Monthly Archives: July 2012

Gasset on the World

“I acquire no understanding of myself except as I take account of objects, of the surroundings. I do not think unless I think of things—therefore on finding myself I always find a world confronting me. Insofar as subjectivity and thought are concerned, I find myself as a dual fact whose other part is the world. Therefore the basic and undeniable fact is not my existence, but my coexistence with the world.”

-José Ortega y Gasset, What is Philosophy?

Derrida on Gender & Sexuality

“The debate about homosexuality comes down to a debate about an over-organized, over-regulated, narrowly oppositional space in which there are only two hierarchically ordered places, a “binarity” of male and female, of male over female.  For Derrida, the way to break this up is to open up all the other places that this binary scheme closes off… That is why “feminism,” while constituting a strategically necessary moment of “reversal,” a salutary overturning that purges the system of its present masculinist hegemony, must give way to “displacement,” which is a more radical “gender bender” in which the whole masculine/feminine schema is skewed.”

-John D. Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell

Caputo on Atheism

“The proper response to stating god as a being, is atheism.”

-John D. Caputo

Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” #8

“All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.”

Karl and Wife Jenny Marx

Alas, after his foray into Feuerbach’s critique of religion, Marx has once again returned to (what may be) the principle question of his theses, practice.  If we might return to the intuitions of the first couple theses, it should be recognized that “practice” designated more than mere activity, but instead an entire region being: the subjective, sensuous realm of human activity, the realm of truth. Returning to this realm, this region of Being, Marx’s eighth thesis identifies two important aspects of practice.

First, Marx resolves all social relations into practice.  Were practice misunderstood as mere activity, such an assertion would be decidedly banal.   Yet, recognizing Marx’s complex notion of practice, as nothing other than the subjective sensuality of human life, the placement of social relation within practice becomes a meaningful analysis.  Understood in this way, social relations are abstracted from the theoretical, economical, and political realms which remain fundamentally secondary to living praxis.  Instead of being mediated through these structures, sociality is recognized as a direct human connection, a piece of true human life and reality: prior to economics, prior to politics.

Second, Marx identifies this reality, practice, as the means by which the aporias of rational contemplation might be overcome.  In his critique of “mysticism,” Marx does not intend a particular religious disposition, but instead employs this term in reference to the philosophical movement beyond human sensuality, the excess of intellectual contemplation.  Instead of a radicalized intellectualism (e.g. Hegel, or even Feuerbach’s “contemplative materialism”), Marx proposes the sensuous activity of human life as the single adequate response to the “mysteries” of intellectualism.  Instead of pursing the ultimate philosophical questions (freedom, ethics, etc.) into successively more remote abstractions, Marx simply proposes a reliance upon non-contemplative methodology; Marx proposes a solution in the “comprehension of this practice,” that is, in a phenomenology of practical life.

Merleau-Ponty on Sexuality

“Existence permeates sexuality and vice versa, so that it is impossible to determine, in a given decision or action, the proportion of sexual to other motivations, impossible to label a decision or act ‘sexual’ or ‘non-sexual’ . There is no outstripping of sexuality any more than there is sexuality enclosed within itself. No one is saved and no one is totally lost.”

-Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

Micro-Reviews #6 Harris’ “Freewill”

Overall rating, 1/10

Recently I spent an hour at a local Barnes and Noble, hiding from the heat-wave, reading Sam Harris’ new, popular, and provocative Freewill.  At the risk of hyperbole (and shedding any legitimacy or credibility), I must say that I found the work to be an unbearable disaster of a philosophical argument.  If only to emphasize my true distaste for this work, I must admit that it took me two separate attempts to finish the book, as I was initially overtaken by frustration by page 9… (I promise to end my complaining and make a real argument now.)

In order to examine this book, I would like to engage a few specific points that I found particularly problematic throughout.

Harris’ first error can be identified in his attempt to ground his thesis–that freewill is an illusion–in the following (false) dichotomy:

“Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them. ” (p.5)

Here, Harris reveals his reductive-positivistic presuppositions with absolute clarity.  For Harris, free-will could only be the product of two sources, either the cause-effect chains of “medium-sized dry goods” (Austin) or the randomness of the quantum level.  Yet, this argument fails to refute, or even acknowledge, the principal topos of free-will within much (or most) of both traditional and contemporary philosophy–that is, the transcendent.  By this, I certainly do not advocate an uncritical reliance upon the religious notion of the soul, but merely point back to the transcendental consciousness of German Idealism and transcendental phenomenology, or the more recent embodied consciousness of existentialism and French phenomenology.  That any phenomenon could find its origin outside of the nexus of physical reality, understood in the most dogmatic and simply unreflective sense, is simply out of the picture for Harris.  The closest he is willing to approach this subject is by way of the casual (and unconvincing) brushing-aside of the “soul” as irrelevant to the question of free-will.

The second, and perhaps crucial error of Freewill can be summarized in the following quote:

“Consider what it would take to actually have free will.  You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thought and actions and you would need to have complete control over these factors.” (p. 13, emphasis mine)

Although (perhaps) initially convincing, this argument relies upon two problematic words, “all” and “complete,” which Harris’ discussion simply does not justify.  The criteria that Harris has set forward for freewill is simply unnecessarily “rigorous.”  As I once stated in a debate concerning this perspective, even Sartre, the champion of freewill par excellence, does not make such stringent requirements of freewill.  Instead, he, like all major thinkers on the subject, recognizes that freewill is consistently limited, pressed, and urged by factors both internal and external to the individual.  What Harris fails to recognize is that desire is not = to will.  The act of “wanting something” (passive) is not correlate to the act of “choosing something” (active).  By identifying the sources of our biases, our desires, etc. Harris believes that he has identified the sole sources of our decision making processes.  On the contrary, it is an undeniable factor of the human condition (as beings in a world) that we will be constantly influenced by our surroundings.  Nonetheless, this does not negate the validity of our will.

If I might take one of his examples, he asks the reader to think of a city.  He then asserts that those cities which did not appear to the mind as options (did not occur as a choice) were not true options.  Thus, he says, freewill is an illusion.  Yet, even if I grant him his specific point (that those “other” cities were not true options)  he has still failed to establish that my decision, chosen from the set of cities which did appear to consciousness, was not a real choice.  Even if Freewill is not unlimited or infinite, it might still be, in a very meaningful sense, free.

I could continue to touch upon various other weakness, including the ambiguity of his “I” (which appears, often [but not always] identical to the brain, sometimes transcendent to the brain, and seemingly never, encompassing the entire person [embodied]).  But I will simply end at this point, reiterating that this work is fundamentally unsatisfying, tremendously philosophically sloppy, and recommendable to no one.

If you’re interested in the relationship between Philosophy of Mind and Freewill, save yourself the trouble and read someone who is worth studying, perhaps Dennett.

Das Kapital on Stage

Das Kapital stage production!

“Producers promise blend of Broadway and Vegas for all-dancing, all-singing adaptation of Marx’s treatise”

Best ever!

Lacan on Negation

Speaking in terms which seem to betray a strong Hegelian (i.e. dialectical) influence, Lacan writes:

“In the symbolic order nothing exists except upon an assumed foundation of absence. Nothing exists except insofar as it does not exist.”

Rumi on Internal Sense

“Study me as much as you like, you will never know me, for I differ a hundred ways from what you see me to be. Put yourself behind my eyes, and see me as I see myself, for I have chosen to dwell in a place you cannot see.”

-Rumi

Caputo on Continental Philosophy and Religion

“Too often, contemporary continental philosophers take the “other” of philosophy to mean literature, but not religion, which is for them just a little too wholly other, a little beyond their much heralded tolerance of alterity. They retain an antagonism to religious texts inherited straight from the Enlightenment, even though they pride themselves on having made the axioms and dogmas of the Enlightenment questionable. But the truth is that contemporary continental philosophy is marked by the language of the call and the response, of the gift, of hospitality to the other, of the widow, the orphan and the stranger, and by the very idea of the “wholly other,” a discourse that any with the ears to hear knows has a Scriptural provenance and a Scriptural resonance. “

-John D. Caputo, “A Prologue”