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?


Khadimir said...

Ah, the old problem of clarity. What analytic philosophers generally mean by "clarity" is ammendability to be phrased in either logical or commonsense terms. However, so much is lost in translation into logical terms that many human phenomena benefit little from it. In translation to commonsense terms, our intuitions perhaps, thinking is thought in terms of the sedimented historical, cultural, lingusitic, etc. biases that we *already* have. Philosophic thinking is not impossible in either setting, but thought is so restricted from the outset....

I propose that you consider the issue another way. "Continental" proposes very, very different models of "clarity" than those to which you are familiar. In fact, I would argue that these models are far more demanding as they *require* much more historical knowledge and hermeneutics, which is often mistaken as "obscurantism." Well, if one works under a different model of clarity and is not trained in that before oneself ... any surprise?

Likewise, I said that that analytic text was nearly impenetrable. I don't suppose they weren't clear. I suppose I'm not adequately trained to understand that, despite a good deal of analytic training.

You need to develop each tradition independently and then bring them together, otherwise you'll likely just violence Continental and not really understand it, and Continentals spot that instantly. (Just as analytics spot those berets....)

Carbondale Chasmite said...

I do not even think it is the old problem of clarity. Much can be preserved in translation into clarity. I think these two styles cannot at length co-incide except in some weird dualistic level of adequacy--a model, in part, inspired by Mohanty.