WHERE HAVE ALL THE ARGUMENTS GONE? Notes on the smugification of intellectual life

One big thing that is missing on Facebook and on the blogosphere is plain old argument. People seem incapable of following even fairly simple arguments, and unwilling to provide any arguments themselves. Fairly basic emotions generate in-groups and their scornful exclusions of not just different opinions, but of different ways of expressing the same opinions. Abstract terminology is used to convey infantile squeals of smugness and scorn.

This phenomenon is not new, as Paul Feyerabend’s reception shows. In 1978 he published SCIENCE IN A FREE SOCIETY. Part 3 collected his various replies to critics, who he considered had made no effort to understand and reply to his arguments, under the title “Conversations with Illiterates”. In his preface he declares that he wants to “inform the wider public of the astounding illiteracy of some ‘professionals’…political philosophy and philosophy of science have become sinks of illiterate self expression (using forbidding technical terms, of course)”.

I confess to liking French philosophical style. I have lived in France for 30 years now, and I find that some English and American books are “clearer” in French because the translator has had to get very clear on the meaning and makes use of the more abstract vocabulary of French to express the concepts that are sometimes inconspicuous in the more colloquial style of the English. Sometimes for the opposite reason I find a French book of philosophy clearer in English. This is true when the translator actually understands the text and does a good job on the translation. Of course something important is lost in the process too, but it is not all loss.

I am so used to this phenomenon that I do it in my head all the time even within one language. In English I pass from say a Deleuzian-Badiousian-Laruellian type of jargon to a more common sense way of talking, and vice versa, and I think that it is a helpful heuristic trick that may often be illuminating and may lead to bullshitting. It is “heuristic” because it can generate new ideas and perspectives without being obligatory, and without being infallible. I think that this is one of the things that Deleuze meant by “being bilingual inside one language”.

I regret that Deleuze himself did not always give us a good model of such philosophical bilinguism, although he did do it more than one may think from reading his imitators. His courses (many of which are now on line), his interviews, his LETTER TO A SEVERE CRITIC, much of DIALOGUES, his ABC PRIMER, all give a more intuitive and far less jargon-intensive account of his ideas than his more arduous conceptual works. Badiou too has made considerable efforts to accompany his difficult works with more accessible texts. My complaint with Badiou is that he uses an evocative vocabulary which is ambiguous. Speaking informally he can sound very Deleuzian, and then when he begins to speak more precisely this resemblance disappears. In the case of both Deleuze and Badiou, if someone likes and uses their ideas that is no excuse for monotonous mimetic jargon-mongering.

Deleuze did a lot of harm with his definition of philosophy as “creation of concepts” and his attitude of ignoring objections. Deleuze was in fact a master of argumentation but did not sufficiently integrate it into his system of thought, thus leaving an opening for multiple inane monologues juxtaposed as if a discussion were taking place. Deleuze’s aim was to break with the dichotomous dialogue between two egos who had nothing to say to each other but who were fighting for symbolic dominance.

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16 Responses to WHERE HAVE ALL THE ARGUMENTS GONE? Notes on the smugification of intellectual life

  1. cmkeys says:

    Pledge: you will never find me using such tactics. I hope we can continue debating with clarity (on Facebook and elsewhere) in the years to come. Cheers


  2. terenceblake says:

    I have had very stimulating discussions with you, and I regret that this constitues the exception rather than the rule. I too hope we can continue.


  3. Ross Wolfe says:

    Thanks for the reply and the appreciative post.

    Really, as you say, it’s unfair to place too much blame on Deleuze, even if his philosophy and general style of thought lent itself to abuse. I think Benjamin Noys provides a pretty thorough and sympathetic critique of Deleuze on his own terms in Persistence of the Negative, without blaming him for the mischief his self-styled disciples have made of his concepts or methodology.

    Your crusade against the excesses of Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology has been a noble one, even if your criticisms have largely been ignored. A few years ago, I ran afoul of that crowd. Ray Brassier, someone with whom I’ve corresponded who’s fairly receptive to Deleuze’s ideas, had some choice words for many such internet “philosophers” and “theorists.”

