What is Reality? (2): Subject and Object

Veres SzabolcsBeginning with Descartes’ cogito, discussed last week, and later developed in intricate detail by Kant, the buffered self emerges by cleaving up existence into two halves: subjects (the cogito, mind), and objects (the world around us, matter). That this philosophy has been successful is an understatement: almost everyone today can distinguish between what is subjective and what is objective, and most associate subjectivity with either personal experience or with error, and objectivity with factuality and truth. It is against this mythos that my recent philosophy argues, offering a different understanding of objectivity, and thus a different perspective on the subjective.

Both of the competing mythologies outlined in the first part, positivism and anti-realism, descend from this Enlightenment philosophy, which is responsible, among other things, for providing the contemporary sciences with their foundations and motives, and for dividing academia into arts and sciences. Positivism elevates objectivity above subjectivity, placing the truth entirely into the objective and thus valorising the sciences. Anti-realism is not the reverse of this, but picks up a different strand in Kant, who recognised that there was a rift between subjective experience and things-in-themselves, such that human subjects are cut off from reality because this noumenal world of objects (as Kant termed it) is completely unknowable through sense perception.

All contemporary views of reality respond to Kant in some way. For instance, object-oriented ontology positions itself as a substantial break from Kant who is accused of correlationism. This is a purported error that speculative realist Quentin Meillassoux characterised as the idea that we only have access to the correlation between thought and being, but never to either considered in isolation. According to Graham Harman, whose work is the wellspring of the object-oriented ontology movement, objects are withdrawn from one another; the Kantian rift between subject and object thus applies between all objects, not just human subjects, a philosophy he develops from Heidegger. Nothing has access to the real, which is always beyond the rift (a term that I am borrowing here from object-oriented ontologist Timothy Morton).

This is a fascinating attempt to break from both anti-realism (by decentralising the thinking subject) and positivism (by keeping the real always out of reach), but it is clearly a sophisticated extension of Kantian noumena, and not a break from it. Reality is still just-out-of-reach for the object-oriented ontologists, it is just that it is so for everything, and not just for humans. Reality is cloaked in obscurity, and thus the only kind of realism that is plausible must find clever ways to speculate (hence, speculative realism). There is an excess of the real, always beyond reach, and this limitation on access to reality applies for all things. 


Contact with Reality

At the turn of the twentieth century, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was struggling to incorporate the new discoveries of physics (relativity and quantum mechanics) into a philosophy of reality, and modified Kant in a different way. Reworking Kant’s foundational Critique of Pure Reason, Whitehead suggested that all entities encounter each other through a process of contact he termed prehension. When you put an apple upon a table, the apple prehends the table and the table prehends the apple, while you prehend both through your hand and vision.

Whitehead was an influence upon Harman, and in Whitehead’s extension of Kant’s philosophy to all things, we can see the commonality. But Whitehead offers the opposite move to expanding the Kantian rift, suggesting that our sense experiences are objective, and that subjectivity only comes in when we interpret those experiences into subjective forms. Again, we’re working with Kant’s toolbox, but Whitehead’s claim that sense impressions are objective is a radical break since it downplays the importance of the rift.

Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor look to Heidegger for a very different path to Harman’s. If object-oriented ontology has correlationism as its bugbear, for Dreyfus and Taylor it is mediational theories, which all descend from Descartes’ splitting of the world into subject and object. Against this, they suggest that Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the later work of Wittgenstein suggest a contact theory in which there is:

…a re-embedding of thought and knowledge in the bodily and social-cultural contexts in which it takes place. The attempt is to articulate the framework or context within which our explicit depictions of reality make sense, and to show how this is inseparable from our activity as the kind of embodied, social, and cultural beings we are. The contact here is… something primordial, something we never escape. It is the contact of living, active beings, whose life form involves acting in and on a world which also acts on them. These beings are at grips with a world and each other; this original contact provides the sense-making context for all their knowledge constructions, which, however much they are based on mediating depictions, rely for their meaning on this primordial and indissoluble involvement of the surrounding reality.

Like Whitehead, Dreyfus and Taylor downplay the significance of the rift. They, however, run into problems when they try to incorporate the work of the sciences into their scheme, and are forced to afford scientific investigation a rather special status when they say “You can't explain [science] to anyone while avoiding all such words as ‘true,’ ‘correct,’ ‘real,’...” This for me, as for other commentators on their book Retrieving Realism (e.g. Eric Gerlach), is a substantial weak point in their otherwise brilliant critique of mediational theories.

In Wikipedia Knows Nothing, I back Dreyfus and Taylor’s contact theories of reality – we, and indeed all things, are in contact with the reality we live within – but I resolve the question of the sciences through Isabelle Stengers’ concept of a reliable witness. The sciences are engaged in translation of the knowledge of objects – it is this which deserves the name objective knowledge, and viewed this way it entails no magical road to truth (as Plato effectively claimed philosophers possessed, and positivists sometimes imply scientists possess). The strength of the sciences lie in their capacity to develop apparatus that resist objections, and this is subtly different from understanding their assertions as real or true.

If we are all in contact with the realities we live within, but different things prehend each other in different ways, then we live in a multiverse, an idea offered by William James at the end of the nineteenth century; an each-form of reality, instead of an all-form. Dreyfus and Taylor talk of plural realism to make a similar point, and I have developed the same idea from the work of novelist Michael Moorcock (from whom the physicists inherited the term ‘multiverse’ in a rather different sense). Rather than associating reality with that excess beyond anything’s ability to encounter, we can place reality right here with us, in contact with all things, yet being experienced differently, and yes, ultimately mediated by imagined worlds – but worlds that can only be understood by virtue of our living within them.

