20 December 2006

Of Grounds and Knowledge

In a very nice response to another poster, N.Pepperell writes:
I just wanted to pick up on these points from anonymous (since I seem to be determined to intervene in this as an epistemological, rather than as a political, debate... ;-P): Two questions that follow, from this, for me (this is not a bait, i'm just seeking to clarify for myself your position):
1. if one is committed to the immanence thesis, does that commit one to being a secularist? 2. Certainly immanence requires rejection of a transcendent being, etc., but does it require rejection of a category of religion?
I would suggest that these questions can become very awkward if someone tries to start with the ontological assertion of immanence - if they assert immanence as their ontological stance. (This kind of assertion is also what can put one on the conceptual terrain where one can get accused of asserting immanence as a kind of theological position...) Once you begin with a strong and, in a sense, a priori ontological stance, this might suggest that questions about secularism, god, etc., are predetermined from the outset.

If, however, we approach the question from a different direction, some of these issues can be approached more agnostically. If immanence is, however, a conclusion we draw when we reflect on certain dimensions of our experience, then we're more in the position, as expressed in Sinthome's post back on 29 May:
As Laplace responded to Napoleon when asked about the role of God in the new physics, "Je n'ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse". "I have no need of this hypothesis."
In other words, we may find that we aren't in need of the hypothesis that there would be a god, in order to explain the phenomena we are seeking to explain. This doesn't specifically compel us into any position one way or another about whether a god could exist (although it may have implications for claims we could accept about how a god intervenes in this world - it may displace, as has already occurred in theological shifts expressed in a number of traditions, the "involvement" of the divine in everyday life into questions about meaning, rather than questions about, e.g., interventionary causation...). It therefore doesn't necessarily compel us into secularism, in the sense of requiring a secularist belief system from anyone who accepts a thesis of immanence as an explanatory framework for how humans and their contexts are mutually embedded...

The observation of immanence does, I think, provide a basis for making judgments about certain kinds of religious claims - as it does for making judgments about certain kinds of ethical or theoretical claims. This could be useful, however, if we'd like some conceptual tools for making moral distinctions among religious movements...

I should note that I'm trying to think through logical implications here - I happen personally to be a secularist, just one who has never personally been terribly troubled by other people's claims to have experiences of a relationship with the divine. As Sinthome has expressed in other contexts, my reaction to these sorts of claims is, essentially, on what basis could I judge them? On any given day, I have any number of experiences and engage in any number of relationships whose existence I couldn't "prove" to anyone else, but that are nevertheless quintessentially meaningful to me...

This becomes problematic only when I try to appeal to these kinds of personal experiences in order to compel behaviours from those who don't share the same experiential base - who would have no rational reason to agree... To me, the observation of immanence relates to the attempt to tease out the sorts of experiences that we have - quite inadvertantly, in my opinion - caused to be distributed quite widely across the world. Without meaning to, we have created the conditions of possibility to be united in some specific respects - while being quite diverse and divergent in others... But I'm probably being too loose with my concepts, tossing these ideas out in this form...
I think the key point made here is that of how unprovable experiences are appealed to in relating to others. For me philosophy is essentially dialogical and questions of epistemology are essentially questions of intersubjectivity. This is a lesson I draw from Plato's dialogues-- The dialogue style makes a substantial philosophical point; namely, that questions about knowledge and being are questions of intersubjectivity. It is for this reason that Socrates always has an interlocutor and often that interlocutor has claimed to have a certain knowledge based on authority or special revelation (Euthyphro). While it is indeed true that I might be interested in epistemology so as to avoid error and reliably produce knowledge, the more pressing question is that of what can be reliably persuasive or shared by another person. That is, there is an element of both respect and freedom here. At the level of respect, I strive only to make appeals to another that that other can discover for themselves. At the level of freedom, the philosophical position seems to be that the only valid form of compulsion should be that of reason, where the person can discover the rightness of the conclusion for themselves (rather than being compelled by authority, myth, fear, or emotion). Descartes' meditations might be conducted in the privacy of his room within which he's trapped, but the key point is that he is arguing that they are repeatable by anyone, just as anyone can go through the steps of 2x + 4 = 12 to discover that x = 4. Whether or not Descartes is successful in this, of course, is another question.

Whether or not philosophy has ever been fully successful in this task is another issue. My position would be that philosophy has worked at this task in one way or another for nearly 3000 years, and has perpetually re-evaluated its conclusions, subjecting them to critique, and taking into account hidden assumptions that it had formerly overlooked. Philosophy has been the ongoing dialectic between the philosopher and the sophist, where the sophist demonstrates the manner in which the confident philosopher nonetheless falls prey to undemonstrated claims and assumptions, and the philosopher responds to the sophist, taking these assumptions into account and showing how truth is possible within their scope. For instance, today we find ourselves embroiled in how a pure beginning is possible, given that thought, knowledge, and subjectivity is thoroughly pervaded by culture which cannot itself be grounded. That's the sophists position, advanced by thinkers such as Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Levi-Strauss, Quine, Davidson, Rorty, sometimes Heidegger, and others. The philosopher that would respond to this has not yet arisen, though there are promising glimmers in Deleuze and Badiou.

