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The Analogy of Philosophical Wealth

Graham Harman makes an interesting analogy by which the philosophical Zizeks and Derridas of the philosophy world are like the Warren Buffetts of the economy. Unlike the somewhat rather weathy Republicans, the ultra-rich are actually liberal minded and generous, not sweating the small stuff, like the 80 million they lost in the market yesterday. These philosophers are prolific because they are asked to do books are the time. Their very name is a brand that sells ideas. But so many other philosophers are locked in mere Dukedoms and Principalities, where they exact the small pleasures of dominance:

If you’re one of the world’s most exciting philosophers (such as those mentioned in the previous post), then you have a lot of work to do, and no one writing a letter out of the blue needs to be put in their place. But those who might feel like they’re not getting their due will need to enact a number of micro-dominance rituals when you meet them, just to leave no doubt as to who is boss. These are all among the worst memories of a lifetime, but it will pay off in the end if I can eventually write a scathing article classifying the various types of such rituals.

Everyone who has suffered in the “office” knows of which Graham speaks, but what came to mind for me immediately was the rather universal complaint that someone like Zizek isn’t really doing any more real work. While making his stamp upon society, so to speak, he himself finds deep dissatisfaction with his book. And attentive readers tire of his retread of the same five ideas brought to ever varying subject matters. K-punk, who apparently has slipped into a lethargy of repeat-social-comment, put it beautifully, comparing Zizek’s intellectual output to a DJ who just keeps putting remix after remix of the same old song. The banality of it is painful.

Graham’s work seems centered on breaking through the fiefdom paralysis of local university and college powers, a dullness of thinking which is rather by-and-large blamed on either the tenure system, or the journal system. If we could just change the politics/economics of ideas, then all these brilliant minds could be set free, one feels. But, if one of the Warren Buffetts of philosophy, Zizek, a man who has escapes this emprisonment of minor cruelties, himself feels deep dissatisfied with what he is making (as do many of his readers), the question is not perhaps that of escape, or radical transformation. To-be-like-Zizek (only more happy), cannot be a philosophical aim.

Could it be that the kinds of minds/characters that excel in academic settings, those selected by those Darwinian environment, are simply less brilliant, less significantly profound, than they are supposed to be by the societal statis of the texts that they teach? To be sure, there are the amphibious types, minds that can perform outside of the bounds of their narrow selection (we read that enviroments do not so much select what is there, but rather what is not; and then, not even that, that organisms feedback); but what is selected for is not brilliance. That is, the “dominance rituals” are not an accidental by-product of the system(s), but its very acme.

There is the sense that the creativity of teaching minds is somehow squeezed out, and in turn squeezes out the creativity of the minds below them, in a mad kind of inverted Aristotlean habitus  and imitation toward ideal, but I find it notable that Graham in a certain sense weighs freedom in a register of productivity. The super-rich are more productive than the Associate Professor because they are asked to write books, to spin out an article. They are not fundamentally different, their position is different. But is this not an odd register for the philosophic? Have we not already acceded to the brute fact that the aim of contemporary philosophy is text production? Brilliant ideas succeed, when they do, because they produce more texts in response. They are virtual text fountains.

In some way thinking about the philosophy that gets produced in academia is like thinking about the philosophy that got produced in monestaries on the Middle Ages (I know, not an original comparison, “nook dwellers”). The point of the monestary is not that of idea. The idea is there only to restablize the function of the network, so to speak. The brutalities of soured, or embittered professorial corners of the world, the violences of the bureau, are not accidental to text and text producer’s factories, they are the point. Only the tortured flesh of the professor/student can produce a text so indifferent so as to rise to the level of the Beautiful.

Alternately, when I have encountered a wise academic philosopher (rarely; I have not had the privilege to mix with the heavy weights, perhaps they are different), it is not the case that I get the sense that their wisdom flows out of their brilliant ideas, that is, it is n0t what they have seen by virtue of their ideas, but comes out of their character. It is their character, in superabundance of, and engagment with, their environments, that saw them through. One gets the sense that they would have been wise if they had become a plumber, or a waitress. One could no more gain wisdom by adopting their positional philosophy, than by driving their car. This seems quite far from the ethical aim of philosophical origins.

