Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Snapshots from SPEP, Montreal

I am back from this year's meeting of SPEP (The Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy) in Montreal. Montreal is a wonderful city and, as always, SPEP was very enjoyable. In fact, I have found that attending SPEP in the fall of each year re-energizes and refocuses me for the coming year. Unsurprisingly there was far too much going on to share it all but here are some brief highlights for anyone who is interested.

I got to see Charles Taylor discuss the possibility of conversation across religious boundaries and between theists and atheists. Although I am not particularly interested in theology or the new atheism, I found actually watching Taylor speak very fulfilling. I am a fan of much of his work and have presented papers expanding upon some of what he has done. In person he is exceptionally clear, direct, and likable.

I never miss a chance to see Babette Babich present. Not only are her papers always insightful, complex and thought provoking, her presentation style is entrancing such that every paper presentation counts as an artistic creation in its own right. Her paper addressed the ancient models for Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra and ended with the suggestion that the work can be read such that Zarathustra is undergoing the process of dying throughout the work. I intend to reread Zarathustra with this in mind.

Peg Birmingham's Andre Schuwer Lecture on Arendt and Hobbes was also very enjoyable. She suggested that the will to Life is over emphasized in most readings of Hobbes' work and that, instead, much of what drives violence and social tension is the will to Glory. This, in turn, becomes the engine of social order insofar as what the state offers is not just protection for our lives (interestingly if we only cared about life security the state would be unable to provide it, as no one would be willing to risk their lives to fight for the state) but instead the chance for a meaningful death through sacrifice to the state rather than a lowly brutish death without glory as occurs in the state of nature. Hannah Arendt comes into play in the attempt to think through a non-sacrificial model for political action. Oddly enough what I was most struck by in the discussion of Arendt, however, was the extent to which her thinking in the 1940s associated the formation of a political people with the willingness to engage in violence and sacrifice. In general I am now interested in rethinking my previous engagements with Arendt.

Two papers were given by friends of mine who had also attended the University of South Florida for graduate school. West Gurley, who now teaches at Sam Houston State University, presented his paper "Reconsidering what it is to Pay Attention: Heidegger and Letting-Be-Ness" and Jessica Williams, who is still working on her Ph.D. at the University of South Florida, presented her paper "Kant and the Ideological Effect of Judgment".

Gurley's paper argued that empirical attention studies have limited themselves to an intentionality derived conception of attention which assumed all attention to be divisible into subject and object poles. Such a model ignores, however, a more primordial state of attention when no object is focused upon but rather an openness is maintained within which alone subjects and objects can arise. Gurley further suggested that the limitation of attention studies to subject-object models may originate from the dominance of calculative thought as presented in Heidegger's "Memorial Address".

William's paper traced the influence of Kant's judgments of beauty and reflective judgments on contemporary discussions of ideology as found in Zizek and Jameson. Based upon the details of the relation between Kant's First and Third Critiques Williams then pointed out the limitations of the conception of ideology found in both Zizek and Jameson.

My own paper "Pushing the Hegelian Front: On Heidegger's Renovation of Dilthey" went well and I was very pleased with the audience, both in terms of the turn out and several of the people who specifically showed up. Presenting at SPEP is always a great honor, especially because it gives one the chance to present one's work to many people who have been essentially influential upon the formation of that very work. I had anticipated, and desired, more of the question and answer period to deal with interpretations of Hegel and Dilthey as well as their influence upon Heidegger but it mainly revolved around my ongoing project of developing an interpretation of Heidegger as "Realist-Historicist". Having noted that very sympathetic listeners often agree with my interpretation of Heidegger but object to my use of the terms "realism" and "historicism" I have decided that, in the process of translating my dissertation into a book, I need to better explain and justify my use of these terms. Admittedly, Heidegger himself rejected these terms when discussing them individually and believed himself to have escaped the epistemic picture which necessitated the divide between, for example, realism and idealism. But I do think my position is provocatively and productively different from standard understandings of either realism or historicism and is true to Heidegger's actual concerns and insights. I will be posting some brief thoughts which begin to organize some of my reflections on this matter soon by way of brainstorming for additions to the introduction to my book.

The paper which followed mine was by Francois Jaran and concerned the influence of Rickert upon Heidegger's turn to history in 1912. I found his paper to be both fascinating and very historically careful. It powerfully made the argument that Heidegger's first engagement with the work of Dilthey provoked in him resistance to the priority of history in Dilthey's work due to Heidegger's own interest in the seemingly ahistorical nature of mathematics. It took a real involvement with Rickert's Neo-Kantian conception of the history of philosophy as a history of problems for Heidegger to gain enough interest in history to re-evaluate Dilthey's importance.


  1. Thanks for the report from SPEP. After many years as a member, my time constraints have shifted. It is still the place I tell people to check out when they ask about what interests me. I enjoy directing my analytic philosophy friends to it, who try to dismiss it as mere "literature."

    The Gurley sounds particularly interesting as I am trying to squeeze the most from M. Froment-Meurice's THAT IS TO SAY. He offers a marvelous Heidegger-Derrida discussion that puts some flesh on the bones of the difference/differance distinction. Both practice a form of erasure for their assertions, leaving us with a nothing that is not nothing-at-all (Heidegger's Open) or what is neither a word nor a concept (Derrida). An "it" that is not an "it."

    I look forward to seeing some of your stuff on this blog. Keep it coming.

  2. I am glad my little snippet of SPEP could help to share some of the conference with someone who wasn't able to make it. You are more than welcome. I am not familiar with "That is to Say" but will definitely look into it.

    As my most recent post notes I am reading Heidegger's "Country Path Conversations" right now and am faced with another nothing that is not nothing-at-all, namely Heidegger's conception of Gelassenheit and its relation in the conversations to willing, not willing, and willing not to will. Ultimately it is something beyond each of these which alone makes them possible, while revealing the limitation of western Metaphysic's conception of the will, but it can be very hard to say how precisely this is so.