N.Pepperell's point about appeals to God is well taken, for these appeals often do more to inhibit this process than promote it. When I appeal to God, I often foreclose questioning of the world about me and attempts to explain that world on immanent grounds. Explanation comes too quickly, too easily. We're given an explanation for everything. Again, not all believers are of this sort, but it is certainly a phenomenon that often accompanies religious thought.

If we were to ask why the great traditions of philosophy emerged historically, my tentative hypothesis would be that these moments in philosophy have always arisen against a background of cultural conflict or violence. In the case of the great Greek thinkers, Greece was an environment of trade with a variety of different cultures. The question that naturally emerges is that of how it is possible to deliberate with someone who shares very different mythologies than I? How does the Greek communicate with the Egyptian regarding matters of ethics, governance, justice, and the nature of the world given that their mythological visions of how the world works and what the gods demand are so different. Philosophy was the technology that emerged to solve this problem, and sought grounds of belief that could be shared by diverse peoples. An appeal to the authority of Homer has no persuasive power for the Egyptian, but perhaps an appeal to experience or rational concepts such as those allegedly embodied in the forms does. Is it not significant that Socrates' interlocutor in the Parmenides is the Eleatic Stranger? Isn't philosophy first and foremost an encounter with the stranger?

The situation doesn't strike me as being much different with the great epistemologies of the 18th century. What was it that made men like Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant so passionate about epistemological issues? Why were they all worked up? I'll never forget witnessing professor Paul Moser-- a well-recognized Anglo-American epistemologist and philosopher of mind at Loyola of Chicago --undergo his crisis with respect to the field of epistemology. Overnight, it seemed, he suddenly came to believe that all of his previous work was idle and vain, serving no purpose and functioning just as an academic game. Large piles of books appeared outside his office door. Many of us, including myself, were sympathetic with how he felt. The discipline of epistemology had always looked a little silly (as it's a discipline that produces no knowledge of its own) and had always seemed a little reactionary (as it can be perceived as wanting to police claims). Moser shifted his research from epistemology to philosophy of religion, and astonishingly (for an Anglo-American epistemologist) became an enthusiast of Kierkegaard. Of course, this delighted the rest of us as it meant one less Anglo-American dismissing our "fuzzy Continental orientations" and gave us another faculty member to discuss Kierkegaard with.

In the years since I witnessed this amazing chain of events, I've often reflected on my distaste for epistemology that I had projected on to Moser and the way it has sometimes colored my relationship to the great 18th century philosophers. I just couldn't understand why they were so worked up by these questions. I disliked the notion of policing knowledge. However, as I've come to think more about the history of these centuries, the questions of epistemology have come to appear more and more vital to me. These thinkers lived in the midsts of violent religious and political disputes. One need only read the sublime Voltaire's Candide to get a glimpse at the brutality of the situation.

In one way or another all of these issues came back to questions of knowledge. A certain knowledge was claimed of divine will and the nature of the world, and people acted accordingly. Unfortunately, given that texts are polysemous, very different arguments could be made on the basis of one and the same text. The passion of the 18th century thinkers was thus to reign in knowledge, to determine the limits of what we can know, and to determine reliable grounds that can be shared intersubjectively. They were highly successful in this endeavor and changed the world as a result of their critiques.

If, as Adam Kotsko has contended, I have a hostility to religion over and above my hostility to the actions of the religious right, it traces back to these concerns. I don't much care what Adam or anyone else believes as to the metaphysical workings of the universe. I do, however, care when these sorts of grounds, grounds that others cannot share but which require an act of faith, are foisted on others as grounds of policy and ethical deliberation. When these things are used as the ground of deliberation it seems that conflict is the only possible outcome, as there's no longer a shared ground of deliberation that all can participate in. So yes, I am suspicious of the intertwining of religion and politics, and I am suspicious of this intertwining because it smacks to me of a return to arguments based on authority and the assertion of groundless grounds that allow the mind to run wild with all sorts of phantoms as in the case of the believer that scrutinizes the news so as to find evidence that the end of times is upon us (and no, I am not suggesting Kotsko does this). None of this is to suggest that one shouldn't have their beliefs, only that one's grounds be grounds that the other too can discover for themselves. This might even include rational arguments for the existence of God, sans appeals to the authority of scripture, such as we find in Descartes or Saint Thomas or Maimonides. Are abortion clinics bombed in Europe?

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21 Comments:

Anonymous Discard said...

N. Pepperell, taking up my question to Sinthome, says:

"I would suggest that these questions can become very awkward if someone tries to start with the ontological assertion of immanence - if they assert immanence as their ontological stance. (This kind of assertion is also what can put one on the conceptual terrain where one can get accused of asserting immanence as a kind of theological position...) Once you begin with a strong and, in a sense, a priori ontological stance, this might suggest that questions about secularism, god, etc., are predetermined from the outset."

