Philosophy: destined to lick up its own vomit?


It seems like everybody wants to somehow mark the limits of philosophical thinking.  Historically, perhaps, this came from those who stood outside the reaches of philosophy. My students–especially the Christian fundies–always mock the pretensions of philosophers by rejecting the search for total knowledge even when I insist that philosophy is much humbler than that.  Reason, history, experience…philosophy are still at work, they’re just stripped down,  reworked, perhaps even a bit overmodest.  I don’t think anybody would begrudge that the impetus for encyclopeidac knowledge is passe, and certainly in the context of the last fifty or sixty years, the idea that we can make some sort of neat and progressive discovery based on some sort of grounding method used to seem so antiquated what with the talk of violence and metaphysics, geneaology, deconstruction, ordinary language, positivism, empiricism and on and on.   We do philosophical work and then seem to not know more than we know. “Reality is completely incomprehensible.” “I don’t even understand my own experience.”  Yet, nobody has really suggested we jump ship and move our desks into the math department (as Kant would have us do).  Philosophy’s impotence demands some sort of critical turn.  Since someone just told me that Hegel is coming back (did he ever leave?) into some sort of vogue it seems ironic for me to suggest that every since Hegel’s system philosophy has been recoiling, but at least it’s been recoiling in delight.  

A quick aside.  On my second day of graduate school one of the senior memebers in the department mocked me for mentioning Sartre and existentialism in my statement of purpose. To give you an idea of the context, I was also asked the day before by the same person if I was a foundationalist, if I liked aporetic thinking and offered up a litany of idiotic Derradese to show me how edgy he really was.  I just watched the documentary “Examined Life” and this exchange almost pushed its way through my eyes when I heard Avital Ronnell spout a bunch of stuff I think I understood (she mentioned transcendental signifiers and it was like hearing fucking Journey play on the radio, put the windows down and pump your fist in a fit of teary nostalgia for a certain time and place).  Anyway, it’s interesting that in the forefront of many discussions today is the relation between Being and Thought, the identity of which had been abandoned long ago.  By the way, my response to that senior member of the department was something stupid like “Well, the existentialists were obsessed with Hegel and I don’t think that any of this s0-called modern type of thinking completely gets swallowed up in so-called postmodern thinking, in fact, the “post” in postmodern is whining about the modern in the term postmodern.”

How odd that we have discovered a need to go back to the speculative moves of idealism in face of what almost seems like a bizarrely arbitrary epistemic humility.  That’s not to say that I think Kant’s transcedental move is wrong or I’m going to start bitching about anti-realist hegemony, correlationism and the like.  I’m pretty sure I’m some sort of correlationist, but the term has lost any sort of coherent meaning for me, as have moons and fingers.

I think the problem is that we don’t even know what philosophy is.  Or worse philosophy is the dog that eats his own vomit, the snake that eats itself, etc etc.

Again, I keep coming back to Rosenzweig.  The opening pages of The Star of Redemption offers us a virtually unimaginable, purely speculative framework.  Rosenzweig sought, in the Star, to reform logic to allow for the multiplicity of autonomous, hmmm..a tricky word, or rather (maybe better), free individuals.  That is, an escape hatch from the totalizing logic of particular/universal. Rosenzweig, as I see it, was after a logic that could unpack the contingency for ethical, metaphysical and theological relations. I think that Rosenzweig’s conceptual framework (indebted to Schelling) offers us something today, what with our sticky entanglement with speculative philosophy (and as it would seem, idealism).  It’s Rosenzweig, I believe, that does justice to the problem I mentioned above, of thinking critically about what it is we don’t know, or “knowing” what we don’t know, as it were. This emphasis on limitations was certainly picked up by the likes of Derrida (and of course, Kant), but Rosenzweig gives us some insight about this residual entanglement with speculative philosophy and moreover, offers us some constructive observations on the very condition for this epistemic humility we’ve hung our hats on, e.g. for knowing we don’t know.  Rosenzweig, time and time again, insists on some sort of pure construction; what lies beyond the limits of thought will not be reliant on what lies within those limits.  This makes me want to read more Hermann Cohen. Rosenzweig, from what little I know of Cohen’s work on logic and mathematics, takes Cohen’s insistance on what for him can only be the real world:  a pure, rational construction of the actual world of scientific knowledge.  Cohen, as it is well known (I think) claimed to have actually created something out of nothing, but Rosenzweig is far more interested in what lies beyond the limts of thought. Rosenzweig’s motivating question, it seems to me, is a weird amalgamation of Kant and Schelling: How can we know that we don’t know something?

