6 Responses to “The Plain Truth, Please!”
on April 23, 2008 at 7:02 am1 Shahar Ozeri
That’s why in an interview about academic writing and the broader culture Spivak referred to the book as a “defective form” because it moves at a slower speed than the broader culture in which efficiency is of the essence. This seems like a better metaphor than the notion of a bomb a mutual acquaintance of ours tends to insist upon. Accordingly, Spivak herself insists the book becomes oppositional, quite literally, it carves out a space in which we can think. So if we are to follow this logic then books are especially oppositional when they are obscure, difficult or “intentionally incomprehensible.” It would seem that difficult texts force us to surrender control, both of the difficult text at hand and of the conceptual apparatus that anchors our understanding of the world. Adorno, in his “Words From Abroad” is himself accused of obscurity by using foreign words, writes about this stuff (a theme you nicely point out throughout your post):
attempts at formulation that swim against the stream of the usual linguistic splashing in order to capture the intended matter precisely,and that take pains to fit complex conceptual relationships into the framework of syntax, arouse rage because they require effort.
So, ok, for one there is an aspect of cultural conditioning here, or, a cultural learning structure that clearly resists anything but a clear unambiguous presentation of ideas. The broader culture teaches us as readers to approach texts in a certain affective manner. Difficult texts challenge our affective disposition by introducing and even allowing for a new and different disposition; a disposition which sets its sights on something new, but also recognizes and critiques the disposition imposed on us by the broader culture. I think Deleuze/Guattari’s distinction between major (repeats a social structure of control by insisting on the use value of language as communicative) and minor language (language that “stutters,” but subtends the major language) would be germane here. Regardless, in negotiating difficult texts there is a sense of shock, but perhaps this shock can be mobilized as a positive, like a “cool, dude” (assuming our students talk like that). Maybe it’s better to pitch this stuff more affectively–so these texts become an affective interruption of the over regulated linguistic structures that govern thought. So, one of the questions then, towards this more affective line of thought is how we as teachers may be able to foster ways that allow students to experience an obscure or difficult text affectively, but in a positive (affective) way, rather than in a negative affective manner. As in: “holy shit, this hurts my tender brain, gives me a headache, it’s hard so it must be bullshit!” However, all of this is complicated more by the institutional setting in which we are working , e.g. a classroom within a broader college machine that tends to determine how such texts are experienced. So, to suggest that philosophy, theory, difficult fiction etc simply detaches itself not only with say, structure, but with “the establishment” is to as far as I can tell, risk festishizing and sentimentalizing a space that is already overconditioned, overcoded or in Deleuze’s terminology, territorialized.
Mikhail, didn’t we see a panel presentation about such things when affectivity was the hippest buzzword in cultural theory at that conference circa 2003–you know, the 18 hour drive…I could be wrong.
on April 23, 2008 at 9:19 am2 Mikhail Emelianov
That was a long drive, by far the longest drive on my life, but the conference was fun, wasn’t it? Despite the creepy house…
So, one of the questions then, towards this more affective line of thought is how we as teachers may be able to foster ways that allow students to experience an obscure or difficult text affectively, but in a positive (affective) way, rather than in a negative affective manner.
I think it’s what I was trying to say - how do I use a difficult text to create a kind of learning event that could come both from rational realization of certain connections between ideas and irrational engagement which would be affective. I think we can both agree that teaching isn’t all about lecturing or reading or exposition of texts as commentary - there’s a certain educational event that, when it does take place, affects both the students and the instructor. I think this is what everyone who ever taught knows: sometimes it is good to teach a difficult text to be able to engage it from a perspective of a commentator and not just as a reader. I think difficult texts allow us to achieve at least two things: a) show the smart-asses that they are not as smart as they think because they “get” Plato (education through gradual but consistent humiliation), and b) raise the level of discourse from simple “S is P” to a kind of philosophical discussion that we as teachers would enjoy (education through raising the expectations and thus making sure that those who “make it” will learn a great deal).
on April 23, 2008 at 9:39 am3 Shahar Ozeri
That was a fun conference, in fact, we actually made friends at the conference despite you dressing like a Mormon! By the way, I had completely forgot about the house and all the creepy religious iconography that saturated it! And we got a parking ticket in front of the house to boot–more confirmation that God hates us.
on April 23, 2008 at 9:45 am4 Mikhail Emelianov
Technically, Shahar, God only hates you because you refused to go to church with the nice Christian folks claiming to be - what was it? - Jewish!
on April 23, 2008 at 9:52 am5 Shahar Ozeri
Perhaps, and I certainly would have appealed to my status as Jew, but as I remember it I don’t think they even asked me, I’m beyond help! I think they asked you right in front of me, but I don’t recall you jumping at any chance to attend church then or….ever! Face it, you’re just as screwed as me, Mikhail!