I think i see where you're going here -- perhaps not -- but are you saying that it is impossible/improper to take any ontological stance at all? Or is it that such a stance must be conditioned by a certain approach, as a kind of propaedeutic?

For what it's worth, i'd contend that an ontological stance is inescapable. Furthermore, I think there's a point at which an appeal to phenomenological description, or to explanatory power, reaches undecidability (not that i would exclude these, more like they'd be necessary but insufficient).

And I suppose the reason i posed these questions to Sinthome is that, for me, immanence is more fundamental than any secularism. Perhaps immanence might then pose a kind of criterion for religion v. secularism which is prior to each.

December 20, 2006 5:49 PM  
Anonymous N Pepperell said...

Immanence would be more fundamental to me, as well, although I tend to think of and describe myself as a secularist.

I'm not suggesting that we not make ontological claims - I'm trying to understand the conditions of possibility for achieving shared understanding of particular kinds of ontological claims. Part of this, I think, begins with the attempt not to make ontological claims in the form of a stance. In other words, I'd rather avoid (and I think it's inconsistent with the notion of immanence to assert) that we're operating at the level of Weber's duelling demons - where we conceptualise what we're doing as, in Weber's terms, choosing the altar before which we will sacrifice our intellect, expect that our personal altar happens to be the concept of immanence, rather than transcendence... ;-P

So the idea would be to see whether we can ground our claims about immanence by pointing to potentially generally available elements of our shared experience, which others can go off and confirm for themselves, which suggest that immanence is a reasonable way of making sense of these shared experiences. We can then reflect on the implications of this and other shared experiences - see what we can learn from them through theoretical analysis, use philosophy to mine our experiences for the lessons our context has to teach us...

But the approach has, so to speak, a strong empiricist core (without, however, treating theoretical concepts as emerging in some transparent and unproblematic way from empirical experience) - and it approaches ontological claims as something like working hypotheses: claims that, based on what we've analysed and thought about so far, seem to provide the best working explanation for the problems we're trying to solve. (We'd also, of course, have to explain the validity of the empiricist attitude immanently - you'd also have to look at why we could reasonably expect people to share particular standards of validity, particular visions of how one would satisfy those standards, etc. There are endless challenges, if you want to follow through on the implications of the concept of immanence, and work consistently within a framework that tries to ground itself immanently...)

I understand your worry that "there's a point at which an appeal to phenomenological description, or to explanatory power, reaches undecidability" - although I've tried to argue elsewhere that this concern arises more in abstract discussions that try to resolve these issues at the level of philosophy alone, than it would if we would start by systematic reflection on the specific context in which we're claiming to be embedded. We may well find that, even though we share very little experientially, what we share has some quite profound implications... At least, this is my working ontological hypothesis of the moment... ;-P

I don't think I'm formulating this very well - I actually think Sinthome's post covered much of this ground a bit more clearly. I'm still trying to work my way toward how I could articulate this position clearly and consistently...

December 20, 2006 6:22 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Discard, maybe you could speak to how you see immanence as more fundamental than secularism. I'm not necessarily disagreeing with you, just wishing to hear you flesh this out. Taking immanence in its Deleuzian formulation, it's pretty clear that he sees it in secular terms, rejecting any transcendence of diety. I take it that this is part of the reason he finds Spinoza so attractive, who perhaps went further than any other thinker in combatting anthropomorphic conceptions of God and in asserting the identity of God and world. Matters are complicated by the fact that in _What is Philosophy?_ D&G claim that all philosophies have striven for immanence, though only a few succeeded. Historically I think this is fairly accurate. When Thales says "all is water", he's enacted a pretty fundamental shift in how the world is explained, regardless of whether the thesis itself is silly.

December 20, 2006 6:27 PM  
Anonymous N Pepperell said...

I'm curious to hear Discard's response, and I don't intend this comment to pre-empt that response in any way - but one hypothetical reason for suggesting that immaence might be more fundamental was probably implied in my original comment: immanence does still leave open the potential for agnosticism about religion - it involves a practical secularism, and can dispense with the hypothesis of religion, but doesn't necessarily rule out variation in individual belief and experience around secularism as a belief structure...

As well, secularism by itself doesn't necessarily imply immanence - you could have a form of thought, for example, that appeals to transcendent concepts of Nature. This could be quite secular, but reject the notion of immanence...

Apologies if this makes no sense - this conversation is much more interesting than the meetings I have to attend today, but the existence of those meetings still has me in a somewhat less than philosophical frame of mind... ;-P

December 20, 2006 7:02 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

I take it that when Deleuze, Badiou, and Spinoza assert immanence, they aren't simply making an epistemological claim, but an ontological claim. As Deleuze puts it in his final published essay, "Immanence: A Life", "Absolute immanence is in itself: it is not in anything, nore can it be attributed TO something; it does not depend on an object or belong to a subject. In Spinoza immanence is not immanent TO substance; on the contrary, substance and its modes are in immanence. Whenever immanence is attributed TO subject and object, which themselves fall outside the plane, the subject being taken as universal, and the object as any object whatsoever, we witness a denaturing of the transcendental, which now merely presents a double of the empirical (this is what happens in Kant)" (385).

