Notes toward a manifesto for philosophy in the 21st century

1. Philosophy today is divided between two contrary – and both false – commitments: (1) to the insistence that there are “enduring questions” of human life and (2) that there should be “progress” in philosophical discovery (the paradigm for such progress, of course, being the natural sciences). On the one hand, the formulation of any such “enduring questions” is necessarily either (onto)theological or nihilistic; on the other, we have only confused (mostly linear) models of progress. The illusion of “enduring questions” consists in the fact that philosophical questions repeat and we mistake repetition for sameness. The demand for progress is often confused with the demand for “answers” to these “enduring questions” of humanity.

2. Art, Langer claims, is not merely the expression of feeling but of the idea of feeling. “The illusion, which constitutes the work of art, is not a mere arrangement of given materials in an aesthetically pleasing pattern; it is what results from the arrangement, and is literally something the artist makes, not something he finds. It comes with his work and passes away in its destruction. To produce and sustain the essential illusion, set it off clearly from the surrounding world of actuality, and articulate its form to the point where it coincides unmistakably with forms of feeling and living, is the artist’s task.” A few pages later, when discussing the visual space of a painting, she observes that “pictorial space is not only organized by means of color … it is created; without the organizing [Kantian] shapes it is simply not there. Like the space ‘behind’ the surface of a mirror, it is what the physicists call ‘virtual space’ – an intangible image. … Being only visual, this space has no continuity with the space in which we live …”. The autonomy of painting consists, then, not in the fact that the painting is not a tool and thus excluded from the motive space of action; rather, the painting exists as independent (virtual) reality that is not merely derivative or reducible to the material or the sensuous.

2a. Similarly, philosophy is the expression of the idea of an idea or, more precisely, the formal constellation of ideas. Both Spinoza and Husserl, in their own ways, insisted on the emergence of ideas from affectivity. Thought is a sort of bending or folding of affect, which forms both its ground and its effect. Philosophy responds to the emergency of thought in a double sense. (1) Thinking emerges from transcendental, formal, and political conditions for which philosophy must not only account but create (Fichte contra Kant) and atone (Benjamin). (2) We must ask not only what “calls for” thinking but what demands cannot be ignored or unheard.

3. Previous centuries have had their own figures of philosophy: the peripatetic, the cynic, the statesman, the monk, the courtier, the German professor, the writer. The figure of the philosopher in the twenty-first century is the dissident.

3a. Philosophy must refuse the temptations of “relevance” for, if successful in the endeavor, would merely affirm the status quo. The primary task of contemporary philosophy is not to be “relevant” to our lives but, rather, to give expression to the distortions and abjections that make these lives possible, impossible, plastic, beautiful, and diminished. To that end, the paradigmatic objects of the philosophical gaze must no longer be tables and lamps but states and dollars.

4. In a surprising remark at the end of his reflections of the status of political philosophy in the analytic tradition, Williams asserts that “in its insistence, at its best, on the values of unambiguous statement and recognizable argument … its patience … its willingness to meet with the formal and natural sciences … in all this, and despite its many and often catalogued limitations, it remains the only real philosophy there is”. Among his observations of analytic philosophy’s fraught relationship with value theory and often its explicit Balkanization, Williams redeems the impurity of political philosophy in the sense that even within the terms that settled the collapse of the fact/value distinction, any analysis of meaning (à la Davidson, for example) must be determined by empirical constraints at the risk of being “indeterminate and pointless” (Williams specifically accuses Wittgensteinian philosophy for its rejection of the latter requirement). But in this sense, philosophy is not only impure but normative (perhaps even in the ancient sense) because it is itself an expression of a shared life. In this sense, then, philosophy is innately political, not because speech forms the common basis for both, but because sympathy is among its fundamental affective conditions.

4a. Just as Langer famously proposed to think of a philosophy in a “new key”, the genres of philosophy are related like musical modes. What in the same essay Williams called the “systematic demands” of philosophy is not merely the need to “apply” fundamental philosophical concepts to politics but to hear the political in the ontological, the ethical in the logical, and the beautiful in the transcendental.

4b. Philosophy need not choose to be political; the choice to be apolitical is not only a performative contradiction but a surrender to sophistry. But the normativity of philosophical thought is not the same as a “plan of action” (in the same way that a painting is not merely a duplication of the real, a philosophical idea, e.g., of justice, remains virtual). Philosophy constructs the possibility of a life worthy of love, for which we must fight.

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