Underrated Philosophers: Stoics, Pierce, (Hegel?!), and avant-la-lettre, the post-structuralists!
Yeay, parlor games for philosophers returns! Things’ve been quiet here on the blog for a bit, because our first week of classes was this week, but also, I’m back to working on the manuscript(s).
[In addition, I’ve also decided that conversations that seem to go in circles and don’t seem to get anywhere are ones that I’m going to invest less time in. If my points are valid, others will likely raise them as well in the future, but I can only spend so much time on such things. Also, it is particularly draining to have to repeatedly defend yourself from really disturbing accusations based on really over-the-top distortions (and ‘over-the-top distortion’ truly is the right word) of what you are saying, with words being put in your mouth, etc. Let’s say I lost the desire to pursue that discussion much further (and for more on this, see the comments section here, particularly my final comment). This is not the way philosophical arguments usually end, but my sense is that for a variety of reasons, this argument ceased being philosophical. The result is that, and I’m not the first person I believe to say something like this, I will likely be blogging a lot less in regard to certain topics that may resurrect certain conversations. Not because I think what I said was wrong or incorrect, but just because I have more important and useful things to do, to blog on, etc. And either way, I’d like to return to a point at which I’m blogging because I have some new idea that I want to flesh out. So, a shift of some sort on this end as well.]
But underrated philosophers. I think the Greek Stoics win, hands down. And the primary reason for this is that it is so damn annoying to do any real research on their texts.
Firstly, we speak of them as a group, because its hard to figure out which one of them came up with which ideas, because it was often common when a school of thinkers like this developed to attribute your ideas to the legendary founder of the school, even if you came up with them yourself, hence, the Pythagoreans, the Stoics, etc.
Secondly, so many of the primary Stoic texts, particularly the Greek ones, have been lost. The theories of these early Stoa we have primarily due to a handful of surviving fragments, but mostly due to secondary accounts, often by hostile philosophers looking to refute what they take to be Stoic teachings. We do have much more extensive works by later Roman Stoics, such as Seneca and Cicero. And while the group as a whole is often referred to as the Roman Stoics, usually divided into early and late, the fact remains that while the Stoics wrote under the Roman empire, the early writers were Greeks, and the later were Latins. For in fact, those who followed Zeno, originator of the Stoic school (different from the Zeno of the paradoxes), were almost exclusively taught in Greek, and by word of mouth. This was primarily an oral tradition, one which was only written down later. By the time Cicero, Seneca, and other Latin Stoa were writing, the doctrines had changed substantially. The cosmology of the early Stoa, which I find so fascinating, had faded out of interest a bit, and Stoicism had become much more of a moral psychological calculus and personal ethical system. While I appreciate these later Stoa, I find that the cosmology advanced by the early Stoa, one which grounds the ethics, are of more interest to me. In many ways, the early Stoa give us a hint of the cosmology to come in Spinoza, and this is where I see them as really initiating an entirely new way of looking at the world. They also prefigure the Nietzschian eternal return by over a millenium.
What in particular about the early Stoa is worth looking at? Firstly, the fact that everything is composed of divine fire, simply at different levels of cooling, and everything returns there in cycles of ‘great conflagration’. There theory of the big-bang is here in a nutshell, as well as a radically monist approach to the cosmos. From this is derived a pantheist ontology, and an immanentist ethics which prefigures much in Spinoza. We lack the clarity to see all in the world, but our goal is to ‘sync’ up as much as possible to its immanent order, which itself defines the very meaning of the word rational. Of course, I’m interpellating a lot of interpretation here, nothing was quite stated this simply, but as a blog post I’m not going to get into tons of exegesis. Point is, the ethics and epistemology of the Stoic moral psychology of the later works in many ways flows from this sort of monist immanentism.
And I think the reason why few study the Stoics, particularly the early ones, is that so few of their ideas are in an easy to consume form. The best anthology I’ve found is the one called Hellenistic Philosophy, put our by Hackett. But still, its a mess to learn about the Stoics, and without a good exegetical commentary (I like the Cambridge Companion) to flesh out the philological and historical lacunae, its almost impossible to find an entry point. That’s why I think the Stoics(if we anglicize)/Stoa(if we stick with the Greek) are truly underrated. Even despite Logic of Sense, a book that really deals with Stoic grammar and philosophy of language, these guys haven’t returned the way they should. When one truly plumbs the depths of the early Stoa, I think they oddly have more in common with the Chinese Taoists than many of their counterparts (and while I’m not suggesting direct influence here, let us at least say that the flow of ideas from ‘the East’ often gets overlooked in studies of the ancient Greeks).
