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Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos

Jeffrey Bell interviewed by Richard Marshall.

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3:AM: I guess I think it would be useful to start with you telling us a little bit about yourself and how you came to become a professional philosopher. Were you a philosophical child, or did your interest develop at a later stage?

Jeffrey Bell: How one came to philosophy has long been a question I’ve been interested in and so this is indeed a good place to start. John Protevi has a series of interviews up at the NewAPPS blog and this is one of the first questions he always asks. In my particular case, I grew up in Southern California and spent much of my childhood outside – at the beach, riding my bike, running, and generally just enjoying the weather, an enjoyment I didn’t fully appreciate, especially in the summer months, until I moved to New Orleans (where summers are, well….hot and humid!). My first visceral connection with philosophy, and one that sparked my life-long interest in philosophy, my philo sophia so to speak, was when I read Plato‘s Dialogues in the car during a long drive to our annual family ski trip. I had always been a reader. When not involved in my outdoor activities I could usually be found in my room, from grade school up through college, reading and listening to music. At the time I discovered Plato I was in junior high (around 12 years old) and I felt almost like I was reading the science fiction I was heavily immersed in at the time. Despite my interest in philosophy being piqued, I never really thought I’d become a philosopher. I always thought of myself as a scientist or doctor, being an academic philosopher never crossed my mind. That changed in college when a series of great classes and professors convinced me to go all in with philosophy. I have been fortunate since that I’m still able to make a living doing what I love to do, and what I would do even if it were not my profession.

3:AM: Do you consider the appellation ‘Continental philosopher’ accurate or helpful in describing yourself and your activities and thoughts. I’m thinking that there has been much discussion about the so-called analytic/continental divide and it seems people are beginning to come round to the position that the idea of there being these two traditions just isn’t a helpful categorisation. And of yourself, and Deleuze, isn’t there a small bit of your approach that might be labeled scientism? In this I make you utterly distinct from a Heideggerian approach. Is this plausible or am I just pushing my luck on this one?

JB: As a philosophical label I do think ‘continental philosophy/philosopher’ is not very helpful and perhaps even harmful to the discipline in that it tends to lead to the further ghettoization of a whole host of philosophical problems, tactics, and texts. When the Jobs for Philosophers comes out, ‘continental philosophy’ will be listed as one of the AOS along with metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and ancient philosophy, etc., but that tends simply to reinforce the perception that the philosophical problems being addressed, and the methodological manner in which they are addressed within continental philosophy, are marginal to what is taken to be the cutting edge of philosophical research. Would a department that is doing a search for someone who has a specialization in metaphysics seriously consider a Deleuze scholar? That said, I do believe there is a sociological truth that underlies the analytic/continental divide. There are two distinct canons within the traditions and although they often overlap the tendency for much of the latter three decades of the twentieth century was to highlight the differences rather than their common, shared history. Grossly simplified, the division as one often heard it described was that analytic philosophy focused on collaborative efforts and the division of labor, while continental philosophy was more literary, with the solitary geniuses writing alone in their study. This is largely a myth built around a few grains of truth (for example, the most important texts within ‘analytic’ philosophy are essays, which usually credit a number of people who contributed in some way to the thoughts developed within the essay; and in ‘continental’ philosophy books are more important than essays and there is less acknowledgement given). I think a careful history of twentieth century philosophy, and this is one of the projects I’m engaged in at the moment, will undo much of the mythology that has grown around and reinforces the sociological divide among philosophers.

As for whether my philosophical approach is to be placed within the tradition of scientism or not, I can see why you might say that it does. I have tended in my work to emphasize empirical enquiry, and I do tend toward skepticism (as is evidenced in my book on Hume), and moreover my Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos book draws heavily from the concepts and experimental results associated with dynamic systems theory, and so it might seem natural to infer that I privilege scientific forms of enquiry over all others (which is how I understand scientism). There is a difference for me, however, between the use of philosophical concepts that draw from empirical, scientific investigations and the claim that philosophical concepts simply are, and ought to be, nothing more or less than scientific tools of investigation.

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3:AM: Recently you contrasted Dewey and Deleuze’s approach to the relevance of philosophical thinking in pugnacious terms. Dewey saw philosophy as a way of thinking through problems that matter in a shared, consensus-seeking, dialogic setting. You seemed to be arguing that by the time a problem has become the subject of a debate it is no longer philosophy. You cite Deleuze and Guattari where they dismiss “the Western democratic, popular conception of philosophy as providing pleasant or aggressive dinner conversations at Mr Rorty’s,” and link their proclamation to Nietzsche‘s idea of the fatal process of abbreviation in order to avoid misunderstanding and then provide an alternative picture of philosophy which is “no longer a matter of discussing but rather one of creating concepts for the undiscussible problem posed. Communication always comes too early or too late, and when it comes to creating, conversation is always superfluous.” Can you say something about this and what implications you draw not just for philosophy, but more broadly, perhaps, the role of the novel and the arts, and politics, as understood through this lens.

