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The Empirical Non-Foundationalist and the Phenomenologue: Getting It Less Wrong?

Paul Grobstein and David Kerman Tomlinson, a senior philosophy major at Hampshire College began a conversation over dinner about ... philosophy, science, and related things. The conversation has continued (and continues; the most recent postings are 1 February 08 (DT) and 1 February08 (PG)) via email and, "following Artaud's example", is made available here for others interested in philosophy, science, and .... conversation. Additional thoughts related to/triggered by the conversation are welcome in the on-line forum below.

PG - 29 December

Davey -

Enjoyed finding/talking about shared interests over dinner last night. Along which lines, some followups ....

The book I mentioned is by George A. Reisch , is called How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic. There's a book preview available at

Re Descartes, see /sci_cult/lesswrong/descartes

Re "less wrong", see /sci_cult/lesswrong/lesswrong

Will continue my reading of/about Deleuze but, so far, I think where he comes out can also be gotten to along a materialist path, as per the attached in press essay. See also /exchange/rorty.
Looking forward to more conversation.

DT - 29 December

Paul -

i've also very much appreciated these continuing conversations - important for me, my friends at school all being post-structuralists and phenomenologues - though i've got some follow-up thoughts on 'less-wrong', after reading some of your stuff and thinking through dinner-talking

i'll call our perpetual state of being-wrong 'problematic', in the most positive sense ofcourse. it is problems, i think we both agree, that will always let our creativity play out - so imagine, then, we exist playing in this field of problems, problems we would never want to SOLVE (not to mention that we CAN'T solve in any definitive sense), as answers will only constrain and/or halt our creativity. (i imagine it is essential to answers that they are taken as RIGHT, if even temporarily, thus as stopping-points in some sense we both agree to be phantasmic.) now, the movement of less-wrong: you described it as essentially local, as a movement from our place now to one of any number of less-wrong places - this less-wrong place will undoubtably present us with unthought of problems, thus clearing new space and pushing us along in our perpetual creative play. yes yes. but what of the movement to more-wrong? given the unforeseeable nature of our development of and movement through different problems, whence the hierarchical LESS-wrong/MORE-wrong? aren't each just different creative playings-out in a field of problems?

i'll imagine a potential answer (that you assume, i think, in your original letter on this subject): our critical evaluation of our experimenting is that against which we measure this LESS-/MORE-(wrong). it in some sense grounds the LESS-/MORE- hierarchy (and i think your 'progressivly ...' language adds to this sense of a hierarchy, though i wonder if, disposing of this kind of language, we might each be happy with simply 'processually wrong' instead of 'progressively less wrong'). now, if it is a creative brain in the process of discovery that, being in-process, exceeds its own understanding (is this right? or am i exhibiting my naivety? i would affirm this point in my lived experience, at least, though perhaps without the brain-talk), how could we imagine our critical evaluation and our experiments not themselves to be problematic? are they not the further development of problems? clearly our evaluations and experiments are themselves problematic, or we would stop creating, having satisfied ourselves with 'answers' - we experience this problematic nature of experminentation everyday, i think - thus, what is less-wrong can be measured against only other less-/more-wrongs, only more problems. problems all the way down, so to speak... so if every movement from our place now is creative, and creative first of all of new problems to be encountered - and if, further, all of our experimentation is only more of this same sort of creative playing-out - there seems to be no more- or less-wrong, but only different and new problems, new wrongs and ways of being wrong.

when we are that point, ready to move (you would say, i think, move in a direction that 'gets it less wrong'), we exist in a surprising place, one that can surprise us in every direction, one that exceeds our understanding even here -

PG - 31 December 2007

Davey -

Glad the exchange is useful to you. Is useful to me in turn to get a feeling for what phenomenologues (nice phrasing) are seeing, how it does/doesn't map onto other ways of seeing, my own included. And to together push some of the mappings to see where they go.

Along these lines, you've raised a very intriguing new (for me, at least) issue. Let me try and summarize what I think you're saying, and then see where we can go next. If I'm reading you correctly, you are accepting that one can be "less wrong" without being "more right," ie we are in agreement that there is no pre-existing goal to get to or measure "progress" by proximity to. But where I suggest there are nonetheless some preferred directions that can be defined locally (the "less wrong" ones), you are raising the possibility that ALL current directions are equivalent, that the notion of preferring "less wrong" over "more wrong" is itself challengeable since there are only new "problems" regardless of which way we move.

Before getting to the meat of this, let me acknowledge that indeed "progressively" less wrong is for me, as for you, troublesome. The adjective occurs in the first writing I did about "less wrong", and I would now prefer I hadn't used it. But its relevant/instructive that I did since it says something significant about how I got to the broader "less wrong" thought and hence perhaps where it needs to go next. My background, as you know, was in science, and I was struggling to find a way to make sense of the demonstrable power/success of scientific method that didn't require that everyone be competing to do the same thing (ie, get it "right"). And to describe this in a way that would be acceptable/appealing both to non-scientists and to scientists. The adjective was an acknowledgement of the notion that indeed there is a temporal "building on" character to the process, ie that over time one comes to understand things "better". That might seem to represent a hidden "more right", but I don't think it actually does. The sense I made of that at the time (and still do) is that one's understanding is, at any given time, no more AND no less than a way to summarize observations made to date and one can "improve" by expanding the number of observations one is effectively summarizing. The process remains "local", ie undirected by any presumption of a pre-existing "right" but has a directionality by virtue of the continually expanding set of observations (and the existence of some kind of order in the things being observed).

I still think this is a reasonable way to describe the basic process underlying not only science but inquiry in general but have come to better understand several subtleties in building on it. An important one is that an given set of observations can be effectively summarized in an infinite number of different ways and the summaries in turn affect the observations, both what ones are made and how those that are made are interpreted. The upshot is that a fully "local" process tends to be constrained in its search space; it is likely to remain in the near vicinity of particular ways of making sense of things and ignore the possibility of alternative ways of making sense of things that might in fact summarize larger and more diverse sets of observations. An additional formal problem, closely related I think to the concerns you're expressing, is that to get from one summary to an alternative, less wrong one, one sometimes needs to become "more wrong" first, ie to make use of a summary that is, locally and for the moment, less good at summarizing observations to date. The upshot is that "less wrong" is a better guide for inquiry than "more right" but is not, by itself, a fully adequate guide, and there is almost certainly no way of being continuously "progressively less wrong". There are indeed times when "more wrong" might prove to be the preferred direction.

"I would affirm this point in my lived experience", that sometimes it pays to be "more wrong". Point accepted. Score one for phenomenology. One's intuitions are to be paid attention to; they are part of the observations needing to be summarized. But they are, like anything also, not the end of the process, nor any more a certain guide to its future directions than anything else. So let's go back to the bigger question : are all current directions from where one is equivalent or are some preferred for some reason and, if so, what's the reason?