As for Peirce, he’s gotten a TON of press since Deleuze put him back on the map. But really studying Peirce is always s of mess. This is because he never wrote one summary treatise, but rather, tons of fragmentary short texts. He changes the names of his concepts almost from essay to essay, and its often difficult to tell if the ideas are changing under the names or not, and often they are, but in subtle ways. Because he also wrote on scientific and mathematical matters, but intersperses these with his philosophical thought, sometimes one needs to switch gears between philosophical and more scientific matter mid text, and if one isn’t versed in the science and math, one is left wondering if one has gotten all that’s important out of an essay. Many of the problems with reading Peirce come from the fact of his terrible employment situation. And it seems that many of his papers are still in archives, waiting to be edited for publication.
Despite the fragmentation, and like the Stoics, Peirce presents an entire cosmology and philosophical worldview and system, he is much, much more than a simple semiotician, for unlike Saussure, Pierce sees the entire world and all that is as one enormous semiosis, and he provides the philosophical mechanics to articulate this point. The problem is its so annoying to dig through the mess to get to it all, and to try to figure out which of his constantly shifting sets of terms are equivalent, which are echoes with slight modifications, etc. Even his charts don’t help much.
Both of my two suggestions here are thinkers that are overlooked, not because of the difficulty of their thought, but the difficulty or unusual nature of what is required to gain access to them. Its not simply reading a difficult text, like Whitehead or Husserl, or even reading performative texts, as with Derrida. And I still have to look up how to spell his name nearly every time (as with Meilleassieouxe!), and pronouncing Peirce right leads to more confusion, etc.
And so, despite all the press Peirce has gotten, I think not enough actually read his texts beyond the summaries often given in secondary sources of him as semiotician in the reduced sense. But he is a philosopher, with a capital P, and even after his Deleuzian renaissance, I don’t think this is often recognized.
But I’d like to suggest one other rather counterintuitive name to semi-add to the list. And that’s Hegel. Now, Hegel is one of the most appreciated philosophers in history, how could he fit on this list?! But Hegel is more maligned than read, more spoken about in summary than engaged with. The problem here isn’t the difficulty of his texts, but that, as with Peirce, they are about MOVEMENT of the WHOLE, not the parts. You can’t excerpt Hegel without doing massive injustice to him, you have to read entire works and see the movement through the stages, and that requires enormous patience. Reading excerpts gives no sense of the whole, and same can be said to some extent with Pierce (but he intentionally wrote in bite-sized chunks, so one can at least get something, if not the full system, from its parts), and Marx (whose is once again, much more excerptable, except that one misses the import of his full project if you don’t see the motion of the whole). Unlike Peirce and Marx, however, if you excerpt Hegel, you get next to nothing. Sure, you get little fairy-tales, like the master-slave, or the law of the heart and the beautiful soul. But these are hardly the point. With Hegel, its much more all or nothing. And so, most philosophical dealings with Hegel, at least today, skim the surface, and simply pretend to engage without engaging at all. As I’ve argued in previous posts, Deleuze, who is most probably my favorite philosopher, and perhaps the most profound of the second half of the twentieth century, is guilty I think of this very charge.
Along with Hegel comes Schelling, another very underrated philosopher, but he’s now FINALLY getting his due. But if you want to understand Lacan, go to Schelling, cause its kinda all there. I’m not sure if this is because Schelling was that much of an influence on Lacan (it seems Lacan knew of him, but didn’t immerse himself), or because Lacan re-invented lots of this particular wheel. But either way.
THE POST-STRUCTURALISTS (from the future!):
IN THE FUTURE, however, my guess is that MANY of the post-structuralists will be ‘underrated’ because they often wrote in a manner which was intentionally difficult, often for performative reasons. Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze – who will have the patience three hundred years from now to work to understand them, when they are not relatively contemporary, when other theorists, ones who probably write much clearer, will seem more urgent? The incredible baroqueness of these theorists will I think make them likely vanish – if not their ideas, then their texts will I think be more mentioned than read. I’m not sure of the implications of this, but its something worth considering at greater length, I think.
My sense is that the late twentieth century will be known as a period of incredible philosophical furor, but of a sort which is like a labyrinth that only geeks get sucked into. For example, those who study scholasticism today will often get sucked into its hairsplitting world that only matters to other specialists, so it may be with those who study post-structuralism after it is has become yesterdays news. The only reason this may not happen is if the post-structuralist anti-foundation remains the foundation of philosophical discursivity for a truly extended period of time. In which case, these theorists will be kept alive and well. Certainly most of the key post-structuralist texts were written 30-40 years ago, and yet we often refer to Deleuze, Derrida, and Lacan, as the most relevant of contemporary theorists. Once they become yesterdays news, however, I wonder if they will not seem baroque beyond belief – beautiful, but arcane, esoteric, and bafflingly difficult in terms of bang-for-the-buck. For those doing comps at some university in the future, taking on post-structuralism might be like taking on German idealism is today, or even worse.
What this says about what we do today, however, is perhaps best discussed in another post . . .