Future, Present, & Past:



Speculative
~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

One hazard of thinking


Philosophy is insanely ambitious. "To think the whole," indeed!

Sometimes a rush of analogies occurs to one in a downpour. It's as if the some clinamen in the rain of ideas suddenly causes a congealing. Get it all down, as quick as possible! But the hand is clumsy, and the mind, that mercurial omnivore, dances further and further ahead. Wait, mind, wait!

This rush can be exhilarating -- until it's not. The slightest admixture of ego is enough to unbalance one. But the ego is a sly thing, and you don't notice -- or rather, you collude with yourself in "not" noticing, and the rush of excitement builds. And then, you take a moment, and realize, my God I'm out of my depth. Suddenly the sweet self-congratulation turns brittle and bitter. "I'll never get this all down, I'll never make it hang together."

All this is far easier to avoid in dialogue. It's another reason why thinking by oneself is dangerous for beginners like me.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Philosophy should complete a process that should never have been started:" Interview with Michael Shephard, part 2


(Part 1 of this interview can be found here.)

Michael Shephard: There’s also another aspect to this tension between human connection and my way of doing philosophy. The thought of philosophy as being in a certain way anti-human has been a nice hook for me to hang some concepts on. Recently, I was reading the Crito, which has Socrates declaring how philosophy pushes towards death: that’s the direction it’s facing. Add to this my notion of how I don’t actually want us to be doing philosophy, ideally -- I don’t think it’s a good thing for us to be doing; it’s a (contextually) necessary thing. If we succeeded at philosophy, that would enable us to never have to do philosophy again. Just as if we succeeded at medicine, it would mean the end of all illness, and so of all medicine. That would be good; no one ought to pine, in that situation, “It’s too bad I don’t get to do medicine anymore; I wish someone would get sick!” No; if we’re all healthy and everyone’s going to stay healthy forever; it’s clearly a much better outcome. And I take it seriously that we’re all engaged in such a conversation when we all get together to talk philosophy. I don’t want to damage the human connections that are available to us -- and if you persuade me that philosophy is doing that, I wouldn't do philosophy differently, in a more human way, a more experientialist way; I would just do it less. I’d curtail, and edit, and manage it.

And I already do that -- I already am careful about where philosophy could potentially trample my human connections and human experience. I don’t think of them as necessarily dovetailing; I don’t think of philosophy, either the undertaking or its results, as being perfectly harmonious with what it is to be a healthy, experiencing human being. This goes back to the issue of whether philosophy is best thought of as a kind of effort towards something divinely profound, something harmonious and healthy -- a kind of song we’re all singing. I don’t know that it is.

Skholiast:
Ray Brassier says, in the preface to Nihil Unbound: “Thinking has interests that do not coincide with those of living.”

M.S.: Well, yes. My rephrasing -- my brutal, weird rephrasing -- of that would be that thought is processing towards a specific conclusion, or result -- an answer. But it’s not at all obvious that modern human beings are not in a deeply fucked-up input environment. It’s not an environment in which, if we get a clear and good input, our processing would naturally lead us to good results; I think almost every problem that human beings care to discuss indicate that we’re a processing algorithm currently getting very bad input. Were we being given good input, perhaps all processing would lead to “life” -- or whatever, whatever was important. Now because I think it’s a possibility -- that perfectly functional, healthy algorithms can, given bad input, turn out garbage -- and because with the human being, it’s a self-recursive algorithm, so the garbage goes back in -- thus why it’s interesting to talk about societies shaping human beings who then shape societies -- I think that if we, modern human beings, just take the experiences we’re given, I think our processing activity, our thought, may be leading us into bad places. If that’s the case, then -- to put it rhetorically -- if our thought is headed that way, we have to go after it: chase it down, bring it back, and wall up that avenue.

S.:
But I think Brassier means something stronger: that it’s no slur upon philosophy to say that it might point to something besides life; there’s no reason why we should assume that the task of thinking is to perpetuate the human.

M.S.: But it is! The task of human thinking is to do that.

S.:
See, he’d say that thought qua thought –

M.S.: -- which is not a thing.

S.:
-- Brassier certainly wants to argue that it is, that it can be; there’s such a thing as truth, and the truth doesn’t give a damn about life; it doesn’t have to. And the remarkable thing about our capacity -- our human capacity -- to recognize truth, is that it can; it can recognize, and countenance, and at least momentarily make common cause with, this completely ahuman, inhuman truth.

M.S.: It’s a notion of truth I disagree with. This is why I get caught between dogmatic ideas, and relativistic ideas. I certainly maintain that there is something worth being called truth; but it extends not from some pure thing that is either discovered, or revealed; it derives from the tautology of cognition; the tautology involved in being able to even pose questions. That’s not a magical capital-T Truth, but it can be agreed upon. It can be agreed upon to the degree that we are capable of meaningful communication at all. And of course that’s true, right? E.g.: Obviously, you need to exist outside of me in order for there to be some kind of consensus between two separate things; and we need to be actually communicating. Again, I didn’t put those elements there; those things are necessary in order to talk about agreement.

S.:
We can say that this is implicit in the notion -- in the grammar of agreement.

M.S.: Yes, the grammar; or the semantics of what it means for two independent minds with different premises and conclusions to suddenly share the same conclusion -- whatever we mean by “same,” whatever meaning that could have -- that’s all in there, it’s all part of it.

S.:
Yes. if I say, I need to go mail a letter in the mailbox across the street, and you say Where? And I say, over there -- behind the tree there’s a mailbox; and you shift your position by a step and say, Oh, there is a mailbox! -- at that moment, something happens, an “agreement.” And you’re claiming that whatever that is, in any instance like that, the grammar of that experience implicitly entails: your existence, my existence, meaningful communication.

M.S.: Yes. all those ingredients are in there.

S.:
And a triangulation in the world.

M.S.: And the fact that they can be lined up, that they can be triangulated. In fact, it’s absurd in my opinion (not absurd in the sense that I think people who do this are idiots, but it’s conceptually absurd) to concur that all these ingredients are there, to be on board with all the ingredients of that triangulation and then refuse to grant that the triangulation can occur. Not that it does or must -- but that it can. That’s the truth of thought; and I’m interested in thought in the sense of human thought.

S.:
Your take on philosophy, then, seems both -- not that you’ll agree with these particular terms -- but it’s at least mildly deflationary; you have a suspicion of, as you said, things people get excited about; a suspicion too of reverential treatment of great figures; even of “experience” per se --

M.S.: I’m a de-humanist.

S.:
And yet. While you aren’t committed to the notion of philosophy as the life worth living --

M.S.: No. Though it might be the best thing for me! Fucked up as I am.

S.:
-- But you also seem quite ready to go to the wall for the notion that the truth philosophy seeks is a human truth.

M.S.: Well, I’m quite sympathetic to the Nietzschean skeptical argument against truth in a sense, and I’ve even occasionally considered jettisoning the word “truth” from my vocabulary. But I mean, “human” truth as opposed to--?

S.:
Well, what else would there be?

M.S.: I’m not sure what corner that puts me in. I mean, it’s a human truth insofar as --

S.:
-- as it’s part of an activity undertaken by human beings.

M.S.: Yes. I’m very much in line with the assumptions, broadly “Continental,” that we are always-already human, and that our thought proceeds from there. We don’t get to step outside of that. But I resolve this by saying, Yes, of course; the tautology of questions-and-answers is what we’re talking about.

S.:
When we read Meillassoux, you surprised me by being as sympathetic to the correlationist position as you were. I’d anticipated you being willing to side absolutely with the critique of correlationism. I think your juxtaposition is very interesting: a deflationary account of philosophy side by side with a humanocentric perspective upon, if not reality itself --

M.S.: Maybe.

S.:
-- Hm! Well, at least of philosophy. These don’t tend to cohabitate; people tend to associate the inflated sense of philosophy with connotations of a profound, or a pseudo-profound, portentousness, with the dignity of thought that surrounds this weighty human endeavor to think and experience deeply. So the deflationary account of philosophy is often deployed as a way of pricking this (ostensibly) hubristic project.

M.S.: I think a good way of putting this is that human beings are generally weak; narrow-minded; blinkered; and that’s OK -- it’s entirely appropriate for them to be this way. I grant that this is loaded rhetoric -- words like “weak” are supposedly inherently negative -- but I think this is part of the problem; this is what I’d like to explode. Tangentially, I have a problem with heroes. So much of human literature, art, mythology, thinking, is concerned with heroes, as something to live up to. And I think that’s quite unfair. I think we need to lower our standards for what human beings can put up with -- the situations they can navigate. .

S.:
Hence what you’ve said about how people should be able to dispense with philosophy.

M.S.: Absolutely.

S.:
Wittgenstein said he was searching for a way to stop doing philosophy when he wanted to.

M.S.: You know -- there’s an arrogance to saying that humanity is privileged, special, a culmination –

S.:
"The measure of all things...."

M.S.: And there’s also an arrogance to saying that humanity is another accidental collection of atoms, and that I can see that -- I, this particular accidental collection of atoms, can see it. Well, I do want to deflate something -- the sort of magical grandeur of philosophy -- what the goal of that is. But I’m also very practical; I’m in this for results. And I think the project needs to deliver the sorts of results that philosophers pay lip service to.

S.:
And that means, seeing something. Well then, let’s talk about this notion of results -- or progress in philosophy.

M.S.: I’m going to go right back to my tautology argument.

