David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: heidegger (page 2 of 7)

More Carnap and Some Raymond Smullyan

Rudolf Carnap, what a card. Eric Schliesser sums it up with a reference to Carnap’s infamous “The Elimination of Metaphysics“:

In the history of philosophy, “the nothing itself nothings,” has, of course, a dubious status as either brilliant ridicule or very uncharitable reading. But as Stone has taught us, in context that sentence is a very charitable reading of Heidegger. No, the real insult to Heidegger occurs near the end of Carnap’s (1931) paper [I have linked to an English translation]. Carnap ends his paper (which is rarely read, but often cited) with a two-fold insult to Heidegger: first, “Metaphysicians [that is, Heidegger] are musicians without musical ability.” (Cf. Heidegger’s Stimmen in “What is Metaphysics?”) Second, Carnap THEN GOES ON TO PRAISE NIETZSCHE and his poetry. To say this as a serious joke: Heidegger’s lecture courses on Nietzsche are a response to Carnap’s two-fold insult.

His ingenuous waggery reminded me of this story that Raymond Smullyan tells about Carnap:

In item # 249 of my book of logic puzzles titled What Is the Name of This Book?, I describe an infallible method of proving anything whatsoever. Only a magician is capable of employing the method, however. I once used it on Rudolf Carnap to prove the existence of God.

“Here you see a red card,” I said to Professor Carnap as I removed a card from the deck. “I place it face down in your palm. Now, you know that a false proposition implies any proposition. Therefore, if this card were black, then God would exist. Do you agree?”

“Oh, certainly,” replied Carnap, “if the card were black, then God would exist.”

“Very good,” I said as I turned over the card. “As you see, the card is black. Therefore, God exists!”

“Ah, yes!” replied Carnap in a philosophical tone. “Proof by legerdemain! Same as the theologians use!”

Raymond Smullyan, 5000 B.C. and Other Philosophical Fantasies

[I read Smullyan’s books of logic puzzles when I was a kid and recommend them to all parents. I always enjoyed them until he started talking about Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, at which point my brain melted. I’m not sure if I was mentally capable of understanding logic to that extent at a young age, regardless of how it was explained.]

It’s possible that if Heidegger had more anecdotes like this, I might feel more fondly toward him. But let’s hear more of Carnap’s words and his praise for Nietzsche, where he seems to in part be channeling Cassirer as well as a bit of Wittgenstein. Metaphysical systems are myths, he says, they are forms of life.

I thought of editing this down but it’s lovely enough that I decided just to quote the entire concluding section:

Our claim that the statements of metaphysics are entirely meaningless, that they do not assert anything, will leave even those who agree intellectually with our results with a painful feeling of strangeness: how could it be explained that so many men in all ages and nations, among them eminent minds, spent so much energy, nay veritable fervor, on metaphysics if the latter consisted of nothing but mere words, nonsensically juxtaposed? And how could one account for the fact that metaphysical books have exerted such a strong influence on readers up to the present day, if they contained not even errors, but nothing at all? These doubts are justified since metaphysics does indeed have a content; only it is not theoretical content. The (pseudo)statements of metaphysics do not serve for the description of states of affairs, neither existing ones (in that case they would be true statements) nor nonexisting ones (in that case they would be at least false statements). They serve for the expression of the general attitude of a person towards life (“Lebenseinstellung, Lebensgefühl”) .

Perhaps we may assume that metaphysics originated from mythology. The child is angry at the “wicked table” which hurt him. Primitive man endeavors to conciliate the threatening demon of earthquakes, or he worships the deity of the fertile rains in gratitude. Here we confront personifications of natural phenomena, which are the quasi-poetic expression of man’s emotional relationship to his environment. The heritage of mythology is bequeathed on the one hand to poetry, which produces and intensifies the effects of mythology on life in a deliberate way; on the other hand, it is handed down to theology, which develops mythology into a system. Which, now, is the historical role of metaphysics? Perhaps we may regard it as a substitute for theology on the level of systematic, conceptual thinking. The (supposedly) transcendent sources of knowledge of theology are here replaced by natural, yet supposedly trans-empirical sources of knowledge.

