The Universal Solvent of Money, Research Time, 15/12/2017

The irony is coming on thick today. I want to write a little about Gilles Deleuze’s comments on capitalism in What Is Philosophy?. Capitalism – the universal solvent of total freedom.

I move in pretty left-wing political circles, so that sounds pretty damn funny to me. Probably to a lot of my semi-regular readers.

The structures that conditioned every aspect of your lives are blown
apart – you now have total freedom of movement. Not even the
ground can restrict you. Of course, that means you can do nothing
but aimlessly and endlessly fall.
It's one of the ironic difficulties in understanding Deleuze's work and concepts. He lived and worked in a very left-wing context. His writing partner Félix Guattari was himself a marxist militant, who had materially supported anti-French guerrilla armies in Algeria. Their first book together, Anti-Œdipus was a philosophy for the anarchist revolutions of May 1968 Paris.

As well, Deleuze helped Italian militants escape prison to France and found them places to live in the city. This while they were wanted by a militant right-wing Italian government who reacted to the murder of Prime Minister Moro.

Deleuze was a profound critic of capitalism. So profound that he could, at the same time, point out its destructive flaws and celebrate it as a social and economic force of liberation.

Say it like that, and it looks like he contradicts himself. But actually look at what he says, and you realize how profound this idea is.

Look at history this way. Big urban centres, states, and military organizations develop. They expand their regional power as their population, wealth, trade networks, and military force grow. But eventually some sudden shift – military invasion, ecological disaster like several years of drought – throws off their productivity.

Now get to Europe, as the old monarchist states are falling. Modern industrial capitalism is kicking into gear. The new class of wealthy business leaders are growing more powerful than the land-owning gentry that consolidated around the kings, princes, armies, and administrations at the heart of the state.

Totally losing your grounding is losing your shape itself.
All those oppressive powers were being destabilized. That’s what capitalism does – the profit motive, acting on the scales of entire societies and planets, destabilizes existing structures and institutions of a whole region.

That was one key insight that sets Deleuze – and those who understand his lessons for contemporary politics – apart from the more typical anti-capitalist activists. Capitalism produces a powerful freedom – it really is a liberating force.

With old institutions and power structures destabilized and falling apart, it opens up a space for people to reorganize their societies. New institutions can be built that are more egalitarian and open.

The problem sets in when capitalism destabilizes those structures too. Not in the same way as the old despotic state models were overthrown, but differently. You can very easily see that capitalist profit motive activities are destabilizing the liberal democratic institutions that developed from the ashes of despotic institutions.

We now have a class of business leaders so wealthy that they’re able to remove billions of dollars in raw holdings – bank account assets – from their countries to rest in tax haven accounts. That’s billions of dollars that aren’t being invested in new businesses or institutions that provide people services and career opportunities.

There's another form of capitalism that Deleuze and Guattari describe in Anti-Œdipus, which is smacking our civilization – hedge fund piracy. A company with billions of dollars in assets and liquid holding accounts invests in another company, which has prospered by making and selling real things to people.

When we think about the destructive effects of capitalism, we think
of imagery of greed and consumption. But that doesn't really get to
the heart of what capitalism specifically is, how capitalism as an
economic and social system differs from others. All living systems
involve consumption and production – to understand capitalism,
you have to understand what its singular kind of production and
consumption involves.
Hedge funds regularly buy these productive companies and strip them for parts or find other ways to bleed them dry. Here are some examples. Dupont Chemicals was bought by Trian Fund Management. Then its research labs were sold to peak share prices and Dupont was merged with Dow Chemical to slam more billions from it.

Hedge fund guru Eddie Lampert bought Sears, merged it with K-Mart to create billions from redundancies, then things got diabolical. Sears owned almost all the real estate where its stores sat – paid off and owned outright. But Lampert sold that property to a real estate firm his hedge fund also owned, which began charging Sears enormous rent.

