Position and movement

by Carl Dyke

There’s a thread over on Rough Theory that got me thinking a stray thought I didn’t want to clutter up that excellent site with, but did want to write down so I could see if I agreed with it. Without going into too much detail, the thread concerns what to make of Marx’s way of doing theory in general, and whether there’s something useful in the idea of ’emergence’ in particular.

The conversation between N. Pepperell and Daniel strikes me as a classic sort of contrast between two very different ways of thinking about things, which I’ve tried to capture in my title for this post by hijacking Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as a rough analogy. Daniel is an excellent philosopher, and he is oriented toward position. N. Pepperell is also a outstanding philosopher, oriented toward movement. The uncertainty principle tells us that we can know either position or movement, but not both. Since this has to do with quantum physics (which I understand only vaguely) the analogy is a real stretch; let’s see if I can pull it off.

One way to do philosophy, speaking very roughly indeed, is to attempt to gain certainty – or at least clarity – by defining entities very precisely. The entities may be words, concepts, percepts, ideals, things (-in-themselves), or whatnot. Socrates’ dialogues are a famous example of this sort of philosophy. Through a process of logical questioning, Socrates attempts to determine the exact nature of a series of important concepts. In principle, it is possible to pin down exactly what ‘justice’ is, for example, or ‘the good’, and what the relations are between them.

To do great violence to a complex history, this kind of philosophical thinking passes up through Descartes and Kant (a mixed case) to analytic philosophy. The common project is to get the world and our thinking about it to sit still so that we can say clear and definite things about clear and definite things. The “sitting still” part is the “position” part I’m getting at.

The philosophy of position has often contrasted itself polemically against “sophism”, the kind of slick and slippery wordplay of which all philosophers are accused by their detractors. This is a defensive red herring. Meanwhile, playing in the branches of the family tree of positional philosophy are monkeys for whom things and thoughts cannot be pulled out of context and nailed down schematically without killing them, or at least denaturing them. These are the philosophers of movement, for whom it is often precisely the messy (from a positional perspective) relationality and changeability of things and concepts as they arise and bounce around in the world that characterizes them. Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Dewey, Beauvoir, and late (but not early) Wittgenstein are this sort of philosopher. Nietzsche charmingly called his monkeying the “philosophy of the dangerous maybe.”

Marx was not a maybe kind of guy, but he did monkey around with concepts. Over on Rough Theory N. Pepperell is doing something very interesting at the moment: dissecting an instance of what happens when a philosopher of position (Georg Lukacs) attempts to explicate a philosopher of movement (Marx). Lukacs takes single instances of what Marx says and pins them down to static meanings in a static relationship to each other, then derives conclusions from this alignment, just as positional philosophy says one oughta. Meanwhile, Marx has taken what he said, realigned it with other concepts, added ‘context’, worked it all through a dynamical process in which each element is transformed in specific relations and interactions with the others, and come to quite different conclusions.

This process is ’emergence’, but to a philosopher of position it just looks ‘confused’ because as Heisenberg told us, you can’t see motion if you’re trying to determine location. It just looks like a blur that needs to be resolved – by taking a snapshot!

The question of ‘intentionality’ is mixed up in all this, but I’ve muddied the waters enough for one post.

UPDATE: I am now satisfied that the “Daniel” simulacrum I used as the ‘philosopher of position’ has little relationship to the Daniel with whom I have been sharing pleasant and edifying chat in the comments to this post. I will leave faux “Daniel” there as an imaginary philosopher and, perhaps, a cautionary tale.

UPDATE: Ah. Thanks to the keen eyes at Perverse Egalitarianism, here is a better exemplar of the type.