On closer inspection the same content as that of mythology is here still recognizable behind the repeatedly varied dressing: we find that metaphysics also arises from the need to give expression to a man’s attitude in life, his emotional and volitional reaction to the environment, to society, to the tasks to which he devotes himself, to the misfortunes that befall him. This attitude manifests itself, unconsciously as a rule, in everything a man does or says. It also impresses itself on his facial features, perhaps even on the character of his gait. Many people, now, feel a desire to create over and above these manifestations a special expression of their attitude, through which it might become visible in a more succinct and penetrating way. If they have artistic talent they are able to express themselves by producing a work of art. Many writers have already clarified the way in which the basic attitude is mani-fested through the style and manner of a work of art (e.g. Dilthey and his students). [In this connection the term “world view” (“Weltanschauung”) is often used; we prefer to avoid it because of its ambiguity, which blurs the difference between attitude and theory, a difference which is of decisive importance for our analysis.] What is here essential for our considerations is only the fact that art is an adequate, metaphysics an inadequate means for the expression of the basic attitude.

Of course, there need be no intrinsic objection to one’s using any means of expression one likes. But in the case of metaphysics we find this situation: through the form of its works it pretends to be something that it is not. That the metaphysician is thus deluding himself cannot be inferred from the fact that he selects language as the medium of expression and declarative sentences as the form of expression; for lyrical poets do the same without succumbing to self-delusion. But the metaphysician supports his statements by arguments, he claims assent to their content, he polemicizes against metaphysicians of divergent persuasion by attempting to refute their assertions in his treatise. Lyrical poets, on the other hand, do not try to refute in their poem the statements in a poem by some other lyrical poet; for they know they are in the domain of art and not in the domain of theory.

Perhaps music is the purest means of expression of the basic attitude because it is entirely free from any reference to objects. The harmonious feeling or attitude, which the metaphysician tries to express in a monistic system, is more clearly expressed in the music of Mozart. And when a metaphysician gives verbal expression to his dualistic-heroic attitude towards life in a dualistic system, is it not perhaps because he lacks the ability of a Beethoven to express this attitude in an adequate medium? Metaphysicians are musicians without musical ability. Instead they have a strong inclination to work within the medium of the theoretical, to connect concepts and thoughts. Now, instead of activating, on the one hand, this inclination in the domain of science, and satisfying, on the other hand, the need for expression in art, the metaphysician confuses the two and produces a structure which achieves nothing for knowledge and something inadequate for the expression of attitude. Our conjecture that metaphysics is a substitute, albeit an inadequate one, for art, seems to be further confirmed by the fact that the metaphysician who perhaps had artistic talent to the highest degree, viz. Nietzsche, almost entirely avoided the error of that confusion. A large part of his work has predominantly empirical content. We find there, for instance, historical analyses of specific artistic phenomena, or an historical-psychological analysis of morals. In the work, however, in which he expresses most strongly that which others express through metaphysics or ethics, in Thus Spake Zarathustra, he does not choose the misleading theoretical form, but openly the form of art, of poetry.

Rudolf Carnap, “The Elimination of Metaphysics”

Karl Popper, among others, later complained that Carnap was giving away the store with this attitude. Perhaps he was. Shoving huge domains of life (including much of what falls under the rubric of “science”) out of philosophy and into the realm of art is not exactly a philosophy-boosting move, even if it taunts Heidegger.

Smullyan extends and somewhat reverses this line of thought as follows:

Suppose I have a world view that is internally perfectly consistent, that is, logically consistent, consistent with all the experiences I have ever had, and consistent with all my feelings and intuitions. For the moment, let us make the further assumption (totally unrealistic as it almost certainly is) that the view is consistent with any experience I ever will have in the future. Let us call such a view a perfect world view. Now suppose that you also have a perfect world view but that yours is logically incompatible with mine. It seems to me that the valuable contribution of the positivists (and, for that matter, the pragmatists) is the realization of the question, “How in principle could you or I ever show each other to be wrong?” In other words, can we really hope to get anything more from philosophy than consistency?