Here I'm inclined to argue that while getting it less wrong isn't the whole story, its a good starting point. Look around, see what isn't working as well as it might, fix that, and see where you are/what new "problems" arise. But I'd modify your phrasing a bit, and say see what new "opportunities" arise. To put it differently, getting it less wrong has an appealing practical side to it but in my thinking what has always been at least as important about the approach as a guide for inquiry is that it increases the space for further exploration (rather than narrowing it as trying to get it "right" tends to do). And I'm inclined to argue that the second order problems of deciding whether one might one some occasion explore getting it "more" wrong instead of less wrong can be handled in terms of the same underlying principle: the issue is not being "wrong" (we always prove to be, as you say) or even "less wrong" but rather opening new possibilities for further exploration (what I have elsewhere called "generativity"). The upshot, for me at least, is that all directions are not equivalent, some are more "generative" and others less so. One may not know at any given time which will prove to be most generative but one can (and in my terms should) always try to discriminate among alternatives in these terms. Locally less wrong makes sense (to me at least, in most cases) in terms of its contribution to long term generativity, to finding new ways to make sense of things, and new things to explore.

Yes, we exist in a "surprising place ... one that exceeds our understanding even here", and always will. But that's not to say it "can surprise us in every direction". Yes, whatever direction we take will create new "problems" but not every direction will open up the same array of opportunities. The point, perhaps, is that we don't get "less wrong" in any absolute sense, but we do get more interestingly wrong, which is perhaps what you intended with your "processually wrong"?

This conversation intersects in an interesting way with two others I've been having. In one (see /exchange/node/1551) I say, the "motivation for modification derives not from correcting failure but rather from the desire to achieve new stories ... is not fear of the 'uncertainty of the unknown' but rather enjoyment of the 'certainty of the unknown" ... existing stories are the grist for new ones ... The point of taking them apart is not to show they aren't "True" ... The point ... is to build from the pieces new ones". And in the other (/exchange/node/1547) I argue on social grounds that "objectivity", though not attainable, should still be aspired to on the grounds that it facilitates "the creation of new stories that simultaneously make use of and transcend those developed from particular narrower perspectives ... The logic of aspiring to, and teaching, 'objectivity thus derives not only from our individual needs to make our individual ways in a mysterious world but equally from a recognition that we can better do so in a state of the most effective exchange with people whose experiences/understandings are different from our own".

From which it follows obviously, I trust, that I'm as interested in what this all makes you think as you were in what your thoughts made me think. Simply wrong? Or less so?

DT - 3 January 2008

Paul -

again, thinking through dinner-talking and re-reading (or reading again and again, REPETITIVELY i'll say in anticipation of what i'll write) this exchange brings something useful, new -

you've characterized your aversion to 'more-wrong' as an attempt to subvert any persistence of the Same. 'more-wrong'=repetition (of the Same). generativity, on the other hand, is an opening-up from here into new places, new possibilities for exploration. getting it less-wrong, then, is acting generatively/affirming novelty/avoiding repetition. all right, if repetition is always repetition of the Same (in the sense of an instantiation of an identical Truth here, here, here, again and again). we each fear, i imagine, a repetition that is only the playing out of the same old ways of thinking, a repetition that will always work to efface novelty before it happens.) but, and the Deleuzian in me grumbles, there is an underlying complex repetition, one that does not subordinate its terms to Identity, that is not the playing out of a hegemonic totality. (here, to remember Pierre Menard, the man in Borges' story who reveals to us, in his identical repetition of Cervantes' 'Quixote', the radical difference beneath this seemingly bare repetition. what is so wild and original about Menard's work is precisely the difference that generated what on the surface is a mere identical repetition.) (here, the relevant (huge) portions of Deleuze's 'Difference and Repetition' are not as fresh in my mind as other parts of the book - i can only hope my cursoriness inspires investigation instead of dismay.)

so what then of the potential for the movement from here into a more-wrong place, or, what amounts to the same thing, the potential for a repetitive movement, to be more generative than we could imagine? a movement more generative than what had seemed once like an opportune opening, a less-wrong move? or again: not to argue for the equivalency of the novelty of every movement from a place, but to argue perhaps for the equivalency of our uncertainty in every place. the nature of a surprising place (that we agree is a characteristic of the uncertain/problematic/opportune locality of our present) seems to me to imply that indeed in whatever direction we move, we can be surprised. what would be more surprising, after all, than finding novelty in the seemingly identical repetition of old ideas? coming from philosophy, i surely experience this in Heidegger reading the Greeks, Deleuze reading Leibniz, or Derrida reading pretty much anything. there is great potential in encountering wrong ideas that persisted stagnantly as wrong for centuries. an idea's being repeated can be as generative as any other wrong movement.

given my uncertainty that makes this place a surprising one, i cannot see why any movement from this place can promise with any semblance of certainty to be more generative than any other movement. every movement is an opening-up, and every opening encounters new uncertainties/problems/opportunities.

i'm not sure i've been entirely clear by way of a response: the nature of surprise precludes any discrimination between directions when we consider moving from this place to a new one, or subverts (and more exactly SURPRISES) the results of any discrimination. yes, "whatever direction we take will create new 'problems' but not every direction will open up the same array of opportunities" - and this is exactly what we each would hope, though i think neither of us would anticipate with certainty which direction/which array will be MORE interesting or remarkable. every one might surprise us.

i hope this doesn't sound all garbled and circular - i think we are differing significantly here, and it's really an interesting encounter for me (you know that, but i repeat). so let me know if i'm more wrong this time, and if maybe this more-wrong isn't more exciting -

PG - 11 January 2008

Davey -

Intriguing, to say the least. Yes, cursoriness will indeed inspire investigation, and speculation too. I'm genuinely curious now about where the grumbling comes from, in you, in Delueze?, in phenomonology? And my curiosity and speculation stems in large part from a sense that we are not in fact "differing significantly". Let me try and explicate both similarity and difference as they look to me.

Among the things that particularly intrigue me is the odd (to me) use of repetition as a touchstone, together with a particular example of it that supports your point. One of the currently interesting stories of biological evolution (whether "true" or not) is about a relatively small and insignificant group of fuzzy organisms that persisted relatively unchanged for millions of years during the period when reptiles went through a period of fairly rapid change and diversification and played a major role in ecosystem organization. Rather abruptly, apparently because of a meteor hitting the earth, things shifted; the fuzzy organisms began to change and diversify and overtook the reptiles as a dominant feature of ecosystem organization. Prior to the meteor, one would not wisely have bet on the generativity of mammals. To put it differently, repetition of an apparently "more wrong" form (primitive mammals) proved surprisingly generative.

