18TH AND 19TH TRAITS: CONCEPTUAL ASCENT AND EXISTENTIAL DESCENT

Some comments have warned me that I am not using “Continental Philosophy” in its normal sense on the American philosophical scene. I am of course quite aware of the different usages of “continental philosophy”, but for my list I just happened to use one acception in order to provide a reply to Chomsky’s stereotypes. My blog is not about Continental Philosophy as such but about pluralism – epistemological, ontological, and psychological pluralism. The name Agent Swarm is a Deleuzian joke, as it means in my eyes “active multiplicity”. The legend “pluralism and individuation in a world of becoming” is perhaps a more complete summary of my interests.

On the blog, I talk about philosophers I like, mainly Feyerabend, Deleuze, Lyotard, Serres, Laruelle, Stiegler and Latour. I have actually met and talked to all these except alas! Feyerabend and Laruelle. I also talk about Badiou and Zizek, who I find are regressive figures, and I sometimes call them “demi-post-structuralists”. I don’t usually talk about “continental philosophy” because for me it is not a useful label, as I don’t feel that I am doing anything very different in philosophy to what I was doing in my analytic days in Australia in the 70s, I am making use of the same cognitive skills.

Yet there does seem to be a difference in style between French and American analytic contemporary philosophy. True most or all of the traits on my list apply to both, yet I think that what is foregrounded in one is backgrounded in the other. So my list is not meant as a criterion of demarcation between the two but rather as a gesture at the imaginative context that would permit one to see that certain aspects of Zizek’s style that one may be used to seeing as accessory are central for the conveying of his message for him, and that this is typical of that context he is steeped in. I think I helped people who were disturbed by Chomsky’s denigration, or by repeatedly encountered similar rejections, to know how to see through the wall of incomprehension and of intolerance that he was building on and reinforcing. If people from a different socio-cultural horizon wish I used words like them or talked about philosophies that they like to discuss, that is not my affair.

I talk about living philosophers who are still producing important work, such as Latour and Stiegler and Laruelle, not because I like what is new and trendy (as some commenters have pointed out, I am very uninformed), but because I find they are talking about my life and my problems both intellectual and existential. Try reading François Laruelle, he is very obscure. Yet I manage to clarify bits and pieces, and some people profit from that. One thing I loathe is people quoting large slabs from thinkers that they have no idea what they mean or what relevance they have to our lives. For me they are “quantitative masters” (to use a Deleuzian expression) and will always win in an academic discussion, but that is not exactly what I am engaging in.

I sometimes think of Continental philosophers (in my sense) as engaging in conceptual ascent and existential descent (two more traits!, I am aiming for twenty). That is to say: a French post-structuralist (but also those before, and non-French etc., but you know what I mean if you have read this far) will often take a concrete situation and extract out or extrapolate some new and very abstract concepts that they will develop in relation to others, and then apply them in a surprisingly concrete way. And they will do this over and over again in a single text (does anyone prefer this way of expressing things to “Continental philosophy involves a perpetual pulsation between conceptual ascent and existential descent”?, which is my preferred style in the list, although in the corresponding articles I do explain what these garish sentences mean). This will result in such a text being strangely much more abstract, and so more obscure, than a comparable analytic text, and at moments much more concrete. Continental philosophy is strange and fun and also deep and moving, it can change your life.

This movement of conceptual ascent and existential descent is something that John Protevi does quite well in his recent books. But I have a teasing relation with him (on my side) so I discussed a case where he only partially succeeded. This is not bad manners on my part, as studying a case that succeeds a little and fails a little could conceivably lead to a dialogue aimed at producing a more successful treatment of the case. My list is a “failed” case too, and I have tried to pursue the offers of conversation that I have encountered to improve it. What I take away from the conversation so far is a more explicit account of the pragmatic context of the list, and three new traits to add, that I had been thinking about for some time but that this dialogue prompted me to formulate. I remain a little disappointed, but finally that is not too bad a result.

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