Consequently, if this thesis is endorsed any vision of God as independent of its creatures is rejected. We can, however, perhaps accept pantheistic theologies such as Whitehead's or Spinoza's. The key question, of course, is what warrants this ontological thesis? I try to develop an argument for this in my book and explain why Deleuze hasn't violated the critical tradition and fallen into dogmatism. Clearly such claims can only be made on the basis of rationalistic argumentation, not empirical demonstration. At any rate, this is unavoidably a secularist position as it doesn't allow for any form of relation outside causality, nor does it grant anything to inspiration or revelation.

It seems to me that the sort of immanence you're talking about is closer to what is immanent to consciousness or experience as in the case of Hume, Kant, or Husserl, where we restrict ourselves to what can be present to consciousness. Many of my discussions of immanence are attempts to avoid this move and the epistemological problematic.

December 20, 2006 7:20 PM  
Anonymous N Pepperell said...

Perhaps this is because I've been having the sort of day that persuades me of the existence of a quite sharp division between my subjectivity and the objectivity within which, I must admit, I fail to feel terribly embedded at the present time... ;-P

Seriously, though, I'll have to have a more careful think about this - among other things because I've been riffing in these threads today in a fairly off-the-cuff way, in order to explore the issue of secularism. The risk of my tossing something out that simply isn't compatible with other things I think, is rather high... So it's quite possible you're correct - not in the sense that this is a move I would want to make, but in the sense that it might be a move I've fallen into... It may be that, in trying to talk about the possibility for achieving intersubjective consensus around a particular set of ontological claims (which was my focus here), I've fallen into a contradiction... I'm not sure...

However... thinking again off the cuff: I'm wondering whether what might be causing the confusion is that I probably think a move to immanance requires us to talk about ontological claims a bit differently - that perhaps we've moved outside of a realm where it makes sense to draw the sharp distinction you try to make between ontological and epistemological claims? If we are conceptualising epistemology in terms of a theory of learning - understood as something like an exploration of the relationships between mutually embedded transformations of subjectivity and objectivity unfolded in time - then we're outside the terrain of ontological claims asserted as stances? And onto a terrain of ontological claims as an interpretive framework that can be defended - and here I realise that the term "empirical" is problematic (as I - very tentatively - see it, you would effectively have to reinterpret what "empirical" means, to position it on an intersubjective terrain, rather than an objectivistic one - and also position what enables this positioning to become available as a concept... ;-P). But the concept of "rationalist argumentation" would have to be similarly repositioned and transformed, I think??? (In other words, this approach imposes enormous demands - quite important ones, but very difficult to satisfy - forcing the reinterpretation of common categories, to render them usable outside the framework of a subject-object divide...)

In any event, I think we land in a secularist position here in the specific sense of not needing a religious hypothesis. Making a stronger assertion than the acknowledgement of the non-necessity of the religious hypothesis feels to me like reaching back into the subject-object divide? As well, I would suggest that the concern isn't so much what we can present to consciousness, but to what we can appeal intersubjectively, which places us - I think - on a different terrain??? But I'm probably writing nonsense here... It's been a very long day... ;-P

I should note that, since I have no specific desire to carve out a space for religious sensibilities, it won't of course worry me if my attempt falls over... But I think there are some other issues running through the discussion that are both terminological and potentially conceptual, which I need to work through at a much greater level of detail (and, as always, I have a nagging suspicion that some issues may be arising largely because we are trying to resolve the issue without reference to the specific context in which we are embedded...) Apologies if this is simply terribly ill-conceived...

December 20, 2006 11:39 PM  
Anonymous discard said...

"Discard, maybe you could speak to how you see immanence as more fundamental than secularism. I'm not necessarily disagreeing with you, just wishing to hear you flesh this out. Taking immanence in its Deleuzian formulation, it's pretty clear that he sees it in secular terms, rejecting any transcendence of diety."

Yes indeed, immanence requires the rejection of a transcendent deity. Hopefully i've made it clear that I agree with that. However, i'm not sure that "rejecting any transcendence of deity" means one sees the world in secular terms. Obviously, in an literal sense, secularism connotes worldliness, so yes, in this sense immanence = secularism. It's just not as clear to me that secularism, at least with the connotation that it has for us today, comes before immanence.

If we put immanence first, then we have a way of creating solidarities between religious and secular people. And it also allows us to make distinctions between, say, transcendent-being based religions and more pagan religions. Furthermore, posing the criterion as immanence rather than religion as such, allows better dialogue with religious people. Having foregrounded immanence, one can then disagree with the Thomism or Neoplatonism of Christians, for example -- which surely makes the dialogue/conflict more fruitful.

I'm going on and on... my apologies. Last comment. I think that some intriguing paths for conceiving religion are given in Deleuze's discussion of fabulation, or the myth-making function. Here we have religion's transcendent being subordinated to a religious capacity for narratively weaving together new bonds of immanence. Alongside this, there's the question of imagination. I know I'm treading on thin ice here, with a Lacanian. However, very basically, my point is that religion will always be a covering over of the gap -- as Jodi finely put it recently, with regard to religion and the state -- if one takes imagination in the Althusserian sense, that is, in relation to ideology. If one's Spinoza is more Negrian, then one gets a productive power of the imagination, of its falsity, etc. And i think religion can at times belong to such an imagination.

December 21, 2006 7:16 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Discard, are you suggesting that the term "immanence" is less charged than the word "secularism", and therefore allows for some discussion to occur, where the other term tends to be a bit like waving a red flag in front of a bull? With that I'd agree. The term "secularism" isn't one of my own and not one I ordinarily use, but was drawn from Adam Kotsko and APS, in the recent discussion.

I have no objections to your additional point about imagination either. In the third chapter of DR, where Deleuze gives his most extensive outline of critique, he calls for shifting from discussions in terms of "error", to discussions in terms of transcendental illusions such as described by Hume (although he doesn't use this term), Kant of course, and Marx visavis fetishism. I take it, however, that this is a very secular way of looking at religion. The secular critique (in good cases), doesn't treat religion as a simple error, but as a form of imagining that has real material effects, sometimes positive and revolutionary, at other times repressive and reactionary (apologia for the status quo, etc).

N.P. writes: "Perhaps this is because I've been having the sort of day that persuades me of the existence of a quite sharp division between my subjectivity and the objectivity within which, I must admit, I fail to feel terribly embedded at the present time..."

I'm not suggesting anything that would undermine such a division. The world isn't what *I* make it or what a subject makes. Rather, Deleuze argues that subject and object are co-generated within immanence. Immanence, I take it, is just the thesis that all grounds are "worldly" or of the world.

December 21, 2006 11:01 AM  
Anonymous N. Pepperell said...

The line you're quoting from my post, of course, was just my sarcastic reaction to my workday... ;-P I wasn't seriously intending it as part of an argument - I'm all for reflecting on personal experience, but I'm not suggesting that my workday is of world-historical signifiance for philosophy... ;-P Apologies if this was unclear or annoying...

There may be more and less abstract concepts of immanence at work in the broader discussion we've been having. In your most recent post, you're using "immanence" in the way I would generally use "materalism" - as an assertion of the non-necessity of appealing to transcendent explanations. ("Materialism" having been one of those words that has been historically flattened, such that the reflex assumption seems to be for people to gloss it as an assertion about economic caussation, rather than an assertion about secular causation...) I have no problem with the strategic notion of using "immanence" in place of "materialism" or "secularism" as a strategy in discussion - or just as a term perhaps more likely to be understood, because it's not so freighted with history.

My point has been that there is something specifically and deeply inconsistent with asserting a concept of immanence as a stance. I think the move to materialism/immanence entails an obligation to explain how we have become aware that our world can be conceptualised in this way - that we do not need the hypothesis of transcendence - and also how particular immanent dimensions of our world render it plausible for people to jump to the conclusion that a subject-object divide exists.

If we are also historical materialists - if we believe that the nature of our social world has changed over time, and that some of the concepts we are trying to explain have a historical dimension - then this points in the direction, I think, of explaining how something about the practices and habits of thought constitutive of our social world suggests both the subject-object dualism, and the possibility to arrive at concepts like "historical materialism"...

If we don't believe there is evidence for historical shifts, then we could perhaps explain the concept of immanence, and the perception of a subject-object divide, with reference to more timeless concepts (this is, in fact, a very common move in scientific texts that want to explain, e.g., aspects of ethics or morality - to put forward an argument that something in our makeup as biological creatures causes us to perceive and think about the world in specific ways). If we find evidence of meaningful historical change persuasive, however, this avenue is not open to us.

If we still want to assert the hypothesis of immanence in these circumstances, I think the form of the argument would have the structure of: (1) pointing to some specific dimensions of our historical environment that have suggested to us the possibility of immanence; (2) pointing to some specific dimensions of our world that have suggested the existence of a subject-object divide (a divide that, among other things, makes conceptually available to us the constellation of standards for "objectivity" - e.g., that something be reproducable across history); (3) recognising the historically-generated character of our notions of "objectivity" - such that we recognise the way in which any evaluative standards related to this concept must themselves be understood as standards for us; and (4) examining aspects of our historical environment - including concepts like "immanance" whose historical resonance we have already attempted to explain within our theoretical approach - to see whether we might be able to test the validity of these concepts for the analysis of other historical periods.

It is in this sense, in the discussion with Nick for example, that I have suggested that it might be possible, from within a "historical materialist" framework, still link to more conventional notions of truth claims - reconfigured by our recognition that these are lessons we have taught ourselves, concepts for which we have "primed" ourselves, for specific reasons, at a specific moment in time. But concepts which then become provisionally available for us to wield as hypotheses about other human societies, the natural world, etc.

