Monday, March 06, 2006

Disposable Thinking

I've been dissatisfied with some of my arguments in favor of agnosticism. If I wanted to explore a tension in the relationship between handling philosophical questions and making affirmative statements, I could have done a better job of it, seen things from other angles, more towards their essence, held off from drawing some conclusions. The prospect that one might examine ideas without undergoing any serious transformation especially bothers me. Conversely, I think it's informative to entertain a variety of ideas, without setting out to become informed, edified or illuminated, but simply following thoughts where they lead. This is a dilemma for bloggers, perhaps especially those who dabble in philosophy.

Heraclitus said χρὴ γὰρ εὖ μάλα πολλῶν ἵστορας φιλοσόφους ἄνδρας εἶναι (DK35), which I will render as "Men, as philosophers, are destined to be well acquainted with the many." The Burnett translation is "Men that love wisdom must be inquirers into very many things indeed" (see DK35 according to Hoyt, or Philoctetes), which is similar to the majority of interpretations I've seen, though some scholars seem to think that many (πολλῶν) itself is a category a philosopher ought to look into, and there is not widespread agreement on exactly what kind of knowing ἵστορας is meant to signify. As Greek is nearly absolutely Greek to me, I've permitted myself to imagine that Heraclitus might actually be saying something like "Philosophers are destined to repeatedly make inquiries."

Heraclitus has been on my mind more than usual since I rescued Ernst Cassirer's The Logic of the Cultural Sciences (trans. S.G. Lofts, Yale University Press, 2000) from a bargain bin. Cassirer says of early Greek philosophy, "In the place of the undetermined multiplicity of mythical attempts at explanation, which turn sometimes toward one phenomenon and sometimes toward another, steps the idea of the general unity of being, to which the same unity of cause must correspond. This unity is accessible only to pure thought" (pp. 4-5). Naturally Cassirer credits Heraclitus with taking the first step. (Oh, that was an attempt at humor.) "Ever since this thinking," Cassirer writes, meaning Heraclitus' idea of logos, "went through the school of Greek philosophy, all knowledge of reality has, to some extent, been bound to the fundamental concept of logos --and thus to "logic" in the largest sense of the word" (p. 5).

What sort of logic is it that allows us to juxtapose Carl Meinhof's Comparative Grammar of the Bantu Languages with Hermann Wyel's What is Matter?--and not, if we may be so bold, unintelligibly? The logic of jumping around? Let's do.

There is no fixed, self-enclosed "I," which puts itself in contact with an equally fixed and self-enclosed "you" and seeks to penetrate its sphere as if from the outside. If we begin from such an idea, we discover again and again that the challenge it sets itself is unattainable. In the world of spirit, as in the world of matter, each being remains, as it were, riveted to its place and impenetrable for the others. However, as soon as we no longer begin with the I and the you as two substantially separate entities but instead place ourselves in the center of that mutual communication that realizes itself in language or in any other cultural form, this doubt disappears. In the beginning is the act: always, in the use of language, in artistic formation, in the process of thinking and research a specific activity expresses itself, and it is only in this activity that the I and the you at once find each other, and separate themselves from each other. They are in and with each other, as they preserve in this way their unity through speaking, thinking, and all kinds of artistic expression.

(pp. 50-51.)

But wait, there's more.

In an earlier consideration we sought to show that the "I" does not exist as an originally given reality that relates itself to other realities of the same kind, thus entering into contact with them. We found ourselves obliged to grasp the relation differently. We found that the separation between the "I" and the "you," and likewise the separation between the "I" and the "world," constitutes the goal and not the starting point of spiritual life. If we hold on to this, our problem [of cultural alienation, "the tragedy of culture"] assumes another signification. For the consolidation that life undergoes in the various forms of culture--in language, religion and art--constitutes not the simple opposite to that which the I requires by its very nature but rather a prerequisite for it to find and understand itself in its own essence. Here we encounter a connection of the highest complexity that cannot be correctly expressed by spatial imagery, however subtle. We are not permitted to ask how the I can "go beyond" its own sphere and reach over into one foreign to it. We must avoid all these metaphorical expressions. To be sure, in the history of the problem of knowledge one has continually made use of such defective descriptions in their efforts to characterize the relation of the object to the subject. It was assumed that a part of the object must enter into the I in order for that object to be known. The "theory of idols" of the ancient atomists is rooted in this conception; the "theory of species" of Aristotle and the Scholastics continued to adhere to it, only transposing it from the material into the spiritual sphere. But even if we assume for a moment that such a miracle can take place--that the object can migrate in this way into "consciousness"--the main question obviously remains unsolved; for we do not know how this trace of the object that imprints itself upon the I becomes known as such. Its simple being-there and being-thus by no means suffices as an explanation of its representative significance. This difficulty becomes even more acute when the transference is not from object to subject but is to be realized between different subjects.


