NON-STANDARD PHILOSOPHY: gatekeepers and gatecrashers

The considerations brought up in the discussion at the DAILY NOUS of changing standards of philosophy to incorporate more, and deeper, diversity (here) involve both internal and external aspects (although this distinction itself is called into question by “diverse” philosophies).

1) Internal: we are talking at a great level of generality, although no doubt people have specific examples in mind. There is a sort of phenomenological epoche that we must effectuate, so that the examples are viewed solely in relation to the question of whether they can be regarded as philosophy or not. The question here is not whether we agree with the examples or find them to be good examples of philosophy, but only whether they are philosophy even though they stretch the entrenched standards of demarcation.

The relevant examples are ones which embody a sufficient amount of theoretical work, a sufficient conceptual level, sufficient argumentation (implicit or explicit), sufficient relation to acknowledged problems or problematics or texts or figures. I have proposed three criteria, not in the abstract, but to be mobilised when the question of “philosophy or not?” comes up in a specific instance. In each case I have qualified the criterion with the intentionally vague “sufficient”, which sufficiency can be rationally discussed and argued about, but not determined by some fixed and sharply-demarcated judgement.

2) External: there are “gatekeepers”, and they are not just “we philosophers” (of which I am a member) nor “we university philosophy teachers” (of which I am not currently a member, although I was once). The academics need to be persuaded or obliged to modify their standards, or may just drift into a modification that they perceive only afterwards.

There is a sociology of philosophy, whether we are aware of it or not, whether we like it or not. University philosophy teachers are paid a salary, and can be induced to modify their curriculum by financial or administrative means. Student interest, or pressure, can lead to changes. There are also other social forces. Four decades ago, the first course in feminist philosophy in my old university only got accepted, after much resistance, after a student strike backed up by the builders’ union going on strike too. The student strike alone was not enough. Nowadays such courses are a banality.

A third consideration is that the discussion is mostly on the “receiving” side, asking whether “we” should accept innovations that in some important way change the rules of the game. But there is also the productive side. What innovations or transformations do we desire, or do we feel necessary in order to say what we have to say?

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DIVERSITY IN PHILOSOPHY: not just an academic question

Bharath Vallabha argues that the best way to navigate on the “sea of diversity” is to come to a recognition of our common state as mixtures of diverse socio-psychological elements and cultural traditions. I think this awareness of being a mixture is very important, and makes us wary of standards of demarcation that are too hard and fast and unambiguous.

At the same time, I think there are a number of different phases that this awareness can go through. Sometimes it is necessary to embrace the mixity, to see that everything is philosophical to some extent, that philosophy does not stop at the walls of the academy. Sometimes we need more precise perceptions of our mixity, to be able to say, at least provisionally, this is philosophical and that is something else (fiction, or spirituality, or emotional intelligence, etc.).

Sometimes “if one is physically alone or poor or not going to the cool conferences”, one can feel one’s philosophicality rotting away or on the contrary affirming itself with new strength.

Many affects, sad and joyful, are at play in this Anaxagorean consciousness. Cultivating an awareness of diversity, of oneself and others as variable mixtures, of one’s affects and phases, working on changing one’s habits of thought and of action, all that is no doubt very good. However, there is a split not just inside our minds, but also in the world, even if we can overcome it privately.

There are filters that determine who is listened to, what is heard, who can speak. This means that much philosophical work outside existing standards, or outside the academy, can be neglected or ignored, reduced to silence, or treated as equivalent to silence. Work should be acknowledged, encouraged, shared, even if it is not remunerated financially. Professional philosophy is just that: a profession. Changes (or not) in philosophy cannot be separated from questions of work and pay, of entitlement and publication.

This raises the more general question of power relations. Diversity is becoming a more pressing problem within philosophy because it has been gaining ground in society at large. Diversity does not stop at the walls of the academy either, the walls are porous in both directions.

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Justin Weinberg at the DAILY NOUS philosophy blog has an interesting post on diversity, standards, and professional philosophy. This is a response to his remarks and to those of Bharath Vallabha in the comments section.

