Another ideology of philosophy

In the early 1980s, Nozick presented a speculative talk at Trinity College on why intellectuals tend to oppose capitalism. Without making any sociological claims, Nozick proposed that it was specifically the character of formal schooling (particularly that phenomenon according to which we say that graduates go “into the real world” insofar as their academic existence is precisely not “real”) that fosters an “anti-capitalist animus” in intellectuals who find that the rate of exchange for their currency is lamentably poor in the “real world”.

We can extend and refine this particular insight to philosophy not in its opposition to capitalism—which, of course, is also prevalent among many philosophers (Continental, at least)—but to certain features of its practice as an institution.*

*By “institution” I mean what Max Fisch meant in his 1956 presidential address to the western division of the APA. This text deserves much more attention than it has ever received, particularly insofar as he proposes a conception of philosophy as the critic of institutions. Approximately, an “institution” for Fisch is any structure that conditions some determinate (or conscious) activity.

I’ve met not a few psychologists who began study in their discipline not only to help others but also to help themselves. The same is true for philosophy. Can we not question whether philosophy begins in “wonder”? True, Plato and Aristotle both said this, but Plato also wondered whether there might not be a more original trauma at the heart of philosophy. Heidegger says you don’t theorize about the hammer until it breaks. When this happens you are forced to stop, and this interruption is a sort of wonder—what is happening? So too there is an aporia that compels Socrates to philosophize and there is a trauma that gives birth to philosophy in Plato (i.e., the execution of Socrates). In all these cases, the moment of wonder, of perplexity, is a moment of violent disbelief, perhaps even anger (I was, after all, trying to hammer something when the hammer breaks). I am forced to stop before I can go on.

Two more examples: (1) Marx had said that philosophy up to Hegel had made knowledge about the world actual. But this knowledge was insufficient insofar as the world it revealed was intolerable. Thus, the real task of philosophy was to change the world. (2) In the “sublime” world of global capital, what other experience is possible for the individual aside from the question “is it happening” (both Simmel and Gauguin would agree and the latter, like Lyotard, will not use a question mark).

For whatever reason, if it is the case that philosophy has a traumatic origin, then there would seem to be two possible responses. The first is extraordinarily pervasive: philosophy is therapy. Hadot, Nehamas, and Nussbaum are among the most vocal proponents of this view, which unfortunately requires more space than time currently permits. So too I want to assert that this conception is directly related, sometimes even causally so, to the current state of affairs in which, for all that, philosophers are certainly an unhappy lot (Nozick and Rorty are among some notable exceptions; so too, perhaps, even Nehamas), which is not aided (rather, probably exacerbated) by the operation of institutions according to which it is the philosopher’s job (quite literally in many cases) to be “against” something, to show why so-and-so has a stupid reading of so-and-so, to write something disagreeing with everyone else so to have somebody care about one’s work (whether the powers that be that grant tenure or the very colleagues that one at the same time demonstrates to be unequal to the task of so caring).

Alternative response: the point is not refutation. The point is to listen to a philosopher—“you must allow the philosopher to speak to you”, Deleuze once told his students. Better: the philosopher speaks in preludes and refrains. The philosopher engages in what Deleuze has called the creation of concepts or what I have suggested is the creation of images. Although Bachelard has done much to indicate the possibility of such a poetics, insofar as I am committed to the creativity of thought I remain a faithful Bergsonian.

Images II

1. What is the scandal of thinking? If only our scientists would read Kant; if only our metaphysicians would read Gödel (Badiou); if only we could think the fact that we are not thinking (Heidegger); if only it were possible, through education, to open the American mind (Bloom, Adler); if only philosophy could move us to compassion (Rorty). Is there not a moral obligation to be intelligent (Erskine, Trilling)?

Or is not the task of thought to be done with thought—to flirt with the nothingness of thought in the heart of man, i.e., death, in the silence of nonknowledge (Bataille: “language, stubborn in refusal, is poetry, turns back on itself (against itself): this is the analogue of a suicide … Silence is the unlimited violation of the prohibition that human reason opposes to violence: it is divinity without stops, which thought alone disengaged from the contingency of myths”).

This would seem, to some, to be a retreat to the inner citadel—an evasion and, paradoxically, even a repression of existence that even the most ardent pessimist would revile. In this regard, Nietzsche’s most important teaching, if nothing else, is the lesson of courage—that all is not vanity (even if it is absurd).

2. If philosophy, then, is to transform the world, to critique the institution, to bring us to the leap, to think the possibility of freedom and revolt—what is the imperative for thought today when reflection hides its face under the mask of fascism (Bush’s Amerika), runs behind the gated walls of covenant communities, or parades its wares in the “marketplace of ideas”?

3. Metaphysics, Bergson says, is the language that dispenses with symbols. Bergson proposes an image of thought (i.e., intuition) that goes right to the heart of things. Here, Bergson finds, right down to the language of “dreaming”, an unlikely ally in Bachelard, who opposes the model of poetics (the image) to the concept (science, phenomenology, psychology).

“The cogito of thought can wander, wait, choose—the cogito of reverie is immediately attached to its objects, to its image. The shortest distance of all is the one between the imagining subject and the imagined image. … A kind of multiple cogito takes on new life in the closed world of a poem. Of course, other powers of consciousness are required to take possession of the poem’s totality. But the flash of an image already provides us with an illumination.”

[But—and here is my fundamental question—is the name of such an experience philosophy or art?]

“Suddenly an image occupies the heart of our imagining being. It seizes us, holds us. It infuses us with being … [The poet’s] being is simultaneously the being of the image and his commitment to the astonishing image. The image brings us an illustration of our wonderment. … In reverie on a simple object we experience a polyvalence of our dreaming being. A flower, a fruit, a simple familiar object suddenly insists that we think of it, that we dream in its company, that we help it to rise to the level of man’s companion [i.e., that we inhabit a world].”

And here there is yet another unlikely alliance: the law of Bachelard’s elements finds another expression in the Chinese wuxing—the phases or processes by which being is articulated (“even more than clear thought and conscious images, dreams are governed by the four fundamental elements”). We can go further: poetics is nothing else than the thinking of these images according to their immanent laws; the task of poetics is thus to break the representation of the word. Is this not also what we have in the Taoist wuwei (movement/non-movement)? Not merely the “disclosure” of a hidden Being but the very bringing into being of a becoming—is this not anything other than a thought?

“The poetic object, duly energized by a name rich in resonances, is a good conductor of the imagining psyche. For such conduction, we must call the poetic object by its name, its old name, giving it a just sonority, surrounding it with the resonances it will being to life, with the adjectives that will prolong its cadence and its temporal life … Each contemplated object, each creative name we murmur is the point of departure of a dream and of a line [a line of flight!], a creative linguistic movement.”

4. Gauchet has shown that the very possibility of reflection consists, first, in the separation of God from life and, consequently, the death of God. But to this we must add three (equivalent) corollaries: thought is singular; the essence of thought is not discourse; philosophy is not politics. And yet neither is philosophy ethics: even if one were to say that philosophy concerns the one who philosophizes, one must still ask who this “one” is (certainly not the thinker!).

5. The question or the image? Perhaps: philosophy is the opening of the question; music is the creation of the image.