Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Oxford University Press, Milestones

So, I just called for my first ever desk copies for my first ever course I'm teaching. It's PHIL 102 Introduction to Philosophy. I'm really excited. When dealing with an academic press, all they do is just send you the book. You call, talk to someone, and that's it.

I'll be adopting some intensive-writing techniques for the introductory course, and have decided that the Vaughn text Writing Philosophy should take a more active role than I have seen it before. Moreover, I have developed a formal rubric for students to follow, which basically amounts to a student defending a thesis and anticipating intellectual objections to that thesis. I saw this general strategy as immensely powerful in improving philosophical writing in Vancouver, particularly for a largely ESL student audience. I think it should work here, although some of the Vancouver model lacks exegetical concerns and historical context one finds in Continental pedagogy. I'll have to see how it is received by the students and my peers.

I anticipate some very rudimentary problems and want to think of ways to make the writing component of the course easier on students. The equivalent problem of Vancouver students at SFU may surface at SIU, namely that students are now more under-prepared for abstract thinking and subsequent writing philosophy requires. The strength of an American university is that they only speak one language. There is no language barrier between myself and the students. This takes a lot of pressure off of me when I think about teaching philosophy.

To make it easier, I've adopted the general strategy of grading drafts and providing systematic feedback as an expert reader. I wanted to take the time, and perhaps develop several feedback sheets for various courses since much of my interests will fall along more historically-centered coursework.

Secondly, I have chosen to use Richard Double's Beginning Philosophy. This book is a wonderful introduction to various philosophical problems, even including some meta-ethics at the introductory level. While this book is largely analytic, I have a strange appreciation for this book. It's incredibly clear and concise about very dense topics. I've never seen a book explain so clearly Aquinas' contingency argument for God's existence and Mackie's error theory. Moreover, the focus on clarity and dialectic throughout is something I think may help others with their coursework at SIU. Most students cannot fathom that one would be arguing after the truth of how the world is; most students regard the humanities with some strange relativism.

It's just really exciting to be teaching my own course. Rarely, I am told is this opportunity given to a first-year PhD.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Posting Schedule

I can't seem to breakaway from my studies for any length of time to post. I'm sorry for my regular followers. I think a post once every two weeks is possible during semesters. So that's what I'll do.

As always, I love hearing from people who read this blog.

Don't be a stranger. Philosophy is all about talking to strangers, unless doing so will result in a cup of hemlock.

Irigaray, Language and Conservatism

Luce Irigaray has devastated my brain. But as usual, there's a certain sense of a problem that drives home for me. In her criticism of language, language is sexed; it sexuates and prevents the recognition of sexual difference. It has a prefigured intelligibility to it already, and governs the possible articulations and meanings before we even speak. In this way, we might say that "language speaks us" determining the threshold of our ways of being and speaking.

This insight isn't new, but harder to see in English. For Irigaray, language is gendered and that cuts all the way down for her in her native French language. Gender is harder for an English monolinguist to see. Yet, there are certain patterns of cultural norms, what we might call certain intelligible orders that want to prefigure essences of sexuality: there is man and then there is woman. As always, this problem hits home for me--conservatism is entrenched in preserving intelligible orders that constrain the newness of discourse. Let me explain.

If our language affects the possibilities of how we can even talk about sexuality, about being a 'woman', then we determine the limit of what can be said. (I have a similar point in the abortion article I wrote on here some time ago). We would speak in such a intelligible order to only repeat what can be said. We would be closed off from even thinking anew. As Irigaray puts the point,
Nothing new, nothing being born in this universal Word which amounts to the most solipsistic construction, constitution of a subject who would no longer know, or not know, the event. Who, in a certain way from the beginning, in a language that has been determined in this way. Like a present that would move around while remaining the same? a machine that puts or sews things together by making a forward stitch bacward and a backward stitch forward, and so on, indefinitely. Without any creation, invention, event, or randomness except for this interminable operation. (The Invisible of the Flesh in An Ethics of Sexual Difference (Cornell University Press, 1993)p. 178)

Conservativism moves within history, or so it claims. It attempts to inscribe a current complaint or violation of tradition within a historical claim or narrative, conceptually a larger part. In order to inscribe the meaning of the words used in such a claim to history, they merely repeat; they re-instantiate an intelligible order of the past/tradition/history. In doing so, they close themselves off from the new, and as I urge the better.

