Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Knowledge(s) Production(s)

In Kant's motto for the Enlightenment, as declared at the top of this page, for me all emphasis is on the invitation, the injunction, to " have courage."

The word "reason," which may be a highly questionable translation to English of the Latin "sapere," deserves no emphasis at all - it's best to think of it as a loose placeholder word which we might fill in and map out through a wide variety of thinking acts - many of them not yet conceived, ( not preconceived, or intended by Kant to have been preconceived.)

That they aren't conceived yet - even to this day - may be part of the beauty and liberation of what Kant wished to convey to us with his slogan.

Monday, February 27, 2006

The March of Progress

One of the many reasons Yusef Asabiyah and I started this blog is because the Enlightenment and its aftermath continue to reveberate through contemporary culture, in the categories and concepts we use to understand ourselves, where we've been, and where we're going.

The debates about "modernity" and "postmodernity," in both their academic and lay guises, are a central theme in this on-going conversation.

Norman Mailer, in The Nation, has his own take on what it means to be "modern" and "postmodern".

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Heidegger as Problem

In a recent comment on The Three Enlightenments, Gary Sauer-Thompson (of philosophical conversations) wrote:

Why exclude Heidegger? Is there not a significant portion of his work that could be rescued for you "pragmatist Enlightenment?

Of course there is "a significant portion of his work that could be rescued." But at what price?

One could "rescue" a good deal of Division I of Being and Time for the pragmatist Enlightenment. In the Anglo-American context, this would mean following in the footsteps of Hubert Dreyfus, Mark Okrent, Richard Rorty, and Taylor Carmen. In the Continental context, this would mean following in the footsteps of Derrida, Foucault, Levinas, or Nancy.

My difficulty here is this: why should be necessary to rescue something from Heidegger? What would we be rescuing Heidegger from? It strikes me that we would be rescuing Heidegger from himself: from Division II, from "Being-towards-death" and "resoluteness" and "authenticity". But without Division II, does Division I even make any sense?

One can play the game of reading the values and ideals of the pragmatist Enlightenment into Division I of B&T. I can do that. I'm very good at reading something I like into something else. But there comes a point where that's no more interesting or helpful than reading Taoism into quantum mechanics, or vice-versa.

What I'd like to be able to determine is not, "can we rescue something of value from Heidegger?" -- because it strikes me that that's trivially easy to do, and because it runs the risk of using Heidegger as a Rorschach test.

Rather, what I want to determine is, "what are some of the distinctive and important moves of Division I of Being and Time that aren't found in Dewey or Wittgenstein, or which are necessary for understanding Adorno, Marcuse or Foucault?" And "how else might Division II be read, apart from an anticipation of National Socialism?"

While I find Richard Wolin's attitude toward Heidegger bordering on the vituperative, his recent "Heidegger Made Kosher" at least raises the questions that must be raised if we are to come to terms with one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Freedom, Fact, and Fiction

One of the most puzzling aspects of Kant's philosophy is his attitude towards freedom. Kant denies that we can know that we're free, in any strong metaphysical sense. But he maintains that we are entitled to assume that we're free. We, as it were, announce our freedom, and this announcement has priority over any empirical science. The priority seems to be a transcendental priority: if we weren't free, we couldn't do science, either, since it is the same faculty -- that of reason -- which is deployed in science or in morality.

If empirical science could show that we're not truly free, it would also, at the same time, show that we're not really capable of science. It would self-destruct.

There's a similar argument, I think, as to why we're entitled to accept responsibility for our actions. We cannot know that we're responsible, in the sense that we cannot control what our actions do in the world. Foucault is completely Kantian when he says:

People know what they do, and they frequently know why they do what they do, but what they don't know is what what they do does. (in Foucault, Dreyfus and Rabinow; cited as "pers. comm.")

Exactly: we don't know -- and, Kant would say, we cannot know -- what what we do does. In the face of this massive and incomprehensible ignorance, we must announce that we are responsible, act as if we are responsible, and precisely through acting as if we are -- become responsible.

Vaihinger was right: Kant's philosophy is a philosophy of the "as if." It is perhaps in this respect that comes closest to anticipating not only Nietzsche but also Deleuze's theory that there is something fictional about concepts. Not that concepts are fictions, in any simplistic way, but that concepts can open up new ways of being, much as works of art do, rather than as simply fitting "how things really are."

Monday, February 20, 2006

Approaches to Kant

Steve Shaviro's The Pinocchio Theory is always worth checking out; Shaviro is a masterful writer and is capable of applying high theory to pop culture in surprising and penetrating ways. His recent posting, "On the Pleasures of Reading Kant," shows that Kant's prose style, which causes much wailing and gnashing of teeth among undergraduate students and analytic philosophers, is essential to his philosophical project. Kant's prose, though admittedly dense, slowly builds up, through a dry and precise architectonic, a remarkably fertile -- and also strikingly humane -- humanistic and pragmatic metaphysics.

Shaviro wrote this only a few days after Sir Peter Strawson, whose work The Bounds of Sense made Kant "accessible" to analytic philosophers precisely by showing how to avoid Kant's rhetorical and conceptual tangles, died.

Key Concepts of Enlightenment

The key concepts of the Enlightenment are critique, freedom, and experience: Enlightenment consists in the critique of institutions, practices, habits, and opinions in order to make possible a richer and more nuanced kind of freedom than that currenly on offer -- and this freedom is experiential, insofar as it is perceived through an enriched awareness of possible ways of experiencing. Thus there is an experience of freedom.

