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 examplar of the type.