Friday 25 October 2013

A philosophical mode of reasoning?; Finally understanding the religious mode (I think...)

Levi Bryant ponders whether one can conceive of philosophy as a 'mode' or 'sphere' in the senses of Latour or Luhmann.  I don’t have an answer to this question but I think I might have the beginnings of one.

At the start of A Pluralistic Universe James (whose influence on the modes project can hardly be overstated) argues that while any form of discourse can arrive at truths – even common sense, even accidentally – the distinctive quality of a philosophical truth is that it is reasoned.

On its own this is a bit simplistic.  Philosophy must be a distinct mode of reasoning, not reasoning itself.  However, I think it puts us on the right track.  Philosophy is distinct from mysticism because while mysticism may, in a way, concoct wisdom by concealing – it may instigate a particular kind of truth through the artful fabrication of experiences the authors of which are deliberately obscured and unattributed – it is not philosophy because it doesn't follow a philosophical thread of experience, a process of reasoning.  There may be mystical wisdom but that wisdom is not philosophical wisdom.  In fact they are opposites.

I read a chapter in a book a while ago (the names escape me, I need to look it up) on Plato's Statesman.  It was by a classicist who, undoubtedly, has forgotten more about Plato than I'll ever know but one thing struck me that he got absolutely and unequivocally wrong: after about a dozen pages of the dialogue Young Socrates objects that all these progressive distinctions layered upon distinctions upon distinctions (aiming to gradually arrive at the essence of the statesman) are a waste of time.  At that point the Stranger was still cutting through the different kinds of animals (two legged, four legged, etc.), having not yet arrived at the human.  ‘Why not cut right through all that and just say that there are humans on the one hand and non-humans on the other?,’ asks Young Socrates.  The Stranger explains, with joyous condescension, that this would fail to cut nature at its joints; it would do what Greeks do to non-Greeks, it would lump them into a whole category marked 'barbarians' (the root of which is the same as 'babble'; barbarians are those whose language one cannot understand, whose distinctions and differences one is insensitive to, ignorant of).  The Stranger points out that from the point of view of a crane (as in the bird) humans and all other animals may appear to be an undifferentiated mass, too.  I've written a few posts on this part of the dialogue before because I think it's fascinating.

Anyway, the really important point is that the classicist sided with Young Socrates.  He agreed that it was ridiculous that we had to go through all these distinctions layered upon distinctions when, in the end, we arrive at the same place: human beings (and then the statesman).  Why not ‘cut to the chase?’, he raged.  But this, for me, completely misunderstands philosophy.  Yes, the distinctive quality of a philosophical argument is that it is reasoned.  The process of reasoning is not extrinsic to the result of reasoning.  Philosophy is, then, intrinsically dialectical, dialogical.  We may, at the end of the dialogue, forget precisely how we got there but that isn’t the same thing as writing the whole process of reasoning off as a mere prelude, a preamble, a means to the end of the conclusion.  To ‘leap to the end’ (how fascinating that, in this dialogue, the Stranger argues against ‘straight talk’ and ‘double click’ – yes, it’s all footnotes…) would be to lose the thread of the argument, it would be a leap into mysticism, in a sense.

‘Cutting nature at its joints’ has always been understood as the realist, naturalist tenet par excellence.  And in a sense that’s accurate but the insight has been shallowly, thinly understood.  What cutting nature at its joints did in this dialogue was to expose the heterogeneity of being and at one and the same time it made our conclusion more difficult to reach rather than less.  We had to do much more work to get there and we emerged wiser for our efforts!  In order to get there we had to become more sensitive to the differences in the world and not less – the world became bigger and our thus our ignorance proliferated; we become more aware of our ignorance of the world because we came to know the world better.  We benefited from, we were transformed by, the whole thread experience, not just the conclusion.  And – this is key – we had to proliferate stages of reasoning in order to not arrive prematurely.  Had we arrived at our destination too quickly we would not really have arrived at all.

What is that urge?  The urge to ‘get there when we get there.’  Hmm, well that isn’t ‘philosophy’ but I think it is an aspect of the philosophical thread of experience.  At the very least this distinguishes philosophy from reference, as Latour describes it.  With reference [ref] it’s perfectly legitimate (indeed, it’s necessary) to paper over the mediators that got you from A to Z with the smoothing forces of habit [hab].  But philosophy is different.

