FEYERABEND ON POSITIVITY BEYOND CRITIQUE (2): Write Yourself a Letter

We have seen that Feyerabend’s LAST INTERVIEW takes the form of a progressive deconstruction of the interviewer’s remaining prejudices concerning the necessity of a philosophical position that would give a “systematic account of everything” (p162). When Jung tries to compare Feyerabend’s ideas with the apparently related ideas of the Constructivists (p163), Feyerabend rejects the comparison in the name of alterity: he rejects the model of recognition based on similarity: “The whole of astronomy is another example which goes beyond similarity” (p163). Frustrated in his attempt at proposing a “philosophical unity” between Feyerabend, Kuhn and the Constructivists, Jung affirms that Feyerabend’s worldview is primarily “very critical and negative” and complains that he has not created a “positive philosophical system” (p163).

Feyerabend declares his mistrust of the very desire for a positive philosophical system: “I am very suspicious if someone wants something positive” (p164). This is not because he is against positivity, but because he thinks that this desire for a positive system searches for positivity in the wrong place – in the domain of theory. People want to objectivise their desire, their mania for order, and their prejudices in a system that is nothing more than a compilation of slogans that one “can write down and which one can quote” (p163). The real negativity is there, because reality is simplified and rigidified, and the human relation is lost.

For Feyerabend there is no doubt, positivity lies in establishing human relations, i.e. open and kind and constructive relations, conducive to the affirmation of what is there but that we are unaware of if we are obsessed by the demand for objectivity and the need to make everything fit into our little systems:

“You find positive things not in theories but in human relations…So  there may be positive things and people just don’t notice it…So the positive thing is in the people” (p164).

Feyerabend is not against theory and concepts in all circumstances. He is against the monologue that a positive system installs. We see the diffusion of a “position” that, cut off from open dialogue and the complexities of living contexts, becomes a patchwork of slogans and bogus concepts held together by bluff and ignorance and the smug lesson-giving of the founders and joiners of schools and churches to the task of thinking for themselves. For Feyerabend conceit and stupidity are ever-present dangers. Our need for a positive system can lead us to abandon our individuation and fall into the habit of maintaining inhuman relations in our thinking and in our lives, abandoning our freedom to universal principles and abstract phantasms. If people want something positive “they should create it for themselves” (p164).

Feyerabend gives no universal principles, but “rules of thumb” to be applied or not and to be adapted according to the circumstances. One of the rules of thumb he advances is in response to the desire for positive theory which would not be a school philosophy. He recommends to those who want to combine theory and individuation:

“If they want something they should sit down and write themselves a letter” (p164).

One is reminded of a similar recommendation by Lyotard that people should shut themselves in a room and write their anamnesis. I think that the advice is the same, only tinted in Lyotard’s case by his asceticism, and in Feyerabend’s by his hedonism. Later, fearing the egoisim implied in the ordinary concept of hedonism, Feyerabend called it his “humanitarianism”. Writing yourself a letter includes the need for free and open dialogue to avoid the dangers of dogmatism. It interiorises the interplay between transcendent and immanent approaches. Writing a treatise implies taking up the enunciative position of the authority or the expert and using rigid academic language containing philosophical assumptions, such as the “division between something objective and something subjective”, imposing boundaries where in fact “things freely interpenetrate” (p161). Writing a letter to oneself implies hopefully a more democratic enunciative posture, an experimentation with ideas, and a freer more ambiguous style of language. A letter implies an exchange over time and not a static system.

We have also seen that Feyerabend is “post-identitarian”, so the notion of “a letter to themselves” is more complex than may appear at first glance. The self comports an internal multiplicity and is an open system without fixed boundaries in constant exchange with other such open systems, whether people or otherwise My blog posts are letters to myself, part and parcel of my process of individuation, of my anamnesis (remembering who I am outside the system of identities). So they are letters of invitation to you who read them, inviting you to share a moment of co-individuation, to be continued each in his or her own way.

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One Response to FEYERABEND ON POSITIVITY BEYOND CRITIQUE (2): Write Yourself a Letter

  1. Bill Benzon says:

    Thinking out loud is good for the soul, no?

    I certainly knew about Feyerabend back in, say, the 1970s, and I had the vague notion that he was this wild ‘against method’ man of philosophy. But I didn’t read him. Well I might have—he contributed a chapter to a volume on Kuhn that Lakatos had edited, but if I read that piece, I don’t recall it. I don’t know how I would have reacted to him if I’d read him back then, but the stuff I’ve just now read, at your urging—the essay, Realism and the Historicity of Knowledge, his correspondence with Ben Israel—I find that fairly congenial.

