Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Once More, With Meaning!

Necker cube - drawing of an impossible cube.One of the things that has been most characteristic of my theoretical work over the past several years has been the fact that I seem to devote the most time, not to answering questions, and not even to asking them – but to trying to communicate that a particular kind of question exists. I have a sense that, in addition to the familiar sorts of questions we are used to asking, there is another category of question that too often remains unasked or, if asked, is often asked incompletely, or without a clearly expressed relationship to fairly central political and philosophical problems.

Looking back over the most recent exchange with Sinthome – at the questions I was trying to ask, and then at how Sinthome, quite reasonably and thoughtfully, sought to respond – I have a familiar sinking sensation that I have failed yet again to ask my own question… I would expect that the end result, from Sinthome’s perspective and from the perspective of readers of this conversation, would be a perception that we might be talking past one another – or, more specifically, confusion as to why I seem to keep speaking as though Sinthome has not responded to my question. I am thinking specifically of the moment within this exchange where, in response to my questions about historical and material conditions for knowledge, Sinthome replies:

However, everything changes once we recognize that the subject itself is caught up in these networks of relations, and it becomes possible to see knowledge as an ontological result of a process of individuation (here and here and here and here). To try to put the point a bit more clearly, knowledge must be seen as resulting from the milieu in which it is individuated, or its field of engagement. I take it that this responds to your remarks about material and historical conditions. If this is ontological rather than epistemological, then this is because there is no further being in-itself beyond these interactions and relations that would be a true object of knowledge. None of this is to suggest that I am a Hegelian or that I follow him in all the claims he makes. I do find, however, that the Doctrine of Essence in the Science of Logic, is a model of clear thinking (though not clear writing), and of great interest to anyone committed to relational ontology and fatigued by ineffectual epistemic critiques.

Consequently, my proposal is that rather than asking which is the right form of knowledge or claiming that there is no knowledge, we instead look at how knowledges are individuated and produced in a specific field of relations. This would also amount to a theory of learning rather than a theory of representing. Of course, this raises significant questions with regard to the Enlightenment project of critique and demystification that I have not yet worked through. (italics mine)

So, Sinthome has explicitly attempted to reply to my questions about how we should understand historical conditions of possibility for knowledge – and, what’s more, I agree with much if not all of the content of Sinthome’s response. Yet, in my reply this morning, there I am, still lecturing pedantically about the need to deploy historical and sociological perspectives – as though Sinthome had rejected this suggestion. In what way do I find Sinthome’s answer unsatisfying? What am I on about, if not the sorts of things Sinthome has already addressed? ;-P

The problem isn’t with Sinthome’s reading of my questions – this is the point where I routinely get myself into trouble and, to paraphrase the old joke, the only consistent thing in all my poor communications is me… I think I routinely run into this problem, in part, because the questions I’m asking are actually quite unprofound – they are, in a sense, far less sophisticated than the questions Sinthome has tried to answer (and enormously less sophisticated than the wonderful questions Sinthome explores in the writings on individuation, linked in the quoted passage above). I worry – constantly – that I’m being quite misguided in fixating on particular kinds of questions: that everyone just might be thinking – well, you can’t mean that, because that would just be too ridiculous – and so they substitute something more sophisticated as a matter of simple politeness, grounded in their incredulity that anyone would ask what I’m actually asking… Nevertheless, I can’t seem to shake the questions, or the sense that they might tell us something useful. So I’ll make one further attempt, hopefully clearer than the previous ones… To do this, I want to take a very, very quick look, not at the content of Sinthome’s work on individuation, but the form.

Sinthome’s work on individuation tackles the problem of how we might escape from a subject-object dualism, while still retaining the ability to speak in a meaningful way about the relationships between subjectivity and objectivty (I should note that I am being very sloppy with my language here – this is not how Sinthome would express this problematic – I’ll ask forebearance on this issue because my “target” in this analysis is not actually how we can best understand individuation, but instead something more abstract: I’m trying to illustrate something about the habits of thought into which most of us – including myself – tend to fall when we seek to resolve this kind of philosophical dichotomy). Sinthome tackles this problem on two fronts across different posts: the primary front is conceptual/philosophical – asking: how can we arrive at better concepts, better and clearer ways of thinking, which will relieve us from the conceptual errors and limitations intrinsic once we posit an ontological opposition between subjects and objects?; a significant secondary front is empiricist/scientific – asking: what does current research into empirical phenomena related to individuation suggest to us about how we should conceptualise the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity?