Now, it is foolish for a philosopher to assume all new formations are better. All new formations may create more problems than they are intended to solve. But shouldering history as a sign, a threshold to NOT do the RIGHT thing is something I can never understand. For me, ethical knowledge is realizable; we do it everyday. But the point is to be made aware about how our culture, language and norms inscribe injustice in their very articulation of a problem, in terms of how we speak about it. Allowing the newness of discourse, of speech or a problem, is a way to explore the human condition, not prefigure woman into a home, a black man to the fields or a gay man to the infernos of hell.

We can see this in bigoted non-denominational forms of Christianity. Homosexuality must be a sinful choice in their rhetoric, what I've called their intelligible order of what-can-be-saidness. There's no other way to even talk/think about it. If it is not sinful choice, then God has created by design people condemned to hell from the very outset. Since God is a morally-perfect being, he would not do such a thing, so one inference is that homosexuality is by choice. It is a desire that can be cleansed from someone's behavioral tendency. Now, of course, this doesn't stand for all forms of Christianity, but is one sign of how conservatism in its repetition of the past can never say anything new. Here, Irigaray is writing about sexed language prefiguring what woman is. What I am doing with this insight is reading it back into our American political situation.

Conservatives can never say anything new since they are trapped by a re-enacting of the past, a repetition of language in which nothing new, no new meanings or possibilities can enter as even legitimate. They are the worst forms of politicians constantly re-enacting a past they can't ever get to or know epistemically and doing it at the expense of a solution that could benefit exigent political matters. They are like those weird experiences in which someone realizes they know more than they thought they did about something only to forget they were prefigured in that knowing from the outset. You cannot dissimulate the past as new either. But that's a story for another time.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

On the Tension in Doing Philosophy

I have the practical wisdom to see that writing in a Continental style requires a close examination of the text, and the "argument" is interwoven with the attempt to come to grips with the text before me.

To come back, to return to the style of my literary love is hard. When you read my statement of research, I say that I look at Continental philosophers as those that offer insights into typical meta-ethical problems. I take from them like a robber in the night an insight, put it into a proposition to be argued for as it relates to my philosophizing as a description of the world. In this way, my robbery of a text transgresses against the careful details of figurative expression, symbolism, metaphor and historical horizon of these texts. Two opposite poles are at tension in my philosophizing: (1) where philosophy is systematically argued description of ahistorical problems and (2) that philosophy is a description of our lived-experience, our facticity, our situatedness in the context of our very historicity. If philosophy, according to many Continental authors, cannot be lived in concrete experience, then all the fancy moves of a deductive logically preserving language bear no fruit. They have no intellectual purchase.

In a way, my style borrows from an example known to many, Korsgaard. Korsgaard's Kant is not the historically and textually centered Kant. Far from it, her eoKantianism in ethics is like what I saw myself doing when I applied. Korsgaard borrows from the historical Kant for a descriptive project outside the aim of historically situating Kant. This is just the tension of the historian of philosophy qua philosopher AND the problem-solver qua philosopher. For myself, I wanted to use phenomenology, but in so doing, appropriation is like a heresy, a heresy where the aim transgresses the text to the point that I'm worse than Derrida. At least, Derrida tries to read the author against himself (whatever that means specifically); I'm, as I said, a robber. Borrowing with only the smallest intent to return!

This is not to say that learning these texts is outside my intention. In fact, just the opposite---I want to learn the movement of these texts. Any philosopher may know that outside philosophy departments, these texts of Continental philosophy inspire thousands. There is a dimension to which they have reached that analytics envy, and rightly so. Their ideas are infectious, bound to the very marrow of human experience in ways that scientiphiles loathe. It's just that I wanted to craft a philosophy that achieves two levels of adequacy. I call these two conditions of adequacy of any philosophical theory, influenced by my love of philosophy as an intertwining of the Continental and the Analytic perspectives. Consider the following two conditions of adequacy:

A) Phenomenologically a theory must make sense of our lived-experience, and no attempt can be made to subordinate the phenomenology to a naturalistic ontology.