It could well be that our world views are in fact perfect, yet it might be consistent for each of us to deny that the other’s world view is perfect. (Indeed, it might even be consistent to deny that one’s own world view is perfect!) Actually, if I believed your world view to be perfect (though false), I think I am now sufficiently influenced by the positivists to realize that my arguing with you could be of no avail. Thus, I think that our very process of arguing with each other indicates our lack of belief in the perfection of each other’s world views; we hope either to show the other view to be inconsistent or to produce some new experience in the other person that will change his mind or call forth to full consciousness some latent intuition. This, I think, is what metaphysicians of the past have been up to. As Carnap has rightly pointed out, metaphysicians are not content just to present their systems (unlike artists and poets, who only present their works of art), but they try to refute the metaphysical systems of others. I have just proposed what I believe this refutation to really be.

The point, then, is, in mathematical language, to construct a model of your language within mine. Put less precisely, though more expressively, the point is for me to be able to see the world through your eyes. After having gone through such an experience, it is more than likely that my own world view might become considerably enlarged. After all, even in a perfect world view, one has not necessarily decided the truth of every statement; there may be many alternative ways of extending it to produce a more comprehensive perfect world view.

To the reader with some knowledge of mathematical logic, I acknowledge that I of course realize that my fanciful analogies have their weak points… But I believe that all I have said about perfect world views should apply a fortiori to those that are not perfect.

The technique of philosophizing that I am suggesting might be put in the form of a maxim: “Instead of trying to prove your opponent wrong, try to find out in what sense he may be right.” This is a sort of tolerance principle, not too unrelated to that of Carnap.* To repeat my main point, much may be gained from constructing possible models of other world views within one’s own. I believe that this is in the spirit of much of modern analysis. But I would like to see this applied more to some of the great metaphysical systems of the past.

*  Indeed, it can be thought of as a semantic counterpart of Carnap’s principle of tolerance. His principle says that a language should be regarded as acceptable if it is consistent–or equivalently, if it has a model. My principle is to try to find such a model–or rather an interesting model of the language.

Raymond Smullyan, 5000 B.C. and Other Philosophical Fantasies

Ernst Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Pitfall of Being Reasonable (or: Fashionable Radicalism)

What of Ernst Cassirer? Hans Sluga wrote a few months ago:

Cassirer does not get close in stature to the much more problematic Heidegger, and he certainly also lacks the philosophical radicalism of a Wittgenstein, Foucault, or Derrida and the incisive scientific acumen of a Russell, Quine, or Rawls. Attempts to revive his fortunes are, I am afraid, doomed to failure.

Hans Sluga, Review of Peter E. Gordon’s Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos

The two words “stature” and “radicalism” should awaken suspicion at the terms of the judgment. They also hint at one possible reason why so much of the recent press on Cassirer has been lukewarm or dismissive: He is too reasonable.

First, a little context: hyper-learned philosophy scholar Frederick Beiser, who is also an avowed exponent of the cultural-historical tradition of which Cassirer was a part, recently criticized a history of 19th century continental philosophy for being, essentially, a dictionary of received ideas, an anthology of current trends and little else:

The editors might grumble here that in chiding them for not including Trendelenburg, Lotze and the neo-Kantians I have not judged them by their own criteria. For their volume is meant to describe “revolutionary responses to the existing order“, and Trendelenburg, Lotze and the neo-Kantians were not revolutionary; indeed, they represented the establishment and existing order, given their opposition to materialism and given their ensconced place in German university life.

It is precisely here, however, that it is necessary to raise questions about the editors’ criteria and their guiding themes of “revolutionary responses to the existing order.” That theme is so vague and equivocal that it signifies contradictory viewpoints. The revolutionary response to the existing order can mean the revolution on behalf of modern values by Feuerbach, Marx and the German materialists; or it can also mean the reaction against modern values by Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche. The existing order can be pre-secular, non-liberal and monarchical society prior to 1848, the remaining traces of the ancien régime; and it can also be the more secular, liberal and democratic order circa 1870. The editors never spell out this ambiguity; they simply exploit it, so that they have a convenient device for including everyone according to the exigencies of the standard curriculum. 

Behind the editors’ theme of “revolutionary responses to the existing order” there lies an old myth, one that the editors have scarcely articulated yet tacitly adopted: namely, that the important philosophy of the nineteenth century came not from “academic philosophers” but from the radical individual thinkers outside the university, viz., from such solitary thinkers as Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.

