On Philosophy: Notes from a Crisis

On Philosophy: Notes from a Crisis

by John McCumber


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Deepening divisions separate today's philosophers, first, from the culture at large; then, from each other; and finally, from philosophy itself. Though these divisions tend to coalesce publicly as debates over the Enlightenment, their roots lie much deeper. Overcoming them thus requires a confrontation with the whole of Western philosophy. Only when we uncover the strange heritage of Aristotle's metaphysics, as reworked, for example, by Descartes and Kant, can we understand contemporary philosophy's inability to dialogue with women, people of color, LGBTs, and other minority groups. Only when we have understood that inability can we see how the thought of Hegel and Heidegger contains the seeds of a remedy. And only when armed with such a remedy can philosophy rise to the challenges posed by thinkers such as David Foster Wallace and Abraham Lincoln. The book's interpretations of these figures and others past and present are as scrupulous as its conclusions will be controversial. The result contributes to the most important question confronting us today: does reason itself have a future?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804781435
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 01/09/2013
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

John McCumber is Distinguished Professor of Germanic Languages at UCLA. His most recent books are Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy and the McCarthy Era (2000) and Reshaping Reason: Toward a New Philosophy (2005).

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Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-8143-5

Chapter One



To begin formulating a less problematic, less Kantian version of Enlightenment requires formulating an alternative to its temporal beginning. This is, for Kant, the state of "self-incurred tutelage" (AA, 8:35), that is, an inability (Unvermögen) to think and act for oneself for which one is oneself responsible (verschuldet). Vermögen is one of Kant's standard terms for a faculty or power of the mind, the set of which is the object of critique itself. His use of this word, plus his characterization of the tutelage as something for which one is "responsible," brings the unsurprising insight that Kant is, from the outset, thinking of Enlightenment in the terms of his own moral theory. When he goes on, as he immediately does, to say that "self-incurred" means not due to lack of mental capacity (Verstand), he has (as we saw in the Introduction) excluded women and people of color from the process. Their incapacity is not self-incurred but due to nature.

We are looking, by contrast, for an "unenlightened" state to which issues of mental capacity and incapacity, and of responsibility and its absence, do not apply. In sketching this, I will draw, briefly, on some recent developments in the philosophy of science, some not-so-recent developments in feminism, and the account of "Boston AA" in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.

Philosophy of Science: From Discovery to Shakiness

The best-known part of my story tells how Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions put paid to the tidy distinction, associated with Hans Reichenbach, between the contexts of discovery and justification (Reichenbach 1938, 7–8). The "context of discovery" for Reichenbach concerns how scientists obtain data and come up with hypotheses to explain it. These matters vary from scientist to scientist and from case to case and so are ineluctably subjective. The context of discovery is therefore excluded from philosophical reflection on science, which is restricted to the context of justification: the ways in which scientific objectivity is established for a theory or an hypothesis after someone has advanced it. These center, for Reichenbach, on the use of a fixed set of logical rules to guide the inferences, usually probabilistic, made from the data.

For Kuhn, what philosophers of science needed to do was not to approach science in terms of preestablished dichotomies like this one but to understand the ways in which it actually develops. The facts of history, he argues, teach that scientific change includes components of both contexts; indeed, they are often so intertwined that the very distinction between the two becomes questionable. In particular, for Kuhn, justification itself has historically variable components: what counts as justification to one group of scientists may not do so for another.

The practices of justification accepted in a particular scientific community are an important part of what Kuhn calls its "paradigm," the sum of its governing doctrines, principles, and practices. The history of science then appears as a succession of paradigms in which the shift from one paradigm to a newer one, because it involves the acceptance of new and different practices of justification, cannot proceed in accordance with the rules of either the older or the newer paradigm. It therefore appears as "irrational"; and indeed, any new paradigm must appear as irrational to a scientific community defined by an older one.

