Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Nature and Spirit

In the Germanic tradition, a great deal of weight is placed on the concept of "spirit" (Geist), esp. in the post-Hegelian tradition. Spirit is what sets human beings apart from all other animals. Spirit includes individual psychology, culture, law, morality, art, religion, science, and philosophy.

Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud each wanted to show how spirit emerges from nature. That is: as materialists (or naturalists), nature has a sort of ontological priority. But they weren't reductionist (although they are often read that way!). Rather, they wanted to appeal to science in order to develop a "bridge-concept" -- some concept that would allow them to understand how "spirit" emerged from "nature."

This is the role played by labor in Marx, by power in Nietzsche, and by libido in Freud. And each offers a developmental theory that explains the transition from nature to spirit in terms of this central concept. (The developmental theory is a theory of history in Marx and in Nietzsche, and a theory of individual psychic development in Freud.)

It's remarkable that none of them thought much about language -- whereas language is often regarded, by most philosophers today, as one of the most important distinguishing characteristics of human beings. If this emphasis is correctly placed, then the philosophers of suspicion -- and the traditions they initiated (Marxism, post-structualism, critical theory, psychoanalysis) should be read together with pragmatism (Peirce, James, Dewey, Wittgenstein, Davidson, Putnam, and Brandom).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting observation Dr. Spinoza. Thank you for that. It is true that Geist plays an important role in German philosophy, most notably in the Romantic Period in the whole Goethean tradition.

But I think you are generalizing too much when stating:

It's remarkable that none of them (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud) thought much about language -- whereas language is often regarded, by most philosophers today, as one of the most important distinguishing characteristics of human beings.

As the expert philologist Nietzsche certainly thought about language, also in its philosophical dimension:

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

We still do not know where the urge for truth comes from; for as yet we have heard only of the obligation imposed by society that it should exist: to be truthful means using the customary metaphors—in moral terms: the obligation to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie herd-like in a style obligatory for all.

Now man of course forgets that this is the way things stand for him. Thus he lies in the manner indicated, unconsciously and in accordance with habits which are centuries' old; and precisely by means of this unconsciousness and forgetfulness he arrives at his sense of truth. From the sense that one is obliged to designate one thing as red, another as cold, and a third as mute, there arises a moral impulse in regard to truth. The venerability, reliability, and utility of truth is something which a person demonstrates for himself from the contrast with the liar, whom no one trusts and everyone excludes.

As a rational being, he now places his behavior under the control of abstractions. He will no longer tolerate being carried away by sudden impressions, by intuitions. First he universalizes all these impressions into less colorful, cooler concepts, so that he can entrust the guidance of his life and conduct to them. Everything which distinguishes man from the animals depends upon this ability to volatilize perceptual metaphors in a schema, and thus to dissolve an image into a concept.
- from "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense" (1873).

I always remember his "God is in grammar" axiom (but can't find it now).

Another thing: Notice his almost Deleuzian and rhizomic notion about THE CONCEPT.

All the best,
Orla Schantz

5:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, you've been spammed.

Welcome to the blogosphere with all its virtual intrusions of capitalism.

Porn and poker coming up! Soon.

Orla Schantz

5:58 PM  
Blogger john c. halasz said...

Orla Schantz:

That's an impressive passage, and certainly Nietzsche the philologist thought about language and metaphysical illusions as an effect of grammar. But there is some question as to the nominalism of his treatment, whereby language is ultimately sheerly at the disposal of the (critical) subject. And Nietzsche certainly was pervasively influenced by late 19th century biological thinking, (a whole study recently having been published on that topic alone), which goes into his criterion of "the enhancement of life". So the naturalistic basis and thrust of his mode of criticism is not really in doubt. Indeed, the point of the cited passage is to "show" how vital biological impulses get transformed into linguistic signs, the transformations and sedimentations of which, in turn, generate the illusion of a stable, objective world, wherein "truth" gets moralized.