The idea of “standards of diversity” while not necessarily self-contradictory, does contain a tension between the two terms. I agree with Bharath that diversification comes first, and that it is already here. There are people all over the place who think philosophically, in some senses of philosophy, but outside the academy, the institutions, or the canons, or the entrenched standards.

But behind the question of diversity and philosophy, the desired solution is often more than proposing or canonising or institutionalising a diversity of standards. Standards themselves need to be used in new ways, that officialise, or at least foreground, their ambiguity, multiplicity, contingency, and mutability.

There has been for some time now an increasing demand for “non-standard” philosophy, which does not mean having no standards or simply multiple standards. Diversify the people acceding to institutional position and recognition is a good thing, but may be a way of neutralising diversity by incorporating it into established standards that remain unquestioned and unchanged. Diversify the positions and traditions that gain recognition, support, publication, a place on the syllabus, argumentative clout, this opens up the game to new moves and not just to new players.

But many people want more than this, they want to call into question and to diversify the rules of the game, to transform the game or to help it evolve.

I like Bharath’s idea to “foster diversity”. To foster means to welcome, to encourage, and also to promote something that is already there, to assist (and even to participate in) its flourishing. Yet his solution is fraught with difficulties.

He advises the diverse non-standard philosopher to “get with like-minded people” – this is harder than it seems. Those with the standards dominate the institutions, the accepted channels, the recognisable pathways. They have the most visibility, and inspire the most emulation. So finding like minded people is more difficult, as they are less visible. They may also, like oneself, be more confused: seeking recognition, approval from those that they distance themselves from.This is a contradictory gesture.

There is also the question of resources, whether financial, bibliographical, or even just conversational.

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FEYERABEND’S ONTOLOGY: pluralist, diachronic, apophatic, empirical, and democratic

I have been examining recent Continental philosophy in terms of 5 criteria of evaluation: pluralism, diachronicity, apophaticism, testability, and democracy. To complement the analysis I wish to consider the case of Paul Feyerabend’s later philosophy, as sketched out in his freely available correspondence with Isaac Ben-Israel, which took place over a 2 year period stretching from September 1988 to October 1990.

(1) Pluralist: Feyerabend is well-known for his advocacy of a theoretical and practical pluralism.

But one could object that Feyerabend is a relativist and so that “empirical research” for him could give whatever result we want, because in his system “anything goes”. In fact the best gloss of this polemical slogan is “anything could work (but mostly doesn’t)”. Feyerabend’s epistemological pluralism is supported by an ontological realism:

reality (or Being) has no well-defined structure but reacts in different ways to different approaches. Being approached over decades, by experiment of ever increasing complexity it produces elementary particles; being approached in a more ‘spiritual’ way, it produces gods. Some approaches lead to nothing and collapse.

(2) Diachronic: this is why Feyerabend sometimes refuses the label of “relativist”, as according to him “Relativism presupposes a fixed framework”. For Feyerabend, the widespread existence of communication between people belonging to apparently incommensurable structures shows that the notion of a frame of reference that is fixed and impermeable has only a limited applicability:

people with different ways of life and different conceptions of reality can learn to communicate with each other, often even without a gestalt-switch, which means, as far as I am concerned, that the concepts they use and the perceptions they have are not nailed down but are ambiguous (32).

(3) Apophatic: Feyerabend distinguishes between Being, as ultimate reality, which is both unsayable and unknowable, and the multiple manifest realities which are produced by our interaction with it, which are themselves knowable. Approach Being in one way, across decades of scientific experiment, and it produces elementary particles, approach it in another way and it manifests the Homeric gods:

I now distinguish between an ultimate reality, or Being. Being cannot be known, ever (I have arguments for that). What we do know are the various manifest realities, like the world of the Greek gods, modern cosmology etc. These are the results of an interaction between Being and one of its relatively independent parts (32).

(4) Empirical: the difference between Feyerabend’s pluralism and relativism is that not all approaches or modes of existence are viable. There is no guarantee that any particular approach will work. Being is independent of us and may respond positively, which is often not the case.

Some approaches lead to nothing and collapse. So I would say that different societies and different epistemologies may uncover different sides of the world, provided Being (which has more sides than one) reacts appropriately (31).

