Tuesday 26 August 2014

The 'thick letters' of pragmatic philosophers

My last few posts (1, 2, 3) have speculated wildly on the worldly role of a properly pragmatised, pluralised, 'deflated' philosophical practice. I am happy with how these thoughts are developing; however, I am risking over-honouring 'the philosopher' relative to others.

It might seem from what I've written as though only someone with the training and the title—as though only the philosopher qua doyen—could think. I've written of problems and skills but said nothing of philosophical texts or, even more importantly, their readers.

If philosophy books are, as Peter Sloterdijk puts it (citing the poet Jean Paul), 'thick letters to friends,' then surely philosophers do not just befriend other philosophers. For the pragmatic philosopher this would be absurd.

If the philosophical transformation, the event-type proper to philosophical experience, can be said to vary in intensity then the thick letters that philosophers write—if, of course, they are well written and well read—are transferences of intense philosophical creation in response to problematic situations. The differing parts of these networks must be understood as differently localised intensities, not as differences in kind. The philosopher doesn't hand down truth from upon high but rather transfers transformative experiences (or attempts to).

Without the capacity to transfer transformations, all the backflipping conceptual acrobatics in the world are for nothing. That is not to say that the best philosophers are the best communicators (the untruth of this is surely self-evident!) but it is to say that without the writing and reading of these thick (or thin) letters the whole enterprise comes crashing down. Indeed, perhaps there must be an exchange of letters, a two-way street (or many-way street). Certainly, there can be no more ivory tower.

Understanding philosophy in action, therefore, requires not just an understanding of conceptual creation but also mediation—media theory, as Sloterdijk might put it.

Nothing pre-determines where it is in these variegated chains of mediations that constitute 'philosophy' that the significant transformations will occur; that must always be a surprise. There is often lag-time—many letters will only 'come to life' once they find the right reader, rewriter, distributor, rediscoverer.

It would be absurd to say that the professional, dedicated philosopher has no privilege—were that not the case what would be the purpose of them? However, this is not a vertical privilege of oversight but rather that of residing at nodal points in networks of transferred transformations; a tangled rather than disentangled privilege; a pragmatic privilege.

After all, if the virtue of metaphysics is that it allows the nimble trace-based following of 'actors themselves' then it is the actually occurring 'actors themselves' that are the most fleet-footed metaphysicians, whatever their training.

More on Lovelock, technical evolution and the climate apocalypse

I've just re-read through James Lovelock's A Rough Ride to the Future (2014) for a paper I'm presenting this week. In a previous post I mentioned how he had reversed some of his earlier apocalypticism with regard to Gaia and global warming. While it's true that he's now presenting himself as an 'optimist' (169) and damping down the apocalyptic predictions of a human population curtailed to a few hundred million, there are some extremely troubling undertones that remain amidst the hyper-futurist techno-babble.
We have to ask ourselves the painful question: are we seeking the survival of the largest number of humans, regardless of their condition, or seeking the survival of as many as we can keep in an acceptable condition? (110) 
[…] in reality we are not thinking of saving Gaia, we are thinking of saving the Earth for us, or for our nation. […] If I am right to think that our species is evolving maybe to become part of a planetary intelligence, then our most important task for Gaia, as well as for ourselves, is to ensure that enough of is survive to sustain our role as the first species to sense, think about and act to oppose adverse environmental change. […] We are not yet clever nor determined enough to serve in this way, but we could still be the progenitors of those that can. (111)

Perhaps a similar suspension of democracy [as in WWII] will be needed when climate and other changes become as serious and as deadly as a major war. (120)

[Urbanisation might be] a powerful, benign force leading us to a future existence in city super-organisms. (123) 
My hope is that we survive and evolve further to the point where we are as much a part of our living planet as our brains are of us. (131)

[We have] to trust in Gaia to regulate the Earth as she has done since life began, and retreat to the best cities that we can design and build with the objective of saving as many of us as we can […]. (156)

The system cannot sustain the present level of human population for very much longer. (169)
It's clear that, whatever he claims, Lovelock remains a population pessimist. It's also clear that when he asks, rhetorically, 'are we seeking the survival of the largest number of humans, regardless of their condition, or seeking the survival of as many as we can keep in an acceptable condition?' he is erring on the side of urban air-con for the few rather than subsistence for the many.

His 'optimism' is of the techno-utopian variety. The wretched of the Earth remain wretched and voiceless, albeit perhaps with a little more hope for the future thanks to the evolution-accelerating brilliance of inventors (such as James Lovelock).

His pessimistic predictions are never issued with anything like a sense of endorsement or approval; it would be utterly unfair to suggest that. However, he makes them with such an air of blithe disinterest and detachment that he is basically acquiescent to this future. Add to this the extreme superorganic naturalism that he forces upon human political organisation and he is only ever a stone's throw from endorsing the future he foretells. He endorses it teleologically if not morally.

'Resistance is futile in the face of Gaia's evolution'—that is the persisting subtext.