S.:
Ah -- that, by definition, if you’re engaged in a project, the grammar of the very idea of project, is progress.

M.S.: In this case: the grammar of the idea of investigation is --

S.:
-- Answers.

M.S.: Yes. If the questions you set up in philosophy are meaningful, there will be some kind of answer. And if you think you are posing questions that don’t have an answer, there’s something wrong -- that’s not a question.

S.:
Wittgenstein, again, says in the Tractatus -- Six-point-something --

M.S.: What, you can’t remember the exact number of the proposition?

S.:
Nah. But he says, “If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered.” [6.5, as it happens]

M.S.: And I would challenge anyone who wants to deny progress in any endeavor to formulate this. Now “progress” is a word laden with too many associations, but I’m not invested in any specific form -- “scientific progress”, or transhumanistic progress, or whatever. Again, I’d be happy if the result of philosophical conversation led us to a significantly non-modern form of life.

S.:
The reason I brought it up in this case, is that you’ve said you were letting go of the reins -- insofar as Drunken Philosophy ever had any reins -- partly because you were tired of having the same conversations over and over. This reminded me of a remark by Frithjof Schuon, to the effect that “The Truth can bear repetition.”

M.S.: …. Depends on the truth, though.

S.:
Well, and the truth may be able to bear what we can’t. In any case, do you feel that in your own evolution -- from your discovery of philosophy and your entry into it -- which I’m very interested in -- do you feel that from there, in your own trajectory, you yourself have made progress?

M.S.: Yes! I do. I could joke that I haven’t made progress as a human being, but I have as a philosopher!

S.:
But you feel you’ve done both?

M.S.: I’ve done both, but I’ve done both separately.

S.:
Is it presumptuous to ask for examples? We’ll keep it to what you identify as philosophical progress. Some instance in which you started out with a question, a sloppy formulation, or a mistake, and through conversation and thought have changed and arrived at a better-formulated question or even an answer?

M.S.: Regarding philosophical progress, this is, of course, not something easily defensible. My ideas are only being exposed to a moderate level of assessment, just introspection and what ultimately amounts to casual conversation, no matter how informed and passionate. That being said, in the last half-decade or so, that compulsive testing I mentioned earlier has more and more frequently meshed with the complex ideas that I apply it to. It doesn't (often) yield predictions, per se, but it does yield a quick assimilation of difficult questions into existing conceptual relationships. The most important part of this is that those conceptual relationships are extensively cross-referenced. My conclusions about a single issue, say capital punishment, need to survive the implications carried into every part of the system -- in this case, a meta-ethical question must be squared with existing conclusions about politics, free-will, psychology, natural rights, murder, religion, epistemic prediction, etc. If it doesn't, then either the new conclusion is unacceptable or one of the existing ones require a revision.

Disclaimers established, you asked for a specific place where I've made progress. I can mention multiple places, as long as you understand that the actual progress I think I've made usually requires the simultaneous and indispensably interdependent instantiation of several controversial positions, namely moral nihilism, strong epistemic skepticism, strong atheism, skepticism of a unified self, free-will denialism, determinism, mereological nihilism, presentism, some asterisked version of anarcho-primitivism, a firm embrace of ritual and myth (controversial only in the context of my other positions), a very specific understanding of language which I don't have a label for (but is almost certainly not original), and a general desire to take the piss out of any narrative which considers human being special or capable of being special.

S.:
Stipulated. Let the record show.

M.S.: So: I believe that what we call morality is wholly inseparable from the face-to-face human connections which we, as social organisms, are attuned to via the normally accepted and biologically straight-forward sensory mechanisms. Any ideas about empathy or morality which extend beyond these mechanisms will fail necessarily, in spite of the best intentions, and every idea about empathy which truly leverages a long-term (years/decades), non-dysfunctional connection between emotionally healthy human beings will succeed necessarily, in spite of the worst intentions. Any talk you hear about empathy between people at a distance is a mis-use or dangerously precarious extension of the concept of empathy, and we can only expect people to feel amorally towards individuals who, because of a lack of the circumstances which make someone human to you, don't register as human in the only ways which such connections are real and meaningful.

I believe that we can "know" almost nothing, and that once you accept solipsism as the first and last solid foundation, you can get down to the business of comparing sets-of-beliefs, instead of arguing over how we could know things that, logically, by definition, can't be known (because we could be wrong about them). This dispenses with a multitude of obstacles which cause so many debates to stall before any momentum is gained.

I believe that the concept of a god or gods is necessarily incoherent as a result of the core elements of the only definitions which a theist could agree to. I'm not talking about the "omniscient / omnipotent / omnibenevolent" thing, that's a pretty soft attack in my opinion. I'm talking about something that ceases to be godlike if it can merely fit into any conceivable description of a very powerful alien entity (or whatever). And I claim that all of the attributes which separate proposed god or gods from a very powerful alien entity (or whatever) are necessarily inconceivable. In fact, that inconceivability is often explicit, or beyond explicit - probably the most sophisticated and compelling defenses of theism lean the hardest on that inscrutability. But I think that sense of mystery is not an argument in and of itself, or a koan-ish vibration which can only be felt and meditated on - it's the beginning of a discussion. The end of that discussion is a reduction of that sense of mystery and its appeal without denigrating or even dispelling the substance of religious awe. In my experience, it's that religious awe that's the final sticking point for so many theists. If I can save the phenomenon of religious awe and accommodate ritual, mythological story-telling, and real community bonding without offering the pathetic substitutes of scientism and modern western urban secularism, then I think what's left of god shouldn't be worth the trouble that concept causes in so, so, so many other domains of philosophy.

It goes without saying that these descriptions are nowhere near a sufficient defense of these claims, but you asked for examples. I’m happy also to give you my answer to almost any of the more run-of-the-mill moral/philosophical questions. At the very least I'm confident that I could dismantle the usual abortive conversations and provide a clear path to ones which have real traction (if people were willing to at least entertain the system of controversial positions I outlined above, which of course the vast majority of them will not).

S.:
These are each specific enough and counter-intuitive enough to have probably cost a good deal of effort. I suspect there are stories there.

M.S.: Also, unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to genuinely believe that you’ve made philosophical progress, without being automatically enrolled in the halls of crackpots, inducted into the membership of those who think they’ve “figured it out” -- solved the Grand Questions. But I guess I’d turn that critique around and ask -- if that isn’t your goal, than what is it you think you’re doing? I’m OK with multiple agendas at the same time, and as I’ve said, I try not to let my philosophical agenda interfere with my other efforts. To the degree that I am capable of being an happy and healthy human being, I want to still keep doing the things that are the most important. Again, I don’t think philosophy will lead me to happiness; or if it does, it’d be in defeating philosophical or intellectual obstacles that have been set up -- either set up for me, or that I myself set up, but which in any case ought never to have been there.

S.:
Because of bad inputs for the algorithm.

M.S.: Exactly. But I think there are still good inputs, and to the extent that I concentrate on and process these, me getting closer to other human beings is not a matter of becoming better at philosophy, or becoming philosophically wiser. I have everything I need -- to the degree that I’m not lacking or broken somehow -- to make those connections work. I should pursue humanity as a human, not as a philosopher. That’s going on all the time, obviously; and if it’s being trampled, you’d better watch out.

S.:
So you’d aspire to live according to the adage of the ancients: "Live first, and then philosophize."

M.S.: I’d say, prioritize living first, prioritize philosophy second. As much as living is available to you -- as much as you can live.

S.:
It’s not clear how much that is?

M.S.: As with the analogy with medicine -- the problem is, we’re up shit creek collectively. When people get together, and they claim to be talking philosophy and what they’re actually doing is just connecting, or having an artistic experience, or whatever -- I might admit to this being a higher priority for whoever that is. ….But, if you’re going to do medicine, do medicine; if you’re going to do art, do art; if you’re going to do philosophy, do philosophy. Or at least have the division of when you are doing it seriously - and when you’re not - be a pretty clear one. Again, the process here is not to leverage something that is human to be more human, as if philosophy might be a really core element that, if we do it in the right, continental, experientialist way, we’ll become more -- and better -- human -- No. There are elements of philosophy that I think you could probably portion out into more human projects, that are just about experiencing. I think they’ve become entwined with philosophy because philosophy addresses these things, but I don’t think this is what philosophy should be used for; it should be used to destroy itself, to complete a process that should never have been started.

S.:
“The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking.” Maybe you are closer to Heidegger than you think. Or, better, to me -- we both, you and I, actually do see philosophy as not an end in itself. Though I’m quite ready to insist that philosophy is primarily experiential and not discursive -- that’s how I might have parsed out that distinction -- we started out the conversation by mentioning the experiences that people say “changed their lives,” and that really those sorts of experiences are so rarely the ones we seek out or expect to be decisive -- rather, they’re the ones that happen to us willy-nilly. And yet it’s possible to live, to comport oneself, in such a way as to make oneself more prone to the possibility of being changed -- to cultivate an openness. Your example was travel --

M.S.: Not just any travel. Go to a third-world country.

