). In what is surely a bad joke, it is described as a “dog’s eye view of the human condition”. The book’s website begins by saying that “Enzo [the dog] knows he is different from other dogs: a philosopher with a nearly [emphasis added] human soul …” This image of the philosopher is not unlike the guru—the one who “thinks deeply” about the “big questions of life” or simply about “life”. (These two formulations are not quite equivalent. According to the one, life is presented either as a question or a series of questions; according to the other, life is a mystery that requires solving or decoding.) This is the sense in which “everyone is a philosopher” insofar as these “big questions” are intrinsic to the “human condition”.

Alternatively, the image of the philosopher is the socially useless (and often quirky) academician who spends his (and I do mean the gendered pronoun here) time in a room full of books using big, technical words that don’t mean anything except to the three people (which is apparently the national average) that will read the article he publishes in a journal that will never see the light of a Barnes and Noble bookstore.

This contradiction is operative in the usual reactions to the statement “I’m a student of philosophy”. Either one is then held to possess superior argumentative skills (in the manner of a lawyer or a sophist), profound wisdom (although a priest or guru is usually first consulted about personal or ethical dilemmas), or a penchant for brooding, existential melancholy (with only slightly more respect than emos and scenes). It is the paralyzing contradiction operative in the response I recently received: “Oh, ok, so I guess that means you, what, ‘philosophize’?” Philosophizing is an inner affair conducted either in an armchair or at the top of a mountain where one comes to an epiphany about the “meaning of life”.

This ambiguous image of the philosopher places him in a curious position with respect to this question. On the one hand, the philosopher is expected to have insight into the “meaning of life” insofar as he deals in abstractions and concepts instead of the inanities of toiling, child-raising, and fixing cars. On the other hand, the philosopher is collapsed into the spiritualist. In either case, the philosopher is caught between question and answer. If the “meaning of life” is something material, the philosopher is the one who can theorize about it in concepts but who does not himself make money, create art, etc; if the “meaning of life” is something spiritual, the philosopher is the one who remains at the level of logic and rational thinking instead of offering the super-rational, intuitive enlightenment of the mystic (i.e., instead of a dualism between the body and mind of the idealistic philosopher, the spiritualist wants a tripartite division of body, mind, and spirit).

It is then fortunate that Eagleton is not (or at least he does not consider himself to be) a philosopher.* Yet one wonders what basis he offers for his latest book (The Meaning of Life). In the preface he acknowledges that there is “something absurdly overreaching” about writing a book about “the meaning of life”, particularly for the one who does not have what he might call an “easy answer” to the question, i.e., God (although it is an injustice to the operation of faith to think there is anything “easy” about it, unless one conflates faith with fundamentalism, which is not immediately justified to my mind). As Eagleton poses the problem, then (although he is clearly not the first to do so), the question about the (question of the) “meaning of life” faces a methodological problem: if the answer is not God, then how might we even begin to seek an answer? How do we even pose the question? (Notice that this is also precisely Augustine’s problem in the Confessions even though for him the answer is, in fact, God—this is in part what I meant by saying that faith does not seem to be as “easy” as all that.)

*Eagleton is, rather, a “critic”, which is an archaic genre even in Britain, but one that is most appropriate for his work. The relation between criticism and philosophy is one that should be addressed in more detail at another time. It seems unfortunately to be the case, however, that much of Eagleton’s criticism has in the last few years (particularly since The English Novel) suffered the same fate as Rorty’s later work—i.e., that criticism becomes uninteresting when it is merely reactive and devolves into commentary. This is unfortunate, as much of Eagleton’s earlier work from the mid-1990s to about 2002 is penetrating, lucid, and genuinely entertaining.

What Eagleton brings to bear on the question of the “meaning of life” is the resources of philosophy: Aristotle, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Freud, etc, with a little bit of literature thrown in (Chekhov, Beckett, Shakespeare, Douglas Adams, etc). Yet Eagleton is not speaking to philosophers: he is not telling philosophers anything about Wittgenstein that they do not already know (and, really, presenting Wittgenstein at a level that is even beneath the decent undergraduate philosophy major). To whom, then, is Eagleton writing? If not the specialist, then it would seem this book is addressed to the fiction of the “general (educated) public” to whom philosophy should be “relevant” to the “universal questions”.

Naturally, Eagleton does not claim to possess the “answer” to the question, but proposes a way of thinking about it.** Instead of endnotes, the book includes after its final chapter a list of “further reading” from just those philosophers discussed in the book. Despite the fact this suggestion seems to fall prey to the same book-club ideology that believes that anyone can just walk into a library and start reading The World as Will and Representation, at best the suggestion would increase sales at Barnes and Noble without necessarily bringing anyone into dialogue with philosophy; at the very least, philosophy becomes something consumable—wisdom on the shelf that can be brought to bear on my personal existential crisis (I fail to see how this does not end up perpetuating the same ideology of a “private” answer to the “meaning of life” that Eagleton himself suggests is an obstacle to a reasonable approach to the question). There is, moreover, a profound tension (if not a contradiction) between the idea that philosophy is “for everyone” and the impossibility of reading Spinoza’s Ethics without philosophical training.***

**What Eagleton proposes consists in the final chapter in an exposition of Aristotle’s ethics. Despite the fact this is a bit of a surprise given his prior work, one cannot help but wonder why he does not merely point his readers to Adler’s Aristotle for Everybody, which accomplishes much the same thing with approximately the same level of success and expectation from its readers.

***Ultimately, the ideology that “everyone is a philosopher” empties out the name of “philosophy” under an essentializing conception of the human being as a “thinking” or “rational” being. Because we are essentially, intrinsically “rational”, specialized, technical training in learning how to think is superfluous—we just need to recognize that anyone can “think for himself”. The philosopher has no more right or authority to talk about Aristotle’s Ethics that any rational human being who decides to think about ethics. This is, of course, a vulgar form of essentialism, for it is not to be found, say, in Aristotle’s conception of ethics according to which one can be more or less successful at “being human” and for whom so being human required not just the fortitude of an individual will or the integrity of one’s spirit but the involvement of public and political life.

Yet who is the academic even to make the suggestion that philosophy (or at least books of philosophy if not the discipline) is relevant to “everyone” or, more specifically (since the term “everyone” is ultimately an empty signifier), to the non-philosopher? Or, even: who is the academic to suggest that he has something worthwhile to say about the “meaning of life”? To whom does he have grounds to speak?

If Eagleton is not saying anything meaningful to philosophers, but is appealing to the audience of non-philosophers, is he then accusing philosophers of not being able to say anything meaningful to non-philosophers? Towards the end of the book, he evokes a remark from Wittgenstein’s TLP (6.52, 6.521) and comments:

“What Wittgenstein probably means [in the cited quotation] is not that the meaning of life is a pseudo-question, but that it is a pseudo-question as far as philosophy is concerned [emphasis added]. And Wittgenstein had no great respect for philosophy, which he hoped his [TLP] would bring to an end. All the vital questions, he thought, lay outside the subject’s stringent limits. The meaning of life was not something that could be said, in the form of a factual proposition; and for the early Wittgenstein, only this kind of proposition made sense.”

Aside from the familiar technical problems of the showing/saying distinction relied upon here, there is a deep equivocation over the word “philosophy”—what is the “philosophy” to which Wittgenstein was responding in the TLP (notice answering this question is impossible for the book-club enthusiast), and what is the “philosophy” to which Eagleton is referring when he speaks of the modern condition? If it is not academic pretension to presume that a book about the “meaning of life” that discusses some of the canonical texts of philosophy is “accessible” or “relevant” to the non-philosopher, then must it be the case that it is such a case of academic pretension to believe that the fight against dogma requires more than thinking that “getting Wittgenstein” means being able to encapsulate the TLP in the space of a couple pages or by reading “very short introductions”? If, in other words, the academic convinces the non-philosopher to read Schopenhauer, and the latter comes out of the engagement being able to say “it is self-evident to Schopenhauer that only an idiot could imagine that life was worth living”, have we gained any ground in the fight against dogma? Has not the belief that this reader has now “read and interpreted Schopenhauer” or “made Schopenhauer relevant” itself become a new dogma?

For philosophy really to avoid the Scylla of dogma and the Charybdis of sophistry, it must refuse identification with content (which manifests in various instances: in AOSs and tenure review procedures, comprehensive exams for graduate students, professional affiliations (e.g., as members of SPEP or the Sartre Circle), the curriculum and the canon, and so on), for this is the shortest route to dogma. Neither, however, can philosophy merely be identified with a certain “attitude” (usually described as “critical” insofar as philosophy teaches its students how to be “critical thinkers” about “anything”) or, in other words, be simply formal insofar as this is the route either to skepticism or sophistry. (The answer, of course, is a form-content dialectic.)