    Yes, I can see the edges of the Wildman. But the notion that one can approach the world in many ways, that the world will respond or not, and that there’s no a priori way to figure out ahead of time whether or not the world will respond to a given approach, that makes sense, almost common sense, if you will. That’s just how it is.

    So why do people (still?) find that threatening? Can they not see that, over time, and with often considerable struggle and many false starts, that we have in fact ‘progressed’ (if I may use a dangerous word) in our understanding. We have been able to enlarge our understanding of the world in often astonishing ways. And all without a discernable over-arching method.

    And there’s my own intellectual experience over four decades. In that time I’ve certainly constructed some highly speculative theory-like and model-like contraptions. But I’ve also put a lot of energy into describing texts, literary texts and, more recently, movies, mostly animation. And in that descriptive work I’ve been concerned to ‘carve nature at its joints’, as the phrase goes (an ancient one, incidentally, dating back to Plato).

    But how do I know that I’ve carved my texts at their joints? When you’re carving a roast turkey or a duck it’s easy enough to see whether or not you hit the joints, and not much of disaster if you don’t. But texts and films, that’s a different matter.

    Of course, some divisions are explicitly indicated by convention. Books will be divided into chapters, chapters into paragraphs, and so forth. Poems will be divided into stanzas and lines. But even there, things aren’t necessarily obvious. “Kubla Khan” has been published in three versions; same words and lines in each. But one version has two stanzas, another has three, and another has four. Which is correct? And why does it matter?—that’s the big one. Why does it matter? Does it matter that Shakespeare didn’t carve his plays into five acts, that that was done by his many editors after his death? Well, back in 1972 one Mark Rose published a slender volume with Harvard, Shakespearean Design, in which he argued that, yes, it did matter, though as far as I can tell, no one’s taken up that line of argument. I suppose it doesn’t much matter either to the turkey or to the diner if one carves through the breast bone and hacks the thigh bones in two; the meat comes of the bone and can be eaten in any event. But analyzing literary texts, trying to figure out how they work, that’s a different game.

    But I’m digressing. I was talking about descriptive method. I’m interested in finding things there, really there, beyond the obvious.

    In the case of “Kubla Khan” I decided, after considerable work that seemed to lead nowhere, to treat line-end punctuation like brackets and braces in a mathematical expression, and THAT produced results. I may have, in part, been inspired by having taken a course in computer programming and learning that, in THAT context, the difference between a semi-colon and a comma can be the difference between program running or crashing. There was a dramatic difference. No one taught me to do that, I didn’t read about it anywhere, I just decided—in part out of desperation—to give it a try. And it produced results.

    That’s one text, and one descriptive trick added to the repertoire. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I used to ideas I picked up from Lévi-Strauss and Edmund Leach.

    When I went looking for ring-form in Tezuka’s Metropolis I had to make a three-column table with many rows just to get the most basic purchase on the text. It’s a manga, Japanese comic book of roughly 150 pages that had no explicit divisions into chapters. But, of course, it was divided into discrete incidents that had beginnings and ends. My task was to determine whether there was a certain pattern there. I used that table to create a description that I could examine. Page numbers went in the first column. I used to the second column to describe what happened in those pages and I reserved the third for analytic remarks. What kind of analytic remarks? Whatever made sense: Did the incident take place on the ground, underground, in the city, on an island—things like that.

    With other texts I did other things.

    The point is simply that I’ve spent a fair amount of time simply making things up and seeing the results. It’s odd sort of work. It’s not taught in methods courses nor described in methods or theory texts. It doesn’t take imaginative flair or high-flown abstract reasoning. But it’s not obvious and straightforward either. You have to be open to the materials.

    That’s not so easy, not if your materials are literary texts or films and your professional training makes you greedy for meaning. That greed leads you to bypass the materials in favor of what they materials are (putatively) about. Yes, I know they’re about something, but I’m not interested in figuring out what that something is. I’m interested in figuring out the mechanism that allow them to be about something in the first place. And I figure you can’t get to those mechanisms until you know what kinds of parts you’ve got any how they’re put together.

    This isn’t science, rather, whether or not it’s science is irrelevant. It’s approaching with world with curiosity, intention, a few crude rules of thumb, and the willingness to try things out: Hello, world, are you there?

    And, you know, it’s not so long that I wrote a post in which I said that I didn’t give a crap about science. I suspect that would have resonated with Feyerabend. Worrying about being scientific or not just gets in the way of doing the work. I ended the post by saying: “Ergo, I tend to regard much-most humanities vs. science discussion as ideologically-driven wanking and I regard Snow’s Two Cultures and its spawn as children of the Devil.”

    Like

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