Monday, October 06, 2008

The More Things Change: The New Philosophical Stylistics


Once upon a time, Rene Descartes insisted that truth consisted in clear and distinct ideas. This is pretty intuitive; a true statement is a true statement. It corresponds with some state of affairs in the world.

Then the 19th century happened. Herr Hegel found isolated concepts to be useless; Herr Nietzsche began to speak of mobile armies of metaphors and a multiple subject. Ideas were no longer so clear and distinct. The critique of identity was underway; Hegel found negativity to be the engine of change, while Nietzsche insisted that only becoming had being, and being was becoming.

Ok, let's make this clear and distinct. Take your average logical syllogism:

A = B
B = C
A = C

See all those cute little signs of equality in there? Step three of a syllogism confirms the identity of all three elements. That's pretty useful in daily life. Except what does it tell you? Nothing new. A = C. Whoopy. Dialectics offers a way of introducing something new; B negates A, producing C (technically, C is the truth of A). As I said above, negativity is the engine that produces something new, allowing us to move beyond the logical syllogism. Just... take my word for it.

The twentieth century ran with that. And this is the important thing: when you leave behind identity and the syllogism, how do you write? In dense, complicated prose that attempts to allow pure difference, or negativity, or multiplicity (take your pick of terms) to diffuse into your writing. This makes for some wildly difficult texts. This attempt at having one's writing style actually enact one's ontological concepts is the reason lurking behind the reputation of "postmodern" philosophy's total impenetrability. Let's take Richard Dawkins' own example of "postmodern nonsense," a quote from Felix Guattari:

"We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticized previously."

It is fairly rare to find "clear" arguments or statements in a lot of contemporary philosophy, because most ontology since Hegel (or historically since Kant's critiques of finite reason) simply does not allow for logical statements which depend upon unthought-out conceptions of identity.

But the times, they are a-changing. We are just now beginning to see what appears to be a return to the old school style of arguments and logic. The two most notable examples are Alain Badiou and his former student, Quentin Meillassoux. Their writing certainly resembles old-school philosophy - the synthesis of emperical facts and syllogisms.

Does this mean that the byzantine writings of the 20th century are now being repudiated? That we need to return to the classical argumentation style of everyone from Aristotle to Hume? Let's not be so hasty.

To rephrase what I've already said, the texts of the 20th century were so difficult because they were trying to present that which is by defition is un-presented - pure difference or multiplicity. Alain Badiou has by no means given up on this project; he has simply shifted the focus. It is Badiou's startling (and frustrating and scary) thesis that true ontology is performed only with math.

It's scary, because he is basically telling philosophy departments around the world, "you know that project you've been devoting your life to? Forget it... it's the guys in the math department that are doing the serious ontological work."

He is a philosopher himself, of course. Exactly what role he offers philosophy is unconnected to my point here. What I want to say is that because Badiou places pure multiplicity in the realm of mathematics, it is now possible to use identity in meta-ontological works once again. Reading Badiou's work is like reading a text from the 18th century; he offers clear axioms, then logically works out their implications.

I think such a shift was inevitable. The Marxist streak of much the the philosophical world has always required serious philosophical thought to support it, and Deconstruction and Schizoanalysis have not necessarily proven themselves as adequate tools of emancipation. Which is of course not a criticism of either; I am merely locating an empirical impetus for the shift in writing styles.

Clear writing is back... now we all just have to learn trans-finite set theory in order to actually do ontology. Yeah, right, that'll happen.

5 comments:

dan said...

Still haven't gotten very far into Badiou but, if what you say is true, it seems to me that he is following Wittgenstein by leaving ontology to mathematicians. Philosophy, then, is the speaking of nonsense (and, although we know it as nonsense, we still continue to speak it).

Mike said...

Well, my Wittgenstein is pretty sketchy. All I really know of him is the search for the limits of language in his first book.

He is about limits, right? Finitude. We may go thus far, and no further. Badiou's project is all about infinite unfolding; he isn't interested in limits. Philosophy certainly is not the speaking of nonsense - it is the clearing house in which the infinite truths of science, love, art and politics are organized and polished.

I'll do a post on it soon.

dan said...

Sorry, just to be clear, by 'nonsense' Wittgenstein basically means things lacking certitude. So, yes, unfold all you want, but don't label that unfolding as 'factual' (at least that's what I think Wittgenstein would say).

dan said...

Sorry, just to be clear, by 'nonsense' Wittgenstein basically means things lacking certitude. So, yes, unfold all you want, but don't label that unfolding as 'factual' (at least that's what I think Wittgenstein would say).

Mike said...

Is it about certitude? I thought the Tractatus was about the bounds of sense, about the limitation on our ability to express thought. That isn't quite the same thing.