Neither is philosophy simply a “way of life”. Tempting though this formulation is, it does not go far enough in the reductive accounts of “life” either as organism or totality. Eagleton is right to point out the ambiguities contained in the word “life” when we ask for its meaning—e.g., not only that life as a meaning but also that there is a (single) thing called “life” that has a meaning. To adapt a formulation by Deleuze, we might say that “philosophy is a life”. This way of speaking is not equivalent to “the life of a philosopher is one way of life” insofar as it refers primarily not to a (particular) philosopher but to “philosophy”—the term “philosophy” contains not only the “philosopher” but always and necessarily a reference to philosophers (in the plural). It is the reverse procedure of the latter statement: we do not need to build a community of philosophy from the individual philosopher and his relation to other philosophers, but we are able to derive the individual philosopher from the life of philosophy.

Life is not philosophy and philosophy is not life; philosophy is a life. Yet this is neither simply radical contingency nor an insipid popular expression of diversity and relativism (e.g., life is one thing viewed from the perspective of philosophy and another viewed from the perspective of biology). There are many lives, not simply many “perspectives” on life. The plurality of lives is not simply one of “struggle” or bellum omnium if for no other reason than that contradiction is only one species of difference. To adapt a concept from a friend and colleague, if philosophy is a life, then the question of how philosophy might speak to the “meaning of life” is fundamentally one of reflection. Reflection here does not signify the sense of inner withdrawal (as when one “reflects” on one’s life to find meaning somewhere in it) but the operation of the fold, which can be expressed either as a “folding back” (re-pliée) or as a point of indiscernibility between levels of analysis (which I find more helpful to describe not only in terms of logical self-reference but also after the fashion of physical discontinuities of quanta) wherein what is expressed is not merely a repetition of the same but a point of (ir?)real transcendence (i.e., difference). This is, in short, the very definition of creativity. (To be brutal and glib, the point here is that philosophers need to read more Bergson and Deleuze.)

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The myth of nature

1. In the foothills of Colorado on land barely touched by industry, I climbed to the top of a large red rock formation. This particular spot is visited not only by the locals (which include foxes and even, once, mountain goats), but also by other visitors such as myself. Usually the traces of these visitors consist of footprints in the unpaved road and paths, but occasionally there is the cigarette butt or beer can strewn by the side of the road. This particular day, when I reached the top of the formation, what awaited me was an empty bottle of chardonnay left by the nature-lover(s) who, presumably, thought it would be a pleasant experience to enjoy the “spectacular view” with a glass (or four) of wine.

The violation here was more than one of breeching the “leave no trace” protocol advocated by various environmental organizations and agencies; this protocol is at best agnostic on the tendency of so-called “nature-lovers” to fetishize nature. Even if my predecessors had taken their refuse with them, in what sense can they be said to be “lovers of nature” when their love makes nature into an object? The fact they in fact forgot their wine bottle is a direct consequence of this act (in other words, forgetting here is an active process).

In what sense are these the people to whom we can appeal when we want to “save the environment”? For what purpose are we so saving it? What is this “nature” we are saving? For either the devotees of our “earth mother” or the “cult of the outdoors” for whom nature is an object consumable by bike trails, ATVs, or “majestic views” (“121 feet of pure ahhhhhh!” as one billboard proclaims, advertising a waterfall), we are caught in the contradiction of human existence (an existence in culture, history, and industry) and animal existence (the brute facticity of objects): nature is always found elsewhere than the human—the concrete of sidewalks no longer qualifies as nature insofar as we proceed to identify nature only with the blades of grass in its cracks; and even then “real” nature is found by escaping the city, i.e., by “escaping ourselves” such that the proper form of prostration in the temple of Gaia is silent awe before the gigantic redwood or by listening to the cry of the eagle. The human, in other words, must subtract itself from nature and allow nature to “be present”. But the human can therefore never “be with” nature, for nature is then the “more-than-human world”. This dichotomy leaves us with one of two choices: either the supersession of nature by industry (God granted dominion over nature; work and technology is the essence of humanity; etc) or cultural suicide (i.e., the separation of animality from culture—a “return to nature” in the form of shamanic mysticism, aboriginal denials of technology, etc).

