Archive for the Books Category

Blueprints and butterflies

Posted in Notes with tags , , on 18 March 2010 by Brendan

Today was chapter 12 in my slow plod through the Greek text of Romans, and after the lexical wilderness of chapter 11, this was land burgeoning with milk and honey. The most interesting vocabulary is in verse 2: “μὴ συσχηματίζεσθε τῷ αἰῶνι τούτῳ” (do not be conformed to this age). The verb that tickled me was “suschematizo.” (I still don’t know the proper way to distinguish between long and short o’s and e’s, which in Greek are represented respectively by the omega and eta, and the omicron and epsilon.) This delightful word touches down in contemporary English diction in interesting ways: a quite literal translation might be, “do not be pressed into the schema of the world,” or even, “do not let yourself be mapped out in accordance with this age.” Aristotle uses this verb to suggest shaping something to fit within delineated boundaries: it is a shop-word, taken from the language of manufacture. This present age molds us according to its intentions and aims: the powers of the world stamp us out like so many tennis shoes or sugar cookies.

By contrast, Paul enjoins Christians: “μεταμορφοῦσθε τῇ ἀνακαινώσει τοῦ νοός,” (be transformed in the renewal of the mind). The verb here—“metamorpho-o”—suggests the literal translation of being “re-made,” in the sense especially of being given a new face or appearance. A metamorphosis occurs among the living, and it is a unique, unrepeatable event, the literal creation of new life out of the wreckage of the old (picture butterflies). Against the sterile schematics of the Empire, Paul opposes the possibility of a catechesis that does not efface difference.

Rorty’s reputation, in his own words.

Posted in Books, Second Paradise projects with tags , on 8 March 2010 by William Brafford

I found a book-length interview that Rorty did a while back. Here are some of his thoughts on the reception of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature:

Q: Maybe we could talk a little bit about how your audience started to widen, and reach the humanities people who wouldn’t otherwise read what was going on in philosophy departments.

Rorty: In so far as I’ve had an influence, it’s been almost entirely on people outside of philosophy. I don’t know why they read my book. I was glad they liked it.

Q: It seems that, just at the moment the deconstructive wave was crashing through American academies, you provided a homegrown post-foundationalism that you didn’t have to be in a French department to hear about.

Rorty: Yeah, if you wanted non-foundational sounding stuff, mine was as good as any.

In short, this is Rorty’s unnervingly accurate description of how I plan to use his work.

On difficult books.

Posted in Books, Evaluations, Second Paradise projects with tags , , , on 7 March 2010 by William Brafford

We’ve let things get quiet around here, haven’t we? Ah, that burst of good intentions last December, when we decided to start this blog. Here’s the good news: I finished Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature early this morning, and that means that I’ll be able to move on to some things that are easier to write about. As I read PMN, I found that even summarizing the bulk of the book would be too hard; it was tough enough just to navigate it. But the last eighty or so pages of the book — there’s a lot there to discuss. In the last two sections, Rorty sets forth his vision for what philosophy can be after we do away with the idea of epistemology. I think it’s here that Rorty really hits the stuff that we’re interested in on this blog, and it’s definitely these sections that account for the book’s renown among non-philosophers. I’m going to try to write about some of it this week.

For today, I just want to note that it feels really good to finish a tough book and get something out of it. I may not have any idea how to judge whether Rorty gets the best of Putnam or Habermas, but I’ve got a better map of contemporary philosophy than I had before, and I’ve gotten some time looking at the world of ideas from a new perspective. For me, there’s an aesthetic pleasure in both of these things. Getting to that closing summary is like seeing the parking lot again after climbing a big mountain. Really: I can associate every stage of reading this book with part of my hike up Mount Harvard last summer. Now I’m lounging in the parking lot, waiting for you guys to catch up so we can talk about the trip.

Question for discussion: Rorty wants us to give up dualism, but wouldn’t the world be a boring place without dualists?

I’m going to finish Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the next day or so. A professor once told me that SSR was a book that everyone talked about for thirty years or so, but now no one reads it anymore. Is that because Kuhn won the argument, or is it because people just got tired of talking about him? (Or was my professor wrong?)