If I were to take up the question of animism again, as a serious inquiry, I should definitely want to examine the prehistory of the soul (ht Dissoi Bloggoi.) I might also be interested in the idea of hegemonikon and its concatenations. I have the impression that, for all the talk about unity, the Greeks had many different ways of analyzing thought into various components, of putting the subject on trial, as it were. And from other parts of the blogosphere, I find my thoughts drawn into another set of preoccupations which might be lumped together under the heading of "libidinous attachments to immiseration" or thereabouts. And it has occured to me that Mill's analogy about shoes not fitting properly doesn't really apply to my life now that I can go online and order shoes that actually fit pretty well. And so I come to the notion of "disposable thinking," and the question of whether this is a healthy way of relating to the Logos, or just relating.

How is it that we inhabit ideas? How can we be sure that for the most part it isn't ideas that inhabit us? How do we excerise discernment, come to our own way of living with ideas? Personally I like to be at home, and I like to go visiting. I don't know if its truly better to travel, as the proverb has it, but it's an experience worth having.

Here's a metaphor: why get rid of a pair of shoes? Take the difference between retiring a pair of shoes because you've worn them for a decade and besides being ugly as sin they're pretty much beyond repair, and, on the other hand, getting rid of a pair of shoes because they never fit well to begin with and you could never break them in, or because they went out of fashion, or because they were so poorly made that they quickly came apart and it would cost more to repair them than it would buy a new pair of shoes. These latter sorts of predicament have been taken as symptomatic of the ills of late capitalism, the worst that consumer culture has to offer. One could recycle unfashionable or illfitting shoes, but not in the spirit of genuine kindness, I don't believe.

Among certain classes and mindsets, the inundation of the cheap and ephemeral is one of the great anxieties of the day. One sort of critical response would be to celebrate the cheap and ephemeral as simply being cheap and ephemeral. That doesn't quite appeal to me, though I do admire the moxy of it. However, at the present time, a little bit of knowledge about how shoes fit, gained through experience or, perhaps with the assistance of expert guidance, in conjunction with an internet connection and a modest amount of money (by the standards of middle class existence in the industrialized nations) will allow one to largely avoid the predicament of constantly replacing shoes that either fall apart or don't fit properly to begin with. That would leave fashion as a reason to dispose of one's shoes, but a little experience and a virtual warehouse can help one make sensible choices in that regard as well.

And so with ideas? Not quite. Expert guidance in the realm of ideas is hardly inexpensive, and the free exchange of ideas is not quite so free as one would hope--assuming one is either some variety of utopian idealist, social reformer, pennypincher, or just plain broke all the time. And there's a price to be paid for hanging out in the bargain basements of Western thought. The Logic of the Cultural Sciences is sensible, befitting my interests, and timeless enough for my life of ideas, but I am not so naive as to believe that Cassirer is fashionable. If there is a currency to Cassirer, it may be likened to that of Jockey undershirts or Gold Toe socks, i.e., rather ubiquitous but not fully apparent, not something one wears as a fashion statement. The vast majority of titles in the bargain basement will not be like this, but will rather be like making precisely the wrong fashion statement, conspicuosly horrid, either for being garish in themselves, or for simply being a signal that one gets one's ideas on the cheap.

If wearing shoes is a little less uncomfortable for a greater part of humanity than it has been in prior centuries, there may yet be some hope for ideas. Nevertheless, I'm in no hurry to throw away the notion of disposibility. I wouldn't want to be buried in the shoes I wore twenty years ago, and if I had my druthers I'd rather not be buried in the shoes I'm wearing today. Disposibility comports with my sense that no condition is permanent, and the belief that one could always do things differently, better even. The mythic quality of such a belief is not lost on me, but it's not completely useless. It may even in some aspects be regarded as charming, I think. It's not that I'm particularly glad for ephemerality, it's just something one gets used to, and of the various ways of getting used to it, I can't help feeling it's better to do some using of one's own.

Were I to draw a conclusion here--don't worry, I'm just blogging--I might see that freedom of thought is highly contingent upon the exigencies of an historical moment, and that the very imagination of freedom is embedded in a discursive universe (some universes being more discursive than others). And so it is that a yak who dabbles in philosophy is doomed to repeat his inquiries.

posted by Fido the Yak at 2:57 PM.


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