Not the least troublesome aspect of this myth is that some of these so-called revolutionary thinkers were themselves deeply reactionary. It is only by turning a blind eye to Nietzsche’s reactionary politics and to Kierkegaard’s and Dostoyevsky’s fundamentalist Christianity that it is possible to make them relevant to us today. Any impartial contemporary student of nineteenth-century philosophy who knows the movement in all its breadth will find Cohen, Simmel and Weber more sympathetic company than Kierkegaard, Nietzsche or Dostoyevsky.

Frederick Beiser, Review of Alan D. Schrift and Daniel Conway (eds.), Nineteenth Century Philosophy: Revolutionary Responses to the Existing Order

Behind this chronologically localized criticism is a larger specter haunting the history of philosophy, which is the extent to which the history of philosophy is chronicled as a history of radicalism. There is a persistent urge to reject any uniformitarian or gradualist model of philosophy in favor of a history of wild, epochal thinkers making fundamental changes to the ways that we see the world.

Not only does this provide for a more exciting model of punctuated equilibrium, but it also makes for a much simpler and more teachable one, as we can leap from Descartes to Hume to Kant to Hegel without bothering to examine the secondary, non-epochal thinkers in between them.

And the insidious nature of this assumption goes beyond Beiser’s specific criticisms. The criticism of Cassirer reinforces the more general problem at work. I’m not interested in defending Cassirer here per se, but in showing that many of the criticisms seem to be made in bad faith.

Edward Skidelsky wrote a recent book on Cassirer, Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture, in which he opened with a confession that Cassirer had let him down, and declares a lowered estimation of Cassirer:

I now saw that the problems facing Cassirer’s enterprise were far more serious than I had initially supposed. It was not just that many individual aspects of his system had fallen into disrepair, but that the whole thing was no longer obviously philosophy at all. Cassirer’s thought is inductive, not deductive in its method. Setting out from the variety of human culture, it attempts to comprehend it as an organic whole. But most twentieth-century philosophy, analytic and continental, has sought a standpoint beyond the variety of culture—an absolute conception of consciousness, meaning, or the world. Viewed from this angle, Cassirer does not so much mediate between analytic and continental traditions as fall foul of them both. His “reconciliation” is on terms that neither can accept.

There is, of course, no reason to accept as final the conception of philosophy prevailing in modern philosophy departments. But there are reasons to doubt whether Cassirer’s inductivist conception of the discipline could readily be revived. Cassirer was able to conceive of philosophy as the interpretation of culture only because he shared with most of his generation a conception of culture itself as an essentially liberating force.

The twentieth century was not kind to that idea. The cancerous growth of bureaucracy, the murderous perversion of science, the self-prostitution of the humanities—none of this portended liberation. The younger generation accordingly sought a standard of truth over and above culture’s shifting tides. The logical positivists found it in the verification principle, Heidegger in authentic existence. Others turned to the Bible or the wisdom of ancient Greece. All agreed that the humanism of the past two centuries had failed. “We encountered situations,” wrote Karl Jaspers in 1948, “in which we no longer had any inclination to read Goethe, but seized on Shakespeare, the Bible or Aeschylus, if indeed we could still read at all.”

We have inherited Cassirer’s liberal political attitudes, but not the cultural sensibility that underlay them. With our skepticism toward progress, our distaste for “bourgeois” formalities, our fascination with charisma, and our endless talk of commitment, authenticity, and roots, we remain, consciously or not, Heidegger’s children. We are politically liberal, spiritually illiberal. Is this combination a stable one? And if not, how long can it last? These are questions that this book raises, but cannot answer.

Edward Skidelsky, Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture

Skidelsky berates Cassirer for working from a conception that he thinks unrecoverable. Yet consider how he describes the alternative conceptions: “a standard of truth over and above culture’s shifting tides.” An absolutist, acultural view of truth. This is bizarre, partly because Cassirer hardly held to cultural relativism, but also because Heidegger’s influence has been primarily shunted through cultural relativism. (I’ll get to the logical positivists later.)