Dr. Spinoza:

Actually, the question of how "spirit" emerges in and from nature sounds like Schelling, whom I have scant knowledge of. It seems to me that what your illustrious trio could be seen as attempting to break out of is the notion of "spirit" qua pure thought and the corresponding identity of thought and being, even as they were still somewhat caught up in the subject-object conceptuality of their antecedents. But does that mean that they attributed ontological priority to nature? "Ontology" would imply a primacy of some sort of being, materialism and idealism in that sense being equal and opposite forms of reductionism: a metaphysical aporia. Isn't the "priority" of nature here historical/developmental and naturalism/materialism deployed for critical leverage in breaking out of the Parmenidean identity? It is a matter of post-Hegelian groundlessness and finding the vantage-point for criticism therein.

But then is the function of theory and "science" for them to provide a bridge between nature and culture? Certainly they would need to outline some basic schema by which to locate the positional stance of their criticism. But that task would precede any "scientific" claims, else the inverted function of the science becomes top-heavy and might obstruct the very praxis that the criticism would aim at and the science inform. That would seem to be implicated in the distortions and failures of classical Marxism, and, to my mind, is emphatically the case with classical Freudian psychoanalysis and its putative theraputic aims.

But is Wittgenstein really a pragmatist? I latched on to the word "praxiological" from an essay by an Austrian scholar on him to mark the difference. It is a matter of basic intent and the positional role accorded to practices rather than of any absolute difference or disagreement. Unfortunately, I later found out that the term was coined by Von Mises. Still, I like the word and it does accord with my pet theory of a latent or residual influence of the work of Gramsci via Sraffa on him, even though I pretty sure he would have been entirely unaware of it.

9:50 PM  
Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...

There are hints and suggestions, in Nietzsche, of a theory of discursive practice. But I haven't found anything which has the depth or articulation of Wittgenstein, Foucault, or Brandom. The philosophy of language in "Truth and Lie" remains trapped within a metaphysics of interiority (one which he inherited from Schopenhauer). Nietzsche did, I think, escape from this metaphysics -- but he didn't theorize or thematize his escape, as Foucault or Wittgenstein did.

The remark "I'm afraid we're not rid of God because we still believe in grammar" is in Twilight of the Idols, "'Reason' in Philosophy" 5.

11:09 AM  
Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...


I agree to some extent. By the time of the hermeneuticians of suspicion, both materialism and idealism had been played out. (The neo-Kantian philosopher Friedrich Lange argued, in his History of Materialism, that materialism taken to its ultimate conclusion results in idealism. Lange was an important and early influence on Nietzsche; I know nothing of Lange's influence on Freud.)

As for Hegelian groundlessness: yes, this is nicely put. Nietzsche certainly, and Marx and Freud probably, would not want to hypostasize "nature" as some sort of ultimate foundation. (Or, if that is a voice in their work, it's not one of the voices I'm most interested in mining and using.) Just as "spirit" is groundless (although perhaps it is self-grounding, in that one of the achievements of spirit is a historical consciousness concerning its own necessity), so too is "nature". At any rate the historicity that characterizes spirit also reaches all the way into nature; nature cannot be regarded any longer as an ahistorical backdrop against which the adventures of spirit are played out.

Your points about science and ontology are well-taken. I take it that your point here is that the critical position must come first, because it is only from some critical standpoint that certain theories can come into the clear to begin with? Thus, for example, Marx adopts a critical stance towards capitalism, and by virtue of that stance, is then able to work immanently within the categories of capitalism -- to construct a theory which shows, among other things, how capitalism presupposes the alienation of humanity from nature.

The emphasis on the "praxiological" aspect of critique is also very helpful; thank you. I think that from your perspective, I've been putting too much weight on the (logical?) priority of theory over practice. Is that accurate?

Your last comment on Gramsci and Sraffa confused me. Was this an influence on Von Mises or on Wittgenstein? I know that Sraffa and Wittgenstein were friends at Cambridge, and some scholars have argued for an indirect Marxist/Gramscian influence on the Investigations: see, for example, Marx and Wittgenstein.

