Frames /sing


Writing Philosophy: The Unclear Clarity

The Book “I Want to Write”

Levi at Larval Subject mourns that a student had bought his book on Deleuze, knowing that without training in the obscurities of vocabulary and concept the book is pretty much useless (except one might suggest, as a small tome of incantations, not a measure to be undervalued in the genre of the philosophical). He yearns, genuinely yearns, to write a different kind of book…

I would like to write a book that anyone could pick up, regardless of whether or not they have a philosophical background. When I fantasize about writing such a book I am not fantasizing about writing a book that is “easy” or “clear”. Rather I am fantasizing about a book that could function as an element of other assemblages or networks without the reader already having to be linked in to a pre-existent and extensive network characterized by the history of philosophy. The adventure of such a book would be premised not on maintaining its identity or the sameness of a message throughout all of the possible relations it enters into among readers, but would rather function as an element, like lavender in the region of wine grapes, contributing to the production of new productions. Here the history of philosophy wouldn’t be absent or ignored, but would be, as it were, virtual or in the background. Philosophy wouldn’t proceed through the activity of commentary as is practiced in Continental thought today, but rather there would be direct ownership of one’s writing and appropriation of the history of philosophy. Just as the peppers in my garden are borne of the soil, the water, and air out of which they grow without displaying these elements in any recognizable sense, such a writing would be willing to take direct responsibility for how it has “prehended” or integrated that history without thematically making that history the issue or question of the writing. Is it possible, today, to write in the fashion of a Descartes, Spinoza, or Hume?

The book that comes to my mind is Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. I have taken a critical stand against some of the thought-positions that seem to underlie its eliptical arguments (and the apostlary devotion of some to its text), but if one leaves behind one’s already assumed position upon the supposed notion of “language game” or ordinary language philosophy or Private Language, and simply engage the book, as a book, it is remarkably and precisely the kind of thing that Levi yearns to write. And while Levi is concerned with the leadened, commentary entrenched Continental traditions, and Ludwig’s freedom was composed against a very different style of thinking, there is something to be learned here. What makes the Philosophical Investigations so free?

It comes I believe from Wittgenstein’s notion that there are pictures of language (and therefore of the world, ourselves, and everything in it) that largely govern the way we see and think about things. For him these are very elementary things, simple compositional, almost building-block analogies that bring everything into view, making our explanations about explanations work. And so he presents another one. A different one. And he attempts to do so at the simplest level, without jargon, in self-conversation.

It is interesting that Levi wants to not necessarily write something that is “clear” because his writing seems at times overburdened with a kind of Herculean effort to make things that he takes to be very complicated, clear. In fact, his powers of explication of Lacan or Deleuze are quite admirable, leaving behind the firm trace of the the explicable. But for the unclear clear that Wittgenstein attempted, a different sort of tact is needed, a grasp and re-grasp of the “picture”. Perhaps to write philosophy in the genuine sense that Levi means one has to be a child about it. Just as Levi is moved by the anticipated incomprehensibility of his Deleuze book for one of his students, Wittgenstein was stirred to his philosophical awakening by his teaching of small children, noticing how children see and learn things.

The Unclear Clear

In this way, if we are to write philosophy of the unclear clear we have to paint the picture of it, and not just talk about the concepts. We have to compose the moving parts and turn the shaft to rotate the gears so that others can see it. It might be a complicated machine, but its parts must be made to touch, to be felt.

It challenges me to think of the same. I’ve spent a long while holding certain concepts in my mind, turning them about as a infant turns a building block and even sticks it in his mouth so as to feel its shape. What would it mean to write like this without lapsing into poetry so as to escape the shape/picture? I am thinking lately on a critique of Hoffmeyer’s Code Duality, and how I can just feel that it works out. I can almost synesthetically put my mouth around the two concepts “digital code” and “analogical code”. What would it mean to express them as a picture, a child-picture that makes the whole thing turn?

A (digital) code is a rhythm of discrete parts, joined by a syntactical governance.

The truth of it is not found in either the rules for their joining, nor the elements that are joined, but in their mutuality.

An analogical code is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

An “analogical code” is a continuous stream of material recording, the scratching of one thing upon another, (so that there is revelation and memory).

Every digital code necessarily performs analogical powers of impress. DNA has a body.


Something like that…

7 responses to “Writing Philosophy: The Unclear Clarity

  1. anodynelite June 4, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    I’ve certainly noticed that some of the most interesting responses to philosophical texts that I’ve ever come across came out of people with no training or education in philosophy whatsoever.

    The sorts of philosophical conversations held between only those with professional stakes or pretensions to expertise in the field tend to be very predictable, dry, and bogged down in oneupmanship or the sort of misfired potshots that are par for the course in history of philosophy-based wrangling.