Therapeutic philosophy.

Posted in Books, Second Paradise projects with tags , on 10 February 2010 by William Brafford

On page 175 of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty expresses pretty clearly the difference between his idea of what philosophy should do and the idea that many philosophers have about what they are doing:

… Can we treat the study of “the nature of human knowledge” just as the study of certain ways in which human beings interact, or does it require an ontological foundation (involving some specifically philosophical way of describing human beings)? Shall we take “S knows that p” (or “S knows noninferentially that p,” or “S believes incorrigibly that p,” or “S’s knowledge that p is certain”) as a remark about the status of S’s reports among his peers, or shall we take it as a remark about the relation between subject and object, between nature and its mirror? The first alternative leads to a pragmatic view of truth and a therapeutic approach to ontology (in which philosophy can straighten out pointless quarrels between common sense and science, but not contribute any arguments of its own for the existence or inexistence of something).

Though I know I’m being utterly unfaithful to the spirit in which Rorty writes, I can’t help speculating about how therapeutic philosophy, with its smoothing-over function, has to relate to theology. Such a philosophy doesn’t claim for itself the authority to evaluate the “rationality” of religious claims. Does that authority pass to science? Or does revelation become unassailable — and unspeakable? What would happen when therapeutic philosophy tried to mediate between science, common sense, and claims from revelation? My first thought is that our religious philosophers would all be William Jameses, though I really haven’t read enough of WJ’s work to back this up.

More on this as I think about it.

A small and pointless failure.

Posted in Books, Second Paradise projects with tags , , , on 10 February 2010 by William Brafford

I think I am going to give up on trying to take detailed notes on Rorty. Here’s the problem: Richard Rorty wants to convince us that the philosophical emphasis on “the mind” is unnecessary — that we can just let the whole problem slip away. Some people have spent large amounts of time studying Descartes or Kant or Russell or Husserl, and for them Rorty’s arguments require careful attention. I myself have just a passing acquaintance with the thought of those figures, and so when Rorty says we can slide past the philosophical problems they posed, I’m inclined to smile and nod rather than to scribble furiously in an effort to unveil bad premises or improper interpretations of other figures.

So yesterday I decided to just forget about taking notes on Chapter III and to move right on to IV. What do you know? It’s fascinating, and it makes me want to read four or five other books in quick succession. This is what I’m after.

Have any of you read Roger Scruton’s Modern Philosophy? I browsed through a bit of it in the library the other day, and I am thinking about giving it a shot after I finish PMN and Bleak House

The comforts of Euclid.

Posted in Books with tags , on 26 January 2010 by William Brafford

Without saying too much, some issues out in what we call “the real world” have sapped my creativity and left the well from which I draw inspiration for blogging rather dry. There are at least four posts I would try to write for this blog if I had the energy. But it’s gotten hard for me to focus Rorty or even on theology.

Who can I turn to? Euclid. The Elements.

The clean lines, the blank slate, the straightedge and the compass, the accrual of complexity, proof upon proof, the subtle structure, rhythm, and direction. Escapism that makes you feel smarter.

Euclid is even better if you know how later mathematicians grappled with his work. You can see where modern algebraic notation lets us express his proofs more cleanly — but you can also see how his proofs work without negative numbers. You can see why it took two thousand years and modern mathematics to figure out how to make a heptadecagon. In the first book alone, it’s neat to see how far Euclid goes without invoking the famous Fifth Postulate. (The Fifth Postulate, if you’re wondering, is the one that you can change in order to get non-Euclidean geometry.)

Really, I would love to get a small group of people to work through some part of the Elements as a discussion group. Not likely, I know, given the ham-handed presentation of geometry that everyone gets in high school. But it’s incredibly rare to come across a book in any genre that balances depth and accessibility as well as the Elements.

