Is Philosophy Making Any Progress?

Since the comments are still behaving very strangely, I thought I’d repost Alexei’s comment-question here at the top and see if this theme can move out of our discussion of “post-academics”:

Rather than continue this ‘debate,’ I was wondering if maybe I could tease out something interesting, concerning a rather Benjaminian theme of ‘progress’ that’s floating around unidentified in the polemics. All this talk of ‘newness’ vs. the need to know the ‘history of philosophy’ (understood as a disciplinary regime, I suppose, as a discourse) presupposes a fundamental belief that intellectual developments in the humanities exhibit the same features as the development in the sciences — i.e. that what we call ‘progress’ exhibits cumulative and transitive properties. Said simply, the reason names and faulty positions aren’t important in math (which is about the only ’science’ I’ve ever taken courses in — and honestly, I was a terrible math student), past knowing why a theorem is called the so-and-so theorem, is that the history of the discipline is ‘built-into’ the newer techniques and approaches. The only history one needs are the competences to manipulate (and the vision to project) certain techniques. One can’t worry about non-linear algebra if one can’t do algebra first. One can’t do number theory, unless one has a handle on mathematical logic and the methods of proof. One can’t make it very far in systems theory, if one doesn’t understand Sigma-notation. So there’s a sense in which the competences one needs in order to study a science supersede a historical overview of the discipline itself. But this presupposes, of course, that the history of a discipline is ’sedimented’ in its techniques and practical competences, which are themselves only important as means to some modern-day newness.

It would be insane, for instance, to teach mathematical logic out of either Frege’s Begriffschrift or Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, since what’s valuable (or at least arguably valuable) is contained in our present — streamlined, more or less contradiction free — first-order predicate calculi. Although these texts are interesting (and there’s something really, really neat about Frege’s notation, which you can’t get in FOPCAL) from a historical perspective, they are totally useless for our present purposes. They’ve been outmoded, their deep insights absorbed, and their problems resolved (or the wacky bits that produced them have been dumbed).

But the question remains: what outmodes a philosophical approach? Under what conditions would we say that some approach exhibits a cumulative and transitive property, which renders previous thought redundant? I’m not convinced there is any such condition — especially since the only appeal one can make is to nebulous notions like probity or truth, both of which, however, exhibit a contextuality and value-relevance that undercuts the idea of cumulative advance.

Anyway, I would be interested to here what others think. Does philosophy exhibit a progressive movement towards some ideal state? What would this state mean, and how would we identify whether we’re moving away or towards it? It strikes me that unless you’re willing to embrace some such thesis concerning progress in the humanities, there’s no legitimate way of bucking the system, since there’s no set of competences (’rules’) that arguably supersede historical antecedents.


24 thoughts on “Is Philosophy Making Any Progress?

  1. It seems to me that Hasok Chang wrote about a similar issue in a recent(ish) essay for TPM, you can find it here:
    but this post reminded me of a section where Chang discusses the need for the sciences (or the philosophy of science as a complementary science) to recover certain “lost” knowledge (there may be better quotes but this will have to suffice):
    Recovery and critical awareness are valuable in themselves, but they can also stimulate the production of genuinely novel knowledge. Historians have generally shrunk from further developing the systems of knowledge that they uncover from the past record of science. An emblematic example is Kuhn. Having made such strenuous and persuasive arguments that certain discarded systems of knowledge (e.g. Aristotelian physics, Ptolemaic astronomy or the phlogiston theory) were coherent and not simply incorrect, Kuhn gave no explicit indication that these theories deserved to be developed further. Why not? According to his own criterion of judgement, scientific revolutions constitute progress when the newer paradigm acquires a greater problem-solving ability than ever achieved by the older paradigm. But how do we know that the discrepancy in problem-solving ability is not merely a result of the fact that scientists abandoned the older paradigm and gave up the effort to improve its problem-solving ability? A similar question also arises at the conclusion of some other historians’ works on scientific controversy.

    also see here:

    So no answer, but thought I’d add to the conversation.

  2. So I’ve been having this discussion with kvond about memes and agency and so on. I posed a scenario: a guy picks up a harmonica and starts playing Yankee Doodle. Did the guy cause the song to be played, or did the song cause the guy to pick up the harmonica, or did the harmonica cause both, or did some other Force or Agent cause all three? Has philosophical progress been made in answering this question? And what is the answer?

  3. Alexei: “But the question remains: what outmodes a philosophical approach? Under what conditions would we say that some approach exhibits a cumulative and transitive property, which renders previous thought redundant? I’m not convinced there is any such condition — especially since the only appeal one can make is to nebulous notions like probity or truth, both of which, however, exhibit a contextuality and value-relevance that undercuts the idea of cumulative advance.

