Author Archives: Michael Norton
After Nature has posted links to two recordings from the recent Varieties of Continental Thought and Religion conference at Ryerson University in Toronto. The first is his excellent talk on Meillassoux and process thought – which like so many good conference talks was, I think, burdened by time constraints. Although I’m not sure I can agree with his ultimate conclusion (i.e., that “Meillassoux’s take on the divine inexistence is the superior alternate among the choices of ontotheology or even postmodern varieties of continental philosophy of religion”), he makes a strong case for reading Meillassoux together with the broad tradition of process philosophy & theology. I hope to be able to read the full paper when it’s completed.
The second recording is of our joint Q and A session (I delivered my paper on Meillassoux and Latour right after his). The questions and audience responses are a little hard to hear, since they’re obviously far away from the recording device. But turn it up! the questions are good – though I won’t go so far as to say the same for my responses. (Jack Caputo, as usual, hits the nail squarely on the head in his take on Latour.)
Putting together my paper on Meillassoux and Latour for the upcoming Varieties of Continental Thought and Religion conference in Toronto, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way Meillassoux characterizes religion – that is, I’ve spent a lot of time frustrated by the way Meillassoux mischaracterizes religion. It has occurred to me, though (and maybe this is just obvious? at any rate, it seems important to note), that Meillassoux would have a very hard time making his philosophical case concerning the divine inexistence if he didn’t (mis)characterize religion the way he does.
First of all, there seem to be a number of interrelated assumptions that he makes (some of them aren’t even stated explicitly, while others are stated but not well argued for). There’s the overall assumption at the core of his project that in all cases immanence is preferable to transcendence – i.e., reference to any transcendent being or concept is philosophically unacceptable. OK, this more or less follows from the argument in After Finitude, and it has become generally accepted for a number of reasons anyway. But then the more particular assumptions regarding religion come, including:
- religion necessarily involves reference to transcendence
- religion involves, specifically, the conception of a necessary Supreme Being
- religion involves belief in an account of the creation of the world by such a Supreme Being
- religion conceives of its Supreme Being as by nature unthinkable by humans
- religion is essentially irrational
- religion is to be avoided at all costs
Yet, since Meillassoux’s concept of God, the hope for a coming world of justice, and the figure of a divine mediator bear so much in common with common (Abrahamic) religious themes – as has been pointed out elsewhere – he actually has to do some work to distinguish his position from that of what he calls religion. In order to bring his own position is sharper relief, he needs this caricature of religion. It seems that his idea of hope for the world of justice is a purely immanent, philosophical hope only because religious hope is necessarily hope for that which we cannot think, faith in a God who is necessarily an inscrutable, authoritative Supreme Being; the immortality that religion desires is the immortality of an other life, not this life. If it turns out, though, that religion isn’t what Meillassoux thinks it is, his position collapses into a fairly traditional theological one (or, if not traditional, at least not novel and not irreligious). In other words, here’s something that’s ripe for deconstruction.
(Who knows, though; the revised and completed version of The Divine Inexistence might fix all of this…)
There’s been some chatter recently concerning the nature and state of the “analytic/continental divide” – but when hasn’t there been? What I’m specifically thinking of is this piece in the NYT’s “The Stone” column by Gary Gutting, Brian Leiter’s entirely predictable reaction to (and more-or-less endorsement of) it, and Eric Schliesser’s more critical response on New APPS (as well as John Protevi’s Deleuze-specific clarifications). Now, I have to say that for the most part I agree with the points that Schliesser makes, so that there’s no need to repeat them.
But, I do think it’s worthwhile to emphasize one particular thing that he says, because (1) it’s something to which not nearly enough attention is drawn, and (2) it’s a particular pet peeve of mine: namely, the idea that “analytic” philosophy is (as a rule) written with clarity and precision, while “continental” philosophy is (to paraphrase Gutting) “unnecessarily difficult.” Schliesser hits the nail on the head when he writes that “the clarity of analytic philosophy is something of a self-serving myth.” Much of the supposed clarity of analytic philosophy is simply a result of the fact that those propounding its clarity are familiar with its jargon – a jargon that does, admittedly, allow for a great degree of precision within its context of use. However, it takes effort to become familiar with such jargon, as it does to master the tools of any trade. To imply that an average representative text of analytic philosophy (whatever that may be) is easily understandable by an average non-philosopher (whoever that may be), whereas a corresponding continental text is very likely to be less understandable, is simply ridiculous.