Viewing reality as a multiverse does not mean denying any claim of the real, as anti-realism attempts, but acknowledging the different ways of being in contact with reality. It means acknowledging different real worlds instead of making reality a grail that it always just out of reach. If this feels alien, it is because we are accustomed to the modern scheme of belief and reality, subject and object, which presumes – following the long tradition descending from Plato – a single true universe, a unitary reality. Kant’s rift between this and the subject, whether or not it is extended to all things, is not incorrect, it just places the emphasis in the wrong place. Yes, there is an excess of the real, but it is just as much present in the different contact that all things have with reality as it is hidden beyond them.

For more about what it means to live in a multiverse, my new book Wikipedia Knows Nothing is available from ETC Press as a free PDF, or from Lulu as a paid paperback or ebook.

The opening image is a painting by Romanian artist Veres Szabolcs; I am uncertain of the title, but I found it here, on a list of emerging painters at the Modern Edition website. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

What is Reality? (1): Belief and Reality

The EncounterThe science fiction novelist Phillip K. Dick suggested that “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” This seems like an eminently sensible suggestion. It might be surprising to realise, therefore, that it encodes a perspective on reality that emerges in the philosophy of Plato some two millennia ago, and receives new codification in the last few centuries by Descartes and Kant. Given that the concept of reality has in effect been constructed by these philosophers, should we be cautious about thinking that questions of reality are merely matters of common sense?

Dick’s adage contrasts belief and reality, suggesting in effect two key relationships between the two: belief in reality, which is marked by nothing being changed in the world by that belief, and belief against reality, which is marked by creating something that is not real and that which thus disappears when it is no longer believed. Note that core to this understanding is not reality, which is admitted to be a blurred affair in this conception, but belief.

The twentieth century was marked not by challenges to this model of reality, but by ethical conflicts over the meaning of beliefs. On the one hand, the early twentieth century positivists proposed that we ought not engage in belief against reality since it is nonsense, a simple and honourable position sadly elevated to a cultural war by certain atheists at the century’s close. On the other, various kinds of anti-realists proposed that we ought to recognise that reality is constructed by belief, and thus ‘belief in reality’ is nonsense, a position taken by positivists as anti-scientific (and therefore wrong, both morally and practically).

What both positions have in common is that they are both modern, which is to say, they are a product of the philosophical changes wrought in Europe in the Reformation era (16th century) and by the Enlightenment (18th century), which bequeath us ‘the modern age’. One of the most fascinating things about early twenty first century philosophy is its obsession with creating distance from the modern, an ethos captured beautifully in Bruno Latour’s book title We Have Never Been Modern. If we want to understand reality – and thus see beyond the juxtaposition of ‘belief versus reality’ – we have to see where modern reality comes from, and also take stock of where it might be going.


The Porous Self in an Enchanted World

There was no reality prior to the modern era. It is not until the 1540s that the term was used to mark the quality of real, and a century later before it was first used to mean ‘everything that is real’. Prior to this, there was no such term in usage, nor any particular need for it. This can be a difficult idea to absorb since ‘reality’ is a central concept to our time, and it can be hard to imagine what came before.

In his epic work, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explores the changes in our understanding of the world over the last five centuries, and provides an extremely detailed description of the European mythos immediately prior to the modern era. At the core of this is the notion of a porous self in an enchanted world, where the influence of spirits and things-with-power is a lived experience. This is a markedly different understanding to the distinction between self and world (mind and matter) that originates in Descartes. Taylor writes of this time:

..the boundary between agents and forces is fuzzy in the enchanted world; and the boundary between mind and world is porous, as we see in the way that charged objects can influence us… The porousness of the boundary emerges here in the various kinds of “possession”, all the way from a full taking over of the person, as with a medium, to the various kinds of domination by, or partial fusion with, a spirit or God. Here again, the boundary between self and other is fuzzy, porous. And this has to be seen as a fact of experience, not a matter of “theory”, or “belief”.

Here we have a way of being in the world that entails an intense vulnerability, and a corresponding anxiety. Dark magic and unseen spirits could enter into a person and change them, affect them, creating a need for protection from such influence. Thus, villages were grateful to the clergy for keeping a holy relic, since the power and influence of that item would suffuse the entire region, offering everyone living nearby some measure of protection. This is the essence of the porous self concept that Taylor back-projects from our own utterly contrary understanding of ourselves.

What happens immediately prior to the Enlightenment, and largely as a result of the philosophy of Descartes, is the emergence of a kind of buffered self that has no such permeability, and this in turn leads to what Max Weber in the nineteenth century calls the “disenchantment of the world”. Descartes work is itself part of a lineage of philosophy and theology, and inherits important influences from Augustine’s work, which (Taylor explains in The Sources of the Self) cross-bred Plato’s vision of cosmic order and reason with Jewish theism. It is Augustine, Taylor attests, who introduces an inwardness of our reflexivity, and this leads to Descartes’ ‘cogito ergo sum’, I think therefore I am.

