Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Philosophical Conservatism of Post-Modernism

I may be wrong, but I sense that philosophical post-modernism--the sort of philosophy that twenty years ago, perhaps, seemed like it might have rooted itself as a viable, vibrant alternative to the Anglo-Austrian engine (and that certainly had ambitions to do so)—is dead. As someone who likes and appreciates this tradition, and who feels even that it has been unfairly demeaned, I am upset at this. But it is hard, for instance, not to notice that there is no one right now working who can credibly be said to have picked up the baton left after the death of the generation of Derrida, Foucault, Levinas and Deleuze. I struggle to name a single work produced in the last decade that matches these thinkers at their best, and come up with none. The movement, so far as I can tell, is spent.

As I reflect on how or why this has occurred, I am struck by the suspicion that, despite its pretensions, philosophical post-modernism remained in a very fundamental and profound way conservative. This is not a novel thesis. It has been suggested already by Habermas. But Habermas had in mind a quasi- if not overtly political conservatism. I am referring instead to a philosophical conservatism.

This is evident in two ways. The first, a fixation on the subject, and the second, a mis-understanding about what was truly radical in the linguistic turn.

Despite it’s being displaced and de-centered, despite renouncing its sovereignty, and despite its subordination to the body and to affect, the subject never truly ceased being the focus of post-modern philosophical attention—or even obsession. Like the suppressed primal fantasy, the subject always returns.

By taking the subject seriously, the Heideggerian critique of presence seemed to have something intensely important, and epochal, to say. Similarly, the Derridean prognosis of the always already impossible achievement of this critique seemed equally profound and disturbing. This leant definition, and momentousness, to the ‘overcoming of metaphysics.’ But ignore the subject, and suddenly these projects seem pointless, if not silly.

And ignoring the subject is precisely what their counterparts across the Atlantic were doing. In this respect, Quine is far more radical than any of his continental peers. For Quine, rather than undermine, critique or work-through the subject, just breezily passed it by.

Secondly, post-modern philosophy simply misunderstood the linguistic turn by failing to notice that the important emphasis was on speech-acts, rather than symbols per se. Thus, in Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, and their followers, we have what is, in effect, simply an updated Humeanism that takes symbols or the ‘text,’, rather than impressions, as the origin of the world, the mind and the self. Vastly over-estimating the importance of Saussure, while ignoring Austin, Wittgenstein, Quine and others, it seemed as if structuralism fronted a formidable thesis, and that the critique of structuralism was an essential endeavor. And this allowed it to seem plausible that the aforesaid ‘world,’ ‘mind’ and ‘self’ ( or subject, ego, author, etc.) were just a play of symbols and signifiers, much like for Hume they were just a play of impressions.

But again, for their trans-Atlantic peers, emphasizing the speech act placed the sentence, or statement, at the foundation of meaning. This move allowed the Anglophone philosophers to bypass what had been a major troubling theme throughout all of post-Kantian and post-modern philosophy, viz., how to make sense of a transcendental, world-constituting ego that at the same time is a part of that same world. Derrida thought it was crucial to point out that, in light of this problem, the possibility of pure presence was undermined by its own conditions of possibility. Deleuze and Foucault made similar points. But by turning to speech-acts, to pragmatics and so on, the importance of presence as relevant to truth, knowledge or being loses its sense. Thus Quine can say, without much trouble or contradiction, that a certain indeterminacy is endemic to all world-referring semantic items, and while interesting and important, this is hardly in some deep, metaphysical or epochal sense profound. In other words, the critique of presence can only appear to be an important project if, conservatively, you take Cartesian certainty as still somehow philosophically relevant. The move to speech-acts simply doesn’t.

In both of these respects, post-modern philosophy is still working within the modern tradition of Descartes and Hume in a way that simply does not apply to the major figures and trends of the Anglophone world.

A final note: while the movement is dead, I do not think that this means that the parts are dead. Like all great works, they are monadic. Heidegger, Foucault, even Deleuze, may all individually re-emerg in new contexts with new life. But the movement connecting these, so I surmise, is spent. The history of philosophy is full of such resurrections. Descartes, Spinoza, Plato, Kant, Hegel, Marx, are in constant cycles of reincarnation, and I see no reason why the same fate might not follow Heidegger, Foucault and company.


