Foucault and Wittgenstein




I’m dusting off my wordpress site and will begin turning to this as a place where I’ll sketch ideas as I begin to work on my next project. I’m not sure what the final form of this project will be but at the moment I’m beginning with some ideas related to Foucault and Wittgenstein (the picture in this post is from where Wittgenstein’s Norway cabin stood). I’ve been teaching an existentialism class this term, along with a political theory class, and as a result I’ve been immersed in Wittgenstein and Foucault. I also recently gave a talk at Memphis on Wittgenstein and subsequent work has begun to crystallize around some of the ideas I introduced in that talk. In particular, as strange as it may sound, I’m working on a Wittgensteinian political theory. In many ways this is not faithful to the Wittgenstein who insisted on leaving everything as it is, calling upon philosophy to simply describe our grammatical practices in order to remove the confusions that come from wrongly applying rules of grammar where they do not naturally fit. The key concept here, however, is grammar, and this concept can be repurposed in a way I find harmonious with Wittgenstein and with the work of Foucault and Deleuze. It is this concept of grammar that will be central to the political theory I’ll be working on. Among many other sources, recently I’ve found inspiration in Stuart Elden’s book, The Birth of Territory, and from Geoffrey Ingham’s Nature of Money. I believe there should be some fruitful work to be done in applying my Humean insights (from this book) to this project. This blog will become a depository for rough, partially formed ideas and concepts, but as Hume and his colleagues of the polite culture of eighteenth century Scotland might have said, these rough thoughts may become more refined and polished through their encounters with others.

Deleuze on Learning and Skill

When it comes to learning, Deleuze argues that “it is so difficult to say how someone learns.” (DR 23). More dramatically, Deleuze adds, there “is something amorous – but also something fatal – about all education.” (DR 23). In learning to drive a stick shift car, for example, it is not sufficient simply to be told by the instructor to “do as I do,” or to follow the rule as they have stated and/or exemplified it in their actions. Learning is not a matter of following a rule or of doing what someone else does; to the contrary, what one encounters in learning to drive a stick shift car is the task of connecting various elements – namely, the hand, foot, clutch, accelerator, slope of the road, etc.—and of connecting them systematically so that the foot releases from the clutch right when the accelerator is being pressed, etc. Similarly in learning to swim it is a matter of establishing connections between the various parts and motions of one’s body with the resistance, currents, and buoyancy of the water. As Deleuze puts it, “To learn to swim is to conjugate the distinctive points of our bodies with the singular points of the Objective Idea in order to form a problematic field.” (DR 165)

In clarifying what Deleuze means by conjugating the distinctive points “in order to form a problematic field” will offer, I argue, what I take to be a helpful perspective from which to understand Merleau-Ponty’s example of the expert organist as well as Jason Stanley’s recent work on skill.

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A Higher Life; or No Future Revisited

In an earlier post I argued that one way to think of Foucault’s project is as an extension of Camus’ thought, or as I put it there, as a philosophy with no future. Just as Camus sought to encourage the recognition of the absurd as a prompt to live life with more passion and consciousness of the present, so too Foucault’s project sought, through his archaeological enquiries, to unearth from the past a problem contemporaneous to our present field of experience. For both Camus and Foucault, therefore, a philosophy that has no future is not a philosophy that denies the future, or a philosophy that denies the importance and relevance of an awareness and orientation towards a future – that is, foresight – but rather it is a philosophy that subordinates the future to the concerns of the present, to a problematization (Foucault) and consciousness (Camus) of the present, for it is in the present where life unfolds, and where change begins.

This same emphasis on the present is also found in Seneca’s fifth letter to Lucilius.

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On Sudden Death

“Rehearse this thought every day, that you may be able to depart from life contentedly; for many men clutch and cling to life, in the same way that those who are carried down a rushing stream clutch and cling to briars and sharp rocks.”   —  Seneca, Letter 4

“A free man thinks of death least of all things; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.”  — Spinoza, Ethics 4P67

“One would require a position outside of life, and yet have to know it as well as one, as many, as all who have lived it, in order to be permitted even to touch the problem of the value of life; reasons enough to comprehend that this problem is for us an unapproachable problem.” — Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

It’s been more than ten years, but the memory is very much alive of the night my stepmother called to tell me that my father had died, suddenly, while on a run the day before he was to race in the L.A marathon. Of the many overwhelming thoughts and emotions that came upon me that night, one of the first was the realization that everything had suddenly and irreversibly changed; things, I realized, will no longer be the same. This thought was much more than an intellectual grasp and insight; it felt much more real than that. Within 24 hours I was on a plane and back home in Laguna Beach. Walking in town that beautiful March night I couldn’t help but think of how, despite the fact that my father was no longer walking the streets of Laguna, the moon and stars that lit up the night sky were the same as the night before and will continue to be the same long after I succumb to the same fate as my father, the night sky being implacable and unaffected by the changes that affect our lives. It is no wonder the Ancients referred to the night sky as the heavenly sphere, the eternal realm distinct from the earthly sphere of changing human affairs.

I know that my thoughts and feelings regarding my father’s death are not unusual – it is from what I can tell a very common reaction to the loss of a significant person in one’s life. My reaction is also probably not unique to sudden deaths either. I had a similar reaction to my stepfather’s death from colon cancer. Although we knew his death was coming, the actual event of his death left me with a similar feeling of the transformative nature of what had happened. But there is something about sudden deaths that accentuates, or brings to an extreme, an important truth about our relation to death.

