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Boy, digging into Continental philosophy and applying it to analytic issues could get to be a habit; this week’s selection is Gadamer’s Truth and Method, which has been a surprising read in a couple of ways. I was previously quite familiar with Habermas’ critique of Gadamer’s attitude to tradition, and recently had my concomitant suspicions about Gadamer’s “anti-Nazi” attitudes confirmed by revisionist histories of his life during the Third Reich. Gadamer is certainly much more the conservative than the left-liberal “Continental philosophers” of the American continent let on, but the substance of his conservatism in his “great work” is different than I expected. He does take off from Heidegger, but not in the direction of decisionistic Existenz, or critique of metaphysics: he makes an ingenious application of the elements of Heidegger’s thought which are only intimated in Being and Time, especially Heidegger’s positive doctrine of Being. Gadamer’s critique of “aesthetic consciousness” and “historical consciousness” aims to reaffirm the importance of being to the employment of normative, “common-sensical” categories in the humanities and social sciences: he argues that without the human mind’s concrete involvement with the world and others (which is encapsulated in Heidegger’s refined concept of Being), these domains are unintelligible.
I am less impressed with the final section of the work, on language: it seems to suffer from the fact that Gadamer’s claims are often very inexact (in a way that post-structuralist thought is only purported to be). However, it still seems that the general thrust of the work has some bearing on issues in analytic philosophy of language, particularly the choice between “realistic” truth-conditional semantics or an “anti-realist” one based on meaning as conceptual role. Contemporary opinion seems to reject the flirtation of the ’80s and ’90s with “inferentialist” accounts of meaning as use, but I think the cost of the decision for realism is perhaps underestimated. Perhaps the real trouble with an “entity” theory of meaning conceptual-role semantics hoped to supplant is not its “Platonist” assumptions about the structure of propositions, but that it really implies a “realism” about the reference of common-sensical discourse; to speak Gadamerese, realistic talk about the famous “middle-sized dry goods” implies that we have an unquestioned and unquestionable grasp of their being, which is not at all derived from and perhaps even incompatible with a reduction of mental states or properties of ordinary physical objects as we encounter them into microphysical substrates. In other words, maybe our ordinary discourse is already “semantically perfect” in its reference to reality — too perfect to permit scientific recalibrations of the kind desirable to many of the people who want to go in for realism in semantics.
Reading Badiou has inspired me to go a little outside the boundaries of German intellectual history, so I thought I’d write up my take on the early Derrida (mentioned in passing in a comment last year). The charge that Derrida’s writing is obscure and confusing is unfair. It’s hard to understand, sure, but that’s because the contemporary Derrida readership (people like me, with a so-so education in the history of philosophy) was not the group Derrida intended his missives for. His early work is specialist writing, and if so considered reveals itself to have, within those boundaries, a careful and illuminating composition. In the prefatory material to Of Grammatology he speaks of “embarrassing” himself in order to display the mechanics of a critical reading, and method is indeed amply displayed; perhaps this attention to critical method is really his greatest contribution.
I think that since Derrida assumes a thorough knowledge of Heidegger and Hegel, something many analytic philosophers proudly lack, it’s been hard for people to see that many of his philosophical positions, properly viewed, are not really beyond the pale. For instance, Of Grammatology can be very profitably read as a contribution to the re-centering of intentionality we associate with Wilfrid Sellars and those inspired by him. The book is ostensibly about the history of writing, its denigration and marginalization by “logocentric” figures like Rousseau and Hegel, and their more recent epigones in the social sciences, Saussure and Levi-Strauss; but a trick turned by Derrida in the middle of Part I reveals his arguments to have a significance wider than the history of weighing phonetic against ideographic scripts.
You see, according to Derrida the elements of writing that made for its traditionally low valuation are really properties of properly considered intentionality, separated from an attempt to ground intentional contents in essences transparently present to consciousness: this is what Derrida wants to show by describing an “arche-writing” underwriting all of language, where the supposedly pathological elements of writing reappear in the form of the “trace”. The trace, by uniting difference and temporal succession (the difference that defers, from whence Derrida’s word differance) in an irreal, non-metaphysical framework underpinning significance, allows the discrimination of “basic elements” like phonemes, or really anything that could be culturally distinctive.
In places Derrida is quite explicit about the relationship of the trace to Husserl’s conception of intentionality, although he intends his ruminations to be sufficiently removed from the specifics of Husserl’s theory to not fit comfortably under the same name. But Derrida is still saying that the true Urform of intentional content is not the deliverances of an idealized self-consciousness, but more akin to the societal processes of transmission and mutation of cultural tropes — a thought that seems to fit in very nicely with Wittgenstein-inspired attention to the importance of social practice for understanding the mind and language.
I’m now about halfway through Being and Event, and I have some preliminary comments. Firstly, the explanations of set theory Badiou includes are really very good, and the book wouldn’t be the worst way to be introduced to axiomatic set theory: it is true that set theorists don’t really think the axioms have the ontological significance Badiou attributes to them, but the actual setting-out of the formal machinery is not inaccurate. Secondly, the figure Badiou reminds me of the most is the mature John Dewey. This might be surprising, since Badiou is associated with positive valuations for things Dewey is held to have inveighed against, like Platonism — but they are as one in a kind of structuralism about logic and the philosophy of thought. What I mean by “structuralism” in this context is that the features of logical articulation Badiou and Dewey engage with are grasped independently of an ultimate import, as “furniture of the world”: this is quite different from a formalism where the “normative” significance of thought, its cultural value or the end it purportedly tends toward, bulks much larger.
Perhaps such an approach is naive, for reasons familiar from mainstream analytic philosophy, but it certainly has its liberating aspects. However, my third observation has to do with a way in which Badiou’s theory of the “event” is quite agreeably consonant with some mainstream themes. For Badiou, an event comes into existence when we are dealing with a “situation” composed of elements which are not “normal”, i.e. not ordinary sets whose members are all subsets which are themselves composed only of subsets (that is, with no urelements in the picture). The “normal” makes up the natural world, but there are configurations of objects which cannot be completely accounted for in naturalistic discourse: as part of his program for relating “presentation” and representation of objects to their political analogues, Badiou gives an analogy to a family where the members are not known to the authorities, and which only appears as a unit on outings.
The appearance of the family is an “event”, since the family members are “presented” but not represented in the state apparatus. But with this explanation, Badiou returns from the further reaches of Marxist criticism of state power to a very familiar theme in analytic thought: Frege’s sense and reference. Frege called the sense of a word its “manner of presentation”, and drawing on Badiou we have an explanation of this: the event is the sense of the situation, and the history that begins with it is the “cognitive significance” sense is invoked to explain, the thoughts we have about the world which swing free of a scientifically regimented account of the world’s inhabitants (the “natural multiples”, or, one might say, references). In short, perhaps what we have from Badiou is a very elegant story about the larger significance of Sinn and its relationship to “what there is”; I suppose further reading will make it clear what he himself thinks about the role of these events in “subjectivation”.
Good news for people like me, whose knowledge of antiquity is limited to the right-hand pages of Loeb Classical Library volumes from the public library: a new interface for the Perseus Project is available for testing. The Perseus Project (an effort of Brown University) is a relatively venerable Internet reference for ancient Greek and Latin writings, in the original and in translations. They’ve always had a good selection of philosophical and literary material, with hyperlinked lexica for every word, but the previous system of text chunking displayed only about a paragraph at a time — it was murder on dialup. Now you get a whole page of text, with a cleaner look-and-feel: and if you have a big enough monitor or monitors, you should have no trouble duplicating the en face Loeb editions. As Portland retail impresario Tom Peterson used to say, “Free is a very good price”, and it’s especially so for reading material of cultural centrality.
I sometimes talk to people who want suggestions for reading material in politics or philosophy; a great resource for both categories is the Marxists Internet Archive. Run by volunteers, the MIA was started to transcribe and make available the vast amount of printed material from Marx and Marxist politicians that had effectively entered the public domain as a result of the Soviet bloc’s collapse: but it’s since expanded to be something of an omnibus introduction to modernity, stretching backwards in time to the Enlightenment and forwards to the present day, offering material in a wide variety of languages. Their main site was recently disabled by Internet attacks emanating from China (some speculated that the wealth of material on Mao and other Chinese Marxists not favored by the current regime played a role), but everything appears to be back on track. Check it out.