The realization that freedom is experiential and not only institutional is one of the key insights of the third Enlightenment (James, Dewey, Adorno, Foucault).

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Three Enlightenments

Previously I've referred to "the Enlightenment" as a single movement or phenomenon. Here I want to revise that picture.

Recently -- though separately -- Hilary Putnam and Robert Brandom have underscored the need to think of American pragmatism (Peirce, James, and Dewey) as comprising the beginnings of a "second" Enlightenment, a pragmatist enlightenment. (Putnam present his case in Part II of Ethics without Ontology. Brandom makes his case in "When Philosophy Paints Its Blue on Gray: Irony and the Pragmatist Enlightenment".

Putnam further complicates the story by noting that there was an earlier Enlightenment in ancient Greece. Here, too, I think that Putnam is right. But like almost all philosophers, Putnam mistakenly thinks that Plato can be regarded as an unambiguous champion of truth and reason. (If one considers Plato in relation to contemporaries such as Thucydides or Democritus, one can begin to see how problematic it is to regard Plato as an Enlightenment thinker. More on this later.)

Suffice it to say, then, that we can talk about "the three Enlightenments":

- ancient Greek Enlightenment (Xenophon, Democritus, Thucydides, Aristophanes)
- the classical Enlightenment (Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, Hume, Kant)
- the pragmatist Enlightenment (Peirce, James, Dewey)

Now, I want to go further than Putnam in one crucial respect -- I want to broaden the scope of the pragmatist Enlightenment to include some of the most important "Continental philosophers" of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Nietzsche, the members of the Frankfurt School (esp. Adorno), Foucault, and Deleuze.

Does this mean that all these thinkers are "pragmatists"? No; doing so would stretch the term beyond usefulness. But I do want to say that there are important advocates of "the pragmatist Enlightenment" on both sides of the Atlantic, including Nietzsche, Adorno, and Foucault, who are usually read (on this side of the Atlantic!) as romantic crypto-reactionaries. (So I will want to distinguish between this lineage and that of Husserl-Heidegger, where one really does see a persistence of mythologization.)

I agree with Putnam and Brandom that the neglect of the pragmatist Enlightenment has fuelled widespread skepticism about the Enlightenment project per se -- esp. on the left, and even more specifically, on the part of leftist intellectuals who belong to university departments of literature, communications, etc. (I shall refrain from commenting on the well-known Sokal hoax, since it's been done to death.) But unlike Brandom and Putnam, I want to "rescue" a significant portion of the work of Nietzsche, Adorno, Marcuse, Foucault, and Deleuze for the pragmatist Enlightenment.

How precisely that will work is part of the task of the Enlightenment Underground.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Importance of History

Why do I date the Enlightenment, as a historical phenomenon, as beginning in 1648 and ending in 1789?

1648 marked the end of the Thirty Year's War and the Peace of Westphalia. This was the beginning of the secularization of the political; from this point onwards, religious claims were progressively withdrawn from the political and public spheres of society. This made possible the freethinking attitude of Thomas Jefferson, who said, "It does me no harm for my neighbor to say that there are many gods or that there are none."

1789 marked the end of the golden age of the Enlightenment, when conservatives and reactionaries all over Europe became convinced that the wit and bravado of Voltaire necessarily led to the excesses and cruelty of Robespierre.

(Much as later conservatives and reactionaries became convinced that Lenin was the culmination of Marx.)

A Very Brief Theory of the Enlightenment

Enlightenment is the overcoming of myth through critique. However, the predisposition to mythic thinking is inscribed in the cognitive structures through which any complex, hierarchical society is produced and reproduced. Therefore, the task of critique is without end. An infinite and incompleteable critique.

Myth is totality: the total and complete picture of the real. The temptation to totality. ("From Ionia to Jena," as Franz Rosenszweig puts it in his The Star of Redemption -- that is, from Parmenides to Hegel.) Myth does not cease to be myth when it is rendered in a conceptual form, and at the heart of all myths is something that refuses to be conceptualized. (This is true for conceptual myth-makers like Plato and Hegel. And in our own day, the thirst for conceptual myth-making, such as that of Ken Wilbur or Richard Tarnas, remains unquenchable.)

If myth runs so deep, how is critique even possible? Is critique a late accomplishment in the history of our species, as fragile and as dangerous as a test-tube -- or is critique an expression of something in the mind, or something in the blood, which runs even deeper than myth?

The totalitzation of myth vs. the infinitization of enlightenment.

I want to see how far this framework can go in explaining the historical Enlightenment (1648-1789), the tensions and difficulties that animate the work of the great Enlightenment thinkers (esp. Spinoza, Hume, and Kant), the appeal of the Counter-Enlightenment, and the temptations of fascism.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The initial inquiries:

- what was the Enlightenment?

- what was the Counter-Enlightenment?

- what is "the dialectic of Enlightenment"?

- why is the Enlightenment currently under attack?

- why did the Left abandon its traditional defense of Enlightenment principles and ideals?

Going Underground

The resurgence of the Counter-Enlightenment, on many different fronts (some of which even war with one another), has pushed the Enlightenment into a apologetic and defensive mode.

Here begins a new kind of resistance. Here begins the Enlightenment Underground