Learning to Think Again

Update: Pete Wolfendale has posted a brief reply to this post, complimenting and expanding on my thoughts here.

Some time ago, I came to the conclusion that I had taken a wrong turn in my philosophical education. I had become deeply mired in the most obscure works of the ‘Continental’ tradition — those of Deleuze, Derrida, Badiou, Lacan, and Laruelle — works that, despite their merits, did little to abate the tradition’s bad reputation for lack of argumentative clarity and rigor. I had little concern for argument, preferring to conceive of philosophy more along the lines of fictional world-building. My attitude was premised on the presumption that philosophers need not persuade anyone that such-and-such is really the case, and rather should only imagine possible ways of understanding the world without regard for their validity, if not necessarily for their utility. This is not to say that I never made arguments, even somewhat compelling ones at times, but that I was not explicitly aware of when or how I was doing so. I certainly didn’t believe that I ought to be making them, nor that I ought to have an explicit understanding of the practice of argumentation.

As a result, I cannot look back very proudly on the work I produced as an undergraduate or a masters student. There is some good and some bad, and certainly lots of vague and underdeveloped. For this I do not blame the philosophers I studied or the professors I studied under; I don’t think assigning blame is a worthwhile endeavor. Only I am responsible for the work I produced, and in retrospect, the choices I made led to a product with which I cannot be content. However, I don’t see this as a failure, but as an opportunity to continue my education in philosophy. My path of learning has looped back to the beginning. To move forward, I first have to learn skills that I have come to believe are essential to philosophical thought.

There was a long while during which I engaged in amateur speculation, “armchair metaphysics”, coming up with wild and creative conceptual mappings of the world. The bulk of this speculation has been chronicled here, in fact. There was no clear method involved. I would simply find a compelling idea somewhere and run with it. The thought process unravelled with more rhyme than reason, as I tended to develop thoughts in the most poetically appealing direction, seeking a maximum of both syntactical and semantical musicality. Beyond poetry, I had little regard for the truth of these concept-schemes. Faithful to the Nietzschean fire carried by my favorite thinkers, I regarded claims to and concerns with truth to be highly suspicious, implicitly underwritten by deeply entrenched relations of oppressive and arbitrary hierarchy. Despite the immaturity of my methodological convictions, I had only fallen into this rut contingently, as a deeply flawed means to other ends.

My initial interest in philosophy followed from a question that plagued me increasingly as I passed from adolescence to young adulthood: “why is the world this way and not another?” I did not ask this question in an explicitly metaphysical register at the time, although I would later take it in that direction. By the world, I was really asking about the social world, and specifically its political and economic dimensions. The more that I learned, the more I couldn’t understand why I should be so lucky when so many others aren’t. I don’t mean to paint myself in such noble light; practically speaking, I did little to address inequality of which I am a benefactor. I have been content, if not guiltlessly, to entertain this question as a mere theoretical curiosity; I wanted to understand it, but wasn’t ready to worry about helping change it. I sold myself the bill of goods saying such change is only possible once a truly sufficient understanding is achieved, a very tidy justification for inaction.

It was opportune, then, that my theoretical pursuits became tainted by the aforementioned quasi-Nietszschean poeticism, a surefire means of warding off understanding if there is any. Even my studies of Marx were tainted by it, despite how directly it opposed the scientific spirit in which he wrote. I struggled with this for a long time, as my heart was squarely in the continuation of Marx’s work in both theoretical and practical directions, even as my habits were finely-tuned to undermine progress in either one. All of the approaches I adopted, be they Deleuzo-DeLandian, Lacano-Zizekian, Agamenbian or Laruellean, were all effectively variations of the same basic theoretical bias, which was at its core incompatible with the Marxist spirit. (Let me be clear in saying that I do not believe any of these approaches are necessarily tainted by this bias, and that I hold myself largely (if not solely) responsible for interpreting them this way.)