    Kvond: The importance of knowing the context of positions is knowing the question that is attempting to be answered by a position, something you can’t always tell by the answer itself. Rorty termed the adventures of philosophy as “redescriptions”. When you redescribe something, very often you are answering a different sort of question than your predecessor.

    As for outmoding, for a very long time I believed that Cartesian philosophy was “outmoded”, but then I realized that much of the heritage of Cartesian philosophy simply were operating from a rather thin undestanding of Descartes, that the charicature of him as a proto-Idealist pretty much had it wrong, and that one cannot simply divorce his Natural Philosophy from his metaphysics (nor understand the latter without the former). So, for me, Descartes went from outmoded to highly interesting.

    There is another way in which a lost or outmoded philosopher can be reclaimed. Here I make a brief historical/sociological argument for Spionza (who in his various interpretive forms has been outmoded repeatedly:

    For me the importance of Spinoza goes to the very historical moment, a certain parallel between the experiments in democracy, technology and capitalism that were happening in the decades of his life, and our own age of renewed challenges of each. In this sense, Spinoza is timely.

    Key though to recovering a philosopher or philosophy, is realizing that the main lines of interpretation that exhausted the possibilities of that thought (either in critique or in advancement), had built-in skews that failed to grasp some rather important aspects of the thinking. In Descartes’ case it is likely the “veil of ideas” reduction offered by Reid that lost out on his proto-semiosis. In Spinoza’s case it may be how an overly Rationalist interpretation lost out on his skepticism towards science and maths, or the neglect of his political theories. For Wittgenstein it may be that his implicit epiphanic truth giving is lost to analytic reduction and technique. The list goes on.

    I think though that in another sense, there are times when branch of thinking, the manner in which a school attempts to bring out all of the truths of a founding father, this can be exhaustive, and exhausting.

  4. Alexei, I suppose my title for this post is not necessarily adequate to the questions your are raising, or at least I hope that it isn’t in the sense that there is more to what you are asking about then just a notion of “progress” – in a way, thinking about the issues today I mostly kept going back to Hegel and the way I was always told while in graduate school that Hegel invented the history of philosophy (whichever way one might interpret this) – I don’t have the grasp of Hegel to really argue with that position, but it seems quite obvious that not too many philosophers (those in the “canon”) concerned themselves with a kind of historical development and the continual progress (I mean Kant does say that it’s a scandal that we still haven’t gotten some simple answers and so on, but that’s different, I think). Simply put then, if “history of philosophy” is itself a pretty obvious philosophical construct (I hope this is not really controversial), then is there a sense in which we can even ask a question like “does philosophy progress?” or “do philosophical problems once being addressed and solved then are build upon by future philosophers?” – I suppose my question here is whether when we are asking a question about certain characteristics of philosophy we are able to leave philosophy and approach it strictly from some “outside”? The reason science does not need history of science to do its thing is because “science” is not the same as (and is very much and very strictly distinguished from) history of science while philosophy and history of philosophy are in a very different, more complex, relationship, or so it seems to me… So for some philosophy went wrong with whatever their preferred figure is, with some it went right, some see hegemonic oppression everywhere they go and call out for a fight (which is fine, as long as it’s not all negative all the time), some enjoy the status quo, some are just lazy to care and so on.

    Now to the issue of “let’s talk about ideas, not persons” – I have expressed myself many times on the matter and I think my personal position is very simple: having been mainly trained in “persons, not problems” attitude, I find it the most comfortable way and I’m not imposing it on anyone (including say a requirement to know the history of philosophy to be qualified as a philosopher, I honestly don’t know what or who a ‘philosopher’ is or could be these days) – my only problem is and probably will be for some time is with people who claim to deal with ideas/problems and who dismiss the “traditional” approach of studying figures but yet they write about figures all the time when they write about their ideas/problems (they don’t come from nowhere, do they?) thus showing that the dichotomy of “persons” vs. “problems” is simply false. If I could go back in time and talk to myself when I was just starting reading philosophy, I would recommend I read more analytical stuff, but I was in Russia and there it meant mostly doing philology and not philosophy. When I teach Intro to Philosophy, it’s your standard (for my educational upbringing) Plato to Descartes to Kant to X to Y to Z approach. I did see people do it by more or less problem oriented schedule (“epistemology” – “ontology” and so forth) and if it works for them, it’s great. Sometimes I get frustrated with questions about philosophy in general because they are just so general – would we be comfortable with asking if “art” have made any progress? Although there seems to be a very rigid idea of historical development in classical music – contemporary composers are expected to compose in a contemporary style, i.e. no one’s going to write an opera that would sound like Verdi or a symphony like that of Haydn (unless you’re Schnittke and then also because your Haydn-like symphony will disintegrate into cacophony to make your point, whatever that point is) – in any case, just ramblings here mostly…

  5. But Mikhail, art DOES progress (it just does not progress towards “truth”, or in the wide scale gets no closer to it), and art does concern itself with both figures and problems (styles, techniques, materials, influences). And science does concern itself with the history of science (and even the figures of science), and when it does, it is better for it.