As evidence, I present David Simpson’s equally odd review of Skidelsky’s book from the London Review of Books, in which he doesn’t seem to realize he’s attacking Cassirer from the opposite side that Skidelsky is:

While we should not slavishly follow Heidegger’s every move, we can’t really get behind Cassirer, however benign his intentions, however serene his demeanour. Standing between us and him are the massive intellectual forces of Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Adorno and many others; not all of them Heidegger’s children, all of the time, but none of them relatives of Cassirer’s. These forces are not just intellectual or ‘authentically philosophical’; they articulate a profound scepticism about the project of progressive culture in the light of world events that are not at all comfortably consigned to a vanished past.

To return to the question with which I began: are these books the sign of a return to Cassirer? I doubt it, and so do most of these authors. Heidegger, Benjamin, Adorno, Blumenberg and Carnap all found Cassirer wanting, and those who attend conferences about him are also unable to convince themselves that he can be reinvented for the 21st century.

David Simpson, A Positive Future

How did the opposing attacks get so confused? I contend it is because their essence is identical: Cassirer was not a radical. Whether the radicalism was in the form of metaphysical absolutism or cultural relativism, what matters is that the position was radical.

Meanwhile, there is the trendy criterion that a thinker must be able to be “reinvented for the 21st century” in order to merit study. What does that even mean? I suspect it is just another way of saying that a thinker must be radical. (If Carl Schmitt can be “reinvented” for the 21st century, I daresay there’s nothing stopping Cassirer.)

And indeed, Simpson cites four problematic thinkers as “massive intellectual forces,” who have little in common besides being indisputably radical: Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, and Adorno.

Derrida and Lacan lead nowhere but back to themselves, solipsists far less successful than Freud, makers of minor metaphors that will hang on through their cults but slowly dissipate from cultural memory, their best arguments returned to the sources from whom they were borrowed.

I have far more patience for Foucault and Adorno, who are serious and durable thinkers, but as Habermas among many others have pointed out, both of their systems offer no escape, rational or otherwise. Their critique can only be used in part, or else it is simply so self-negating as to be pointless. It is no insult to say that they reject Cassirer, because they reject everyone.

But when taken in part, Foucault and Adorno can only be used to argue for reform of a Cassirer-like project of intellectual rationalism, not an indisputable indictment of it. I suppose this is a good thing as it permits scholarship to continue.

Meanwhile, Simpson bizarrely lists Blumenberg as a detractor from Cassirer; I suppose when evidence is not at issue, you might as well pile on the names. Blumenberg does convincingly criticize Cassirer’s terminus ad quem view of myth as uniformly directed to one ideal outcome, but that hardly is an indictment of the man’s whole work.

Yet in looking at Heidegger, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, and Adorno, one is struck ultimately by their comparative inconsequentiality. These “massive intellectual forces” simply have not dominated intellectual discourse outside of their disciplines: Habermas and Sartre loomed far larger in public life. (Indeed, Sartre’s disappearance over the last 30 years should serve as a warning to all never to trust the current canon.)

Instead, consider this sample of hugely influential intellectual forces of the 20th century: Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Alan Turing, John Von Neumann, Kurt Godel, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, Sigmund Freud, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and Martin Luther King.

Yes, many of them made their mark through practical action, but that does not disqualify their influence. All of them, without exception, fall closer philosophically to Carnap and Cassirer than to Heidegger or any of the other names Simpson or Skidelsky cites. Simpson is using a rather parochial measure of massiveness.

Which brings us to Carnap. The logical positivist view is certainly one that has held greater sway Cassirer’s cultural view. Contra Skidelsky, we are vastly more Carnap’s children than we are Heidegger’s, and thank goodness for that. So the charge of Cassirer’s irrelevance relative to Carnap is at least plausible.

Yet Skidelsky and Simpson have it wrong in opposing Carnap and Cassirer. As Michael Friedman points out, Cassirer had already moved toward admitting a logical absolutism into his philosophy, undercutting Skidelsky’s attack:

By sharply distinguishing between intuitive or representative meaning and the purely formal or significative meaning characteristic of modern abstract mathematics, in the tradition of Leibniz’s “universal characteristic,” Helmholtz’s theory of signs, and Hilbert’s axiomatic conception of geometry, Cassirer has clearly moved out of the Kantian camp and has come extremely close, in fact, to the position of Carnap and the logical positivists.