    The internet probably just provides a medium for the extension of a dynamic that was already at work in the 1970s and 1980s, with the institutionalization of the ’68ers and the New Left in the monolithic, metaphysical Academy. Again, the disciples latched onto many of the more problematic tendencies of this generation and ran roughshod through intelligent discourse and debate. Of course it’s important to guard against overly dismissive anti-intellectualism, but by that same score it’s necessary to debunk the academic cult of self-congratulation.


  4. I think you’re right to say that Deleuze was a master of argument, but I wouldn’t agree that he “did not sufficiently integrate it into his system of thought”. I think for Deleuze, arguments are necessarily internal to the system and serve primarily for exposition rather than persuasion. The “unit of persuasion” for Deleuze (and continental philosophy in general) is the system rather than the proposition: Deleuze is not trying to convince us to accept propositions like “the body without organs is an egg”, which are meaningless outside of the system as a whole, he’s trying to convince us that the whole system of concepts he presents is better than alternative systems (difference vs. representation; productive vs. representational unconscious, etc.). The arguments he gives are demonstrations in the sense of showing how the concepts work (what connects to what, what should be distinguished from what, etc.) rather than in the sense of proving propositions. His writing style (eg. the proliferation of terminology) serves to shift our focus away from the individual concepts and propositions towards the system of connections between them. (Deleuze may have borrowed this trick from Fichte, who explicitly says he changes his terminology to avoid having his thought petrified into a static set of propositions.) I think this style of writing is very hard to do successfully and probably should not be imitated, and certainly is impossible to pull off in an Internet setting.
    I tend to avoid online philosophy “debates” for this very reason and focus on people like yourself and Peter Wolfendale aka deontologistics who are interested in presenting ideas rather than scoring points by displaying a lot of jargon.


  5. terenceblake says:

    Deleuze made great use of argument, but did not explicitly include it in his definition of philosophy as “creation of concepts”. I happen to think that a concept is, at least in part, an argumentative structure argumentatively articulated with other such structures the primacy of connections over isolated propositions that you mention). I agree with you that he gives primacy to pragmatic arguments showing the greater usefulness of his concepts for specific purposes. But his arguments against psychoanalysis, for example, or against the dogmatic image of thought, are often quite powerful analytic arguments.


    • Tahseen Kazi says:

      I appreciate the interest in this post in bringing back clear criticism, but it’s odd to say that Deleuze did not include argument in his writing about concepts and ideas. For Deleuze, there is ample room for argument in the calling out of bêtise (malevolent stupidity) in attempts to resolve problems (as found in Difference and Repetition). I think you make a valid point regarding the paucity of argument in some circles, but the connection to Deleuze you try to make does not succeed, in my opinion.

      I’m new to your blog, so forgive me if this point has been made on some other page.


  6. Pingback: Far too easily impressed | The Charnel-House

  7. terenceblake says:

    I think that Deleuze was ambivalent about argument and that this allowed what in fact is a misunderstanding of his philosophy. He explicitly condemned “reflection”, “objections”, and “discussions”, but this only make sense if we keep in mind that he was for conceptualising, problematising, and conversation or dialogues. The real issue was in terms of what image of thought are you engaging in your philosophical activities?


  8. Following the argument in WiP?, to inhabit the territory of a conceptual persona is to allow yourself to be agitated into thought, to develop concepts. ‘Stupidity’ (as the misrecognition of ordinary points as singular points, etc) is an enemy of thought as it may not agitate us into thought. The agitation is external to the subject to the extent that the external is enveloped, etc. Surely argument in itself is meaningless, and could lapse into boorish ego games, except in the way that it serves as an agitation to thought? The sufficiency of this agitation is not determined on some purely philosophical grounds (logical, propositional argument) but in terms of the collective dimension of the affective and social relations required for the individuation of thought (in philosophical assemblages or whatever). Social media and blogs are terrible at facilitating the production of the necessary affective and social infrastructure for such collective individuations because they are entirely organised around the banalities of everyday life and the closed circuits of interaction that make such banalities seem worthy. ‘Like’ an interesting philosophical comment or ‘like’ an anthropomorphised dog. It is unclear to me how thought can be individuated through such assemblages of banal trivialities not only in terms of what is posted but also in the character of reactions? Discovery may happen through such assemblages, but agitation becoming-thought happens elsewhere, in the slower offline temporalities that allow due consideration.