It is this truth about our relation to death that motivates, I would argue, the claims made in the quotes that lead off this post.

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Philosophy has no future

This is cross-posted at NewAPPS

With a provocative title such as this, it is easy to imagine how the rest of the story will go. Philosophy, one will read, no longer has an effective role to play in society. One could perhaps draw on the authority of Stephen Hawking and argue, as Hawking does, that philosophy is dead and serves no purpose for it is now physics that best provides the answers to the questions that were once the focus of philosophers. The title may also lead one to anticipate the economic argument where philosophy is portrayed as being one of the most useless of the humanities degrees with the subsequent encouragement that one pursue, for the sake of their professional future, a more economically viable degree.

If either of these arguments are what the “philosophy has no future” title intends, then there are counter-arguments at the ready. With respect to the first, there is plenty of room to argue, as many have (see Laurie Paul’s essay for example), that the physics Hawking encourages presupposes a metaphysics that leaves plenty of opportunity for traditional philosophical questions to gain traction and in turn foster cooperative engagement between philosophy and science (Roberta’s excellent post along with Eric’s post on dark matter are cases in point of just such cooperation). There is also plenty of evidence to challenge the common assumption that philosophy is not a good degree to pursue in order to get a lucrative job upon graduation. Far from being a hindrance to future economic success, philosophy majors on the whole earn more than graduates with other degrees (see this story [h/t Catarina]). Philosophy majors also outperform students from other majors when it comes to standardized tests – e.g., LSAT, GRE (see this).

These counter-arguments are persuasive and as far as I’m concerned definitively undermine the two assumptions that may appear to motivate the title of this post. These assumptions, however, are not what motivated the title. What motivated it instead is not the notion that philosophy has no future because it has been displaced by competing forces that have now taken over the future that philosophy could once claim, but rather that the very attitude that philosophy ought to have such a future is itself derivative of a philosophy that has no future.

I would propose defending, to state the thesis more directly, a contemporary reworking of Camus’ philosophy of the absurd.

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Discursive and Non-Discursive Philosophy

In his very kind and generous response to my post Eric is right that in the passages I cite from the Treatise and the Enquiry I do “not remark upon” Hume’s claims that “custom and practice…have settled the just value of everything.” My concerns in this post were to sketch the manner in which a Deleuzian metaphysics of multiplicity offers a rapprochement of Spinozist monism and a Humean affirmation of multiplicity. But since Eric is correct to point out that Hume’s comment occurs both in one of the passages I cite and yet again in his dissertation on the passions, it’s worth exploring the implications of Hume’s comments.

What Eric finds surprising in Hume’s claim is that, contrary to what Hume says, it appears that “custom and practice” will not always “produce just values in philosophy” Eric offers an example from early on in the Treatise where Hume claims that in his opinion there has arisen a “common prejudice against metaphysical reasonings of all kinds,” an opinion that can be justified only by “the most determined skepticism, along with a great degree of indolence.” For Hume this prejudice is not justified, and this is for the reason, Hume will conclude a few passages later, because “‘Tis evident, that all the sciences have a relation, greater or less, to human, nature.”

It is this relation that I’ll turn to in order to uncover what gives rise to the apparently conflicting claims that Eric finds surprising.

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I’ll be giving a series of lectures at the Deleuze Camp (Workshop) in Osaka at the end of May. Here are the abstracts of the lectures. Any comments or feedback are welcome.

“Learning to Think: Deleuze and the Art of Philosophy”

Lecture 1: The Problem with Solutions

In this first of three lectures I will begin to defend what I take to be Deleuze’s metephysics of multiplicity, a metaphysics that combines both an affirmation of Humean multiplicity and a Spinozist affirmation of monism. A guiding theme in these lectures will be Hume’s theory of taste, as found in his essay “Of the Standard of Taste.” This theme is not arbitrary, for in Chapter 3 of What is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Guattari argue that it is taste that is the “philosophical faculty of coadaptation” that  relates the three elements that “constitute the philosophical trinity”—namely, the plane of immanence, conceptual personae, and concepts. This lecture will take up the theme of problems and argue that what is distinctive about philosophy is that it has a taste for the problems that are immanent to the solutions that supposedly resolve and displace them.

Lecture 2: Where there’s a will, there’s a way

In this lecture I will revisit the problem that Deleuze takes to be central to Hume’s philosophical project—that is, the problem of how a “subject transcending the given [can] be constituted in the given.” For Hume this was the problem of accounting for how one comes to the belief that A causes B when there is nothing in A, nor in the succession of A and B, that necessitates the causal relationship between A and B. For Deleuze this emerges as the problem of accounting for how an identity that is irreducible to difference is nonetheless constituted in difference. In short, how does difference-in-itself serve as the principle of sufficient reason for any and all individuated identities. The concept of conceptual personae, we will see, needs to be understood in the context of Deleuze’s efforts to respond to this problem.

Lecture 3: Learning to Think

The focus of the final lecture will be Deleuze’s claim, in Difference and Repetition, that “to think is to create – there is no other creation—but to create is first of all to engender ‘thinking’ within thought.” (DR 147) The first two lectures will have begun to lay out the conditions necessary for engendering thinking in thought. In this lecture we will look further at the relationship between thought and thinking. Learning to think, I will argue, entails a taste for the problems within thought itself, and both Hume and Deleuze had a taste for such problems; or, both were adept at learning to think.