  1. I don't understand how you qualify philosophical movements (e.g. you ought to document Heidegger and Derrida's "fixation" on the subject that you allude to. I don't find it in their texts), but in objective terms, I'd note that according to Amazon, the bestselling books in the continental tradition outsell books in the anglo/analytical tradition by at least an order of magnitude. Perhaps now that the "movement" is dead, it is safe to read about it?

  2. Bypassing the subject altogether is more radical than undermining the notion of the subject. But I wonder if it is more radical in a philosophically positive way, or is the anglophone ability to simply avoid the subject in some ways completely bizarre and unfounded in a way concealed by a reliance on logic and common sense?

    Take Davidson, for example. True, he largely avoids the subject. For example, he asks whether we can understand intendings as something other than internal mental acts (which are taken to be largely inscrutable and thus to be avoided at all costs), and he arrives at the conclusion that intendings are really a class of judgments. Judgments are expressible as propositions. Thus something as personal as intending is externalized, made accessible and open to linguistic scrutiny. He does not simply ignore the subject; he deliberately takes the subject apart, removing features of subjectivity from the traditional domain of subjectivity altogether.

    But can this appraoch make sense philosophically without an explicit critique of subjectivity? Is an attempt to understand agency without subjectivity viable, or does it simply distort the concept it is trying to grasp?

  3. Enowning; sure, I didn't define too precisely what I mean by movement. But who can? I guess I just mean a series of thinkers or texts grouped together by a common committment to a family of problems. In the case of post-modernism, the family of problems includes identity and difference, subject and object, subject and other, presence and absence. Heidegger's the one who ties all of these problems together, by recognizing in the Cartesian subject the greek concept of hypokeimenon, and then pronoucing that both rest upon the logic and phenomenon of presence--archetypically in presence as physis. Wherever you see Heidegger talking about these issues, he's talking about the subject. Ditto for Derrida.

    As for book sale numbers: whatever...I"m sure that Homer outsells most contemporary authors. But this doesn't mean that ancient greek epic poetry continues on as a live genre. A movement is alive when it is producing, not by what is consumed. And my point is that no one is producing in this field, at least nothing is not ultimately some form of commentary.

  4. Roman: the 'subject' for po-mo's is something much more robust and deep than what you're talking about. For them, it is tied to identity and difference, to self and other, to reason and madness, to justice and violence, the mind and the body, consciousness and affect, ego and drive, ethics and power....and to overturn one is to overturn them all...this is something far different than what analytics mean by 'the mystery of consciousness.' Within anglophone philosophy, even when the 'subject' is admitted to be a problem, it is an average, run of the mill (though still of course hightly intriguing!!) problem; it is nicely compartmentalized; addressing it does not require one to dig deep in all the other listed issues.

  5. Sure, though I think changes are taking place. There is a fair amount of recent work linking together things like action theory, ethics, epistemology, first-personal knowledge, etc, which tries to show the ways in which all of these are tied together in subjectivity. Yes, it isn't nearly as diffuse as po-mo, but much of this recent work is specifically aimed at overcoming the deficiencies of the earlier, subject-less, anglophone stuff you mention.

    But the real question is whether ignoring or bypassing the subject really is more radical than the expansion and destabilization we see in po-mo. Let's say you have some very mysterious, very difficult, but intuitively necessary idea (like: the subject). Is ignoring it because you don't know what to do with it really more radical than blowing it up into every sphere, taking out its roots and then replanting it in a rhizome or whatever?

    In other words, this is my challenge to you: what's so radical about saying "I don't know what to do with this problem and I have nothing clear to say about it, so I'll just talk about the things I can be clear about"? (I am ignoring a distinction that might be important here, though I think you ignored it too: that between pragmatics and semantics.)

  6. It would be quite conservative to bypass and ignore various subjects --- philosophically, politically, economically, etc.

    Reading Derrida means to read what he says about the double science, the double séance, the two hands writing-reading, etc. He says many things about just skipping things out, all of which reveals Derrida's own concept of 'conservatism.'

    Does one intervene by passing by in silence? (Is not such acts marked by a certain extensive and stubborn esoteric "etceterism" --- idealism?)

    I do think that if there is anything common to what commonly called pomo, it is its articulated and bi- and re-articulated anti-conservatism.

