Sunday, August 24, 2008

Accusatory Thought - and Other Ailments

Yusef raises important issues in his last post, not only about communication and “rules” of discussion, but also about personal ethics. I don’t presume to be able to answer his questions. What I would like to do is look at why philosophical discussions sometimes turn “toxic and deadening”.

I guess the whole concept of “discussion” in the form of exchanging arguments that will then eventually create insight and wisdom dates back to Socrates (although his own method was that of an examiner and interrogator). It was certainly a stable of the whole Enlightenment project that through the dialectics of rational arguments the truth, or at least some form of it would emerge. The whole notion of thesis – antithesis – synthesis (mechanistic as it was) formed the basis of academic learning and institutions and has done so ever since, in the process spilling out into the political sphere. This triad also seems to be behind Yusef’s lament,

The prescription contained in “be free, then freely criticize, then freely evaluate the criticism, then be free,” doesn't work. It doesn't facilitate conversation or exploration. It doesn't facilitate mutuality.

It not only freezes theorizing in a dialogue or discussion into accusatory thoughts and counter-thoughts in a battle of ideas with one party vanquished and the other victorious. Indeed, the overarching metaphor is that of war, easily detected even in everyday language, as Georg Lakoff has pointed out.

In philosophical circles (at least since Nietzsche) the metaphorical universe was just as bellicose and turned into a fight between “active” forces and “reactive” forces, between affirmation and ressentiment.

Philosophical discussion figuratively moved into the courtroom with the philosopher as litigator. And outside on the streets the ideologues and politicians became aggressive attack-machines, bent on smashing enemies, or simply people with opposite viewpoints. When that wasn’t effective enough, armies were sent out, not in search of new wisdom, but in search-and-destroy missions.

It’s true that philosophical and/or political discussions in the blogosphere can be so full of venom, aggression and anger that it baffles the mind. Of course, we could psychologize the whole thing and explain away, but this would not be very helpful, I think.

Even if ”we find we cannot uninhabit what we inhabit” I think we might benefit from a change of metaphor. Instead of viewing the philosopher (or the intellectually curious) as a litigator, we should look at him and act as the physiologist. From lawyer to doctor. From finality to fluidity.

This image of the philosopher is also the oldest, the most ancient one,writes Deleuze in his “Pure Immanence. Essays on A Life” (2001) p. 66. It is that of the pre-Socratic thinker, “physiologist” and artist, interpreter and evaluator of the world. How are we to understand this closeness between the future and the past? The philosopher of the future is the explorer of ancient worlds, of peaks and caves, who creates only inasmuch as he recalls something that has been essentially forgotten. That something, according to Nietzsche, is the unity of life and thought. It is a complex unity: one step for life, one step for thought. Modes of life inspire ways of thinking; modes of thinking create ways of living. Life activates thought, and thought in turn affirms life.

Now, this might seem too airy as rules of etiquette on a blog, but I would suggest that the doctor analogy could be useful, in the sense that you (1) listen carefully (2) follow the pattern (3) trace symptoms (4) put yourself in the position of the other, and (5) take one step at a time in your response. Or act the dentist: “Don’t look for the roots, follow the canals”.

Changing metaphors, however, requires so much UNlearning that setbacks will occur. So be it.

8 Comments:

Anonymous MOYL said...

i dig it.

2:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Philosophical discussion figuratively moved into the courtroom with the philosopher as litigator."

Twelve or so years ago I read a book, written by people living in a Berkeley cooperative, about the historical basis of our antagonistic legal system. They claimed that there was a period in Europe where disputes were settled through formalized hand-to-hand combat. Just a little later, it was deemed satisfactory for one to hire a professional combatant, a professional warrior,something like a gladiator, to fight on one's behalf. These hired warriors were the precursors of our present day lawyers, according to the book. Our present day lawyers don't fight physically, but they do fight. They may fight as a last resort, but recourse to the last resort isn't exactly rare. The point was that though the system is to some degree prettified,made "nice", philosphicalized, rationalized, it remains a barbaric system at heart. To "reactivate a philosophical ethos" we'd need to understand something about this remainder of barbarism within our advanced systems...A difficult task, given our marked tendency to exhalt barbarism in its strongest form.

--Y

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