Then Lampert loaned Sears billions of dollars to pay its rent to the firm he owned himself. So Sears now had two massive debts – bleeding money to its owner twice over. No matter how much money it made, the retailer couldn’t manage all that debt.

That is capitalism – profit-seeking that sets money and wealth free from its current structures. It’s the universal destabilizer – great for overthrowing an oppressive system like feudalism or monarchism. Also great at overthrowing even the stuff you want to keep, like manufacturing companies, steady jobs, and democracy.

Begin the Begin, Research Time, 15/12/2017

Last week, I wrote a bit of a free-wheeling post. I’m writing about Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, so being a little free-wheeling and weird is generally acceptable. One thing I wanted to get off my chest was my frustration that Deleuze considered only the Western tradition to be real philosophy.

I mean, if you have a conception of philosophy as catching hold of chaos in thought, it makes sense that such an activity will take many forms besides this curious Hellenic tradition of writing, discourse, and thought.

That's what I take Western philosophy to be – the tradition of conceptual engineering that began with the sages / educators / scientists / mathematicians of Hellenic Greece.

A reproduction of a painting of Ibn Rushd, one of the
greatest philosophers in the history of Spain.
Now, that means what I count as Western philosophy is a bit larger than a lot of what I was taught in school. I don’t really expand the tradition by much.

I consider the medieval Muslim and Jewish thinkers of the Abbasid Empire the direct successors of Hellenic philosophical and mathematical traditions. More than only following the Greeks, Persia, Syria, and the Maghreb contributed major new creative directions in ontology, mathematics, medicine and the nature of divinity.

Also, I read some very interesting writing about Ethiopians’ contribution to the Western tradition of philosophy in the 1600s and 1700s. So I don’t just stick to Europe and America.*

* What an odd coincidence that these are the two regions at the top of the old global colonial hierarchy. Funny, isn’t it?

I’m not writing to catalogue the world’s traditions, though. I’m writing this to make a more straightforward account of my last problem with Deleuze. It was a vicious tension in this last work that I think he could (and should) have reconciled if he’d had a few more years of productive life after What Is Philosophy?.

As it is, he developed an insightful account of why philosophy developed in Hellenic Greece. Which is really an insightful account of why Western philosophy developed in Hellenic Greece.

That region had a curious and peculiar position in the Mediterranean world when philosophy and geometry developed in communities of sages – the Pythagoreans, Plato’s Academy, and the Lyceum.

Greece had a fluid, plural, and largely non-hierarchical cultural environment – they were close enough to the Persian Empire for maritime trade but, for the most part, were beyond the point where they could be easily conquered.

So Hellenic cities were free of subjugation to a monarch, and had a much more dynamic relationship among themselves than the static role of submission to an imperialist authority.

Being a seafaring society also encouraged a culture of friendliness and openness among cities and trading partners. There was a similar culture of friendly rivalry among the leaders of each individual polis – governed by argument and debate among a local parliament of jovial neighbours.

These were the unique conditions of one of the most philosophically vibrant and creative cultures of human history. They were not inevitable – a few inconvenient famines or a better Persian shipbuilding industry could have destroyed Hellenic philosophy when they were largely still mystics in the woods.

Western philosophy is a unique tradition, with many strange and surprising transformations. But it isn’t the only philosophical tradition. It simply happens to be mine.

The Full Meta, Jamming, 14/12/2017

The last week of philosophical reflection was actually very illuminating for me. It helped me get a better grip on a difficult idea of Deleuze’s – the conceptual persona. Same goes for his very evocative – but not always the most enlightening – metaphor for philosophy as grasping hold of chaos in thought.

I managed to clarify how I understood this very imagistic concept. The great thing about Gilles Deleuze as a writer was that, no matter how far into one project he was, his writing also involved new ideas that he’d expand and further explain in the future.

So you’d read early books and see vague treatments of concepts, then see them developed in amazing depth and complexity a few years later. The problem with Deleuze’s talk of thought moving at infinite speed and catching hold of chaos, is that the follow-up never came.