    Perhaps one misunderstand one another, due to structurally varying idiomatic uses of terms and suchs; conservatism has never had a easy time any way. No exaggeration concerning Saussure could prevent such.

  7. Yea, in a certain way failing or refusing to intervene is itself a sort of intervention, and in this sense our responsibility to l'autre is absolute yet impossible, and....YAWN.

    To focus on Derrida: his conservatism is evident in his nostalgie for the subject. This is because for Derrida, the loss of the subject is the loss of truth, certainty, justice, identity--as if without the subject none of these are possible. But that's silly. To go off your last remark: Just compare the way that Derrida responds to the realization that the idiom always breaks the rule, and that context never completes closure--with Davidson. Davidson makes many of the same points, but his response is (and I paraphrase), ho-hum, oh well, i guess we're going to have to live with a little less certainty than we once thought possible. Good to know. Oppose this to Derrida, who finds deep in this small point the overcoming of aforesaid concepts (truth, certainty, justice, knowledge), indeed, of the Western philosophical project itself...or indeed, of Western civilization as a whole.

  8. ‘Yawn’—and in capital letters, just to make sure it jumps at your face—would perhaps (dangerously) be a good candidate for nostalgia for the subject. (What subject?)

    If one reads Derrida, if one reads, one will learn—quite straightforwardly—that positions of nostalgia, e.g., are unhinged, made irrelevant, made an affection of classical metaphysics. Neither Rousseau nor Nietzsche, for that matter, furnishes usable leitmotifs. Now, if Derrida’s conservatism is evident, if this was indeed the case, that is, that Derrida harboured a strict ism, here in the form of ‘conservatism,’ it would be dryly thin to argue that “this is because for Derrida, the loss of the subject is the loss of the truth, certainty, justice, identity—as if without the subject none of these are possible. But that’s silly.”

    Before advising you to read close before exercising a rather myopic criticism, I just wanted to hint at another nostalgia visible here, and quite so visible. Say, again, please, you: “truth, certainty, justice, identity are possible.” Why would one write such? (One may ask. Possible... Isn't that one of conservatism's cardinal, magical be-bop-a-loooba's?)

    “A little less certainty.” (Who is cited?) Who would know such? Why the ‘little’? and why ‘less’? Less is still nostalgic; less is endurable, and more so the bigger the ‘little’ becomes.

    It is not true that “idiom always breaks the rule.” Ponder the temporal structure in your semantics and know that the proposition will not apply to Derrida. Davidson, as you dress him, looks like a kid that still yums for his ice cream after his dad had a bite first. Just a little point, yes. Here it doesn’t matter—for our small didactic purposes—whether Donald’s ice cream is really a ice cream or really the Western civilization as a whole.

  9. Humpty Dumpty rules ALL of the usual philosophical chit-chat---and all the kings horese and all the kings men can never ever put Humpty back together again.

    We have all fallen of the wall, or from the always already space of prior unity which is Humpty---the Cosmic Egg.

    We are also irreducibly committed to maintaining our own hell deep fear based and fear saturated presumed separateness. Where there is an other, fear spontaneously arises.

    The ego IS fear.

    No amount of philosophy can get anywhere near to penetrating that hell deep fear. Indeed all philosophy is purposed to maintaining the status quo---it is all a hedge around the core of fear.

  10. John and Nigraphist...I would love for you two to have a conversation sometime.

    Allow me just two comments:

    I, again, thank you, say: The lumping concept that, I think, ties most of Derrida's themes together is the concept of presence. Further, he never seems to question the functional synonymy of presence, identity, subject, phone, ego, etc. Continuing on--and this is the crux--he never considers alternative frameworks for the interpretations certainty, truth, autonomy, or agency outside of these key terms. I suspect that he learned this from Heidegger, who had convinced him that ONE interpretation of Being defines all of these concepts, and indeed, the Schicksal of Western Civiliziation.
    My point is that a lot of anglophone philosophers found ways to discuss truth outside of the parameters of subjective certainty, and of autonomy outside of the parameters of free will. Once one has done this, the 'critique' of presence, identity, and so on just loses most of its interest.

    Second point: let me reiterate, in case it hasn't been explicit enough: obviously, ALL OF THIS is about the Cosmic Egg, and the soft-boiled yolk of fear!