  6. There are some problems in philosophy which have simply been abandoned, and it’s interesting to ask why. The problem of movement and becoming, which was important for Aristotle, is no longer discussed . . . Aristotle’s physics lays out some of the paradoxes of movement and becoming, but these were forgotten or ignored after Galileo started to apply geometry to nature. The first book of his Dialogue on the Two World Systems is nothing but a ridicule of Aristotle and the problem of becoming, and the calculus dispensed the problem of movement and the instant once and for all . . .

    The standard analytic reply is that philosophy is like the space program, and it spins off new disciplines (like physics) once philosophy has solved the more fundamental problems. But the problems were never really solved, and it takes some reading in the history of philosophy and science to figure out what the original problems or questions were (not that the original problems are the ultimate ones) . . . Which reflects my conservative Straussian leanings, I suppose.

    Philosophy is not the construction of new systems, I don’t think. Harman seems to think that all that changes is the packaging, whether two or three or six unit packaging, and what’s inside doesn’t matter. That’s fine, he can sell his economy size 8 unit (2 by 3) philosophy, but simply saying that “occasionalism is out of style, I’ll bring it back” or “realism stock is cheap, buy low and sell high” is more indifferent to “content” than I can handle. So I don’t think a new dawn of systematic philosophy is upon us, if that was the question.

    • I didn’t mean to inquire into whether systematic philosophy was about to make it big again (for what it’s worth though, it never really left — the logical positivists had systematic intentions, as does Brandom, I think. Rawls has a system, as Does Habermas, as does Apel, and I’m sure there are others).

      Now that I think about it, bjk, my fundamental question revolves around the problem of method. The notion of progress, is valuative, since it implies something getting better. Now, the valuative standpoint can’t be attached to particular knowledge claims (without introducing all kinds of ad hoc weirdness). So it must be attached to knowledge practices. what improve or progress are our abilities to manipulate the world, or to investigate it — that is to say our methods (anyone familiar with the Dialectic of Enlightenment thesis can already see the problem).

      So, if progress is attached to method — to the rules of investigation — then one can further ask whether ‘method’ in philosophy generalizes or remains context bound. If it’s context boind, then it remains inseparable from its history. If it generalizes, then method can be separated from its historical genesis. And hence, figures don’t matter, since their insights are already built into our philosophical procedures. It strikes me, however, that philosophy cannot be decontextualized, and hence has no such method (perhaps valid inference counts as such a method, but that’s so thin a criterion that it won’t get you far). And hence cannot detach itself form its history in the way sciences must in order to advance. IN this way, I suppose philosophy resists instrumentalization. Simply put, philosophy does not progress.

      I don’t think that’s a bad thing, however. context specific knowledge is virtue. Philosophy doesn’t progress because the problems it addresses are not continuous. Perhaps this is the fault line: one thinks that philosophy is a collection of more or less static problems, or as an evolving problem space, or even as a radically discontinuous non-progressive production of contextually bound problems. The first involves a kind of teleological progress, the second some kind of asymptotic refinement, and the third abandons the idea of progress altogether.

  7. Hi Mikhail,

    First off, I’m sympathetic to your point concerning the dichotomy of figure and problem. I really don’t understand what that kind of distinction this is supposed to be or do (other than offer some kind of cover for folks who don’t want to do their homework). I came late to ‘contintental philosophy’ and have an analytic background (in point of fact, I thought Carnap was the coolest dude on the block for a great deal of my undergrad — to the point of arguing on many occasions that Quine’s ‘two dogmas’ paper simply misses the point entirely. Go Positivisim! I actually jumped boat when I realized that graduate work in analytic philosophy was making me more close-minded and dogmatic than I cared to admit), and I don’t know of anyone who would claim that you can separate the two. Hell, before I ended up where I am now, my teachers who weren’t working in the philosophy of physics were concentrating on folks like Frege, Hilbert, and Rawls (and Rorty, and Dewey) — not to mention Kant and Berkley. I mean, since a given figure articulates both a problem and an attempt to resolve it, the problem is intimately tied to the figure’s work. And I really have no idea how one would disconnect the problem form the work without engaging with the work itself, and showing that the proposed solution fails somehow. Otherwise one is simply reinventing a perfectly good wheel.

