C. Derick Varn: Marxian notions of science are characterized in two incompatible ways: I have heard Marxists and Marx being accused of proto-postmodern relativism and absolute social constructivism, and conversely as positivistic and crudely deterministic. Do both of these characterizations misunderstand something fundamental about Marx and Marxist-influenced epistemology?
Ben Campbell: In discussing Marxism’s relation to science, it is important to note that there is no one “Marxism”. Rather, it must be understood that Marxism frayed into several strands, particularly after Marx and Engels’ death, and especially after the political failures of the early twentieth century. One of the many areas in which this great divergence of Marxisms can be seen is in their relation to science.
The coherence of Marxism rests upon an attempted synthesis of materialism and the Hegelian dialectic. What exactly is meant by such a synthesis has been a subject of great debate. A particularly problematic character in this debate has been Lenin. Lenin’s philosophy, as expressed mainly in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and his Philosophical Notebooks, is quite ambiguous and perhaps contradictory—he seems never quite able to resolve the synthesis between the Hegelian dialectic and materialism. At Lenin’s worst, his philosophy reduces to a “reflection theory”, and what Axelrod called “naive realism”. At his best, Lenin wrestles with the attempt to “apply dialectics to… the process and development of knowledge”, but the issue was never really resolved in his writings. Due to the eventual canonization of these problematic texts, these ambiguities would lead to great disputes in Soviet Marxism, and consequently in Marxism more generally, ranging widely from the metaphysical to the positivistic. Eventually, Soviet “dialectical materialism” would largely be reduced to mechanistic materialism, with the “dialectic” a mere superficial stylistic ornament, the ambiguity of which could be deployed for political purposes. Partially in response, much of the academic work of “Western Marxism” moved in the other direction, abdicating claims to the natural sciences, eventually leading to what you call “proto-postmodern relativism.”
So yes, various “Marxisms” can be accused of suffering from one or the other of these shortcomings, but these must be seen as symptoms of the degeneration of Marxism as a coherent whole. And from a Marxist perspective, this intellectual fragmentation is inseparable from the political failure of Marxism, and the continuation of capitalism with its extreme divisions of intellectual labor. Marxism, at least as envisioned by Marx and Engels, was meant to be a coherent Weltanschauung capable of transcending this divide. While one could argue that there have been some Marxists who have demonstrated the potential of such an aspiration, I do not think that Marxism has ever reached this aspired level of coherence.
Thus it seems necessary to return to Marx and Engels themselves, and ask if there may have been something faulty in their project—perhaps the attempted synthesis of materialism and the Hegelian dialectic is ultimately unstable? Did Marx and Engels themselves even have a clear sense of Marxism’s relation to natural science? Here, many authors have attempted to stress a fundamental distinction between Marx and Engels, for the implicit purpose of saving Marx from some of the ostensibly “positivist” or “metaphysical” elements introduced into “dialectical materialism” by Engels (note the opposite charges). While there are certainly differences between the two thinkers, their correspondence indicates that these are mainly differences in emphasis rather than fundamental differences in outlook.
So what was Marx and Engels’ orientation to natural science? Certainly it is not as explicitly identified or consistent as we might like. The question of what a materialist dialectic exactly means is one that strikes to heart of Marxism’s relation to science, and epistemology. And it is a question that has never really been answered, even in the writings of Marx and Engels. But then again, perhaps it wasn’t supposed to be, for as Engels would write in Anti-Duhring, dialectics “is nothing more than the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought”, and in Dialectics of Nature, “to me there could be no question of building the laws of dialectics into nature, but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it.”
Thus instead of looking to Marx and Engels to discover what they really meant by this synthesis, perhaps it is more useful to look to scientific developments for insight.
C.D.V.: What does a Marxian theory of science look like in specific terms?
B.C.: There are really two approaches to this question. The first is a meta-scientific response that addresses the question as one of the theory, practice, philosophy, and history of science. What does Marxism tell us about science and how it is practiced in capitalist society? In this sense, it is worth considering the Hegelian dialectic and its advancement through the resolution of contradictions. There is some similarity here to Karl Popper’s famous view of science proceeding by falsification, with the obvious irony that Popper was a strident anti-Hegelian. The difference is that a Hegelian conception of science anticipates the criticisms that would be leveled at Popper, such as “confirmation holism”, and historicizes this notion of scientific progress. Interestingly, Popper’s most famous epigone, Imre Lakatos was an ex-Marxist émigré from Stalinist Hungary, were he was schooled in Hegelian Marxism — at times directly from György Lukács. Based partially on this background, but more importantly on the themes of his philosophy of science, the author John Kadvany has referred to Lakatos as a “philosophical mole”, and a “covert Hegelian taking the Popperian castle by storm”. But regardless of Lakatos’ intentions (was he really trying to Hegelianize Popper?) we can see in Lakatos something resembling a Hegelian philosophy of science.
As for a Marxist philosophy of science, it would have to synthesize such Hegelian notions of scientific progress with the recognition that scientific consciousness, while ultimately empirically constrained, is shaped by social being—and in capitalist society that is by the reproduction of capital and the scientific labor process. Thus, if you were to synthesize a philosopher like Lakatos with “externalist” accounts characteristic of the best of sociology of science, then you’re starting to get at a Marxian philosophy of science.
Now, speaking of “philosophy of science”, there is a tendency in the West to separate philosophy from science, such that “philosophy of science” studies how science progresses as an institution, but it doesn’t have much to say about scientific theories or nature—that is, it is a study of form, rather than content. This view has been encouraged, by what are seen as the historic failures of Soviet science, which are often seen as a blanket condemnation of philosophical and political interference in science. This rather simplistic portrayal is unfortunate. As Engels once said:
“Natural scientists believe that they free themselves from philosophy by ignoring it or abusing it… they are no less in bondage to philosophy, but unfortunately to the worst philosophy, and those who abuse philosophy most are slaves precisely to the worst vulgarised relics of the worst philosophies… It is only a question whether they want to be dominated by a bad fashionable philosophy or by a form of theoretical thought which rests on acquaintance with the history of thought and its achievements.”
Scientists always use philosophy to inform theory, whether they realize it or not. The very act of induction implies metaphysical speculations about the way the world is. Thus, the second response to this question, which is in my opinion more interesting, involves looking to contemporary science to inform philosophy, and vice versa.
If we return to Hegel, I should point out that he was deeply influenced by the Naturphilosophie of his day, and his thinking was really an attempt to develop an organic conception of the world. Indeed, as Frederick Beiser puts it, the purpose of The Science of Logic was to develop a “logic of life”. While some of Hegel’s scientific errors have been notorious, the central vision of the logic of life expressed by Hegel stands up remarkably well. That is, that life itself is a process driven by the resolution of contradictions between the object and the subject’s representation of it. That is, we can see in Hegel an attempt to answer the question later posed by Erwin Schrödinger: What is Life?
In answering this question from a biological perspective, there is a long tradition viewing life as a homeostatic process. Sometimes this perspective has been dominant, at other times less so. You can see it from early experimentalists like Claude Bernard and Walter Cannon to cyberneticists like Norbert Wiener and W. Ross Ashby. In this general view, life is envisioned as a process of regulating an internal environment against the ongoing threat of entropy. “Cybernetics”, coined by Wiener, comes from the Greek for “steersman”, emphasizing life as a perilous process of navigation. And as Ashby would note, the process of regulating a system requires the “modeling” of that system. Thus, life is seen as a process of organism modeling its environment. Or, as I said earlier, this is a view of life as a “process driven by the resolution of contradictions between the object and the subject’s representations of it”. Thus, there are long-standing conceptions of life that are ‘dialectical’, quite different than much of the popular molecular biological reductionism.
This conception of a materialist dialectic is perhaps most interesting in the cognitive sciences. In his own day Hegel critiqued Kant, who was himself responding to the threat posed by empiricism. To simplify greatly, this general progression can be seen from behaviorism, to the “cognitive revolution”, to today’s increasingly dialectical conception of the brain. That is, the cognitive science of the 1960s and 1970s was characterized by the study of “forms of thought” in response to the limits of naive empiricism. Hegel praised Kant for a similar maneuver, but went further, arguing that the forms of thought must critique themselves, and thus become dynamic. And likewise, the contemporary conception of the brain has moved from one of a more passive filter to an active conception usually termed “Bayesian”.