The opening lines of Franz Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption:

From death, it is from the fear of death that all cognition of the All begins.  Philosophy has the audacity to cast off the fear of the earthly, to remove from death its poisonous sting, from Hades his pestilential breath.

As much as I’d like to, I’m not going to rehash the whole of Rosenzweig’s introduction to the Star, but he reads the history of  philosophy, from Socrates to Nietzsche (though Nietzsche is able to take a step in the right direction, but ultimately is too much of a fanatic for Rosenzweig), as a type of suicide.  As Rosenzweig sees it,  Plato chose to avoid facing fear of death by refusing the materiality of life by positing an Ideal reality, or a accomplishing a system, the completion of which would fully deny death as it would be quite literally, nothing. Death is flushed out of the system because properly it could have no place in the system.  Such other-worldliness –suggests Rosenzweig–permeates the whole of philosophy.  Philosophy seems to always be in some sort of “crisis” or is always seeking to (re)define itself.  This makes perfect sense given the above. However, until it stops defining itself through what it refuses, we’ll never have arrived at a satisfactory definition of philosophy, how to philosophize and what philosophy should concern itself with (Pathetically–or awesomely–I’ve just quoted myself amost verbatim from the post I linked to above, I had only intended to get the opening lines of the Star, but I liked what I said below those lines so I’m leaving it).  If Rosenzweig is correct about philosophy and the fear of death, viz., that the fear of death is shoved so far up our asses, but we’ve never really admitted it, then philosophy is indeed the desire to know it all.  So, since Hegel this impetus has been thought and rethought in all sorts of different and rather self-reflecitve ways.   Rosenzweig, I would argue, allows us to mobilize the force of Kant’s critique of rationalism–a force that was derailed somewhat by speculative philosophy–in order to recover, discover or unearth the in-itself.

In his book, Concerning the Healthy and the Sick, Rosenzweig writes:

Common sense is in disrepute with philosohers.  Its usefulness is restricted to the buying of butter, the coursthip of a lady, or it may even be of help in determining the guilt of a man accused of stealing.  However, to decide what butter and woman and crime “essentially” are, is beyond its scope.  This is wehre the philosopher must enter and assume the burden of proof.  Such problems are beyond the reach of common sense…Where common proceeds in reckless haste, philosophy pauses and wonders…The philosopher can’t wait.  His kind of wonder does not differ from the wonder of others.  However, he is unwilling to accept the process of life and the passing of the numbness wonder has brought.  Such relief comes too slow.  He insists on a solution immediately–at the very instant of his being overcome–and at the very place wonder stuck him.  He stands quiet, motionless.  He separates his experience of wonder from the continuous stream of life, isolating it (39ff).

Rosenzweig turns to the grammar of everyday life: to traverse the alltag.  There is a certain affinity between Heidegger’s fundamental ontology and Rosenzweig’s turn to revelation.  Karl Lowith wrote somewhere that what separates Heidegger from Rosenzweig is the difference between “temporality and eternity.” Despite Heidegger’s starting point in the everyday or facticity, he’s too much of an idealist for Rosenzweig; Dasein is itself the task of thinking. This is too limiting for Rosenzweig’s “absolute empiricism.”  For Rosenzweig, the idea that a system of philosophy both be thought and also experienced is a rather seductive idea, I think.  Anway, some scattered thoughts about philosophy.

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