That phrase Homer uses to describe Flanders on The Simpsons kept coming to mind that weekend, viz., Churchy Le Femme.
on April 24, 2008 at 8:46 pm6 Style « Larval Subjects .
[...] 25, 2008 Style Posted by larvalsubjects under Politics, Writing Perverse Egalitarianism has an interesting post up on “difficult books”. A taste: I have been thinking along [...]
Troy Polidori said...
Do you think that Wittgenstein's notion of escaping oneself from the bewitchment of language is similar to your idea here? A philosophical problem has the form: I don't know my way about. Could we call this philosophical therapy?
February 9, 2008 4:14 PM
Roman Altshuler said...
There is certainly some similarity here, but I'm suggesting something different from philosophical therapy. The goal of therapy as I understand it, roughly, is to explain the problem away; it is to show that, once some basic terms are understood, there isn't really a problem there at all. I am suggesting, on the other hand, an approach on which one doesn't explain the problem away, but finds it to be expressive of a deeper problem. This kind of therapy doesn't make the problem go away; it shows the problem to be a symptom of a deeper illness, one might say. This is an approach on which philosophy does not solve problems, and also doesn't do away with them. It places them within a wider context, a larger narrative.
February 9, 2008 6:08 PM
Reinis Ivanovs said...
meh, I don't know who's saying that they don't make any arguments, but I know that people are saying that they make less of them, and the ones that they do make are much more muddled
February 10, 2008 2:50 AM
I have a radical suggestion: Both continental and analytical philosophers are chiefly interested in signaling that they are smart, or at least--whether they realize it or not—they spend a great deal of time laboring toward this effect. The difference in their styles is mainly a function of the fact that in America "smartness" is associated with a crisper, more explicit style of argumentation than in Europe, hence the differences in style.--M's Bro
February 10, 2008 2:35 PM
Roman Altshuler said...
Shh! Don't give away our secret! (You forgot to mention that in Europe, smartness may also be associated with knowing a lot of names and even some of the work associated with those names, having at least some [literary] style to one's writing, and not repeating things that at least ten articles have already said in the same year...; in the US, smartness is associated with a more egalitarian attempt to write so that [supposedly] a wider audience can understand you, knowing lots of science [because science is Truth and the closer you come to it the more you partake of its essence], and maybe giving the impression that you are expounding a radical new thesis instead of expounding a radical new thesis [since people who do that might come off looking stupid].)Reinis-yeah, that too. But I think different approaches to argument and to the function of philosophy in general can also account for the appearance of muddled arguments (and, of course, if a lot of the arguments don't look like arguments to you, you're more likely to think that there are fewer of them)
February 10, 2008 3:22 PM
Vancouver Philosopher said...
I still think it is the case that there is one proper aim of argumentation, and I still believe that CPers are actually arguing for something. Take your example of Ricoeur's aporetics. Isn't it just that he is arguing definitively for the insolubility of the problem of free-will? It's either that or contextualizing an issue beyond the immediate dialectic in which the problem surfaces is just doing a history of philosophy. Secondly, I used to know a B. Rouss from ephilosopher.com. If it be you, Brian, then hit me up, JediKnight Tage aka Ed of http://philosophicalchasm.blogspot.com/
February 11, 2008 2:22 AM
Roman Altshuler said...
Hi Vancouver, I don't think anything you say really suggests that there is "one proper aim of argumentation." You actually seem to just assume that in the rest of your remark, and then go on to say that either Ricoeur is making an argument, or he is just doing history of philosophy. Let me clarify a misunderstanding: Ricoeur doesn't apply his aporetics to the free will problem (unfortunately); that's just my pet project, so I used it as an example to demonstrate the style (Ricoeur uses it instead to show the insufficiency of various attempts to grasp personal identity). What I want to suggest, though, is that there really are two different ways of making an argument--whether these involve different aims of argumentation, I really don't know. If the aim of an argument is to convince, then yes. If the aim is to clarify the dispute itself, then I'm not sure the analytic mode is generally aimed there (although of course clarifying the problem is part and parcel of analytic writing, I don't think it is the aim of a typical analytic argument. Can you really argue that the problem of free will is insoluble? That depends. If there is one clear problem of free will, then one can't prove that it is insoluble. What one can do, however, is point out that the problem of free will, like any philosophical problem, is at least partly a conceptual problem. And the concepts involved are embedded within contexts of philosophical assumptions and premises and standards of intelligibility. And insofar as these undergo historical change, there problem itself will keep changing. In this sense, one can show that the problem of free will--if it is taken to be not a single problem, but a general term for a class of problems that are context-dependent in their expressions--is insoluble because it is not a single problem to solve. So, what one can do is point to the debate around the problem at a particular point in history, take the debate itself as indicative of the context involved in generating this form of the debate, and attempt to re-interpret the context, with the form of the debate as the guide according to which one makes the context itself intelligible. This is, in some sense, doing history of philosophy. But it is doing history of philosophy as a mode of philosophical argument.
