Thursday, 21 August 2014

Philosophers: where are your instruments?; or, On the defensive deflation of philosophy

One of the principle tasks that were given to the 'specbook'-writing participants at the final AIME workshops in July was to, in one and the same motion, both defend and deflate the institutions and the values of the Moderns. That is, to identify in these basic and cherished contours of collective life the most indispensable and valuable distributions of agency and then, at the same time, to cut science, politics, religion, economics and so on 'down to size,' to divest them of their excessive, unsustainably explosive pretensions so as to condition the possibility of finding them their proper, diplomatic accommodation amidst other, non-Modern cosmoses.

This had to be a symmetrical and simultaneous deflation—deflate politics and not economics and you've got neoliberalism; deflate science and not religion and you've got theological dogmatism; deflate religion and not politics and you've got a cold and authoritarian secularism, and so on. This work sought not to diminish or denounce any of the involved and invoked terms but, rather, to alleviate the tendency for each form of existence to imperially define the entire world in its own format, thus stoking the flames of war. The objective was not diminution but, rather, coexistence.

Following through the internal logic of AIME, it seems no less necessary that we must also deflate philosophy. This task is suggested by the fact that philosophy is accorded a particular mode of existence, namely [pre].

The deflationary effect can be understood by contrasting philosophy with science [pre·ref]. According to Latour, the sciences achieve their specific form of objectivity through the incremental construction of circulating chains of instrumented references that transport information at the cost of deformations at every stage. To refer is to instrument, there is no other way.

So, philosophers: where are your instruments?

To take up one of Graham Harman's phrases, it should be now clear that philosophy qua [pre] cannot possibly be a "philosophy of access." Philosophy does not access, that is the job of reference. Philosophy can, at best, aid and abet this movement; it can act with, it cannot act for.

For millennia, philosophers have insisted that their art involved the construction of objective knowledge about the abstract conditions of existence, conditions inaccessible to the mere senses and discernible only by the privileged intellect. This, it seems to me, is unequivocally refuted by AIME; a philosophy of access is a contradiction in terms, a category error.

This brings me to a section from The Prince and the Wolf, a transcript of a public conversation between Latour and Harman at the LSE.
[…] there has to be a point where contact [between objects] happens. And what I worry about is that if we don’t specify that point metaphysically, then it becomes just a kind of ad hoc practical decision, which of course is fine when writing history. You could say: “all right, it seems like the case of Joliot connecting politics and neutrons is interesting but Joliot and the eardrum is not that important, so we can stop there.” And that’s fine for purposes of writing history but not fine for metaphysics.


Why? Because you haven’t explained how the contact occurred.

But metaphysics is not for explaining. It is the first principle of [Alfred North Whitehead's] Process and Reality. Philosophy is not in the business of explaining anything. Actual occasions explain what happened, not philosophy. If there is one thing which philosophy should not do, it is to try to explain anything. That’s where our disagreement is. Philosophy is not in the business of explaining. This is not at all the same thing. Philosophy is in the business of allowing the explanation to go far enough, to help the explainers to move in the explanatory trajectory but not to provide an explanation. (66-7)
This is the disagreement between Harman and Latour, and it's the difference that Harman does not get to grips with anywhere in his writings on Latour's work (to date). Philosophy, for Latour, no more accesses than it explains. As Latour put it in Reassembling the Social:
As anthropologists have tirelessly shown, actors incessantly engage in the most abstruse metaphysical constructions by redefining all of the elements of the world. Only a researcher trained in the conceptual calisthenics [emphasis added] offered by the philosophical tradition could be quick, strong, daring, and pliable enough to painstakingly register what they have to say. (51)
The value of philosophy here is the same as in AIME's [pre]: it is the lability, agility and sensitivity that it affords the actors who have been trained its art, not the overview it gives on reality or the quasi-scientific loose ends it explanatorily ties up.