12 Responses to “Position and movement”

  1. Carl – thank you for this. I’ve actually been thinking about this exchange since it took place – I was discussing it with someone yesterday evening in fact. I tend to feel vaguely guilty when I can nail terms down when people ask, even as I’m aware that this is an intrinsic and more or less ineradicable problem when working with material that “defines” its elements relationally… I see Marx’s work as an extended critique of problems that arise (or practical potentials that come to be abridged) when we “fix” dynamic elements in single positions, or orient ourselves practically toward only one aspect of a multi-faceted and dynamic phenomenon – but this can be maddeningly difficult to express briefly…

  2. As a good Wittgensteinian/Hegelian, I’m not inclined to view my remarks this way. As I was careful to say repeatedly, I’ve not read much Marx. I find him hard to read. So, my questions were all asked from, as it were, a very high altitude (or a great distance away, as through a telescope) — they were meant to help me get Pepperell’s/Marx’s project better in view. And I think they more or less served their purpose; they got Pepperell to talk about the sorts of things I’d wanted to hear her talk about in this context (mainly, denying that Marx/Pepperell are trying to carry projects of various sorts that I think are DOA, but which I’d suspected Marx/Pepperell were still trying to make work). Pepperell kept “running criss-cross over the countryside” to make clear what she/Marx was up to, and this was what I was wanting to be done. Rereading my comments, I can see that I wasn’t as clear about this as I’d intended to be: I was self-consciously “derailing” the thread, asking questions that a remark in the post had brought to my mind, but which weren’t questions about the post per se. My apologies for not making this clearer, Pepperell. I’ve been quite happy with how our little back-and-forth has gone.

    I’m actually not comfortable with the dichotomy Carl lays out in his post between thinkers of position and thinkers of momentum. I don’t think there are any thinkers of position; I don’t think that thought works that way. Consider Socrates (better, Plato): there never are any definitions reached (except for mud: it’s dirt & water). But the dialogues are not “incomplete”; they end where Plato ended them. I don’t think the dialogues are best understood as actually trying to “nail down” definitions; that’s a rhetorical strategy on Plato’s/Socrates’s part, not the actual point of the dialogues. Briefly, I think Plato/Socrates are actually concerned with the process of dialogue itself — questionings. Philosophy is aimed at shaking one up until one starts to ask questions, to authentically think. “Socratic ignorance” is very important, as I understand Plato’s/Socrates’s methods — what one is to be brought to realize is not “The Truth” of some particular set of definitions, but that all that one knows (“with certainty”) is that one knows nothing (“with certainty”), and so one’s attitude ought always to be one of inquiry, not of “knowledge”. (I think a similar story can be told about figures like Descartes, Carnap, Quine etc.: what is aimed at is not an ontology or a metaphysics (an attempt to nail down “How Things Are”) but to see that the right way to do philosophy is to not worry about things like that. Instead, we should recognize how useful the (modern) natural sciences are. Once their significance is sufficiently appreciated, the metaphysical urge is to fade away, as it will no longer carry any interest for us.)

    More generally, I don’t think concepts can be “nailed down”, by definitions or in any other way. To understand a concept is to know how to use a word, to paraphrase Sellars. If so-and-so says that they are going to be using term X in way N, then we still must be attentive to whether or not they actually do use term X in this way. (This is especially likely to come up when “X” is a common term, like “thought” or “matter” or “good” — to paraphrase Hacker, if you try to give a stipulative definition of an everyday term, then there’s always the risk that, twenty pages down the road, you’ll use the term in keeping with its everyday use rather than your stipulative definition, without noticing it. And this is an easy way to fall into uttering nonsense, when you were trying to do philosophy.) Concepts only have their use in the warp & woof of life; to get clear on “what our terms mean” is not to accumulate a list of definitions, but to get a clearer point of view on our whole way of life, on our whole conceptual scheme, on how “things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term”. So, I think Carl understates the point when he says he’s doing violence to a great deal of philosophy when he talks of it in terms of “position”; I think that all philosophy is interested in “the messiness of relations and change” (because there isn’t anything else to be interested in), even if some philosophers have more explicitly thematized it. Contrariwise, I think that “philosophers of movement” have often been guilty of the same narrowness that Carl lambasts as “philosophy of position” — the flux of life is all assimilated to a certain type of movement, and then all of the flux is “found” to move in precisely the way that it was stipulated that it must.