S.:
Right. Or even, possibly, a very different first-world country, like -- if you happen to be American -- Japan? If you conduct yourself in that way, you may bump into something that will shake you to your core. And I’d be willing to strongly defend the idea that philosophy is just such comportment; even that the tradition of philosophy is a kind of arsenal or cabinet of practices for doing this -- a set of tropes, thought-experiments, metaphors -- texts, but also practices -- for doing this. None of those are magical, by themselves, as if they guaranteed “openness” -- if you treat them as magical, they become just such a packaged “experience” -- a New Years’ Eve party. Or Burning Man. But if you employ them loosely, I guess I’d say, they become ways of conducting and examining yourself in ways that leave you open to the chance of having your life blown open. Now that arsenal, that tradition, is not an end in itself. It’s only useful insofar as it lets you have these encounters -- lets you realize your premises were flawed. And there’s no final conclusion, no moment at which one can say Now I’ve arrived. In that sense, I think, I’m willing to say there’s no progress -- no answer; no final answer, no moment when you can say Ah, now I’ve Solved The Problem, I’ve found the capital-T Truth philosophy was in search of. On the other hand, one can always live deeper and deeper. In that sense I’d say, there’s clearly a kind of progress that is real. You could stay where you are -- or not. You can say the same thing over and over again or not. For me, holding as I do to the medieval notion of philosophy as ancillary (though I’d qualify this) -- I too feel that philosophy should want to put itself out of business in a certain sense, though I think it’s indispensable and probably unfinishable. I’m much less inclined to see philosophy as an unfortunate requirement to put right a happenstantial bad turn in our history. I think its indispensable given the way we’re constructed. But I also see it as not an end in itself. It’s interesting to me that we both see philosophy as not final. Or self-justifying.

M.S.: What you’re saying makes me grasp better what you and your ilk, if I can say so, are doing -- something I both respect and disagree with. The overlap you mention is real but slim. What comes to mind is -- obviously philosophy is many things to many people, with many facets. There’s the discursive and argumentative facet which many see as obvious --

S.:
The close attention to logic, distinguishing it from rhetoric; avoiding fallacies; what people mean by “critical thinking,” parsing reasons and consequences and so on? And a strong concern for consistency.

M.S.: Yes. But there is also an aspect that i want to call conceptually esoteric --full of ideas that may not inspire passion, but are deeply weird, and challenging. Maybe no one is actually a solipsist, for instance --

S.:
-- or a mereological nihilist

M.S.: -- indeed; but these ideas aren’t like the crackpotism of being a snake handler. The ideas aren’t endorsed in real-world ways (like getting real rattlesnakes out of the box with your bare hands). No one is a solipsist like that; but it remains weird to take these ideas seriously anyway.

S.:
So you mean by “esoteric” in this sense not a Straussian writing-between-the-lines, but rather these weird, out-there and abstract ideas, counterintuitive and challenging and very hard to inhabit, but also not obviously stupid or counterfactual -- not like the moon being made of cheese. A kind of respectable crackpotism, almost.

M.S.: And then there’s a third aspect -- a kind of mystical or religious element of philosophy.

S.:
Meaning-of-life stuff. At least some of which resists being put into words, or exhaustively so.

M.S.: And those three things are each so prominent that philosophy could be defined at any moment by any of them. Which is why, throughout history, philosophy has frequently been dismissed as being too intellectual, too obscurantist, too abstract, too mystical -- any of those. I’m not going to argue that “philosophy” is really three wrongly conflated things; all of these are rightly philosophical. Traditionally, what one does is attempt to subsume one or two of these under another, and show how they relate and interact. And, if you want to do any of them philosophically, you have to engage all of them. Now it sounds to me like you come to philosophy -- the table of philosophy, this feast -- and you find there these aspects of mystical sustenance. And you say, first of all, these are important; I refuse to accept any assessment of this table that doesn’t feature -- and prominently feature -- these aspects. So you are resistant to any narrowly analytic views that shove such things off the table -- which they do, and rudely.

S.:
Do you think I go further and shove the other things off?

M.S.: No, you don’t do that. But we were having this conversation about what can cultivate changes in human beings -- and changes them positively; what lets them grow, what feeds them. And I wonder if for you and those who share this approach, if you discover this at the philosophy table, and it changes you, I’d say this is potentially an argument for the power of say, mystical experience; not one of philosophy generally speaking. And surely, just because something mystical or religious is found in philosophy, and has to be, this doesn’t mean you have to go to philosophy to get it. There are or could be cultures that are religious, or mystical, without being philosophical. That stuff is on other tables as well. So if this is your reason for coming to philosophy -- first of all, why philosophy? And secondly, if you don’t really engage with the other two aspects, there’s arguably some harm that comes from it, because we’re all at this table -- well, the analogy of the banquet breaks down. But we’re involved in a collective project, and if you aren’t doing all of it….

S.:
There’s a dialogic aspect that suffers.

M.S.: Exactly. Yes. And it’s not just you that misses out, the whole cooperative endeavor can go awry. To switch analogies: If you show up to work in a field with others, part of the effort is to get the job done, but part of it is also to (say) build community. And if you only “get the job done,” or only sing the work songs, or whatever, the whole endeavor goes slightly off, because it was always about more than one thing. So, just because you’re not pushing things off the table, does not mean that things don’t go wrong.

S.:
But then you’re arguing that this communal effort is somehow -- well communal. It’s human. And this is why it can go awry if it’s treated as something else. You’re being invaded by fuzzy borders.

M.S.: No; it’s a structural analogy. But working in a field with others is human beings doing a human thing; philosophy is human beings doing a non-human thing. Understand, I’m not saying that medicine or philosophy should be considered as separate from ordinary human endeavors -- I’m saying they are separate. We’ve set them up that way, and this is how they are. And I’m saying, we can acknowledge this, or not acknowledge it. I’m not making the decree from on high -- “this is how philosophy works; and this is how cultivating a field works.” I’m saying, if you look at it closely, they reveal themselves as having these differences.

S.:
So the “non-human” structure of philosophy is part of what’s “on the table.”

M.S.: But we still do it as human beings. This is what transhumanists, for instance, forget.

S.:
But it seems to me that there is something about philosophy that inherently challenges one to make progress as a person.

M.S.: Example?

S.:
Epistemic humility. The need to both be true to one’s convictions and intuitions and simultaneously know where one’s limits are -- what the limits of claims are. The capacity to be challenged by a position that is unpalatable and yet potentially true.

M.S.: Two narratives come to mind -- at least. One: you come to that conclusion intellectually and it makes no difference at all. This is a coherent possibility and I think there are clear examples of it. Two: you are changed, but not because philosophy changed you. Rather philosophy gave you the symbols -- it is rich in symbols and as we said, it has these elements on the table. But there were other reasons why you were ready to have this insight -- you were processing something emotionally, or religiously, or psychologically, and philosophy was there. It’s a powerful leverage point, and its tools provide a lot of torque, but it’s incidental to the change itself.

S.:
Sufficient but not necessary.

M.S.: And I think that philosophy is obviously -- tautologically -- not for those things, because you can get them elsewhere.

S.:
For instance: Despite your being able – obviously – to hold forth on all of this with aplomb, your education was not in philosophy, but in art. So I want to ask you, do you feel the same way about art -- the same personal investment, and the same general reservations?

M.S.: Yes. I love art, and I'm dedicated to creating the most sophisticated and challenging artwork that I can. But if an exquisitely sublime level of art is a necessary medicine for society (and I'm not saying that's obviously and uncontroversially true), then its value is to wake us up and inspire us - to push us towards societal structures where the good life is, again, natural and inevitable. To return to the point about an unsophisticated community, is it really necessary for such a community to create or even be capable of appreciating extremely advanced works of art? Or is a more rudimentary form of art enough to nourish the human spirit? I argue that the kind of art made by regular people is more than enough for a happy, healthy, and fulfilling human existence.

S.:
What media do you work in?

M.S.: Sculpture mostly - ceramic, polymer clay, and mixed media. But I've got a background in digital art and painting.


An Unnecessary Multiplication of Entities by Michael Shephard

S.: But if Philosophy -- at least according to certain accounts -- strives for articulation, conversely -- by some accounts -- art resists articulation. As Agnes de Mille said, “If I could say it I wouldn't have to dance it”. Is there sense to this notion of non-paraphraseable content in art? Or is this very question not of interest to you, qua artist?

M.S.: I'm very interested in it, even from an artistic point of view. Most artists are at least somewhat conscious of how, exactly, one courts the wild and murky potential of the subconscious. Salvador Dali famously held a spoon in his hand as he dozed, so that it would slip out just as he was in that in-between state between waking and sleeping - it would clang to the ground, and allowing him to drag surreal visions from the depths of pre-slumber free association.

That being said, I don't think art is inherently "ineffable". We often use the word "mystery" to refer to things that are mysterious to us, but not necessarily irreducible. Actually, most people don't even attempt to distinguish between "too complicated for human beings to consciously articulate" and "fundamentally inexplicable" (whatever that means). I think art is a different format of communication, but it's communication nonetheless. Personally, if something could be communicated without using art, I think an artistic format should be avoided. Because it operates at a level that, by design, tends to bypass conscious examination, it comes loaded with all sorts of crazy and messy superfluities.

If that's the only way something can be communicated, fine - and I believe that some things can only be communicated through art. But if not, steer clear. Especially because you, as an artist, don't always fully know what you're putting into your art. And also because the skill of an artist (like the skill of an orator), can lend an undeserved power to a political or philosophical message.

S.:
How is your philosophical drive connected to your artistic urge, and did it predate or postdate it?