The pattern is not, actually, an entirely unusual one. Even in the scientific world, it is not uncommon for work that seemed minor at the time it was done to prove quite generative at some later point in time. Mendel's genetic rules provide one good example; another, more current, is the resurgence of interest in the statistical approach developed by Bayes nearly 300 years ago. What seems to me importantly common to all these cases is that it was not in fact repetition itself that yielded generativity. Repetition was a preservative force that kept in existence something that was, in the context, relatively boring and stable until the context changed. The generativity resulted from the interaction between the relatively stable entity and a changed context.

My guess is that the same holds for "Heidegger reading the Greeks, Deleuze reading Leibniz, or Derrida reading pretty much anything". And for me reading you (or vice versa). Like many other things, generativity is not an essential property of an organism or an idea; it is a relational characteristic, depending both on the organism/idea and its context. The point is that repeating a currently less generative idea MAY prove more generative at some future time, IF the context changes. Its worth noting though that what is being said here is not quite that one should repeat a "more wrong" idea. Neither reptiles nor mammals are "more wrong"; they both continue to exist as viable lines of exploration. The same could probably be said of ideas. Neither empiricism nor phenomenology is extinct, ie there exist no observations that fully invalidate either line of exploration One chooses between them (if one chooses to choose) based on a prediction about their future generativity, not because either is demonstrably either "less wrong" OR "more wrong".

And this, in turn, serves to make the point that generativity is not only always contextual but also always yet to be established, ie its a guess about what will happen in the future, not a characteristic of the present. One can use the present (and the past) to try and make guesses about future generativity, but those are always and necessarily guesses. There is no certainty.

And maybe THAT's where the grumbling comes from, in you, maybe in Delueze and in phenomonology too? If so, I find myself in an interesting situation. What I have come to call "empirical non-foundationalism" takes uncertainty as one of several starting points that reflect observations to date (see "From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond: Towards Empirical Non-Foundationalism as a Guide to Inquiry" at /reflections/GrobsteinSoundings.doc). And it tends for that reason to discomfort many "scientists" , who would prefer to think of uncertainty not as a foundation but rather as a problem to be overcome. Perhaps you/Delueze/phenomology grumble for the opposite reason? That I seem to be inadequately acknowledging the uncertainty inherent in any effort to make sense of the universe and humanity's place in it? That I seem not to pay sufficient attention to the phenomological reality of being an insecure human being in a universe I don't fully understand?

In case this is the source of the grumbling, let me try to be clearer about my position. Being an insecure human being in a universe I don't fully understand is for me not only an essential starting point for thinking about inquiry but a state I presume I (and others) will always be in (we have been/always will be "wrong"). Uncertainty I regard not as a problem to be overcome but rather as an opening for the creation of new ("less wrong") things (which are themselves "wrong" in new ways that in turn open new possibilities). The point is that I am not at all aspiring to reduction of uncertainty in any general sense but only to finding ways to avoid getting stuck in the same uncertainties.

On this aspiration I think we're actually in full agreement? And probably Delueze, and perhaps phenomonology as well? If so, then where we (in any combination) are "differing significantly" it is perhaps on tactics rather than strategy? To be able to show that particular systems/arguments are "wrong" can be used for several purposes. One is to try and get people to recognize that they are not and cannot be "right", by showing them to be "wrong" enough times so that the message sinks in. That activity though itself eventually becomes boring unless it in turn creates new "less wrong" ways to explore that prove generative. And if one starts from the premise that there is no "right" then the only real use of showing something to be wrong is the latter, the opening to develop new "less wrong" explorations. My guess is that Delueze's motivation was primarily in the latter direction, to try and develop systematizations that could effectively replace older, more "positivistic" ones. And, in any case, that is certainly mine, not to eliminate uncertainty but rather to develop a way of inquiring that is consistent with the experiences of the past, and in turn opens new directions by encouraging people not to fear "the uncertainty of the known" but rather to enjoy "the certainty of the unknown." (/reflections/EmpiricalInquiry/).

Here too we're in agreement? If so, the questions about tactical differences get narrower at least. And that brings me back to my starting puzzlement: why emphasize the potential generativity of repetition or of getting "more wrong" rather than getting "less wrong"? Yes, one can make arguments that both of the former can in some cases be generative but it seems to me that in general they are less frequently so than the latter. Am I missing something important here? Something more exciting?

DT - 14 January 2008

Paul -

if other's might be interested in this exchange, certainly post if where they can find it - but, following artaud's example, i wouldn't want the breadth of our correspondence to be hurt by retrospective delineations. that said, i think i can trust your excerpting - just don't cut too much...

and in response, i think i could have been more explicit in my last email (so this may be less a response than an addition to what i had written): i worry that, without embracing a certain repetition that itself embraces difference, you preclude the generativity and excitement of an encounter with history, or messages from history (it seems this includes literature, poetry and the other arts). why keep reading the same greek texts, listening to beethoven over and over again, memorizing lines of rimbaud, ... if all this is an inevitably boring repetition? but it's not, we know it's not by watching heidegger read the pre-socratics or deleuze reading kant via ribaud and shakespeare - two of how many examples? not to mention kuhn reading copernicus, riemann encountering euclidian geometry one more time only to leap out of it, or our own experiences (i'm speaking for us both, perhaps unjustly) with our history, with the history of other cultures, ... indeed, what would a creation totally ignorant of its history be like? utter naivety? i don't know, i don't think i want to say only that 'without knowing our history, we are doomed to repeat it,' i feel a stronger pull toward it than a sort of lackluster recognition of its immanence to our present generativity, but i'm not sure of the reasons for this feeling.

is this significant for you? or is this only a tactical disparity? here may be my naivety: it would seem that science's encounter with history is an encounter only to forget this history, this very encounter, in order to move past it. a repetition that is not a careful inhabitation, but a violent refusal... that's a frightening idea for me, and a sad one, one denying so many possible directions that might seem 'more wrong'. does this clarify the stakes, at least my view of the stakes? does this seem like an issue to you?

PG - 20 January 2008

Davey -

Yes, its significant. Whether there is more than a "tactical disparity" is less clear to me. Let' see.

I agree the issue is much more than "without knowing our history we are doomed to repeat it". And closely related to "what would a creation totally ignorant of its history be like?" So let's start there. Or rather, let's start here, in the present, with what we find around us now. Basically, that's what we have to work with, no more and no less (see "A story of, and beyond, emergence" at /reflections/GrobsteinSoundings.doc). Without what we are and find around us in the present there would indeed be no "creation" of any kind .... more right, less wrong, more wrong, or otherwise. Everything proceeds from whatever improbable (ie structured, or non-random) state we are currently in, and that in turn derives from and reflects (imperfectly, because of various kinds of irreversible and/or probabilistic change) a prior improbable state. To put it differently, we may or may not learn from the past, but we are inescapably rooted in it (notice "rooted in" rather than "determined by", for the same reasons as the imperfect reflection). There is in everything we do (or is done by anything else in the universe) a fundamental historical influence. Perhaps that's where your "stronger pull" to history comes from?