11:28 AM  
Anonymous john c. halasz said...

Dr. Spinoza:

Sorry that wasn't clear. Von Mises enters the picture only as having coined the term "praxiological" to describe the status of economics according to the Austrian school. He has no relation to the other two, though Hayek was a distant cousin of W. and debating opponent of S. Sraffa, in turn, was a close and supportive friend of Gramsci since school days: he spearheaded the international campaign for Gramsci's release from prison, payed for G.'s books in prison and helped to smuggle out and edit "The Prison Notebooks", so S. was well acquainted with G's thinking. I don't think there's evidence that Sraffa was a Marxist, though, but his inclinations were socialistic and pacifistic and Neo-Ricardoan is close enough. In his Nachlass, W. somewhere remarks that what S. taught him was the "anthropoligizing" approach, which surely sounds Left Hegelian to those so disposed. (Also, the language game method was clearly lifted from Sraffa's constructive method of economic analysis.) But there's no question of G. and W. being brought into contact, however unwittingly, in terms of philosophy of history: W.'s attitude toward history, such as it was, was a variant of Spenglerian pessimism and reactionary nostalgia. Rather the connection is in their respective emphasis on the social embedding of meanings and practices and their sedimentations: compare G.'s account of "common sense" and Wittgenstein's followings out of the sedimentations and inconsistencies of natural language. On the other hand, Gramsci, especially when he touches upon epistemic issues, can sound vanishingly close to Peirce.

W. and S. met once a week during term for 16 years,- (until S. had had enough of W.), but there's no paper trail. The only evidence would be comparative philology. So the academics shy away. It's noteworthy that the two main biographers in English of W. hadn't even bothered to read the published writings of S. Thanks for the link, though. It's nice to know that they're finally catching on.

As for theory and praxis, I'm not accusing you of having gone wrong into top-heavy theoreticism, but just that I think that's a threat in general. Perhaps the exemplar would be Althusser in his heyday, but lots of French neo-structuralist writings are cast in an ultra-transcendental form, whereas they would, to me, at least, be more interesting in their contents without the "transcendental" stylings. There are limits to what any scientific or philosophical theory can accomplish and "guarantee". If a theory foregrounds a critical, emancipatory potential, then certainly it must remain open to a relative "priority" of praxis that would actually carry that potential. The danger then would be a tendency toward the occlusion of praxis, through the self-reification of a theory in the service of techne or itself become techne. Adorno warned that any appeal to the priority of praxis over theory could, in the historical situation he limned, only lead to still worse praxis. But I would invert that: somehow praxis must find a way through, or not, but otherwise theory just reproduces its own dilemmas. With respect to social reality, as opposed to natural science, I would advocate a theoretical pluralism, without necessarily any grand syncretic synthesis. The point is to maintain the "porousness" of theory to praxis, in its variable situations, else there's little point to (rational?) criticism. And sometimes theories just need to be taken down.

I think the reconstruction/rehabilitation of Marxian thinking in Wittensteinian terms would be one fruitful avenue. (Of course, much more would be needed: for one thing, by no means a small matter, a new political economy, which would accord a fuller role and account to the political, if only to understand how economies actually operate.) But, by that very token, differing avenues are possible without necessarily contradicting or opposing. It is a matter of finding pathways through reality to good lives, in accordance with the classical meaning of theory, without the classical assumption that theory is the final end of the search. Perhaps that's similar to what you're seeking from "pragmatism"?

6:49 PM  
Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...

That's exactly what I'm seeking from "pragmatism" -- and there are hints of it here and there in James and Dewey (I haven't read Peirce yet) -- a pluralist and fallibilistic approach to both theory and practice.

Sometimes, in a sort of French-American mood, I'm able to realize that theories are games. But too often an Anglo-Teutonic seriousness comes over me and I trick myself into thinking that theories are maps.

7:31 PM  

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