(5) Democratic: Feyerabend concludes that the determination of what is real and what is a simulacrum cannot be the prerogative of an abstract ontology and thus of the intellectuals who promulgate it.

There is no fixed framework (diachronic), the manifest realities are multiple (pluralist), the Real or Being is unknowable (apophatic), experience cannot prescribe our worldview but can exclude many proposed cosmologies (testable) .

Thus the determination of what is real depends on our choice in favour of one cosmology or form of life or another, i.e. on a political decision. This leads Feyerabend to conclude:

epistemology [but the same goes for ontology] without politics is incomplete and arbitrary (22).

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Feyerabend uses most often a dialogical method, although he used to complain that this was often a one-sided dialogue. This was because many of the his philosophical reviewers were what he called “illiterate” or “stupid”, that is to say their arguments exemplified a dogmatic and decontextualised image of thought conjugated with a disindividuated academic professionalism.

Fortunately, not all his dialogues were so one-sided. In his encounters with interlocutors Feyerabend tends to function like a zen master, trying to get people to change their attitude, to get them to “sense chaos” where they perceive “an orderly arrangement of well behaved things and processes” (cf. his LAST LETTER).

A very instructive example of this approach can be seen in Feyerabend’s correspondence on military intelligence networks with Isaac Ben-Israel, over a 2 year period stretching from September 1988 to October 1990.

Though Feyerabend mainly refers to the philosophy of science, which was his domain of specialisation for many long years, he gives sporadic indications that his remarks have a more general scope, and that they apply to to all “school philosophies”, not just to recent epistemology and philosophy of science. So it is possible to find sketched out an overview of Feyerabend’s ideas on ontology in this epistolary dialogue.

Feyerabend begins with general considerations of academic or “school” philosophy as a useless detour and a hindrance to thought, comparing it unfavourably to a more “naive” unacademic critical approach (Feyerabed’s first letter, L1: p5-6)? He goes on to consider in a little more detail what an unacademic critical philosophy would look like (L2: p11-14), proceeds to plead for the “non-demarcation” of the sciences and the arts-humanities” and for the need to see epistemology and ontology as parts of politics (L3: p21-23).

This discussion culminates in L4- 5 (p31-33) with a sketch of Feyerabend’s own views on ontology. This is an amazing document, as the dialogue takes Feyerabend into a domain that he has not discussed before (intelligence networks) and permits him to give a concise yet progressive exposition of his later ideas, while conserving their “fruitful imprecision”.

Feyerabend tells us that ontological critique, or the detour through ontology, is strictly unnecessary, and that a more open and less technical approach is possible. He discusses various figurations of that unacademic approach: the educated layman, discoverers and generals, certain Kenyan tribes, a lawyer interrogating experts, the Homeric worldview, his own minimalist ontology. The advantages he cites of such an unacademic approach are:

1) ability to “work in partly closed surroundings” where there is a “flow of information in some direction, not in others” (p5)

2) action that is sufficiently complex to “fit in” to the complexity of our practices (p11) and of the real world (p12)

3) ability to work without a fixed “theoretical framework”, to “work outside well-defined frames” (p22), to break up frameworks and to rearrange the pieces as the circumstances demand, to not be limited by the “undue constraints” inherent to any particular framework (p13)

4) ability to work not just outside the traditional prejudices of a particular domain (p5) but outside the boundaries between domains, such as the putative boundary between the arts and the sciences (p21)

5) an awareness of the political origins and consequences of seemingly apolitical academic subjects: ontology “without politics is incomplete and arbitrary” (p22).

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Feyerabend stands in opposition to the demand for a new construction that some thinkers have made after the supposed failure or historical obsolescence of deconstruction and of post-structuralism in general. On the contrary, he wholeheartedly endorses the continued necessity of deconstruction. Feyerabend also rejects the idea that we need an overarching system or a unified theoretical framework, arguing that in many cases a system or theoretical framework is just not necessary or even useful:

a theoretical framework may not be needed (do I need a theoretical framework to get along with my neighbor?) . Even a domain that uses theories may not need a theoretical framework (in periods of revolution theories are not used as frameworks but are broken into pieces which are then arranged this way and that way until something interesting seems to arise) (Philosophy and Methodology of Military Intelligence, 13).