Thus, while few contemporary biologists would recognize it as such, contemporary biology is increasingly a vindication of Hegel’s dialectical understanding of the subject-object relation, and hence Marx’s materialist dialectic. Does that mean that today’s science is, in a way, Marxian? No. Marxism is more than just the materialist dialectic. A Marxist scientific practice would be one whose subjects were conscious of that dialectic, both in its natural and social forms. Today’s science, greatly atomized and lacking in coherence, is a long way from that.
C.D.V. Could you expand on this notion of the “increasingly dialectical conception of the brain”?
B.C.: Well, let’s start with a behaviorist conception of the brain as a model learning the statistical relation between sensory inputs and motor responses, a view taken to its logical extreme in B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. What was known as the “cognitive revolution” was very much a reaction to the limits of such a conception, with Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s book somewhat of an opening salvo. From then on you begin to see in the “cognitive sciences” an increasing focus on mental forms, cognitive schemata, internal representations, etc. A particularly crude way of thinking about this is that there are a priori mental forms, into which external input is stored, with these forms often (but not always) taken as innate structures of the mind or brain.
However, as I mentioned earlier, to parallel all this work, there has been a trend in cybernetics and computational neuroscience looking at the relation between content and form. Some of this work started by asking the question: how would the brain efficiently store all of this information? And of course the most efficient forms are dependent on content, giving rise to conceptions in which the “forms of thought” themselves vary dynamically, a view developed by early information theory and cybernetics, but also in experimental neuroscience. And so, for example, you would see theoretically-heavy work arguing that the forms in which the visual cortex stores information depend dynamically on the spatial statistics of visual input.
Now, the interesting development in neuroscience came throughout the 1990s when this relation between form and content was increasingly considered temporally. This view of the brain, leaning an internal model of the temporal statistics of its inputs, is one of prediction—that is, that the cerebral cortex, far from just passively receiving incoming input, is actively predicting that input. This has given rise to a contemporary conception of the brain (usually called “Bayesian”) that emphasizes the central importance of contradiction. That is, the brain is constantly predicting its input, and updating its internal model when these predictions are contradicted. And this contemporary view, as emphasized by theorists like Karl Friston, relates back to the earlier homeostatic views of cyberneticists.
Contemporary scientists wouldn’t go near the word “dialectics”, but I cannot think of a better word for this emerging conception of the brain, and indeed life. The characteristic features of a “dialectical” understanding—contradiction, internal relations, emphasis on “the totality”—all find their parallel within contemporary neuroscience. And so in this view, as I said earlier “life is a dialectical process driven by the resolution of contradiction between the environment and the subject’s representation of it.”
Importantly, however, this is not merely a passive question of ‘modeling’. In speaking of the importance of the brain the neurophysiologist Rudolfo Llinás often references the tunicate, or “sea squirt”. Sea squirts begin their life as tadpoles using a primitive nervous system to navigate along the ocean floor looking for a suitable place to live. When it finds such a location, the sea squirt implants itself, to live its adult life as a filter feeder. It then proceeds to digest its primitive brain. The lesson here is that the brain is an organ tied to movement; an animal that does not move has little use for a brain. Thus, in talking of a dialectical conception of the brain, it is necessarily an active interaction of subject and object—or to paraphrase the most famous of Marx’s theses on Feuerbach: the purpose of the brain is not to interpret the world, but to change it!
C.D.V.: What do you think are the key differences between Marx and Engels on science?
B.C.: I am not convinced that there are key differences. Certainly, Marx wrote much less on natural science than Engels, but it seems that this was merely the result of Marx’s deference to Engels on the topic, not a fundamental disagreement between the two. While I am not a Marxologist, I have not seen any evidence of such disagreement. Nevertheless, this has not stopped many Marxists from asserting a fundamental difference between the two, with the seeming misstep of the “dialectics of nature” pinned on Engels. As I stated earlier, these criticisms have come from two opposite directions! On one hand, Engels has been blamed for introducing metaphysical speculation reminiscent of Naturphilosophie into materialism, while on the other hand he is accused of reducing Marx’s humanism to a vulgar mechanical materialism. The fact that Engels can be attacked from two different directions indicates the fundamental tension that exists in Marxism’s attempted synthesis of Hegelian philosophy and materialism. As his problematic Dialectics of Nature demonstrates, Engels never seemed to quite resolve the problem—and thus neither did Marx. But both were interested in it, understood the general contours of it, and attempted to synthesize a Weltanschauung of “dialectical materialism” (although the term was coined by Dietzgen, and now seems inseparable from Stalinist orthodoxy).
Now, having said that, I cannot help but wonder if Marx would have avoided some of the unfortunate formulations and speculations contained in Engels’ scientific writings. In particular, Lukács in History and Class Consciousness is correct to claim that the “the interaction of subject and object” is lost in many of Engels’ metaphysical speculations. It seems incorrect, however, for Lukács to claim that these “crucial determinants of dialectics” are “absent from our knowledge of nature”. They are abundantly present in biology, which is unsurprising, since Hegel was so influenced by an organic view of nature.
C.D.V.: What do you make of the recent turn of a lot of technocratically center liberals towards both neurology and evolutionary psychology to underpin their political instincts?
B.C.: Well, science has a reputation as a neutral arbiter of truth, and as such it is unsurprising that “scientific” claims are frequently enlisted as ideology in support of those with power, which exists today as capital in its manifestation as neoliberalism. One could go back many decades, of course, to see science used as ideology in previous phases of capital accumulation, such as various racist theories in the heyday of imperialism, and even the advocation of eugenics against the working class in the august pages of Nature. Of course, liberals now look back at this “science” in horror, as though it marks mere scientific misconduct or bad practice, while from a Marxist perspective it is entirely expected. Marxism is unique in its understanding of science, ascribing neither to a naive scientific empiricism, nor a postmodern relativism. It questions the ideological assumptions of science, particularly with respect to the requirements of capital, without denying the possibility of scientific truth.
The turn to neoliberalism has been accompanied by the ideology of the “free market” increasingly read into science, as a part of human nature. Evolutionary psychology is the most well-known example, itself somewhat of a rehash of the earlier sociobiology of the 1970s. In their most vulgar forms, these schools of thought attempt to explain nearly all features of human behavior as natural byproducts of human evolution. In this way, through Darwinian selection, people have been selected to maximize “fitness”. While fitness can be precisely defined in terms of reproduction, such controlled experiments are impossible in most cases. Thus, in the hands of an evolutionary psychologist fitness can be treated somewhat similarly to the neoclassical economic category of “value”—that is, in an entirely circular manner. Why do people do things? Because they increase fitness. What increases fitness? Why, whatever people do! By this type of armchair reasoning, evolutionary psychologists can deduce “just-so” stories to explain nearly all human behavior. Some are plausible explanations, for example that the common fear of snakes was adaptive for our primate ancestors. Others are less plausible. In a famous example, the neurologist V.S. Ramachandran wrote an evolutionary psychological response to the question “Why Do Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?” (“to enable them to detect the early signs of parasitic infestation and aging”). It was satirical, but some didn’t recognize it as such, giving some indication of the level of scholarship in this field. At any rate, seldom are evolutionary psychological explanations in any way testable.
While it is easy to laugh at the more absurd examples of evolutionary psychology, from a Marxist perspective it is far from humorous, as it serves as both a Panglossian justification for the status quo (one can always find an evolutionary explanation), and more specifically as “scientific” support for the ideology of neoliberalism, with its view of human nature as maximizing some utility function.
As I have mentioned, these debates are nothing new. Marxist-influenced biologists like Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould had ongoing disputes with sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson beginning in the 1970s. Unfortunately, this type of highly ideological science is today increasingly unchallenged. While there was a scientific element to both the Old Left and the New Left, today’s scientific Left is virtually nonexistent (or more optimistically, has yet to be born). One obstacle is the increasingly anti-scientific stance of the American Right, which for many scientists appears to have reinforced the identification of scientific values with liberalism, and at least postponed any critical scientific challenge to liberalism itself.