    To generalize, you can’t have a proper view of any part of anything until you have the whole affair in proper view. But there’s no need for this to cause anxiety; it’s just good ol’ hermeneutics. False, partial, abstract views need not be merely false, merely partial, merely abstract; they can just as well be on the way to understanding what’s what.

  3. Hey Daniel – Good to run into you again 🙂 Your comments here are good – I had been worrying that I had come across as dodging your questions, and was worried about how I might have addressed them a bit more head on. As long as you’re happy with the roundabout approach I was taking, that’s a relief 🙂 And certainly don’t worry about derailing the thread – I don’t tend to assume that the discussion will necessarily follow, or even directly relate to, the original post – I had been more worried that, in my response, I kept tracking back to the original post, because I hoped it might make the context for my comments clearer, but was worried that this could also be heard as an attempt to change the subject, rather than as an attempt to circle around what you were saying.

    I’ll let you and Carl talk about the categorisations suggested here 🙂

    Take care…

  4. Thanks, guys, for joining in here! I’m not used to this blog getting traffic yet, so I was sort of thinking aloud to myself, with the ultra-thin slice of each of you I have available as imagined audience. I’ll accordingly plead guilty to the offenses against the history of philosophy you cite, Daniel, and more.

    One qualification: I don’t believe I “lambasted” the philosophy of position. It’s clear enough I constructed this particular simplistic schema to highlight the advantages of a more dynamic approach, but there’s nothing wrong with pinning things down to study them and sometimes that’s exactly the right thing to do. Scientists do it with bugs all the time. I have nothing against the better philosophies of position, although I agree with Nietzsche that they tend to be autobiographies. There’s also a whole lot of bad philosophy of movement, including in marxism. I was more interested in noticing that there’s a very characteristic way of talking about different things that seemed to me to be getting enacted over on Rough Theory. I’m also pleased by that conversation.

    And it may well be that in general good philosophers are all philosophers of movement. If so, this is a recent development and congratulations are in order. Lukacs certainly looks a lot like a philosopher, and what he was doing was trying to nail down concepts and get a static picture of a thinly historicized totality. His concepts move around and do stuff, but as entities that stay rigorously the same once they’ve been defined rather than evolving and transforming in dynamic relation with each other. Commodity. This thing. Capitalism. That thing. N. is working through the consequences for Lukacs’ reading of Marx in that fact. As a historian my attention is equally oriented toward the consequences for 20th century world history of marxists like Lukacs and Lenin – bad philosophers of movement because they were really philosophers of position – thinking they could get that totality in their pocket. Not so good, as it turned out.

  5. Having now re-read Daniel’s post I find myself agreeing again with just about all of it. This is a good place to be, because the discussions that happen from here can actually accomplish something beyond modeling and translation of language games. It’s possible we might actually change each others’ minds slightly.

    Daniel, I want to stick with my characterization of what philosophers typically do. I was raised by one and grew up around them, so I’m pretty embedded in an inside/outside perspective. For most philosophers it IS about nailing things down. Literal-mindedness at a very high level. As a group, in my experience, they are more easily and deeply upset by the ordinary complications and inconsistencies of life than anyone I’ve encountered but lawyers. (In fact, I’ve known a couple who became so disappointed by their inability to get the world to settle down for them that they quit tenured jobs in good philosophy departments and went to law school. And I’ve seen more than a few go the other way. Thanks, by the way, for your story about the class in which you stopped participating in protest because the professor covered something that wasn’t on the syllabus. He should have given you an A on the spot.)

    To capture how “things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term,” as Sellars recommended, may be a step back from the quasi-theological metaphysical standards that dominated western philosophy for most of its post-platonic history. I take you to mean it in that sense. But it may also be only a relatively disenchanted rearticulation of the same totalizing will to power. In particular, it may recenter philosophy as the place where “the whole affair” is “in proper view.” If philosophy is not that, it’s not clear why it wouldn’t fold into science, as you said, or anthropology. Probably the math and the fieldwork, respectively.

