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.