  9. terenceblake says:

    Sometimes Deleuze has an “enlarged” view of the concept, as including affective and perceptive dimensions, as in his definition of philosophy as the “creation of concepts”, and sometimes he separates out concept, affect, percept. At the end of the little book SPINOZA, PRACTICAL PHILOSOPHY he distinguishes in Spinoza’s ethics the serene movement of the concept (arguments, demonstrations, deductions) and the agitation of the affect. In book V he claims we get the “encounter of the concept and the affect”, where both come together in a new movement. This new movement he calls in NEGOTIATIONS the percept. He always insists that we need both a philosophical comprehension by concepts, contained in some form of argumentative matrix, and non-philosophical comprehension in terms of affects and percepts. So argument has its place in the first kind of knowledge but is based on inadequate knowledge of things and laws, and in the second kind based on the composition of relations and organising one’s encounters. But these two kinds of knowledge are incommensurable modes of existence, says Deleuze. So people arguing in terms of the first kind of knowledge won’t be able to agree on anything much, and people arguing in terms of the first kind of knowledge and those arguing in terms of the second kind will just argue past each other.

    Applied to the blogosphere we can see many “arguments” which are mere dogmatic assertion and counter-assertion. Given that signs are equivocal for the first kind of knowledge, we find people who rip statements out of context and give words their personal meanings instead of trying to understand them in terms of the laws of a different worldview than their own. But occasionally we find coherent lines of thinking expressed. So I disagree that it is in the nature of blogs to exclude individuation. I think even “likes” can correspond to the three kinds of knowledge, from impulsive reactions to more systematic position-taking to the joy of the unexpected affirmative encounter.


  10. Are they incommensurable though? I think you have isolated two interpretations of Deleuze’s work, present in his work. I would be interested for a reference to where he discusses two kinds of knowledge as being incommensurable modes of existence. One that follows Kant and separates the passage of thought, as above, into different thresholds determined by the dimensions of thought (mental, phenomenological, embodied), the other that does not separate the different conceptual, perceptual and affective modalities of thought as individuation (after Simondon).


    • terenceblake says:

      “But the kinds of knowledge are modes of existence”. The first kind corresponds to our natural condition: inadequate ideas, passive affects. This is the world of perpetual confrontation and combat, the world of demolition, of the action-image. The second kind corresponds to adequate ideas and active affects, visions and auditions, composing relations and organising encounters, the world of the time-image. Are they incommensurable? Deleuze states: “The break is between the first and the second” (SPP, p82). This is both an epistemological break and an ethical one. On the relation with Kant, Jean-Michel Palmart argues convincingly that the second kind of knowledge unites the Kantian idea of time as autoaffection with the Spinozist idea of active affects (DELEUZE ET LE CINÉMA, page 209-210). So it would seem that the separation into components is at the level of the first kind of knowledge, and their non-separation is at the level of the second and third kind. In SPP he talks about Book V of the ETHICS, the level of the percept, where we see “the meeting of oncept and affect … there is no longer any difference between the concept and life” (130).


  11. tyrus63 says:

    Thanks, a very measured and well-stated argument. I actually do appreciate the “creation of concept” conception of philosophy, since too often I’ve encountered philosophers who believe their role to be policemen of language and logic, which is simply inane given the place of philosophy in the intellectual division of labor and the relation of the disciplines in the institutions of knowledge. Deleuze realised that if philosophy was to play any renewed role, it would need to place an emphasis on proliferating spaces of new intellectual activity, and the “created concept” is, as it were, the inner-philosophical expression of that aspiration. Can that lead to a lot of solipsistic crap being put out there: absolutely agreed.


  12. terenceblake says:

    Yes, the creation of concepts is a better image of thought than the policing of language. But creation does in fact involve reason and argument, even if these cannot be bound up in an obligatory canon. “Concept-creation” is the felicity condition of the mode of existence of philosophy, but does not describe all that happens inside that mode. Philosophy proliferates spaces, but inside those spaces, and also between them, argument occurs. So there is no dualism forcing us to choose between the false alternatives of smug creation and carping logic.