M.S.: My artistic drive is mostly separate, although my artistic and intellectual facets contain refractions of each other. I feel no need to combine these things, or even interleave them. I will say that I originally saw my art in near-religious terms, I thought of it as a potentially genuine connection to a existent dimension from which visions were drawn. I thought there was a conduit. It was actually my first serious investigation into philosophy proper that led to a surrender (and not a painless one) to atheism. The writings of Joseph Campbell were hugely helpful in finding a way to preserve the mystical/"mystical" experience of art, while still committing myself to a physicalist ontology.

S.:
Do you make a living as an artist?

M.S.: I make pasta right now. And food is not art, I agree with Socrates on that question. I've been a professional illustrator and designer in the past. My fine art has never been very commercially viable, and I'm very wary of the temptation to change it in order to make money as a "real" artist. I think in order to absolutely and completely avoid that happening (which is my goal) I need to never expect to sell anything. That should never, ever be part of the equation in my head as I am creating a new work. I consider that to be corrupting and poisonous to the making the kind of art that I admire most, and that I think we need more of.

S.:
This opens upon a broader question of livelihood in general. What sorts of social and/or political structures do you aspire to live in? What, in other words, is the good life for you?

M.S.: To be clear, the good life for me might not be the good life for human beings. I was raised by a society that had/has a lot of strange ideas, and those ideas shaped me. I can intellectually, and thus publicly, question or condemn those ideas, but many of them are too deeply ingrained in me. I think gender is a good example - I believe I'm doomed to a certain inflexibility regarding gender identity. So for me, the good life requires a social structure which accepts (but doesn't endorse) some outdated notions of masculinity and femininity. I also think I'm doomed to be an urban animal, but I believe that cities -- especially cities of the size and density that many of us live in -- are fundamentally unhealthy for human beings, and antithetical to the kind of communities that human beings need.

And when I speak of "human beings", again, I'm speaking about a species -- a species which is defined by common characteristics. Any species may have its exceptions, and maybe some human beings don't want to be included in the category "human species", but it's pointless to talk about those kinds of outliers. Maybe someone has a genetic mutation that causes them to gain healthy nourishment from smoking two hundred cigarettes a day - that's fine, but I still get to say that the "good life for human beings" probably involves staying away from cigarettes (or use your own example of something that's clearly unhealthy). Maybe someone is so psychologically or neurologically atypical that any human contact whatsoever gives them a panic attack - that's fine, but I still get to say that the "good life for human beings" is probably compromised by extreme isolation.

To answer your question more directly, I think human beings have an emotional need to be living in real communities. By "real", I mean a community where people literally live together, sharing space, food, tools, struggles, and triumphs. A community where people stay together, so that problems must be worked out as opposed to walked away from. Ideally, a community where people work together, bound by a common purpose. Also, a community without entrenched power structures, so that people are directly and immediately accountable to the rest of the community.

I aspire to live in a community like that. I currently live in an "intentional community" (basically a hippie cooperative), and it's great, but it's still too loose to be what I would consider a real community. I could walk away from it without too many consequences, and in fact the turn-over is between two and four years, which really isn't a long time when you talk about the level of connection which human beings are capable of.
More pragmatically speaking, I hope to get as close as possible to the ideal that I endorse, but I think the best that the current adult generation can hope to do is point the next generation in the right direction. Honestly, though, I doubt that that's even going to happen.

S.:
I'd describe you, then, as having both a well-articulated and strong commitment to living as a “human,” given that this is what we are; and yet -- comfortable calling yourself a de-humanist -- you want us to be able to do the anti-human projects (medicine and philosophy have been our examples here but they’re just examples) and finish them. But there are still also, as you say, ordinary human projects which it would be nice to get back to, to be able to wholeheartedly and healthily get back to. I began by asking about biography and claiming a link between life and thought; and I might even urge that, in addition to the three elements you named of philosophy -- what you called the discursive/argumentative, the esoteric, and the mystical/religious -- there’s another aspect, the scholarly or historical, which is, again, linked to questions of biography. As we wrap this conversation up, I’m still wondering about the human connection of philosophy.

M.S.: Can you elaborate on this “human connection”?

S.:
Philosophy as dialogic. As the “examined life.” Philosophy as inherently concerned with the Good. And yet, -- It's interesting, I find (perhaps under your influence as we’ve gone through this exchange) that I don't really want to claim that philosophy is – in an inflated sense -- fundamentally "human," as if this term was particularly important. I'm not especially attached to becoming ever "more human," per se, though I would resist becoming "less" so. My own values direct themselves toward being – or becoming -- good, being a person (as opposed to an object of ideology or someone else's project -- this includes being free and being responsible), being "me" (authenticity), and truly meeting life - other entities, events, &c - honestly. It's not clear to me at all that "Human" is a privileged term in this. It might turn out to be if, in quest of a certain kind of consistency, I chased some implications down, maybe.

M.S.: I’m not sure if this is relevant to the specific thrust of your question, but I would say that philosophy is for human affairs, and again human-ness is special to humans, which we are. Philosophy must ultimately answer my human fears, it must lead you to some kind of "good life", and it must resolve our conflicts. However, the project of philosophy will not be successful if thought of and carried out as a primarily human activity. It will also, of course, not be successful if the humans-conducting-a-not-primarily-human-activity aspect is not kept in mind. A difficult problem, to be sure. But not an insurmountable one.


Digital Abstract by Michael Shephard

Sunday, February 5, 2017

"Whatever your questions are, the answers will extend from your definition:" Interview with Michael Shephard, part 1


This is somewhat of a departure for my on-again-off-again series of interviews. You won't have heard of Michael Shephard unless you already know the non-University philosophy scene in Seattle, and even then, maybe not. Michael is founder and longtime organizer of Drunken Philosophy, a remarkably successful and populous local meetup group, devoted to philosophical discussion and other altered states of consciousness, not always in that order. Unlike many philosophy meetup groups, which are often more or less formal Q-&-A occasions, Drunken Philosophy is more or less a free-for-all -- you show up, find or start a conversation, and if you get bored, you move on. You may move through one or ten conversations in a night, and never meet the same viewpoint twice. Politics from Libertarian to bleeding-heart Marxist, ontologies from scientism to mysterian New-Age; atheists and "believers," English majors and coders, the stodgy rear-guard and the gender-obliterating avant-; and, maybe most significantly, newbies and veterans. By this last, I mean both with regards to the group, or to philosophy itself. I've spoken with Straussians who can go to town over Heidegger or Aeschylus, or readers of Chinese who can tell me why so-and-so's rendering of Li Po may be as apt as English semantics can get but really ruins the music; I've met a young man barely old enough to get into the bar who was reeling from his fresh break from the Jehovah's Witnesses a couple of months before, and a woman from Korea who told me she was astounded at the tremendous breadth of different standards of female beauty in the U.S. I've heard a stranger give me a coherent and confident pitch for the theory behind acupuncture and qi gong in under five minutes, and friend surprise me by revealing a hitherto-unsuspected encyclopedic familiarity with the minutiae of post-Civil War Reconstruction. You may be recruited for black-bloc anarchism or for an Orthodox kibbutz. As my favorite group review says:
Where else can you have back-to-back discussions of the meaning of consciousness, the significance of David Bowie, & the plausibility of medieval Arab alchemy's influence on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? There is in this group something extremely difficult to obtain by design: a lovely and always-shifting poise between breadth and depth; enthusiasm and expertise; inclusiveness and intensity. You needn't have a Ph.D in philosophy (or anything) but [even] if you do you'll find much to wrestle with. Nor need you drink, by the way. Longtime members take an interest in the experience of newcomers (I always meet one or two--it's a growing group!) Few here agree with me (Ha!) even about "what philosophy is," but conversation remains respectful in the midst of challenge, & has even changed my mind. Most important: I've made real friends here, & friendship is, as Aristotle tells us, essential to the good life. Had some good beer, too.
Okay, if this sounds Utopian, I guess it is, rather. It doesn't always go so smoothly, or so electrifyingly either. But the bit about friendship is one hundred percent true.

One of these friends has been Michael, and over the years I've become familiar with some of the rewards and the challenges of moving with him between the nitty-gritty and the stratosphere. He has a rather exasperating and altogether admirable tenacity, which he combines with a great sensitivity to the developing culture-of-two (or -of-however-many) which any ongoing conversation in media res is. This manifests in a kind of on-the-fly evolution of shared metaphors and accepted shorthand, which serve as useful markers for the conversation as it goes forward. It's one of the things I admire about him and it is on display in this interview. Indefatigable convener (quite emphatically not "leader"), somehow, while being totally committed to his own views -- except of course when he's either self-consciously experimenting, or suddenly brought up short and made to reconsider (I'm sure it happens) -- he's managed to establish and intentionally promote a culture in the group that makes for welcome and mutual respect between regulars and rookies, experts and neophytes, across all sorts of positions. This isn't to say that he hasn't had a good deal of frustration along the way. One of the risks of the come-one-come-all stance (with or without the "Drunken") is encountering a good deal of naïvete, or intransigence, or idees fixes. I've had, and heard about, conversations with boring or overbearing people who have a pet theory or a chip on their shoulder. These usual suspects are pretty quickly identified, and while they may not get driven out, they don't often become repeat offenders, and friends look out for each other and for the new folk who might otherwise be easy prey. But this sort of vigilance can take a toll on someone who really, really wants the group to succeed; and you can get tired of fending off someone's spiel about their theory-of-everything for the nth time. Shephard recently stepped out of the role of organizer for the group, though he still attends. It seemed as good a time as any to ask him about his own philosophical itinerary, as well as some of his underlying motivations.

