Friday 3 February 2017

Away from 'theory as overlay'; or: On not being a philosopher

I make no claim to be a philosopher, although I philosophise (and maybe that is enough – need one philosophise well?). This reluctance perhaps derives from being Anglophone and thus born of a deeply anti-intellectual culture for which more or less the only legitimate meaning of 'philosopher' is as shorthand for a particular subsection of the academic profession (and not one given much respect).

However, the more philosophical reason for this reluctance is that I find myself ever more an empiricist. I am interested in ideas only if they do not lead away from experience but allow it to be extended or amplified in various ways. This is, I suspect, why I have always found a liking for pragmatism, actor-network theory, and so on.

Above all, I am sceptical – no, that is too polite: I cannot abide – the use of theory as overlay. That is, the situation where an abstract vocabulary becomes so sophisticatedly all-consuming that it does not enable surprising connections but rather precludes them – a universe unto itself. This is Whitehead’s "thought within a groove" – the stuff of the professional.

For example, I find myself unable to share the fascination of so many philosophically-inclined geographers* with the geophilosophy of Deleuze and Guattari. It seems to me that their conceptual vocabulary of territories and strata is, if anything, the least useful aspect of their continually transforming, runaway stagecoach of a philosophical project (I mean this as a compliment) for thinking about matters of earth, experience and politics.

By taking practically all of the conventional terms available to actors engaging in geographical/geological practices and making them into unconventional technical terms, there is no longer any easy way of relating the web of abstractions to said practices as such actors themselves describe them.

There is a decoupling at this moment that carves out 'philosophy' as an autonomous space. I cannot abide that space. In this much, I am not a philosopher.

This is not to suggest that words should not be made and remade in abstraction from convention – they should. However, as counterintuitive as it may be, it seems to me that a creative conceptual universe made from the lexicon of geography might be less useful for geography than a conceptual universe made from something else.

This would not be such a problem if the likes of D&G were read more creatively and less, for want of a better word, 'professionally.' There is a remarkable lack of creativity – indeed, often outright piety – in the parsing of these thoughts as though they were to be a system adequate to an object.

Theory as overlay is incapable of astringency, as Isabelle Stengers describes that term:
"[…] the function of scientific thought has less to do with its ‘truth’ than with its astringent effects, the way it stops thought from just turning in self-satisfying circles."
Self-satisfaction is a vice of the intellect.

*I'm not a geographer either but let's save that for another day.