JB: That’s an important and immense question. I suppose the simplest way I have of expressing the importance of philosophy and its relationship to the arts, politics, and even science, is to see its task as that of problematizing established routines and habits, ready-made beliefs and thoughts. In short, I think an important task of philosophy since Socrates (though I read this in Islamic, Indian [such as Nagarjuna] and Chinese philosophy as well) is to problematize common sense. In a post up at NewAPPS a few months ago titled ‘In Praise of the Incredulous Stare‘, I argue that Jason Stanley‘s approach to philosophy as being ultimately a defense of, and return to, common sense is only half the story. The other half is the problematizing of common sense, the efforts that leads to the incredulous stares from those who hear your daft ideas for the first time. These efforts can then result in a return to common sense, but this is not the same common sense; it’s a transformed common sense. To the extent that thinking is going on within the arts, literature, and politics there will be a similar double movement away from common sense and back toward a transformed common sense. After the post you cite a few people took me to task for being too harsh against Rorty – too pugnacious perhaps – and they may be right. Rorty seems to have had a similar double movement in mind as well when he stressed the importance of the ongoing conversation in contrast to the Truth or Mirror of Nature that ideally ends the conversation as that which cannot be undone – the ultimate common sense or doxa. That said, as Rorty lays things out I don’t see how one can create concepts under the conditions he envisions; Rorty’s conversation is too loose and not rigorous enough in my mind. Take a concept such as Hume’s on “belief,” or Descartes’ “cogito”. Each of these concepts is a response to a particular problem – how, for Hume, to account, based upon the givens of impressions and ideas, for a new, original idea such as the idea of necessary connection when it is nowhere to be found within that which is given; or, in the case of Descartes, how can we account for objective knowledge without presupposing the truth and nature of objectivity itself? Each of these concepts involves a number of components which are fairly rigorously and systematically involved with one another within the concept – there are the components of force and vivacity, impressions/ideas, doubting, externality of relations, and habit and custom for Hume, and doubting, thinking, and being for Descartes.

3:AM: Now, one of the key things you think about in relation to this notion of ‘creating concepts’ is what you have called ‘historical ontology’, a phrase you say you took from Ian Hacking who took it from Foucault. This is the idea that external objects of belief, including historical, scientific, psychological, architectural, basically everything, is inseparable from active processes of human minds. It’s an idea that links with Latour‘s work on science, for example, where he sees scientific objects as products of history rather than the discovery of external objects. I guess the idea is that the process is one of invention rather than discovery. And of course you trace this thought to the work Deleuze stated on David Hume. Is this right and can you explain how this works, perhaps giving some examples to illustrate your ideas here?

JB: You’re basically right, though I wouldn’t argue that external objects of belief are inseparable from “active processes of human minds.” One of the lessons I draw from Latour is that we need to overcome our continuing fascination and belief in belief, whereby this either presupposes a subjective belief that projects its own subjective processes upon the world around it as is done with fetishes, or whether it merely represents what is objectively, factually there independently of belief. For Latour, the subjective and objective poles of belief are abstractions from what he calls factish, by which he means a messy network of associations and connections. In Laboratory Life and a host of other works, Latour shows how the difference between an artifact and an actual fact in science is inseparable from a myriad of processes that establish connections with other processes, and the more these networks are built up (in the same sense in which the repetition of impressions leads through habit to belief in causation and necessary connection for Hume) then the more “objective and autonomous” the object is. This is the sense in which for Latour the more constituted something is, the more enmeshed in networks that presuppose this thing, the more objective and autonomous it is. This is neither an objective nor subjective process; it is just process (and hence Latour’s admiration for Whitehead and, similarly, Deleuze). This is where I jump in with my use of the concept “historical ontology” to account for how determinate reality is itself inseparable from but irreducible to a network of relations that give to the existent a relative existence. As an example one could use one of Latour’s favorites – Pasteur‘s discovery of microorganisms. During the first half of the 19th century the very notion that fermentation might occur by virtue of microorganisms ran counter to the “common sense” opinion among most other chemists and biologists of the time who believed that fermentation was simply a chemical reaction. By the end of the 19th century the number of alliances and networks with which microorganisms became associated increased, and continued to increase through the twentieth century with antibiotics, antibacterial cleaners, etc., and with this increase so too increased the relative existence and autonomous reality of microorganisms.

