Dangerous Knowledge

I guess I’m on a philosophy film kick. The latest was the BBC’s Dangerous Knowledge, a documentary on mathematicians Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing — four geniuses whose neuroses drove them fatally mad. It’s debatable the extent to which their respective theories made them insane — the film obviously plays this up for dramatic purposes — but it’s an intriguing film and not overly technical.

One of the ironies here is that I learned of this film via some people with deep antipathy towards postmodernism, despite the fact that these four helped unravel the modern project and clear the conceptual space for postmodernism. For me, it’s impossible to ignore the links between these mathematicians at the turn of the century and the postmodern philosophers at the close of the century. The key is recognizing that the quests for certainty, universality, and totality that were under assault in science & politics — climaxing in the existential refutations that were World Wars I & II — were being assaulted in logic & mathematics via Cantor & Co.

Examined Life

I finally got to see Examined Life, a pseudo-intellectual documentary that aims to make philosophy a tad more accessible. The film uses some of academia’s rock stars to talk shop outside of normal confines, which is interesting, but probably still of limited appeal.

We get, in order:

Cornel West on philosophy
Avital Ronell on alterity
Peter Singer on applied ethics
Kwame Anthony Appiah on cosmopolitanism
Martha Nussbaum on justice
Michael Hardt on revolution
Slavoj Žižek on ecology
Judith Butler on disability

No truly weak spots among the line-up, and all have at least a few stimulating nuggets. See it if you get a chance.

The curse of Plato

Let me attempt to explain my shift in thinking during the last four years by illustrating via context-less quote-mongering. In high school when I was first “getting into” philosophy I would often come these interesting, derogatory quips about philosophy itself. For example:

“Philosophy, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.” – Ambrose Bierce”Finding bad reasons for what one believes for other bad reasons – that’s philosophy.” – Aldous Huxley

“The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.” – Bertrand Russell

“There is no statement so absurd that no philosopher will make it.” – Cicero

“If a man’s good for nothing else, he can at least teach philosophy.” – William James

“Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all others are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself.” – H.L. Mencken

These will suffice, there are obviously more. The pecularity, of course, is that these quotes are by philosophers (many of whom never did shake this vice). Note that I read these and still went to university for philosophy. So for a long time my approach was one of a/bemusement; they were funny (ironic detachment, yadayada).

You might think that it is only now that I feel their bite, that I protest, that I stutter and defend my mistress. On the contrary, it is only now that I laugh harder. I’ve come to realize that the history of Western philosophy is the history of an error, and that error is Plato’s (and/or Socrates, smarmy bastard that he was). It is a “bold flight of invention” (to turn Plato against Plato) and I readily join with so-called “postmoderns” in exorcising the demon of Platonism in all it’s latent/overt forms (pun intended). Sure, I joined the Tribunal of Reason and pontificated for a while, but I’ve now resigned my post — upon discovery, of course, that the king has no clothes. After the death of philosophy, what now? It’s not all dirty nihilism and trampled orchids: whether genealogy/archaelogy (Nietzsche/Foucault), phenomenology (Heidegger), hermeneutics (Gadamer, Vattimo, et al), deconstruction (Derrida), etc it seems clear there is something post-… post-metaphysical, post-representational, post-realist, pick your poison/medicine, pick your (un)hero. Me? I gots me Rorty and I gots me Van Morrison. Your mileage may vary.

Heidegger on Faith

Guest entry today by Martin Heidegger, via his Introduction to Metaphysics:

“[If faith] does not continually expose itself to the possibility of unfaith, it is not faith but a convenience. It becomes an agreement with oneself to adhere in the future to a doctrines as something that has somehow been handed down.”

On being a philosophy major:

“Philosophy is essentially untimely because it is one of those few things whose fate it remains never to be able to find a direct resonance in their own time, and never to be permitted to find such a resonance. Whenever this seemingly does take place, whenever a philosophy becomes fashion, either there is no actual philsopohy or else philosophy is misinterpreted and, acording to some intentions alien to it, misused for the needs of the day…

It is entirely correct and completely in order to say, “You can’t do anything with philosophy.” The only mistake is to believe that with this, the judgment concerning philosophy is at an end. For a little epilogue arises in the form of a counterquestion: even if we can’t do anything with it, may not philosophy in the end do something with us, provided that we engage ourselves with it?”