It is impossible to quantify and compare the amount of effort it takes to master the terminology of, e.g., texts in philosophy of mind, versus texts in existentialism or deconstruction – not only because it’s hard to imagine what one would use as a reliable metric, but also because the amount of effort required in each case would depend partly on the reader. A variety of factors would influence how easily any particular person is able to make sense of any particular text. For me, it was certainly the case that – having been exposed to philosophy from both sides of the divide in the early stages of my philosophical education – I found representatives of continental strains much easier to grapple with than those from analytic traditions.
What makes the tired line that analytic philosophy is clearly written while continental philosophy is obscure or imprecise bug me the way that it does, though, is not simply that it’s incorrect but that it often not called out as incorrect. Instead, the rebuttal might be offered that, yes, analytic philosophy is clear, but it’s irrelevant to the world, or that the “obscurity” of continental philosophy allows for deeper levels of meaning and more rewarding reading. But these responses take the initial claim as uncontested, and I agree with Schliesser that it should be contested. Yes, Heidegger is difficult reading (in that his texts require time and attention), but so is Davidson, Sellars, even Austin (and for the same general reasons). And perhaps it’s true that you’re less likely to find wordplay or literary tropes in the texts of Rawls or McDowell than in those of Derrida, but that’s not to say that the latter are not philosophically rigorous (I would, and have, argued that Derrida is one of the most rigorous and philosophically substantive writers of the 20th century).
In a local reading group this semester, we’ve been going through some of the key sections of Being and Time. Last weekend one of the sections we looked at was §35 on Gerede or “idle talk,” and I realized the extent to which I think that this section, as short as it is, is really one of the most crucial sections in Division One. At least, that is, insofar as the explication of Dasein in its average everydayness is supposed to be the starting point of the phenomenological project of Being and Time.
The reason for §35’s importance lies mainly in the way that it attempts to give an existential explanation of ordinary communication. Since the explosion of electronic media technologies (particularly, I would argue, first television and then the web), the kind of communication that Heidegger describes as idle talk has been given concrete form in increasingly ubiquitous structures. Not coincidentally, the couple of times I’ve taught Heidegger, I’ve found that this is perhaps the part that my students have had the easiest time understanding (is there a better example of “passing the word along” than the “Retweet” button?).
On the other hand, isn’t it the case that pointing to Twitter or Facebook or cable news (or respected newspapers, for that matter) as prime examples of forums for idle talk is also an example of idle talk? That is, Twitter is so trivial, cable news so superficial, that it practically announces its own inauthenticity. The interpretation of such media as only perpetuating idle talk is perhaps always already given along with the media themselves.
The question that arises for me, then, is this: can a deeper and more thorough critique of the ideology and structures of such media get past the level of idle talk, or does the anticipation by these media of kinds of critique that can be leveled against them preempt the efficacy of such critique? Is something other than critique required?
(He asks, on a blog…)
Related(?): thinking about this put me in mind of Paul Lansky’s More than Idle Chatter, which I haven’t heard in probably a decade. For your listening pleasure:
It has now been over a year since I’ve used this blog, but I’ve decided it’s time to give it another try. So here we are.
Among everything else taking up space on my desk right now are things that pertain to the syllabus I’m working on for next semester: Philosophy of Being. Almost the entire first half of the course will focus on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, but the second half will move it around a little more – start off with a little Thomas Aquinas, move right on into Kant, and then finish up with a hearty dose of Heidegger. That’s the question I’m dealing with right now, though: exactly what Heidegger, and how much? I’m leaning toward the Intro to Being and Time, “What is Metaphysics?”, and “Time and Being”. But there’s so much other Heidegger I’d also like to do (not to mention adding on some Derrida and even Latour as a coda).
This is always my experience writing a new syllabus; I get to wishing that semesters were about one month longer. Of course, that’s not the feeling one usually has about the end of the current semester.