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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.

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