    If there’s any merit to the distinction, it lies in the idea that not every piece of philosophy needs to be a study of influence or philology. But we already knew that, and have accepted long ago that rational reconstruction, immanent criticism, hermeneutics, deconstruction, whatever-it-is-that-Deleuze-does, etc are valid philosophical procedures. But let’s not forget that Deleuze’s most interesting books are on figures (his book on Francis Bacon, on Kafka, on Leibniz, on Spinoza, on Kant, the logic of sense is half on Lewis Carol)

    anyway, all this said, I agree with you about Hegel, and he is my chief target in all of this. And I think you’re right to point out that the question of progress introduces a vantage that’s not the most obvious one, leading to ‘outsides’ or whatnot. But I don’t think there’s any more of a problem of discussing progress in philosophy within philosophy than there is of discussing transcendental idealism from within philosophy. Regardless of what’s cool at the moment, we can always take up a reflective, higher-order position on any given philosophical issue. We can reflect transcendentally, as Kant did. We can take up the position of phenomenological observation, as Hegel did. WE can operate from within the Epoche of Husserl, or we can simply allow the temporalizing character of Da-sein’s projection to distance us, as Heidegger did. I don’t think there’s really a problem here. I mean, I agree wholeheartedly with your claim that,

    The reason science does not need history of science to do its thing is because “science” is not the same as (and is very much and very strictly distinguished from) history of science while philosophy and history of philosophy are in a very different, more complex, relationship

    but I don’t think that means philosophy can’t reflect on itself. Hell, even math can construct self-referential statements. Why can’t philosophy?

    Again, I take my main point to be something like the following: if you think that certain philosophical approaches have been superseded, in the way that science supersedes its previous positions, then you believe that a present philosophical approach exhibits a cumulative and transitive property. We stand on the shoulders of giants and all that. There is some kind of accumulation of knowledge, which can be separated out from its original mode of presentation or context, and this separation allows one to dump the history. I had originally noted that, within my understanding of how the sciences work, the process of separation has everything to do with method, with the techniques and competences needed to undertake research or experiment in a given discipline. I don’t know what else would legitimate one in thinking that one can dispense with figures or the history of discipline. It’s surely one of the reasons why ‘analytic philosophy’ is typically thought of as having dispensed with the history of philosophy in favour of problems (which isn’t true of course, but so the stereotype goes): with the production of a certain method of conceptual analysis (logical analysis — and for the hypertrophied forms it took, one need only look at Gilbert Ryle or some of Sellars’ work), one need not engage with the history of philosophy in any kind of historical way (i.e. understanding context, etc). be more generally.

    I don’t think the point is all that different in music. The ‘rules’ or theories of Harmony of Bach’s time wouldn’t allow us to compose a piece like his well-tempered piano (this is a variation on Kevin’s point earlier, concerning perspective in painting) Hence Bach’s breakthrough, which has now been thoroughly subsumed, consolidated, and made part of a composer’s repetoire. From a compositional perspective — i.e. from the perspective of method — a great deal has changed. How else would you explain the advent of aleatory music, of serialism, (of my favourite,) minimalism (though not the early electronic soundscapes of Glass; my teen years were too full of techno to appreciate them now)? Surely these represent transformations in the established methods of composition. What’s at stake is how to evaluate them. To say they represent progress is to say that compositional method has accumulated stronger knowledge practices.

  8. Alexei,

    I think we are agreeing on some issues here so I’m going to skip them and try to explain my point about “inside/outside” – certainly, I understand your supercession/transition point and standing on the shoulder of giants – in this sense, history of philosophy (or rather, knowledge of history of philosophy) is not different from history of science, maybe only in that that we learn of various philosophical “advances” by studying history which is not always necessary in say math (learning the procedure without learning who and when came up with it) – my point was simply that history of math does not have to be a mathematical undertaking (can it be though?) while history of philosophy is necessarily a philosophical pursuit and in that sense there is no objective history of philosophy and this is where I like all those voices that called for alternative histories, even if only because they allow us to reimagine what philosophy is and so on. Just off the top of my head, let me get back to this after breakfast and my usual “solve a philosophical problem, save the world” moment every morning…

  9. Perhaps worth quoting, Benjamin’s juxtaposition of the philosopher between the artist and the scientist:

    “If it is the task of the philosopher to practice the kind of description of the world of ideas, which automatically includes and absorbs the empirical world, he then occupies an elevated position between that of the scientist and the artist. The latter sketches a restricted image of the world of ideas, which, because it is conceived as a metaphor, is at all times definitive. The scientist arranges the world with a view to its dispersal in the realm of ideas, dividing it from within into concepts. He shares the philosopher’s interest in the elimination of merely the empirical; while the artist shares with the philosopher the task of representation. There has been a tendency to place the philosopher too close to the scientist, and frequently the lesser kind of scientist; as if representation had nothing to do with the task of the philosopher. The concept of philosophical style is free of paradox. It has its postulates. These are as follows:

    The art of the interruption in contrast to the chain of deduction;

    The tendency of the essay in contrast to single gesture of the fragment;

    The repetition of themes in contrast to shallow universalism;

    The fullness of concentrated positivity, in contrast to the negation of the polemic.