There is, though, an important difference between that kind of recognition of history dependence and the issue of the pros (and cons) of "knowing our history" and of "messages from history". All living organisms are history dependent but most do not have any awareness of their history, and do quite well without it. Trees, for example (/sci_cult/lesswrong/descartes) are quite generative simply by being what they are at any given time (with no awareness of their history or of messages from the past) and getting it less wrong from there.

Humans are capable of and do the same thing. And, arguably, are not infrequently better off that way. Our memories, personal and cultural, are not only notoriously capricious but are the origins of much of suffering that humans wreak on one another, in wars and otherwise. And "messages from history" have a long record of sometimes impeding generativity in other ways as well. Indeed, one could make an argument that "science" arose precisely as a way to escape the fetters of appeals to the past as authoritative. "What is written in the old books is no longer good enough. For where faith has been enthroned for a thousand years doubt now sits. Everyone says: right, that's what it says in the books, but let's have a look for ourselves" (Brecht, Galileo, Scene 1).

One can, of course, overdo the reaction against the past because of its association with authority. And I think that indeed scientists sometimes do that, acting as if, and even believing that, all of wisdom is summarized in the present so there is no need to pay attention to the past. The antidote seems to me though not to glorify either the past itself or the repetition of it but rather to recognize that present understandings are inevitably built on particular subsets of prior understandings. And that, at any given point in time, continuing to build on such understandings may turn out to be less generative than backing up and starting anew from a different prior set of understandings.

The point, of course, is that there is no more reason to trust history, prior understandings, than there is to trust present understandings. Neither is authoritative. History is as much a story as anything else (see /sci_cult/brainhistory04/). And, like anything else, its significance should be judged by its generativity, its usefulness in creating new ways to think about things, ways that are different from and not subject to the known problems of existing ways of thinking about things. Which in turn, of course, means "getting it less wrong" or, as Samuel Beckett, put it "failing better".

So, maybe there is just a "tactical disparity" between us? One may bet on either rereading Delueze or on looking for a new laboratory observation but the long term objective (and criterion for success) is the same, to find new ways of thinking that don't have the problems of existing ways?

Or is there something more? Elliott Shore, a colleague of mine in History, is interested in the meaning and significance of "nostalgia". And Michael Krausz, a colleague in Philosophy, makes in his recent book Interpretation and Transformation what I think is a useful distinction between "elucidation" and "edification". Elucidation is "to make sense of", by which I understand to skeptically inquire, to try to get it less wrong. Edification "is not so much to make to explain or understand a phenomenon as to help alleviate human suffering or to promote human flourishing". Michael goes to on to note that "Finally, a person may aim for neither elucidation nor edification. Such a posture might arise from an attitude of indifference, or it may reflect that satisfaction of a state already realized".

I can imagine rereading particular writers (or listening to particular music or viewing particular paintings) for reasons of nostalgia or for reasons of either indifference or edification. Indeed, I can imagine doing scientific research for any of those reasons. And, in these cases, I would make no argument whatsoever that getting it less wrong is important. It is specifically and only when one is trying to "make sense of things" that there exists a discrimination among possible directions of movement of the getting it less wrong kind. You and Deleuze are, I assume, not promoting either nostalgia or indifference? But perhaps you/he have something along the lines of edification in mind? One can be edified by getting it more wrong?

DT ... 1 February 2008

i'm still unsure (i suppose i hope for nothing more) of the import of what is perhaps a tactical disparity between us. the'elucidation'/'edification' distinction does seem to be a useful one, but perhaps not for our case: i'll 'make' this much of it: if we take 'to make sense', 'to MAKE sense' in a particularly strong sense, insistently affirming the generativity we often attribute to this word ... 'making' ... then elucidation (which i would, in this case and if this word still means 'to MAKE sense' in this creative sense, differentiate just as insistently from 'understanding' or 'explanation') elucidation is i imagine both our practice. (though i may mischaracterize you here, in my seemingly limitless fear of 'understanding'...)

both for your input (which i would be very grateful for) and for want of a better response, i'm sending along to you what is a very VERY preliminary, mid-writing stage [of my thesis] ... it's a preface-beginning, outlining (in the first section) the problems i see myself working through and my thoughts on what i'm doing (re: philosophy), and (in the second section) my response to my 'analytic philosophy' reader here at hampshire, written upon his asking me 'how i justify myself' ... it's all a pretty strong statement of where i think i'm coming from these days, and certainly what's behind our dialogue.

Is there a coming community in which we might exist with our selves / with each other in (whatever sort of) peace? Is there an "ontology" we might create that ... makes sense of this question and of the concepts it contains ("community"/"we", "existence", "whatever", "peace", ... ), that originarily makes room for this questioning and lets it take place, that - if it has enough sense, if it's tactful - might affect the thoughts of those it meets on this page, my own thoughts and yours?

Yes, with this writing I hope to create a philosophy, through a series of careful encounters with the history of thought that has engendered me, that will experiment with the complexities of this question, searching through its folds and pushing up against its boundaries.

We will find out what happens. But whatever does, I see an urgency for this experimenting and these encounters, an urgency foreshadowed in Heidegger"s and Levinas" work most explicitly. The history of philosophy is full of comprehension and understanding. It is full of concepts intended to grasp any experience, any thought, from all sides, to subsume beneath some comprehensive totality every difference and novelty we find in skins, caresses, scars, hairs, hair ... lines, handwriting, fingers, strokes, slaps, nails, elbows, signatures, wounds, tugs, lips, eye ... balls, ... this is the HUMAN BODY. Or in mountains, cities, streets, slums, lamp ... posts, bedrooms, fields, battle fields, swimming pools, libraries, playgrounds, gutters, benches, parks, traffic jams, brooks, forest paths, snow, ... this is the WORLD.

But our place here will always overflow our selves, our understanding and comprehension. No matter our persistence in thinking totalities (and identities), what is other (and different) will always exceed our thoughts; strangers on the street and our friends and lovers, bumblebees and shrubs and "that mountain there, that cloud" will always have more to give us.

Thinking toward comprehension wants to stop - Eureka! I"ve got it! I"ve mastered it! Now I understand ... - but even for this way of thinking there is no stopping, only the insistence in and persistence of a particular sort of violent distribution. Everything new is encountered and at once subsumed, organized here or there, explained as this or that. Every difference is leveled.

Against the nearly invisible violence of this sort of thinking - a violence that restrains even what comes to presence, that denies any excess that might give itself as such (and this violence may well be the history of metaphysics) - a violence Levinas characterizes plainly as "war", there is the urgency of my writing, of your reading, and of our encounter right here, on the page: this is philosophy.

