Frames /sing


The Initial “Brilliant” Exaggeration: The Mongering of Brilliance

Counting the Coins of One’s Own Brilliance

Tom at Grundlegung has a very nice post on the weakness of reading the job of philosophers, or the act of philosophy itself as creating one bold concept: Bad Habits: The Philosopher as Concept Monger. There he talks about the sometimes unsophisticated cribnote understanding of philosophers by the imagined hook they hang their hat on:

The main ill-effect of the idea of philosophy as concept-creation which I want to point to here has been its reinforcement of one way of approaching philosophers. So, we get the philosopher-as-conceptual-toolsmith model. At its worst, we end up with synecdoche run amok, where one prominent idea comes to dominate everything else about a philosopher’s work — Wittgenstein = language games, Foucault = power-knowledge, Levinas = the Other, Badiou = the Event, etc. For example, Simon Critchley describes the post-Kantian landscape thus:

you get the Subject in Fichte, Spirit in Hegel, art in the early Schelling, and then in later nineteenth and early twentieth century German philosophy, Will to Power in Nietzsche, Praxis in Marx and Being in Heidegger. (New British philosophy: 187)

Similarly, Graham Harman claims that Heidegger only really had one idea which he endlessly repeats, namely the tool-analysis. But even without this extreme hermeneutic reductionism, there is a real coarsening which can go on when we chisel down a philosopher to a handful of headline concepts.

All of this is not to say that philosophers do not produce new concepts. Nor is a plea for endless textual analysis and scholarly ensconcement such that we never put a philosopher’s ideas to work in a new context. And neither does it display a blindness to the realities of communicating philosophical ideas in circumstances where people do not have the time or inclination to master more than the headline ideas of many thinkers. Instead, all I want to do is make the observation that emphasising the concept-creation model of philosophy too much can promote some dubious tendencies in both historiography and contemporary critical debate.

It is interesting that he brings Harman up, for perhaps he has in mind the same post I read with a notable combination of humor and horror, where Harman characterizes the project of the philosopher as coming up with an “intial brilliant exaggeration” (no doubt defending his own exaggerated but somewhat absurd notion that objects are vaccum-packed):

The problem, of course, is that just as any important philosophy makes a brilliant initial exaggeration, it also wants to claim to be describing the world as it is, and to that end the exaggeration never works. And so there is always a rush, by both author and fans, to imply that the author doesn’t really mean the exaggeration. The author is perfectly capable of balancing both sides of the problem, and so forth. But in fact, any important philosopher tends to place the emphasis on one of the two sides of the problem, and it is this initial exaggeration that is where the philosophical force lies. The other half is just a supplement added by the thinker or the thinker’s followers in order not to look crazy.

Some examples:

*Husserl does, in fact vaporize real objects in his philosophy. They aren’t there. But since this sounds solipsistic, and no one wants to defend solipsism, you can find a few minor pirouettes where Husserl tries to show that he does in fact account adequately for them.

*Every page of Badiou is as subject-oriented as possible. He has nothing at all to do with realism. Yet you can find one or two minor throwaway remarks where Badiou says “a world without a subject is possible,” and somehow Badiouians are satisfied to use these remarks as evidence that Badiou is not an idealist, even after hundreds of pages to the contrary.

*Ontological multiplicity in Spinoza is really quite feeble. Yet everyone seems to delight in claiming that Spinoza leaves as much room for individuals as Leibniz (he doesn’t).

In other words, there is a recurring counter-critical strategy in philosophy that consists in saying “only a fool would take that part literally,” when in fact the literal, initial exaggeration in any philosophy is always its greatest strength, and it must be required to pay the price for that strength.

[sorry I don’t have the citation, but I don’t visit his site much I and copied this some time ago as it just seemed bizarre. It was written in the context of what he perceived to be Shaviro’s lightening of Whitehead’s “intial exaggeration”]

The Confusions of Exaggeration

Harman surely feels that his own exaggeration, stemming from an exaggerated interpretation of Heidegger puts him in pleasant company. The importance of Harman’s separation of his own brilliance from Heidegger, and the motivations of philosophical shock value was commented on some here: Heidegger “Never says…” and Harman says…. But Grundlegung tells us the obvious, if indeed we just think of philosophy the process of trading literal and simple-minded “intial brilliant exaggerations” we end up with strawmen and caricatures of some very considered thought, not to mention the possibility that philosophy can work to clarify otherwise assumed confusions:

Firstly, unsurprisingly, it often leads to trading in caricatures and straw men. Second, it tends to drive a mechanical style of philosophy, whereby the aim is to ‘apply’ the concepts of the master-philosopher to a given material rather than approach it afresh — ‘I will now give a Foucauldian/Wittgensteinian/SR analysis of x’. Third, it tends to occlude the historical dimension of much philosophy (responding to a certain set of material circumstances; intervening in a historically evolving tradition). Fourth, it can also shroud what is valuable in philosophical work, which sometimes is the purchase which a new concept provides, but is often dissolving a bogus problem, reframing a question to allow it to be answered, effecting a more diffuse change of perspective on an issue, instilling a sense of Entfremdung with respect to something we’ve taken for granted, and so on. All these dangers make me wary of overplaying the image of the philosopher as a forge for concepts.

What is significant and I think telling is that what Grundlegung groups with the dangers of this kind of Brilliance hoarding is the very thing that leads to the kind of “master” discourse thinking which people like Harman and Levi decry, the endless trains of commentary and the application of master analysis. What has been bothersome, at least in Harman’s case, and perhaps Levi’s as well, is the sense that it is not that he objects to a philosophy of masters, but rather, he would like to become a master himself. He would like to be seen as original and dictating, as he has often advised, imagine that your philosophy will be taught centuries from now. In a way, Harman sees his own philosophy as exactly the kind of Brilliant Exaggeration that composes philosophy itself – never mind that philosophical brilliance comes from problem solving, not the urge for exaggeration – and it could be that he awaits his loyal acolytes to come in his wake and discover how such a brilliant exaggeration really works. This is really non-philosophy, or philosophy as charade, playing the part of the philosopher, in my view. People who TRY to be original, are often the least efficacious in whatever it is that they come up with. And people who try to exaggerate for its own sake, are often…well, exaggerated.

I do think that concept-making is what philosophy is all about, but philosophers, at least the good ones, design their concepts in the context of seemingly entrenched conceptual difficulties, with a view of making the world more coherent and more meaningful. If they are original in their creations it is because they are expressing the needs for their age, the demand for frameworks in which to view new phenomena, new ways of relating most often brought on by technologies and sciences, or deep political change.

9 responses to “The Initial “Brilliant” Exaggeration: The Mongering of Brilliance

  1. Amarilla October 11, 2009 at 2:05 am

    And those concepts that are inspired by their era usually search for some kind of balance that was missing in the philosopher’s milieu, as Spectral Realists are attracted to what is considered to be other than human. But either way we are better off using these philosophical concepts as idioms instead of ideologies, because sometimes a correlationist view is essential to understanding a situation, sometimes the realist view is called into play, and other times one needs to transcend the dualism of subject/object altogether. But it seems to me the exaggeration spoken of here usually reflects a philosopher’s desire to compensate for entrenched valuation so as to deterritorialize worn out/insufficient schemata. In a way, it is a lung for freedom that so often become new chains. I suppose that’s why I’ll never get over Jung’s statment that yesterday’s perception is tomorrow’s deception, because in truth the balance always seems to need to shift to outwit the prejudices of the hour.

  2. Shahar Ozeri October 11, 2009 at 10:04 am

    Nice post. The notion that philosophy is in the business of posing questions that are productive would go hand in hand with what you say in the concluding paragraph.

    Anyway, your post reminded me of Lacan’s response to his students in the late sixties: “What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a master. You will get one.” Indeed.

    • kvond October 11, 2009 at 11:11 am

      It just seems to me that the Harman version of philosophy ignores that any originality that a philosopher may have is only original in concept due to the very processes of trying to solve an intractable problem, just trying to make sense of a difficulty. And as Tom points out, some of these difficulties arise out of historical circumstances. Because these concepts are historical, they give expression to their circumstances. Harman instead, and most likely many others, like to see philosopher as a bi-fold of ONE GREAT CONCEPT, to which all else must be oriented, whereas this is not really how philosophers, or even really people think. Having for instance read Spinoza with some depth, I don’t even know what his one great concept would have been. His parallel thesis? His self-causing Substances? His thought that affects are changes in power? Instead, there are a matrix of concepts which weave to present an entire world view, a framework of analysis and perception. This is precisely, at least to my ear, what is missing in Harman’s thinking. He feels that he has his ONE GREAT CONCEPT (using elements of Husserl and Heidegger together), he feels that he’s in the club, but its not related to anything. It doesn’t form a coherent web of judgments, it lacks explanatory value. Its just a cool way to look at the world, for a moment. Its like what I felt when I read Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy when I was a kid. Each chapter gave a kind of science fiction way of thinking of the world. But that is not philosophy, its not the process of thinking something through. Its just playing the game of “what if”. What if is part of the initial philosophical impulse, but much more is needed.