  11. Whether one like/know/want it or not, one always philosophize. Also due to the a priori split of the gramma in general. Exercising circumfluence, say by way of neglecting subject, identity, &c, does not bring us any further. Undecidability pertains to math no less than to poetry; evidence, "concrete and empirical," abounds. Such does not, however, justify a proposition according to which the fall is the originary and eternal. 'Fall,' and other like terminology, only makes sense for certain lexica --- for which, moreover, 'fear' is natural, a given. Basically reactionary sentiments, then.

    On the other side: had it only been like that! Knowing the fall for a fact, &c; what a great relief, how lulling!

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  13. sorry to interject, but I have just a comment from this section of your post:

    'Thus, in Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, and their followers, we have what is, in effect, simply an updated Humeanism that takes symbols or the ‘text,’, rather than impressions, as the origin of the world, the mind and the self. Vastly over-estimating the importance of Saussure, while ignoring Austin, Wittgenstein, Quine and others, it seemed as if structuralism fronted a formidable thesis, and that the critique of structuralism was an essential endeavor. And this allowed it to seem plausible that the aforesaid ‘world,’ ‘mind’ and ‘self’ ( or subject, ego, author, etc.) were just a play of symbols and signifiers, much like for Hume they were just a play of impressions.'

    Now I admit there is a relationship between Hume and Deleuze, but I cannot understand why you can link the language theory of Sassure with Deleuze. If you read Deleuze (and Guattari) their work is set against the transcendence of the signifier, and I would even classify it as part of the post-linguistic turn. Larval Subjects has written an excellent post about Deleuze and Guattari’s 'theory' of language, which comes from Hjelmslev, and turns out to be more a philosophy of metamorphosis than language. From my reading of Deleuze (and Guattari) there is no way you can claim that they take symbols or the text as the origin of the world. You should maybe read a quote from Guattari at Larval for his critique of Postmodernism. I would also suggest that this is not the case for Foucault as well, as, what most people tend to forget, is he came up with the concept of the non-discursive as well as the discursive. If you read discipline and punish you should realise that Foucault was arguing that there were ways of disciplining the body where language was not the key component (e.g. architecture, torture…). I tend to feel, probably Habermas and a few others fault, that post-modernism in the anglo-american ‘world’ tends all to easily to be assumed as arguing language creates/constructs the world, which is why people have run off to do discourse analysis without realising it was saying far more.

    Here are the links for the larval posts:
    http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2007/08/23/of-an-abstraction-that-is-not-illusion-deleuze-and-guattaris-morphogenesis/ & http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2007/08/23/guattari-on-postmodernism/

  14. Mark202,

    Yea, you are right of course. I am using a broad brush and so brushing over some very important differences. I will definitely take a look at those posts; thanks for including them. Because I don't have time to say something more substantive right now, I'll just mention where we probably agree, and probably disagree, without bothering to argue really about any of it.

    So, I agree that Deleuze is a special case, and never really took to the linguisticism that characterized Derrida throughout and Foucault early on. I suspect that this comes from his reading of Nietzsche and Freud. Also Deleuze is self-admittedly metaphysical in a way that just about no other pomo is. Together, these mean that Deleuze, very generally characterized, understands 'reality' or 'being' to be a play and iteration/repetition of difference. Since there is nothing but appearance, there is little sense in talking about a 'signifier.' I also agree with what you say about Foucault: the later Foucault, after abandoning the earlier archeaology, certainly does go ourside the regime of signs to investigate other, nondiscursive techniques of discipline.

    However, for all that, I think that these differences hardly matter for the larger point. It is still the case that, the philosophy of origins having failed ( and they are all involved in some way or other in a critique of the philosophy of origin), they took philosophy or 'metaphysics' itself to be over. Contrast this with the approach in analytic circles: there, convinced that the early project of analytic philosophy had failed, and convinced, for instance, that truth could no longer be satisfactorily defined in terms of certainty, there was a flowering of alternative truth theories: externalism, reliabilism, deflationism, causal theories, etc....in other words, persuaded that one way of philosophy had been debunked, they searched for new ways. I just think that the pomos were too quick, once having shown that a way of doing philosophy was a dead-end, and decided that philosophy itself was a dead-end.

    Ok, but I will take a look at those sites once I get some time after the SEFA conference. Thanks again for the input.