    The demand for flawless coherence in scientific deduction is not made in order that truth shall be represented in its unity and singularity; and yet this very flawlessness is the only way that the logic of the system is related to the notion of truth. Such systematic completeness has no more in common with truth than any other form of representation which attempts to ascertain the truth in mere cognitions and cognitional patterns…

    “Epistmo-Critical Prologue”, The Ursprung of Trauerspeils

  10. This is perhaps an odd analogy but isn’t the question such as “Can we study philosophy without knowing much, or anything, about the history of philosophy?” analogous to a situation in which one wonders if one can study the French Revolution without knowing (or ever wanting to learn) French? Is it possible? Of course it is, not knowing French is a hindrance and in some cases it would prevent one from being able to read much of specialized literature and so on, but one can easily think of someone who can write all sorts of interesting things about the Revolution without a fluency in French. That is, knowing the history of philosophy is a pragmatic plus that allows one to be better acquainted with the context, but by no means the lack of such knowledge should stand in the way of being a philosopher.

    Bjk, I think I sympathizes with your discomfort in terms of seeming randomness of some recent moves – reviving occasionalism, for example, should be philosophically justified, not career or popularity driven, i.e. just because it is “out of fashion” doesn’t mean it needs to “come back” – I do see your point here, but I wonder if you are taking this too literally and it’s really all about philosophical experimentation and play? Why not try to imagine what philosophy would be like without Kant or if Hobbes died before Leviathan or if Descartes died from carbon monoxide poisoning in his “stove”? In other words, if history of philosophy is itself a philosophical construct and there is a variety of histories one might construct, why not imagine one in which people are suddenly interested in occasionalism or nominalism or some odd Christian heresy and so on?

  11. Interesting observations all around. I think questions of evaluation is the linchpin to all of this. Certainly, in one sense doing philosophy is doing the history of philosophy. If we want to push Alexei’s Benjaminian tack a bit more (or not push it, this seems to be what’s driving the question, correct me if I’m wrong), it’s uncontroversial to say that in a restricted sense Benjamin is not writing history, but developing a new “concept” of history. I wonder if we can push our understanding of philosophy in this manner?

    If we are driving at some “ideal” or forgetting about an ideal, if we still think philosophy is worthwhile (lest we move our desks into the math or physics dept) then we argree there is something incomplete about philosophy. Now, I can’t think of anyone that more better integrated the “incompleteness” of history into its “completeness” than Marx. In the 18th Brumaire or somewhere I vaguely recall something about the tradition is like a nightmare for us or some such, and that revolution has to let the dead properly bury its dead to progress. Something like that. Yet, this is not Benjamin, however. I dug up this well known passage from early on in the Arcades Project:

    History is not simply a science but also and not least a form a remembrance. What science has “determined,” remembrance can modify. Such mindfulness can make the incomplete (happiness) into something complete, and the complete (suffering) into something incomplete.

    As far as I understand this, future generations can’t simply sanction the fact that what has been lost has been lost for all time, and that the dead have no more access to any praxis, for another praxis is within reach. In turn, the history written by the historical materialist takes up a certain idea of the past as its cause. Is this not like philosophy?

    As has been noted or alluded to by Alexei as well as in the the passage Kvond cites above, for Benjamin “messianic power” is an impulse, a promise that does not “fetishize” what it is that it promises. Benjamin’s characteristic form of philosophizing, which uses “dialectical images” to decode profane existence as the enigmatic form of something beyond existence, is certainly helpful here I think. Moreover, the fact Benjamin also combined these ideas in the paradoxical formulation “dialectics at a standstill” confirms this notion for me. His insistence on the arrest of the flow of thoughts –of course–directly opposes Hegel’s dialectics. Benjamin does not want to assimilate itself into the temporal course of history through understanding or intuition. The knowledge exposed by the arrest of the movement ”flashes up at the moment of its recognizability” (thesis 5)… Maybe that’s the best we can do.

    I don’t know.

    Students have asked me what philosophy has accomplished and I always feel conflicted. On the one hand, it’s not going to mean all that much to many people if I say “Oh, yes. Well, the problem is evil ended with Plantinga and now it’s simply evidential etc” or “the synthetic/analytic distinction/problem has been shown to be irrelevant.” Yet, on the other hand, these claims are totally meaningless to the “uninitiated.” Hence, the problem-oriented approach, but then again, is not philosophy in the bussiness of posing productive questions? Does this change anything?

    Last thought (of a series of rather jumbled thoughts I’m afraid), and I think Benjmain would help here, what about extra-philosophical issues effecting philosophy itself? Wouldn’t that change how we understand “progress?”