Descartes’ cogito, the individual mind, emerges from Descartes’ commitment to doubt everything, to discard all belief and then attempt to rebuild on sure foundations. This radical thorough-going doubt is very different from Plato’s philosophy, but takes from it a division into a true world ‘outside’ and an experience of the shadow of that world, now placed ‘inside’ a mind. Descartes radical doubt gives us the contemporary sciences, and thus the positivism that undermines belief, which is a great irony since Descartes was a dedicated theist and thought his philosophy was providing an ultimate proof to the reality of God.

Once the mind is severed from reality, as Descartes effectively pioneered, we gain the new concept of a buffered self that is not subjected to the porous influence of dark or holy forces around us. Instead, we gain a subject, and against it, the objects that it perceives. In this modern view, which we have inherited, our individual self is not vulnerable in the way the medieval mythos entailed since an insurmountable gap has been opened up between us, and the world around us. It is this gap that is required to make sense of the concept of reality.

Next week, the final part: Subject and Object

The opening image is The Encounter by Curtis Verdun, which I found here on his website, Art by Abstraction. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Wikipedia Knows Nothing - Out Now!

What does the Wikipedia know, and how can it know it? More to the point, how can anyone using an anonymously edited source, the contents of which change on a daily basis, know that what they are reading constitutes knowledge? In this provocative challenge to contemporary concepts of objectivity, four figures of knowledge – the Wikipedia, scientific experiments, anonymous peer review, and school education – are investigated in order to question the way we understand the world around us.

Rather than support the classical view of an objective world 'out there' that our beliefs must accord with in order to count as knowledge, Wikipedia Knows Nothing argues that all facts are the residue of skilled activities and that knowledge is better understood as a practice. Furthermore, rather than a single 'real world', the many worlds that we each live within form a multiverse about which our subjective knowledge-practices give us broader understandings than the objective knowledge produced by experimental apparatus.

The merit of the sciences doesn't lie in their possessing the only path to truth, but in their capacity to develop knowledge-practices that can resist objections across all worlds. This leads to an urgent need to recognise the role of practices in creating and maintaining knowledge, and the different ways that truth can be stitched together into distinct but non-contradictory patchworks of 'real worlds'. When we do, we must question any claim that knowledge can come from anonymous individuals exercising an unchecked power to silence others – whether this happens on the internet in wikis, or in professional academic discourse.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

Purchase Print or eBook from Lulu.com, or Download for free.

Cross-posted from ETC Press.

Top Ten Incredible Philosophy Books No-one Recommends (3): The Top Five

Following last week’s background to the Top Ten, and Numbers 10 through 6, here are the final five books in the countdown of obscurity.


5. Max Stirner The Ego and its Own (1844)

16,200-18,300 hits
Nominated by J. Moesgaard

Stirner The Ego and His OwnThe last of the nominated books to clear 10,000 hits, Moesgaard remarks that it is “largely unknown but a fantastic rejection of ideology in favour of radical personal freedom.” The introduction to the first English language edition of the book in 1907 goes further than this, and remarks that “the memory of Max Stirner had been virtually extinct for an entire generation.” Stirner, however, warrants an entry in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (if not the IEP), which stresses the tremendous influence of this text upon Karl Marx’s thought. Sometimes viewed as a precursor to Nietzsche, the lasting impact of this particular book seems to have been upon contemporary anarchist thought, which has adopted it as a key text in part because of Stirner’s suggestion that the rise of egoism would ultimately result in the collapse of the State. This particular prediction seems to be in error, but Stirner’s text still has much to offer those who would side with him in considering the State apparatus an illegitimate institution.


4. Alasdair MacIntyre Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990)

6,710-8,510 hits
Nominated by Chris Bateman

MacIntyre Three Rival VersionsThis is the book that inspired this whole whimsical endeavour, and it’s the youngest title in the countdown at a mere 26 years old. MacIntyre is one of those folks that people like to say is ‘arguably the greatest living philosopher’, although this perspective is largely espoused from inside the Catholic church that Scottish-born MacIntyre defected to in the early 1980s. The book of his that is unanimously recommended is After Virtue, which is unfortunate as Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry is a deeper, wider, and less polemic title. Not only the single best commentary on Nietzsche and Foucault’s work, it’s also a flawless exposition of how their philosophy utterly undermined the foundations of the Victorian encyclopaedia – not to mention a text with profound implications for epistemology and the contemporary university. Skip the five chapters explaining the history of Christian philosophy in the 13th and 14th century if you cannot bear such things and it’s still an incredible response to the genealogical and encyclopaedic perspectives of knowledge. Include them, and you have a book that profoundly reconfigures contemporary preconceptions about just about everything.


3. José Ortega y Gasset What is Philosophy? (1929)

2,630-5,170 hits
Nominated by Judith Stout

Ortega What is PhilosophyOrtega is far from an unknown figure in Spanish philosophy, and the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has an article on his life and work. However, his prolific writings make it hard for any single work to stand out from the crowd. This title was adapted from his lectures and suggests that philosophy is “the radical study of the whole universe”, while aligning his work closely to that of Heidegger. Indeed, Ortega remarks that “to live is to find oneself in the world”, adding: “Heidegger, in a very recent work of genius, has made us take notice of all the enormous significance of these words.” In Ortega’s perspective, the sciences provide a detailed analysis of aspects of things, but their specialist methodologies preclude them from dealing with universals. Philosophy, on the other hand, is also a specialist, but at the other extreme; thus Ortega paradoxically declares that “the philosopher is also a specialist, a specialist in universes.” Unafraid of metaphysics, Ortega provides in What is Philosophy? a passionate and unflinching defence of the work of philosophers.


