Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Philosophy and Systematicity

"The principle that philosophy should be this sum of knowledge treated not simply as a juxtaposition of facts in the memory but as a synthesizing operation is still retained, but with great difficulty; every day philosophy becomes a little more of a specialized discipline like the others... philosophy is the sum of the possibles in the sense of a synthesis, or nothing." Georges Bataille

It will probably come as no surprise that, despite what Bataille suggests here, I find it insufficient to think of philosophy as necessarily aiming at a synthetic unity of human knowledge or any total system. Such a conception of philosophy would leave out those anti-systematic thinkers I find to be so important to philosophy's history, such as Nietzsche.

I had an extended conversation with one of my Existentialism students after class a few weeks ago. She was expressing surprise that, despite the difficulties of both authors, once she understood what Heidegger was saying she found his view to be very intuitive while Sartre struck her as foreign and unusual. She couldn't see where his view on pre-reflective consciousness and radical freedom was coming from. Once I got past my surprise, I have found most students find the idea of radical freedom fairly intuitive at first, we engaged in an interesting discussion about some general differences between the the German and French philosophical traditions.

In a general way, I suggested, German philosophy is more fixated upon systematicity and orientation in relation to a whole or totality. I had in mind both the architectonic of Kant and the system of Hegel which have their clear influence on the work of Neo-Kantians, Phenomenologists and Logical Positivists alike, to say nothing of Marxists. French philosophy, on the other hand, tends to prioritize subjectivity rather than totality. Here I suggested the deep debt that most French philosophy, often against its own will, owes to Descartes and the cogito. This influence is very clear in Sartre.

It strikes me now, in recalling this conversation, that philosophy since the birth of modernity has generally had two well-springs. These are Descartes and Spinoza. Generally speaking we find here the choice of prioritizing individual subjectivity and attempting to build towards a totality from there or, alternatively, prioritizing a whole within which alone we are to find subjectivity as a moment.

This conception is not, however, sufficient to derive the contrast between systematic and anti-systematic philosophy. Although radical subjectivity may end up serving well in anti-systematic philosophy, for example in Kierkegaard and Bataille himself, it does not itself necessitate anti-systematicity. Descartes himself had a commitment to his own architectonic and the dream of philosophy as a synthesis of all knowledge or a mathesis universalis fits well within Descartes project. It seems that to find the real origin of anti-systematicity in philosophy we need to go back to the beginning, to Plato.

Although this might be scandalous in some circles, I would suggest that Plato's presentation of the philosophical project and life prioritizes context and the concerns of the moment over any totalizing theory of, for example, the Good or human virtue. Such large scale theories arise, but they arise as hypotheses applied to specific problems. Further, the very form that such theories take throughout the course of the dialogues shift and change, often in essential details. These shifts are not, I would suggest, necessarily the working out and development of what the creators hope to eventually be a finished system but rather are adjustments made in the face of changing context and concerns. If anything this is what the dialogue form teaches us, that philosophy always arises from and answers to the historically and culturally contextualized concerns of the moment. Perhaps it is not until Aristotle, if even then, that we find a real attempt at the creation of an a-historical synthesis of knowledge. Nietzsche always had a tortured relationship to Socrates and Plato but it may be from them that he derives his anti-systematicity.

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