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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.


Zombies and Monsters of a Philosophy of Mind


This is the thing of significance. Behaviorism has fueled many of the third person approaches to consciousness, Dennett and Wittgenstein come to mind. Behaviorism is often countered by some kind of phenomenal approach to experience. The problem is that “phenomenal” descriptions are often linked to Lockean like empirical conceptions of knowledge, wherein what is experienced is somehow imagined to be a representation of “reality” which it “reflects” with more or less clarity, like a mirror. More sophisticated versions of this conception imagine that there is “Information” out there, and that it has to somehow be replicated, or represented “in here”.

What Davidson’s triangulation approach does is help unseat the Self-World binary which governed philosophy for so long. Philosophy, because it was an extension of religious attempts, one suspects, concentrated on connecting the soul-self-perception-knowledge-representation to the God-reality-world, as Rorty pointed out, in a metaphor of reflection. After the linguistic turn in philosophy, accelerated by Wittgenstein, primary attempts to connect internal states to external reality in any one-to-one fashion, became grafted onto the very process of languaging. This opened up the other (repressed) leg of the Triangle.

But there is something dissatisfying about Behaviorism. It is this third person account of what supposedly is going on “inside”. It is for this reason that a host of ghoulish philosophical thought experiments arise, a race of zombies, deceptive robots and swampmen. The reason for this reaction to behavioral accounts of consciousness are two fold, I believe. One is that they leave out a fundamental aspect of communication itself, and that is the feeling of communication, the very rich affective consquences of communicating with others. When issues of justifcation promote such an affectiveless picture of a process, something seems utterly wrong. This intuition really is the intuition which governs our capacity to interpret others in the first place. When the behavior of others clues us into thinking that they are not what we thought they were, alarm bells go off. When behavor alone seems to be key to justifying truths, the potenital for the same alarm bells sets them shaking, for such behavior could suddenly deviate without explanation or prediction. (This is not to say that Behaviorist arguments are wrong, but perhaps that they are incomplete.) The monsters of philosophical thought experiment are the expression of this potential sense of alarm. The other reason I suspect that monsters are conjured up when we start thinking of consciousness (or theories of meaning) in this different, Behaviorist way, is that such shifts in conception (for instance away from a one-to-one idea of what it means to know the world) promote new ways of interacting and valuing socially. That is, the essential conceptual barriors between ourselves and others, upon which much of our world is organized, are being challenged. And it is right that when a world is threatened that monsters arrive (in the world of philosophy they have appeared). The science fiction of thought experiment is really alerting us to the power of the fiction of new concepts, as they will determined our ways of relating to and valuing others, and the world. Monster is from the Latin monere “to warn”.

Now if someone were to say that behavior and affection are synonymous (as for instance a Spinozist account may allow), I believe that in trianguation what is necessary to complete the behavioral accounts of justification and the resultant theories of meaning and truth (be they Wittgensteinian or Davidsonian), is to understand that affection, that is the imitation of the affects of others, through the recognition of their behavioral responses to a shared environment, is the bodily ground for any conceptual capacity to interpret others. That is, in the kind of perceptual triangulation that Davidson brings to bear there must be a less-than-always-conscious causal realtion between the percieved affects of others, and our own affects, in order to give context for the meaning of our abstract descriptions of behavior itself.

In this way, the intuitional divide between behaviorism (with its cold capacity to allow even robots and zombies into our epistemic midst), and the various appeals to phenomenological experience (leaving behind their accompanied one-to-one representational conceptions of what knowledge is), is thus so to speak, filled in. Behavior is synonymous with affect, in the sense that there is no reading of behavior in triangulating concepts, I would think, without a corresponding causal affective response, one which, on the basis of com-passion creates a community of communications, at the level of the body itself. This does not mean that “qualia” as they are commonly argued for, “exist”.