  12. Some super remarks here, all around. The depth of material is going to force me to ramble. Hope it’s productive….

    First off, I think Shahar has hit the nail on the head: what’s at stake in the notion of progress is nothing short of the notion of philosophy itself. Mikhail made the same point earlier, though it took me awhile to recognize it. There’s a sense in which the past is never really solid, out of reach, or immutable for the humanities, and this simply isn’t true for the sciences — perhaps because the criteria for determining what’s past are fundamentally different. I don’t know. My impulse, from having read a fair bit of Benjamin (and neo-Kantian philosophy of historical research), is to say that, unlike a present experience, the past is never a finite thing; it’s infinitely expandable (Benjamin likes to cite Proust here: how great and unmeasurable these streets are in memory, how small they are in the lamplight of the actual). Since philosophy’s past is intractable, one can only offer accentuations and reconstructions, rather than fullblown analyses: this is really the way things were. On this point, Benjamin opposes a ‘scientific’ reconstruction of the past (as it really was — wie es gewesen [ist], to quote Ranke), but one that salvages something lost to our present.

    Kevin’s quotation gets at a number of these issues. There are so many interesting points here, I’m not sure where to start, really. Maybe we should note that, pace the Deleuzean understanding of philosophy as concept-formation, we find something very different in Benjamin: more like philosophy as the production of the virtual, I guess, but that somehow outstrips the grasp of the Begriff. With respect to that excerpt, we find Benjamin circumventing a hyperrationalized notion of the concept in favour of the notion of mimesis (from Aristotle no less), which is connected to an specific notion of presentation that founds neither an intuitive order, nor a conceptual one. Rather it attempts to concretize or incarnate the thing itself. Although not mentioned by name, Benjamin’s engagement with the the problem of ‘presentation’ is an attempt to refashion philosophical ‘method’. Remember that Aristotle thought poetry superior to history because the latter is contingent and the former is universal and necessary. This problematic is picked up again by Rickert (who makes the problem of Darstellung, which Osborne has translated as ‘representation’ a ‘scientific’ matter, a question of concept formation). Benjamin’s prologue actually reads like an allegorization of Rickert and a number of neo-Kantianisms more generally, (especially since the notion of constellation actually belongs to Weber originally — it’s a very interesting nexus actually) in order to develop a quasi-metaphysical, quasi-historiographical notion of the Idea/poeticized/image, which functions like Weber’s ideal type in that it’s not instantiated in any empirical phenomenon, but it organizes and mobilizes theoretically robust practices of investigation or intervention (Weber, Rickert, and Benjamin differ of course, on a number of theoretical points, including the idea of theoretical neutrality, but that’s a different problem entirely).

    Shahar, Benjamin’s idea of ‘dialectics at a standstill’ is also connected — as you no doubt know — to this problemspace, since it attempts to push us out of a standard way of viewing philosophical research. Again, it’s connected to the notions of presentation, and ambiguity (Zweideutigkeit). Ultimately, Benjamin thinks that ambiguity is a dialectic at a standstill, because the ‘two interpretations’ force a resolution that cannot be decided upon on its own terms. Every step foreward ultimately supresses an ambiguity (Zweideutigkeit) for a false clearness (Eindeutigkeit), rather than developing a manner of understanding the essential interplays that alone illuminates. It would seem that the best we can do is bring about the recognition of certain ambiguities, certain false clearnesses, in order to motivate a radical reformulation of the past that unites and mobilizes folks in the present for the sake of a reconciliation in some future. (Hence Benjamin’s active nihilism in political matters — politics is the space of Umwertungen). IN this sense, Benjamin’s thought sticks to Hegel’s Unhappy Consciousness.

    all of this comes to a head, at least for me, in the fact that all research takes its basic orientation from the values and ideals of the individuals involved. Benjamin doesn’t deny this feature, he simply tries to identify how given values are ultimately corrupted by the inevitable push of ‘progress,’ such that we typically only find a confirmation of something already present. So rather than a retrojective rationalization for the sake of legitimating the status quo (Hegel), or an abstracted means-ends rationality (Weber), Benjamin begins to focus on precisely those elements that ‘progress’ destroys and leaves behind. at any rate, that’s how i tend to read Benjamin: History cannot be completed because there is an infinity of details and individuals, which can only be made tractable and understandable by the violence inherent to ‘rationalization.’ So we keep the door open… to avoid completion and the final judgment.

    Lou: I don’t think one could actually write a history of the french revolution unless one can speak french. It strikes me that without the linguistic ability, one has no material to draw upon to write a history. At best, without being able to do the primary rsearch, one can write a survey of what’s been written on the revolution in (say) English. But that’s not really a history, is it (in fact that would be the closest one could get to a Derridean dictionary problem/no outside of texts, etc)?

    Ok, this is a mighty Ramble. Hopefully it pushes the conversation forward a little.