3:AM: I guess the role of technology in your thinking is also important in this respect and in your book on Hume you illustrate how we tend to exclude science from historicised thinking but not technology. So you give an example of finding a mummy of some Egyptian and finding he died of TB and that is totally acceptable. But had we found that he had died by machine gun fire, then we would count that as impossible. You link some of your thoughts here with work of Woolgar and Latour. So what I want to ask is whether this contrast in attitudes signals a difference in how we think about these two things – science and technology – a difference that kind of mirrors the natural kinds, non-natural kinds distinction. And doesn’t this problematise your position of historical ontology in that it ignores a commonly felt distinction?

JB: The TB example is indeed a good one. The point of this example, as I understand it at least, is to highlight an important point about realism. According to traditional scientific realism, the technologies used by science (telescopes, microscopes, Large Hadron Colliders, etc.) do not create the realities these technologies make it possible for us to verify and assert as an objective fact. It was because the bacteria that causes TB was already there that we say we discovered it with the microscope and then say that it caused the death of Rameses II. By contrast, deaths by machine gun were not possible until there were machine guns, and thus these facts depend upon the technologies that create the possibilities of such facts. We could call this the anti-realist position. Latour’s point as I see it, and this is where I bring in Hume and Humean skepticism, is that the assumptions regarding realism depend upon the network of associations that can lead to and detract from a strong relative existence. For example, if there were to be a revolutionary rethinking of microbiology a few centuries from now we may say then that there has always been something that we don’t say exists now, or that the microorganisms such as bacteria don’t really exist now as we think they do. Latour discusses the case of Watson and Crick‘s claims regarding the form and structure of DNA hinged in part on overturning the then textbook assumptions of what form it had to be in. Admittedly the associative relationship between humans and machine guns is impoverished compared to that between bacteria and the other existents. Machine guns are counterfactually dependent upon a human historical act whereas bacteria, despite the technological means necessary to verify their existence, come to be seen to acquire associations independent of human technological innovations. So there is indeed a difference between the two cases which justifies our claim and sense that we cannot infer death by machine gun to Rameses II although we can claim he died of TB. The difference here is a difference of degree rather than a difference of kind, however, and it follows (or at least I claim that it follows) from the arguments I make regarding “historical ontology” and relative existence. So I don’t think this example problematizes my position, though there are no doubt other places where what I am arguing may become problematized. At least I hope so.

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3:AM: One of the fascinating things that happens in your discussions of David Hume and Deleuze is that you show how a conventional reading of Hume is not the most probable if we take Hume at face value. Ernest Gellner said something about this in his Legitimation of Belief where he points out that if all there is is this buzzing confusion of impressions then cultivating our passions and feelings so we become connoisseurs of them would be the rational thing to do. Creating something anew out of them seems to be what Deleuze also considered an obvious move. This seems to be a separate issue to the question of how to bundle the impressions up so that the idea of a self makes sense. Is this something you’d sympathise with, the idea that Hume and other philosophers Deleuze and yourself examine have been packaged to suit interests external to their own positions and that what you’re doing is getting back to the revolutionary potential in them?

JB: That’s a fair assessment of what I attempted to do in my Hume book. I was certainly challenging many of the contemporary readings of Hume and offering an alternative reading that sits well with Hume both philosophically and historically. And I would agree that I’m also trying to think through thought itself, and in particular philosophical thought, as a challenging of common sense such that it becomes revolutionary and transformative. At the same time, however, I am approaching the positions of Hume and Deleuze as being both inspired by the problem of how to transform a multiplicity into a determinate, identifiable system or belief. For Hume this is the problem of belief in necessary connection as well as the problem of the self; and for Deleuze this is the problem of individuation. The result of approaching Hume and Deleuze in this way is that in the end we probably end up with a Deleuze-Hume hybrid rather than “faithful” (whatever that means) readings of Deleuze and Hume. This hybrid reading, I’d like to think, can clarify a number of issues and perhaps raise new problems that have not been seen before.