This is part one of the Interview. Part two can be read here.

* * *

Skholiast: We’ve been friends for a long time, and I’m struck by the way that philosophy unfolds in the context of a friendship -- or vice-versa -- despite or even by way of intense disagreement. We met under explicitly philosophical auspices, at the meetup group you founded – Drunken Philosophy; and I think it’s accurate to say we’ve butted heads a number of times, intentionally and not --

Michael Shephard: As much as you ever butt heads.

S.: -- as a way of feeling out each others’ positions.

M.S.: We certainly don’t agree, on many things.

S.: Indeed. I was about to say that maybe I’m less committed to the notion of a “position” per se, but maybe I’m just irenic in my approach.

M.S.: Oh, and what does that make me?

S.: Less irenic.

M.S.: (Laughs).

S.: More acerbic?

M.S.: Ah, you went there!

S.: Irascible. I was working up to it.

M.S.: I like it!

S.: Drunken Philosophy is now the second-largest philosophy meetup group in the U.S. What do you think is the secret?

M.S.: I think I'd always have been willing to give some version of the following honest answer. Basically, smart and smart-ish people want to talk about "stuff" but they don't want to be intimidated by expectations. Both the word "drunken" and the word "philosophy" are pretty sloppy words, and so the intimidation factor is low.

More charitably, to the attendees and to myself, there is a notion that discussing big ideas can be done in a fun and bawdy way - that in fact certain important discussions about the human experience are actually stripped of vital potential by being restricted to a sober and academic setting.

Also, Seattle's Drunken Philosophy may have over 2,700 members, but over five years the average attendance has always stayed level at around 25, give or take five. Interpret that as you will.


S.: Why did you found Drunken Philosophy in the first place?

M.S.: It's funny, I actually have very clear memory of when I decided to do it. I was attending another philosophy-based meetup in Seattle, which was being held at a library. The discussion was reasonably engaging, but very stiff and overly polite. I kept thinking "I'm enjoying this, but what I really want is to have a beer in my hand." I think alcohol loosens people up and allows them to toss ideas around more violently and rapidly. When people've had a few, and feeling friendly towards each other, new ideas can be lobbed, skewered, accidentally knocked off the table, and picked back up and brushed off again.

Also, to again be very honest, I genuinely wanted to be having intellectual discussions which weren't dominated by people in their late forties, fifties, and sixties. This is less about ageism, and more about the kinds of people who go to discussion groups at libraries. There's a whole bunch of subtle (and not-so-subtle) social dynamics and ideological inertias that emerge when you get together a bunch of older, educated white men with often less-than-stellar social skills. By adding "drunken" to the meetup group's name, you drive away anyone who gets grumpy when it's too noisy and rowdy to get people to listen to them tell their story about that mule who used to wear a hat.


S.: And now, five years later, you have handed over the position of organizer. Are you just tired of that role, or do you feel you have encountered the limits of public philosophy discussion in this forum?

M.S.: Well, full disclosure: I've become disenchanted... but that being said, mostly I'm tired of having the same conversations over and over again, and of conversations that get derailed before they have a chance to develop. If I was still having great conversations, I'm sure I would still be sufficiently enthusiastic about organizer duties (duties which are absurdly minimal anyway for this particular group).

Given the angle of your question, I guess I could say my personal fatigue probably does stem, ultimately, from the "limits of public philosophy discussion" in the Drunken Philosophy forum (and probably in the forum of discussing-philosophy-while-drunk, more generally speaking). Part of this depends on the people who show up - at its best, Drunken Philosophy had a core group of five to eight people with the ability to be very serious about a philosophical issue, while still having a good time. But on the whole, most conversations are subject to any number of limitations. Anyone completely new to a given topic might require a ground-up introduction, often devolving in a meta-conversation about the proper definition or scope of said topic. And then, many people are familiar with a philosophical issue, but stubbornly defend an opinion which they formed long ago, usually without a huge amount of skepticism or analysis.

And in addition to loosening people up, alcohol lends itself towards tangents, jokes, and various other disruptions. In the ideal scenario, these things enliven a conversation, spicing it up but not destabilizing it entirely. In reality, though, it usually means you end up having twenty-five different fragments of conversation over the course of a night. So I guess I see "drunken philosophy" as a kind of "gateway" experience. Like marijuana, if you haven't done many drugs before, it's a good place to start. And even heroin-addicts will smoke a joint when they're hanging out with their friends. But those of us who are into a more hardcore, intravenous type of philosophical inquiry tend to crave something significantly stronger.


S.: So a bit ago, before I turned on this recorder, you said, about experiences that may be said to fundamentally change one, and those that don’t, that those we actively seek tend to not be the ones that wind up changing us.

M.S.: Right.

S.: So one way we could talk about philosophy is as this strange kind of interaction -- a largely discursive interaction -- between people, in which people might, and sometimes do, change their minds. In which we might become different people --

M.S.: No.

S.: “No!” Already!

M.S.: I’m the irascible one, it’s my prerogative.

S.: I know you have some reservations about the importance of philosophy itself -- you've said in conversation before that it's perfectly possible to live a fulfilled life without it. What is the role of philosophy in the good life? And (conversely) what leads you to say it is dispensable?

M.S.: Philosophy is like medicine - if someone's sick, you give them medicine, but if someone's healthy, giving them medicine might actually make them sick. My claim is that it's perfectly possible for human beings to live a fulfilled life without philosophy, but that modern cultures (and even many ancient cultures) make that impossible.

First of all, I think it's condescending to consider some unsophisticated community (actual or hypothetical) that lives simply from day to day - finds food, cares about each other, celebrates births, grieves deaths, and enjoys life through dancing, singing, laughing, and fucking - and say that they're missing something. Second of all, I think that doing philosophy properly requires a lot of work. Like many things, if asking regular people to do a lot of work is your "solution", then I think you ought to go back to the drawing board.

Take diet for example. Modern societies spend a lot of time discussing what a healthy diet looks like. This is important because modern people are faced with a unusual choices. Many approaches to this problem emphasize more effort on the part of regular people - in addition to our everyday stress and drama, the ups and downs of being a human being, we are asked to be disciplined, wary, and informed about what we eat. But just like philosophy, the conversation about nutrition involves a convoluted landscape of conflicting ideologies driven by politics, money, individual biases, and cultural values.

I think it's too much to ask. Unfortunately, the problem does exist, and it is compounded by various traditions, assumptions, and agendas. So we can't get to good nutrition without disarming the landmines strewn throughout modern society (in the form of ideas, and also in the form of tantalizingly delicious noms). But if we set up society such that good nutrition (whatever that is) was the natural and inevitable thing, then the whole field of "nutrition" becomes moot.

My feelings about philosophy are similar. If some people in a society can figure out what the good life is, and then articulate it in a way that can be understood by many others, perhaps a general movement towards societal reconstruction can be instigated. Once the work is done, though, there's no need for anyone to be a specialist, intellectual or otherwise. And in fact, I would claim that such specialization is, ironically, only possible in societies that have become disordered to begin with. I would go even farther and suggest that such specialization isn't really good for the individual - we often praise a certain level of skill or intelligence that can only be achieved by an unhealthy obsession, and I think unhealthy obsessions typically only exist in unhappy people.


S.: I'm curious how this huge and yet ambivalently-held value for you arose biographically.

M.S.: Since I was around thirteen I've been compulsively trying to formulate and test systems of thought about how the world works. My drive to do this comes primarily from an extremely dysfunctional desire to have a sense of control over events and human relationships which would (I unconsciously theorized) allow me to steer clear of what felt like an ever-threatening cloud of dangers, failures, and embarrassments. In my twenties and thirties, I've found ways to largely heal (or at least manage) that desperate need for control, but the habit and interest in forming and testing systems remains.

I think I also have a sort of "natural" curiosity, and growing up with two PhD-ed parents (biology and physics) probably gave rise to much of that. I like taking things apart and figuring out how they work, and I like imagining complex scenarios or solving weird problems that don't need to be solved. Much of this probably still stems from escapism, but it's also been part of my identity for as long as I can remember.


S.: Does it relate to your cross-cultural experiences, e.g., as nonreligious Jew? Or, as sometime sojourner in Japan, where part of your childhood was spent?

M.S.: If these kinds of autobiographical details have any relevance to my intellectual trajectory, they're part of a much larger set of factors which contribute to me feeling like an outsider and, all too frequently, feeling like I was not quite human. If anything, I've had to consciously and intentionally examine what being human means, including love, happiness, goodness, and all the rest of the things you might see as the "human connection" in philosophy. I'm not autistic or sociopathic -- it's not like I'm learning to fake these things, but I think I've had to kindle them from low-burning coals, and much of that required, for me, deconstruction and reconstruction.

S.: It’s true that I see biography and philosophy – “the life and the thought” – as strongly, interconnected, and this interconnection as philosophically relevant. Be that as it may, though, I do think that possibly one of the differences between us, is that I think of philosophy itself as more experiential than you do.

M.S.: Yes. You and others are part of a school that I respect, that does see things that way. I don’t think of myself as one of the “opposite” school, either. I’m not anti-experiential, I just -- I think that the power of philosophy is significantly less. You know that in medieval art, the size of a figure is indicative of their significance?