Even when we intend to die, life never ends
when we want it to. That's another thing that I
connect with Deleuze over – he had so many
more ideas for books to write, even when he
physically couldn't live anymore, even when
it had become impossible for him to write.
Which Deleuze considered the same thing.
I'll likely end up the same way. I could live
to 100 and I'll still be coming up with ideas.
His health declined massively, and less than four years after publishing What Is Philosophy?, he was dead.

But the legacy lives on, doesn’t it? Why else would you publish groundbreaking philosophical works at a damn near annual rate in your peak period? You want to have a massive impact in the world you devote yourself to, you could pick far worse role models than Deleuze.

Same with any thinker of that kind of calibre. There were plenty – Deleuze is one member of a literally multiple-millennium tradition of writing and thought.

I find it a little strange that someone who’d devoted himself to philosophy in his career and life to the degree and intensity that Deleuze did, only wrote one work of concentrated meta-philosophy. Where he gives an explicit argument about what philosophy is.

That’s why, in my list of tags, I haven’t used too many in these last few entries other than the proper names and ‘creativity.’ To me, meta-philosophy is built into every worthwhile philosophical project.

It isn’t often remarked on because a philosophical writer takes for granted that you all know what philosophy is. Of course, he’s only certain about his own conception of what philosophy is. But don’t think you can tell him that.

Deleuze gives his own answer to that question. There’s a lot to value in his response. I’ve been talking about it for a couple of weeks now, and I have enough material from my revisit to What Is Philosophy? for at least another week of posts. The main reason I’m not digging deeper today is because I’m writing this at the end of some very long days, and I'm a little tired before bed.

More details tomorrow.

But there’s also a few ideas in What Is Philosophy? that I can’t really get down with. His restriction of what philosophy is to the Western tradition definitely irks me. It’s based on a curious account of cultural / economic contingency, which I’ll talk about tomorrow.

Yet his conclusion goes well beyond the evidence he presents, and contradicts a lot of what he’s said before in his career. Seriously now, more details tomorrow.

Creative Energy VI: Riding the Lightning, Research Time, 13/12/2017

Let's begin that trip into what Gilles Deleuze called catching hold of chaos. The essence of philosophical thinking.

Try a little experiment in imagination.

Step One. Imagine your intuition is perfectly right every time. You naturally understand every practically important aspect of the world around you – the conditions of every action, the most likely effects of every piece of communication no matter the medium or institution.

Every decision you make in your life is perfect – not by luck or unthinking instinct, but because you understand every situation completely at first glance. Literally at first glance. I cannot emphasize this last part enough.

When thought itself becomes so fast, the distance between
your insights falls to zero. That's what Deleuze means by
catching hold of the infinite.
Image by Aykut Aydogdu. Check out his stuff.
AT FIRST GLANCE.

The most important part of this illustration is that you understand every situation you encounter in your life completely and perfectly at first glance.

Now imagine the same kind of perfect intellectual intuition, but in thought alone. Nothing to do with the world of practical life, unfortunately – nothing to do with social interaction, dancing, home repair, finding a quick way home through heavy traffic. Nothing useful like that.

Step Two. Imagine the same kind of perfect intellectual intuition, but you’re just thinking about the abstract. Concepts, arguments, inferences, images, relationships – all the ways you can put them together as components in more complex arrangements.

You understand all the ways they can fit together and all the dynamics, processes, and frameworks for thinking and perception those abstract ideas would create. That’s in every combination, as you try out each new conceptual experiment, each new arrangement of thought components.

You think so well that you don’t need to doubt yourself or check your work, because you know in thinking it that you’ve understood everything perfectly.

Step Three. Imagine that intellectual intuition in your thinking, but that intuition is in perfect tune because – as it assembles those concepts and abstract components – it’s creating its world.

In Step One – perfect intuition in daily life – you lived in a world and your intellectual intuition connected and flowed with that world in perfect harmony. In Step Two, you’re putting concepts together with perfect accuracy.

