Saturday, August 18, 2007

There are no more schools of philosophy today. There are no more “isms.”

Moribund Philosophy Posted by Alexei on August 17th, 2007
Agnes Heller once remarked, in an interview, that
There are no more schools of philosophy today. There are no more “Masters” and their pupils. […] In the previous philosophical tradition, every philosopher had his own truth and the different truths were contrasted to the truths of others and every school was hostile to the other schools. Now we no longer have the idea of a central truth. […] everyone has a philosophy or way of thinking of their own. There are no more styles; in painting for example, there are no more “isms.”
I’m tempted to say that Heller is right. One need only attend to the history of the Frankfurt School for confirmation: As early as the late 1940s, and perhaps as a consequence of of Adorno and Horkheimer’s return to Germany, the high-tides of the Frankfurt School’s collective thinking — indeed, Symphilosophie — were already in retreat, leaving behind only a few texts (like the Dialectic of Enlightenment), as high-water marks. The School’s return to Germany, in other words, marked a rather unfortunate division of labour. though he did not stop writing, Horkheimer’s primary concern was the direction of the Institut für Sozialforschung, and by his own admission, left its theoretical development to Adorno (as history — i.e. Martin Jay– tells us, Adorno was furious about this remark of Horkheimer’s). Indeed, this gradual division is evident in Adorno’s post American texts: whereas Minima Moralia still bears the traces of his early collaboration with Horkheimer, Negative Dialectics and Aestheic Theory, most of all, signal a fundamental break with the more orthodox Marxism of Horkheimer. Even before its so-called ‘Second Generation,’ the Frankfurt School was already waning. And now, in its third generation, it is difficult to see (as is perhaps true of all descendents) any family resemblance between Adorno and Horkheimer and its current members. It is difficult to conceive of the institute as ‘School’ in anything but name.
It would appear that a similar dispersal of intellectual energy has taken place within the thought that flies under the banner of Postmodernism. My question, then, is whether the folks at The Ends of Thought are right in their analysis of this dissolution, whether there is something inherently conservative in the idea of a school, in the idea of postmodernism, that leads it to sputter out. Or, might it be the case, as Heller might argue, that both the ‘ism’ and the ’school’ have become impossible for a more subtle transformation in the way we think of our intellectual interventions?
Let me review Michael Sigrist’s argument (at Ends of Thought). He proffers two reasons for considering PoMo to be conservative:
“The first, a fixation on the subject, and the second, a mis-understanding about what was truly radical in the linguistic turn”.
While something about the latter claim seems right to me (Lyotard’s work comes to mind as an example of a PoMo thinker whose efforts rest on a misunderstanding of Herculean proportions), Sigrist’s first claim is tied to something a little less compelling, namely that in
“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.”
Perhaps my aversion to this claim stems form an editorial reaction to the word, ‘ignoring.’ I don’t think one can be radical by ignoring something. But, my suspicion is that Sigrist sincerely means that ‘analytic philosophy’ really does ignore the subject, Consider his claim concerning PoMo:
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.
I think this statement is accurate, insofar as it is true that the subject doesn’t ‘disappear’ in ‘continental philosophy,’ but is reconceptualized, redefined, or repositioned, in order to thematize a distinct, perhaps new, conception of our world, its intelligibility, and our capacity to act in it. But I’m not entirely sure that an attention to what I am tempted to call the fact that no thought or action is possible without a subject (or at least a conception of subjectivity), amounts to an intellectually conservative position. In fact, I’m tempted to say that the reason “post-modern philosophy is still working within the modern tradition of Descartes and Hume,” as Sigrist notes, is due to a fundamental insight of Modern Philosophy: it transformed the vertical chorismos between immanence and transcendence, where ‘transcendence’ is the absolute limit that legitimates (an Agambenian exception) that characterizes Platonic Philosophy (i.e. the two-worlds thesis that we also find in Augustine, and that persists in Kant’s distinction between phenomena and noumena) into a horizontal relationship among past, present, and future, by focusing on the subject’s historically given potentials for thought and action (i.e. immanence and transcendence become historical, or temporal; what is transcendent is a future, but all of its potentials are available to us in the present).
Far from being “a way [of thinking] that simply does not apply to the major figures and trends of the Anglophone world,” then, the subject becomes the unmentionable firmament from which anglo-american philosophy descends. (As a sidenote, I think this remark dovetails nicely with the penumbra of commentaries on Brian Leiter’s critique of Simon Critchley’s sketch of continental philosophy, since it calls attention to a certain division: whether we should care about immanence)

No comments:

Post a Comment