As a neuroscientist and a Marxist, some of the more troubling developments in recent years have been in the area of “neuroeconomics”. While much of the work carried out on human decision-making is quite valuable in challenging the assumptions of neoclassical economics, much of the work being conducted by “neuroeconomists” is heavily ideological, driven by a desire to synthesize neoclassical microeconomics and neuroscientific theory. And so the human brain is increasingly viewed through the lens of neoclassical theory, with the ventral tegmental area correlating with utility—dopamine as value drug. And so today, an increasing number of neuroscientists (well-intentioned people, indeed my colleagues and my former self) speak of the human brain as maximizing value, endeavor to measure value and reward with functional MRI experiments (often played for money), and elucidate our contemporary notion of “human nature” through this framework.
Now, from a Marxist perspective it is important to note that this heavily ideological science is not entirely wrong. Marx did not just dismiss his predecessors in political economy because their theories were ideological. Rather, he recognized fundamental insight in their work and went on to develop a critique from that work. Similarly must a Marxist approach both the later developments in economics, and the type of science derived from its assumptions.
I do not dispute that the functioning of the brain can be read in a manner broadly consistent with the notion of maximizing utility. But just as there are different coordinate systems for the same geometry, so are there different interpretations of the same brain activity. Why is brain and behavior so commonly interpreted as “maximizing utility”, when it could be equally interpreted as “minimizing disutility”? Note how the trivial shift in wording leads to a significant shift in our view of “human nature”. The first interpretation points to the neoclassical homo economicus. The second leads back to the homeostatic—and dialectical—view mentioned earlier.
C.D.V.: Do you see this blurring of the lines between a highly philosophical (ideological) discipline like economics with neurology to be related to way most scientific endeavors are funded? Or do you think something else is going on? I noticed a lot of co-option of evolutionary language in economics since the 1970s and Hayek’s use of socio-biology underpinning of the market as a form of evolution, but it seems to have gone far deeper now and the reason for it eludes me.
B.C.: Well, the question of how capital influences the scientific “superstructure” is predictably difficult, especially science the large majority of scientific funding occurs via the state, and then through universities. So you’d need to get into some serious institutional analysis. It is for the most part not a question of vulgar causality, where corporate interests are directly funding science, such as in the age of tobacco research (although there are exceptions). Indeed, when one thinks of such conflicts today one thinks of climate scientists, whose conclusions, far from supporting capital, have been directly opposed by it (hence reinforcing the liberal notion of neutral science). So it is clearly not a situation of either extreme—of a neutral science “speaking truth to power”, nor of science as merely the ideology of capital. Unfortunately, the Marxist study of the history and practice of science is significantly underdeveloped, with the field of “Science and Technology Studies” really lacking a strong Marxist critique.
So, to speak only of the example given, neuroeconomics, I think there are two factors at work. The first is that economics, in order to address increasing criticism, has been forced into the field of psychology, in the form of behavioral economics. The second factor is that neuroscience, and biology in general, is a theory-poor field. This is largely the result of the intellectual fragmentation caused by the specialization of intellectual labor—a fragmentation that has increased substantially over the last few decades. This has led to a general decrease of coherence, with science increasingly reducing to a pastiche of theoretical forms—the science of late capitalism, in Fredric Jameson’s sense. And so just as economics is looking for support from psychology, neuroscience is largely looking for theory.
This trend is probably true more generally. With the decrease of coherent narrative, biology has been increasingly vulnerable to ideological interpretation—and it is certainly related to the decline and fragmentation of the Left.
C.D.V.: What do you think a concerned response to these trends might be by Marxian thinkers? Do you find Gould to be a particularly good example?
B.C.: There haven’t been many explicitly Marxist scientists in the West, at least not since the late 1930s and the disasters of Stalinist science (e.g. the purges of geneticists). There have been scientists that are Marxist-influenced, like Stephen Jay Gould, however this largely attests to the relative strength of Marxism academically in the post-War era. Back then simply receiving a broad pluralistic education would expose one to Marxist critiques and perhaps leave one sympathetic to them, but this is rather different than explicitly looking for connections between Marxism and science, as scientists and Marxists of previous generations had. In the case of Gould, it certainly made him much more skeptical of simplistic causal claims, particularly when they supported capitalist ideology, as well as emphasizing the role of contingency and historicism in nature.
While we could certainly use more scientists like Stephen Jay Gould (these days one can receive a broad pluralistic education without really learning about Marxism), I don’t think that this is sufficient. Scientists, and especially those who study science (e.g. sociology, history, and philosophy of science), really need to develop more of a structural critique of scientific institutions, ideology, and their relation to capital accumulation. And given the hitherto failure of the institutionalized study of science to do enough of this (e.g. Science and Technology Studies) it is likely that this will increasingly have to be done outside of the academy in collaboration with activists and journalists who are willing to engage with science dialectically—succumbing to neither the facile anti-scientific stances that have characterized some on the “left”, nor the uncritical championing of scientific empiricism. And this will be aided enormously with the participation of scientists engaged in an immanent critique of their own practices. The question of how to radicalize a new generation of scientists is interesting. I do not think it will happen to a great extent without a broader rebirth of the left and leftist critiques more generally. In my case it was the broader upsurge of leftish politicization of 2011, epitomized in the Occupy movement, that sparked my interest in the relation of science and capital. And I think that only rarely would scientists even consider these questions without them being raised by a broader left.
“I believe that while philosophy may well terminate in definitions, it cannot start out from them; and that, in order to understand, to have knowledge of, the content of philosophical
concepts themselves – and not simply from the point of view of an external history of ideas or of philosophy – it is necessary to know how concepts have come into being, and what they mean in terms of their origins, their historical dimension.” – Adorno
“Philosophy” is often he pathology of the way people justify their identity, but when it is not, it generally ends with questions and genealogies and logics, not pat answers. Generally, however, as Marx, Nietzsche, and Adorno understood and as many other non-German thinkers have also understood but not did have the press to articulate, philosophy is the product of the material development of history mixed with the social development of people. In other ways, people have a condition or position and need to come up with a justification, and then there we go. I would not go so far as to say it was always just a justification as the epiphenomena it produces actually justify all sorts of developments from technology to science (through meta-justifications that do themselves clarify).
Philosophy too then is as Badiou defines it: a way of mediating between truth processes. But this is only in the ideal, and the ideal, sadly, is only rarely the real. In the end, our rubric cannot be the formalized definition, but it’s opposite: The informal question and genealogy.
That said, it is important to look at the historical development of a philosophical position or a political position for what it obscures as much as it what it says. One should also question one’s motives for doing it.
The separation of agitprop from a political philosophy, the slogan from a coherent political stance, the ideology from the meme, and the hard answer from the easy one may be something I take up for wrong reasons. Un-reasoned positions can’t be reasoned out of, and positions which reinforce identity doubly so. That itself may be a problematic form of distinction. Yet, if no one says anything, the easy answers keep getting pushed. I think I am going to have a cup of tea and read a book then.
The easy answers confirm our identity; they reduce cognitive dissonance, they allow things to go unchanged.
So much of what I see on the “left” or the right or the center–the reduction of things, the recitation of statistics without context, the half formed views of nation states as being one thing or the other, is the easy answer. No, I realize that these ideological positions aren’t equally guilty, but the tendencies to view philosophy as a handmaiden to politics and for politics to be about identity or its obfuscation.
Sometimes I think a lot of what passes for progressive ideas is a conspiracy to make fascism look good. No, I don’t actually believe that, but damn, it’s easy to see how bad ideas bring worse ideas to life. Fascism, here, is not right-wing ideas alone or totalitarianism, or discipline, or any such notion: fascism here being the willingness to combine all sorts of ideological predisposition to maintain an identity, despite the fact it is legitimately falling away. (This definition is actually also incomplete, but it fits for here).
The reason I feel that way about a lot of what passes for “progressive thought” is that it often ahistorical and also abiological. Neo-keynesian focus in the 1933 through 1955 and Keynesian spending, ignoring the leveling and rebuilding of Europe in the process and the decline in real profits of the 1970s. ’-isms’ (able-ism, capitalism, sexism) and ‘archies’ (patriarchy, corporatocracy) are spoken about as if they were anamorphous enemies that have been constant throughout time without any improvement or context. These -isms and -archies are rooted in the very real, very lived experience, but as they are spoken about in this way, the realness seems to fall away into mere projection. This is a projection of value that looks inherently unknown and can make conservatism or other forms of ideological positions that are actually not in the interest of many of the oppressed (as individuals or as a class) seem more natural and more contextual. Luckily, in the US, conservatism in the popular parlance seems to have gone insane, but many liberals, leftists, and otherwise take a false sense of security from that and other demographic facts without realizing that they themselves could easily be becoming the sane version of the status quo.
Badiou would inform us of the truth process here in seeing bad politics and our need to cut away. So the formalist and genealogist meet again.
So I’ll end with a chuck of Gravity’s Rainbow and let you, gentle and intellectual reader that I hope that you are, see the relevance as I saw it today:
But the rocket has to be many things, it must answer to a number of different shapes in the dreams of those who touch it – in combat, in tunnel, on paper – it must survive heresies shining, unconfoundable . . . and heretics there will be: Gnostics who have been taken in a rush of wind and fire to chambers of the Rocket-throne . . . Kabbalists who study the Rocket as Torah, letter by letter – rivets, burner cup and brass rose, its text is theirs to permute and combine into new revelations, always unfolding . . . Manicheans who see two Rockets, good and evil, who speak together in the sacred idiolalia of the Primal Twins (some say their names are Enzian and Blicero) of a good Rocket to take us to the stars, an evil Rocket for the World’s suicide, the two perpetually in struggle. Gravity’s Rainbow (727)
Reproduced from a Print Copy, and Posted by Cain Pinto
*This excerpt is taken in entirety from Paul Ricoeur’s magisterial Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (1970).
…what advantages can the hermeneutician adduce when faced with formal logic? To the artificiality of logical symbols, which can be written and read but not spoken he will oppose an essentially oral symbolism, in each instance received and accepted as a heritage. The man who speaks in symbols is first of all a narrator; he transmits an abundance of meaning over which he has little command. This abundance, this density of manifold meaning, is what gives him food for thought and solicits his understanding; interpretation consists less is suppressing ambiguity than in understanding it and explicating its richness. It may also be said that logical symbolism is empty, whereas symbolism in hermeneutics is full; it renders manifest the double meaning of worldly or psychical reality…[S]ymbols are bound: the sensible sign is bound by the symbolic meaning that dwells in it and gives it transparency and lightness; the symbolic meaning is in turn bound to its sensible vehicle, which gives it weight and opacity. One might add that this is also the way symbols bind us, viz. by giving thought a content, a flesh, a density.
These distinctions and oppositions are not false; they are merely unfounded. A confrontation which restricts itself to the symbolic texture of symbols and does not face up to the question of their foundation in reflection will soon prove embarrassing to the advocate of hermeneutics. For the artificiality and emptiness of logical symbolism are simply the counterpart and condition of the true aim of this logic, viz. to guarantee the nonambiguity of arguments; what the hermeneutician calls double meaning is, in logical terms, ambiguity, i.e. equivocity of words and amphiboly of statements. A peaceful juxtaposition of hermeneutics and symbolic logic is therefore impossible; symbolic logic quickly makes any lazy compromise untenable. Its very “intolerance” forces hermeneutics to radically justify its own language.
We must therefore understand this intolerance in order to arrive a contrario at the foundation of hermeneutics.
If the rigour of symbolic logic seems more exclusive than that of traditional formal logic, the reason is that symbolic logic is not a simple prolongation of the earlier logic. It does not represent a higher degree of formalization; it proceeds from a global decision concerning ordinary language, the amphibolous character of its construction, the confusion inherent in metaphor and idiomatic expressions, the emotional resonance of highly descriptive language. Symbolic logic despairs of natural language precisely at the point where hermeneutics believes in its implicit “wisdom”.
This struggle begins with the exclusion from the properly cognitive sphere of all language that does not give factual information. The rest of discourse is classified under the heading of emotive and horatory functions of language; that which does not give factual information expresses emotions, feelings or attitudes, or urges others to behave in some particular way.
Reduced thus to the informative function, language still has to be divested of the equivocity of words and the amphiboly of grammatical constructions; verbal ambiguity must be unmasked so as to eliminate it from arguments and to employ coherently the same words in the same sense within the same argument. The function of definitions that succeed in doing this are scientific ones. These are not content with pointing out the meaning of words already have in usage, independently of their definition; instead they very strictly characterise an object in light of a scientific theory (for example, the definition of force as the product of mass and acceleration in the context of Newtonian theory).
But symbolic logic goes further. For it, the price of univocity is the creation of a symbolism with no ties to natural to language. This notion of a symbol excludes the other notion of symbol. The recourse to a completely artificial symbolism introduces in a logic a difference not only of degree but also of nature; the symbols of the logician intervene precisely at the point where arguments of classical logic, formulated in ordinary language, run into an invincible and, in a way, residual ambiguity. Thus the logical disjunction sign ∨ eliminates the ambiguity of words that express disjunction in ordinary language (Eng., or; Ger., oder; Fr., ou); ∨ expresses only the particular meaning common to the inclusive disjunction (the sense of the Latin vel) according to which at least one is false; ∨ resolves the ambiguity by formulating the inclusive disjunction as the part common to the two modes of disjunction. Likewise the symbol ⊃ resolves the ambiguity inherent in the notion of implication (which may denote formal implication, either logical, definitional, or causal); the symbol ⊃ formulates the common partial meaning, namely, that any hypothetical statement with a true antecedent and a false consequent must be false; the symbol is thus an abbreviation of a longer symbolism which expresses the negation of the conjunction of the truth value of the antecedent and the falsity of the consequent: ∼ (p. ∼ q).
Thus the artificial language of logical symbolism enables one to determine the validity of arguments in all cases where a residual ambiguity can be ascribed to the structure of ordinary language. The precise point where symbolic logic cuts across and contests hermeneutics, therefore, is this: verbal equivocity and syntactical amphiboly—in short, the ambiguity of ordinary language—can be overcome only at the level of a language whose symbols have a meaning completely determined by the truth table whose construction they allow. Thus the sense of the symbol ∨ is completely determined by its truth function, inasmuch as it serves to safeguard the validity of the disjunctive syllogism; likewise the sense of the symbol ⊃ completely exhausts its meaning in the construction of the truth table of the hypothetical syllogism. These constructions guarantee that the symbols are completely unambiguous, while the nonambiguity of the symbols assures the universal validity of arguments.
As long as the logic of multiple meaning is not guaranteed in this reflective function, it necessarily falls under the blows of formal and symbolic logic. In the eyes of the logician, hermeneutics will always be suspected of fostering a culpable complacency toward equivocal meanings, of surreptitiously giving an informative function to expressions that have merely an emotive or horatory function. Hermeneutics thus falls under the fallacies of relevance which a sound logic denounces.
The only thing that can come to the aid of equivocal expressions and truly ground a logic of double meaning is the problematic of reflection. The only thing that can justify equivocal expressions is their a priori role in the movement of self-appropriation by self which constitutes reflective activity. This a priori function pertains not to a formal but to a transcendental logic, if by transcendental logic is meant the establishing of the conditions of possibility of a domain of objectivity in general. The task of such a logic is to extricate by a regressive method the notions presupposed in the constitution of a type of experience and a corresponding type of reality. Transcendental logic is not exhausted in the Kantian a priori. The connection we have established between reflection upon the I think, I am qua act, and the signs scattered in the various cultures of that act of existing, opens up a new field of experience, objectivity, and reality. This is the field to which the logic of double meaning pertains—a logic we have qualified above as complex but not arbitrary, and rigorous in its articulations. The principle of limitation to the demands of symbolic logic lies in the structure of reflection itself. If there is no such thing as the transcendental, there is no reply to the intolerance of symbolic logic; but if the transcendental is an authentic dimension of discourse, then new force is found in the reasons that can be opposed to the requirement of logicism that all discourse be measured by its treatise of arguments. These reasons, which seemed to us to be left hanging in the air for want of a foundation, are as follows:
- The requirement of univocity holds only for discourse that presents itself as argument: but reflection does not argue, it draws no conclusion, it neither deduces or induces; it states the conditions of possibility whereby empirical consciousness can be made equal to thetic consciousness. Hence, “equivocal” applies only to those expressions that ought to be univocal in the course of a single “argument” but are not; in the reflective use of multiple-meaning symbols there is no fallacy of ambiguity: to reflect upon these symbols and to interpret them is one and the same act.
- The understanding developed by reflection upon symbols is not a weak substitute for definition, for reflection is not a type of thinking that defines and thinks according to “classes.” This brings us back to the Aristotelian problem of the “many meanings of being.” Aristotle was the first to see clearly that philosophical discourse is not subject to the logical alternative of univocal-equivocal, for being is not a “genus”
; and yet, being is said; but it “is said in many ways”.
- Let us go back to the very first alternative considered above: a statement that does not give factual information, we said, expresses only the emotions or attitudes of a subject. Reflection, however, falls outside this alternative; that which makes possible the appropriation of the I think, I am is neither the empirical statement not the emotive statement, but something other than either of these.
This case for interpretation rests entirely on the reflective function of interpretative thought. If the double movement of symbols towards reflection and of reflection towards symbols is valid, interpretative thought is well grounded. Hence it may be said, at least, negatively, that such thought is not measured by a logic of arguments; the validity of philosophical statements cannot be arbitrated by a theory of language conceived as syntax; the semantics of philosophy is not swallowed up by a symbolic logic.
These propositions concerning philosophic discourse do not enable us, however, to say positively what a philosophical statement is; such an affirmation could be fully justified only by its actually being said. At least we can affirm that the indirect, symbolic language of reflection can be valid, not because it is equivocal, but in spite of its being equivocal”.
Paul Ricoeur. Trans. Denis Savage. “Book I. Problematic: Reflection and Equivocal Language”. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 1970. P. 47- 54
Ashis Nandy’s controversial point that the lower castes are the most corrupt is controversial only insofar as its context is elided, evaded or ignored with an agenda.
The blending of ideal totalities of thought and deed in the brutal melting pot of our diverse, often divisive, Indian people has been long drawn on as a resilient, and, indeed now, a robustly commonplace philosopheme by her commentarial, emblem bearing khidmatgars. In fact, long before freeing herself from the yolk of Colonial subjugation, popular Indian sentiment, and its ascendant political jingo of saffron stained Nationalism, had developed in her people an avidity for this syncretic unitarianism of thought— as much in symbolism and rhetoric as could fail to translate into practice, even. Our politics have been a testament to this tradition of abrasion and richness in turn. We continue to be a nation of many chugged along an inertial, expedient, One: Bharatavarsha. Srinivasa Ramanujan’s mathematical prowess, for instance, Nandy argues not surprisingly, was rooted as much in the tradition of Western natural philosophy as it was in an indigenous, para-European [pathological/ anal-regressive?] culture imbued with the constellating torque of theotechny, astrology and the honing of technics pertaining to extrasensory perception. The dizzying plasticity and substantive force of medieval Indian logical traditions stands testimony to the heteronymous and collative business of our modern discursive practices; where else may one find admixed sublime notions of valour to be obtained in logomachy attended simultaneously by a strong distaste for epistemological consistency? In the surviving clamour of ricocheting, and ever-revivifying-reifying, Indian traditions of logic mired in ancient, plural originations of course [!] The Nyāya-Śhāstra school, for instance, finds place for categories of logical disputation such as intentional quibbling [chala], wrangling for victory at the cost of Truth [jalpa], ad hoc attacks on debaters [vitanda] and outré forms of the analogue like the varnya-sama— balancing two questionable axioms such that a conclusion may nevertheless obtain. An example of varnya-sama:
Sound is non-eternal,
Because it is a product,
Like a pot.
The leisurely and anodyne practices of intellectual jousting cultivated with great fervour in ancient India, through centuries, have all but petered out in deference to the narrow proprietary template of the mediatised sensationalisation of our information age. No more do the media have the time or inclination to tackle any discursion a tad removed from punctual dotage to the average, illiterate demagogue’s fiery sound bite. The gap toothed maw of local traditions of reason, once sharpened by the insatiable Indian appetite for knowledge pursued hotly by competing clans, is now emptied out for fear that it might puncture the official bag of wind beloved to some partisan electorate; gerrymandering of course defies catagories of traditional, and reasonable, logic and is its own totem and taboo. Ashis Nandy’s strident rhetoric, begging to differ with the contours of our mediatised information society, demands a more thoroughgoing involvement with contextual nuances. His own indubitable record as a champion for the emancipation of lower classes and castes in India by exposing the complicity of apparently rivalrous political combatants vying for their vote, through –sociological and psychological analyses, rankles with the po-faced, straight laced expediencies preferred by the heirs of a sterile Nehruvian secularity. The aforementioned sterility of this secularity, perfectly emblematised by the rivalry between the Congress as self-appointed benefactors of minorities and the BJP as heroic brigands out to restore the lost glory of Hindutva, is best understood through Nandy’s critique of their mutual need for and benefit from the perpetuation of manageable instances of communal violence— is not the very idea of the political the idea of an ineradicable enmity that justifies the Law and its punitive sovereignty and excess, the idea of a polémios or hostis that a government alone can resist?
Now, the defence of minorities is no simple matter of taking sides in a political establishment that functions in line with ancient wasms, myths and cultural pasts which have seeped into the very [un]conscious ego structures of its principal actors. There are several polarities occulted between seemingly binary embattlements. The Hindu upper castes feel entitled to their privileges by descent while the lower classes, Dalits included, are grudgingly ceded to by way of reservations in government employment and education sectors, but the consequences of this allegedly salubrious interaction between puritanical and postlapsarian Hindu ideology on one hand and the reality of legally empowered lower castes on the other are mixed at best. While the idea behind reservations for lower castes in governance, education and employment was to secure their representation, equal status and reintegration into a chronically hierarchically stratified Indian society it has led to the development of sub-classes among the lower castes and the perpetuation of bad faith among Hindu hegemons who see affirmative intervention on behalf of minority communities as de facto anti-Hindu. The irony is incontestable: the Hindu Nationalist political outfits uphold Hindutva ideology as an ego ideal that will not only restore a mythical, imaginal glory and pre-eminence to Hindu cultural values but also emancipate the oppressed classes in a soteriological telos; of course, both assertions are problematic given Indian history is replete with records of violence meted on cultures by colonising, invading others: Hinduism of the historically accurate variety is by its form hierarchical and exclusive, shaped as it was by invaders and repeated subjugation to cultural others, but the symbolic efficiency of its rhetoric gaining gravity from sheer persistence continues to be exploited by RSS and BJP ideologues. The use of linguistic, cultural, religious and mythical differences between communities continues to be dominant in the will to power; dividing electorates by caste lines makes political sense if power is its sole motive. Is it surprising that governments have endorsed particular versions of history to be taught in schools and universities, at variance not only with established or inadequate, unequivocal, facts but also with each other? Ashis Nandy thinks the use of controversial historical revisions in officially endorsed versions for pedagogical use to be a tactical instrument of power: it establishes means for legitimating and enforcing negative social attitudes towards persistently marginalised minority communities, and lower castes.