2. John Gall Systemantics (1975)

3,490-3,840 hits
Nominated by Bart Stewart

Gall.SystemanticsAlthough not a philosopher by either training or attribution, John Gall’s text (originally entitled General Systemantics) has profound implications for anyone pondering the functioning of all systems great and small. The short book focuses upon the way that systems fail, and contains with it what has come to be termed ‘Gall’s Law’: “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked… A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work.” The book is structured around 32 axioms, somewhat mimicking the form of more heavyweight philosophy tomes, but remains readable throughout. If this is outside of the typical considerations of academic philosophy, it remains an illuminating (and amusing!) meditation on the failures that inevitably result from applying grandiose theories at too gargantuan a scale.


1. Gerd Buchdahl Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science (1969)

2,050-3,280 results
Nominated by Michael Pereira

Buchdahl Metaphysics and the Philosophy of ScienceHere, at the bottom of our Marianas Trench of philosophical obscurity lies Gerd Buchdahl, the first lecturer in history and philosophy of science at Cambridge. In this vast tome, subtitled The classical origins: Descartes to Kant, Buchdahl dismantles any suggestion that philosophy is without practical implication, and shows the intimate interconnectivity between the empirical sciences and the work of the Enlightenment philosophers. Michael Power, one of Buchdahl’s students, writes in a retrospective on the book that its “unremarkable title belies its dazzling mixture of analytical and historical insight.” Here is a text that, Powers attests, renders the often inscrutable topic of metaphysics as “a project with heart and excitement”. Buchdahl, who died in 2001, remained resolute that the sciences benefited from their exchanges with philosophy, writing in 1962 that “a critical approach to the history of science will do well to avail itself of the results of philosophical scholarship”. He left as his legacy the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, which remains the leading publication in that particular field.


More nonsense soon!

Top Ten Incredible Philosophy Books No-one Recommends (2): From 10 to 6

Following yesterday’s background to this Top Ten, here are the first five books in the countdown of obscurity.


10. Maurice Blondel’s Action (1893)

211,000-426,000 hits
Nominated by Greg Sadler

Blondel L'ActionTo say that I was surprised by the search engine results for this one was an understatement, and I began to wonder if the results were skewed by the simplicity of the book’s title. While that might be the case, there is still tremendous discussion of this text out on the internet, although it is no way considered a standard text in phenomenology, existentialism, or deconstruction, all of which could be gainfully compared to Blondel’s work. Action was Blondel’s fiercely-contested doctoral thesis, and provides a philosophy of action that breaks substantially with the rationalist currents of Kant and other Enlightenment philosophers. Blondel claims “action is that synthesis of willing, of knowing, and of being, the link of the human composite that one cannot separate without destroying everything that has been deunited.” The obscurity of the book in philosophy circles is inverted in its importance in French theology, and Sadler’s Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy page for Blondel (which was the top hit) stresses its influence in forming the “New Theology” that influenced the Second Vatican Council.


9. Ludwig Wittgenstein Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)

180,000-290,000 hits
Nominated by Benjamin E. Hardisty

Wittgenstein TractatusThere’s an irony to this appearing in the list, since I had originally given it as an example of a book that overshadows others by its author. But there is a very real sense in which Hardisty is correct to nominate this: despite its huge importance for twentieth century philosophy, almost no-one now recommends reading the Tractatus. In part, this is because the significance for this text has radically changed over the last century. Whereas Wittgenstein’s mentor at Cambridge, Bertrand Russell, considered this to be an essential advance in understanding philosophy, it has gradually come to be recognised that Wittgenstein’s own view of this book was radically different, a point I briefly explore in Wikipedia Knows Nothing. Another significant issue with the Tractatus is the sheer difficulty of the text, which makes even Heidegger seem straightforward.


8. Robert Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)

172,000-192,000 hits
Nominated by Adrian Voce

Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcyle MaintenanceIt’s certainly the case that few if any philosophers recommend this book, although Pirsig’s narrative has been hugely popular ever since its first publication. Espousing a ‘metaphysics of quality’, Pirsig is not especially involved with Zen (or Ch’an) Buddhism, but rather in a distinction between “romantic understanding” and “classical understanding”, which is sometimes compared to Nietzsche’s split between Apollonian and Dionysian. This is the highest selling title in this Top Ten (indeed, the highest selling philosophy book of all time), having shipped more than 5 million copies, and also holds the world record for greatest number of publisher-rejections, at 121. While it scarcely qualifies as a candidate for a ‘library of forgotten knowledge’, it is resolutely exiled from academic philosophy, where it is never recommended. Neither the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy nor the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy mention it once.


7. Herbert Marcuse One-Dimensional Man (1964)

60,400-79,500 hits
Nominated by Stefano Gualeni

Marcuse One-Dimensional ManNow the search engine hits are beginning to recede, and we proceed more convincingly into our deep dive into publishing obscurity. Marcuse’s book, subtitled Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, is another text (like Blondel’s Action) that is well-read, but only in a particular context, in this case the ‘New Left’. But this is a book not just for Marxists, and its critique of “one-dimensional thought” offers palpable rejections of twentieth century linguistic philosophy, philosophy of science, and social science. In his retrospective upon this book, Ronald Aronson, a student of Marcuse, declares that it “teaches us that we need to slow down in making our assessments”, and suggests Marcuse’s thought still possesses revolutionary potential.


6. Georges Bataille Theory of Religion (1973)

30,900-43,600 hits
Nominated by Will H.

