Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Is There an Art of Philosophy? Sloterdijk and an Alternative

It is a plausible idea that doing philosophy is a practice.  Peter Sloterdijk in his The Art of Philosophy (Columbia University Press, 2012) has said that theories would not exist without routines, which include "the reading and writing practiced by persons who do theory..." (12)  He also, interestingly, pushes the origins of this practice back to the tribal worship of idols.  After this point in his book Sloterdijk and I part ways since he is committed to pure thought of the sort advocated by Edmund Husserl, something that can be accomplished through the epoché, whereas my philosophical heroes include Dewey, Nietzsche, Gadamer and Rorty, all philosophers who rejected the very idea of pure thought.  (I have read that Sloterdijk is supposed to be an anti-dualist...but I can't see any evidence of that in this book.)  However, the idea of the importance of contemplation as a practice intrigues me, as I have increasingly come to see philosophy (both as reading and as writing) as tied to contemplation.  The next point will tie this in to aesthetics.

Sloterdijk observes that Husserl had written a letter in response to a lecture by poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1907, a lecture called "The Poet and Our Time" in which Hofmannsthal says of the poet that "He suffers from everything and in suffering he enjoys everything."  Husserl's response, recorded by Sloterdijk, seems like a superficial attempt to associate his own phenomenological method with Hofmannsthal's poetic method.  What interests me, however, is the contrast Sloterdijk makes between Husserl's approach to philosophy and that of Heidegger and the existentialists:  Husserl insisting that one bracket the natural attitude and not take positions (even about existence) while doing phenomenology whereas the existentialists holding that one cannot escape one's being-in-the-world.  Sloterdijk sees this as a choice, but I am not so sure it is.  Sloterdijk himself suggests that the epoché might be temporary.  Why not see it as part of a larger practice that involves both immersion and separation (at appropriate and separate moments or stages)?  Imagine that there is a way to make reading and writing a practice that involves contemplation but not complete monk-like detachment.  All that is required, really, is conviction that the essences of things are not to be found in some separate world but, in a more Aristotelian (and less Platonic) way, in the world itself, and even more specifically, in the world as a world-for-me, i.e. the world in which I am situated.  Contemplation, yes, and even detachment, but only so that one can see the things of one's world in a way that allows their essences-for-now and for-this-situation to emerge.  This would be consistent even with Husserl's idea of going back to the things-themselves, and even with Hofmannsthal's poetic impulse, but not I think with Sloterdijk's practice-dying philosopher.  

In his letter, Husserl said "Perception of a purely aesthetic work of art is achieved by strictly preventing the intellect from taking any existential position and preventing any reaction of feeling and will that presupposes such an existential response.  To put it more clearly, the work of art transfers us (and forces us) to the state of pure aesthetic intuition that excludes taking any position." This seems naive and unrealistic to me.  Nonetheless, questioning the taking of positions makes sense insofar as positions can be taken too seriously.  That is, Husserl is right (in a limited way) to criticize philosophers on taking positions.  Philosophers have often missed important points and valuably different perspectives by taking themselves and their positions too seriously.  Although I cannot accept the idea of "pure aesthetic intuition" I can the idea of an intuition that results from looking at things from a special off-centered way, from seeing them, for example, under a deep, living and innovative metaphor.  So, to make the point in Heideggerian-sounding (and thus a bit pompous) language:  we are speaking of Being emerging from the interstices of being:  truth (again, like Heidegger) happens here.  

This of course implies a different view of phenomenology than that of Sloterdijk.  He believes that "the best phenomenologist would be the most rigorous archivist" as though phenomenology would be simply a matter of collecting images ("mental photographs" he calls them) one apprehends in the state of pure vision.  Collecting is not the business of the philosopher, but rather reading, thinking, contemplating and writing, all organically connected in an ongoing process.  Moreover, the "displacement of the self" admired by Sloterdijk is not the goal, only one of many possible and temporary strategies.  Another strategy, equally useful, is to take a stand, to argue for a doctrine.  This too, should be temporary if a rich philosophical wisdom is to result.  One needs (I think) to be able to dance between skepticism and dogmatism (in the sense of taking a position, not in the sense of being dogmatic about it).  And this does not mean trying to use extreme skepticism to achieve absolute certainty, surely a mistaken approach to thinking advocated by Descartes.  

Here's the review I wrote of Sloterdijk's book for

The best I could say for this book is that it kept my attention to the end. Sloterdijk (in this book) is interesting if you take him to be doing a kind of intellectual history. He has managed to connect up several strands of a philosophical tradition that goes back to Socrates and extends to Husserl and that emphasizes the idea of philosophical detachment. Sloterdijk is especially taken with the idea of epoché  as found in Husserl's writings. I first studied Husserl under Maurice Natanson at UC Santa Cruz. Natanson treated the epoché as a kind of mystical thing: either you got it or you didn't. I had recently rejected Christianity and was not ready to take up another set of beliefs based on faith. Now, many years later, I find that Sloterdijk is presenting something similar. His efforts to recover pure thought and transcendent experience get sort of manic in the last chapter when he talks about various attempts to "assassinate" the neutral observer i.e. the one Husserl tried to create (or revive). The assassins include Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger (although the last one recanted after WWII), and then, get this, the nuclear bomb! I always did enjoy the passage in the Symposium where Socrates was lost in thought, but Sloterdijk makes a big deal of this, as also the idea that philosophy is practicing to die. Frankly, one cannot know what Socrates' contemplative moments gave him, and it is hard to make any sense at all of practicing to die unless you really believe in an afterlife or the possibility of complete detachment from the body. Readers who want to follow the vita contemplativa could get more out of the Zen Buddhist tradition which at least gives one various meditative practices tested over time. Sloterdijk just gives us intellectual history in the form of a series of bon mots and a lot of complaining. Although Sloterdijk insists that the epoché needs to be examined in neutral terms, by the end of the book one doesn't feel that this is the point, but rather that philosophers should detach themselves from life and try to become like angels. You have to be kidding! One is tempted to follow Nietzsche's Zarathustra here and classify this guy as one of the "preachers of death." There is a lot to the ideas of contemplation, philosophy as contemplation, and phenomenology, as long as one does not take this to be a science-like activity that gives up apodictic truths, i.e. as long as one takes it to be something more like an art. This is why I was attracted to this book originally: after all it was called "the art of philosophy." But that turns out to be a misnomer. The translator admits in the opening note that the original title was "Suspended Animation in Thought," which pretty much sums it up.  (One would think that suspended animation is exactly what one does not want in thought.) In my view, a much more effective thinker on the nature of thought is John Dewey, the great American pragmatist. Dewey would have been rightly horrified by a sentence like this: "Thinking creates an artificial autism that isolates the thinker and takes him to a special world of imperatively connected ideas." Autism is good?

No comments: