requiem for certainty

Philosophical Divides: a little story

with 14 comments

Picture the following.  Camps of philosophers cordon themselves off from one another by drawing lines in the still sands of a breezeless desert.  There they entrench, staring each other down from opposite sides of the line for a decade or two.  Eventually they tire of looking across the divide, and so begin to fraternize with only those philosophers in their proximity.  Later they forget about the philosophers on the other side of the line, and when the occasional hawkeyed upstart or pesky defector announces the existence of a whole country of philosophers not too far away, they retort that those on the other side of the line are not ‘real’ philosophers.  They are, the upstart and the defector are told, philosophical poseurs at best, or philosophical perverts at worst.  The language that is used, in fact, is exactly that contemptuous and contentious.

After a generation or two, nobody remembers why the line was drawn, or what function it serves.  But it is defended as vigorously as ever.  Sometime soon thereafter, newly-indoctrinated apprentices begin asking questions that the old guard can barely comprehend, let alone answer.  “Why don’t we read Deleuze here?  Have you read him?  He’s really interesting to me.  And what about Foucault?”  “Why do you insist that Quine is dry and unimportant?  Have you read him?  He’s really quite interesting to me.  And what about Dewey?”  Soon the old guard abandon their fortifications though of course they continue to talk only to those philosophers in their immediate proximity.

The apprentices, meanwhile, begin building bridges over the lines in the sand.  For even though they are merely lines in a breezeless desert, nobody knows how to cross over them in the familiar manners of walking, and the only way the apprentices can manage to muster a conversation is to carefully artifice direct means of passage from one camp to the other.  These bridges mediate.  They are avenues of conversation, transaction, and mutually-informative intervention.  Eventually, it is hoped, the bridges will begin to seem unnecessary, and philosophers will effortlessly walk across those lines, eventually rubbing them out with their footprints, as they stare up in wonder at the spectacular sculptures above that stand as a memorial to a not-too-distant time when philosophers were afraid to walk paths that are now frequently trod by just about everyone.

This little story describes, in the very rough sense that is the best that can be achieved by such a depiction, the past, current, and possible future state of professional academic philosophy.  The entrenched impasse between ‘Anglo-Analytic’ and ‘Continental’ philosophy is now more worthless than ever.  It is positively inimical to productive philosophical work on the critical problems we face in the present, as a culture and society, as a discipline and profession, and as an ethical challenge which we face in rather intensely personal ways.  Those who continue to insist on the importance of the impasse, including by cause of their unwillingness to satisfy their curiosities about takes place on the other side of the line, are bound to fade into the antiquated furniture of those bridges that shall soon begin to provoke wonder amongst those of us who pass between traditions with all the virtue and intellect requisite for the work of thought.

[This is excerpted from a draft introduction I am writing for a special issue of Foucault Studies I am guest-editing.  The issue title is “Foucault and Pragmatism”.  Comments welcome as always.  I always wonder, for instance, if I am being too polemical.  Emphasis on the “draft” in submitting this for critique because I realize my first drafts are almost always too polemical.  This in fact was just written in the Fleet-Foxes-playing-cafe I have been frequenting since the New Year.]


Written by Colin Koopman

January 12, 2011 at 2:58 am

14 Responses

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  1. I’m not sure that it helps your cause to posit reasons like “unwillingness to satisfy their curiosities”, to my mind Fish/Rorty are right that the next generation of teachers/topics will be decided by institutional politics, those in place/power will decide what matters and so what is taught and not the power/correctness of ideas or even, yet, market demand. On the conceptual side see what you think of this essay:
    I don’t share the Wittgenstein/Cavell faith in our fit to the world but there is something to treating Concepts as tools, even perspicuous presentations, vs structures/forces.


    January 12, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    • Point taken. I think it’s both. Both a failure due to structural forces but also a failure of nerve, curiosity, and experimental zeal on the part of some of us. There are plenty of people doing new and interesting things. But not that many plenty. Why not more? You can’t chalk all of that up to institutional forces.

      Colin Koopman

      January 12, 2011 at 10:17 pm

      • I could probably say 90% without being too far off (I should have more clearly separated my two thoughts the 1st being that speculating on peoples’ reasons, especially if it is negative, is a likely to be counterproductive, the 2nd is as I said above plus writing a history of the future is a tricky bit of business. As we have discussed here before this paucity of interesting/productive work and ‘fearless’ speech is dismaying, I just am finding (not unlike Deleuze, if you get a chance check out Félix Guattari : thought, friendship and visionary cartography / Franco Berardi (Bifo))that the best(most effective) critique of a bad model/system/argument is not getting into a debate but rather to offer a compelling version from a position of power. This is not a matter of extending usual/existing practices but a real paradigm change that you are talking about and so will take organizing/management. So lead by example.


