Monday, October 24, 2011

Philosophical Civil War

By James Curcio
Having just returned from the 50th anniversary of SPEP (Society of Phenomenological and Existential Philosophy) conference here in Philadelphia, my brain and body are just a bit taxed. Following the papers presented in various panels and the ensuing conversations was, for the most part, engaging and got me thinking about some new things and some old things in new ways. It was just also, in addition to all that, a tiring week. So while at first I had planned on doing a sort of panel-by-panel write up of my experience, Phenomenology meets Gonzo--and let me say that side of things was certainly present at least in my experience of all that transpired there. It's irrelevant, and I'm not sure if my reactions to various post-graduate papers of philosophy would be of interest to the bulk of you.

Even if that wasn't the case, I'm simply far too spent to even consider engaging in that right now. But the very existence of SPEP, that is, one of the central issues that the organization was founded around, is precisely the same in many regards to what this project is dedicated to.

That is: the divide between analytic and continental philosophy, or between science and myth, as first explored in regard to this project in "Is Myth Dead?" from The Immanence of Myth. Come along.

I'm sure many other people have written better about one of the major schisms that has occurred in Western Philosophy, one that follows a divide that has been driven in our history, in our minds, in our very bodies. (Or at least in how we relate ourselves to them.) Nevertheless, I'll take a quick stab at it, and by that, I mean I'm going to jot down my thoughts on the matter in a single 30 minute sitting at 4am, and hopefully it'll be useful.

In 1922 Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote the Tractatus. Though it is far from the only symptom (or cause? who can get that straight?) of the growing schizophrenia produced by various ways of "knowing" the world that are all deemed epistemically equal, it is an easy place to start.

To be clear, when I'm speaking of "epistemic equality," I'm saying: it is often believed that the way something can be known or real-ized through the scientific method is the same if understood through any other discipline; and further, the tautological approach of logic ("self-same-or-other-ing", as I often call the Aristotelian version) is somehow superior to all others. In other words, this is the rupture through which not only analytic and continental philosophy split, but also the portal through which other great evils appeared upon the threshold of the gilded Enlightenment project: post-modernism, the Frankfort School, etc.

I'm getting ahead of myself. From this Tractatus, "Luddy" Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russel, and the rest could have had the model for a philosophy wherein only the logical could be spoken of, and everything else must be passed over in silence. In other words, in logic-language it delineated that which falls under the project of philosophy, and that which doesn't.

Or does it? Wittgenstein himself seemed to quickly recognize the problem with his formulation, as we see expressed in Wittgenstein's Vienna,
The logical positivists (ed: of the analytical philosophy camp) were overlooking the very problems about language which the Tractatus had been meant to reveal; and they were turning an argument designed to circumvent all philosophical doctrines into a source of new doctrines, meanwhile leaving the original difficulties unresolved.
Also of relevance to the point as a whole is this quote from the following paragraphs,
According to the Tractatus, the function of a formalized theory in science was to provide a possible 'method of representing' the relevant kinds of facts about the natural world. As Wittgenstein had learned from Hertz, the application of any axiomatic formalism- whether Euclid's, Newton's, or Russel's- is necessarily problematic. It is one thing to lay out such a system in the form of explicit definitions and deductions; it is another thing entirely to show how the resulting categories and logical articulations can be applied to the world as we know it.

A number of conclusions can be drawn from this. What I'd like to direct your mind to is that this division is a crucial one in the history of thought. I am merely using this particular thinker, and that particular work, as a means of showing this illusory dividing line between what soon became two divergent interpretations of what the project of philosophy is. At this juncture we see a philosophy that is intrinsically tied into the project of science, which says, "only that which can be known by logic can be known," and another which seeks to focus instead on the realm of being and world as experience. The phenomenological and existential approaches derived themselves from this latter interpretation of the project of philosophy--not that of science, but rather that which science is not concerned with.

Analytic philosophers saw their central location in the UK, and the phenomenologists and then existentialists arose in Europe, and thus were come to be referred to generally as "continental philosophy." (Of the continent of Europe.) It isn't so much that these two schools of thought think the other is wrong so much as that they see the other as flat out absurd. If logic is your only pole-star, then a thinker like Bataille would seem rather peculiar. (Admittedly, he himself was at times uncomfortable with the title of "philosopher.") If, on the other hand, you say that we can only know first and foremost our experience, and would do best to derive all philosophies from that, then the analytics should be content to sit in the position of the philosophy of science or philosophy of mathematics, and do nothing else. After all, they were the ones who so rigidly define the scope of their inquiry.

I'm going to pass on offering long lists of names of the champions of these two divergent approaches because, although that is part of what one is expected to do in such things, I think it's a move in the wrong direction. The sort of argumentation, where you pull out a list of mostly-dead thinkers and have them do battle in your essay through talking-point quotes with authorial commentary is only useful, if ever, in small doses.

The idea at work here is an imagined contention between science and the humanities, that one is more or less real or valid than the other. As I expressed in what I hope was a fairly lucid way in "Is Myth Dead?", this contention is a specious one, although the distinction is not. A purely scientific attempt at experiencing or interpreting literature would be as pointless as using Lord Byron to get us to the moon, if maybe not quite as dangerous. (Don't let him put the bear on board.)

Modern mythology is not a strictly philosophical project. However, we--and by "we" I mean at least most of the contributors here that I know well--see philosophy itself as a form of "meta-literature," which replaces personal narrative with generalized abstraction. Despite what it may seem, there is point in that kind of endeavor, but the point may not itself be what it seems. Regardless, this makes the project of philosophy and modern mythology virtually indistinguishable except for in this regard, where the former uses rigor and the latter additionally (one might say "instead") embraces the truth of the single instance, the irreducible, the ephemeral, rather than that which has been generalized by a rational process.

There is a natural desire to draw strict boundaries between "narrative," "myth," as well as the mythologization process itself, and philosophy. However, we have on the whole worked hard to avoid that desire, instead drawing the contours out slowly and through extensive demonstration that you can find in The Immanence of Myth and the upcoming Apocalyptic Imaginary.

Hope that helped to clarify the scope of this project to you.

[Check out some of the books, albums, and soon movies produced by Mythos Media and our various media partners.]

1 comment:

  1. Note:

    Apocalyptic Imaginary in now out---



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