But Step Three is actually the same as Step Two. If you’re dealing with thought alone, you’re always retreating from practical life. The concepts are frameworks for thinking to be used in everyday life – that includes a grocery run, negotiating peace treaties, wiring an apartment building, and writing epochal philosophy.

The space where you do your experiments – where you see how the components fit together, try new arrangements, make new arguments, figure out new ways to infer, imagine, analyze, think.

Deleuze described the conceptual persona as something that you became when you were thinking this way, so divorced from the daily needs of your life that your personality could become the concepts you were using. Descartes truly was an idiot – absolute inward-turning – when he was planning and writing his most revolutionary work.

All the other greats likewise became the images of their own thought, at least while they were thinking so intensely.

Creative Energy V: Listing Some Categories, Jamming, 12/12/2017

I think I’ve at last figured out how to talk, in the fairly ordinary language of my blog, about the most intense kind of creativity in philosophical thinking and discourse. I had to talk around it for a while first – getting a sense of what it wasn’t before I could wrap my tongue around the idea.

When I was re-reading What Is Philosophy? I could understand the idea well. But I couldn’t just repeat Deleuze’s lines about catching hold of chaos. I wanted to take what, in his language, remains really weird, and make it more broadly understandable.

To catch hold of chaos and ride it as long as you can. That's what it
means to create at the speed of thought.
So let’s list what we’ve got here.

D) Your work becomes an object of historical study.

C) Other people pick up your concepts and elaborate them into more complex, versatile, multifaceted ideas and problem spaces – or else they devolve into sniping and arguing over each other’s interpretations.

B) Actively applying your novel logic of thought in more specific problems, or to issues in different disciplinary discourses.

A) Developing an entirely new logic of thought in the thinking, blurring the distinction in your thought between your own acts of thinking and the movement of the new logic itself.

Qualifier. When I say the phrase, ‘logic of thought,’ I’m not necessarily talking about a new symbolic logic.* I’m talking about inference in general, how you move from one idea to another. So a new logic of thought is a new way to infer from one idea to another, leading you to construct entirely new concepts to suit those new kinds of inference.

* But developing symbolic logics can be one way, among many, to develop a new logic of thought. Look at Saul Kripke or Graham Priest for examples.

My first education in philosophy, at Memorial
University's philosophy department in the mid-
2000s, had a very Kantian framework, simply
because there were so many Kant specialists
and Kant fans in the department at the time. It
didn't make me a Kantian, but I think the
influence is pretty clear in how I use the word
'understanding' on the blog and in my other
essays.
Also, if you want a print of this cartoon, or
any other funny pictures of great thinkers,
it's by Gary Brown.
Let’s go back to that example of Kant’s thought. After all, he’s a famous thinker in the Western tradition of philosophy, who also embodies very distinctly each category of how creativity begins and is received in philosophy.

Example of (D). Read any essay or book discussing Kant’s development as a thinker, or explaining his philosophical ideas and concepts.

Example of (C) – the bad kind. Go to a conference of tenured or tenure-seeking Kant scholars and listen to them talk to each other. It’s infuriating. “I’m right!” “No, I’m right!” “No, you’re both wrong! But I’m wrong too!”

Example of (C) – the good kind. Books and essays that adapt Kant’s ideas to contemporary problems in morality, politics, and science. They don’t even have to reference or quote Kant in any detailed sense – simply demonstrate your skills at applying the concepts.

Example of (C) – the best kind. Use Kant’s concepts as a launching point or components for your own attempt to build a new logic of thought. Think of the Kantian components of John Rawls’ liberalism, or Hannah Arendt’s fascinating spin on the Critique of Judgement that informs her own departure into a new language of political thinking.

Example of (B). Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals. Kant applies the concepts he developed in the Critique of Practical Reason to pretty much every moral question that mattered to Prussians in the 1790s.

Also, think about the later chapters of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, where he applies the concepts he developed in the first half of the book to the major debates of political and social philosophy in the 1970s.