I have no pretensions of "getting it right" or of any teleology of principles, or of founding another originary arche or hegemonic conceptual apparatus. There is a significant sense in which this will fall apart and become something new in your hands - I would hope nothing less. And, should I stumble and grow tactless in my work, by any means take apart whatever totality I might build! Should you meet it here, show any false edifice, any concept passing itself off as enduring and hegemonic, its own excess. Explode totalities from inside.

" Philosophy is not about truth and does not concern itself with knowledge ... instead, it concerns itself with the interesting, the remarkable ... philosophy is the creation of concepts" - always new concepts, always new ways, remarkable ways of experiencing our place here - philosophy, a creation: but it is not without tact. It is first and above all an affective encounter, a meeting between you and I as you read me, between Heidegger and Aristotle as he reads him, between Leibniz and Conway as he reads her, ... the history of philosophy is a history of these encounters. And like them all, this encounter - this must be stressed from the outset - is out of your hands, out of mine, even as our bodies do come into contact: " Bodies, for good or ill, are touching each other upon this page, or more precisely, the page itself is a touching (of my hand while it writes, of your hands while they hold the book). This touch is infinitely indirect, deferred - machines, vehicles, photocopie s, eyes, still other hands are all interposed - , but it continues as a slight, resistant, fine texture, the infinitesimal dust of a contact, everywhere interrupted and pursued" . Losing ourselves out in the somewhere of this contact, and losing ourselves with new intensity to new places: this is philosophy.


To ask how I might justify what I have written will always assume this most obvious (and so perhaps most disguised) point: philosophy must justify itself. Or, what is the more exact assumption: a philosophical claim, to be such, must be justified. Then, we begin to argue over particulars - must justification first resort to lived ... experience? Or is it logical? ...

The question "justification to whom, and to what end?" now becomes that from which any other philosophical questioning must depart for it to be justified, or to have justified itself. The answer and ground of the majority of our tradition is clear enough: philosophy must be justified to common sense, aimed toward a generality concerning: existence, knowledge, how one should live.

Justification acts hierarchically, subsuming singular events or individual existences and experiences to the comprehending power of a highest Idea - be it "The One", "The Good" or "God" or "Consciousness", this comprehension will efface the singular in favor of the accepted generality that might in turn justify the singular , explain the unexplainable in common ... sense terms.

The requirement of justification begs an imminent explanation. The philosopher has so often asked implicitly, "How can I reduce what it seems no one can understand to what everyone understands?" - what else is explanation - and with the setting of this goal, philo ... sophy has stopped concerning itself with love in favor of reason.

But no, love is not about conquering and understanding. It is encountering what will always be beyond my grasp, what will always overflow my comprehension, and finding it out someplace, surprising myself in exceeding myself. Rimbauds "self is an other" - proclaiming an insight of Kant, Nietzsche, Lacan, Levinas, and how many others? in a breath - is abundantly clear in whatever place love takes place.

One always stands outside of oneself in love more explicitly than in so many of our understandable encounters we live through (persistently) everyday. This is philosophy - love, a relationship with an excess, with others, with ourselves, and one that preserves its own bewilderment in the face of this overflowing. But a philosophy practiced as if it can comprehend everything, as if it can get around what it encounters and grasp it, close it in neat, persistent totalities and distribute its sense without limit, is both loveless and the most dangerous sort of violence.

PG ... 1 February 2008
(transmitted 3 June 2008)

Thanks for the chance to have a look at your thesis work in progress. It gave me a clearer sense of what's on your mind (and perhaps the mind of at least some other phenomonologues?). Let me give you some reactions to that, and then we can get back to our more general conversation.

The material you sent me conveys a strong sense of urgency, of concern, and of some conflict between the two. The urgency, as I read it, is of two kinds, one global and one personal. The first, in which you are identifying with Levinas and Heidegger, has to do with a sense that human thinking is currently moving in directions which are increasingly dangerous and inhuman. The other is your own internal drive to create something new and meaningful, something that will satisfy you as well as impact on others, something that will "touch" others and bring them and you into "a relationship with excess ... one that preserves its own bewilderment in the face of this overflowing."

The concern is also double, as I read it. On the one hand, you feel that philosophy (and human thought generally) has a history of coming up short ("Thinking toward comprehension wants to stop ..."), of neglecting things that shouldn't be neglected, and of "violence", of denying the significance of what cannot at any given time be accommodated within the "edifice". On the other hand, you are concerned that your own work might be seen by others as having the same character ("by an means take apart whatever totality I might build"), and perhaps concerned a well that you yourself can't avoid that trap?

And right there, of course, is the root of the conflict: the wish to achieve something meaningful/useful that does not make the mistake of denying its limitations and so become itself an act of violence. That place is where the existentialists in the middle part of the twentieth century were. Camus called that place the "absurd;" it is where one finds oneself when one knows there is no "answer" but knows equally that one must nonetheless pursue the search for one. The myth of Sisyphus was Camus' metaphor for that situation and, if its any source of encouragement, he wrote

"One must imagine Sisyphus happy, despite continually pushing up hill rocks that inevitably rolled back down." Lots of others have found themselves there following a host of different routes. Richard Rorty, for example, writes "The more philosophers I read, the clearer it seemed to me that each of them could carry their views back to first principles which were incompatible with the first principles of their opponents, and that none of them every got to that fabled place 'beyond hypotheses'. There seemed to be nothing like a neutral standpoint from which these alternative first principles could be evaluated.

As I tried to figure out what had gone wrong, I gradually decided that the whole idea of holding reality and justice in a single vision had been a mistake

[Philosophers] are not the people to come to if you want confirmation that the things you love with all your heart are central to the structure of the universe, or that your sense of moral responsibility is 'rational and objective' rather than 'just' a result of how you were brought up ... There are still ... 'philosophical slop ... shops' on every corner that will provide such confirmation. But there is a price. To pay the price you have to turn your back on intellectual history and on what Milan Kundera calls 'the fascinating imaginative realm where no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be understood ... the wisdom of the novel'. You risk losing the sense of finitude, and the tolerance, which result from realizing how very many synoptic visions there have been, and how little argument can do to help you choose among them ...

If I had not read all those books, I might never have been able to stop looking for what Derrida calls 'a full presence beyond the reach of play', for a luminous, self ... justifying, self ... sufficient synoptic vision. By now, I am pretty sure that looking for such a presence and such a vision is a bad idea. The main trouble is that you might succeed, and your success might let you imagine that you have something more to rely on than the tolerance and decency of your fellow human beings."

