Must Philosophy be Politico-Historical?

This post is a response to discussion on Heidegger that’s largely been going on with Paul Ennis. And I must say, these sorts of conversations are precisely what, to me at least, make blogging satisfying, because you learn in the process – about why you think what you think, why others think differently, etc.

So, towards the end of his last reply on Heidegger, Paul says:

I must admit that since I am not personally a Marxist or committed to the idea that philosophy should address inequality it is perhaps easier to overlook Heidegger’s indifference than for someone who is (though I would note that I do think inequality should be addressed I personally do not think philosophy has much to offer in this regard).

To me, this is fascinating. It is such a fundamental part of my approach to philosophy that philosophy must, necessarily, address inequality. Or at least, any philosophical question, for it to be complete, must deal with ethics and history. So I have no problem with a philosophy or system which only addresses epistemological issues, say, because it has a small scope, and is only trying to address one small philosophical issue. But any philosopher who is aiming to be complete in any way, to produce a worldview or system (and I think Heidegger and most phenomenologists fall into this category), need to address ethics and history. And not merely in the general, but also in the specific.

How Marx Invented the Symptom . . .

That is, a philosophy, it seems to me, needs to answer the question: why did I as an individual, and the socio-historico conditions that created me, make me want to write this sort of philosophy? What does the philosophy I produce say about my place within history? What were the conditions of production of my thought? For me, these questions are not, and cannot, be unrelated to that thought itself. At least, past Nietzsche and Freud (on the psychological side), Hegel and Marx (on the socio-historical side), any philosophy which avoids answering these questions is incomplete, and radically so. For Nietzsche and Freud, the question first emerges in the history of philosophy: might my philosophy be a result of my own internal issues and drives? For Hegel and Marx, the question first emerges in the history of philosophy: might my philosophy simply be an example of the cunning of historical reason, its symptom rather than cause? This is why, as Zizek argues, ‘Marx invents the symptom’.

Many critics have argued that a crucial links of thinkers (Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, sometimes Darwin) made philosophy lose its transparency to self, its ability to say ‘this is my view on the world’ without also posing the question, ‘ok, but might this be because you are being manipulated by forces beyond you that work through you?’ In order to deal with the provocation of this question, a philosophy needs, I think, to at least address these questions. How it handles these issues, of course, is another story.

When it comes to phenomenology, often these questions are addressed last, because phenomenology in general seems to approach philosophy from the standpoint of epistemology and conscious cognition. But after the Husserlian epoche, at least in theory, one should be able to restore the questions of history and psychology to the philosophical enterprise. Many phenomenologists never get that far, but in theory, I think they should.

I don’t think Husserl would find these questions moot. Heidegger, I think, would take the approach put forward by Paul, namely, that the task of philosophy is to address the general aspects of the questions of psycho-socio-historical context, but not the specifics. Now, I can understand perhaps bracketing the psychology of the individual author but even then, the philosophical biography gives us often a great understanding of why a philosophy is the way it is (and this is certainly the case with Heidegger!). But the historical conditions of production of a philosophy hit me as VERY relevant. Can we understand Deleuze without understanding May ’68 in France?

Reading Heidegger through, um, Hegel?

I do think that some philosophers attempt to write in such a manner that these questions vanish, but I think that is a problem or detriment to their thought. I think that Hegel was the one to really introduce the question of historical context into philosophy, a process expanded by Marx. Even though the contingent circumstances of the socio-historical context which produced the person which produced a given philosophy might seem like mere particularity, from a Hegelian point of view, this particularlity is precisely what gives us the opening onto the universality of the philosophy in question. For in fact, universality only shows up by means of particularity. If there is anything universal about a given philosophy, it is as symptom of its context. And this is what needs to be understood about that philosophy if we are to get anything universal out of it, or in fact, understand its particuarlity, in any case. The fact that particular and universal ‘deconstruct’ in the process of this argument is only the start, I think, of Hegel’s point here.