Further, not only is a unified framework often unnecessary, it is undesirable, as it can be a hindrance to our research and to the conduct of our lives:

“frameworks always put undue constraints on any interesting activity” (ibid, 13).

Feyerabend emphasises that our ideas must be sufficiently complex to fit in and to cope with the complexity of our practices (11). More important than a new theoretical construction which only serves “to confuse people instead of helping them” we need ideas that have the complexity and the fluidity that come from close connection with concrete practice and with its “fruitful imprecision” (11).

Lacking this connection, we get only school philosophies that “deceive people but do not help them”. They deceive people by replacing the concrete world with their own abstract construction

that gives some general and very mislead[ing] outlines but never descends to details.

The result is a simplistic set of slogans and stereotypes that

“is taken seriously only by people who have no original ideas and think that [such a school philosophy] might help them getting ideas”.

Applied to the the ontological turn, this means that an ontological system is undesirable and useless, a hindrance to thought and action, whereas an ontology which is not crystallised into a unified system and a closed set of fixed principles, but which limits itself to proposing an open set of rules of thumb and of free study of concrete cases is both useful and desirable.

In conclusion, the detour through ontology is both useless and harmful, according to Feyerabend, because a freer, more open, and less technical approach is possible.

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THE THIRD TABLE: a failed metaphysical posit

This is my review of Graham Harman’s little book THE THIRD TABLE (Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012). In this book Harman gives an account of Sir Arthur Eddington’s famous two tables argument, and posits the existence of a “third table” to exemplify Harman’s purportedly new and non-reductionist approach to the real. I argue that his account of each of the three tables is ultimately unsatisfying.

THE THIRD TABLE is very interesting and revealing, as it contains a concise overview of the central themes of Harman’s object-oriented philosophy. The style is quite engaging as Harman manages to expound his ideas in the form of a response both to Eddington’s two table argument and to C.P.Snow’s notion of the two cultures.

Eddington’s argument contrasts the familiar, solid, substantial table known to common sense with the the strange insubstantial swarm of particles moving rapidly in what is mostly empty space that constitutes the table as modern physics envisages it. Referring to Eddington’s classical argument allows Harman to couch his own analysis in terms of a running engagement with reductionism, in both its humanistic and scientistic forms.

To overcome the conflict between Eddington’s two tables, Harman declares that neither table is real, both are “utter shams”, and posits the existence of a “third table”, the only real one, existing in a withdrawn mode, “deeper” than all apparent objects. This real table is meant to exemplify the sort of object revealed by OOP’s new nonreductionist approach. It exemplifies rather OOP’s monism.

These real objects are radically non-empirical, they are invisible, inaudible, untouchable, undetectable by any scientific process, unimaginable, and unknowable. They are not even subject to time, which Harman declares to be unreal.This is what constitutes OOP as a synchronic ontology.

Real objects are forever inaccessible, hidden behind an impenetrable veil of “withdrawal”. There is no conceivable mode of access to them, nor method of gaining knowledge about them. However their existence can be known to the object-oriented philosopher by means of an unspecified intellectual intuition and alluded to indirectly by artistic means. This is OOP’s élitism.

Finally, I compare Harman’s OOP with Paul Feyerabend’s ontology and conclude that OOP is a naïve, dogmatic, and self-contradictory form of negative theology. It is caught in the contradiction of affirming the unknowability of the real, and of somehow knowing that it is constituted of objects. This is OOP’s self-contradicting apophaticism. It is a cataphatic onto-theology presented as if it were apophatic.

In conclusion, the ontological investigations undertaken on this blog have crystallised around four criteria, in favour of an ontology that is pluralist, diachronic, apophatic, and democratic. This allows us to evaluate contemporary philosophical research programmes in terms of their degree and mode of satisfaction of each of these criteria. Harman’s OOP is a complete failure when examined in terms of these criteria: it is a monist, synchronic, cataphatic, and anti-democratic ideology.

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