All in all, it seems that it is not only creativity, but the purposive witness of the idea, its transformative effect, that is missing from what can be done with Philosophy. Graham Harman is committed to a change in this mould, to creating spaces where the “intellectual gambler” is given a more rightful place, where metaphysics can become properly speculative and inspiring. I deeply applaud this, but suggest that in the change of space we cannot simply think of an army of brilliant minds which have been put in bondage by an uncaring system. Professors excel at professing. Its a bit, but not exactly like, asking literature professors to write the great American or Parisian novel. Not impossible, but perhaps sometimes a question of genus.

If we are to return to the analogy if wealth, its not just that we could turn all of those conservative Republicans into loving liberals if we just found a way to make them all super rich like Warren Buffett, there would be no economy to thought. And it doesn’t even work to suggest to individual Republicans, “take it easy, one day you might be like Warren Buffett,” publishing books and articles left and right, with ease. I think one really has to uncover that essential, transformative brilliance does not occur at University, any more than essential, transformative faith occurs at seminary. The “stuff” of brilliance, in a Harmanian sense, is forever in retreat from is qualities, in those houses. But the world is not a university. The stuff of brilliance is more an artifact of nature, like a stone that you find when walking and paying attention in a way you don’t often, at the side of the path. It winks at you…or gets stuck in the shoe.


Notes on Wittgenstein’s Notions of Illness and Therapy

Sick of the Truth, and the Truth of Sickness, Which Games Played are Pathological?

I have had an interesting exchange over at the pro-Wittgenstein website Methods of Projection, something worth posting over here. It has long been a concern of my to locate just were the normative and prescriptive authorities of Wittgenstein get their traction amid a generalized Language Game approach. The below encounters what I sometimes view as the dogmatic reading of Wittgenstein, especially by his particularly charmed followers. My discussion flowed from comments given by the site’s author, N.N. I find N.N., as far as Wittgensteinians go, a rather open-minded, self-critical thinker. [The following contains certain corrections for sense]:

N.N. : If we “chance” to speak the same language as Wittgenstein (e.g., German or English) or another language that employs similar concepts, then we (to the extent that we philosophize) are likely to become sick. We no more accept to play most of the langauage-games we do than we accept to speak our native tongue. Wittgenstein was himself sick, but his sickness was our sickness, and therefore, his cure is our cure.

Myself: as n.n. wrote: “Wittgenstein was himself sick, but his sickness was our sickness, and therefore, his cure is our cure.”

My goodness, I can certainly embrace one man seeing another man’s sickness as his own, and thus the cure the same, but when he wants start talking PROFOUNDLY of “us” and “we” and “our”, he has entered into the realm of DOGMA.

N.N.: Really? Any claim of community (in this case, linguistic community) is dogmatic?

Myself: In the context of Wittgenstein, any claim to prescriptive rhetoric in the name of “we” which determines against the consciousness of others THEIR illness I would say is dogmatic. Remember illness is a metaphor here, and is being used for rhetorical and normative effect. When you want to stop looking at individual cases (the good part of Wittgenstein, the side of him that wants to watch closely), and start talking about the abstract illness of others, you have waded into dogmatic waters.Just as is the case in most dogma, you are seeking to normatively define a communmity in terms of behavior and health. When you stop talking about your personal illness, and you start talking about “our” illness, this kind of rhetoric is straight out of Augustine and so many others.But it seems that you possess the knowledge that can save the entire linguistic community. Why should I stop you? Carry on…but this is dogma.

p.s. Its very simple. One is not just “claiming” community. One is normatively prescribing the behavior of a community, under the auspices of a so called “health”.Change “illness” to “sin” and you have the whole dogmatic ball of wax