February 11, 2008 2:05 PM
Gary Williams said...
Hey RomanIn one of your comments, you said that the approach you are talking about tries to express a deeper problem instead of explaining the problem away. This makes sense to me, but does it bottom out? Will there always be a deeper problem? You say that the approach places things in a wider context, but it seems like eventually you will either have to solve the problem or dissolve it. I don't see how you can just continually place things in a larger narrative because it eventually you will run out of space, so to speak. There has only been a finite amount of narrative, so it doesn't seem like you can keep going on and on expanding the context wider and wider. Perhaps I am missing something though.
February 11, 2008 7:23 PM
Roman Altshuler said...
Hi Gary, This is definitely a problem I've wondered about. Does the process go on forever? How is that possible?Here's my thought, which is very open to change. I would simply deny the claim that the amount of narrative is finite. It's true that the amount of narrative that has already occurred (i.e., philosophy up to now) is finite. But, much as a story can undergo infinite variation in its telling and re-telling, so the finite narrative becomes infinite in our interpretations and re-interpretations of it. This follows, I think, if we do not assume that there is exactly one correct meaning to any text (and, frankly, I just don't think there's much going for that thesis any longer). This is one side of the issue: the narrative up to now, though finite, becomes infinite in our re-interpretation of it. And then there's the other side: the narrative is constantly growing, with no logical limit. Our re-interpretations of the narrative themselves contribute to a change in the existing narrative, and a further proliferation. So I would say that the narrative is not limited: it keeps changing, both because the way we understand the past of philosophy is open to infinite variation, and because the future of philosophy is infinitely open.My suggestion was that the goal is to find a deeper problem by finding the context in which the surface problem you start with becomes more intelligible; but intelligibility is always context-dependent, so if the context is infinite, then the process can, in principle, go on infinitely. (This involves seeing philosophy as something other than the search for truth, where truth is conceived as the final word on an issue. I don't have much of a problem with this. We can make progress in philosophy without thinking that there is a terminal point.)
February 11, 2008 7:48 PM
Vancouver Philosopher said...
Hello Roman, I guess I did implicitly assume obnoxiously that either Ricoeur's aporetics is an example of an argument meant to convince someone on insolubility on a point, regardless of whether the issue is personal identity or free will. Could we say that the purpose of argumentation is still to convince, but think of convincingness in terms of degrees. In a sense, even in history of philosophy, there are still arguments. I argue for an interpretation I think most salient to Kant's notion of the imagination for instance. I am still making an argument, but the sphere of that argument is only directed to say someone influenced by Allison or Wood on Kant that doesn't follow the Heideggerian/Sallis line of thinking about Kant. When you make an argument to clarify the dispute itself, then what you are doing is showing a failure of a dialectic to take into account something that needs to be accounted for. You are still doing philosophy to convince interlocutors--in this case, it just is all sides not accounting for what's missing. I still think this is compatible with the analytic mode of making an argument. I wonder if we have just reached similar conclusions without realizing it.
February 12, 2008 11:21 PM
Roman Altshuler said...
Dude, did you just lump Heidegger together with Sallis? I agree with most of this, and as I said before, yes, I do think all arguments aim to convince. (And there are definitely arguments, vicious ones, in the history of philosophy! Both about the plausibility of a certain interpretation, and about the plausibility of a certain view. And these are, of course, related.) But I'm a little confused about where you're going with this point.Are you saying that analytic and continental philosophers are just employing different styles of argument because they're speaking to different audiences? Or that the maximal degree of convincingness calls for an argument that attempts to find what both sides are missing?As for whether this is compatible with the analytic style, again, I think it is often done, but on the side, as part of developing a more direct argument for or against a position within the active debate. Maybe there are analytic philosophers who focus on the approach I have in mind. (Sometimes Nagel seems to go in that direction, for example.) But I can't really think of many, and I don't think it's a prominent analytic strategy. Any examples you're thinking of?
February 13, 2008 12:54 AM
Michael Sigrist said...