I understood this subconsciously, and gradually grew more discontented with my basic methodological attitudes. It wasn’t until I met Pete Wolfendale that I began to see an alternative, one that had much more promise for the continuation of Marx’s work. It is no exaggeration to say that in my conversations with Pete, and in reading his blog, I became convinced that those attitudes were due for a complete overhaul. I began to understand that while ‘truth’ can sometimes be a mere ideological prop, and discourse explicitly concerned with truth can be somewhat or even predominately power-laden, these phenomena deserve to be understood as distortions that betray the ideal to which they pretend, and that the solution is not to abandon the ideal and adopt a different approach altogether (one whose ideal is musicality rather than truth, for example), but to counter the pretenders with the genuine article.

Unfortunately, for the bulk of my philosophical studentship I was preoccupied with avoiding such discourse and the skills necessary to understand and engage in it. My understanding of how arguments work and how good arguments are to be recognized and produced is, I’m sad to say, not far beyond that of a second or third year undergraduate. My growth as a philosopher was stunted, right around the time I discovered that insidious brand of soft Nietzscheanism.

Well, I’m going to go about rectifying that. I’m going to resume where I left off, as best I can without institutional support. I’m going to read a lot of things I should have read, for the most part from the analytic tradition. This isn’t because I now believe it is the ‘better’ half of the divide. From those in the know, I’ve come to believe that it is not much better off, and that what it has gained in argumentative clarity and rigor, it has lost in becoming stuck on nitpicking shortsightedness and hyper-specialization. I turn to certain key texts of analytic philosophy in order to acquire the skills I need to move forward with my research, which is not particularly indebted to either analytic or Continental philosophy, but rather to Marx and a select group of his interpreters.

Some months back I started a new blog, The Luxemburgist, to mark a shift from my concern with amateur metaphysics to a more pure focus on Marxism. However, it went quiet not long after, due both to a lack of confidence and a lack of the skills necessary to render my thoughts explicit. Having recognized the problem, I’ve decided to revive Planomenology, mostly for the sake of convenience, as a place to conduct my philosophical re-education in public, in order to solicit the help or advice of anyone who might care to read it, and perhaps to inspire anyone who is hung-up as I was to see there is another way. Hopefully, once I’ve learned enough and built up my confidence enough, I will revive The Luxemburgist. Until then, I’ll be posting here with my thoughts on and problems with a selection of basic texts by Quine, Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Kripke, etc, as well as some secondary sources. I will make sure to post links to texts whenever available, so that anyone interested in following along with me can easily do so. Anyway, I’m back.

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18 Responses to Learning to Think Again

  1. I look forward to what follows and I am also affirmed in my decision to NOT do a thorough purge of some of the blogs on my reader! Thanks.

  2. michael- says:

    A truly refreshingly honest post Reid – it speaks to an authentic dedication to understanding at the very core of your intellectual (existential?) pursuits.

    I’m glad you are back, and I’ll be reading.

    m-

  3. skholiast says:

    Good news. Think on.

  4. Chris says:

    I’ve come to similar conclusions although less strongly formulated and not yet acted upon. I think an anglo-american “boot camp” is necessary for a lot of us in order to even be able to defend continental claims with any coherency; although the acumen with arguments, concepts and consistent terminology was not lacking in the authors of many of the primary continental texts, when the next generation tries to dispense with these it can get ugly.

  5. Pingback: Planomenology Returns « Deontologistics

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  7. duncan says:

    It’s really good to see you posting again Reid – though of course I understand the importance of non-public work also. I hope all is well with you…

    [I've left a very short comment over at Pete's linking post, that I hope doesn't misread or tread on toes.]