Sinthome’s thought on these questions is subtle and sophisticated, and I wish to be very clear that I am not trying to criticise any substantive points put forward in Sinthome’s posts. What I wish to ask, though, is whether the kind of reflection Sinthome carries out here might in its own practice remain bound to a subject-object divide: whether the practice of thinking through this issue, as carried out in these posts, is consistent with the express goal of the posts, which is to develop a system that transcends subject-object dualism.

I find this point maddeningly difficult to express, so I blame no one but myself if my point seems completely opaque… I’ll try to unpack this a bit more clearly… The habit we tend to fall into when putting forward new approaches – whether in philosophy or science or any other field where we believe we are making novel claims – is to treat our own insights as discoveries. This habit manifests itself in different ways. One is the tendency to treat opposing positions as the products of poor reasoning, and our own positions, by contrast, as the products of a better, clearer, more precise reasoning process. Another is the tendency to point to novel empirical facts, and to behave as though these empirical novelties have motivated (or justified) the emergence of new concepts.

In drawing attention to these common means of explaining the rise of new concepts, I am obviously not seeking to criticise precise reasoning, or to argue against philosophical reflection on the natural world. I am, though, asking whether the form that philosophical argument takes, when it appeals to subjective error or objective empirical novelty, can be understood to be adequate when the content or purpose of philosophical reflection strives to overturn the subject-object dualism. Perhaps we need to be seeking a form of philosophical exposition that is more adequate to the content it seeks to express. I regard this as an epistemological task – where epistemology is understood as, to borrow a phrase from Sinthome, a “theory of learning”, rather than as itself a project grounded in the subject-object divide. And I think that Hegel – and, for that matter, Marx – by focussing their attention on self-reflexivity, have highlighted the need to find a philosophical path through this labyrinth.

I don’t think I’ve made my point particularly well – and of course the point itself may simply be wrong. But my reaction to Sinthome’s initial response was, essentially, that the content was amazing – but that this content remains inconsistent with the form, with the internal mechanics or operation or expression of the philosophical approach. So, Sinthome tells me, as a matter of content – as a stance – that we must “recognize that the subject itself is caught up in these networks of relations” – and then offers some terms and concepts that will help express this perception. But I don’t see the philosophical approach itself expressing its own status of being caught up in a network of relations – explaining self-reflexively how it does not stand outside of the ontology it describes – and therefore how one can, within some specific network of relations, have learned the determinate lessons this philosophical approach has to teach us.

Sinthome rightly criticises relativist approaches for positioning the theorist in a position where, by devaluing all knowledge, the theorist can maintain “an imaginary illusion of mastery” – I think this is absolutely correct, and an extremely important point. But I also think that this risk is not specific to relativist approaches: I believe it applies to any theory that is not self-reflexive, whether relativist or absolutist in form. If we cannot locate our learning – if we cannot explain how the very networks in which we are embedded have whispered to us of their existence – only very recently, since we must acknowledge that the concepts, at least, are new, even if we want to assert that the ontology is not – and have thus helped us in some specifiable way to become aware of our ontological embeddedness – then, whatever our best intentions and explicit disclaimers, we are performatively placing ourselves outside the networks we are claiming to analyse. I would regard lack of self-reflection as a form of assertion of illusory mastery, and it is precisely this situation that I am trying to avoid.

My sense is that, any time we are trying to make new philosophical claims within a framework that seeks to overcome the subject-object divide, the criterion of self-reflection can be met only by an historical theory. By the term “historical theory”, I don’t mean a theory that simply leaves a space – like a black box – into which historical contingency, context, or a similar concept can flow – a theory that asserts as a stance that history is important. I mean a theory that can explain how its specific insights – which are self-evidently achieved at a specific moment in time – have become for determinate reasons easier to think at that moment.

I should note that, although I recognise Sinthome’s concerns about the way in which historicisation has traditionally been pressed into the service of relativism, I do not believe that this traditional relationship is also a logical one. I would suggest that identifying the historical origins of a concept does not, simply by dint of historicising that concept, necessarily limit the applicability of that concept to the historical moment in which that concept has arisen. I won’t develop this argument here (and may not be ready to elaborate a fully adequate argument, in any event), but my hunch is that we can get from a self-reflexive historical theory to a reconstructed understanding of the sorts of claims we traditionally wish to make, for example, when thinking of natural science. But I’ll leave this issue for a future post… I think it’s a bit more intuitive to grasp how this kind of historicisation can sensitise us to ways in which ideas might resonate at particular moments – and therefore make a useful contribution to non-relativist scepticism – to what I tend to call critical agnosticism in evaluating scientific and philosophical claims. I think, in other words, that there is a fairly direct connection between such an historical theory, and what Sinthome has called “the Enlightenment project of critique and demystification” – I think we can get from here to there… But I’m certain that this last point is far too compressed even to communicate the gestalt of what I suspect we can do…