Bataille Theory of ReligionWe have still not reached the depths of the truly obscure, but we are far from the well-trodden paths of philosophy now. Bataille’s provocative and challenging book, a slender volume of little more than a hundred pages, presents religion as a search for a lost intimacy, and recognises that life can be affirmed through destruction. Despite its short length, it is often viewed as a difficult read, which perhaps accounts for the lack of any clear critical consensus upon it. One of it’s core idea is that an animal exists in the world “like water in water”, whereas humans develop an awareness of mind that severs them from this state of being. Religion, in Bataille’s view, is an attempt to recapture this pure immanence. Clearly influenced by both Nietzsche and Durkheim, Bataille himself seems to have viewed this text as a radical reworking of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. He never got further than drafting it during his lifetime, and it was published posthumously.


Next Week, the Final Part: The Top Five

Top Ten Incredible Philosophy Books No-one Recommends (1): Prelude

Dusty TomesWhich amazing books of philosophy are the ones that hardly anyone suggests people read? That idle thought set me down a path that culminates in the Top Ten list that begins tomorrow, and concludes next week.

The Top Ten is a cheap trick, a means of adding the vicarious thrill of competition to what would otherwise be just a list. But as it happens, the list itself is also an artifice, a simple game that lures us in by evoking our curiosity. Whatever the number of items in the list, and whether or not it is ordered, we become tempted by the list whenever we think we might know something that might appear. This confession, that at root what I am doing here is something of a subterfuge, belies my motive for undertaking this exercise. For I am not interested in clickbait so much as I am motivated to find ways to render discussion of philosophy into forms with a modicum of popular appeal. Hence the Top Ten.

As for its subject matter, it emerges from the wonderful yet tragic predicament of the reader of books in our time: we have more books than anyone can possibly read, a situation I lamented in Crisis in the Infinite Library. This thought was fresh in my mind as I finished reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, and it struck me that this was a text no-one I knew of had ever recommended reading, despite it’s incredible reflections upon our contemporary academic situation. That’s because the book by MacIntyre everyone recommends is After Virtue (which, for context, would have been #9 in the Top Ten, if it had been nominated). I began to wonder: how many other incredible philosophy books are there that no-one is recommending?

I asked for nominations primarily on Twitter and Google+, and referred people to the blog post For a Library of Forgotten Knowledge for the terms and conditions, taking the title of the post from a remark that Babette Babich made in response to my enquiries. I never got a nomination from her, alas, but she made this remark in connection to the practical limitations I was imposing:

…a list of forgotten books cannot be limited. There are bookshelves full of overlooked studies. Each a world, each worth the attention required to read it. But there are topics we like, and topics we don't...

I could not agree more – but the task I had set myself was to produce a Top Ten, primarily because I have been somewhat neglecting my task of ‘popularising philosophy’ recently, and so wanted to do something that was at least ostensibly ‘popular’.

In a move that rather blindsided me, Terrance Blake nominated Babich’s book The Hallelujah Effect... This one has been on my reading list for a while, but became even more interesting in the light of Blake’s capsule review that the book was an “excellent treatise on neuro-power, psycho-power, and noo-power.” However, incredible or not, it seemed cruel to me to include so recent a publication in a countdown of philosophical obscurity. If it had qualified for inclusion, it would have been #2 in the list i.e. extremely obscure, but as I codified the rules I took the precaution of excluding books that weren’t at least twenty years old. A recent publication, I hope and trust, is still being mulled. What I was hoping to focus upon was texts that had already become somewhat lost... 

Steadily, slowly, I acquired a set of 12 nominations (including my own nomination of MacIntyre), and to judge their obscurity – since there was no even remotely plausible way to parameterise their incredibleness! – I generated the range of search engine hits based on an exact-title match plus an author name field. I have taken the midpoint of this range of values as the ‘obscurity score’ of the book, so that #1 is the most obscure, and #10 is the least. The list has a number of peculiar qualities, but I feel these add to its charm. In particular, it contains things that some people will feel are not in any way obscure. This, if nothing else, effectively calibrates the exercise.

Two nominations didn’t make the list, of course, since it was capped to ten. These were #11, Richard Bach’s Illusions (nominated by Brenda Holloway) and #12, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (nominated by Lee Douglas). These pulled in well over 346,000 and 444,000 hits respectively. Some of the books you see in this list might not seem to qualify as philosophy, but I was open in my criteria in this regard: as long as the nominator felt it was a work of philosophy, I allowed it. I have no interest in erecting a boundary fence around whatever ‘legitimate philosophy’ might be… what I wanted to do was explore obscurity in philosophical writing, and I have thoroughly enjoyed my adventures in doing so.

The first half of Top Ten Incredible Philosophy Books No-one Recommends, charting the nominations from least obscure to the most, begins tomorrow, with the concluding part next week. Hope you enjoy the ride!

Tomorrow: From 10 to 6

With especial thanks to Babette Babich, Terence Blake, Lee Douglas, Stefano Gualeni, Will H., Benjamin E. Hardisty, Brenda Holloway, J. Moesgaard, Michael Pereira, Greg Sadler, Bart Stewart, Judith Stout, and Adrian Voce.

For a Library of Forgotten Philosophy

Old BooksLooking for nominations for “Incredible Philosophy Books No-one Recommends”, for a future piece here at Only a Game looking at texts outside the mainstream corpus of philosophy. These could be great books by obscure philosophers, or they could simply be overshadowed masterpieces by well-known philosophers that get overlooked because other texts have become standard (for instance, Wittgenstein’s On Certainty is massively overshadowed by the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations).