  8. Pingback: A Helpful Post: « Maxwell Kennel

  9. C says:

    For what it’s worth, I’m presently going through the dual of your process. For most of my undergraduate education, I was engrossed in what could be considered the ‘hard wing’ of formalization: inventing novel logics for any and all philosophical domains, inching forward with the smallest steps in the most specialized areas, even disparaging poetry! This was coupled with a quite extensive study of Marx and certain commentators (mostly those of a slightly heterodox bent: Bordigists, Councilists, etc), but I similarly feel that my ability to work through these problematics was affected by my philosophical commitments.

    With this realization, I find myself moving rapidly towards the intersection, ingesting far too much Hegel, Agamben, Deleuze, Badiou, and Heidegger than is likely good for me, perhaps pushing towards this same interstice of which you speak. Incidentally, I would be quite interested in helping put together a reading group/blog to work through certain key texts in both traditions. I would like to revist essential analytic texts with an eye towards the future; I imagine it could similarly be worth your time to work through your own foundational texts with Quine and Frege.

  10. dmf says:

    might help you to read the sections on philosophizing in Cavell’s new memoir Little Did I Know, as he has worked/suffered through similar travails.

  11. Sans Oeuvre says:

    Though I *do* think that there’s much to be learned from some of the continental figures you mention, I’m in total agreement that the way for continentalists to move forward is to engage with the analytic tradition. This is why I find Brassier’s work so appealing, and why Badiou and Meillassoux have been so good for continental philosophy. I’m also optimistic about the attempts by people like Martin Hagglund and Adrian Johnston to think through the relationship of continental figures to developments in evolutionary biology, cognitive science, etc.

    Incidentally, I think that this will have been the real value of “Speculative Realism” (RIP): to serve as a vanishing mediator between the work of more familiar continental figures and the work that people like Pete are undertaking. The latter will survive long after goofy little internet fads like OOO have been forgotten.

    My one word of warning, though, is not to slip into the sort of mindset where things coming out of the U.S. or the U.K. are smart and those coming out of the Continent are lame. One of the coolest things about the Pittsburgh Hegelians is that they’re not only engaging with Chalmers and Fodor, but also with Pippin and J. Bernstein (and through the latter, Adorno). The late John Haugeland was in the process of writing a huge tome on Heidegger when he died. Michael Friedman has returned to Cassirer. Ian Hacking continues to do excellent work within a Foucaultian paradigm, etc., etc.

    Basically, I’d love to see more work that deals with both traditions.

    A slightly more specific question: what’s your take on analytic reconstructions of continental figures (e.g., the work of John Richardson, Taylor Carman, etc.). So far, I haven’t been too impressed…

    • reidkane says:

      I agree re: Speculative Realism (especially Brassier) and Badiou, all of which strongly influenced my drift in this direction. And don’t worry about me, I’m still a Deleuzean at heart, with some mixed but certainly not dismissive opinions about Derrida, Lacan, and Badiou. Some of my biggest philosophical interests involve Habermas and Foucault, as well as the whole line of ‘Western’ Marxists. My real desire with this project is to develop the expressive skills necessary to make explicit my positions on Marx and how they relate to other Marxists and social theorists, many of which would fall on the “Continental” side when push comes to shove.

      I’m not familiar with Richardson or Carman. I’m not really very interested in attempts to interpret a thinker for a particularly analytic audience, although I certainly think we could use far more attempts to make explicit the arguments that Continental figures are actually making beneath the stylistic flourish (like what Pete has done with Heidegger and Deleuze).

  12. Using Harman’s apt “drug gangs fighting for territory = blogs” analogy, let me congratulate you on taking back your block. I have stopped blogging (though not commenting, of course) some three months ago and I have to say that I don’t miss it that much, or rather, I miss it for what I now clearly see as all the wrong reasons. However, your posts here and Pete’s posts over at this blog were always a pleasure to read and dig into, so I welcome this come back and into my Google Reader you go!

  13. Allen Porter says:

    [To begin by implying my own aligned orientation with regard to a certain Nietzschean lineage, in one sense the same and in another the opposite of that "insidious" brand of "soft" Nietzscheanism you so specifically identify in this post:] I was again greatly struck, upon encountering your blog via a reading of this post, by that synchronicity which both theoretically underlies and empirically is an effect of my personal attempt-to-live amor fati. I myself have recently been traveling the same course on the curve of intellectual development, and though my journey or “turn” has perhaps been more temporally compressed as well as specifically different, I am also further down the way than you were when you made this post; thus I hope it is not arrogance that apparently entitles me to offer my opinion on these matters, though I certainly am not trying to “offer” you “advice”.

    The essential affair of my life as a human-being-in-the-world, namely that with philosophy as above all a way-of-being, began historically when I was attending a Jesuit high school – and thus had the opportunity to study Latin and Ancient Greek, and, more importantly, gain exposure to writers like Homer, Cicero, and above all Plato – my encounter with the last constituting my originary encounter with philosophy. I “got into” philosophy with the idea of Truth, or with the inspiration or ambition of Truth – a Truth that would not only withstand the rigors of the critical thinking so powerfully executed by my next great “master” after Plato, namely Nietzsche, but would only be strengthened by the engagement. Which is to say, before I let “drift” enter into play, that I at least began “in the right place”, so to speak – the place your rigor now seems to be compulsively or compellingly drawing you to (to return to).

    Nietzsche became my obsession/expertise as an early undergraduate, and it was not long before I had read virtually everything he had written – not to mention the opportunity to discourse with Alexander Nehamas, whose lecture and precept I had the opportunity to take. It was, however, clear to me – both then and now – that this “Nietzschean fire” was in direct continuity with what I would call an authentically “Platonic fire” – perhaps it would be enough to say that the “will to truth” endured in me.

    After Nietzsche I haphazardly, more via quantum leaps of excited/excitated association than any method (other than intuition), acquired an education in continental philosophy – the primary methodical rigor that had the great burden of filling in the “personal[ly generated]” gaps coming from an external agency, namely the various departmental and other regulative requirements (and also opportunities – merely the opportunity to take a structured class on German Idealism, for instance, can have, practically, much more disciplinary effect than the more-symbolic submission to required courses). But these quantum leaps to singularities or singular thinkers, the attraction of which were so powerful as to tempt the use of the erotic metaphor, did form a kind of broken line or lineage – whose most brilliant or resonant figures for me were Heraclitus, Nietzsche, and Deleuze, and which I would have described as characterized by a thinking of difference vs identity, multiplicity vs oneness, immanence vs transcendence, etc.

    By my senior year I was pretty fully drawn into the basin of attraction of “contemporary theory” or even the dreaded pejorative “French theory” – along with my departmental studying of media theory, it was writers like Blanchot, Levinas, Deleuze, and to a lesser degree Heidegger and others who formed the core of my philosophical position and direction, in short my orientation. I even titled my senior thesis Immanence and Transcendence. And by the time my admittedly hubristic ambitions for that work fell short, I shared your disappointment with my undergraduate career and work.

    But the analytic turn didn’t come immediately or directly for me. Rather, my frustrated ambitions only spurred me on, as a graduate without a job and all the free time in the world, to broaden and deepen my knowledge of contemporary theory even more – to push it to the limit I obviously had not yet reached, as it were. I still felt it was the right path, the better approach – probably because my experiences with mathematics and science in high school were so “traumatic” that I repressed/excluded their entire field from the sovereign domain of legitimate philosophy throughout my undergraduate sojourn “in the continent”.

    And so I burned through the chain of names/works that you yourself allude to – Agamben, Zizek, Badiou, Hardt & Negri, so on and so forth – and then, suddenly, Derrida. With Derrida I realized a burning singularity had been hiding from me the entire time – or rather, I had hidden it from myself: for I had always, from a few quasi-superficial encounters early on, held a rather strong prejudice against Derrida – in sum, that he was a purposefully pretentious writer, more sophist than substance, and more damning, that he was a thinker of transcendence. I saw Levinas – with whom I engaged much more deeply – as the good side of Derrida, or the full concentration of value (to which Derrida would, retroactively ironically, be a “mere supplement”).