      • Bryan Klausmeyer October 11, 2009 at 12:47 pm

        I think your last few sentences in the above comment really hit the nail on the head. Philosophy does not happen because I Will myself to philosophize in order to become like the other great Masters. Not to reduce philosophy to experience, but it really does seem that genuine philosophy erupts out of the collapse or unfolding of a preconceived view of the world. As soon as this world is seen to be „not all there is,“ and I don’t mean this necessarily in the religious or transcendence sense, what we need is a new framework of knowledge that can lend clarity or provide new questions that shift the frame through which we constitute reality. Concepts compose this framework, hence not ends in themselves.

      • kvond October 11, 2009 at 2:44 pm

        Thanks Bryan. I am largely in agreement with how you state things. I remember reading a critical book on Plotinus, and the author was asking an open question, why read such an ancient philosopher whose theories no longer seem to pertain? He suggested that there is a certain perceptual experience that comes from reasoning through a philosopher’s system, testing the coherency, crticially thinking. Suddenly the world looks different to you. You notice different things about it than you otherwise would. And these differences can lead to empirical differences, facts to be found and justified (apart perhaps even the philosophy that gave rise to them). But this transformation of perception does not occur when one simply plays with the BIG IDEA of a philosophy. It comes from teasing out all the coherences that flow from and weave through that idea, and those ideas. And this is precisely what seems to be missing from Graham’s own Big Idea approach. He certainly is trying to weave together his approach to a greater vision, but it seems that the very way he came to it (through a simplification and an apparent quest for originality, instead of problem solving) denies it the same kind of transformational effects that other philosophical Big Ideas (and their explications) allow. What does it mean to see the world full of objects, each of which have representations buried in their molten cores? Thus far, perhaps, I have not read a single person, not even a bloggist, who has adopted Harman’s theoretical approach of vaccuum packed objects for themselves. In otherwords, no one is convinced. And unless you are convinced at some level there can be no change in perceptual framework, no change in vision. Instead it seems Harman’s Objects just provide the permission for others to make up their own Big Idea philosophy for themselves, which isn’t a bad thing in it own right, but did we really need permission for that? And do we really want to think about philosophy as a series of exaggerated Big Ideas?

  3. amarilla October 11, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    I’m surprised that he can be content with such a contrived product. It seems that it’s his philosophy that’s vacuum packed, not objects.

    If he were writing science fiction it would be different.

    • kvond October 11, 2009 at 3:49 pm

      At least for me the “depth” of Harman’s thought is a kind of borrowed depth, taken from the amalgum of Husserl and Heidegger. He likes to think through each of them, taking with him some breadth of their work, but still hold that he is offering something radically new.

  4. alpark October 12, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    Concepts: the ongoing echo of the Platonic forms? Master “Ideas” giving birth to their less then perfect but considerably more concrete progeny?

    The very topic of philosophy’s “essence” or master concept involves the inevitable recursion of the concept applied to itself. What is our master concept for philosophy? The search for master concepts. It is inevitable that philosophers ask: “what IS ‘philosophy’?”

    For me the question is the simple one of drawing a distinction: this is not that. The Concept arises out of its defining features, the places where it gets carved out of the totality of reality. We are all carving out, point out, indicating, circumscribing those features of the world that we find salient, hoping that others will find use or benefit in/from our distinctions. The question of “what philosophy really is” is the question of what material should be placed inside the circle of “philosophy,” and what does not. If philosophy really is the “ultimate” discipline, then it is because philosophers have had some success in making sets of distinctions that are flexible and powerful enough that they can be used to shed light an enormously broad range of material.

  5. Pingback: Velvet Howler › Blog Archive › Speculative Realism as Ponzi Scheme: On Financial and Metaphysical Bubbles

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