3:AM: Now another idea that is current in your thinking engages with the topic of determinism and freewill. Recently some naturalistic philosophers such as Alex Rosenberg have bitten the bullet and said that because we have a naturalistic universe there can be no freewill. Compatibilists like Dan Dennett have argued that even in a fully deterministic universe there’s room for freewill. Other philosophers kind of ignore the determinism because they don’t think it ever matters what the state of nature is to understand the relevant discourses of intentionality in which they say freewill sits. So perhaps G.E.M Anscombe and Wittgenstein and maybe McDowell and Brandom might make this move. Now you relate this issue to Spinoza in the Ethics where he writes “the idea of a singular thing which actually exists has God for a cause not insofar as he is infinite, but insofar as he is considered to be affected by another idea of a singular thing which actually exists; and of this [idea] God is also the cause, insofar as he is affected by another idea, and so on, to infinity.” So I guess you’re taking the line that determinism does matter and that any worked out view about our freewill will need to address this. Is this right? Can you say what your arguments are in this area and whether you think autonomous agency is possible somehow and why this puts you in conflict with Badiou?

JB: You put the question to me in an interesting way, for while I do not directly address the free will/determinism question in my work I do discuss what I see as the crucial difference, or point of contention, between Deleuze and Badiou, and your question has highlighted the connection that this discussion bears on the free will/determinism problem. To be brief, I’m largely in agreement with Dennett, though I don’t understand determinism in its classical sense whereby every thing has a mechanical, determinate reason for being precisely the determinate thing that it is – namely, the principle of sufficient reason – but rather I opt for an alternative version of the principle of sufficient reason, which I draw from Spinoza, where this reason is not a determinate reason but is instead what I call a substantive multiplicity (I argue for this in my Between Realism and Anti-Realism essay). And this gets to the second question about whether or not my embrace of a form of compatibilism. Badiou believes that Deleuze’s metaphysical commitments – to Spinoza in particular – do leave him unable to account for novelty. Every thing is just a fold and extension of everything that precedes it and hence nothing emerges that is not in some sense prefigured within that which came before, and therefore it is not truly new. By contrast, Badiou argues for events that rupture with what is, they are the void and null set that cannot be placed within any situation. The problem then is to account for how such events become effective, how they come to transform the way things are. This is where Badiou calls upon the fidelity of the subject who answers the call of the event and thereby effectuates its potentialities within the world. My argument for the notion of a substantive multiplicity avoids the necessity of calling upon a loyal subject to effectuate novelty while at the same time not sacrificing the radical nature of the new as that which cannot be reduced to, or explained in terms of, that which preceded it. The argument to make this case consumed many pages of my book, but in short the substantive multiplicity does not determine the new for it is only as actualized, determinate modes (following Spinoza) that this substance is determinate and determinable in the first place. This reading, I argue, fits well with what Spinoza actually says and avoids some of the problems that plague Badiou’s reading of Spinoza.

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3:AM: You are developing a fascinating theory of philosophy, of both western and non-western, developing it in terms of an actor-networking theory. You describe your trajectory as being one which started with a Foucaultian historical analysis that then was influenced by Latour’s work until, through your book on Deleuze and Hume you developed further so that now you have an ethical and political system “related to Latour, actor-network theory, speculative realism, and Donald Davidson among others.” You label it a Spinozan ethics and politics. This is hugely ambitious. Could you say something about this and how it contrasts with the kind of ethical and political thinking currently found in philosophy. Interestingly, in Leiter’s blog there have been many philosophers commenting on how poor (and boring) moral philosophy in particular has been for a while and that there is a real need for an approach that blasts open new thinking. Is this your hope?

JB: Yes! There is a good reason why Spinoza’s masterpiece is titled Ethics, and in the end what I am doing is indeed intended to resurrect for contemporary concerns the ethical dimensions of philosophy while demonstrating the relevance of this dimension to metaphysical and epistemological problems. Perhaps this goes back to my initial entrée into philosophy by way of Plato’s Dialogues, but I continue to think that the ethical dimension is essential to the nature of philosophy itself. This is the main reason why I think it is a mistake to charge philosophy with the task of aspiring to the status of being a science, or that it ought to hitch its wagon to scientism.

3:AM: Now it strikes me that you have affinities in much of your approach to Buddhist thought in some ways. You have written about Nagarjuna and the tain of mirrors and emptiness. These seem to be all part of your way of reimagining politics and ethics, and who we are and what we should do. Interestingly, several philosophers have found Buddhist teachings useful in finding a way of protecting Sellars‘ manifest image of humanity. Owen Flanagan for example, has just published his book The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalised. Can you say something about this aspect of your thinking and whether you (and Deleuze even) might be considered naturalized Buddhists? Or would the historicism prevent a truly naturalised characterisation of your thinking?

