Thomas Kuhn has famously argued that scientists think in paradigms, and these paradigms determine which questions are seen as worth asking, pursuing, what constitutes legitimate research, etc. Deleuze and Guattari make much of this approach in What is Philosophy?, building on the work of John Dewey and the process of ‘problematization’, by arguing that a problematic has a similar role in philosophy. If you read philosophy from another tradition, or another time period, what is often the most fascinating is not what people believed, but rather, the very questions they found pressing. In the middle ages, for example, debates raged on whether or not ‘the intellect’ was ‘active’ or ‘passive’, and the ramifications had to do with how you viewed the nature of God. Today, the very debate is, well, just in many ways uninteresting.
Paradigms, Problematics, and the Unthought
Philosophy is, I think, in many ways an attempt to develop a relation to the ‘unknown unknowns’ in a situation. This is what Michel Foucault, Maurice Blanchot, and Deleuze following them, have often referred to as the ‘unthought’ at the heart of thought. Or to phrase this in Heidegerreanese: What are we not yet thinking?
According to many, there is always a constitutive unthought at the heart of all thought, an absolute unthought, perhaps. But it then seems there must be relative unthoughts (to use Deleuzian language here) layered on top of these. The unthoughts of our scientific or philosophical paradigms, our cultural assumptions, our time period, our personal biases. And if we return to the question of denial for a moment, then the questions we know we should ask, but would rather not. Not to even mention the answers!
Philosophy often serves to take chains of logic to their extremes to ferret out the latent contradictions that only counterfactuals could bring to light. If we never left planet earth, barring physical catastrophe, we’d think the strength of gravity a universal, but it turns out that the moon and in fact every object in the universe has a different degree of gravity, as proportional to its mass. It is only by going into counterfactual situations (‘what if I were no longer on this planet?’) that we start to get closer to the realm of the unthought. We start to unlayer the onion of the unthought, but at some point we are not sure what sort of new counterfactuals to even pose. We can imagine differences in gravity, but could we imagine a universe without it?
Counterfactual situations are essential to philosophy, because it is only when we can imagine situations in which one of our primary assumptions is not the case that we start to get a sense of what is invariant in our situation. Philosophy requires that we attempt, sometimes in thought and sometimes via experiment (physical or mental), to know what is constant when we start to vary parameters.
But how to differentiate that which is part of the situation, and what is a parameter? This is often precisely the dilemma. You can’t vary something if you don’t see it as a parameter which can be varied in the first place, and even if you do, that does not mean you’d really have a sense of what it could mean to vary it. For example, while we can think the thought of perspectiveless observation, this does not mean we can imagine what it would be like.
Why do we philosophers attempt to know that which is universal, and that which varies, and how these relate to each other and the situations in which they present themselves? Of course, these days it is very unpopular, after the advent of post-structuralism, to speak of anything universal. But as many have argued, this is not to dispense with universals, but simply alter our relation thereto. If one were to follow Badiou, we could even argue that the only universal is the lack of universals, in the ‘infinite potential of thought’. But while I admire Badiou’s axiomatic conviction of this, I’d like to know, could we ever know if this were the case? And if not, what would be the point of making such a claim? Does this shift the claim from one about knowledge to one about belief, about the way the world ‘should’ be rather than how it ‘is’? And are perhaps all epistemological claims about universals, if subject to limitations of our own knowledge in a limited universe, then in some sense prescriptive and ethical as much as epistemological?
What’s more, why do we as philosophers attempt to question what must be the case for ‘all rational subjects’, or some such, by means of counter-factual situations (ie: non-human or differently structured forms of rationality), if we’ve never come upon these? It would seem that we are trying to develop a deeper rapport with some layers of the unthought.
For if something is unthinkable, its not really interesting. But the not yet thought, or the potentially thinkable, that’s where things get really interesting. The world is made of such fuzzy distinctions, rarely is nature ever hard, fast, and precise, and philosophy is hardly an exception. Which is why these days we see the limitations, for example, of the Kantian project, and its denial of certain forms of complexity that perhaps a less threatened relation to the world might bring to the fore.
But does philosophy really deal with issues such as denial or fear? Does psychology really influence the sorts of answers, questions, and methods at work in construction of philosophical arguments?
Then again, why do we even care? Why are universals interesting, or important? Perhaps evolutionarily we are wired to perhaps think this way, to try to take into account situations which we have not yet encountered but might. There’s a high survival benefit to that. But then to universalize these attempts to predict the future? I wonder if this doesn’t provide us more comfort than knowledge . . . […]
During the middle ages in Christian Europe, the fact that it said in the Bible that god stopped the movement of the sun at one point was considered evidence enough that the sun moved, not the earth, and it took quite a while to convince folks that telescopes presented the world as it was, and didn’t make matters worse, thereby providing what was slowly now coming to be considered worthy evidence against the Biblical claim of the earth’s movement rather than the sun’s.
According to Merleau-Ponty, and following Freud, we come up with decisions first, and only rationalize them afterwards. Many adherents to the ‘mesoscopic theory of consciousness’ now argue that in fact we don’t decide at the level of consciousness, but we are only ‘presented’ with decisions made elsewhere on our universal ‘desktop’, so to speak. Might our relation to the questions we post in the realm of philosophy be subject to the same limitations? Perhaps we only ask the questions we want to hear, and only produce the problematics that bring us comfort? […]
Our paradigms and problematics are defined, from science to philosophy to everyday life, by the community of those whose feedback we trust. Certain approaches to ‘research questions’, be these in science or philosophy, are simply dismissed as ‘out there’, and never pursued, not so much because they might not have something to them, but that even following up on them would require a massive reorganization of the schemas we use to structure our lives. In the world of the everyday, we’d say they were thrown aside because they violate ‘common sense.’
Is philosophy that within culture that works to constantly keep ‘common sense’ at bay, or rather, is it that which defends ‘common sense’? I’d love to hope it were the former, but I think there is a really slippery slope at work here. A fuzzy onion, so to speak.
In class, I often tell my students, particularly those who have never encountered theory or philosophy before, that my job as a teacher is to ‘mess up what they know’, but when you know something, you don’t think about it, knowing is the opposite of thinking. I think there’s a lot of truth to this.
These are some things I think about when I question precisely what we are doing when we ‘philosophize’. I’m not sure universal truth has anything to do with it. I do think that working to ‘sync’ our actions with the lifeworld in which we find ourselves – cultural, historical, natural, everyday lifeworlds, layered and nested within each other – is a lot closer to the way things, what, ‘really’ are? Sure, let’s go with that, for now. Perhaps denial and truth aren’t so much the issue. Which brings us back to the creative potential of what those so preoccupied with truth will often call fictions. But perhaps the purpose of philosophy is to be creative, and by means of this, to enhance our chance of coming into sync with the immanent structure of what is. Certainly this is what the Taoists, as well as the Roman Stoics, and their ‘modern’ inheritor, Baruch Spinoza, would argue, and I think there’s a lot to say for this sort of immanent ethics of that which lies potentially beyond knowledge and error, but not beyond the sort of curiosity needed to continually problematize, and to encourage the development of a society that collectively does the same.