    Upon reading Of Grammatology, that opinion greatly changed, and was only confirmed in its reversal by my reading Writing and Difference and other works. The reversal was strong enough – bringing Derrida and Deleuze into intimate connection for me – to provoke another attempt at a work on the conceptual scale of my thesis. And, to elide the details and end the narrative, the book I began writing – on the historical basis of my “discovery” of Derrida and in the conceptual and ontological framework already so heavily engaged with in my reading of Deleuze – was what actually initiated my “analytic turn”.

    I will again leave the details aside, but my three primary concerns were mathematics, language, and psyche (psychoanalysis) as ontological structure. It was the work I did, compressed into a very short time period, without any formal education in the philosophy of mathematics, that – after a brief respite and upon a subsequent return – pushed me to ground myself in the analytic tradition. Though my education has by no means been comprehensive, I at least feel at home in that “other place” now – my favorite encounters (for all engagements are still on-going at this point) being Russell and Peirce, though some of the “real work” I did reading Frege was quite valuable as well. And like you, Badiou largely facilitated this turn for me – though I had only read the first third or so of Being and Event (a few times), when I acquired his Number and Numbers his importance for my new, analytic thought was cemented. And though I’ve only read a little Quine, for instance, the enduring and very material presence of the Benacerraf reader in my room allays my fears about that sort of thing continuing too long.

    And thus my conclusion: passing over the different position for Marx in each of our specific intellectual constitutions, which is no doubt of central structural/explicatory importance, I would say that my disappointment with my work and intellectual engagements for a certain period, my frustration, for instance, at the apparent inability of any of the massive amounts of contemporary theory that I was consuming to really surpass Deleuze – was consciously contingent, and did not taint my singular encounters with those I consider “truly important” (including Nietzsche, though not a soft one, and Deleuze). And I think I mark something of the same experience in your post – and I was glad to see that you remain a Deleuzean at heart, as I consider him epochally to be a thinker on the order of Plato and Nietzsche, my two prior core influences.

    And my hope – and my experience so far – is that you will find the real concerns and developments of analytic philosophy to be quite harmoniously or even catalytically compatible with the true value and experience extracted from your continental history. I will add that my most recent “singular encounter/engagement”, contemporaneous with my foray into the early or foundational analytic philosophers, has been Lacan – also one of the most difficult to penetrate (into that sphere of singular engagement), even moreso than Derrida for me. Incidentally, if you’re interested in Lacanian theory still – the kind that Zizek so alluringly deploys but never really systematizes or methodically critiques – I would highly, highly recommend Bruce Fink’s The Lacanian Subject , which finally rendered Ecrits accessible to me in an economically/temporally productive/worthwhile way – a great gift indeed.

    Anyway, I look forward to reading more of your blog.

  14. Ross Wolfe says:

    For what it’s worth, Reid, I enjoyed your blog on Luxemburgism, even if we disagreed about the exact relation between Rosa’s political position and Lenin’s. Your counter-critique to Lukacs was a powerful one, and done with a spirit of intellectual honesty. And to be quite frank, I admire your candid confession of your current philosophical and political state. I myself studied philosophy and drifted between Spinoza, Kant, and the German Idealists before I found Marxism. If that sounds like a religious epiphany, a “road to Damascus” moment, it’s because that’s literally how it felt. But on that account I hope no one brings up the sad cliche of “atheistic Marxism” being some sort of surrogate religion in its own right. But you’re a smart guy and I’m glad you’re exploring the riches of the Marxist tradition.

  15. David says:

    Hey Reid,
    I really appreciate the opportunity to read your work. If you are still concerned about clarity and argumentative style you should not be. You write beautifully… cheers, David

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