        January 12, 2011 at 11:07 pm

  2. ck, i like this, particularly the writerly aspects.

    is it too polemical? i don’t know. in terms of working on this interdisciplinary and intra-disciplinarily pluralist dissertation, i feel caught/pressures from advisors to motivate a lot of the project in the terms of this ‘war’ or stalemate or whathaveyou, even if my work (and its conditions of possibility) is the evidence of erasure of the line in the sand.

    it is maybe interesting to note, as i’m sure you did (and probably consciously chose), that all of the philosophers in this story inhabit a ‘breezeless desert’. isn’t (maintaining) this divide all the more complicated when situated IRL? for example, work in philosophy of love & sex or philosophy of race can produce panels where these approaches are already mingling, right? and on the other hand, the petty tribalisms have real world material consequences for livelihoods.

    elena cuffari

    January 12, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    • Agreed! I think much (not all!) problem-centered philosophy moves past this in a nice way, b/c there is a sense that the stakes are all about solving/addressing/dealing with some problem in the real world. But it still persists even there. A cheeky comment made by a prominent philosopher of race (they will remain unnamed but suffice it to say it was someone with whom I am not acquainted) here at UO during the RPA conference is evidence of a continued unwillingness on the part of some to actually read, engage, and learn from the texts which are sometimes scorned and derided even in a public setting such as that.

      What do you mean ‘consequences for livelihoods’? You mean the livelihoods of we professoriate? Or the livelihoods of those we write about? I am concerned about both, of course, but the concern takes different forms.

      Colin Koopman

      January 12, 2011 at 10:13 pm

  3. It doesn’t seem too polemical to me, but too polemical for what? If the intention is to persuade the “old guard” then it’s definitely a little harsh, but I don’t think that’s what you’re going for.

    An extra-disciplinary analogy might be helpful here, so as to make some of the same points easier to swallow for those not already in agreement. Contemporary technophobia seems to be a close fit, as the actors, story, and dynamics all seem to be very similar to those of professional philosophy.

    Likewise, solutions may be translatable as well. Old guard technologists are often brought along by being taken seriously by and collaborating with newcomers, and in many cases, it’s the responsibility of the newcomer to frame a proposed technological project in a way that legitimizes and values the old guard’s contribution while simultaneously pushing the field forward.

    What does this look like when we translate it for our purposes in professional philosophy? What are other solutions which have yielded effective results with respect to technology and how do we translate these?

    Nathan Schmitt

    January 17, 2011 at 8:01 am

    • Oh, I should also mention that I liked the piece. The conversational narrative style is my favorite to read and I think has the most significant effect on my own thinking, as it allows me (/the reader) to easily simulate a conversation with the piece.

      Nathan Schmitt

      January 17, 2011 at 8:15 am

    • I think that (like in his book) Colin can highlight/honor the aspects of the various schools/texts that he grab him and then put them into relation/use, showing (rather than saying), and so performing the kind of ameliorative/therapeutic process that he is (I believe) trying to champion. As Wittgenstein said this will either speak to, spark/spur, folks or it won’t, such are the leaps of faith involved in doing something new. I agree that it is better to display gratitude than animus, even if the previous generation doesn’t join us it is a better foundation/style for us and the next folks.


      January 17, 2011 at 11:02 pm

      • not that we shouldn’t discuss the negative aspects of institutional politics but this should be local/specific, timely, and probably in person (where one can get feedback give clarifications) so not a good match for journal articles.


        January 17, 2011 at 11:06 pm

      • Thanks Dirk and Nathan.

        I v much like this thought: “such are the leaps of faith involved in doing something new”. It’s not a standard way for thinking about academic work because my sense is that academia makes it very difficult to be self-conscious about innovation of form. Despite the enormous premium it puts on innovation of content, there is a heavy discount on innovation of form. Hence the need for a leap of faith. There are lots of reasons to push ourselves to do new things. The over-riding one for me is this: without indulging my curiosities I will quickly grow bored.

        colin koopman

        January 18, 2011 at 5:24 am

        • my pleasure you are doing good work that should have a future. the form is vital (think of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Emerson, etc.) if one is to not just trying to make abstract points (the epitome of merely academic) but (as in the WJ above) to change how people live. Dewey didn’t just want philosophers to talk about popular topics he wanted them to be part of changing/making the culture (Rorty knew this but couldn’t quite shake the habits of analytic debate) which is why Rabinow is the leading pragmatist figure of our time. No doubt that 1st person/confessional modes are part of the shift in this movement but (and I appreciate your honesty) I wouldn’t publish the not wanting to be bored, check out Avital Ronell’s Test Drive, she may be a quasi-structuralist (like her mentor) but she is pushing the forms in very interesting ways.


          January 18, 2011 at 1:50 pm

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