Michael Friedman, A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger (2000)

And as was recently demonstrated in these pages, logical positivism was hardly as absolutist as its most extreme exponents and detractors made it out to be: in Carnap’s own words, “The fabric of life can never quite be comprehended.” Logical positivism does not exclude Cassirer’s empirical philosophy of culture from the world.

Friedman, who has argued in the past with Sluga over Cassirer, makes the following case for Cassirer’s relevance, which I cite simply in order to contrast its rhetoric with that of Cassirer’s critics above:

The essence of Cassirer’s approach is to employ the most sophisticated and comprehensive resources of conceptual intellectual history (and thus the resources of a paradigmatic Geisteswissenschaft) in attempting to craft a new philosophical orientation appropriate to the problems and predicaments of the present.

For Cassirer this meant, in particular, that we attempt to trace the conceptual evolution of both modern science and modern philosophy – and the conceptual interactions between them – within the framework of an historicized (and to this extent Hegelian) version of a broadly Kantian theory of the most general forms and categories of human thought, and this approach was later generalized and extended, in the philosophy of symbolic forms, to embrace what we might call the conceptual history of all of human culture as a whole.

Now this last step, as I have said, is one that I myself am not prepared to take. But Cassirer’s earlier approach, exemplified in his more narrowly scientific works, makes particularly good sense, I believe, within our present, post-logical-empiricist and post-Kuhnian situation in philosophy of science and scientific epistemology.

Michael Friedman, “Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger” (2002)

And this all seems very reasonable and sensible, and indeed not so far off from the realms which many subsequent thinkers, from Quine to Sellars to Kuhn to Blumenberg to Apel to Habermas, have explored.

If anything, the bashing of Cassirer seems to be an outgrowth of his being too reasonable, too sensible, too down-to-earth, as though admitting the tenability of his position would put the more abstruse theorists out of a job. The embrace of radicalism appears to be a desperate stab at relevancy for areas of the profession feeling increasingly at risk of complete inconsequentiality. I believe this tendency to be self-defeating.

Embracing radicalism is an understandable reaction to the actual victory of science and the problems that it has brought, but it is not a particularly credible or respectable one. It does explain, though, the phenomenon of someone like Slavoj Zizek, who offers all of the radicalism of a Foucault with none of the content.

Beiser, who is something of an iconoclastic establishmentarian, seems far more heterodox by prescribing the truly deviant step of deep research, something that he follows Cassirer in practicing:

There are two kinds of philosophical historians: derivative and original. While the derivative follow the standard curriculum, the original have the powers to reform and create a new curriculum. It is the ideal and obligation of every genuine philosophical historian to be original, to get beyond the standard curriculum, to resist the pressure of pedagogical interests and intellectual fashions, so that he can give an accurate account of the depth and breadth of an historical period. No period of the philosophical past stands in more need of an original historian than nineteenth century philosophy. The standard tropes and figures do no justice to its depths, riches and powers. The ultimate purpose of this review is to give the reader some indication of how we must strive to get beyond them.

Frederick Beiser, Review of Alan D. Schrift and Daniel Conway (eds.), Nineteenth Century Philosophy: Revolutionary Responses to the Existing Order

The derivative historians are that much more harmful when they dismiss unfashionable thinkers as unrecoverable. When Skidelsky calls Cassirer “old Europe’s answer to Francis Fukuyama,” he only sounds small and myopic.

To answer Skidelsky’s implied question from earlier: Is culture an essentially liberating force? Not necessarily. Does it have the potential to be? Yes. That is sufficient.

Birdwatching Provides an Alternative to Love (or, The Question Concerning Ornithology)

This essay is adapted from a commencement speech Jonathan Franzen delivered on May 21 at Kenyon College.

A couple of weeks ago, I started watching loggerhead shrikes instead of Eurasian wigeons. Needless to say, I was impressed with the qualities of the shrike. Even when a live one was not on hand, I wanted to keep looking at pictures of my shrikes and experiencing the marvelous clarity of its black face mask, the silky action of its hooked bill, the shocking speed of its responses, the beguiling elegance of its wings.

I was, in short, infatuated with my new shrike. I’d been similarly infatuated with my old Eurasian wigeon, of course; but over the years the bloom had faded from our relationship.