S.: Yes

M.S.: So I think that for thinkers like you, the figure of capital-P “Philosophy” looms very large in their internal depiction of the world. But for me, as much as philosophy is one of the central things in my life, I don’t let it, want it or like to loom so large. And I think there’s a danger in it so looming. I think that one of the philosophical insights that’s given me the most leverage in my thinking, is a certain suspicion of human excitement about things. Passion is a good thing, it’s wonderful, but when it comes to philosophy, I’m suspicious of what that claims to tell us about what is and isn’t important. Moreover, even looking at the most central and even brilliant philosophers, one can see that their ideas often stem from who they are already. And that over time, they don’t tend to have philosophical insights which dramatically change who they are as people. More often -- and it’s probably more controversial to argue this -- but I would argue that if there is a change, it goes the other way: a personality change alters the philosophy being espoused. That’s fine -- I don’t have a problem with this; we’re not friends with Kant, or Plato; we can just look at their ideas. They’ve contributed the ideas, now the ideas are in the mix. And sometimes someone’s had to sacrifice their whole life to put that idea out into the mix -- even if their reason for doing so was purely personal.

S.: The link you’re suggesting between personality and doctrine seems surprisingly Nietzschean; it’s very reminiscent of Nietzsche’s extensive claims that one’s doctrine has its roots in one’s psychology. This would just be, then, my style of the Will to Power. And Fichte too says that one’s philosophy derives from the type of person one is.

M.S.: Except that what I’m saying doesn’t include the relativistic implications that often are taken to derive from this. Nietzsche for instance goes on and on in some places about how truth is a poor goal. And I don’t believe that. I just believe that part of what the truth is, is a fundamental weakness in human beings, a bias in human beings -- and that this isn’t something to be overcome, here. It’s something to be recognized. But -- if I wanted to return to that, somewhat impolite, division between the experiential and the reductionist, or “Analytic”, notions of philosophy -- it seems that what the reductionist wants to do is to really and decisively overcome -- There are some who get excited about philosophy because they feel it’ll supercharge them, as thinkers and as human beings. Some people take this so literally that it leads on into transhumanist notions -- potentially biological change. But for most people it’s: how can I become a better person -- a more moral human being, a more powerful human being, a more wise human being? And philosophically deconstructing the way reality works, is their sort of power-up for that project. Then there’s the other camp, which says: No, no, you’ve got that wrong -- backwards. You’re going to mislead yourself and fall into a trap. You can’t get around the fact that we are human beings -- that’s where all this ambition is coming from, and to pretend that you’re in charge, that you’re driving, is the opposite of accurately assessing the situation. The experientialist view tries to embrace humanity qua humanity, the human experience as a wonderful beautiful, powerful thing -- and tragic, sad, as well, but --

S.: -- fraught with meaning. The only place where meaning happens.

M.S.: Not just fraught, but ripe with meaning, pregnant with meaning. But I reject both this view and its apparent opposite. On the one hand, I agree that the former view is unbelievably hubristic, and that it does get things backwards -- claiming to drive the car when it isn’t and can’t. I do believe that the apparently “magical” quality of human experience for human beings is not evidence of it being magical -- meaningful -- in any other sense. But -- my rejection of the latter view says: it’s magical for human beings. So the question I would ask is, Well, what are human beings? It is hard to get underneath that question, because we do feel -- shockingly! -- a great deal of meaning in human experience. But this doesn’t make it meaningful in any other sense. What is meaningful for a dog is meaningful for a dog; what’s meaningful for bees is meaningful for bees. It automatically scales. And this is a good thing; the fact that it scales means that the satisfactions available to human beings are available to human beings. It would be terrible if the meaning human beings needed scales to something other than the needs of human beings.

S.: I think this is one of the fears that haunts critics of transhumanism -- or perhaps, the flipside would be, critics of radical eliminativism. The worry is that what’s meaningful to one in the first gobsmacked weeks of true love, or being moved to tears by a symphony, reduces to what’s “meaningful” for -- I’ll put it in quotes -- or what “moves” some atoms of sodium and potassium in our neural synapses. The eliminativist shrugs at this; the transhumanist thinks they can leverage it somehow by getting in there with some silicon or some quantum switches.

M.S.: Sure. Increasing our intensity of aesthetic appreciation; increasing our “sphere of empathy;” those are some of the projects I’ve heard. I’ll drive home the point; those projects are self-defeating. Things scale in tandem. It’s like any common-sense argument about when you’ve been exposed to a higher-quality thing, that becomes your new normal. There may be an initial boost that comes from novelty, but in general our appreciation scales to the new standard. … I don’t think that the pitch of satisfaction, or empathy, can keep rising and rising.

S.: It’s even possible we could reach a kind of sound barrier.

M.S.: That makes it sound kind of -- metaphysical.

S.: What I mean is, there’s a granularity beyond which you can’t progress. You bump into problems with the actual medium. (Does it even makes sense to speak of an aesthetic appreciation of a musical number that lasts three nanoseconds? Or a major cultural upheaval like the move from print to internet, over three days?)

M.S.: This does however begin to skirt questions such as: between, say, a microbe and a bee, at what point does “satisfaction” become part of the equation? I think those are interesting questions, I’m happy to engage them; but at the level of the issue of what philosophies we embrace, as far as what we think is good for the philosophical health of human beings -- what is the best philosophical diet, so to speak -- the philosophical regimen that will best serve human beings -- in that case it’s not a question of how high can we go; even the notion of “going higher” is, I think, misguided. And yet I think it takes up a lot of energy, unfortunately. It’s part of this narrative of how important human experience is. And whereas I also think that human experience is important, tautologically, to human beings, I think this is not a problem in search of a solution.

S.: So, when you talk about what’s meaningful or good for human beings, as a species, are your categories here biological? Anthropological? Or are they -- philosophical? Or do you reject my terms here?

M.S.: My categories of humans versus dogs versus bees versus microbes?

S.: No, your categories of what-is-good-for-, or what’s-meaningful-to- .

M.S.: What I’d stress is that, whatever we mean by “human” -- and I would emphasize, I don’t need to speak in terms of biological species here -- but whatever you mean by it, unless you’re a diehard solipsist, you hold that there are other entities out there. If you’re someone who says, I don’t distinguish between, say, a dog and a human -- they both appear to me to be conscious, have feelings, etc., I’ll say cool -- I may question you to see if that’s really what you’re doing, and I may have doubts, but that’s not most people. Most people make some distinctions - they identify a category, a set, which they identify as “human beings,” and there are ideas, characteristics --

S.: -- a profile.

M.S.: -- that make for human beings as being a certain thing. Now parenthetically, I think that for certain purposes, we shouldn’t do that -- we shouldn’t identify human beings as “one” thing, “humanity -- there’s just a bunch of organisms, with a similar structure, more or less shared family resemblances. In that sense, there is no such thing as “humanity” -- no one “thing” we can call that. Now, to explore this would raise a whole host of other considerations. If we do go down that road, I can say that the structure determines the satisfactions, as it were. But even if we avoid that road, as soon as anyone agrees that there is a group of beings we decide to call a common name, forming a set, “human beings,” as soon as they’ve agreed to this, I can say OK, you have already set up a definition, an outline of characteristics, defining qualities, and so on. You did that, I didn’t. And whatever that thing is, whatever you maintain about how those entities belong to the same set, there is, tautologically, a common outline to how those entities unfurl, and however that occurs, however they develop, navigate their lives, they way they share all those will in in the definition. Generally speaking, such definitions tend to be rich --

S.: -- not restricted to a single characteristic but to whole clouds of characteristics.

M.S.: Right; not “any of and only those who like ice cream,” for instance. An enormous number of traits fall into it.

S.: There’s a whole indefinite complex Venn diagram implied.

M.S.: Now anyone can come up with edge-cases, fuzzy-boundary-cases -- “You said that all human beings desire connectedness, here’s one who doesn’t” -- and I can address those, issues, but that’s not what we’re talking about. Those “common” -- statistically common, if you want -- characteristics, are going to be there in the definition.

S.: Regardless of the exceptions, which are offered precisely as exceptions to the definition.

M.S.: And not only is this tautologically true, it’s necessary; if you and I aren’t talking about the same thing, it’s wholly pointless for us to have an argument about what’s good for “human beings”.

S.: Sure. You can never get anywhere if you aren’t talking about the same thing, and if you don’t know you’re not talking about the same thing, all apparent progress is illusory.

M.S.: Yes. If we’re both speaking of “dogs” but I mean cats, we’ll get nowhere. We both say, “They make great pets.” I say, “They love milk,” and you might say, Uh, sure… But if you say, They love to catch frisbees, I’ll go, Uh, I’m pretty sure you mean mice. We won’t get anywhere, unless we dig down and find the mistake, or unless we back up definitionally and agree to just talk about, say, mammals -- then we may make progress on a different level. But I don’t need any agreement on content of the definition -- I need no correlation beyond “Do you believe there is something called human beings?” -- in order to assert that there’s something for that set, that is -- whatever: good for them, healthy for them, appropriate for them. Even if we’re wildly talking past each other in terms of content, even if when I say human beings you think tin cans, there’ll be something appropriate to ascribe to that set.

S.: And among those characteristics there’ll be things that pertain to their continuance, and dare I say their flourishing?

M.S.: And those things are necessary to the notion of a set.

S.: Inherent in the commonality?