Example of (A). Kant’s three Critiques. The concepts of empiricism, mind as a framework for understanding experience and empirically limited reason in the Critique of Pure Reason. The postulates and machine of universal moral reasoning in the Critique of Practical Reason. The positive account of empiricism and as-if concepts in the Critique of Judgment.

So we have our examples. Now what is actually happening in the (A) mode of philosophical thinking? This is where things can get super-trippy.

Creative Energy IV: Becoming Thought or Thinking, Research Time, 11/12/2017

I've talked about what it means for a philosopher to become an adjective or a noun. That’s a matter of social reception – how is your work received by those who study and continue your tradition.

That’s one aspect of what Gilles Deleuze calls the conceptual persona – what a thinker becomes in the tradition through his influence. It’s sometimes hard to get past this, because the whole field of influence includes how we’re taught about a thinker.

How they’re presented in class – Analytic or Continental? Rationalist or Empiricist? Liberal or Communitarian? – is part of that influence. But that influence also happens outside universities, through the general influence their ideas have had on everyday discourse.

To be most human, we have to be the most rational. Another twist on the
old definition from Aristotle, the rational animal? Ten Thousand Doctoral
Theses have been written on the subject. Do we need to prove it? Or
simply note the similarity of the ideas, and move on to more
important things.
Image by Renee Bolinger
One of the major ideas in contemporary extreme nationalism, especially its libertarian streak, is cultural marxism. This is their label for the common features of all progressive ideologies. It’s based on Andrew Breitbart having a very strange reading of Theodor Adorno.

That’s how we’re taught. If I want to dig into the heart of Deleuze’s idea – the conceptual persona – here’s a question I should ask. Having figured out their own core concepts, how did a great thinker use them?

Example. When did Kant become a Kantian? When he wrote The Metaphysics of Morals. That’s clear enough to me. The process goes like this.

In 1785, he publishes The Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals. It lays out in really simple language* the basic guiding principles he’ll use to build a comprehensive set of moral laws for his society. The moral imperatives of reason, which we have a duty to follow wherever they lead us in life – because reason is the highest human power.

* Compared to the Critique of Pure Reason anyway.

Three years later, he drops the Critique of Practical Reason, in 1788. It’s the shortest of all the Critiques, but incredibly dense. The entire book is, as far as this example is concerned, a single argument that the basic laws of human reason, expressed in the most abstract moral context,** describes a universal moral imperative.

** Or maybe call it a plane?

What did I just say? The argument is that we know there’s a moral law, and reason is how we deduce it. Reason, like Kant said in 1781’s Critique of Pure Reason, can’t apply to understanding how the world works because the physical world doesn’t run according to laws of logical deduction.***

I don't know how much I'll include of
these examples in the Utopias text. Kant,
for all the solemnity of his style, gets so
many academicians riled up when you talk
about him. It's like the community of
academics can't deal with people
speaking off the cuff about the ideas
you've spent your careers studying.
Now that I put it that way, I think I
finally see where they're coming
from.
*** The most TL;DR sentence I think I’ve ever written.

But morality works according to laws, Kant says. Let’s build a concept of moral law where the logical operations of reason show what actions you should do – show you your duty.

The Metaphysics of Morals is Kant, at extreme length, applying the duty of reason every moral law he could identify – from murder and lying through marriage and masturbation. It takes him nearly a decade to pound this one out.

So the project’s introduction is in 1785, he lays out the key principles in 1788, then spends – on and off – until 1797 on a massive application of those principles.

In 1785, the Groundwork was released to help create a few Kantians in the world. In 1788, Kant releases a work of profound and complex philosophy – Kant the person becoming Kant the philosopher. Then in 1797, Kant becomes a Kantian.

As a Kantian, Kant knew his own concepts better than anyone, so could apply them most faithfully and rigorously. In that, he was speaking through his conceptual persona – he was at the smallest possible remove from Kant as conceptual persona.