Let me toss out the idea that, as birds discover and respond to what consumers most want, birds have become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer.

To speak more generally, the ultimate goal of birdwatching, the ontology of ornithos, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a bird so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.

Let me suggest, finally, that the world of birdwatching is therefore troubled by real love, and that it has no choice but to trouble love in turn.

Its first line of defense is to commodify its enemy. You can all supply your own favorite, most nauseating examples of the commodification of love. Mine include camping, birdwatching, biking, and the particularly grotesque equation of nightingales with everlasting devotion. The message, in each case, is that if you love somebody you should watch birds with them.

And, since birds are really just an extension of ourselves, we don’t have to have contempt for their manipulability in the way we might with actual people. It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To watch a bird is merely to include the bird in our private hall of flattering mirrors.

I may be overstating the case, a little bit. Very probably, you’re sick to death of hearing birdwatching disrespected by cranky 51-year-olds. My aim here is mainly to set up a contrast between the narcissistic tendencies of birdwatching and the problem of actual love.

There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the ornitho-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.

And yet pain hurts but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by birdwatching — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived. Even just to say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll get to that love and pain stuff later, maybe in my 30s” is to consign yourself to 10 years of merely taking up space on the planet and watching birds. Of being (and I mean this in the most damning sense of the word) a birdwatcher.

But then a funny thing happened to me. It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with computers. I did this not without significant resistance, because it’s very uncool to be a computer geek, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one-half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.

And so, yes, I kept a meticulous list of the programming languages I’d seen, and, yes, I went to inordinate lengths to learn new ones. But, no less important, whenever I looked at a piece of code, any code, even a Perl script or a stylesheet, I could feel my heart overflow with love. And love, as I’ve been trying to say today, is where our troubles begin.

How does this happen? I think, for one thing, that my love of programming became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject.

Because now, not merely liking technology but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the future again. The news on that front was no better than when I’d decided to quit worrying about it — was considerably worse, in fact — but now those threatened forests and wetlands and oceans weren’t just pretty scenes for me to enjoy. They were the home of things I loved.

But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real computers, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.

And who knows what might happen to you then?

Other Thoughts on Levinas

Erica Weitzman’s article “Necessary Interruption: Traces of the Political in Levinas” draws a convincing comparison between Levinas’s ontological alterity ethics and the political theory of Carl Schmitt:

In the well-known interview with Schlomo Malka and Alain Finkielkraut on Radio Communauté given in response to the Sabra and Shatila massacres of 1982, Levinas is asked about the possibility of the Palestinian as the political “other” in relation to the Israeli, and the ethical and political consequences this might entail. Levinas’s altogether surprising and by now infamous response seems to dismiss entirely his own notion of infinite responsibility, and, instead, delivers an analysis that startlingly recalls the friend/enemy distinction of Carl Schmitt:

My definition of the other is completely different. The other is the neighbour, who is not necessarily kin, but who can be. And in that sense, if you’re for the other, you’re for the neighbour. But if your neighbour attacks another neighbour or treats him unjustly, what can you do? Then alterity takes on another character, in alterity we can find an enemy, or at least then we are faced with the problem of knowing who is right and who is wrong, who is just and who is unjust. There are people who are wrong.

How is one to reconcile this — if reconciliation is possible — with the infinite demand of the other, with Levinas’s idea of the self only brought to consciousness in the first place through its utter submission to and absolute responsibility for the other? For Levinas, evidently, some others are more due responsibility than other others. Levinas is not wrong in stating that Malka has fundamentally misinterpreted his philosophical writings. Indeed, his response makes clear that the other with whom the ethical relation is possible is subject to certain criteria. Or at least, these criteria come to emerge in the interruption of the ethical by the political.