M.S.: Yes. The commonality is entailed in coherently talking about a set. If every human being is different, then in what way are they all human beings? So it’s important to establish that, whatever definition you have, there must be conclusions that can be derived from the definition, that pertain to each member of the set.

S.: And some of those conclusions have to do with what’s good for them, in whatever way things are good for them.

M.S.: Yes. I don’t enjoy the conversation that implies that this is somehow an oppressive circumscription. I think it follows automatically from the notion of a set. It happens immediately when you use a term implying that several things are one kind of thing.

S.: So you’re not interested in the fuzzy borders -- not as counter-examples that undermine the definition.

M.S.: Well, that gets into mereology. You’ve consented, by using a term that corrals things into a wider group, you consent to ignore the fuzzy borders. That’s the price of playing the game. And you needn’t do that -- you can decline to play that game, and then we won’t make progress in that direction, but that’s OK. If you think there’re no distinctions to be made between human beings and dogs, again, I may question you to see if you are actually doing that, but by all means, stick to your weird guns.

S.: After all, there may be other fruitful directions. But here at this level we’re at a very high-altitude and abstract level of talk, about human beings for example -- because we’re not really talking about human beings, we’re just talking about what-it-means-to-talk-about-X.

M.S.: Well the reason that’s worth going into, is because it introduces the question of what do you mean by human beings?

S.: Forces it, in fact.

M.S.: And I think that’s actually a fairly easy conversation. But also, it means no one gets to backpedal, to start talking about the exceptions, to appeal to the fuzzy borders. I think this is one of the most common problems in philosophy. One person puts forward a claim, and probably they don’t do it very strongly or maybe very skillfully, and then someone disagrees and cites a fuzzy border. And that’s interesting as hell in certain epistemological or metaphilosophical senses, but that’s not where most people are wanting to go, and it tends to be where the conversation ends. “There is no God.” “How do you know there’s no God?” “There’s no evidence for God”. “What do you mean by ‘evidence’?” And the conversation's over. So I’d prefer for people to either be willing to go there, and be willing to resolve those epistemic and metaphilosophical questions, or to just stipulate -- “I admit, I said we were going to have a conversation about human beings, so let’s do that.” Then we can exchange the ideas and consider them, evaluate. And let’s concur, only to work with ideas we both have agreed are shared -- don’t slip in something else without telling me. Don’t start telling me how prayer and worship is necessary for a fulfilled human life, if I haven’t conceded that the connection to a God is part of the definition of a human being.

S.: But in real conversations, one never starts with all of the terms or ground rules laid out beforehand. Because one can’t. You talk for a while, and then you bump into something that makes you say Oh, here’s a question where something clearly remains to be negotiated. You wind up panning back or zooming in, or working underneath -- whatever the spatial metaphor is -- and oftentimes --

M.S.: But it’s not mysterious. That’s my problem -- one of ’em; I got multiple problems. But the problem relevant here is that I think there’s a notion that what it means to be a human being is somehow fundamentally mysterious, and that’s --

S.: -- ah. You’re not saying there’s something mysterious to the issue of renegotiating.

M.S.: No, that’s fairly straightforward.

S.: Or should be. But that’s not the straightforwardness you’re asserting here.

M.S.: No; as you know, in Drunken Philosophy I’ve had many, many opportunities for very frustrating conversations, and when you have these miscommunication s or disagreements, my response is -- maybe not in the moment -- to back up and ask, OK where did that go wrong? So, as I started out with this abstract notion saying, OK What’s X? Because whatever X is, if you agree X is a thing, you already have ideas about X, and so whatever your questions about X are, the answers will extend from your definition of X.

S.: Metadiscursive stipulations.

M.S.: Right. Very dry. But the problem is, in conversation, when people appeal to the fuzzy borders or to exceptions -- again, if you want to have that discussion, I’m eager to, but usually this crops up in a conversation of a different order. People aren’t usually raising these matters of epistemology, or mereology, or semiotics, because that’s what they want to talk about. I’d love it is they did.

S.: No, they don’t. It’s a move of a different sort. But you and I have different responses to such moves. Say someone makes a step like this, one might even call it a faux pas, though they don’t think of it as this -- they’re making a bid to outflank or undercut, by way of an exception, or by appeal to an assumption you hadn’t both stipulated. Your rejoinder to those moments, from what you’re saying and from what I’ve observed, is very often to say: Whoah, wait a minute: Metadiscursive norms! “If you’re going to talk about such-and-such, then…” and then you explain why the fuzzy borders don’t count, not in this instance but by definition.

Whereas I have a different instinct. I’m interested in the question -- hold up, why did they just do that? Why did they just bring in this other thing? Now there’s a way I find it appealing to deploy this, and a way I don’t wish to see it deployed -- or perhaps I just don’t want it deployed that way on me! -- but they are separated by a knife-edge. It’s a psychoanalytic moment of sorts. In which the sense is that something is motivating bringing up this extraneous criterion. Because we do already know that the fuzzy borders don’t apply. We know we’ve stipulated a core, an X. We know that to say, oh there are exceptions everywhere, what about this? doesn’t really undercut -- or if it does, then what’s interesting and what we’d really be wanting to do is to expand the definition -- or perhaps there was just some perverse enjoyment in pretending there was something when there wasn't. But if you’re raising the point of the exception, or definition, to try to make a knock-down argument that drives to the very heart of your opponent’s position -- you can’t really believe (I say) that that’s going to work. Now I think this is more interesting. There’s something motivating you to do this -- it’s a defense. (Or again, even a sort of perversion -- that's a strong word, but let it stand.) And I think that more interesting than these “very dry” issues of metadiscursive norms -- more interesting and more profitable, because it yields more traction -- is to find that motivation. They’re really deploying it as a kind of defense. Something is making them uncomfortable. Now as I say, this can be argued in a condescending and insufferably knowing way -- a reductive way that merely dismisses the objection -- or in a way that’s curious, open, and mutually implicating -- that asks about the very issue of desire, of what one wants; but the question it raises is: So, what’s making for this discomfort? Because that move is a diversion; it’s like throwing sand in the eyes.

M.S.: That can happen. I mean, either I’m being sociopathic in not being interested in the psychology of my interlocutor, and being blind blind to the experiential aspect of the philosophy blossoming between two people --

S.: -- right there, in real time and color!

M.S.: -- and I keep searching for it and not finding what’s right there in front of me; or, on the other hand, you’re expecting quite a lot from people. I’m sure that defensiveness happens quite often. But it could also simply be that it’s hard to see more than four or five interconnected big concepts at once. So I guess i consider myself as being charitable to my interlocutor. These conversations are not machines; we’re trying to juggle many moving parts, and being open to associations that might help us to cut through Gordian knots and give us revelatory new pieces of information; so if your brain gives you an idea like -- Oh, what about this exception? -- it might seem relevant; it might be relevant, despite how many times I find it frustrating or consider it track-jumping, just as many times it could be brilliant and surgically incisive. It’s up to each of us to monitor our incoming contributions if we’re hoping for it to be productive. Something comes up and you think about it for a moment. Does it apply or not? Will it be distracting? Inflammatory? Do I want to go off in that direction and talk about language or epistemology?

S.: “You really wanna go there, bro?”

M.S.: Ha! Yeah, you’ve probably seen or heard me say those very words before. And what’s going through my mind when I used them was probably along the lines of, we don’t want to go there -- we were having a perfectly good conversation about aesthetics, or politics, and we could have made some good progress, which is unlikely to happen now. Now we’ve got to go down two levels, do a bunch of excavation. And given the way these conversation s work -- we’re not colleagues or professionals, we’re not obliged to return to it, and we’re likely not going to bump the conversation back up again. We’re not going to go down to “mammal,” figure out what mammals are, and then go back up to cats and dogs. We’re going to go down to mammals –

S.: And get lost in DNA.

M.S.: Or at best, someone’s going to have to leave. Nothing gets resolved. What I want is to have one conversation at a time.

(Click here for part 2 of this interview)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

(False) trichotomy


There are three classes of people who are facing the upcoming national bout of Delirium Tremens with something like equanimity. First --

The Very, Very Rich -- those who never, ever fretted "will it go our way?" because there was never a question. "Their way" is simply, and by definition, the way it goes.

This is worth dwelling upon, briefly. Think about the .001%; not even the Buffetts and Soroses, those who "make money," but those create it when it suits them. (D.T. is not and never has been in their league). Do you really think there was a time last year when they were gripping their armrests worrying lest something as trivial as an election tip in the direction of one major party or the other?

Now, chances are, you are either irritated by the question, or you find its premise at least prima facie plausible and are already nodding along. In both cases, you are recognizing, either with distaste or with kinship, the bottom line of the second group --

Cynics. Those whose assumption is more or less the argument outlined above. For them, the outcome of an election is a foregone conclusion, and anyone who gets worked up about foregone conclusions is a fool.

Cynicism is the protective buffer secreted by alienation. It is effective from the inside, but imperfectly so, because cynicism is self-conscious and, after all, defined by its differentiation of itself from the fools. I.e., cynicism sees itself as the non-duped. But we know what Lacan said about the non-duped, and eventually, the cynic -- being smart, after all -- figures it out too. The only way out of alienation is through. That means via the dark and scary and nonetheless possible way towards the third group --

Saints.

Don't mistake the saint for the "beautiful soul" that some Marxists like to mock. The BS is just a less sneering form of cynic. Of course the saint may be useless, politically; or on the other hand, she may be intensely committed and ingeniously effective. But either way, their heart is not set upon that treasure. They may care deeply, but at a certain point, they know that the matter is out of their hands -- and they welcome this.