A similar sense of the impossibility of completing the task of inquiry was expressed, I think, by Albert Einstein's warning "Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world." I too, of course, have come to doubt that there is a "Truth" or "self-justifying, self-sufficient synoptic vision" to be found and so find myself reminding readers, much as you do, that "I trust it is obvious to all that what I have presented in this article is not the "truth" about science. What I have offered is a candidate story about science, a story that summarizes my own scientific practices, and those of many of my scientific colleagues and ancestors ... This story of science is not, and cannot be, by itself the view from everywhere .... As with all scientific stories, the ultimate test of the value of this one is not in the past but in the future, not in whether it is right given the observations, but in what new things happen, what new observations are made, and what new stories develop because of it." When I was much younger, I tried to express my then quite inchoate inklings of this to a wise senior scientist who responded with "Paul, I see your problem. You have come to recognize that the universe is absurd. Your task now is to learn how to act as if it isn't." That is probably is more or less the path that Albert Einstein took, consciously or unconsciously, and certainly the path that many inquirers take. But it seems in retrospect not to have been appealing to me. Yes, there MIGHT be "Truth" despite all the evidence (saying with certainty that there isn't would itself be asserting a "Truth") but pretending (to oneself and/or to others) that there is seems to me (as it did to Camus) to be denying an important element of the human condition as I currently understand it, and so to be putting myself at risk of repeating mistakes of the past. And I suspect it does to you as well.

So, the problems becomes the following. If one strongly suspects there is no "Truth" to be found and yet one feels inclined to explore/create, what is it that one is looking for/trying to create? how does one go about doing it, and how does one evaluate one's product?

Rorty suggests that "The purpose of inquiry is to achieve agreement among human beings about what to do to bring about consensus on the ends to be achieved and the means to achieve them", to produce "a community in which everybody thinks that it is human solidarity, rather than knowledge of something not merely human, that really matters." He also accepts that there is nothing more to rely on to achieve this than the "tolerance and decency of your fellow human beings". In so doing, Rorty, perhaps like Levinas, Heideigger, and yourself, was reacting against what he saw as a dangerous and inhuman aspiration, to achieve an understanding beyond human uncertainty (the "edifice", whether "scientific" or otherwise). And, like you, Rorty saw human inter-relationship as central to the program, at least as a measure of its success. So, Rorty had a reasonably well-defined objective that in turn gave him a way to assess success. What's less clear to me (perhaps because of my li mited reading of Rorty) is what role he saw philosophy, or inquiry generally, playing in that process, ie how one goes about doing it.

"When I am asked ... what I take contemporary philosophy's 'mission' or 'task' to be, I get tonguetied ... We can offer some advice about what will happen when you try to combine or to separate certain ideas, on the basis of our knowledge of the results of past experiments. By doing so, we may be able to help you hold your time in thought" [the last a phrase Rorty borrowed from Hegel]. I think one can do better than that, for inquiry in general, if not for philosophy in particular. The key, for me, is to step back a bit and take not humanity but current understandings of biological evolution (perhaps even cosmic evolution) as a starting point (as per Fellow Travelling with Richard Rorty and From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond). From this perspective, the task of inquiry (and perhaps of philosophy?) is not to come up with something "right" (or "True") nor to come up with a better human community but rather to come up with something of any kind that is .... "less wrong" (of course), ie something that is different from what has existed before and that doesn't obviously present any of the problems that already existing things have.

"Getting it less wrong" is obviously a different objective from Rorty's. One advantage I claim for it (a "less wrong" feature) is that it provides a clearer statement of how to proceed: look around, find a problem with something, fix it in a way that hasn't been tried before. A second advantage I claim is that one needn't depend on "the tolerance and decency of your fellow human beings", nor commit oneself to having to measure one's success by achieving "consensus". I believe in and value human relationships, but I'm strongly disinclined to take "consensus" as a measure of success in what I believe is a creative process as much dependent on difference as on agreement. And I'm too aware of the multiplicity of human motivations to be comfortable with relying solely on human "tolerance and decency".

At the same time, my objective shares with Rorty and others an inbuilt protection: there is no "edifice" being built. One is only acting locally, creating in the present something new that may (or may not) prove useful in the future. And one is doing it as a human, in full awareness of one's distinctive perspectives and inevitable limitations. Finally, I'm comfortable a strong argument can be made that while human interactions don't receive in my treatment quite the priority they do in Rorty's they would in fact be enriched by a consistent developed and applied "less wrong" philosophy.

That said, this is not, possibly despite appearances, aimed at persuading you to adopt Rorty's philosophy or my own, nor even to try and get you to build on one or another by showing how they could be made "less wrong". My intent instead is to offer support and encouragement for the project you've undertaken as I understand it from the initial writing you sent me. That project, as I currently understand it, is somewhat akin to Rorty's in that it derives from a strong concern about and commitment to the value of human interactions. But it also has features that are more akin to my own. I don't read either "consensus" or "tolerance and decency" in "a relationship with excess ... one that preserves its own bewilderment in the face of this overflowing" . Nor in "encountering what will always be beyond my grasp, what will always overlfow my comprehension". And I do read/hear something of my own interest in creativity/generativity, in the promise of things beyond what one currently has.

In short, I see your project as different from things with which I'm familiar, and promising for that reason. Its starting point is "Is there a ... community in which we might exist with our selves / with each other in ... peace?" And its aspiration is to answer that question by developing a philosophy which would support bringing all human beings into relationships " with excess ... that preserve ... bewilderment in the face of this overflowing"

This is not only different from Rorty's program and my own but different from any others of which I'm aware. And it is well- defined in a way that can be described to an analytic philosopher without needing to be defensive about a request for justification. Its not the typical domain of analytic philosophy but it has a clear and defensible starting point and objective.

Your remaining tasks are only to establish with reasonable certainty its novelty (ie to show in what ways it would be less wrong than others, including perhaps other phenomenologists), and to fill in the arguments from starting to ending points. "This is philosophy ... love, a relationship with an excess, with others, with ourselves, and one that preserves its own bewilderment in the face of this overflowing." That's an interesting place to try and get to.

I'm looking forward to seeing you try. It would definitely be "less wrong" and very likely generative. And I don't think you need to worry about constructing an "edifice", as long as you keep straight in your own mind and make it clear to others that there is a particular starting point, a problem you see that you would like to correct, and a proposed way of addressing it that seems promising to you but that you know is worthwhile if and only if it in turn provokes new ideas and new questions in turn.

Back to the broader issues, of the phenomenological and the analytic/empirical, and of "getting it less wrong". In these terms, I am more struck by the similarities between you and myself/Rorty than by the differences. Each of us is strongly motivated by a dissatisfaction with current ways of making sense of things. And we are all in agreement that the way to make "less wrong" sense of things is necessarily local rather than global, ie that it needs to be done without appeal to and/or claim to achieve anything "universal". It must instead be done in a way that fully acknowledges particularity of both experiences and perspective, and so recognizes incompleteness, that there are things beyond what has been made sense of, and encourages continuing exploration and revision.