The problem runs deeper still: emancipatory provisions like reservations to ensure the gradual improvement of the economic and social standing of the lower classes, e.g. Dalits, Other Backward Communities, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes etc., have led to pockets of prosperity while leaving the rest of their communities marginalised. And, if this was not problematic enough, the newly enfranchised and prosperous beneficiaries of reservation and other alleviating government interventions among the lower castes, also, have historically tended to re-christen and acculturate themselves as Hindus proper; adapting Hindu religious practices and beliefs once their economic marginalisation was redressed, and dissociating from their erstwhile class peers from their original communities— adding a twist to the casteist logic by identification with their upper caste oppressors, in a process sociologists have called sanskritisation. To state controversially a very necessary observation: the symptomal tendency of the condemnation Ashis Nandy’s ironic, innocuous and constitutionally privileged speech act has garnered from the lower castes belies another occasion of identifying with the aggressor: in calling out Nandy’s provocative defence of their cause, offended lower caste representatives have allied themselves with their higher caste oppressors who would like to get rid of Nandy’s scathing exposé of their cultural chauvinism. In this way they can continue to subjugate lower castes in a system that appears legitimate, in an almost fatalistic pre-ordination as Kancha Ilaiah would point out. In light of these endemic and long abandoned fault lines the fashionable brouhaha about sensitivity towards the historically oppressed classes, political correctness and the rule of communal vote banks take on a life that is parasitic upon the body politic of a deferred, and truly representational, democracy. In its place we have a semiosis with sound and fury betraying an unresolved psychic deadlock at the heart of our divided lower classes and their unified oppressors. When Nandy said, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2013, —during the talk entitled “Republic of Ideas” which the present author was fortunate enough to attended with his wife, —that the Dalits, O.B.Cs, S.Cs and S.Ts are the most corrupt class of governmental officials he was formulating the dominant psychological and adversarial consciousness of upper class elites that informs the formal and institutional communalism of Indian governmentality. The persistent outrage against reservations in premier colleges for students from marginalised Dalit, O.B.Cs, S.Cs and S.Ts communities, who have been put to disadvantage by dominant higher castes for several centuries of India’s history as a Republic based on the principle of equality accountable to constitutionally privileged Law, bears witness to what the privileged classes and castes think of the lower castes and the oppressed: precious little. Nandy has shown both the oppressive Hindutva hegemons like the Sangh Parivar; RSS; VHP; the BJP and their symbolic adversary the Congress, with its Nehruvian secularity, mirrored obliquely in several identitarian political parties, are only concerned with a will to power, and their predilection for a status quo that legitimates their own political sovereignty.
The modifying apogee of Nandy’s ironic formulation— which most media failed to convey along with their ad hoc sensational and irresponsible reportage of [mis]quotation, repeated ad nauseum in loops— was to come later in an elaborately qualified agreement with his interlocutor Tarun Tejpal, founder of Tehelka; where he said, he saw corruption among lower classes as having an ameliorating effect; he thought it was an opportune symptom that belied lower caste consciousness having reached a stage where they were better equipped to redress their systemic suppression by the armatures of our ingrained casteist governmentality. His underlying thesis being: what the upper classes had done with impunity has now become available, in however insular and specific instances of corruption among lower caste governmental and bureaucratic actors, as a counterstrategy against a traditionally upper caste governmental culture. Behind his deadpan pronouncement that corrupt lower caste governmental agents restored his hope in the possibilities of a robust Indian Republic and a democracy to come was a well worn career of forty years spent theorising and empowering the subaltern, the oppressed and the peripheral selfhood of Colonial and Post-Colonial subjects. But this defence which may have taken many an odd hour everyday for years on end to formulate, as discourse, as clarion call and vitanda cannot be conveyed without Nandy’s seemingly egregious irony. Without irony there could be no ironing out of differences irreducible to a few seconds of vocalised order words, no longer coherent in a social space alienated from its communal meaning and being. There is, of course, no time for such nitpicking and responsibility towards the veridical in the Indian republic of mediatised democracy. Sound arguments are loudly, quickly and efficiently supplanted by sound bites that turn around the very purpose of dissensus and defence. I stand behind Nandy, not to be contrarian, offensive, insensitive or casteist but because I believe he said what he did in good faith and as an ally of the oppressed, with the weight of traditions of logic, reason and rhetoric that go back and forth from Pre-Vedic to post-modern India, behind and before him as a warrior-theoretician of the Indian subaltern.
Derrida, Jacques. Trans. Collins, George. “On Absolute Hostility: The Cause of Philosophy and the Spectre of the Political”. The Politics of Friendship. UK: London, Verso, 2005.
Gottlob, Michael. History and Politics in Post-Colonial India. India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Kakar, Sudhir. Indian Identity. India, New Delhi: Penguin India Ltd. 2004.
Ilaiah, Kancha. Post-Hindu India: A Discourse on Dalit-Bahujan, Socio-Spiritual and Scientific Knowledge. India, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2009
Michael, S., M. Ed. Dalits in Modern India: Vision and Values, Second Edition. India, New Delhi: Sage Publications. 2007.
Nandy, Ashis. Return From Exile: Alternative Sciences; The Illegitimacy of Nationalism; The Savage Freud. India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Nandy, Ashis. Exiled at Home: At the Edge of Psychology; The Intimate Enemy; Creating a Nation. India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Sarangi, Asha. Themes in Indian Politics: Language and Politics in India. India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Vidyabhusana, Satis, Chandra. A History of Indian Logic: Ancient, Medieval and Modern Schools. India, New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited. 2006.
 Ashis Nandy in his essay “The Savage Freud” discusses the prevalent attitudes of European intellectuals about Indian cultural mores and ways of thinking and being as, psychoanalytically, anal-regressive.
 See Nandy, Ashis. Return From Exile: Alternative Sciences; The Illegitimacy of Nationalism; The Savage Freud. “Alternative Sciences: The Other Science of Srinivasa Ramanujan”. India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004. P. 120.
 See Vidyabhusana, Satis, Chandra. “Contents of the Nyāya-Śhāstra. 32. The Categories: Their Definition”. A History of Indian Logic: Ancient, Medieval and Modern Schools. India, New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited. 2006. § II. P. 55- 69.
 Krishna, Sankaran. “Death of Irony in the Age of Media”. The Hindu: Editorial. P. 10. Thursday, January 31, 2013.
 See Nandy, Ashis; Trivedi, Shikha; Mayaram, Shail; Yagnik, Achyut. “Creating a Nationality: The Ramjanmabhumi Movement and the Fear of the Self”. Exiled at Home: At the Edge of Psychology; The Intimate Enemy; Creating a Nation. India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005. P. 1- 207.
 The idea of public law demands that there be a transgressor of public law, necessarily and chronically: the public enemy is a structural necessity as the basis for a judicature that can punish and discipline. For an enlightening discussion on this theme see Derrida, Jacques. Trans. Collins, George. “On Absolute Hostility: The Cause of Philosophy and the Spectre of the Political”. The Politics of Friendship. UK: London, Verso, 2005. §5. P. 112- 137.
 Jogdand, P., G. Ed. Michael, S., M. “Reservation Policy and the Empowerment of Dalits”. Dalits in Modern India: Vision and Values, Second Edition. India, New Delhi: Sage Publications. 2007. P. 315- 335.
 See Kakar, Sudhir. Indian Identity. India, New Delhi: Penguin India Ltd. 2004. Also, Ilaiah, Kancha. Post-Hindu India: A Discourse on Dalit-Bahujan, Socio-Spiritual and Scientific Knowledge. India, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2009.
 See Gottlob, Michael. “Scientific and Political Claims in the Rewriting of Indian History”. History and Politics in Post-Colonial India. India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012. P. 1- 80.
 See Sarangi, Asha. Themes in Indian Politics: Language and Politics in India. India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011.
 ibid. Gottlob, Michael. P. 23
 Ibid. Ed. Michael, S., M. (2005)
 See Ilaiah, Kancha. “Symptoms of Civil War and End of Hinduism”. Post-Hindu India: A Discourse on Dalit-Bahujan, Socio-Spiritual and Scientific Knowledge. India, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2009. P.232- 266.
