The new philosophy

by CarlD

In a recent comment here, Mikhail grumps “I certainly am irritated at the whole mood of ‘let’s get over Kant but without really reading him, and anyone who asks for a closer analysis will be a downer who wants to ruin our great new philosophy party….'” Meanwhile, Graham Harman has an interesting brief post sketching the cast of characters in a cyclical history of philosophy.

Back in the job-search days I interviewed at the University of Illinois, a good experience even though it turned out I was up against Antoinette Burton, who was way out of my league. Ignorant at the time of my inevitable fate, as I recall I did a fairly good job talk pulling together some threads on the interactive formation of self according to the empiricist, hegelian and pragmatic traditions, under the rubric ‘prehistoric postmodernisms’. This idea was well-received overall, but it was the ancient historians who were most excited and wanted to talk a lot about the pre-Socratics. That was going back a little far for a modernist like me, yet it was a fun conversation and I was glad to find that the frame had such depth.

As I’ve remarked recently, finding repetition in history is subject to a variety of difficulties of fact and interpretation. Context matters, and we may also recall Marx’s quip in The 18th Brumaire that while the first time is tragedy, the second is farce. Still, while philosophers as such are under no obligation to take history seriously, for historians of philosophy it’s important that philosophical ideas claim universality unlike almost anything else in history, so taking philosophy seriously also involves putting decontextualized comparison in play. This procedure does reveal some striking similarities; it seems that folks have been asking roughly the same questions and coming up with roughly the same answers for a long, long time. Apparently none of them have been fully satisfactory.

For historians this is no worry; we find our kicks in context and we’re not so much concerned with what Truth Is as what people think it was at particular places and times. For reflective philosophers who aren’t just interested in joining an intellectual gang it may be more concerning, although in the several thousand years of recorded philosophy any number of soothing ideologies have been invented to cope with its disappointments. And there’s always context to make the difference. As for Mikhail, Graham asks “Could it be that philosophy is starting over again?” There you go, Mikhail. Just be patient. If you wait a couple thousand years, we’ll come back around to Kant again.

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6 Responses to “The new philosophy”

  1. Thanks, Carl. I think I feel better now. Strangely enough, I think dismissing Kant or any other philosopher for that matter, is not that unusual, it’s just normally done with a sort of “Not going to talk about it” style, no negotiation kind of approach which is fine. In this particular case, I suppose my grasp of history could be quite deficient, it would be like saying “Let’s take a look at the history of Russia without taking into account the Revolution of 1917” and there was plenty of interest in going back to pre-revolutionary times in the 1990s (not literally, of course), it was politically correct to say that the Revolution basically took the country of track and life was so much better before it. Then came annoying historians who suggested that life was shit back then, therefore the Revolution, but no one really listened…

    I suppose it’s not really about the Truth, it’s about doing justice to thinkers one disagrees with, or outrightly dismisses…

  2. You know it’s quite the dilemma. The dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living. Is there a way out? As I suggested in the last post, jettisoning or re-writing the past might be therapeutic. Who knows if we might reinvent a better wheel this time. Other options include hunkering down in edifying history a la Rorty, or hitching back up to star offspring science and treating philosophy as translation, as the Latour move seems to do.

  3. Not a huge fan of Joyce but he did put it best: “history is the nightmare from which I’m trying to awake”…

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