And that, of course, raises the question of whether there actually is, at this point, any continuing necessary distinction between the phenomenological and the analytic/empirical. There are, of course, rhetorical and historical differences but are there still differences beyond these?

I'm struck by the frequency in your writing of particularly evocative terms like "violence", "love", and "overflowing" and the contrast of their relative absence in my own. There is a passion in your writing that is much less apparent in mine, and I suspect that contrast is apparent more often than not in comparing phenomenological and analytical/empiricist work generally. Perhaps this relates to the phenomenological approach as rooted in a kind of "descriptive psychology" or science of consciousness (I borrow this from a Wikipedia entry on phenomenology; in particular, a brief characterization of Husserl) and hence as an approach in which one's own feelings are not only admissible but central to the effort both to understand and to convey understandings to others?

"Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from a first ... person point of view" is a related characterization (this one from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), and perhaps one that gives us a better starting point for thinking about whether there continue to be fundamental, strategic, and/or tactical differences between the phenomenological and the analytical/empirical. There is clearly an increasing understanding among analytical/empirical thinkers that, despite the origins and initial aspirations of such a program, the first person perspective can be mitigated in important ways but is not in fact fully escapable. Moreover, this support for the phenomenological program comes quite dramatically from analytical/empirical work itself. At the same time, contemporary analytical/empirical work, particularly that on the human brain, both validates the significance of first person perspectives as independent meaningful material for inquiry ("Ambiguity and uncertainty are not the ripples of the imperfect glass through which the brain tries to perceive reality. They are instead the fundamental "reality", both the grist and the tool by which the brain ... creates all of its paintings") and challenges the presumption that these are alone a sufficient basis for inquiry. Long before we have conscious "experience" of anything, there are a variety of things happening that are as important to further inquiry as the first person experiences to which we have access. To put it differently, our experiences themselves are proving to be an importantly generative area of inquiry rather than its starting point.

I presume that just as there are analytical/empirical thinkers who are excited by the getting it less wrong associated with increasing acceptance of the importance of the first person perspective, there are also phenomenologists who are similarly excited by the new openings to explore the underpinnings of "phenomena". And that for both these groups, there is increasingly less reason to think of their differences as fundamental. We are all engaged in finding new ways to make sense of things, and make no presumption that there is a favored way proceed to make sense of things any more than there is a completed sense to be achieved. The only things that is needed for the task of inquiry, and this is commonly shared, is skepticism and imagination.

Addendum (3 June 2008)

Sorry the encouragement didn't get to you earlier, but maybe its all for the best. Perhaps the reminder of where you were will trigger some new thoughts in relation to your thesis itself. I'd like to hear those. And, in any case, you've had more time to think about and have more experiences to bring to bear on what we started with. So ... where are we on "getting it less wrong". Is there still a "tactical disparity" between us? And what about the distinction between analytic/empirical and /phenomenological? Do you think there is actually common ground along the path I outlined or are there still (appropriately or not) important incommensurabilities?

To be continued ...


Paul Grobstein's picture

content/process/rhetoric and non-violence

Point well made, rhetorically and otherwise.  Content ("what one says") and process ("how one says it") are not fully independent of one another.  There is meaning for the hearer in both, and the two may complement or conflict (among other possibilities).  

If one  speaks "AS IF YOU ARE RIGHT" (me, in this case I presume), it may indeed create an abyss (between us) even if the content is "rightness seems to me not to be possible in any case, including this one" (which it is and on which we seem to agree).   And yes, it is a productive abyss.  I orginally wrote for the preceding "rightness is not possible in any case ..." and then replaced it with "rightness seems to me not to be possible ...".  An old dog can learn new tricks.

Beyond that, I think there are two more general issues highlighted by all this, one having to do with the writer/speaker and the other with the reader/listener/responder.  Both are, of course, separately and jointly, responsible for creating meaning in both content and process realms.  For the writer/speaker the issue is how to tell a story in a way that is as accessible as possible to readers/listeners/responders.  "Academic" writing developed, I suspect, as an effort to do this most efficiently for the widest possible audience.  My own rhetorical style is a modification of that, aimed at getting beyond a purely "academic" audience, but clearly can be read/heard as tarred by the "academic" brush.  Perhaps there is no general purpose rhetoric?  One needs always to use different rhetorics for different audiences?  And perhaps to accept as well an inevitable conflict between telling a story compellingly and having it rejected simply because it is compellingly told ("as if you are right")?

For the reader/listener/responder, the issue, it seems to me, is how to find in a story that which is most useful to oneself.  It is not to decide whether to believe the story, nor even to be sure one understands the story in the terms that the writer/speaker "intended," but rather to make oneself as open to the story as possible, to maximize the likelihood that one will be altered by it.  What one then wants to avoid, it seems to me, is premature rejection of stories, one the grounds either of rhetoric or content.

All of this is closely related to, and referred to in, a recent (and continuing) conversation on Rorty, non-foundationalism, and story telling: possibilities and problems that you're more than welcome to join.  So yes, "the wonder of the internet is in keeping conversations open indefinitely" and in opening new ones; thanks for contributions to that.  One never knows when or where something said might be useful.  More than happy to "continue our own conversations" here as well, in ways that don't "sound antagonistic".  With a shared interest in non-violence "understood not as the avoidance of conflict and associated disruption, but rather as a commitment to the nurturing of new understandings/stories, individually and collectively."     
davey's picture

paul, as a continued apology

paul, as a continued apology to anne, and in an effort to continue our own conversations, i've written a sort of response to our now months old encounter over another table, trying at least to recall my sentiments from california - i feel a sort of 'choose your own adventure' type of thing is in order - for our continuing amusement? i won't really provide much choice... so go to --B--. or don't.

--B-- let's begin by assuming that the words one writes are not independent of the concepts one is trying to develop and express by writing. if this isn't acceptable, go to --H--. otherwise, we'll just keep going here: now, where do the words - and, by the extension of this teleology, the concepts so expressed and developed - end? do words depend upon their juxtaposition with other words, their arrangement in sentences and in metaphors, in lists and introductory paragraphs and their functioning in an argument or inclusion in an example? if "yes, the concepts one might be trying to express depend upon these things, and how we word them", go to --S--. if no, --L--.

--H-- when i die, i'll directly realize your Ideas in Heaven ... till then, you needn't bother writing, as your words have no relation to your ideas. so please, so that you might keep sharing ideas with us while we're still alive, please go back to --B--.