But I’ll stop here – writing about these concepts always leaves me with the simultaneous sensation that I am being profoundly basic – discussing things that surely everyone must already know, but have left behind for good reasons I’m too simple to see – and at the same time that the whole thing is simply too complex, and that I am completely inadequate to hold the relevant concepts in my mind or to think at the requisite level… I’ll hope that this rather primitive approach to the issue might at least provide a useful foil – and I’ll apologise in advance if the topic is so off the mark that it does not provide conceptual traction…

[Note: image modified from Tarquin’s original, available from Wikipedia, and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. For full license details, please see the image’s Wikipedia page.]

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2 responses to “Once More, With Meaning!

  1. Nick December 15, 2006 at 2:15 pm

    Hi N. Pepperell,
    Taking Sinthome’s recurrent claims that the replies of others on his blog lend him assurance of his existence, I’d just like to offer my own reply here to assure you that you aren’t alone in your thinking. If I’m understanding you correctly, this disjunct between the content and the form of a self-reflexive stance are part of what I have grappled with on my own for a while too. As I see it (and I haven’t given it any terribly deep thought here), much of the primary writing that goes under the (loose) term ‘poststructuralism’ is an attempt to conjoin form and content, and this is what has led to so much of their notorious difficulty. While I can certainly see the value and necessity of writing in a way that performs your content, I also think (and I’m sure Sinthome would agree, with his experiences in Deleuzian scholarship) that it can be used to cover over a lack of well-reasoned arguments. I don’t think this is the case with the original sources (Deleuze, Derrida, Lacan, etc.), but too often I think secondary writers take the eccentric writing styles to be a license for anything (“viva la desire!”). I can’t speak for Sinthome, but I suspect that this is a large part of why he may separate form and content like you suggest, as a reaction against these other writers. I think the best way of mitigating the tension between these writing styles is something along the lines of what you roughly sketch out – there must be some means to connect the historicization of knowledge with more traditional knowledge claims. As to the particulars, well, that’s a good question!

    -Nick

  2. N Pepperell December 15, 2006 at 2:35 pm

    Unlike Sinthome, I find sometimes that the responses of others make me feel more ephemeral… ;-P Not, however, in the case of your reply… 🙂

    I just happened to catch your comment between meetings, so this will be a very brief response. I agree with the point you are trying to make about the elevation of style over content in some of the worst appropriations of “poststructuralist” theory – but this wasn’t actually the point I was trying to make in this particular post. (I was, though, worried that my meaning could be taken in precisely this way, so I appreciate your comment as an opportunity to address the distinction…)

    What I’m trying to highlight is actually a more fundamental issue – not specific to poststructuralist theory, but to any approach that tries to assert a dynamic identity of subjecitivity and objectivity, but that falls into asserting this position in the form of a stance.

    When I speak about the form of the argument in this post, I’m actually not talking about the written style (among other things, it would seem unfair to pick on someone’s style in a blog post – where the whole point is to expose ideas in draft) – I’m actually talking about something more like analytical style – about the underlying logic of the argument. By the same token, I don’t think the problem can be resolved purely by the adoption of any particular writing style (although, certainly, people have tried…) – it requires instead an orientation within the theory to exposing how it has become possible to learn what the theory tells we are now able to know. The shift required is a conceptual, rather than a stylistic, one. My post, though, left this ambiguous, and you are right to pick up on the issue.

    I don’t think anyone will express this adequately in all, or even most, writing – I just feel it’s particularly important to try to do this, when we are explicitly engaged in theorising alternatives to subject-object dualism.

    And yes: “there must be some means to connect the historicisation of knowledge with more traditional knowledge claims” – absolutely. And we need to work on unfolding those particulars. My suspicion is that this will be a bit easier if we begin by analysing the historical embeddedness of our own insights… But it’s early days for all of this, so my suspicion probably isn’t worth much more, at this stage, than it has cost to share with you… ;-P

    Many thanks for your comments – it’s been immensely helpful to find a few folks scattered around the net who enjoy discussing these issues…

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