To somewhat egocentrically quote myself from a couple of posts ago:
It is here that the philosopher qua intervener enters the fray, not as an architect of the world, urban planner of the galaxy or master of the universe but as an acrobat of thinking, a flexer and folder of thought, a monkish sage—inheritor of long traditions of agility-focused self-development—whose skill involves not the freehand sketching of the beams and struts of the background of things but rather of the rendering-pliant of modes of connection and transformation in service of (or, better: in alliance with) those whose very subsistence is at stake.
This is precisely what I was trying to get at here: that philosophy is a calisthenic rather than explanatory disciplineMetaphysics is calisthenics or it's nothing. [The purpose of its art is conceptual creation in service of a situation, not fundamental explanation in service of the real. [ed. 22/08/14]]

After the example of AIME, if philosophers wish to refer to the objective existence of this or that then they should specify their empirically traceable referential chains. Anything else is Double Click [dc].

This rearticulation of philosophy is intrinsically social in the precise sense that there can no longer be such a thing as a philosopher-hermit—the philosopher is necessarily an associative, allied being; she has no other purpose than to work with others in the rendering-pliant of modes of connection and transformation in concrete, contested cases.

Deflated? Undoubtedly. But also defended[—if, by 'defence,' we mean not fortification but, rather, advocation [ed. 23/08/14]].

This rehousing and repurposing of philosophy—this empiricisation of philosophy in the most profound sense—is, in my humble and weightless opinion, perhaps Latour's most important philosophical contribution. This aspect of his thinking does not begin with his modes of existence project but can be found throughout his works, in varying stages of development (it is rooted in his long-standing commitment to a reformed ethnomethodology). And it is precisely this most crucial of insights that is erased when his work is turned into a series of dry pronouncements on the furniture of the universe—pronouncements that 'of course, might be wrong.'

This is why those who accuse Latour, and those who philosophise like him, of 'correlationism' and of insufficient 'realism' are missing the point. The philosopher, here, simply has no business 'explaining' the unchanging, overarching structure of the universe—if that is what 'realism' means then may it rest in peace.

This empiricised philosophical ethos is not, as I have argued, a matter of engendering 'humility' in philosophical practice; it is a far more pragmatic transformation than that. Humility is too self-denying a psycho-ethical disposition (too 'Christian' in the precise sense that Nietzsche excoriated so epoch-definingly). It is not a matter of limiting or constricting oneself as such—whole universes of beautiful speculation are still possible; it is a matter of undertaking a fundamental reconfiguration of philosophy and of the philosopher's role in the world.

To undertake this defensive deflation, and to thus desist from thinking Absolutely, is not to stop thinking—indeed, it may be to start.

Latour has by no means invented or initiated this progressive reassembly—nor has he undertaken it alone—but his works have massively contributed to the thorough pragmatisation and concomitant pluralisation of philosophy.

So, (Modern) philosophers: where are your instruments? Ovens, tables and balls of wax do not count.



  2. Great post. I love this phrase in particular, "philosophy is a calisthenic rather than explanatory art." The post also makes it clear why Latour is so impressed with Sloterdijk, who also goes in for this view of philosophy as a kind of regimented training of the body. I agree with all of this; at the same time, I can't help but feel there is something missing. Forgive me for sounding unduly esoteric here, but I think the calisthenics is only part of the picture; or, rather, calisthenics, much like cross-training in physical sport, is always *for* some end and is rarely an end in itself. My question is then—following your injunction that philosophy enables one to become "an acrobat of thinking, a flexer and folder of thought, a monkish sage"—are we not actually preparing ourselves in some way, and here's where it gets esoteric, for the receipt of something like wisdom, or, at least, something like the spontaneous arising of insight that can't quite be yoked from empirical happenings? I keep thinking about this in terms of the Deleuzian idea that philosophy is about creating concepts—not just folding what already exists but generating a new axis of connection (and disconnection) between things, mediated by the human body, so that the concept instantiates a new capacity of perception in specific personalities. So, to answer your question, a philosophers instruments are her concepts, which can be created anew by those who practice.

  3. I'm glad you liked it! Also glad that you saw the parallel with Sloterdijk as that was in my mind too.

    I think you definitely have a point with regard to how I've described things here: words like 'folding' and 'flexing' don't sufficiently articulate the necessity of creation. That's a good point. I was certainly trying to get at that idea—that this specific form of skilled practice is a kind of creative action—but didn't make it explicit enough, perhaps. The connection with Deleuze r.e. concepts is apposite, too.

  4. I added a sentence on conceptual creation to reflect the above comments!