Please focus on books at least twenty years old, as younger philosophy books are still earning their stripes, and I’d be grateful if the books in question had an English translation too. Popular bestsellers are also rather beside the point, of course. Other than that, anything that sits outside the usual philosophy curriculum is a welcome nomination.

Suggestions by comment here, or by reply in Twitter, will be gratefully received.

With thanks to Babette Babich for the title of this post.


Update: nominations are now closed. The countdown begins Monday 25th July.

Prezi: Cyberfetish and the World of Tomorrow

For those of you who have brought a suitable device to the Red Gallery (or for interested souls not able to make it to the Futurism v Fatalism event), here is my Prezi for my presentation Cyberfetish and the World of Tomorrow so you can explore it with me:

Click the button to start the Prezi, then use the arrows (or arrow keys) to advance the slides, or you can explore the content freely by zooming in and out and dragging the canvas. I also recommend using the button in the bottom right to put it into full screen. You can also view it over at the Prezi website by following this link for the Cyberfetish and the World of Tomorrow Prezi.

Wherefore Philosophy? Whence Emotions?

An open letter to Chris Billows responding to his blog-letter Depths, Mirrors, and Mine Detectors at The Journals of Doc Surge as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Further replies welcome!

Kwang Ho Shin paintingDear Chris,

A particularly disturbing aspect of the era in which we live is the certainty with which some people admit to not understanding something, but then confidently dismiss or condemn it. We have taken to using a suffix derived from the Greek ‘phobos’ – fear – to describe such hatred... homophobia, Islamaphobia and so forth. The arguments against such reactions, which it seems really do involve fear, tend to invoke our ideals of diversity, a move that cannot work in practice and tends to lead to what I have called intolerant tolerance – the hatred of haters.

What a muddle we have all made of things! So it is that you yourself can claim a commitment to diversity, then pour scorn on the practitioners of an entire discipline who are “missing the boat”, engage in activities that are “complicated, prescriptive, and arcane”, “limited” and that amounts to “mental masturbation”. Wow – can’t help but wonder why you would want a discourse with me at all given such a terrible assessment! Joking aside, your phobosophy is not really your unique possession, but in fact a structural problem of our time – one well worth examining. (Doesn’t it seem like it should be ‘philophobia’? But that would be ‘fear of love’, which would be a very different problem!) If you genuinely want to make diversity your ideal, you need to understand how this rejection of philosophy undermines rather than supports your position, and for that I would first have to offer a different image of philosophy.

Hence the first question that heads this letter: ‘Wherefore philosophy?’, meaning ‘What is the purpose or reason for philosophy?’ And here we need to begin by clearing up the confusion we have created around the difference between a person’s philosophy and the discipline (or disciplines) of philosophy. For Brian Eno is correct that you can’t avoid doing philosophy, and thus everybody does it – although often badly. And unfortunately being a philosopher does not necessarily mean that you can help people with their philosophy, in part because of the insane specialisation that infects academia today, which has emerged from the formalisation of the sciences. It can indeed seem that academic philosophy is a waste of time – but that’s also true of a lot of scientific research, which oddly is rarely accused of this. And this points to the first of three crises of contemporary philosophy.

The first crisis is that ever since the sciences split from philosophy there has been a tendency to see this division as making philosophy redundant, instead of seeing that as well as continuing what was once called ‘natural philosophy’, scientists have begun doing other kinds of philosophy badly. Let’s call this the counter-philosophy revolt – the desire to tear down what philosophers do, and to fail to recognise what is replacing it. Secondly, in response to the revolt, philosophers have increasingly allied with those voices in positivism (i.e. elevation of the sciences) most hostile to philosophy, perhaps thinking aiding the sciences is now the only worthwhile task philosophy can perform. Call this collaboration. Lastly, and crucially, philosophy is assumed (as you say) to “make claims to provide a deeper understanding about life and its problems” – call this the authority on life problem.

I take your core complaint to be that philosophy is a poor guide for life if it ignores the emotions. My rebuttal has two elements. Firstly, why would you think philosophy ignores the emotions? In my experience, it is solely the collaborators who fall prey to this. Secondly, why would you think studying philosophical problems would grant authority at all? Perhaps the single greatest achievement of Modern Philosophy (a period, incidentally, that ended about a century ago) was the invention of autonomy, and thus our potential liberation from all centralised claims to authority, like that of the Christian church you criticised two letters ago, or the alleged authority of a rather nebulous thing called ‘Science’ invoked by counter-philosophy.

There may be no better place to start than looking at where contemporary ideas about emotions come from – namely Modern Philosophy. Hence the second part of my title: ‘Whence emotions?’


The Passions of Philosophers Past

Both Modern Philosophy and the word ‘emotion’ begins in the 17th century with Descartes. There is not a single philosopher in this era who views the emotions – or, as they are more commonly known at this time, ‘the passions’ – as anything less than an indispensable element of human life. It is Descartes’ 1649 Passions of the Soul that gives us the first systematic study of what we now call the emotions, although that particular word (which Descartes coined) meant little more than ‘motion’ (i.e. movement) at the time. Other terms in use in this century include ‘affect’ (particularly with Spinoza) and ‘sentiment’ (especially among British philosophers). As for the passions, this term was often reserved for those ‘violent’ feelings that were either particularly agitated or unresponsive to reason.