--L-- i'll keep these counter-examples short: presumably the word use of 'left' in a lover telling you 'i've left you' and 'i'm to your left' express rather different sentiments; or, similarly and to choose a far less exciting stock-example, 'the cat is on the mat' and 'the mat is on the cat' correspond to different situations (one, i imagine, kind of cute). why call to mind the metaphor of gardening with the word 'pruning,' when 'discarding' would serve just as well? the choice of our words and of our arrangement of them clearly marks different expressions. so let's go back to --B-- and start over. or just skip to --S--.

--S-- we are thus in this position: what you say is all knotted up in how you say it. and so, by changing one, the other is not left unaffected; you might untie the knot a little, or complicate things: either way, you'll end up with a different knot. so, keeping in mind that how we write philosophy and what we write about will never be independent, how can we write philosophy? go to --W-- to explore this - or, to find out how we might read it, go to --R--.

--R-- this will be a brief tangent in which i misuse todorov's work on 'poetics' - because clearly for me at this point, there is no difference between OUR READING a poem and a work of philosophy - our approach, our care, textual-tactics, ... todorov suggests (disclaimer: i don't have this work here, my abuse of todorov will be based on months-old notes) the interpretive work of poetics should be brought to bear on whatever is created having language both as its substance and instrument. insofar as philosophical concepts are never independent of language, philosophy - at least to a degree - is created as having language as its substance; the instrumentality of language in our writing philosophy seems clear enough. but then, this could be tremendously generative! what novel thoughts might we find asking questions like: why is so little attention paid to descartes' use of metaphor in his letters (re: jean-luc marion)? or to kant's style in the critique of judgement (re: jean-luc nancy)? why did lucretius write poetry, or wittgenstein, in aphorisms? with eyes of poetry, who knows what we'd make of old thoughts? (this goes the otherway too, of course - what will we find approaching 'alice in wonderland' with the same care and rigor we might bring to a reading of hegel (re: deleuze)?) but enough about reading, please go to --W--.

--W-- paul, i'll use what i remember from our last talk to ground this: suppose that you want to develop and express the concept of 'less-wrong' in a piece of writing (or a discussion with a philosophy student). what is a tactical or rhetorical disparity between us comes to make all the difference: so long as you write or speak AS IF YOU ARE RIGHT, and, demurring, i use words like 'love' and 'disturb', address my reader in the second person, or employ cumbersome phrasing and obscure citations in an effort to complicate my writing - so long as we write in vastly different ways, our positions will remain vastly different. (of course, this difference is clearly very productive - so we'll agree to perpetuate it, i hope) (and, by the way, the 'choose your own adventure' is over; you can keep reading or not.) so, what disturbs me, paul - this being the sentiment i remember from our last conversation - what disturbs me about what you're saying is HOW YOU SAY IT, with the accompanying assumption that rhetoric does NOT completely change whatever it is one is saying. clearly, i think it does; so an abyss opens - a productive one, i'll repeat - in the space of our rhetorical difference.


Anne Dalke's picture

tone--and some technological alternatives

So, Davey, you can stop apologizing!

In the gap between our last exchange and now, I, too, have been thinking about what difference tone makes. And teaching a new technology course in which students began to explore the possibilities of writing differently-->not argumentatively, not even linearly, but in a form of hyper (non)fiction, and not even only in language, but in images: see (for example) the wonders of oekaki, and virtual technology as a projected self, and the internet connection, and...other ways of getting @ what they don't know, can't quite express...

Anne Dalke's picture

"Close your Deleuze; open your Darwin."

It's a little difficult for anyone who wasn't there @ dinner to get a purchase on--much less make a contribution to--this conversation, but there's something that intrigues here, so I'm inviting myself to the party (deliberate feminist re-staging).

As I sit here overhearing Davey channel Deleuze, and Paul channel Darwin, I 'm also hearing quite a bit of back noise: reverberations of the current eddy, in literary circles, known as "biopoetics." I've been exploring, lately, at another table, the possibility that I might have something to contribute to ongoing conversations about the evolution of literature, and have, in preparation, been reviewing material that looks at the intersection of literature and science. There is a group, commonly known as the "literary Darwinists," who have been vigorously trying to correct the poststructuralist theories that subordinate scientific knowledge to "discourse." One of those is a former professor of mine @ Penn (now @ Temple), Bob Storey, whose Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representation ends with the plainspoken instruction to "Close your Deleuze; open your Darwin."

Which is to say that the conversation between Paul and Davey intrigues me largely because it lacks the antagonistic quality of this current standoff between the poststructuralists and the literary Darwinists; what I hear, listening in on this conversation, is not the instruction to shut one text in order to open another, but rather a willingness to read outside one's discipline: less an attempt to correct and one-up one another, than a kind of thinking-along-with.

In that spirit, here's a question for Davey, who counters Paul's insistence that the significance of history should be "judged by its generativity, its usefulness in creating new ways to think about things," with the assertion that "science's encounter with history is an encounter only to forget this move past it...a violent refusal...denying so many possible directions." What I hear, here, is an insistence on keeping all stories in play, perpetually (because we can never know, ahead of time, but only retrospectively, WHAT will be generative? is that right?). Is that really what you are saying? ALL stories? Is there no means of adjudication, of pruning the garden?

davey's picture

anne, i'm so sorry this

anne, i'm so sorry this comes so late! after january and the beginning of my spring term, i simply disappeared from this discussion into finishing my thesis. paul had said, though, that the wonder of the internet is keeping conversations open indefinitely, and i certainly appreciate that sentiment - so, by way of response (or apology): i'm glad we don't sound antagonistic! the inevitability of rather harsh and often blind criticism in transatlantic 'conversations' (often effectively shouting-matches) is sad and completely unmotivating (for example, what's expressed in the instruction 'close your deleuze; open your darwin' - uninspiring, given both a) deleuze's principled aversion to such polemical commandments; and b) his hope that readers will, while keeping their deleuze open of course, open their darwin too - he hugely appreciated darwin's work, and this appreciation continues in the work of contemporary 'deleuzeians' like massumi and delanda).

but you've asked me whether i insist on keeping all stories open, given that we can never know what might become generative; (after months during which i'm sure my opinion has changed,) that's not what i'd suggest. in one of his poems, heidegger writes (in 'poetry language thought')(and forgive my approximation, i don't have the book beside me),

we never come to thoughts,
thoughts come to us.

i suppose, first, i'm weary of our actively pruning; that it might really and effectively discard an idea, telling us 'this thought is too wrong and of no use. we will no longer let it come to us.' we are in no place to so limit the potentials of thought, and i don't think we should want to: 'God is dead and wrong and of no use - let us discard' what, nearly 2000 years of fascinating theistic philosophy? as if meister eckhart or saint paul couldn't push contemporary philosophers to new places! but whatever the case - and, in this context, i take this to be heidegger's point - it is simply impossible for us to actively and completely discard some idea: thoughts come to us, whether from some wild avant garde or the quiet ashes of the pile of dead weeds we've just burned.


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