  13. Ramble anytime, Alexei. Some neat stuff here. You write:

    It would seem that the best we can do is bring about the recognition of certain ambiguities, certain false clearnesses, in order to motivate a radical reformulation of the past that unites and mobilizes folks in the present for the sake of a reconciliation in some future.

    Yes, that sounds right to me. It squares nicely with B’s attack on Hegel’s Universal Spirit vis a vis his conception of truth from _the Origin of German Tragic Drama_, .e.g from the start truth is presented as neither continuous nor singular, but discontinuous and multiple. B’s mapping of truth is to insist that it has always been fragmented and will never be synthesized. So, philosophy (like the task of the translator) is thinking ideas in their very plurality. So, while the ideas of philosophy may be plural the number of them is finite, so from this perspective the history of philosophy shows that each generation is confronted by similar ideas. Such ideas aren’t resolved, but are “settled” for the time being. As an irreducible plurality of ideas it functions as some sort of primoridal discourse. As I’m sure you know, there is an important different for Benjamin that prevents this account from being mere repetition: the original is primordial, but is radically new. You nicely get at this above, the appearance of the original would be at once splitting open towards what has always been there and attuned to the future as well. Then we can get at the important difference between origin and genesis, a distinction which would be of key importance in thinking through the history of philosophy, doing philosophy and progress.

    Another way to go at it might be through allegory. Since, allegory, as a ‘mutating symbol,’ articulates the alienating and fragmentary experience of modern life, it simultaneously offers a critique of the experience of modern life by establishing—in a flash—connections with things in which we perceive the social epoch. This was sort of behind my question about “extra-philosohical” influence regarding progress. In contrast to the Christian definition of allegory, which is tied to the figura, in the anticipatory, typological sense used by the Church Fathers, allegory , it seems to me, is best understood as introducing a mode of thinking that takes fragments of the past and rearranges them in regenerative/reinscriptive ways. This critical function, on the one hand, has the effect of retrieving overlooked aspects of history and tradition while rejecting the principles of unity and closure, and on the other, deconsecrating tradition by revealing it as an artificial construct. Hence, B’s interest in those “passageways” and arcades.

  14. Hi Shahar,

    I’m glad to see this discussion continue. First off, concerning this:

    So, philosophy (like the task of the translator) is thinking ideas in their very plurality. So, while the ideas of philosophy may be plural the number of them is finite, so from this perspective the history of philosophy shows that each generation is confronted by similar ideas.

    Yes, that’s sounds exactly right, and dovetails with Benjamin’s invocation of both monads (an entire universe seen from one perspective — as Rickert or Weber would say, from the accentuation or potentiation [Steigerung] of historical singularities that the attempt to establish particular value-relations achieves).

    This said though, I wonder whether truth is really multiple for Benjamin. I’m tempted to say, rather, that it’s simply inaccessible (‘truth’ is the death of intention — the death of value-relations, of monadic existence — and hence a transcendence of sorts, akin to the one an active nihilist might seek). I take this to be the heart of Benjamin’s erotics (his allegory of Eros and truth, which is not beautiful in itself, but only for the researcher, etc.), and perhaps also the difference between origin and genesis that you mention above.

    I was also wondering, shahar, if maybe you could elaborate a little more on your remarks concerning allegory. I’m not sure i see a substantive difference between Benjamin’s allegory and the figural fourfold of the church (literal, ethical/allegorical, analogical, anagogical) — save perhaps the emphasis on melancholia, which allows for a relativization of ‘mappings’ that’s foreign to the church.

  15. As per Benjamin and truth. Yes, I do see your point. I too am a bit hesitant to simply attribute the equation “truth is multiple” to Benjamin. That may be only half the story, or may have been “corrected” by the “later” Benjamin. I mean, if we think of truth in terms of “constellation” (which seems closer to what you are alluding to above) then various ideas are drawn together so that truth would be found in the lines drawn between the multiple points of reference. Sort of like how star works for Rosenzweig at the end of the _Star of Redemption_. It’s tricky, because as you note, on the one hand Benjamin views the desire for truth as fundamentally nostalgic yearning for an absolute that transcends all objects of knowledge while on the other hand, he often talks in terms of truth as “revelation”, e.g. non-intentional. Add to this Benjamin’s insistence-as you note–that philosophical discourse is in and of itself Eros, we’re back to a more interesting notion of remembrance/return to the original, or the primoridal phenomena (?) vis a vis language. And really, once we start pushing this with Benjamin onto our questions regarding progress and philosophy I think we keep coming back to what I take as B’s basic point regarding history or minimally, historical time: the originary data that constitute history are both unique and formulaic, and, irreversible and repeatable simultaneously. Hence the “mondadology” you note above. And I think this is a helpful way to understand philosophy and progress, really.

