The Emperor’s New Jargon

We’ll imagine a swaggering new Sophist lurches onto the philosophical scene. I mean by ‘sophist’ here, not literally a sophist in the traditional sense, someone who privileges rhetoric over reason, but rather, simply as a figure in the history of philosophy, does something basically similar to philosophy but stands in an important way outside of it, is defined against philosophy and is, possibly, something for philosophy to define itself against.

This Sophist declares, that hitherto all philosophical discourse has been, in some important sense, flawed. It doesn’t particularly matter how, and in fact none of us philosophers can anyway figure it out. He expresses it in terminology that sounds like nonsense to us, arcane circular sentences that seem to express nothing in particular; a new jargon he never properly explains; odd semantics; non-traditional use of ordinary language, etc. The only thing we can understand, is that he tells us that the reason we cannot understand him, is because we are philosophers. Because we exist within the discourse of philosophy, and what he is doing is importantly outside it, we can never understand him.

But neither, he continues, can we dismiss what he says as nonsense. There is a point to what he is saying: but we can only understand it if we abandon philosophy – which is what he wants us to do – and start doing the sort of inquiry he is doing, which he calls ‘anti-philosophy’. Some people go over to him, and profess to understand him, but they cannot tell us why, because we are still philosophers.

Is there any point to engaging with this Sophist? We can imagine circumstances under which there might be. Although he cannot articulate to us what is wrong with our discipline, we might be aware of some problems ourselves. If it is truly a new mode of inquiry he is establishing, then maybe he can do things that we can’t, with it, and maybe we will be able to see the effects.

But what if we can’t figure out what is right about this new mode of inquiry, unless we do go over to it wholesale like the Sophist is demanding? Wouldn’t we be justified in just ignoring him, at least if we’re getting along fine without his critique, which he is refusing to really address to us? His followers aggressively say we aren’t. They say we’re just scared, that we are only concerned to maintain the integrity of a basically bunk or self-regarding discipline. But if this level of personal attack is all they have going for them, and if they really can’t tell us what their critique is (because we remain in totally different worlds of discourse), then no we shouldn’t listen.

Imagine a baseball team, who tells a cricket team that baseball is a better sport than cricket, and they should all switch to playing baseball, and everyone who watches cricket should switch to watching baseball, also. Of course, the cricket team object to this. So the baseball team say, the only way you can challenge our assertion, is if you beat us at a game of baseball.

There are several things wrong with this. First, obviously, the odds are stacked against the cricket team from the start. The baseball team (we can assume) has a lot more experience playing baseball, their skill-set is almost certainly anyway more suited to baseball, it’s a game they know and are successful at, thus they will probably win. But secondly, even if the cricket team did win (and actually I seem to remember one of the earliest documented baseball games involved a baseball club being thrashed by a cricket team who’d just been told the rules), this doesn’t prove anything anyway.

The only way it could, I mean the only way there could be any sort of direct comparison, in terms of the ranking despite mutual incompatibility of these two sports, is if there was, perhaps, some ideal form of Absolute Sport that they might aspire to approximate to. The superior sports are those that do so more closely. Every sport is, in some sense, trying to be like the Absolute Sport. The players of superior sports would beat the players of inferior sports because its athletes exhibited more of the qualities of the Absolute. So it would be legitimate to say that if the cricket players beat the baseball players at baseball, cricket is better, because the cricket players were better at the sort of things All Sport aspires, or should aspire, to exemplify.

Likewise, if there was some Absolute Truth that all inquiry was or ought to be directed towards, it would be totally legitimate for the Sophist to tell us that we ought to engage with his discipline, in order to work out whether or not his critique of philosophy works. That is: it is a possibility that there is a particular sort of Truth that philosophy is unable to access in a way that the new anti-philosophy can. But if this Absolute doesn’t exist, then there is no point in engaging with the Sophist (unless he can demonstrate the practical virtues of his new mode of inquiry). Because, how could we ever know if his system of discourse was any better than our own? There is no way we can rank it against ours, ours has a significant history, many more people understand our way of talking… if there are no Absolute benefits, we must talk practically.

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5 Responses to The Emperor’s New Jargon

  1. manahorse says:

    I saw you reference a conversation we had as the inspiration for this post, so I assume (correct me if I’m wrong) that this is a passive-aggressive screed against Francois Laruelle and those who are interested in his work.

    It seems you still haven’t taken the time to examine the work/ideas in question, and it also appears you’re deriving a certain pride in refraining from doing so (i.e. steering clear of anything “Frencher” than Derrida – bizarrely implying that making a crass ethnic stereotype somehow justifies you in criticizing of something you haven’t read).

    What makes this post so misguided, if it is in fact referencing Laruelle, is that “anti-philosophy” is precisely what Laruelle’s non-philosophy is not. This is actually the core of non-philosophy: that it is anything but anti-philosophy, because all philosophy itself is already anti-philosophy (insofar as every instance of philosophy exists in an antagonistic position to the philosophies that preceded it). Laruelle sees this agonism as the defining characteristic of philosophy, which is played out as a war of all against all. It is this agonism that non-philosophy seeks to avoid, by abdicating the philosophical struggle. In his own work and in secondary literature on non-philosophy, it is explicitly and repeatedly stressed that non-philosophy does not mean anti-philosophy, and that the prefix “non-” in non-philosophy should be understood as analogous to the “non-” in non-Euclidean geometry. Non-Euclidean geometry is obviously not antagonistic to Euclidean geometry – it merely represents an alternative vantage point to this more limited system. If this meaning of “non-” is not grasped, the intention of Laruelle’s entire project will be misconstrued, which is what you are doing as are virtually all of his critics. This is what is meant by saying that someone situated within philosophy cannot grasp non-philosophy, as philosophers parse all theory through the agonistic lens of philosophy. In the eyes of philosophy, something that represents itself as other to philosophy can only be anti-philosophy, or philosophy disguised as something else. He characterizes this as a form of narcissism: in everything philosophy examines it sees only a reflection of itself and its own motives. It cannot possibly see outside itself.

