Category Archives: Theory

Avoiding the Siren Call

Halfway through this lecture by Stanley Cavell, I stopped listening to it. It is not just that the lecture comes across – to me and to many others – as boring and self-involved. More than that, I had a moment of enough is enough. Not only do I not feel like listening more. I will not listen more. It was a flashback to fifteen years ago when, though at the time I poured through his writings, I stopped going to his classes. I wasn’t going to put myself through it anymore.

Not put myself through what anymore? What am I feeling when watching the lecture? There is a pain, a sense of frustration. A feeling that I am torturing myself by listening to this. But why?

It is the sense of a siren call, a pleasant, melodious, hopeful song luring me into its orbit even as ultimately it leads only to my entrapment and an intellectual dead end. That what I am listening to is really, for me, a mirage, a false hope, an illusion of a future at the end of the talk.

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Creating the Future

In this lecture, Alain Badiou suggests the task of philosophy is to avoid two extremes. One extreme – abstract universality – is to state in abstract and theoretical terms what unifies all people. Badiou identifies this with science, technology, business, capitalism. The other extreme – particularity – resists abstract universality by focusing on bounded groups, such as nationalism, religious fundamentalism, racism, and so on. The task of philosophy is to thread the needle and create, what one might call, universality of particulars, where people discover their shared universality through an openness to each others’ particularity.

For Badiou philosophy – the universality of particularity – is always oriented towards the future. Particularity is focused on the past: it says we need to hold on to the communal bonds which are being dissolved by the push towards universality. In contrast, abstract universality is focused on the present: it says we have discovered the universal categories (evolution, cognitive science, the rational foundations of morality, etc.) and now the task is mainly to apply them to our situation. But for Badiou philosophy is neither about preservation of the past nor sustaining the present, but about creating the future.

It is evident through the talk that fundamentalist religion is particularity and the past. About an hour into the talk, he suggests that analytic philosophy is abstract universality and the present. This leads to the striking claim that if analytic philosophy dominates, then creativity and philosophy and love and, indeed the essence of humanity, will come to an end. On this picture, analytic philosophy succumbed to technicism and lost itself in scientism.

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New Age Philosophy and Academic Philosophy

Here is an interesting snippet of an interview between Deepak Chopra and Joshua Knobe:

Seeing the interview is like seeing two people speaking different languages all the while hoping, based on the similarity in sounds of some of the words, that they are speaking the same language and so are actually communicating.

Part of the fascination of the interaction is that it is between between two people high up in institutional structures which normally don’t engage with each other: new-age philosophy and academic philosophy. In one way the new-age philosophy has a greater grip on the public, since most people don’t have a sense for the circles Knobe moves in. In another way academic philosophy has a greater grip on the public, because the institution Knobe belongs to (Yale) has a greater grip on the public than do structures of new age philosophy.

Importantly, both structures aim for, and presume to speak from, a universal space of philosophy. Both Chopra and Knobe are trying, in different ways, to make philosophy connect to the public by wrapping philosophy in the language of science: Chopra as a doctor, Knobe as an experimenter.

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My View

Contemporary philosophy in America is in the midst of a sea change. In simplest terms, it is going from being mainly about a canon of white males to becoming more pluralistic. But this is not a binary issue: traditional or pluralistic. There is much scope for genuine, productive philosophical disagreement on what pluralism can look like, and what form it can take.

To see this, consider the following three questions:

1) Is Pluralism, as opposed to Eurocentrism, correct?

2) Is there merit to Wittgensteinian criticisms of philosophy? (One might ask similarly of Heidegerrian or Pragmatist criticisms, and so on.)

3) Is it possible to do cutting-edge philosophy outside academia?

Each of these questions can be answered yes or no. That means there are eight possible views in conceptual space.

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