B) Weak Naturalism sees all events, I claim, in terms of explanations (but not all events require causal explanation) and where it is appropriate elements of our human experience might have to look to the sciences for compatibility as long as A) is maintained as well.

In doing philosophy, I come up against the challenge of writing it well. In my discussions in the teaching seminar, I have begun to dig deep on the analytic perspective that philosophy is about conceptual clarity: clarity in writing reflects the level of clarity in one's thinking, as long as the equation between thought in the head and spoken language can be maintained. I feel this, I really do. However, I also see the merit in saying the goal of teaching philosophy is about the questions that stir one to take it, to awaken in students the philosophical core of their own inquiry. Perhaps, this is true only insofar as students are willing to work, yet the method of many Continentals seems rather to disturb the ground of students, to make them uncomfortable and shock them out of their absorption of the world. This again, I think, speaks to the difference in which Continentals write. Continentals write within the text many layers, many layers of subtle meaning -- shifting from clarity to the ambiguity -- , often exploiting the very ambiguity in their own language. For example, Luce Irigray exploits the French:

There is not, there will not be the moment of wonder of the wedding, an ecstasy that remains in-stant. ("Sexual Difference" in An Ethics of Sexual Difference (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), p 14).

Here's the clincher: The hyphenation of the normal word "instant" plays upon the notion of standing within oneself, its root meaning. Such a standing within oneself emphasizes the contrast with ecstasy, which is standing outside the self. The playing off these senses is crucial to the overall point she is making. Explaining it would take away from what I am doing here, but the point holds as far as writing in Continental philosophy holds. The root meanings of these words are approached as a medium in which understanding of sexual difference occurs. As such, the metaphors, figurative expressions and symbolism of our language invoke atypical manners of expressing how charged or loaded language is. Such conventions are appropriate to use and illustrate, especially for an author that sees her native French language as sexed.

The example of Irigaray brings up another salient point, one which I think is lost on the complaint as old as Heidegger and Carnap: the charge of obscurantism. This charge equally is a hyperbolic of two things. First, the fact is, we are reading Continental philosophers in translation and translating ourselves the distance of those authors and the text itself. In so doing, we keep to the same verbosity of our tradition not out of disrespect for clarity, but keeping the horizon in which these authors are writing in either the French of the German. Since so much hinges on that contextual understanding, we keep the history of their discourse in mind as a background in order to engage the very act of the translated/translating text.

Such historic motivations fall on deaf ears. My analytic gut tells me to logically preserve the meaning and seek out the problem they are addressing. There must be some abstraction, some sense to which Foucault or Heidegger are writing. A successful implementation of philosophy would find that problem, dissolve it of its ambiguity and place it in its very clarity for all to see. However, in doing that, I do violence to Continental philosophy wherein my biases for clarity prevent accessibility in the very way I ought to proceed. If the essence of language is logic, then I can see myself very much in this tradition seeing all philosophy as only the current set of problems for all to see and solve by rigor, consistency and dialectic exchange of arguments.

Likewise, the inverse is equally true. My Continental gut tells me to not logically preserve meaning. Yet, I do violence against the Continental side--that's what motivated this initial explanation of what I mean by the "tension in doing philosophy." I do violence in the very way that one of the introductions to Heidegger's Kant Book. It is the violence of interpretation which robs the context of the Continental philosopher. Violence in this case is robbing the text, paying no heed to the with-textness illustrated by the Latin root of "context." I merely seek to describe some audacious claim, inspired as if a muse had instructed my stealing away from history and context. A grave robber of ideas?

However, philosophy is not only about the historical situation in which I find myself but also describing the world in my encounter with it. On this, I feel I will always be in tension. So I ask the larger world, can the tension between both conceptions of philosophy I offer as well as the two levels of adequacy of any philosophical theory hold? Can they even commingle? And what does that say about my reflections in writing and teaching philosophy at large?