    This is why I–and I’m entirely serious here–like open-source “philosophical” discussions, e.g. the kinds that often take place on message boards. For all of their messiness and inefficiency, I’ve found them much more provocative of rigorous thought than the other more traditional types I’ve participated in have been. (Usually this productive thinking happens after the argument is over, but still…)

    Comments box discussions seem especially rewarding in this sense as well, as you pointed out in an earlier post.

  2. kvond June 5, 2009 at 9:08 am


    I”m not so sure that I share you’re love of message boards, but for me it all comes down to whether the person talking/writing is still learning, still exploring, AND whether you can feel this in their writing. This is what is particularly interesting about Wittgenstein’s PI, nothing is explicated, nothing is dictated, nothing is ever defined in the usual sense. Communication with others becomes exploration, hopefully in a kind of mutuality.

  3. Nicola Masciandaro June 5, 2009 at 10:34 am

    even sticks it in his mouth so as to feel its shape. . . . I can almost synesthetically put my mouth around the two concepts . . . a child-picture that makes the whole thing turn?

    I am fascinated by the conjunction of turning and the mouth here, of turning in the mouth (ruminatio) as tactile tasting and gustatory touch (anagogy, aka ‘foretaste’ of paradise in medieval hermeneutics). Seems that you would, as per previous desires for poetry-philosophy, ‘bring back’ the anagogic sense (am slated to present something called “Getting Anagogic” next year!). Cf. the turning component of commentary as geophilosophy: “Turn it and turn it again for everything is in it; and contemplate it and grow gray and old over it and stir not from it” (Aboth 5.22). What the Talmudic commentator here says of the Torah is sayable of the earth.

    More clearly perhaps, we are talking about the nature of the utility of philosophical language, how it is used, handled, carried, and the difference betweeen philosophy as intellectually understanding concepts vs. philosophy as acts of using and experiencing them. Here the broader premodern ideas of philosophical experience, of what thinking can do to a body come in handy.

    I think Wittgenstein’s writing does give itself as anagogical experience, a thought-poetry of statement, where the act of reading/understanding moves around the pleasure of grasping and turning the perception in the mind as true, as giving one the taste and sight of something beautiful.

    And there is an important relation here of course to aphoristic language (cf. ghazal couplets), of which the appendix to Agamben’s Coming Community, introduced as a fragmentary commentary on section 9 of Being and Time and proposition 6.44 of the Tractatus, is a beautiful recent example.

    Sorry for scattered nature of this comment, in a rush. Cheers,


  4. kvond June 5, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    I have in mind something of the etymological “tasting” of sapientia, the suppressed way that even the most abstract of contemplations, no matter how jargon-filled, still operate out of the body, through experiences (not experience as evidence, but experience as way-finding). I am convinced that human abstract reasoning grows out of animal topographic compassry.

    I appreciate the scattered nature of the comment, that you took the time to riff, some of the best thoughts come this way.

    As for the turning in the mouth, and the turning of things in the world, perhaps the link that some of established between the movements of the tongue in language acquistion, and the dexterity of the fingers (how the child moves the tongue when learned to perfect cursive letters), is an important aspect, or perhaps this is just my own personal experience, but really concetual ideas I almost have shapes to me. I can almost feel them in my mouth, not like a word being formed, but a complex of words.

    The spoken word shapes the world because it shapes the mouth.

    I am less inclined to the mystical than you seem to be, but I am just coming to see the outlines of your thought. I believe in full materiality, including the materiality of words. In a sense the silence of the Tractatus recommendation is to be completely filled with all that is. We may cease speaking where words lose traction, but certainly we should/could gesture, and gesture is a kind of speaking. And words may be insufficient at one moment in time, but not another, even though the subject matter remains the same.

  5. kvond June 5, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    p.s. Nicola, I look forward to your future presentation on the Anagogic, (if you will post it on your blog). If I wanted to say how I feel about the anagogic, I would want to change the word to Diagogic, with strong emphasis on the Greek. I have in mind Sophocles’ notion of the path, two-out-of-one, a mutuality of bodies:

    Perhaps we agree, or disagreements are only those of emphasis, but I am looking to the way in which leading is combination.

  6. antonia June 8, 2009 at 5:24 am

    i love this black and white photo above.

    the unclear clear. yeah, via the image or in general anyway via language that according to humboldt leads us “there” yet it never entirely leads us there…isn’t it lively to be halfway stuck between the clear and unclear? this is one of the most loveliest things to ponder about, the unclear clear…

    • kvond June 9, 2009 at 8:28 pm


      Thanks for the good thoughts on this. Very glad to have the unclear clear described in this way. There is an odd kind of strong descrease in depth of field that occurs in philosophy, where so much goes out of focus so that other things become crisp. And as you suggest, there is a distinct pleasure of pulling into and out of focus, and the play in-between.

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