Why the IDF reads Deleuze

Posted in Notes with tags , , , , , , , on 19 January 2010 by Brendan

(h/t to Joe Carter at First Thoughts)

In 2006, Eyal Weizman, Professor of Architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, authored “Lethal Theory,” an article discussing the self-conscious appropriation of poststructuralist theories of language and society by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in articulating a new array of tactics for urban warfare: in an assault on the Palestinian city of Nablus in 2002, the IDF “used none of the streets, roads, alleys, or courtyards that constitute the syntax of the city,” but rather “moved horizontally through party walls, and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors,” literally carving out a maze of interior tunnels pervading private residences so as to bypass the sniper-ridden and bomb-laden thoroughfares of the city. The soldiers swarmed through the city in small, independent units, improvising an overall strategy in response to new developments.

Though the tactic is innovative (probably not so innovative as Weizman suggests), still more remarkable is the army’s own interpretation of it. Weizman interviewed the commander of the attack on Nablus, Brigadier General Aviv Kokhavi, who described the strategy:

The space that you look at in this room is nothing but your interpretation of it […] The question is, how do you interpret the alley? […] A weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the door. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey his interpretation and fall into his traps […] From now on, we all walk through walls!

 Weizman writes that many IDF officers are university trained (Kokhavi has a degree in philosophy), and that “the reading lists of contemporary military institutions include works from around 1968 (with a special emphasis on the writings of Deleuze, Guattari, and Debord).” The influence of postmodern thought on Israeli military strategy is largely due, Weizman suggests, to Shimon Naveh, who “directs the Operational Theory Research Institute,” and who explained the importance of Deleuze and Guattari to his work:

Several of the concepts in A Thousand Plateaus became instrumental for us…Most important was the distinction they have pointed out between the concepts of “smooth” and “striated” space…In the IDF we now often use the term “to smooth out space” when we want to refer to operation in a space as if it had no borders…We want to confront the “striated” space of traditional, old-fashioned military practice with smoothness that allows for movement through space that crosses any borders and barriers. 

Now, I’m certainly no military historian (and Weizman does acknowledge that “many of the procedures and processes described above have been part and parcel of urban operations throughout history”), but, the postmodern jargon aside, the tactics set out in this article—the reinterpretation of space, the decentralization of forces—is surely familiar to anyone moderately well versed in children’s science fiction: in Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card’s wonderful novel about an orbiting school for military cadets engaged in an interstellar war, the action revolves around the students’ mock wars in the Battle Room, a zero-gravity playing field in which opposing armies seek to disable one another with laser guns and tactical formations. A crucial insight that allows Ender to become the most successful commander in Battle School is that the orientation one ascribes to the gravity-less Battle Room is simply arbitrary. Rather than approach the enemy across the room, leaving his body exposed, Ender chooses to fall towards the opponent: “The enemy’s gate is down.”

The most striking aspect of Weizman’s article is his suggestion that the IDF is misappropriating critical theory “as an instrument in the power struggle against the Palestinians,” turning it to ends that surely would have been repugnant to the authors themselves (the classic example here being Derrida’s insistence that “justice” is the “undeconstructible” element on whose behalf all deconstruction is undertaken). Naveh insists, “The disruptive capacity in theory [elsewhere Naveh uses the term nihilist] is the aspect of theory that we like and use … This theory is not married to its socialist ideals.” As Weizman relates, the concepts deployed by the IDF were originally conceived as “part of a general strategy to challenge the built hierarchy o the capitalist city and break down distinctions between private and public”: “The ‘micropolitics’ of the time represented in many ways an attempt to constitute a mental and affective guerrilla fighter at the intimate levels of the body, sexuality, and intersubjectivity” (68). For such practices to be appropriated by the very institutions they were meant to subvert is an irony of history at best. 

However, I think such a development more than ironic, but to some extent fated: John Milbank and David Hart have each persuasively argued that postmodern writers share an “ontology of violence,” which results in their conceiving social relations as inevitably productive of strife. In such conditions, the best that can be hoped for is that violence can be marshaled to the aid of the “marginalized” by transgression, subversion, disruption, or deconstruction: the protection of the helpless justifies violence of a new sort, and policing in new areas; “Intolerance will not be tolerated.”

It’s redundant at best, but if all modes of speech conceal the will to power, then by definition, every act of political or military or social discourse conceals the will power: Nietzsche at least was honest enough to realize that historical self-consciousness is not a Get Out of Jail Free card from the prison of nihilism.