For the record, I do not face the oncoming prospects with equanimity. I too am mired in samsara; I too think that the bad it may get before it gets better (if it gets better) may be very, very bad; and it's hard for me to keep this in perspective. But I believe there is a perspective to be had. The useful thing about coming to such a pass as we're at, is that it makes certain things very clear. I'm very tired of being cynical, and tempting as that solution looks, I don't want to return to it like a dog to its vomit. As for being among the Very Very Rich -- well, let's just say it isn't in the offing. (Dunno what I'd do if it were, but I can't say I'm sorry to have skirted that temptation.) That leaves only one way forward. And really, it was always the only way.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The uncanny philosopher


Philosophy makes no one happy. Except -- maybe -- philosophers. And one mark of the philosopher is that they are asking, a least privately, whether anyone else -- or maybe even they themselves -- can be called happy.

For many Plato exegetes, Socrates' supposed "willingness to learn from anyone" is an instance of his famous irony, an overstated pose. I am in a minority, in that I take this declared willingness seriously. Socrates' openness, I think, was part and parcel of his thoroughgoing seriousness about philosophy, a pursuit for which he was famously willing to die. One doesn't spend one's time taking on any and all comers for the sake of scoring cheap points. If it's worth your life, those points are not cheap.

But of course, this willingness did get Socrates into deep trouble, and his ironic stance in the world is part of what made this so sticky. It is true that Socrates does not conduct himself with perfect openness and candor. People -- even the well-disposed -- began to suspect that Socrates' stance might well be dangerous, and possibly not a "stance" but a pretense. Nor is this suspicion completely ill-founded, even if it misses the point in a sense; for in fact, the philosopher is suspect, ethically, if "plain speaking" is in question. The philosopher enacts in person the very tension between appearance and reality that is at issue in experience itself.

Ideally -- and I am going to talk about an ideal philosopher, as I conceive her, a thinker who conducts herself with just such Socratic openness but also the Socratic aim of understanding and bettering one's soul above all else -- ideally, the philosopher is able to begin to speak with anyone at all, of no matter what persuasion. She can even, in a certain sense, "pass the Turing test," mimicking the language of their concerns -- not, however, because in her case these memes have successfully replicated themselves in the philosopher's brain, but because she can find the validity of care which expresses itself in whatever language. She can talk like an off-the-grid hippie artist, or a blue-collar struggling taxpayer; a radical dreaming of or even planning the revolution, or a reactionary sure that the nation went off the rails fifty or a hundred years ago; a pessimist who preaches anti-natalism, or a technophile who's sure that science will unlock the charms of happiness tomorrow. Of course, anyone who already knows the philosopher -- who heard her talk yesterday with the radical gun-rights survivalist, when she now sounds so cozy with the tree-hugging vegan or the Black Lives Matter activist -- might expect her of being mealy-mouthed, of "wanting it both ways," or of simply dissimulating. And inevitably, at a certain point -- which may come soon or late -- a new acquaintance also becomes on guard. A certain note creeps into the conversation -- a hint that, whatever shibboleths are being pronounced, nonetheless a challenge is also being laid down as well -- to care about something else. The philosopher can speak whatever language (again, ideally), but does not share the same assumptions. At some point, it cannot fail to appear that the philosopher means something different. She gives a bit too much credit to "the other side," or seems to hold back on the brink of victory; she won't join in the laughs of character-assassination, or gets a far-away look in her eyes just when the fun is right here. Try to pin her down, and she won't deny it, won't lapse into incoherence; she might shrug, or start asking questions as if changing the subject, or posing a weird table-turning challenge. "Won't take their own side in an argument!" Sheesh! Or: "Always going meta-!" Yawn. Even nodding "Yes" when they are criticized! What the hell is the point?!

The philosopher looks agreeable -- "soft," even, at first. But at a certain point (again, it may occur within five mintues' time of meeting, or it may be months later) the "hard" appears, and changes the meaning of that "soft". Now it isn't agreeable -- it's just casual, or too easy, without the courage of conviction. Except that what provokes this shift is the indirect appearance of the philosopher's true conviction. And this conviction, this "hardness," looks alternately bull-headed and pointless, arguing-for-the-sake-of-arguing. Other adjectives that come to mind may be "slippery," "hair-splitting," "vague" ... all terms that have a tactile provenance, and that reduce, I think, to variations on "soft" and "hard."

I take these two terms -- duce et dure -- from Michel Serres, a philosopher of my parents' generation and one whom I esteem very highly, though I have written very little about him. One thing I love about Serres is his apparent nonchalance with regards to discursive distinctions like that between the sciences and the humanities, and between the moderns and the ancients. Serres deploys many sets of apparent oppositions in his rather sprawling oeuvre, but I am not alone in finding the hard/soft distinction to be an especially apt way in to his work. The best long introduction I know to Serres is the book of interviews between him and Bruno Latour, but the best short introduction is this essay by Steven Connor, which includes this passage:
One of the difficult things about the work of Michel Serres is that it shuns unilateralism, the taking of stands and occupation of positions. This means that it is almost impossible to say what his work might be for or in favour of, what in the end and all things considered would come down on the side of. This is certainly true in relation to the hard and the soft.... The opposition between the hard and the soft turns on and feeds back into itself.
Many are repelled by the philosopher at this point. Some the philosopher continues to know, and perhaps eventually stops provoking. Some turn away and don't much want to pursue the relationship. And sometimes it gets mean. Occasionally, charges are brought, even a conviction, and the philosopher goes into exile or under house arrest.... All because they won't go soft at the right time, for the right people.

In contemporary terms, the philosopher inhabits the "uncanny valley" -- resembling the interlocutor very much, so much that the residual dissimilarity provokes an instinctive recoil. Attraction builds up until suddenly it reverses -- almost as if some treason had been committed. The repulsion arises because the "soft" and the "hard" of the philosopher are functions of each other; but this is weird, and it can be almost a visceral turn-off. Interest, even affection, inverts into hostility.

It's not completely uncalled-for. Philosophy, as the pursuit of the vision of the Whole, may well be impossible, in a certain sense, and there are multiple dangers of multiple kinds -- perversity, delusions of grandeur, blind alleys -- that come along with an apparently impossible undertaking; abysses where the unwary do not suspect even a speed bump. "The crack in the tea-cup opens a lane to the land of the dead," warned Auden, and the interminability of those roads are perilous. The recoil one feels from the uncanny can be a sign of health, or at least a healthy instinct. I've mentioned some of this before. There's no virtue in uncanniness itself; and sometimes the exasperation with "going meta" or apparent failure to commit or eternal hairsplitting is well taken. The philosopher must, precisely qua philosopher, always listen to such warnings -- but even this listening does not really lessen the familiar strangeness (and vice-versa) of the philosopher in the eyes of others; even when apparently heeding the warnings, the philosopher is concerned about different dangers.

It can also happen that someone moves swiftly across the uncanny valley to a place of rekindled attraction, and loves the philosopher all the more. (Compare Alcibiades on Socrates and the Silenii). Part of what happens in this case is that the interlocutor makes a responsive movement of the soul. There is a choice, a decision. Part of this is also that the philosopher's risk-taking is genuine. They haven't merely a "hidden agenda," for -- pace Strauss -- Socrates would actually be (say I) willing to learn from Ion or Euthyphro or Anytus, had they any wisdom (perhaps even without knowing it -- if "unconscious wisdom," besides being an anachronism, is coherent for a Platonic view of things). The interlocutor passes to what Ricoeur calls a second naïveté, a renewed openness, wherein one takes again the philosopher at "face value," and yet also knows that at any moment one may be led beyond. One's "enchantment" here is akin to what happens when reading a poet -- the strangeness of a language one thought one knew; or the thrill, slightly unsettling but undeniably beautiful -- of the queer glamour of the sexually- or gender-ambiguous. Here too one stands in the glowing radius of the uncanny, the like-and-unlike. At this point one experiences either a mere perplexity, a kind of sour, what's-the-point irritation; or a sort of curiosity, even attraction, takes root. One can wonder about this attraction, be cautious or even suspicious, but so long as one doesn't foreclose it, one maintains oneself in potential likeness to it. For one "becomes like" what one sees, and here is the real point: one suspects that the philosopher may be closer to the "real" than oneself -- that it is one's own profile which is "uncanny", not the philosopher's. Here is at least one meaning of that fay-ery which is philosophy. Shape-shifting. Metamorphosis.

Needless to say, despite my invocation of Serres above, I've got no specific thinker in mind here. My figure of "the philosopher" is idealized, a fictional amalgam. Although Socrates may well be the first one you think of, in fact when I began to formulate this, I found myself reminded of St Paul: "I became all things to all men, that I might by all means save some."

Save. Because at play in the apparent tremendous leeway of opening positions the philosopher allows herself is the conviction that what really is at stake is the most important thing of all. This is part of what makes for the danger of philosophy. Not only is it alienating from those who won't go there with you; you are never sure yourself that you aren't prey to the worst hubris. Which is why you are well advised not to take your won side in an argument. Ideally, this leverages the alienation of philosophy into a step beyond it. Which is yet another reason why it's hard to say what the "point" of philosophy is; it points beyond pointing, beyond the question of "what's the point." Which is not the same as the negation of the question.