  13. Felix M. says:

    Great topic. Some thoughts: Foremost I think it is important to note the import of what you are bringing up: How do we go beyond postmodernism? What will be the language, the modus of communication that could perhaps liberate us from this sad state of affairs?

    I think the most helpful answer that comes to mind would be the idea to simply start assuming and thus talking as if we are amongst friends. The interesting thing is that this does not in any way preclude the notion of argument, but it immediately transforms the connotation. An argument amongst friends is thus less trying to defeat some opponent but more like a kind of technical analysis trying to give a solution to a problem: The problematic is X and thus a solution could be Y.

    At the same time this assumption should not just be given to just anybody, on the contrary. We should allow ourselves the arrogance to just trust our intuition when we feel we are talking to a narcissist and just not dignify him with a reply to his pedantic bullshittery simply if we don’t feel like it. Already we can see here the vast superiority of extra-academic, rhizomatic philosophy compared to the intra-academic.. As I feel it in academic philosophy the idea seems to me that (and I don’t know how or why exactly) that an argument is something that you can and must defend against every kind of stupid attack, The extra-academic has no such obligation in any way. He talks and discusses with whomever he damn wants to. And he ignore who he wants to just as easily.

    I think an also obvious but also very important notion here is to just accept that not all or even the majority of philosophers/intellectuals are friends of the human. Indeed you could assume that to the largest part they are priviliged members of an unequal society and thus have have a natural interest of attacking any authentic liberational. egaliterian idea with pedantic argumentation.

    And as I see it there is no fundamental rationalist defense against such sophistry. As I intuit this is just an effect of the hypercomplexity of social reality. Yes, if you are truly in the search of truth you can see patterns, order in there, but if you are trying to to distort truth it makes it very easily to just pick and choose in ways that distort the truth of our social reality.

    I think there is a very fundamental shift away from the notion that the truths concerning this social reality can be formulated in a way as to be immune to some kind of attack. The anti-egalitarian will always find some distorted “argument” for his view. I think a related view here is that even our continental master-thinkers are making the grave error of even engaging with those anti-egaliterian views. Yes, the original project might have been valuable, to show up the fundamental anti-egalitarian code of premodern and modern views, but at this point it should be just considered done. And furthermore that even the continental discourse itself is (maybe gravely) infected by anti-pluralist people trying to hinder, obscure progress. In that case I think the modus is not arguing straight in favour of capitalism/antipluralism, but instead making pluralism this hugely complicated, impossible problem. I would say those people are not even doing this consciously of course, its more like and instinctive reaction. Any true pluralism would of course threaten their privileged identites so they react defensive/hostile to them, like a scared animal.

    What I think we egalitarian philosophers have not truly internalized is that A: as said, the above, a large part of philosophers have no interest in truth, but rather just want to rationalize the anti-egalitarian, anti-pluralist status-quo, and B: we have no need to justify our beliefs to them. The truth is on our side, and our quest is 1: gaining clarity/creativity for ourselves and 2. If we want to convince somebody it is not the academic sophists but the oppressed masses who conversely to the privileged sophist have a real interest in recognizing the reality of the situation.

    Anyway, as said “thinking amongst friends” would just have a very different mood to it, a kind of collective quest for clarity, and amongst this a quest for personal clarity. The criteria of whether we should humble someone with an answer should be either if we have the feeling that the discussion gives us more clarity ourselves or that the other person is truly trying to understand something. But if we have the feeling that someone is just being “argumentative” we should just ignore them without even trying to justify this.

    Going from there it might not even be a question of trying to pass judgement of someone being truly egalitarian/pluralistic or not (although naturalizing this basic idea might be of huge import), we could just assume that our project is about creating thinking-clusters of people who are good fits for creative, collective thinking. This is also not about trying to enforce some kind of plushy-cuddly atmosphere, a thinking-cluster might well engage in heated, hardcore debate, but I still think you can intuit very well, whether someone is actually arguing to find a solution to a problem, or just “to be right”.

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