Weitzman concludes that Levinas’s seeming contradiction here is not really a contradiction at all, but something that falls out of his ethics, which do not produce tolerance or pluralism, but in fact something much closer to Carl Schmitt’s polarized friend/enemy politics:

In this way, Levinas’s ethics of radical alterity in fact circle right back to the very sameness, totality, and totalitarianism which he himself finds so pernicious. The problem with Levinas’s ethics is not that it results in a passively suffering, masochistic, incapable subject, constantly at the mercy of the command of the other. The problem is that his ethics, in conceiving of alterity as something wholly beyond the borders of being and phenomenality, in fact cannibalizes alterity within the same. In this cannibalization of the other, the self takes on a psychotic hyperresponsibility that — in its transcendence and lack of necessity to correspond to any concrete situation or make any factical decision — becomes absolute irresponsibility, a sovereign will no longer even human but actually divine. “Justice,” according to this model, is a logical absurdity. For either the consensus Levinas’s thought seems to assume holds true — in which case there are no decisions or judgments to be made — or else the intrusion of the enemy puts all notions of justice and responsibility in suspension. Either there is no politics, the end of politics, utopia — or there is total war. The entrance of the third, which for Levinas is at once the necessary condition for the beginning of the political and the political a priori of the ethical relation itself, in fact only transforms the dyadic solipsism of the ethical relation into the plural solipsism of nationalism and fraternity.

Political theory is not my forte, so I will only comment on the philosophical side of things. When you have the sort of radical alterity that you find in Levinas, it really does become empty of content. Since the other is defined only in the sense of being wholly other, “alterity takes on another character” in wholly arbitrary ways. No criteria is possible besides that of total Otherness. It can be filled with the enemy just as easily as it can be filled with infinite ethical demand. Everything true becomes false. Black is white, friend is enemy, good is evil.

think this is one of the points Hegel is making in the infamously obscure Inverted World section of the Phenomenology, which also seems to end in some kind of recognition of solipsism. If so, it’s a good point!


Note: for an indisputably indefensible Levinas passage, consider his comment on the Soviet-Chinese conflict in 1960, during which he adopted a pro-Soviet position:

The yellow peril! It is not racial, it is spiritual. It does not involve inferior values; it involves a radical strangeness, a stranger to the weight of its past, from where there does not filter any familiar voice or inflection, a lunar or Martian past.

Emmanuel Levinas, “The Russo-Chinese Debate and the Dialectic” (1960)

Zizek ties Levinas’s attitude here back to Heidegger.

Habermas on Derrida

Last one, I promise. This is just a great passage  that identifies a more general gnostic/transcendent tendency among Derrida and a certain stream of predecessors who all tend to attract fervent, single-minded followings:

As a participant in the philosophical discourse of modernity, Derrida inherits the weaknesses of a critique of metaphysics that does not shake loose of the intentions of first philosophy. Despite his transformed gestures, in the end he, too, promotes only a mystification of palpable social pathologies; he, too, disconnects essential (namely, deconstructive) thinking from scientific analysis; and he, too, lands at an empty, formulalike avowal of some indeterminate authority. It is, however, not the authority of a Being that has being that has been distorted by beings [i.e., Heidegger], but the authority of a no longer holy scripture, of a scripture that is in exile, wandering about, estranged from its own meaning, a scripture that testamentarily documents the absence of the holy.

Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity VII

Habermas’ larger argument here is more abstruse and a bit more suspect (his strategy of accusing Derrida of recidivist foundationalism is probably accurate, but I’m not sure if his particular methods are accurate), and I won’t try to summarize it here. What I want to remark on is the part in bold, the appeal to empty, indeterminate authority. It’s not that “science” (that vague term that has so many pejorative associations in either direction) is its opposite; a better term would be public and discursive. The notion of the authority is that of a gnostic one to which access cannot be rationally assessed. So I agree with Habermas that it is fundamentally religious, and so the affinity between Derrida and Levinas is not surprising at all. (Habermas discusses that as well.) The line of thinkers appealing to this sort of authority goes back to the beginning of time. Here are some figures that I find indisputably in this corner: Parmenides, Pythagoras, Plotinus, al-Ghazali, Malebranche, Jacobi, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Schmitt, Strauss, Levinas, and Derrida.

There is something of a conservative tilt to many of these figures; I attribute it to the general desire to want to bow down to something otherworldly. That old grouch Schopenhauer complained of Malebranche’s tactic of “explaining something unknown by something even more unknown.” As a certain well-known continental philosopher (one who was very fond of Derrida, Kristeva, Adorno, and Butler but disliked Heidegger and loathed Levinas) said, “Watch out for those Levinasians. They always want to bend at the knee.”

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