Most Kantians – all the ones who weren’t Kant – could be as rigorous as they wanted, but they’d inevitably put their own spin on becoming a Kantian. To be a Kantian is to think with the conceptual persona Kant created.

Hans is becoming a Kantian philosopher. Apply the machinery of Kant’s concepts to your own thinking and investigations – let the concepts he established become the framework of your thought. That’s what it is to adopt a conceptual persona.

How is a conceptual persona created in the first place? My next example will be about what Kant was doing in 1788.

Creative Energy III: Becoming Adjective, Research Time, 08/12/2017

When a thinker develops a concept comprehensive enough to think through as a framework for understanding the world, his activity changes from just regular old writing about philosophy. What I’m doing right now, obviously, isn’t writing at the intensity and density that actually creates new concepts.

Neither is writing a philosophical lecture. Neither is writing most articles for peer review in journals of philosophy. Creating new concepts is a weird enough process that it can only be snuck past peer review processes.

Imagine if you could achieve immortality. Ask what the
biggest jerk of a genie would do with that wish.
It creates by implication, always present in the text, but it only comes to a reader when she thinks for a second about what she’s read. The true weirdness of creative philosophical writing appears in disguise as something more ordinary.

Example. The key paper by Edmund Gettier is the best example I can think of. Looks like an absolutely mundane little thought experiment, built around some pretty clear symbolic logic. Read it. It looks utterly ordinary.

Think about it. A clear, easy-to-understand demonstration that you can have a justified true belief that isn’t actual knowledge of the situation. It’s a transformative moment.

You realize what he’s done in those three pages, and you understand what it means to break an entire discourse. The philosophy of pure knowledge would never be the same again.

Gettier had an immensely destructive effect. I’m not sure that pure epistemology can find a way out. Thinkers in that discipline frequently return to the problem of justified true belief, but are never able to develop a standard for what knowledge can be so apparently unassailable as the old one.

I don’t know that they ever will. My old friend Walther is a pure epistemologist. I’ll ask him what he thinks.

It’s a cheeky way to think about it, but it makes a good label. Gettier turned himself into a noun – the Gettier Case. Becoming a noun is a very dangerous thing for a person to do – imagine freezing thought in carbonite like Han Solo. That’s what Gettier did with himself.

Good way to secure tenure, but it’s sad that our era considers academic tenure so precious and rare that stasis is a fair trade-off. It’s a joke, but it’s true. There are already plenty of Gettier Cases. But there’s never going to be a Gettian.

Not everyone who looks like a marxist is one. Not necessarily,
anyway.
There are plenty of Kantians – some willing, some unwilling, and some coincidental. A few Cartesians, some Platonists, plenty of Marxists but not nearly as many as most people think, Habermasians, Foucauldians. Some annoying Spinozists and some precious fun Spinozists. I have a friend who’s a Rawlsian, though I’ve never been able to understand why.

Whole traditions have become Aristotelians for centuries. There are all kinds of Platonists, a couple of deranged Heracliteans, plenty of Thomists, not enough Ockhamists, There might be one lonely Scotist left in the wild.

There are a few dull Quineans, intensely argumentative Wittgensteinians. Davidsonians who can never agree on what it means to be Davidsonian. The Arendtians are vibrant, but feel so sad. Countless Hayekians who won’t shut up even when they should.

When you pump out primary material – when you create concepts – you create texts that people can get lost in. There are countless nooks and crannies to explore in thinking about those concepts. You re-read a book, and it expands fractally for you, as different details emerge in the return.

That’s a philosophical concept – a framework for understanding the world should have the same infinite possibility to surprise as real life does. When people encounter this concept, they’re able to pick it up and use it to understand their lives, the cosmos, and the philosophical or theoretical problems they write about.

They may never be able to create a concept themselves – to become an adjective* – but they can become experts in carrying it forward, applying it, advancing it.

* Or at least having the potential to become an adjective. It helps to have a good publisher, or at least get into the right people’s hands.