    The advantage of philosophical thinking as such is precisely this ability to get messy reality into a conceptual configuration where the spheres all dance to a common tune. Philosophical practice then boils down to orchestration. Knowing the score and charting the waters is philosophers’ claim to fame. Warning, metaphor run amok.

    Bruno Latour refers to this in We Have Never Been Modern as the ‘work of purification’. He argues that hybrids and networks are irreducible, but the work of modernity is the constant attempt to reduce them to some purified essence. In order to have things under control we must know what they are, and they must keep being the same thing. “Politics,” “society,” “culture,” “nature,” “identity.” This can be a metaphysical, ontological or conventional essence, it doesn’t matter. The move is the same move in each case. Getting things to sit still, getting things to be things and THEN interact rather than becoming things and unbecoming things in the situations of interaction.

    Far from being not how thought works, this categorization is how thought as such ordinarily works. This is the traction, in fact, for ordinary language philosophy. Philosophers’ job is accordingly to clean up the loose ends, as Gramsci suggested in his typing of all thought into ‘common sense’, ‘good sense’, and ‘philosophy’. The people I’ve called ‘philosophers of movement’ (including Latour) suggest that this is what got us into the mess we’re in, and the way out is to treat relations and dynamics, rather than entities as defined, used, or hung together, as the fundamental stuff of the world.

    Yes, I see, that’s what I meant. Thanks, Daniel.

  6. “Lambasted” was a poor choice of words on my part. Too strong. Wanted a verb for “spoke of in a ‘tut-tut, tsk-tsk’ sort of way”; “lambast” is too harsh for that.

    I doubt that ordinary thinking does involve “getting things to be things, and THEN interacting with them”, though I think this picture of How Thinking Goes is fairly common. I think something like Heidegger’s (or at least Dreidegger’s) description of things in the world as primarily being-ready-to-hand and only secondarily being-present-to-hand does a better job of showing how we get about. We are always already interacting with our environments; the “objective” view of the world as something independent of me is derivative, not primordial. I get the “objective” picture by abstracting away from how things present themselves for use, I don’t get the “useful” picture by first understanding what has been presented to me as falling under such-and-such a sortal, and then deriving uses from how things have been sorted. (This picture requires that I somehow know the sortals apart from the ways in which I know what falls under them.) And thinking of things as primarily “defined, used, or hung together” is just a subclass of this “objective” way of viewing things; it treats objects as if they were able to be defined by a judging subject, or classified as tools by an acting subject, or hung together by an organizing subject, when the subject is never actually in any such relation to objects — the world is always already given to one in the various ways in which things disclose themselves to me, so there is no point at which I could “totalize” them according to my whim. But this also means that what can appear (on the false picture) to be “totalizing” is nothing of the sort; it is simply letting beings be as they are to take them up in the ways in which they have been given. The “irreducible hybrids and networks” are never given, never able to be given; they never are at all, but are merely a philosopher’s fiction, a recoil from needless worries about “totalizings” into an imaginary abstract “pure given” (pure being, pure becoming, pure multiple, pure relations, pure chaos, pure receptivity). The times when our false pictures (erroneous theories, confused opinions, bad data, maladjusted actions) lead us into problems are then rejected as being “other” to what we are now doing (are now called to do, by those who Know What Went Wrong) — as if our new project is somehow not prone to the old human foibles which took down the past ones.

    (A relation, a dynamic, is an entity, too — it is the relation/dynamic that it is, and not another relation/dynamic. But because the imaginary worry has been given voice to and self-consciously rejected, it appears as if progress has been made.)

    So, I don’t think “philosophy” is opposed to ordinary thinking. Philosophy is only opposed to worse philosophy. Such as philosophy which thinks of itself as opposed to ordinary thinking — as an alternative to it.