 Ibid. Nandi, Ashis et al. 2005. P. 1- 207
Derrida’s The Politics of Friendship (1994) is as fine an act of deconstructive tightrope traipse as any of his other works; combing through quotations from known philosophers, through tendentious citations severally removed from the original locutions, in unknown light, and situating in them the inscrutable intentionality embedded in language [langue] as such. As ever, his reading of almost trite, or Canonical, texts bringing about a moment of alterity native to them, and so surprisingly impugning the judgment of their conventional senses, is entertaining, vigorous, prolix and fecund. And, after all these qualifications one must get to the brass tacks, irreducible takeaways tacked onto all iterations hung on his every word: what of the irreducibility that cannot be recovered and yet latches onto what does get said, even beyond the speaker? In so many words, why do people say what must by nature betray them? It is perhaps necesary…
It is easy to sympathise with the death of coherence via meaning as such [a handy philosopheme], and with the entire post-modernist camp which here lights bonfires to undecidables that outlast their urgency, but being tied as we are to finite contexts that both define us and are defined in tangential, even aporetic, ways the motivation for tarrying with imponderables— or, as is the wont of Derrida, the constitutive imponderables which circumscribe the meaning of speech— must remain so long as it is tarrying with ineluctability an impossibility of determination, theory as everlasting hesitation. The impasse of all Derridology [po-faced post-modernist malingering, of which Derrida is less guilty than Derrideans], in the ethical sense of such a nonce word, is that seeking to eliminate the temerations and abuses that speech is liable to is no excuse for a longwinded avoidance of the ineliminable community of meaning which persists despite its impossibility, despite its deconstruction, as the arché-stencil from which traces must incessantly derive themselves. One may say, such spectator position theory theorises itself always-already and is either beast or sovereign, but not human.
The denial of permanence of meaning denies also that such permanence be sought out, infinity paradoxically must end— after what infinite fashion may such a token be sought [such that it is never found]? In summary, even as Derrida says, “infinite différance is finite”, and may one be loathe to rejoinder, sufficiently: finitude is the stuff of the infinite, and insofar as speech, both apt and abortive, is finite, finitude must be privileged? This deflationary movement reduces the deliberation of imponderables to mere preponderances that eliminate finite responsibility, which remains necessary for action; though it risks being misguided action, one must concede, it exceeds theory infinitely in differing from theories’ impasses. Here, one must become, again, a naïve Kantian if only to understand Derrida, Others and their communities to come, to affirm in their cacophonous and wily witnesses decidables that impinge on many a finite existence, finite well being and finite ethics. Infinite responsibility is the ruse of those who must deny finite justice, it is gentrified hubris patient with its ear to the ground, stuck there.
Derrida, Jacques. Trans. Collins, George (2005). The Politics of Friendship. London, UK: Verso.
Indian Naturalism: An Emic View
The naturalistic bent of contemporary Indian thought is a product of the materialistic philosophy of Lokāyatas or Carvākas from the Nāstika School, and, it is also, as is claimed by the movement, in contiguity with the ethos of European Enlightenment (Quack, J., 2011, p. 9). The Lokāyata is described, traditionally, with its origins being in heretical opposition to Vedic thought, as a technique of critique which did not propose a negation as logical refutation; its modus operandi, being the generation of inevitable absurdities [nigraha-sthāna] in an “…argument by adopting false and puzzling analogies [jāti]…”, is vitandā which can be translated into an oxymoronic appellation, in its substantive form, as illogical logic (Dasgupta, S., 2007, p.512).
There is here an ambivalence lieu of the oppositional tendency of the epistemic systems between the Hindus and the Buddhists as it can aid a more holistic comprehension of the metaphysical chasm between the two religions, as for the latter there is no distinction between tricky argumentation and correct argumentation. Although Buddhists do not accept distinction between modes of argumentation the do distinguish between arguments that provoke virtue and those that abet vice, yet what is illogical logic for rationalistic Hindus [upholders of Lokāyata, in terms of soteriological historiography] may be called logical in the Buddhist view (Ibid 2007). May one not say, then in the heretical and solemn timbre of the Lokāyata, an argument is an argument is an argument?
“All is impure; all is not impure; the crow is white, the crane is black; and for this reason or for that” says the Lokāyata, or the book of unbelievers (Ibid 2007, p. 515).
The popularity of this vein of sophistry was associated in public consciousness with science, and there was an entire discipline which concerned itself with the study of this modality of argumentation (Ibid 2007). This, contrarianism at the heart of Hindu hermeneutics, is sometimes taken as reason to propose that the truth of idealist Hindu philosophy can be attained sola scriptura (Ibid 2007) — by definition, cutting off the role of the hermeneutic subject, or interpreting authority as extraneous and even a priori nihilistic. The distinction “…between the natural and the supernatural…”, says Quack (2011), “is…extremely complex and treacherous” (p. 10); contemporary Hinduism would, however, by and large, treat of the naturalistic materialist position as atheism (Ibid 2011). This blanket term of atheist would also be used to describe rationalists who try to broach the question by adopting a syncretic view, inclusive of humanism, scepticism, ethical attitudes (Ibid 2011).
This blog-post is a continuation of an ongoing series on Indian Aesthetics…
Dasgupta, Surendranath (2007) A History of Indian Philosophy: Volume III. India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Quack, Johannes (2011) Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India. USA: Oxford University Press.
Anthony Paul Smith is a scholar and blogger for An und für sich. He came to my attention by a web seminar I “attended” on the philosophy of Francois Laruelle and non-philosophy which I attended. I have since read his translations of Principles of Non-Philosophy (with Nicola Rubczak) and Future Christ: A Lesson in Heresy both out with Continuum. While still trying to wrap by head around the implications of Laruelle, I also wondered why Laruelle has taken so long to catch on compared to many of his contemporaries like Badiou, Derrida, and Deleuze.
C.Derick Varn: Why do you think Laruelle has been slow to be introduced to the anglophone world?
Anthony Paul Smith: Regarding your first question, I taught at DePaul University as an adjunct for a year bouncing between the departments of Religious Studies, Environmental Studies, and Philosophy. During that year Alan D. Schrift came and presented a paper to the philosophy department. You may know that he’s editing a pretty comprehensive history of Continental philosophy and I jokingly asked him about why he hadn’t included Laruelle in his history. After explaining that he didn’t really know anyone who worked on him, it didn’t come to mind and whatever, he did tell me that he thought Laruelle was one of those figures who just fell through the cracks. If things had gone a little differently, he said, or someone had picked up a text to translate in the 70s or 80s, who knows if he would have been picked up. I didn’t get the impression he particularly liked Laruelle or anything, but he did bring out for me the contingency of these sorts of things. I mean, there are lots of brilliant thinkers in the world and some of them are exceedingly smart. But in the same way we pass homeless people and think that there is some perfectly good reason why that’s him and not me, I think as readers of philosophy we just assume that there is a really good reason we all keep talking about Derrida or Deleuze or Badiou or even Meillassoux now (just to stick with some sort of contemporary names). So that is clearly part of it, just an accident of history. At the same time his work and the language he uses to express it are difficult and I think this has put off a number of potential translators. I always wondered why Ray Brassier, for example, never translated one of his works, even one of the shorter ones, considering his own skills in that area. But he has tended to go with relatively more straight forward writers like Badiou and Meillassoux. But that’s the real issue — the lack of anything of his to read unless you’re willing to track down the French and work through it in a language unfamiliar to most Anglophone readers.
C.D.V.: Do you think Laruelle’s linkage to Ray Brassier’s work and also to Badiou has limited his reading in the US and Europe?
A.P.S.: As for Laruelle being linked to Brassier’s work, I don’t know if it has limited his reading. Brassier really was the first person to advocate for him in his Radical Philosophy article. At the same time, I think that Brassier’s own development (which is ongoing as far as I understand) did really color how many younger readers ended up reading him. There was a certain assumption, since many of them weren’t reading the primary sources I don’t think, that Laruelle shared Brassier’s antipathy for the human, for religion, for meaning, even for a vision of science that isn’t itself colored by a certain grimness and darkness. I think with Laruelle’s own texts starting to finally be available in English this is starting to fade away, which means many of those first-generation of readers have moved on from Laruelle finding his work concerned with issues they are not. But, I think we are seeing new readers, many coming from the arts, and I’m looking forward to conversations that do build off of Laruelle’s actual work rather than Brassier’s. I should say, I think Brassier was always quite clear that he had found something useful in Laruelle, that he wasn’t just explicating him. And I think we see some of the harshest criticism of Laruelle, if respectful, in the chapter of Nihil Unbound where Brassier deals with him.