This same orientation might react back against the sort of the discussion we've been having about religion and subjective experience. (Some of what I've been trying to do in this particular thread is to experiment with whether and how we can be robust with the assertion you made - and with which I agree - at I Cite: that ultimately we have no means to evaluate someone's subjective experiences, to assess the authenticity of those experiences, when that person asserts that authenticity...)

So, the historical generation of the concept and practice of a "subject" (an individual subject, in this case, although an analysis of collective subjects can also be carried out) also releases concepts - of authenticity, for example - that can then potentially be applied validly, when reconfigured as historical concepts.

I've thought a great deal more, personally, about the ramifications for this approach for bodies of thought like the natural sciences, than I have about this approach for understandings of subjective identity. But I suspect that the resonance of quite important political values - the ideals of respect and non-coercive communication, for example, that you mention in your post - can be historicised in this way.

I suspect - but this isn't a strong or important point to me, on a personal level - that our historical experience of subjecitivity might also leave a reservoir of something like "non-generalisable, authentic personal experience", to which people could refer in accounting for, e.g, religious experience, experience of personal relationships, and other meaningful experiences whose generalisability to others cannot be assumed, but whose importance to a given individual can nevertheless be asserted with reference to ideals and normative standards (like Habermas' notion of authenticity) that are generally understood...

Within this framework, the concept of immanence or "historical materialism" does remain a hypothesis or theory, I think - but in something like the way the theory of evolution remains a theory: not as some kind of expression of scepticism about the limits of what we can possibly know, but as an expression that we have developed the theory through an attempt to interpret our experiences after extended reflection. The theory may become extremely powerful, to the degree that it becomes difficult to conceive how its central tenets would ever be challenged - but there is a value, I think, to retaining an in principle agnosticism and tentative openness to the possibility that an alternative, more powerful theory is always in principle possible. (That, and I don't personally think anyone has done enough serious and systematic work within this framework that we can afford to treat this as a well-established and foundational theory at the present moment in time...)

I realise this is all very condensed... I'm just trying to give a better sense of why I tend to intervene when you try to assert as a stance something that I think needs to be explained as something we have learned - that represents a hard-won historical insight.

December 21, 2006 1:12 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

N.P. I'm having a very difficult time understanding your distinction between something being a stance and something learned. Why can we not have both? All sorts of historical events were required to birth Newton, yet certainly Newton can be described as a stance. All sorts of history was required to get to the germ theory of sickness, but certain I can have the stance that sickness results from germs and viruses, not an imbalance among the humors. I'm just not sure I see what the issue is.

On the other hand, the advocate of immanence is obligated to give some sort of story as to just why there's a tendency not to view being in terms of immanence or materialistically. I take it that this is what sociologists, semioticians, psychoanalysts, Marxist economists, and thinkers in the critical tradition (pace Kant's concept of "transcendental illusion" or naturalists like Lucretius, Spinoza, Machiavelli, Hume, and so on) have been doing for centuries. Rather than taking the statements of superstition or ideology as truth-claims, they instead give some sort of genetic account as to why people so inevitably fall prey to them.

December 21, 2006 1:40 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

I'm also pretty dodgy about Habermas. Lacanians begin from the premise-- well founded in analysis and day to day life --that all communication is miscommunication, and proceed from there. This pretty much throws Habermas' normative framework of rational communication out the window from the getgo. The final paragraph of my subsequent post on Hegel and the Sophists pretty much sums up why I think Habermas has little to offer to our concrete communicative situation today (without mentioning his name or even having originally had him in mind).

December 21, 2006 1:43 PM  
Anonymous N. Pepperell said...

I've written extensive critiques of Habermas - but you were nevertheless performatively being very Habermasian in the post that initiated this conversation: there were striking similarities in your formulations, in this post specifically, of the normative ideals to which you were appealing... ;-)

Habermas does recognise some useful things about the problematic posed by a materialist thesis. I personally intensely dislike the way he tries to resolve that problematic, but he can be credited for having a clearer notion than many of what sorts of questions an immanent approach needs to answer, once it recognises a level of historical contingency.

I'm not as convinced as many readers are that Habermas requires that we posit that everyone is rational. What I think Habermas is trying to do is something closer to accounting to the historical rise and spread of certain critical sensibilities - certain normative ideals that emerge in relatively recent history, in the name of which we can then criticise existing institutions, practices, and forms of thought - by pointing out how irrational, coercive or non-authentic those institutions, practices and forms of thought are, with reference to counter-factual ideals that, Habermas believes, we have strong historical grounds for assuming will be shared.

I don't like how Habermas attempts to do this, but I don't think he falls down where most critics believe he does: I don't think his framework requires us to assume that communication is transparent, that people are fundamentally rational, etc. I think it is, instead, an attempt to explain why, when someone points out that something like miscommunication has taken place, other people can understand this as a claim about the validity of that particular communication. Habermas is trying to ask a fairly basic question: how is it that we can understand an argument like this?

The question is interesting to him because it suggests that there is something about humans that transcends their immediate context - something about us that is not wholly determined by a form of socialisation that could be conceptualised solely in terms of reproduction.