    Saying that philosophy cannot grasp non-philosophy is not an elitist jab at philosophy, which would simply be another aggressive move in the philosophical war of all against all. Non-philosophy is a non-participant in this war. Laruelle uses philosophical material as precisely that – material. It is simply a raw intellectual material to be transformed and hybridized with other material, in a perpetually open process of creation and re-creation. Laruelle’s objection to philosophy has to do with its grandiose assumption of sufficiency – the idea that every can be and should be philosophized. Non-philosophy is therefore simply a delimitation of philosophy, downgrading its authority so as to level the intellectual playing field and permit more expansive conceptions of the Real. Similarly, Laruelle makes no claim to Absolute Truth as you are insinuating, as this too is the modus operandi of philosophical game that he refuses to play.

    You can accept or reject Laruelle’s project and you can criticize his style of delivery, but mischaracterizing him the way you do in your post only validates his project by demonstrating the philosophical narcissism he rejects. By deliberately failing to engage non-philosophy on its own terms, you are illustrating the precise shortcomings of philosophy that it seeks to address. That was my original point in the conversation we had, and I am reiterating it here because it continues to apply. I am not terribly concerned with defending Laruelle or engaging in any kind of intellectual back-and-forth; in fact my dislike for that kind of activity is what drew me to non-philosophy in the first place. I’m simply posting because I do not see how deliberately ignoring and caricaturing a theorist’s work without reading it serves any constructive intellectual purpose. I wonder what it is you are hoping to achieve with this besides assuaging your ego, which seems to have been disproportionately damaged by someone suggesting certain ideas exceed your understanding. They probably wouldn’t if you lowered your defenses and actually engaged them with integrity. I never suggested you lacked the intelligence or literacy to understand non-philosophy, simply that you are persisting in a common error that renders the subject unintelligible. It will continue to be unintelligible until the error is removed.

    • hektorrottweiler says:

      1. It’s not actually about Laruelle; the reason for the storylike format is because it is based off of an idea of what Laruelle *could* be that presented itself to me in that conversation. If it was really about Laruelle, I would have mentioned Laruelle (in the post).

      2. This accusation of passive-aggression is interesting though, as this particular idea of non-participation as you present it makes non-philosophy sound like nothing other than a philosophy of passive-aggression.

      • manahorse says:

        Again, you seem to be suggesting that non-participation in philosophical struggle is impossible, and that any claim to non-participation must necessarily be a cunning ploy – playing the game while insisting one is not playing it, for purposes of making greater gains in the struggle. It’s another form of what Laruelle calls the “Principle of Sufficient Philosophy” – the idea that philosophy is capable of encompassing the entirety of thought and that nothing can legitimately be claimed to exist outside of philosophy. Philosophy sets itself up as isomorphic with the Real, which allows it to colonize and subordinate all other disciplines. In contrast to this, Laruelle advocates for a “democracy of thought” (see essay “Can Thinking Be Democratic?”), in which philosophy would serve as simply one source of material among many, without any special claim to superiority or ability to define other disciplines as inferior subdisciplines of itself. In this democratic situation, philosophical material can be combined with other material outside of philosophy, to afford radically novel perspectives unthinkable through philosophy alone. The primary motives of the project are increasing intellectual freedom, allowing greater participation from materials beyond the scope of philosophy, and allowing for a proliferation of new hybrid theories. All in all, while the early works by Laruelle are primarily concerned with contrasting non-philosophy and philosophy, this is simply to provide the necessary foundation for the constructive task of non-philosophy: the proliferation of these hybrids. The project, taken as a whole, has little to do with negation of philosophy and much more to do with the construction of alternative modes of thought. It is not a philosophy of passive-aggression – it is a non-philosophy of active non-aggression (non-aggression understood to be democratic practice of thought)

      • hektorrottweiler says:

        Again though, we’re met with this problem that, starting out as a philosopher, one is bound to want to be able to critique Laruelle philosophically before accepting anything he says. But he sets himself up radically apart from philosophy, so as to make any philosophical criticism seem inadequate in relation to him (anything you can say will be met with an: “ahhhh, but you’re setting philosophy up as isomorphic with the real!”). Of course as a philosopher, that makes me feel suspicious. It sounds like, as with many of these thinkers, you end up finding yourself forced to accept his major thinkers in order to engage with him at all. What results is the old ‘magic eye problem’: once you’ve made out the image, you’re already cross-eyed, and all you can do is regurgitate their jargon. Now, there are certain thinkers who are like that who, when their thought is translated out of their jargon, are still saying something profound. Maybe Laruelle is one of these. But I’ve yet to hear anything about him that particularly excites me, certainly not enough to engage seriously with him. I can see how to you, as a follower of his, my attitude might seem to be simply closed-minded. But just to clarify, I’m not pretending to have a critique of him. I’m more just justifying to you my decision to keep my mind shut, I guess.

  2. manahorse says:

    Sorry, essay is titled “Is Thinking Democratic?”. This post also explains the notion of democratic thought http://www.thelondongraduateschool.co.uk/thoughtpiece/can-we-think-democratically-laruelle-and-the-arrogance-of-non-philosophy/

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