JB: Again, I think the distinction you bring up at the end of your question between historicism and naturalism returns us to the natural/non-natural kinds distinction you brought up earlier. This distinction brings me to the heart of what is for me the primary inspiration of Buddhism as it relates to my own thinking, especially the work of Nagarjuna, and that is the sophisticated and rigorous manner in which they think through the implications of non-dual thought as a condition for contradiction, or as a condition for determinate, identifiable differences and oppositions (and Graham Priest as well has an excellent chapter on Nagarjuna in his Beyond the Limits of Thought). The parallels with Deleuze should be pretty clear as well. Nagarjuna, I would argue, was the first true philosopher of difference.

3:AM: You write about Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. And music is important generally to your philosophical outlook. Could you say what the place of music is, and give examples of music that is inspirational for you. And could you broaden this out to discuss also the art and novels and poetry that you have found important and sustaining throughout your philosophical career. How influenced are you by theories of art and creativity, as in, for example, Rancière?

JB: In at least a number of cases, the philosophers I most admire were also very artistically inclined. Nietzsche wrote piano music and poetry; Spinoza was reportedly a talented sketch artist; and Sartre was an excellent novelist. I would argue that philosophy itself is a form of creative process – it creates concepts. Personally for me I always wanted to be either a novelist or a musician, but my actual abilities didn’t cooperate and I found instead a talent for creative philosophical work – creating concepts as Deleuze would put it. Despite my shift to philosophy, I have nonetheless continued to draw tremendous influence from the arts, especially music and literature. In music I have always been most strongly drawn to the “alternative” scene, even though I’m open to listening to almost any kind of music. Brian Eno, Lou Reed, David Byrne, Kate Bush, and Laurie Anderson are some of the foundational musicians for me, but more recently I have gotten much from Andrew Bird, St. Vincent, and Bon Iver. As for literature the four names that come to the top of my mind are Kafka, Cormac McCarthy, China Miéville, and Haruki Murakami. I read quite promiscuously so I’m not limited to the worldview of these writers but they do represent the strange attractor I continually return to. As for how the theories of Rancière and others connect with my interest in the aesthetic of such authors and musicians, I’ve been underwhelmed with most efforts to date though I do believe that it is a crucial task for contemporary intellectuals to make an engaging connection between cultural products and the possibility/necessity of revolutionary transformation. I do admire this in Rancière’s work, and his principled defense of equality, though I think the trajectory of this thought needs to be extended in light of more recent cultural events.

3:AM: I think Sartre was one of your early influences, the very epitome of the engaged intellectual. So finally, we’re looking at a very disturbing social and political scenario at the moment, with perhaps the Occupation movements signaling a deep fissure in the capitalist structures, with inequality and sexism and racism still rife. Can you say something about your own take on this current crisis and how you think we should proceed? In a recent discussion with Jean-Michel Rabaté about Beckett and the role of the intellectual and artist, he considered it a duty of these figures to be iconoclasts, dangerous and making trouble. Here at 3:AM we’ve been tracking Stewart Home who takes this trajectory. What do you think about this?

JB: Sartre was indeed the philosopher that got me into philosophy, and to this day I admire his engaged, political activism. Sartre was living proof that one does not necessarily become more conservative as one ages! And just today (December 14, 2011) Time Magazine named the protestor as the person of the year, and Sartre himself would certainly have identified with the “occupy” movements. I do think the protestor movements that began in the Middle East and then spread to Wall Street are a consequence of 30 years or more of the hegemony of neoliberalism. It is not that neoliberalism itself has come to be the explicit target of these protests, but the consequences of neoliberal policies which have only exacerbated economic inequalities are certainly what has fueled the ease with which the “we are the 99%” campaign has spread and transformed the public debate from one of government profligacy to that of economic inequality. I think Joseph Stiglitz in his Globalization and its Discontents anticipated much of what we see today and this is likely to continue for some time. As for the interest in Stewart Home I think that is on target. He has an ability to coalesce political and aesthetic concerns in a way that challenges contemporary common sense perspectives. Although I am not as familiar with Home’ work as I probably should be, I do know enough to encourage 3:AM to continue tracking Home’s work.

3:AM: And really finally, who would you consider to be the philosophers, poets, novelists, playwrites and artists working at the moment that smart, but non-philosophically trained, readers would benefit from reading. A list will do!

JB: Let’s end with a list:
Bryan Magee
Logicomix
Richard Tarnas
Thomas Pynchon
Haruki Murakami
Cormac McCarthy
China Miéville

richardmarshall

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, January 11th, 2012.