As the contents (and name) of this blog may indicate, I spend more time reading and thinking about Hegel than I do with any other philosopher. There was a time when this was not true; my initial exposure to heady philosophy came in the form of a library copy of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Consequently, one of my most coveted items was a copy of the Philosophical Investigations; this was back when the only English-language edition was the ridiculously expensive, and therefore unstocked, blue Macmillan paperback. However, I spent even more time in this period (roughly the last two years of high school and the first two of college) reading Marxist social theory, Gramsci and Lukacs and Adorno. Hegel was of course an important figure in this tradition, but distant enough to not be a truly pressing concern; and anyway, wouldn’t I have to understand Kant and the other German Idealists first?
So for several years Hegel was filed under “Subjects for Further Research”, as Christgau used to say. But as Samuel Johnson famously said, the prospect of death concentrates the mind wonderfully, and at the end of 1999 I became convinced that familiarity with the Great Philosophers would help prevent me meeting an unceremonious end at the behest of an unsympathetic academic or two. Now, in reality there have been a few unceremonious ends I have more or less narrowly avoided, but tenured, well-fed, jet-setting academics are probably one of the less dangerous groups one can be on the wrong side of; yet I did set out to burn my way through a couple major texts, including the first Critique and the Phenomenology, underlining them in green ink as a kind of sympathetic magic.
I read Hegel through the prism of Charles Taylor’s omnibus introduction, heavy on the Sittlichkeit and light on the absolute knowledge; and, employing a little bit of showy philosophical vocabulary about how the section on sense-certainty tackled “indexicality”, there my understanding sat. I was at a school with some prominent “Neo-Hegelians”, but I was initially trying to stay on their good side as a prophylactic against their more irascible colleagues, and anyhow they weren’t very keen on discussing their adaptation of mediate knowledge with undergraduates coming in off the street, so I didn’t rap with them. Later, I did discuss Hegel’s definition of Geist as (immediately) “the ethical life of the nation”, in the context of a professorial comment about Lincoln’s assassination I suspected would be offensive to most Americans who stopped to think about it; this explanation progressed to an example having the professor beating black Africans, making the effort as a whole one of the less successful Hegel exegeses in recent memory.
All this is a little more than a trip down Unreliable Narrator Lane; I want to discuss the relationship of Hegel’s project to that of analytic philosophy. The “stages” of my own youthful reading correspond to the two major schools of Hegel interpretation in the analytic world, reading him as a profound social philosopher and reading him as a clever philosopher of mind. Since then, I’ve spent (misspent is probably more like it) many hours with Hegel, and it’s no longer clear to me that either account tells the whole story about Hegel’s intellectual relationship to contemporary analytic thought. Really working through Hegel’s method uncovers a philosophy that, in its essential tendencies, is quite “proto-analytic”; not in terms of its inspiring suave “post-analytic” minds, but in prefiguring the squarer mainstream logical analysis.
The dialectic, and Hegel’s dialectical syncopation of logical concepts, are a way of privileging language as a way of access to substance: in other words, the idea of a priority of language in explanations of thought predates Bertrand Russell and Carnap. Obviously the mature Russell and his successors did not view themselves as in any way continuing a Hegelian project, reacting as they did to the British Idealists’ codification of a monistic and emanationistic metaphysics as “Hegelian”, but their method owes more than a little to the change that Hegel tried to work in the consideration of thought, a sort of “professionalization” of conceptual analysis wicking some of the heated rhetoric surrounding God, Freedom, and Immortality away from the practical commitments and consequences of our discourse about them. His vision of philosophy as Science was not entirely a conceit of having struck upon a method of transmuting discursive iron into metaphysical gold, but a serious effort to rationalize the intellectual world and the social life it was a part of.
Obviously the early analytic philosophers partook of the even greater liberalization permitted by the progress of the 19th century, and so Hegel’s sympathy for traditional religion and social orders evaporates in them: and their possession of the greater resources of quantificational logic makes some of Hegel’s logical theory look like cracker-barrel rhetorical analysis. But I think viewing Hegel as a “non-analytic” source of piecemeal insights is unfair to Hegel, in distorting the changes he tried to work in intellectual culture and the historical effect of those efforts.
I am usually pretty light on the links, but this does not seem to have attracted a great deal of attention: a very nice interview with the contractarian moral theorist T.M. Scanlon. Scanlon goes quite a bit beyond the usual philosophy-popularization and public intellectualism to strike a responsible and informative tone in addressing the role “practical philosophy” should play in public affairs. Much better than most things of its kind.