Roman, Great post, well argued, fun issue. First off, am I missing something, or do you end up suggesting that most analytics use formal argumentation in what is actually a hermeneutic spirit. The aim is not really to convince in a single knock out or even TKO, but to clarify the crux of an issue or to recontextualize a less familiar topic into a more familiar idiom. If so, fine, I certainly agree. But can we conclude from this that they aren't so different after all? Could we not just as well conclude that, while the difference may not be between an argumentative and an interpretive approach, the difference is still large as ever, only within two very different approaches to interpretation? Secondly, I wonder if you let the continentals off the hook too easily. What you describe is certainly how most contintental philosophers would describe what ideally they are up to....but, so many in fact aren't. Much of continental philosophy might be compared to biblical interpretation, where one certainly finds arguments of sorts, but only of the severely question-begging sort. Finally, and leading off from this latter point, while analytic philosophers certainly spend a lot of time on the minutiae of fruitless and pointless arguments, at least they're making arguments, and are therefore less susceptible to outright sophistry.
February 13, 2008 12:15 PM
Roman Altshuler said...
Hey Michael, I don't think I say anything to contradict your second paragraph. Sure, I think a lot of continental philosophy ends up being bad, precisely because there is not attention given to formal argument. Philosophical arguments, not just analytic ones, but arguments throughout the history of philosophy, often have a formal structure, and no hermeneutics can grasp them without a proper grasp of that formal structure. Additionally, I think that mediocre analytic philosophy at least makes clear points, while mediocre continental philosophy is just words arranged in peculiar ways. My point, though, is that continental philosophy (at least of the kind I am pointing to) can be done well, and when it is, its philosophical elements might still be missed by someone looking for a more direct form of argument.About the first paragraph: I don't think I am saying that most analytic philosophers work in a hermeneutic spirit. I would say, rather, that many end up doing some hermeneutics but without a hermeneutic spirit. One obvious reason for this is that philosophical problems and their proposed solutions are treated (at least implicitly) as trans-historical ideal objects, which is anathema to any real hermeneutics. So sure, there are different views of interpretation involved. But I also think the goals to which interpretation is put are very different. So I am actually trying to resist the view that analytic and continental approaches aren't so different after all, and the difference in argumentative and interpretive approaches is an even bigger difficulty for bridgebuilding work than the more obvious differences in language and substantive background assumptions. (By which I mean not assumptions about methodology and interpretation, but assumptions about the correctness of teleology, the threat posed by reductionism, etc.)
February 13, 2008 2:23 PM
How do you suppose this "Continental strategy" fairs against the oft flung accusation of committing the Genetic Fallacy? I suspect that in light of this "Continental strategy," if not many of the conclusions Continental philosophers (and American pragmatists) have made, the genetic fallacy loses some of its rhetorical oomph.
February 16, 2008 3:43 PM
Roman Altshuler said...
Hi Joe,To be honest, I haven't seen the genetic fallacy accusation you mention leveled against continental philosophy, so I don't really know who you have in mind. Let me know. I sometimes suspect that Nietzsche can veer into the genetic fallacy (after all, the details of his genealogy could largely be turned into a story of the discovery of morality, rather than its invention). But phenomenology, critical theory, and (in a certain mode) hermeneutics seem to me to be committed (when done well) precisely to maintaining the validity of truth, meaning, normativity, aesthetic experience, etc. And on the other hand, the genetic fallacy--at least on some readings--is certainly not exclusive to the continental side of things, as the various behaviorist and reductionist programs of the analytic tradition show (my contention in the latest post is precisely that the experimental bent of recent philosophy can be taken in just this direction--holding normativity hostage to discoveries about its supposed origin in psychology).As for the strategy I am suggesting, I don't see how it could be accused of the genetic fallacy at all--the goal isn't to reduce a problem to a deeper problem, but instead to show the validity of the former problem as the expression of underlying philosophical tension. That is, the point of the strategy isn't to show that the problem is invalid, unfruitful, or completely misguided, but rather to bring its validity into clearer relief by showing the background against which the problem arises in the first place.
February 17, 2008 12:17 AM
himanshu damle said...
another major difference could be attributable to being argumentative and defending/refuting arguments. i guess, the mistaken notion given to the continental philosophers is the former. yes, i do completely agree that there is always a flux in the schema constructed by the continental philosophers and hence this is the reason why i propose to call them argumentative. most of the times, the schema is inflationary and hence it becomes difficult to deeply comprehend the problem in easing it. this inflationary narrative might succeed in giving an extensive understanding, but i opine it often is at the cost of intensivity. it plainly becomes a play of centrical and circumferential shifts.maybe, this play is an event only and a possible recourse to escape the allegations made against continental philosophy. himanshu damle
April 10, 2008 10:02 PM
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