C.D.V.: What brought you to nonphilosophy as a methodological way of dealing with intellectual problems?
A.P.S.: I came to Laruelle pretty much by accident, as we usually do with these sorts of things. I had moved to the UK to study with Philip Goodchild at the University of Nottingham and during my MA year was focused on questions of immanence and transcendence in both philosophy and religion. While there I was part of a class with the traditionalist theologian John Milbank. Well, it wasn’t really a class, John isn’t known for really teaching material, but instead what he would do was pick a few books that were coming out that the wanted to read and we’d read them and discuss them. One of those books was John Mullarkey’s Post-Continental Philosophyand though Milbank basically encouraged his students to rip apart the book based on its advocacy of philosophies of immanence, I somehow managed to actually read the book! The way Mullarkey described Laruelle’s project suggested that Laruelle may have resources that would be helpful for me as I thought through these questions of immanence and transcendence.
Still, I didn’t finally read him until about a year later in June 2008, during the first year of my PhD studies, when after a particularly bad time at Nottingham (I had run afoul of the traditionalists there) I felt I had to escape for my own sanity for a bit. I had a friend who had an apartment in Paris so I bought a return bus ticket and went there for a week or so. I went to the Gilbert Jeune near Place St. Michel and bought Le Christ futur and Principes de la non-philosophie/ I read Le Christ futur on the bus ride back to England and it opened up a different way of doing philosophy of religion. I talk about this at more length in a chapter in the edited volume After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion, but in short I saw a way for philosophy to happen using religious materials in a way that I thought was protected from theological capture, like you find in most contemporary French phenomenologists popular in Anglophone literature (Marion, Henry, Ricoeur, but others as well).
My PhD, though, was always going to be on the question of nature from a perspective that brought together the philosophical, theological, and ecological. Laruelle’s work was a model for me of how that could look. A kind of radical disrespect for the normal disciplinary boundaries, but wrapped in a very rigorous framework that helped me not to simply write “my philosophy” as if I was some kind of crank. Instead of looking at the question of nature, say, in ecology and wondering how these ideas are philosophically determined or how philosophy could shore up an ethics for ecology, I instead could begin with the idea that ecology thinks and it thinks in a way that is, yes, influenced by philosophy, but also outside of philosophy. I then worked to bring together what is traditionally thought about nature and what is found in contemporary scientific ecology into a single kind of philo-fiction of nature. An idea of nature that is philosophically rigorous, but also amenable (but not servile) to contemporary ecological projects. This isn’t a new kind of project, but I think that Laruelle’s non-philosophy gives us a far more robust and rigorous thinking through of the methodology underlying a project like that.
C.D.V.: What do you see as primary limitations to the development of Non-philosophy in the English speaking world?
A.P.S.: I think the primary limitation to the development of non-philosophy has been the lack of primary source material for English-language readers. I think that’s going to change now that so many of his works are being translated. But I’ve never thought that Laruelle was “the next big thing”. In part because his work is very abstract and difficult, but also because the sorts of institutions that support that kind of work are shrinking. It is difficult for me to see working non-philosophically landing someone an academic post, of Laruelle’s works fitting within the ways philosophy survives in the academia as the guardians of ethics subject to the whims of the business school or medical school.
C.D.V.: You recently taught an online seminar on Laruelle how do you think that has gone?
A.P.S.: As for the seminar, I think it started off going well, but I was surprised by how different the performative element of teaching this way is from classroom teaching. There is no “energy” to build off of, you can’t be interrupted with a clarifying question, etc. I also underestimated how busy I would be and how far along the technology is. The internet still doesn’t handle large videos very well and so when the seminar began I was traveling around the UK lecturing and finishing up the co-translation of Principles with Nicola Rubczak. And the speed was always too slow to get the videos up. I do think this is an area para-academics should consider developing though. It brought together people who were interested in Laruelle’s work in a way that a traditional academic environment never would be able to.
C.D.V.: Is there a particular book that you think will have a particularly dramatic reception in the Anglophone world?
A.P.S.: In terms of Laruelle’s own texts, his Principles is an incredibly rich but difficult text. I think it will reward reading for people looking for a way to think how to do thought in a way that brings together philosophy and science (or any other material outside of philosophy proper). But owing to the difficulty of that book, which may require a bit of a guide, I think two other texts are going to be really important for people’s engagement with Laruelle’s work in the Anglophone world: Anti-Badiou and Photo-Fiction, A Non-Standard Aesthetics. The first, translated by Robin Mackay, is a kind of fun polemic. Laruelle often performs his non-philosophical mutations of standard philosophy by taking on another philosopher’s style (I think, for instance, Principles is written very much in the style of Husserl and that makes sense given its mutation of phenomenology). In Anti-Badiou Laruelle takes on Badiou’s own polemical voice and uses it against him, which makes both for a fun read, but also a good way to understand Laruelle’s project in relation to one that is more familiar to readers of French philosophy today. Then Photo-Fiction, translated by Drew S. Burk and published in a bilingual edition by Univocal Publishing in Minneapolis, is a short but powerful recasting of his ideas related to art in the light of his most recent work on quantum theory and an ethics of insurrection (a rather anti-Badiouian notion!). I’m currently in Minneapolis where Laruelle is speaking to an arts organizations and at the University of Minnesota and I have been really happy to see how interested the artists have been and how they also seem to understand the shape of the project. But, both of these texts have a certain energy to them that I think people will pick up on and want to run with.
C.D.V.: What are do you think the internet will bring as far as prospects for more radical philosophy?
A.P.S.: In some ways I am a dinosaur when it comes to the internet. For me, it has always just been a way to fold space so that I could communicate with people I am very far from and do it must faster than sending letters. I think there are people who are more clued into the technology, its limitations as well as what it allows us to do, who may have a better idea of what new avenues of thought will be opened for us. My hope is that it continues to allow for a truly global network of communication between people from various backgrounds who are working on similar projects. Blogs, it seems, have mostly run their course in the philosophy world, and I mostly use my occasional writings at AUFS for book reviews and to let people know about events. What the new form of sharing theory will be is not yet clear to me, but there has been a certain lack of dynamic discussion online since everyone has closed down their comments or have begun to police them in ways that seem counter-productive and more about creating an in-crowd for this strand of thought or that. Whatever happens next needs to resist that.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
A.P.S.: In closing, I just want to say thank you. I hope people start to see what Laruelle’s work has to offer our projects. Not as a new master, but as someone whose framework can be redeployed in various ways to productive ends.
“I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy when I said: philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition.” – Wittgenstein
Why did Wittgenstein say this? For a man whose primary obsession in philosophy was the bewitchment of language, it seems odd that he thought philosophy should only be written as a poetic composition. In a way, this can seem like obscurantist move, or to say that philosophy itself was nothing but the same kind of mystification that Plato would have kicked the poets out of the republic for. It is implied in that statement even in my reading, but I don’t think Wittgenstein was being solely ironic or dismissive here also it is that poetic analogy allows types of experience in language with do not rely on basic proposition statements: the topic of a poem is bracketed out, not said, because saying it would not render the matter justice.
Now one can take a mystical approach to this, and perhaps that is the essential tension that let Wittgenstein to reject his conclusions in the Tractus and turn to natural language philosophy, but the implications are in the ways poets, more explicitly than other word artists or logicians, acknowledge family resemblances of arbitrary games. The danger of the mystification of poetry is there, and, as Zizek is fond of reminding us, most of the nationalist butchers of the last two centuries have been poets or inspired by poets, but the same could be said of philosopher-kings. For example, how many bodies have been made in the name of Lockean property distinctions or Fascist readings of Hegel? It, however, is also those who understand the dangerous mystification of poetry who can see through nationalistic dreams and romantic bewitching of language. So the same with philosophy.