    As for B’s notion of allegory and Christian figura. I guess the main difference I see is that the latter is oriented towards the transcendence of another futural world. Benjamin jumps into the past in a more redemptive mode. Really, though, and I don’t have the time to unpack it here in detail so it’ll be rather a rather “quick and dirty” claim so I’ll be more “allusive” and “referential.” That said, let me note two major issues I have with Xtain figura.

    The first distinction that needs to be made between figura/allegory is that Benjamin, at least how I’m reading him (and really, do correct me if I’m off), adds what maybe (?) somewhere, perhaps Scholem (?) calls “messianic irony.” That is, the chasm between real/ideal gives way to messianic activity, not infinite deferal or resignation. Second, the Christian scheme (as I understand it) remains too tied to Plato’s Forms, that is, it assimilates itself into a weird form of Platonic hermeticism that contrasts greatly with Jewish aniconism, which I see running through Benjamin. At bottom, I think the difference is that the Christian figura is ontologized, allegory is “correlated” non-ontologically (this sensibility is visbile I think in the idea of constellations).

    I have to run, but thanks for the thoughtful comments, Alexei.

  16. This might be a random comment, but have either one of you guys ever encountered the work of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (I know he and Rosenzweig published a book of letters on Christianity and Judaism) – his monumental Out of Revolution book is on the history of revolutions and it’s written “backwards” from WWI to Gregorian revolution, it’s the strangest “history” book I’ve ever seen and I just got a Russian translation of it recently and it reminded me of our discussion on the history of philosophy – has anyone attempted to write a history of (western) philosophy backwards from say Derrida or Deleuze to Plato or to pre-Socratics? What would that history look like?

    • I’ve never come across Rosenstock-Hussey’s work. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it. I have to admit, though, the idea of writing history from the present backwards strikes me as interesting — but I’m ambivalent about it. Could you explain a little more about his actual approach Mikhail? I mean, I’ve seen films that work in this way (Irreversible springs to mind), and the upshot is always that the technical aspects of narrative and cinematography are forgrounded (i.e. the artifice and technique become visible in an interesting way). I’d wager that the same might be said for a backwards history.

      Shahar, Thanks for the clarification viz. allegory and figura. I ask only because (1) Philo of Alexandria was a proponent of allegoresis (letter and Spirit interpretation, etc), and (2) Auerbach’s literary history operates with a specific notion of figura. It turns out that Auerbach is closer to what you have in mind with the notion of allegory than Philo (or Porphry), since the ontological commitments of hellenic allegoresis aren’t quite the same as Auerbach’s figura (although the latter notion does have a discontinuous temporal/historical structure of prefigurement and fulfillment), which satisfies your point concerning

      history or minimally, historical time: the originary data that constitute history are both unique and formulaic, and, irreversible and repeatable simultaneously. Hence the “mondadology” you note above. And I think this is a helpful way to understand philosophy and progress, really.

      Anyway, that’s sorta how i tend to see the notion of history, historiography, and historical progress: a non-finalizable series of occupations and re-occupations of a finite number of basic ideas (originary sites) that reshapes the surrounding constellation of concerns/positions, etc to resolve a pressing — dare I say, existential? — problem that is in a very real sense extra-philosophical.

      To illustrate, one of the reasons Meillassoux is interesting is the re-occupation of a largely Cartesian metaphysics in response to a perceived threat concerning legitimacy of certain scientific procedures. In effect, ‘correlationism’ (whatever that may be, which I will forever abbreviate as WTMB) precipitates, selon Meillassoux, the ‘it’s just a theory among theories’ argument of ID and creationism. So we solve the problem by refunctionalizing another one….. IN other cases, like Object-Oriented philosophy, it’s not at all clear why a particular argument for substance or occasionalism is being made, and hence it’s hard to accept the attempt to re-occupy these positions.

  17. M.E.: “has anyone attempted to write a history of (western) philosophy backwards from say Derrida or Deleuze to Plato or to pre-Socratics? What would that history look like?”

    Kvond: One wonders if this is not what Derrida tries to write, the history of philosophy, from Plato to Derrida.

    • Isn’t that basically the case with most philosophers? A history of philosophy from Plato to X? As long as it’s not the history of philosophy, it’s fine with me, it’s rather entertaining, but how about doing it backwards?

  18. I’d say it’s more like Memento – still linear but backwards so only in the end we fully understand what was happening in the beginning. I guess the easiest way to explain it is to say that the book opens with a long discussion of the Russian revolution and slowly but surely shows what its relationship is to the French revolution which is discussed in the next chapter with an eye to the French revolution’s debt to the English revolution which comes next and so on. It’s sort of digging deeper and deeper as opposed to building up a building of history. R-H is a strange type though, I don’t know if I’d recommend him in terms of his ideas completely, it’s just an interesting approach…

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