In this sense, I take Habermas to be asking rather similar questions to the ones we've been discussing recently. From this point, I part company with him - but I tend to think we can always learn something from someone asking similar questions... As it is, though, I was mainly invoking Habermasian notions in my response because I had originally been struck by the similarities to Habermas in the ideals expressed in your original post...

December 21, 2006 2:03 PM  
Anonymous N. Pepperell said...

Many apologies - I didn't initially see your first response...

On a pragmatic level, I understand that someone won't, for example, roll out some enormous explanatory apparatus every time they want to have a discussion about anything that relies on the concept of immanence - any more than high-level contemporary discussions in, say, evolutionary theory, would require a comprehensive restatement of the basis for placing trust in the theoretical system.

If this kind of hard yards work doesn't exist, however - if no one has ever undertaken it - I think this is quite problematic. Among other things because it renders the concept of immanence kind of... theological in character - and I would think the theological orientation to the world is part of what we're trying to criticise (even if we might leave room for a privatised version of some notion of religious experience). At the same time, without this work, I think we're left unable to answer important questions about what the framework implies for more traditional concepts of truth claims - and I think we lose an ability to understand more determinate political implications that would fall out of a more serious think through this issue...

Once this kind of work has been done, I'm happy with people, for most purposes, assuming it, and going on to have discussions that leave the framework temporally unproblematised in the background, so to speak. In this case, however, people wouldn't be saying things like "I assert this as a stance" - they would be saying things like "I have reasons to trust the work that has been done to establish this framework, and will therefore take this as read when I move on to do [x]"...

There are interim formulations, of course: you are of course correct that we don't have to have grounded a concept in order to use it productively (I took this to be implied, perhaps, in your most recent post on Hegel?). But when we do this - when we operate on the basis of an assumption in need of grounding - I think it would be better to foreground the work remaining to be done - to say: "Here I'm exploring the implications that would unfold if this framework were accurate". There are ways - expressed within a range of traditions deriving from Hegel, from pragmatism to the Frankfurt School - where this kind of initial, hypothetical positing of a concept would be the first step in grounding the concept, as the concept would be grounded by how much you could demonstrate you could explain in and through it...

But none of these approaches requires positing the concept as a stance - as a sort of particularly ironic first principle that asserts that there are no ungrounded first principles...

This may just be a terminological issue, but the fact that it keeps coming up in various ways causes me to suspect that there is a conceptual core. You want to make a strong claim about ontological reality - I have no problem with this. What I'm trying to do is to work out how we can make such strong ontological claims, given the kind of ontology we're trying to assert - I just think it's important not to push this question aside...

December 21, 2006 2:28 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

There's a whole history of work done on immanence, beginning with Duns Scotus and his arguments for univocity, Spinoza's Ethics, Whitehead's Process and Reality, Hegel's Logic, the first chapter of Bergson's Matter and Memory, Deleuze's work, and Badiou's Being and Event. In addition, there are a couply of articles I have posted here on the subject-- developing the arguments (the transcendental field papers) --and my forthcoming book that develops the critical apparatus supporting such an ontology. A good deal of work has been done.

December 21, 2006 2:37 PM  
Anonymous N. Pepperell said...

As long as I'm being annoying and posting multiple times in a row... ;-P (Sorry - I really probably shouldn't think out loud in a discussion like this - it's a bit wasteful of your time to have you watch while I fumble my through to useful concepts... I enjoy the process, but it's arguably not the most considerate approach... ;-P)

There are (at least?) two different levels on which the concept of "stance" is operating here. One is the issue of asserting immanence as a "stance" - as opposed to unfolding an account, consistent with the concept of immanence itself, of how we have learned that the concept of immanence can be used to provide a powerful interpretive framework to make sense of our practices and perceptions. The other is the issue of a "stance" in the sense of a normative judgment - an assessment of whether something meets particular standards of validity.

I think that avoiding "stances" in the first sense, is what enables us to take (and defend) "stances" in the second sense (which I personally wouldn't tend to call "stances", specifically because I think they can be defended, and I tend to reserve the term "stance" for something that is posited or asserted, rather than defended via a process others could reasonably be expected to replicate for themselves...).

Incidentally, I've noticed that it's often when you quote Delueze that I start worrying you are invoking a stance in the first sense - when you write in your own voice, so to speak, I have this reaction much more rarely... So perhaps the problem just boils down to my lack of familiarity with Deleuze's conceptual framework - I may just be hearing the terms outside of the most useful context for interpreting what they mean...

December 21, 2006 2:49 PM  
Anonymous N. Pepperell said...

It would of course be very easy, with my rather scattered academic background, to have missed obvious work that might resolve my questions - I would never claim expertise on the topic, and I can understand that my public working through of concepts on this issue must seem quite "raw" in this respect. If the discussion begins too closely to resemble an undergraduate tutorial session, I do understand if you'd prefer to send me away to do my homework first... ;-) (And, quite seriously, I don't mind if you prefer I do this - I have no ego in the discussion in this respect: it may simply be that I'm not at the level where I can make a meaningful contribution, and that is, in itself, useful to know...)