You can’t just read the last few pages of a philosophy book (a good philosophy book, anyway) and ‘receive’ the whole argument in summary form.  If you can then it’s not philosophy.  The philosophical thread is a transformative thread.  You come out the other side different to how you went in.  Words no longer mean quite the same things; the world doesn’t appear quite the same way.  And as much as you try to explain these new-found insights to your friends and loved ones it is extremely difficult because you have to retrace large parts of the thread of experience that brought you to this point.  There is no substitute for the journey.  Merely stating the conclusions and smiling at them will only provoke blank stares and mutterings of ‘what a load of bollocks.’

Clearly there are ‘hiatuses’ that have to be overcome and threads that have to be followed, threads that cannot be short-circuited (by double-click reasoning) without destroying the paths themselves.  In Plato’s dialogue our becoming-wise depended upon the proliferation of stages, of problems, of hiatuses that had to be overcome not any-old-how but through a reasoned solution.  That ‘reasoned solution’ is the pass of this mode (if, indeed, it is a mode).  What is it that allows the simultaneous creation and solving of problems?  What distinguishes this particular kind of problem resolution?  What are the conditions of felicity that validate (or invalidate) these little leaps, these small steps for philosophy-kind?  What beings are engendered by these threads?

If we can answer those questions then we have our philosophical mode, our [phi].

Taking this further, there is a relationship with law that needs to be explored.  Law, for Latour, is a 'quasi-subjectifying' mode because it allows the attribution of actions to actors; law is the archive of action.  Mysticism, as I described it above, arrives at wisdom by breaking those threads and disavowing authority (it must have a relationship to metamorphosis [met] too but I don’t really understand that mode yet).  Philosophy doesn’t break links but it doesn’t preserve them in the same way as law (more evidence of its modal independence).  The steps needn’t be retraced as such (thus it differs from both law and reference), however the steps cannot be bypassed.  The journey is transformative.  It is similar to the religious mode in this sense (although I believe now that the [rel] mode is most likely two different things conflated together).

The religious mode is another quasi-subjectifying mode (politics makes the trinity).  Religion is really the archetypical instantiation of the mode rather than anything that ‘owns’ it (although it is articulated in purely religious language, confusingly).  The religious experience (and this is only my best understanding at the present moment, it’s not gospel truth!) that ‘personifies’ is the experience of the living (i.e. immanent) and (this point is essential) personal God.  The Word is the conversionary revelation that ‘Jesus died for your sins’ – not humanity’s sins, not yours by implication or association but yours specifically.  It's the statement that God loves you, that you have a personal relationship with Him.   This is metaphysically ‘personifying’ along the lines of Lacan’s mirror stage.  It is being recognised as a self by others that constitutes our self; our sense of self, our personhood, does not precede this recognition, it is not its cause but its consequence.

So, that’s why Latour builds the mode of personification around religion – because encountering the absolute, God, is the most personifying experience possible.  It’s not that it is the only form of personifying experience (he also gives the example of a couple’s declaration of love) but it is the most personifying, the essence of personification.  There are (at least) two problems with this: (1) building the whole personification mode from religious materials obscures non-religious forms of personification and makes the whole apparatus damned confusing and (2) I just don’t buy the whole idea of an immanent God.  However, as a technical term within his overall system religion as in [rel] does make sense because religious experience is, in principle, personification par excellence.

So, returning to what I was talking about before that cognitive RAM dump (I’ve been meaning to write that down all morning), philosophy is similar to religion in that it is transformative but it is transformative in a very different way.  It does not personify.  It is not focused inwards, or at least it has no specific direction in that way.  It changes how we see ourselves, yes, but also the world.

Philosophy tinkers with the very basis of our perceptions, of the structures that form our world as sensible, as meaningful, as structured.  Is philosophy essentially a critique of 'ideology,' then?  Perhaps.  We’d have to redress what we mean by critique (and, indeed, ideology) working within this modal framework but that would seem to be the conclusion I am led to.

Has this rambling string of words been rambling along the paths of philosophy?  Have I been doing philosophy, here?  I’ve certainly been doing it in Deleuze’s sense of writing at (and pushing past) the very limits of my understanding!!  I definitely didn’t know what how this was going to end up when I started.  In that sense I have been transformed, yes.  And I think I've been reasonable.  In that sense this has been philosophy.