PHILOSOPHY, HEURISTICS, SPECTACLES: Levi Bryant on the value of conceptual investigation

Levi Bryant has published a thoughtful post on what philosophy is. I think he expresses an important point in deceptively simple language. He declares:

“philosophy is the critical and reflective investigation of basic concepts that guide our investigation of the world about us, how we ought to live our lives, and what form of governance might be best”.

An interesting result of this definition is that philosophy can be found anywhere, it is not just limited to philosophy departments. Secondly, not all that occurs inside philosophy departments counts as philosophy, to the extent that it leaves its basic guiding concepts unexamined and operates uncritically and unreflectively.

A concept in Levi’s sense has two sides: an explanatory dimension when it is presupposed in an account of how and why something happens; and a heuristic dimension when it guides us in the proposition and the selection of possible explanations. Science involves for example presupposing a concept of causality to get on with the work of finding causal mechanisms for various effects, whereas philosophy interrupts the scientific work to bring the concepts to consciousness and examine how a particular concept shapes and limits the sort of explanatory hypotheses that can be propounded.

Given the generality of Levi’s philosophical project I think that we can extend this idea from scientific assemblages to all sorts of assemblages. It would amount to the tentative claim that all assemblages (scientific, political, aesthetic, analytical) have both a functional and a heuristic, or an empirical and a speculative, dimension. Philosophy is not sutured to any one type of assemblage, it is produced in the interruption of an assemblages functioning to extract and examine the concepts implicit in that functioning in view of proposing more adequate versions of the same concept or even different concepts.

While Levi is proposing that philosophy be de-sutured from eternal questions or particular practices, I don’t think he is producing a new dualism, as he requires a close collaboration between philosophy and science, and one may suppose between philosophy and other assemblages. Such philosophical work does not merely mirror and repeat the sciences. By isolating and making explicit the concepts presupposed by a particular scientific practice philosophy can re-orient a science, or at least show that other orientations are conceivable, not just as abstract possibilities, but as concrete alternative avenues of research.

This collaboration cuts both ways. By showing that empirical science contains speculative elements, it shows at the same time that philosophy contains an empirical dimension. Philosophy that is not limited to an autistic discipline within the confines of an academic department involves collaboration with outside assemblages and practices. Real collaboration means neither arbitration (the system of judgement), nor mimetism, nor the master-slave dialectic (dominance or subservience, or a composite of both).

Philosophy “can take place anywhere at any time” means that at any moment, in any practice, we may make the speculative leap (becoming aware of our presuppositions, of their limits, and of the alternatives, modifications, or revsions) and the empirical plunge (heuristically re-orienting our investigations and experimentations). This is why the lens metaphor is not incompatible with the notion of self-transformation. We can take the example often discussed by Zizek of John Carpenter’s film THEY LIVE, where putting on a pair of spectacles allows one to see the alien invasion that invisibly surrounds us. Changing spectacles gives us a shock of conversion, an experience such that we can never be the same again. The ease of taking off the glasses does not mean that we ourselves revert to the way we were before.

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