Questions about our emotional lives were the exclusive purview of philosophers at this time, since ‘science’ was just a synonym for ‘knowledge’, and (as I already noted) what we would call ‘science’ was known then as ‘natural philosophy’. A good half of Spinoza’s monumental Ethics in 1675 is concerned with defining and categorising the ‘affects’ and contemplating the possibility of freedom, discussions that obviously built upon Descartes. Spinoza, however, denied we could gain control over our passions – an argument that in many respects lives on today – and had a rather low opinion of every feeling more extreme than the kind of moderate joy that comes from being active. It is Spinoza who first puts reason and the passions into opposition, a tendency than many today – you included – have inherited.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, the Scottish philosopher (and incorrigible wag) David Hume offered an even more refined account of the passions, which he divided into ‘calm’ and ‘violent’ passions while noting that even calm passions can be strong and violent passions can still be weak. His most innovative idea in this respect may be to suggest that the passions are what motivates all our actions, and that reason would be impossible without them. His infamous remark that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” is still widely discussed today. In addition to his own substantial contributions to philosophy, Hume has the distinction of inspiring Kant, who famously described this experience as being wakened from his “dogmatic slumber”.

At the close of the eighteenth century, Kant develops an anthropology that has three different terms for what we would now call emotions. Two of them – affects and passions – are judged as hindrances, entailing a lack of morality and a motivation towards ‘evil’ respectively. Yet the third, feelings, are viewed as an aid to moral thinking, and indeed conducive to virtuous living. Despite the popular view of Kant as emotionally repressive, he continues the general tradition of Modern Philosophy in holding our emotional constitution essential to a life well-lived.


Logical Seduction

So if Modern Philosophy did not, as you erroneously alleged, exclude our emotional lives from importance – and, indeed, placed great value upon this side of being – where did it all go wrong? A full answer to this question goes far beyond what I can hope to cover here, but the shortest answer I can give is that excessive faith in the sciences messed everything up, and is still causing problems today. It is not that the sciences don’t do good work or aren’t useful, but rather there has been a kind of logical seduction that has affected primarily English-language philosophy, collectively termed Analytic Philosophy and contrasted (somewhat derisively) with ‘Continental’ Philosophy. Both Mary Midgley and I tend to point fingers at an early twentieth century movement known as the Logical Positivists, who seemed convinced it would be a simple matter to exorcise humanity of everything that was not the sure and certain revelations of empirical research. They were so very, very wrong about this, yet they still have conceptual descendants today.

The upshot of this is that treating philosophy as a monolithic enterprise and then making general pronouncements about it isn’t going to get anyone very far since the range of different methods and perspectives on offer within the field is vast. Those suffering from logical seduction are quick to make the accusation that the variety of positions within philosophy must show it must be deeply flawed in some way. The assumption is that if there is only one true world, all valid investigations must converge. E.O. Wilson calls this consilience (although the term was originally coined by the Modern Philosopher William Whewell) and there is clearly some validity to the idea of evidence converging. However, I urge anyone truly committed to diversity to be cautious about such simplistic unifying principles, since there is an ever-present risk of claiming a god-like capacity to adjudicate all truth-claims in an absolute manner, in total denial of the plurality of human existence. Here is a context where your concerns about narrow cognitive perspectives can indeed be manifested, and while it is a philosophy, it is one that is primarily peddled by certain scientists and their collaborators.

So wherefore philosophy? What is the reason to persist with an activity that can’t even agree with itself? Well, for a start, nothing is going to make philosophy go away so it would seem prudent for at least a few people to try to do it well. Also, lack of unequivocal consensus doesn’t seem to bother us in art, history, sport, literature and so forth so why single out philosophy? The answer appears to be the aforementioned authority on life problem: people tend to think philosophy is claiming to have the ‘ultimate answers’, even though no philosopher I know ever makes this assertion. The philosopher has been confused with the prophet, to everyone’s loss. Philosophy is so much more about exploring questions than it is about providing unshakeable answers, and the importance of this skill is all too easily missed.

The eclecticism of philosophy stems from the near-infinite space of ideas: rejecting philosophy as a discipline because of that vastness may simplify what a person feels they ‘need to know’, but it can’t plausibly change the true dimensions of the realm of possible concepts. Furthermore, people should not feel – as I fear explains the tendency to phobosophy – that they must oppose philosophy or else be condemned to get involved with its horrendous intricacies, as if no-one could truly claim knowledge without either practicing or negating philosophy. We are happy to defer both empirical and historical research to experts in those fields; we should feel the same way about what might be called the technical problems of philosophy. You are not lacking something essential if you can’t explain how Modern Philosophy established talk about the emotions any more than you are deficit in not being able to explain 14th century crop rotation – nor micro-crystallography for that matter! No-one – quite literally! – can know everything, and that truth does not require anybody to denigrate anything.

In her forthcoming book, What Is Philosophy For? Mary Midgley provides the following explanation of our academic discipline:

...the philosophers’ business is not – as some people mistakenly think – merely to look inward. It is to organise what concerns everybody. Philosophy aims to bring together those aspects of life that have not yet been properly connected so as to make a more coherent, more workable world-picture. And that coherent world-picture is not a private luxury. It’s something we all need for our lives.

