Philosophy

More internal criticism of academic philosophy: Arvan on Graber

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Marcus Arvan at The Philosophers’ Coccoon provides another encouraging example of an academic philosopher criticizing problem-solving methods that continue to be pervasively, uncritically used within the profession today:

I read a really interesting paper today by Abraham Graber entitled, “Creating Truths By Winning Arguments: The Problem of Methodological Artifacts in Philosophy” (forthcoming in Synthese). The paper sort of [crystallizes] a worry that I’ve had about philosophical practice dating back at least to graduate school, and which I explored previously here and here: namely, that a whole lot of philosophy–just about anything having to do with conceptual analysis (including analytic metaphysics and meta-ethics)–is little more than philosophers (1) taking themselves to [be] discovering objective philosophical facts (i.e. what material objects are, what morality is, etc.), where what they’re really doing is (2) making more-or-less arbitrary semantic decisions to settle the semantics of fundamentally vague concepts that (3) objectively have no determinate satisfaction-conditions before those arbitrary semantic decisions are made.

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If, Literature

If (a novel) now available on Kindle

 

 

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For anyone who was curious about my experimental novel If but thought — can I really afford to spend $17 on an unfamiliar novel of ideas by an author who does not even exist? — Livingston Press is making If available on the Kindle for only $2.99 for a few weeks. Please take a look — and if you like the novel, consider writing a review.

As mentioned in earlier posts, If is a philosophical novel with a choice at the end of each chapter. It explores themes of freedom and constraint. I discussed it in an interview with Electric Literature earlier this month, and I’ll have more to say about it in a soon-to-be-published interview with the Seattle Wrote blog. In the words of the publisher:

In If, you are the nameless protagonist, a young dreamer from northern California. At the end of each chapter, you must make a decision, some seemingly frivolous, some traumatic, but all far from inconsequential. These decisions shape your identity as the novel swerves toward twenty-two possible endings. From the margins of starvation in a third world country, to a romance in Paris, to an opulent party in a Manhattan high-rise, your life becomes the unexpected result of the choices you make. Can there be too much freedom? And how much of life lies within our control?

 

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Philosophy

Philosophy after Wittgenstein: Wittgensteinian philosophical history

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One of the remarkable features of Wittgenstein’s thought is its startling lack of concern for or interest in the history of philosophy. Wittgenstein apparently stated with pride that he had never read a word of Aristotle, and his occasional references to Heidegger and Kierkegaard suggest that he read them more as sources of poetic insight into the human condition than as sources of contestable philosophical theses.

When Wittgenstein writes critically of “philosophy” in his later writings—that is, when he is not using the term “philosophy” to refer to his own preferred mode of therapeutic problem-relief—he almost always seems to have in mind the kind of analytic-style philosophical problem-solving practiced by Cambridge philosophers such as Russell and Moore. It is unclear how he would criticize, or indeed if he would criticize, the sort of philosophical writing produced by other philosophical traditions, whether ancient or modern—or for that matter, non-Western or Western.

So, following up on previous posts on this topic (“Where can philosophy go after Wittgenstein?“), one way forward from the later Wittgenstein might simply be to ask: what would it be like to read other philosophical traditions through the lens of Wittgenstein’s later works? What would an encounter look like between Wittgenstein’s therapeutic methods and the dialogues of Plato, or the science of logic of Hegel? What might a therapeutic Wittgensteinian think about Heidegger’s ontological claims, or Derrida’s playfully evasive transcendentalist moves? What might Wittgenstein have to say about various figures in, say, Chinese or Indian philosophy?

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Philosophy

Philosophy after Wittgenstein: Deleuze’s production of concepts

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For those who find Wittgenstein’s critique of contemporary philosophical problem-solving compelling, but who resist the idea that philosophy should be nothing more than Wittgensteinian therapy, where can philosophy go?

Continuing from where an earlier post left off, one answer would be to agree with Gilles Deleuze that philosophy should be engaged in “the production of concepts.” This is very different from the puzzle-solving philosophy that Wittgenstein critiques. Whether this puzzle-solving is labeled by its practitioners as a form of analytic philosophy or an alternative to it, it is motivated by the attempt to discover the answers to philosophical problems. It assumes, against Wittgenstein, that there are correct answers to these problems, and that these answers can be determined by logical inference from the linguistic materials at hand, whether these materials come from intuition, natural science, or psychological experiment.

A philosophy based on the production of concepts, by contrast, would seek to create rather than discover, to make rather than find. It could be seen as dedicated to the creation of new “vocabularies,” in Richard Rorty’s use of the term. These new vocabularies might serve some of our ends better than the vocabularies we already use.

What kinds of vocabularies does Deleuze himself create?

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Literature

An interview about If at Electric Literature

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Here’s a link to the recently posted interview between me and the multitalented Joe Rositano at Electric Literature. We talk about If, the use of the term “choicefic” to describe books with branching narratives, skepticism, Burke, and what comes next.

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Literature

Two books on the public value of the humanities

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As a quick follow-up to this blog’s many earlier posts about the crisis in the humanities, I wanted to mention the publication of two books on the subject. Both were recently reviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Peter Brooks’s edited collection The Humanities and Public Life and Doris Sommer’s The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities offer spirited defenses of the humanities that attempt to explain why these fields of study matter. Both volumes cogently argue for the significance of the humanities, focusing primarily on their role in public life. Studying philosophical, historical, and artistic works may well make one a better person — or at least more knowledgeable, skilled, or intelligent — but these two books are chiefly concerned with the public benefit of such studies. What is the social function of the humanities? Is there a correlation between reading and ethics? What about between the humanities and human rights? Can the arts empower disenfranchised communities and, if so, in what ways?

In the absence of empirical evidence to the contrary, I remain skeptical that the study of literature and philosophy is a very effective way of promoting socially beneficial values. Especially difficult literature and philosophy. The study of history may be more useful—although, the better the history is as history, the less useful it may be as a social tool. A good work of scholarly history could leave the reader inspired to improve the world, and better informed about how to do so effectively—or paralyzed by uncertainty, cynical about the power of individual action to bring about change, and demoralized by the futility or perversity of so many past attempts.

If your goal is really to shape the civic values of the mass public, I think you’re much better off focusing on more popular and less difficult representational media like movies, and in particular documentaries.

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Philosophy

Where can philosophy go after Wittgenstein?

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I’ve mentioned before my view that the later Wittgenstein, nearly three quarters of a century ago, persuasively showed the hopelessness of most of the linguistic puzzle-solving that dominates academic philosophy today. Wittgenstein’s later work shows why the puzzles cannot be solved, why there is no need to solve them, and why attempts to solve the puzzles will only lead to interminable philosophical disputes.

Of course, many professional philosophers seem unaware of Wittgenstein’s critique of what they do, or perhaps unable to understand the critique due to methodological blinders unwittingly slipped on during their training. At the very least, many professional philosophers seem unwilling to accept the implications of Wittgenstein’s critique for their own work. At this point, I doubt there’s much that anyone can say that will succeed in changing the minds of those philosophers who have already committed themselves to a life of the mind hopeless puzzle-solving.

My question here, and hopefully in a few subsequent posts, will be different. Leaving puzzle-solving philosophy to itself, I want to ask: for those who understand and accept Wittgenstein’s critique, what is philosophy supposed to do? Where can philosophy go after Wittgenstein?

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