Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Theory in Practice

Sinthome at Larval Subjects has taken a somewhat ill-formed question of mine, and woven it into a beautiful series of reflections on a vital philosophical project. My schedule is unfortunately crashing down around me as I type, so I don’t have time this morning to write a response that could stand on its own: readers interested in following this latest iteration of this conversation should begin at Larval Subjects, where Sinthome’s post replicates, and then responds to, a set of questions I originally posed via email. To pick up very quickly and inadequately a few hanging points (note that, since this is more a comment than a stand-alone post, I’ll write here in comment style, addressing the points directly to Sinthome):

(1) First of points of similarity between the two projects:

In terms of the worry expressed at the beginning of your response over whether this project might be “absurd”, or at the end over whether you’ve adequately demonstrated the importance of the project: these might be issues for certain kinds of public writing – I’m not sure. Nothing in my original email, however, was intended to call into question whether your ontological stance is important – I accept this as read.

One quick terminological point, basically to translate between the vocabularies used across the two blogs, which might otherwise be a source of some confusion: when you say you are critical of “epistemology”, you mean, essentially, what I have tried to express in criticising what I have tended to call “unmasking and debunking critiques”. I have made essentially identical criticisms across a variety of writings of the relativism/absolutism, subject/object, etc. dichotomies, and agree that it’s essential to stop falling back into these kinds of polarisation, if we are to make sense of anything important, philosophically or politically.

I also agree that Hegel is an incredibly useful source to mine for concepts on how to do this – concepts that, I also agree, do not have to remain bound up in Hegel’s overarching theoretical or normative framework.

My reaction to your rejection of the term “epistemology” is a bit similar to how I understood your reaction to Scott Eric Kaufman’s decision to reject the term “theory”: it feels as though there’s an unnecessary (and potentially counterproductive) conflation of the term “epistemology” with a particular way of approaching epistemology. That said, I’m not picky about terminology – if you think the term “epistemology” has been irrevocably tainted by association with failed approaches, by all means choose another term (I’ve done this myself, where I’ve felt that the weight of history has made it unfortunately impossible to use an otherwise perfectly salient term).

My concern is simply that we not lose sight of epistemological questions – which I don’t believe are reducible to the problematic “how do we bridge the subject-object divide” style questions, which I think you rightly reject (and I’d absolutely agree that reflection on this properly begins with Hegel, although of course it won’t end there…). We still, though, need a way of talking about how we understand the insight that underlies your alternative ontology – as well as a means to make explicit whatever links we believe we have to the Enlightenment project. I think of these as essentially epistemological questions, whatever name we decide to use.

(2) In terms of points of potential difference (although, in saying this, I need to indicate that I see the points I’m making here as essentially additive, rather than critical – my instinct is that these might be steps that are perhaps also required for the project as you’ve outlined it, rather than points that would compel any kind of fundamental reconsideration of the project itself):

My main question, if I can figure out a way to say this, is whether it is adequate to treat this as solely a problem within philosophy – such that you can resolve it solely by positing an alternative philosophical discourse, without connection with history or sociology. If you were engaged in contemplative philosophy, I’d leave this aside. My sense, though, is that you are acutely concerned with the connections between philosophy and practice – whether political or therapeutic – with philosophy as a discipline that in some sense speaks to the potential for transformation.

My instinct is that, once you go here, some reaches toward sociology and history can actually save some headaches – and may, perhaps, be the only way (at least, they are the only way I can currently see) that might resolve some of your worries about how to reconstitute the Enlightenment project of demystification and critique. I won’t be able to explain this very well here, but my instinct is that – post Freud and Marx, as you said in one of your earlier posts – it may no longer be available to us to treat philosophical errors as mere errors in thinking. They may also be errors in thinking, but we may need to get a sense of how the errors themselves, while not predetermined or inevitable in any way, are nevertheless also not random: that we can understand, historically and sociologically, why people might find it tempting to make errors like this at the present moment in time. By the same token, we can also begin to understand, historically and sociologically, why it’s also available to practice to push beyond these errors – how our historical experiences, if we reflect on them and pay attention to their implications, suggest the practical, as well as the conceptual, falseness of common philosophical formulations.

Following this route, I think, can provide us with a new way of thinking about the relationship between historicisation and critique, such that historicisation comes to be understood as a way of holding our time in thought, of using the things we have taught ourselves are possible in order to open ourselves to a realm of determinate contingency – not the Benjaminian leap into the “free” air of history, but the political drive informed by what philosophical reflection can show us about the potentials we have constituted through social practices that have unfolded in a specific time.

Apologies for the inadequacy of this response – I will enjoy coming back to this later, when my schedule is not so nightmarish. A bit of bad timing, as I’m just coming off of a couple of relatively clear weeks, into a couple of horrible ones…

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2 responses to “Theory in Practice

  1. Scott Eric Kaufman December 14, 2006 at 8:07 am

    One day, everything everyone writes will remind someone of me. I will become ubiquitous. (Damn it.)

    (Also, brilliant series of posts of late. I’ve considered collecting the ones pertaining to the reading group and posting links on the Valve, but haven’t for fear of stepping on the toes of what appears to be a close-knit community. But if you don’t mind…)

  2. N Pepperell December 14, 2006 at 8:25 am

    I was wondering whether you’d see that – you’re responsible for all of this, you know: I stumbled across Larval Subjects because of a discussion at your blog. I suppose that might just give you the moral right to collect a post or two… ;-P

    Seriously, I don’t think any of the reading group members will mind – the idea was to frighten ourselves a little bit by opening at least the possibility that someone might wander by and tell us what lousy interpreters of texts we all are… ;-P

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