The point being, once again, that we all do philosophy, and the philosopher is merely someone who has dedicated more time to it, and has perhaps been drawn into working upon certain specific complexities. Few philosophers are certain that this habit makes them better at living life (like scientists, we tend to get awfully wrapped up in our abstruse problems!), but every philosopher hopes to clear up some persistent confusions, or to provide a better understanding of a certain problem. That’s why Isabelle Stengers and Phillipe Pignarre talk about philosophers as ‘sounders of the depths’ – and isn’t this a form of what you are calling a mine detector?

Let me close with another apposite quote from one of my philosophical correspondents, Allen Wood:

Reason and emotion are not opposites: emotions – even irrational ones – always have some degree of rational content, and healthy emotions are indispensable vehicles of rationality.

For Wood, the ‘cognitive intellect’ probably does count as a primary tool in the human toolbox, as you say in your letter, but even he does not deny the importance of our emotions. I’m not sure who does... maybe the die-hard consequentialists who think morality can be calculated? Whoever it is, it’s certainly not me. I am acutely aware that curiosity, compassion, and satisfaction are core emotional components of my philosophical inclinations. Neither is it enough for me to pursue my work in isolation: if I cannot share it, there is no point in doing it at all. Which is precisely why the letters you and I exchange are so important to me.

With great love and respect,


The opening image is an untitled oil painting by KwanHo Shin, which I found here, and which may have originated from his Behance site at www.behance.net/ShinKwangHo. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Allen Wood on Free Will

The indefatigable Allen Wood recently sent me this reply to my piece Is Free Will Too Cheap? which I post here with his permission, and with its original US English spellings.

Dear Chris,

Very good post. Having just plowed through one tome of mine, this may not come to you as welcome news, but a new tome has just appeared [Fichte’s Ethical Thought].

The arguments to which you refer about Fichte on freedom are reprised in the first half of Ch. 3 of this book. More generally, I think Fichte was on to the kinds of views you're discussing. He called them ‘dogmatism’ and insisted that transcendental philosophy is the only way to avoid them. My book talks about this, especially in Ch. 2.

I have said – and still believe – that if there is a solution to the traditional problem of free will (“How does our freedom to choose fit into our objective conception of the natural world?”) then it would have to be a compatibilist one. Unfortunately, however, it does not follow from this that any form of compatibilism is a defensible position. The traditional problem of free will, so understood, may be insoluble. I would reject my colleague Tim O’Connor's views too, since they involve a supernaturalist way of solving the problem. They too are trying to fit free will into some conception of the objective world. It’s just that they include supernature as well as nature. I don't find supernaturalism a defensible position since there is no good evidence for it. The fact that we can't solve the free will problem is no evidence for anything except that we can’t solve the free will problem.

Hume is usually understood as a compatibilist, and in the Enquiry, he does describe his view about the causal determination of the will and the conditions of moral responsibility as a “reconciliation project.” But for reasons of literary popularity, Hume was trying to be audience-friendly in the Enquiry and to downplay the paradoxical side of his views. In the Treatise, he is more candid and shocking. His view is that we lack free will – our every action is causally determined by particular passions or other motives. But far from it's being the case that this destroys moral responsibility, Hume argues that it is a necessary condition of moral responsibility. That shocking paradox – which can't be described as compatibilism about free will and determinism, since it supports only determinism and denies free will, his his real view.

In short: Those who call Hume a compatibilist are whitewashing his views (and probably their own as well). In the Treatise, Hume is being more candid. He's not reconciling anything, or showing anything to be compatible. He is claiming baldly and bluntly that free will is incompatible with moral responsibility.

The remark you quote from Ramachandran, and the view ascribed in your post to Crick, puts them, and those who agree with them, in the following position: Either (a) they, as “scientists,” are mysteriously exempt from what they say about the rest of us, or else (b) their own claims that none of us exist, none of us understand why we do what we do, that nothing of what we believe about ourselves is true, are self-discrediting. For if their views are true about themselves, then they are in no position to assert those views and can have no reasons for them. For they do not exist, and whatever they think about themselves – including the science that they believe in – is an elaborate post-hoc rationalization that bears no relation to the truth. The same would of course be true of us if we became convinced of their views, and so our being convinced of their views would involve the same illusion.

One has to suppose that they do not intend to exempt themselves from the human condition that their views describe – although sometimes one has to wonder about this. One of my favorite movie lines comes early in Ghostbusters. A lady has just seen a ghost, and Bill Murray, in cross-examining her, asks her insultingly if this is “her time of the month.” Another guy wonders if this is a proper question for him to ask. Bill Murray replies: “Back off, man. I’m a scientist!” A lot of scientist-philosophers seem to take the same attitude toward their audience (namely, us).

I think it has to be admitted that their views might be true, but if they are, then neither they nor we nor anybody else (except a God or pure intelligence who is exempt from the conditions of human cognition) could ever be in a position to know or justifiably to believe that their views are true. And if their views include (as they usually do) that disembodied cognition is impossible, then no such divine or pure intelligence could exist either.

Best regards,


PS: Relating to the quotation from Crick, I should also have quoted a remark from one of my favorite writers – Robert Benchley, a writer for the New Yorker for many years. In one of his articles: ‘Did You Know That...?’ he is satirizing columns in magazines and newspapers that purport to inform you of little known and paradoxical truths. On his (absurd) list of these supposed truths is the following: “No one has ever actually seen the Brooklyn Bridge. It is merely the action of light waves on the retina of the eye.” Crick’s quoted statement reminded me of that.