I am familiar enough with the terrain, however, to suspect that a great deal of additional work remains to be done in areas like:

(1) working out the specific relationships between our history and the recurrence of these philosophical issues (continuing Marx's problematic of turning philosophy on its head... ;-P);

(2) connecting up particular solutions with more conventional discourses about truth and ethics; and

(3) understanding the practical and political implications of what, at first glance, can appear a very abstract philosophical problematic.

Perhaps all of this has actually been done quite thoroughly and comprehensively. I would just suspect that, if this were so, I would feel the ramifications from this resolution echoing through many of the things I have read. I haven't seen this - but I have no a priori objection to learning that this may be no more than a testament to how much I still have to learn...

(Hopefully this won't double post - I've been having some problems with the comments form - possibly the site's way of suggesting I should approach this discussion in a more considered fashion... ;p)

December 21, 2006 3:05 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

I agree with you completely regarding stances and believe one has failed philosophically if they simply assert baldly in this way. The reason I don't give the argument for immanence every time I discuss immanence is that it's fairly complicated and requires a detour through Kant and his understanding of split subjectivity in the transcendental dialectic of the Critique of Pure Reason and in the paralogisms of reason, where he argues that we do not have a direct or immediately relationship to our subjectivity. The strategy here is to undermine the subject/object distinction by recourse to a discussion of time, showing that we are unable to speak directly of the contents of consciousness a la Descartes, thereby undermining the inside/outside distinction that motivates a number of these epistemological discussions. A highly condensed version of the argument is given here in a post entitled "Deleuze's Grounding of the Transcendental Field" or something like that. Of course, this grounding of immanence is only Deleuze's version. Badiou gives quite another, as does Lucretius, as does Hume, as does Spinoza, as does Whitehead, and so on.

December 21, 2006 3:07 PM  
Anonymous N. Pepperell said...

"The reason I don't give the argument for immanence every time I discuss immanence is that it's fairly complicated and requires a detour through Kant and his understanding of split subjectivity in the transcendental dialectic of the Critique of Pure Reason and in the paralogisms of reason, where he argues that we do not have a direct or immediately relationship to our subjectivity."

Yes - but isn't this (and the other possible resolutions you mention) - the kind of approach that evokes in you the vertigo effect we have been discussing?

When I pose the sorts of questions I've been asking here, my thought is that there are substantial problems with these earlier attempts at resolutions - problems that may make it useful to foreground in discussions of the issue the persistent incompleteness of this project. I have suggested in earlier moments in this discussion that, perhaps, some persistent problems might relate to the attempt to resolve the underlying as a philosophical issue, rather than as something that might need to be addressed in a more thoroughgoing historical way , through an analysis of distinctive characteristics of our fairly unusual historical context (which is how I would appropriate the concept of "turning philosophy on its head"...)

I don't presuppose that you share my impulse to reach to our history in a different way than I suspect has been done in other approaches - but I do enter the discussion with the intent to be sensitive to some of the concerns you've expressed about the implications of the thesis of immanence, and have been tendering as a hypothesis that a different working of the problematic in relation to historical analysis might resolve some of those concerns...

I haven't given anyone any reasons to assume my working hypothesis would be in any way productive - but I did think - perhaps this has been an incorrect impression? - that we shared a sense that earlier approaches had not resolved the underlying problem, whether conceptualised as an historical or philosophical one?

December 21, 2006 3:31 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Incompleteness of the project? That's a good thing as it means more future work? What do you think is going on here and elsewhere?

"Yes - but isn't this (and the other possible resolutions you mention) - the kind of approach that evokes in you the vertigo effect we have been discussing?"

I'm not sure what else I can do beyond writing a four hundred page book on the matter, my work here, and my intellectual work outside this blog. Vertigo is a part of the philosophical process, not something to be eradicated. I think the questions as they're being posed here are a bit broad. I personally am not as enamored with the historical approach as you are (as certain posts here have indicated with regard to my critiques of historicism). What interests me is what breaks with history.

December 21, 2006 4:41 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Frankly I'm completely clueless as to what this discussion is about or what you're trying to get at. I think philosophical work proceeds in bits and pieces in much the same way that a crystal grows, so I don't think the sorts of ethical and political questions you're posing or evoking are going to be answered this week as it's just not where my mind is at at this moment. While I believe the historical work you're calling for is a valid and interesting project, I also see it as an impediment to philosophical development. The biologist, for example, does not work out the history of their discipline in doing their biological work and I see the claim that all philosophical work should be historically informed or undertaken on the horizon of history (vis a vis the Gadamerian perhaps) as an impediment to philosophical work or an obsessional way of avoiding what the obsessional really wishes to talk about. I suppose I just feel that I've already done a good deal of the work you're talking about to my satisfaction and that what I'm doing is developing the consequences of such established claims. Pascal got dizzy by infinity, but he didn't go back and revise his claims about infinity once he'd established them to his satisfaction.

December 21, 2006 4:52 PM  
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