    (I suspect a great deal of these sorts of discussions are metaphors run amok — mounted on horseback and armed to the teeth, racing across the battlefield to settle a dispute which they did not themselves begin (the metaphor as mercenary). But isn’t it pleasant so to argue!)

  7. Daniel – This is very nice:

    We are always already interacting with our environments; the “objective” view of the world as something independent of me is derivative, not primordial.

    It reminded me a bit of Marx here (hopefully this association won’t be taken as an attempt to flatten what you are saying back into the framework Marx expresses – I’m more trying to suggest that I tend to try to spin Marx more in the direction you’re suggesting above):

    men do not by any means begin by “finding themselves in this theoretical relationship to the things of the outside world.” They begin, like every animal, by eating, drinking, etc., that is not by “finding themselves” in a relationship, but actively behaving

    I would probably add, in relation to some of my own interests, that “objectivity” is not always experienced or conceptualised in the same way – that different qualitative properties may be understood to pertain to “objectivity” – such that there can be ways in which objectivity is also a sort of collective enactment – absent an analysis of this, there can be a sort of naturalisation of what results, when we “abstract away from how things present themselves for use”, as though thinking per se, for example, intrinsically abstracts in certain particular ways. (This may make no sense – apologies – I’m meant to have grounded myself from blogging until I get more work done, so I shouldn’t be raising issues I can’t develop adequately… Sorry!!)

    I love your final three paragraphs, as well – but have time to comment on why!!

    Take care all…

  8. Heehee! This is pleasant, yes.

    Again with all of the agreeing. But I’m still not quite comfortable with the picture of ordinary thinking here. It is primordially both ‘objective’ and ‘interactive’ in a way that George Herbert Mead describes so nicely (freudian ‘object relations’ theory will also get us there but at the cost of wading through all the speculative Freud mess). Self and other, and the stratification of perspectives.

    In some sense the interactions come first. Infants have no sense of self and do “just behave.” They then ‘self up’ in a process of noticing how eating ‘that’ food works out better than eating ‘this’ hand, etc. (Some of this is in my identity paper under Stuffed Voles, btw). After that it’s all interactions, all the time, and of course the interactions are with objects, which are preconstituted by histories prior to the individual but also reconstituted in the specific interactions she has with them.

    The networks formed out of these ‘objective’ interactions are entirely pragmatic. The oppositions, alliances and overlaps (hybrids) that get created are contingent but existentially fundamental. They have no essence outside their situated historicity. They are ‘structured’ in that sense Marx meant in the 18th Brumaire with the remark about men making their own histories in conditions not of their own choosing. They are also ‘naturalized’ by the subject. So they are not at all a philosopher’s fiction, I’m afraid; that’s the bad habit of metaphysics talking there dude.

    I think the correction of my way of talking about ordinary thinking above is productive. But once we get down to cases in ethnography, the objects people use to think with are pretty chunky – clumsy, even. Various kinds of us/not us binaries, for one thing. “Stereotypes,” in the classic sense. “Schemes of the habitus,” to use Bourdieu’s formulation. This too is primordial, and has to do fundamentally with the evolutionary advantages of having a pre-conscious part of the brain that sorts out threat-kinda-things from pretty-kinda-things in a big hurry while the hungry puma is in mid-air.

    We do our best thinking when we’re not feeling threatened. Which for some people is never.

  9. Carl, you’ve scared “R.Vangala” away – he created a blog to counter the humorous and the irresponsible with his “rationalism” but as of right now, the blog (only after one post) has been cautiously deleted… Sadness!

  10. Nah, wasn’t me man, it was you! I just posted this update now AFTER finding the blog link broken on your site. Too bad, I was really looking forward to learning all about the ‘humean predicament’. Something about the constant conjunction of his mouth with his foot, no doubt.

    Perhaps he’s merely pulled his head back into the shell a little and he’ll be back out munching logical non sequiturs anon.


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