N.N.: Of course ‘illness’ is a metaphor here. It’s a metaphor for conceptual confusion. If members of a linguistic community are prone to making certain concptually confused claims because different language games they play are deceptively similar in appearance, then the members of that community are all likely to fall into the same confusion (e.g., speaking of the mind as a kind of thing).And while the ‘cure’ is normative insofar as standards of meaningfulness are normative, there is nothing ethical involved. So talk of sin and (religious) dogmatism is misplaced.
Myself: One has to ask oneself, just why is is necessary to change “confusion” to “illness” or “sickness”. What is accomplished by this? And more interestingly, why is this question not asked by Wittgensteinians?There is a world of differnce between saying “Bertrand Russell was confused” and “Bertrand Russell was sick”; and let it be said, a world of difference between “Wittgenstein was himself sick, but his sickness was our sickness” and the same under the word “confusion”. Why “confuse” the issue by changing the word?
That is if we grant you that one is being metaphorical with the word “illness”. We know well that Wittgenstein was influenced by Freud, and Freud certainly was not being metaphorical when described mental illness. Unlike Wittgenstein though, Freud developed an entire nosology, a classification of symptoms and causes that individuated each “illness” and its purported cure. Freud thought of himself as a doctor, and a scientist.I have no doubt that Wittgenstein WAS ill, at least in the mentally disturbed sense. He was depressed to some degree, had difficulties with his sexuality perhaps, and that he to to degree did “cure” himself with his break from philosophy. But I find it highly unlikely that his “illness” was entirely due to making grammatical mistakes (though he found it to be symbolized as such), and also unlikely that “we” (all of us) should also cure ourselves in this way.
N.N. as I wrote, “We know very well that Wittgenstein was influenced by Freud.”
Far from knowing this very well, we know that there is scant mention of Freud in Wittgenstein’s writings, and that he explicitly and vehemently denied any such influence. The notion that Wittgenstein was, in some significant sense, a kind of Freudian therapist is a myth perpetuated by those (e.g., Gordon Baker) who want Wittgenstein to be something he is not. The myth is forcibly refuted by Peter Hacker in his article criticizing Baker’s interpretation of Wittgenstein (in Wittgenstein and His Interpreters). Here are some of the points that Hacker makes.
In a radio interview in the late 40s, A. J. Ayer remarked that Wittgenstein’s later writings (as practiced by one of Wittgenstein’s students, John Wisdom) made philosophy out to be a “department of psychoanalysis.” According to Ayer, Wittgenstein was “extremely vexed [by] my suggestion that John Wisdom’s view of philosophy could be taken as a pointer to his own. In particular, he did not admit any kinship between the practice of psychoanalysis and his own method of dealing with philosophical confusions.”
Of course, Wittgenstein had (on a few occasions; Hacker counts five in the entire Nachlass) compared his method to psychoanalysis, but the comparison is very limited, and therefore, easily misunderstood (i.e., taken too far).
Summarizing one of those occasions Hacker writes, “It is a main task of philosophy to warn against false comparisons, false similes that underlie our modes of expression without our being
conscious of them. ‘I believe’, Wittgenstein continues, ‘that our method is similar here to that of psychoanalysis that also makes the unconscious conscious and renders it thereby harmless, and I think that the similarity is not merely external’ (MS 109, 174).” So, we are unaware of certain conceptual confusions that underlie some uses of expressions, and Wittgenstein wants to make us aware of them. That’s it! That’s the comparison with psychoanalysis.
Similarly, Wittgenstein remarks in the Big Typescript, “One of the most important tasks is to express all false trains of thought so characteristically that the reader says, ‘Yes, that’s exactly the way I meant it.’ To trace the physiognomy of every error. Indeed we can only convict someone else of a mistake if he acknowledges that this really is the expression of his feeling. // . . . if he (really) acknowledges this expression as the correct expression of his feeling.// For only if he acknowledges it as such is it the correct expression. (Psychoanalysis.) What the other person acknowledges is the analogy I am proposing to him as the source of his thought.” Again, the point is an awareness that we are making the mistake in question.
Myself: as n.n. wrote: Of course, Wittgenstein had (on a few occasions; Hacker counts five in the entire Nachlass) compared his method to psychoanalysis, but the comparison is very limited, and therefore, easily misunderstood (i.e., taken too far).
Hmmm. He compared his “therapy” to psychoanalysis, but it has been “refuted” that he had been influenced by Freud. Interesting. The point is, while Freud actually had a thorough-going analysis of the illnesses that he proposed, to call Wittgenstein’s “cure” a cure of an illness is a serious dogmatic move. Either this is just a metaphor, and as such simply overstates and confuses the issue, i.e. where the word “illness” is, the word “confusion” should be used. Or, it is a literal illness, as such it requires us to say things like “Bertrand Russell was sick” and other nonsense, lacking any nosology or full declaration of symptoms.