2. In his most recent work (although the majority of this work has not been published), Critchley has argued that the citizen requires a sort of “catechism” or, in other words, that politics requires a “supreme fiction” that functions as an authoritative ground or arche. The problem of modern politics, Critchley suggests, is that such authority can no longer come from God but must come from humanity itself; this is, of course, the problem of nihilism in the form of Jacobi’s formulation: either we are God or God is absolutely transcendent.

Perhaps something similar is true for thinking of nature. I had once, long ago, suggested that environmental advocates will never be successful in their efforts without a radical change in our cultural values and mores, for as long as the culture of capital continues to think in terms of accumulation, industry, and “rational self-interest”, we will never value the sacrifice of (personal) interest for the sake of “nature”. As a variation of this suggestion, perhaps what is needed is a new myth of nature. If the symbolic pagan religions were those whose myths precluded the development of industry—as so many of the bigoted ideologies of western Europe have argued—then what can we learn of the function of myth, if not the content of these myths that are now being fetishized by New Agers and so-called “nature-lovers”? MacIntyre has demonstrated convincingly that the ideology that has claimed to be done with tradition—i.e., liberalism—has itself become a tradition—yet one in bad faith insofar as it refuses to recognize its own status as such. It is this sort of contradiction that Critchley in his own way is indicating when he suggests that if modern politics is not to fall prey to nihilism (in the form of liberal democratic capitalism), then what we need is some kind of supreme fiction or what I am calling myth (obviously in reference to Barthes’ notion of “mythology”). Are there any myths available to us from within the ideologies of the western European tradition (I personally find Taoism more useful here than these)? What are the mechanisms by which these myths might function? Critchley suggests poetry. Perhaps, however, we might also not want to be so quick to dismiss the so-called “return to religion” as simply a tool of reactionary fundamentalism and not simply deliver the discourse of religion over to the right (if for no other reason than that we have seen how successfully the right has mobilized the resources of religion for the most fascist of purposes).

Two dogmas of dogma (in the form of an antimony)

1. The “right” to belief is sufficient to have one. The patriot who believes that Marxism is the philosophical foundation of the “Axis of Evil”, the sentimentalist who believes that “music is the language of the soul”, or the dieter who believes that Arizona brand green tea is “good for you” meet all the conditions to have a belief that such things are the case. (The issue here is not that of justified belief and criteria for justification—which has been of perennial interest to analytic philosophy—but the fact of belief, to which analytic philosophy is by and large insensitive.)

Conversely, to have a belief is sufficient to have a “right” to one; and, as a corollary, democratic practice requires the mobilization of beliefs in the public sphere. It is, of course, precisely for this reason that the American Founders instituted various republican controls on such practice.

2. The purpose of education is to fight against dogma. The one who is educated believes not merely as “one” believes but has grounds for belief.

ad 1: The ideology of democracy does not presuppose equality but, rather, institutes equality: one person, one vote.

ad 2: A woman once told me that she read a “Christian study” that proved many of the rhythms of popular music were evil and morally ruinous to the soul because they were derived from voodoo.

The kindness of strangers

There’s a bumper sticker that says “yes, this is my truck; no, I won’t help you move”. Inadvertently, this little quip contains a little wisdom.

Among the criteria of friendship according to popular opinion, a friend is someone who is “there for you when you need them” or, conversely, that “I’m there for you if you’re there for me”. If I help a friend move, a “real” friend will return the favor; otherwise that person is not my friend and my good nature has been taken advantage of. I then have the right to be offended or to feel betrayed in my trust.

Any number of situations can be substituted here (such as the mooch, the hangout buddy who is emotionally unavailable, and so on—“I do a lot for you and get nothing in return! What kind of friend are you?”). But it is just this ideology of reciprocity that precludes the existence of real friendship insofar as it reduces friendship into reciprocity and, therefore, into economy or a relation of mutual exploitation.