Either way, any thinker today who doesn’t address their particularly seems to me to be symptomatic of the need to avoid this question (post Hegel, Freud, etc.), because now that this question is part of the history of philosophy, to ignore this question is itself a statement. And this is where I’d start a symptomatic reading of this, in a manner suggested by Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, etc. Of course, this approach leads to various sorts of circularity, but I think that, as Heidegger does show us, certain types of circularity are essential starting points for philosophy, not its end. Zeno’s circles spurred on Socrates/Plato, and that is simply the first instance . . .

Must we?

The reason this relates to inequality in the world is because this is where we are today, it is our history. How can we write about philosophy when our world is so fucked up? If philosophy can’t answer this question, and if I don’t as a person producing philosophy work to answer this question, then I wonder, to quote Heidegger: are we yet thinking (our context)? I don’t want to imply that Paul’s not thinking, I clearly find him a cool interlocutor BECAUSE he is clearly thinking. But the fact that there are issues that I consider part of the philosophical task, and he disagrees, now THAT’S something to think about, and pretty fascinating to me.

So, here’s the question: must philosophy address social inequality? My sense is that today, yes, it must and many of the reasons I’ve listed above. But I’m curious what others think.

PS – Some other points in Paul’s post make a lot of sense to me too. Yeah, I think I definitely see that I was taught a ‘post-structuralist’ Heidegger. I’m not sure I see language as merely a ‘tool in the toolbox’, however, for by the end, it is truly essential (and that’s putting it lightly). I do think that the early Heidegger is an inheritor of the cogito, but as time goes on, particularly in the later stuff, Dasein is less and less the individual consciousness, and more a way of talking about something much bigger, closer to Merleau-Ponty’s ‘flesh’ feeling itself through us. This is where I see the real benefit of Heidegger, is that he starts in one place, and finishes in another. He starts out reworking the cogito, and ends up destroying it from within. But as Paul says, if I’m reading Bergson and Whitehead, who were writing at the same time, it seems not strong enough.

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~ by chris on March 19, 2010.

5 Responses to “Must Philosophy be Politico-Historical?”

  1. As someone who’s interested in philosophy, and someone who shares with you (I think) an identification with left politics, I also find the idea of “philosophy addressing social inequality” appealing. I think it would be worthwhile to try to enumerate what all it would take for philosophy to do this. It seems to me that, to tackle social inequality from an intellectually aware position, we need a scientific understanding of how social inequality is sustained and how it can be disrupted. (To talk about its “origins” seems a little strange to me; chimpanzees and gorillas have radically unequal societies.) We also need a philosophical understanding of what that science would have to look like. Heidegger certainly doesn’t get us there, but I’m not sure Marx does, either.

  2. […] I think that to be a philosopher working today, that is, to be a contemporary philosopher, one needs to speak to these three critiques of the philosophizing activity (personal symptom, social symptom, linguistic mediation) represented by the names Nietzsche/Freud, Hegel/Marx, and, for lack of a better term, ‘deconstruction’. This doesn’t mean that a philosopher needs to agree with any of these three critiques, rather, they need to address them, even if to eviscerate them. For more on this approach in relation to phenomenology, and Heidegger in particular, see my blog conversation with Paul Ennis here.) […]

  3. […] I think that to be a philosopher working today, that is, to be a contemporary philosopher, one needs to speak to these three critiques of the philosophizing activity (personal symptom, social symptom, linguistic mediation) represented by the names Nietzsche/Freud, Hegel/Marx, and, for lack of a better term, ‘deconstruction’. This doesn’t mean that a philosopher needs to agree with any of these three critiques, rather, they need to address them, even if to eviscerate them. For more on this approach in relation to phenomenology, and Heidegger in particular, see my blog conversation with Paul Ennis here.) […]

  4. […] fully believe that a truly complete philosophy needs address these issues (for more, see my post here). Marx/Hegel, Nietzsche, and Freud taught us that all philosophy comes from a location, and this […]

  5. […] Freud, Darwin, and Nietzsche introduced this ‘hermeneautics of suspicion in philosophy, see here).  That is, if we’re philosophers, we need to attempt to think of all the ways in which our […]

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