The trouble is Wittgenstein was sick, I suggest, and others too might take an aptititude towards philosophy like he did, and might “cure” themselves of their obsessional mania (who in this world really would obsessively lower the ceiling of a room they had designed to be built, by one centimeter?). But Wittgenstein’s compulsions are not necessarily the compulsions of Philosophy, nor are they the products of the “grammatical confusions” he engaged in before his radical turn. That is, it is a vast over-statement to say “Wittgenstein’s illness is our illness”. The man was clearly both deeply disturbed and deeply brilliant, and it may the case that others who are similarly disturbed may find solace in his “cure”. But the “we” of such pathological disturbance is not the “we” of the linguistic community. That is, unless one has a passion to speak and prescribe dogmatically about a universal condition in such a way that is it nearly invariable from the way that the notion of “sin” has been dealt with.Now if you personally feel “cured” by his process, I wholly embrace this, and cheer you on. It it is only when you want so many others to be categorically ill, and imagine yourself to be in possession of the “cure”, this is where I draw the line. I do not believe that Wittgenstein’s teacher, Bertrand Russell was ill, either in the metaphorical sense, or in the literal sense, nor do I believe that Descartes or Bishop Berkeley was ill either.

As you quote Hacker: “Hacker writes, “It is a main task of philosophy to warn against false comparisons, false similes that underlie our modes of expression without our being conscious of them.”
I will tell you that calling “false comparisons” (actually comparisons are never true or false, but only more or less helpful), an “illness” is a very misleading comparison. One is tempted to say, it is a “false comparison”. It does not help us along the way, but rather inspires dogmatic views. If we are to veer away from what Hacker likes to call “false comparisons”, then we should also stop calling “grammatical confusions” “illnesses”.
Grammatical confusions, or let us say, certain kinds of comparisons like those that arose in the Cartesian view of the mind, arose for a reason. They serve purposes, they help explain things in certain situations, they help us organize ourselves in the world. These “comparisons”, like “there is a picture in my mind” for instance are not in themselves pathological. All one has to do is realize that there are boundary conditions for their usefulness, as is the case for ANY comparison.
I suggest that the comparison of certain kinds of confusions, or attempts to render rational explanations of affinities between things that resist them, to an illness is a deeply misleading one. So much of the language game of “illness” does not map onto the language game of “grammatical confusion”. Instead, to fill in the blanks in the dys-analogy, is a host of dogmatic insistence (much of which is anti-thetical to Wittgenstein’s own requirement of specific clarity), giving us to say things like “we, the linguistic community, are sick”. Instead, we, the linguistic community, can become confused, we can over extend our analogies.
Now when Wittgenstein tells us: “”…it is possible for the sickness [Krankheit] of philosophical problems to get cured only through a changed mode of thought and life – Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics.”, I am unsure if I want to be told that the answer to the philosophical questions I am attempting to answer is that I must change my “mode of thought and life”. Perhaps, but the pursuit of philosophical answers, even metaphysical philosophical answers has not been LARGELY a pathological endeavor in the West. I do not find Spinoza pathological, nor Hegel, nor Hume or Kant, nor Husserl (maybe Nietzsche, but in a good way). In fact if these endeavors are all pathologies I suggest a great deal of good and sense have come from them. Philosophers are like painters I think. Yes, there have been some pathological painters, and some of these pathological ones very good. But painting itself is not pathological. The very act of sense-making, of thinking about thinking is both served and retarded by analogy and metaphor. Analogy and metaphor both illumine and obscure. If anything, Wittgenstein simply taught us to pay attention to our ps and qs, to notice when we are analogizing. I think this is a good thing. But there is also the creative advance that occurs when we mistakenly analogize, when we allow a metaphor to take us over, when the world suddenly appears differently under a new metaphor, and often when this is the case, a picture has bewitched us, not altogether a bad thing.
Wittgensteinians I suggest are bewitched by both the picture of language as a game played, and bewitched by the notion of confusion being like an illness. Further, they are bewitched by the figure of Wittgenstein, the disturbed, ill-fitting, brilliant oracle of truths. There is a certain advance that occurs when one takes a disciple-like relationship to the teachings of a philosopher (I find it so hilarious that editions of PI are in both German and English, as if Wittgenstein used language is such a subtle way that each and every word has to be measured precisely, as if the Dead Sea Scroll is being studied…as far as philosophers go, Wittgenstein is one of the most translatable, jargon free philosophers their is; such devotion to the letter of the word only reveals the RELATIONSHIP of Wittgenstein students to Wittgenstein’s “truths”. As I said, I will certainly grant that this bewitchment has its advantages. It is necessary to propagate the ideas of a thinker, to inseminate the essential picture-form of the thought across a variety of circumstances, but there comes a time when Wittgenstein’s advisements should be used against, in self-critique, against Wittgenstein himself, and more thoroughly, upon his disciples themselves, who can come to be even more bewitched than he was. 
Beware the “false comparisons” in Wittgenstein.