Reciprocity is something that can be measured and, consequently, institutionalized. We do it in exchange by assigning value; we do it in justice through contracts, obligations, and law; we do it ethically in norms (for example, if I extend you a ‘common courtesy’, then I can expect you do return it). If, however, friendships work in this way, friendships are reduced to the same level of business partners and working clients. To borrow an example from Sartre, if a lover stays with me because s/he promised to stay with me (say in a marriage vow), but doesn’t love me anymore, would I still call that person a lover? Obligation is insufficient to constitute a loving relationship (including friendship). A lover (or a friend) gives to his/her beloved not because of an obligation or an expectation of reciprocity. A “real” friend helps me move regardless of any obligation to do so and doesn’t do a favor with the expectation of being able to “call it in” later. (While I was once helping my friend M… move, on the street we were approached by a pair of Mormon missionaries who offered to help us. Although we declined their offer, in the kindness of these strangers, they were better friends to us than I would have been had I, two months later, asked M… to return the favor.)

The mark of “real” friendship is, rather, generosity. It is true that reciprocity and generosity are not mutually exclusive. I can freely love my spouse and also, on the basis of that love, commit to a vow that obligates me to stay with her. But only to the extent that the proximate cause of any of my actions is my love and not my vow am I a lover. This is why real love (and friendship) is so difficult: it requires a certain amount of strength and courage to love without reciprocity. This is also why so many social relations are those of mutual exploitation and, as long as friendship is conceived in these terms, they will always result in injustice, dissymmetry, disappointment, failures, and betrayals for the same reason that economic or legal relations always result in inequalities that require adjudication (by courts, market regulations, etc).

Two consequences: (1) Another way of stating the point is to say that a friendship cannot be a relation of co-dependence (in the quasi-technical sense of the term) insofar as these relations devolve into non-productive, reactive cycles of mutually reinforcing ressentiment. It can become necessary to break the cycle of mutual co-dependence, e.g., by not calling a friend in a moment of distress, because (2) what is at stake is neither my need (which would turn the other into a resource) nor “our” friendship insofar as “we’re in things together”. As in love, so too in friendship the relation is not that of a fusion of two into one but, to adapt some terms from Badiou, the “continuous operation of the double function”, i.e., of the Two. The relation, properly speaking is not between one and one, but between each to a world. It is this operation of the Two that structurally debars love/friendship from becoming merely a cycle of ressentiment (whether or not this solution requires a Leibnizian harmony is an open question, however).

Addendum (27 May): It is worth repeating that reciprocity and generosity are not mutually exclusive. What is at issue is whether reciprocity happens, as a matter of fact, or whether it is the motivation. This is why the condition of generosity is “strength” and not “trust”. A generous person cannot be betrayed because s/he does not expect that his/her actions will be returned. This is why generosity requires the strength to acknowledge this fact. A generous lover is the one who loves and continues to love while acknowledging the possibility that the love might end–that might no longer be for some reason (that feelings can change, the other person might die, etc). It is the attempt to love only on the condition of being loved that leads to exploitation, abuse, manipulation, and so on. A real relationship of love (whether amorous or friendly) is only possible between two generous people. A relationship where A is generous and B is not is obviously exploitative. A relationship where both are generous is one wherein “reciprocity” happens as a matter of fact and not as a matter of motivation (viz., under the name of ‘trust’).

On the other hand, a relationship between two non-generous but reciprocal people is mutually exploitative and precisely defines the political situation. This can be approached in various ways. Despite everything else, no one has described the problem better than Hobbes–in a situation of radical equality, trust and covenant between people is impossible without the institution of law, i.e., the mediation of a third party between two people. This is why reciprocity is the foundation of law and why it defines legal and economic relations. The attempt to found friendship on reciprocity sutures friendship to these same structural determinations of measure.

What makes relations exploitative (mutually or not) is the persistence of the question “what do I get out of it?” This is more obvious in the case of the exploitation of one by another (e.g., Scott has a car and can give me rides places). In the case of mutual exploitation, the persistence of the “I” goes under the ideology of “trust”. A betrayal of trust indicates the absence of generosity. If I give because I (generously) care for someone, then I forfeit the right to be offended if I get nothing out of it (not even acknowledgment of my gift). If I am so offended by not getting anything out of it, then my action was not motivated by (generous) care for the other person, for if it were the case, I would have nothing to lose. It is the persistence of the interest of the “I” in trust that makes reciprocity a relation of mutual exploitation: e.g., I’m there for you because I want you to be there for me. If I’m truly there for you because I want to be there for you, then I cannot expect that you will be there for me, i.e., I cannot “trust” that you will return my gift (in reciprocity).