At the moment of a paradigm shift, then, the rules and procedures of science itself become unstable—or, as Arthur Fine has put it, "shaky":

Without firm foundations or rigid superstructures, their outcome is uncertain. Indeed not even the rules of play are fixed. It follows that at every step we have to be guided by judgment calls. (SG, 2)

These judgment calls, for Fine, can be decidedly unscientific in character; Einstein's rhetorical dismissals of the quantum theory are an example (SG, 2). Nor are they always made with a view to objective truth—for that would constitute a fixed rule of play (SG, 9). Moreover, in a decisive move beyond Kuhn, Fine argues that the shakiness involved in paradigm shifts is not restricted to certain "revolutionary" moments but is an ingredient in "all the constructive work of science" (SG, 2).

Shakiness can be generalized not only to science as such, as Fine does, but beyond it altogether. A first step in this is provided by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer's account of Robert Boyle's scientific method. The heart of this is experimentation, and at the heart of a scientific experiment stands a machine (classically, for Boyle, the air pump). When an experiment is performed, "the machine constitutes a resource that may be used to filter out human agency ... as if it were said, 'It is not I who says this; it is the machine'" (Shapin and Shaffer 1985, 56).

Human agency needs to be "filtered out" because it brings with it prejudices, prepossessions, and interests which could bias the observation (see Shapin and Shaffer 1985, 218). In that it eliminates these things, the machine seems to have the role of eliminating subjectivity in general, including everything belonging to the context of discovery. In fact, as Shapin and Schaffer argue at length, this is not the case. The machine filters out individual idiosyncracy, but such issues as what a machine is, how its movements are to be interpreted, and who gets to interpret them are variable matters within the experiment and are, if not individually "subjective," socially constructed.

Important here is that the machine operates as the only "actor" in the experimental space. The humans are present merely as witnesses to its functioning (Shapin and Shaffer 1985, 56). What Shapin and Schaffer locate in Boyle's theory of experimentation is thus, as Bruno Latour puts it, an attempt to allow "mute objects to speak through the intermediary of loyal and disciplined scientific spokespersons" (Latour 1993, 30), that is, through the witnesses to the experiment who communicate it to the learned public at large. Even though natural objects are mere matter, they can send us messages which need to be listened to and learned from.

This is perhaps the major claim, at once cognitive and moral, of early modern science. We can relate it to Fine's account of shakiness when we realize that paradigm shifts can be empirically provoked. For this to happen, some phenomenon must arise that is anomalous not only to the current theories in its domain but to the very principles by which those theories are formulated and justified. At such a point, all rules are suspended and the situation becomes shaky indeed.

In seeing shakiness as originating in materiality, we are focusing not on science itself but on a kind of experience scientists sometimes have: the kind in which a material object, or arrangement of such objects, unexpectedly sends us a message. Scientists also have this kind of experience outside experimental contexts, as witness Charles Darwin's description of domestic pigeons in the first chapter of On the Origin of Species. The shared physical traits of the different breeds of domestic pigeon are all found, he writes, in the rock pigeon; aspects in which the different breeds differ from the rock pigeon are also aspects in which they differ from each other (Darwin 2008, 21–22). The pigeons are thus sending him a message: that they are all descended from the rock pigeon.

Such scientific experiences, experimental and nonexperimental, present cases of what I will call the "speaking of matter." That matter itself can speak to us sounds bizarre, and indeed it contravenes what we will see to be one of the most basic claims of the philosophical tradition: that matter, in and of itself, is inert and cannot do anything, let alone speak. I claim, by contrast, that it can, that its messages are endemic, and that the reception of them is hardly limited to scientists. I will argue later that it is with the speaking of matter, rather than Kantian "self-incurred tutelage," that critically emancipatory thought must begin.

To claim that matter itself can speak leads immediately to the question of what it means to "speak." I will begin with a definition at once broad and restricted: to speak is to produce intelligible sounds—sounds to which those who hear them know, or can figure out, how to respond. This definition is broad in that it does not view speaking as the expression of a preestablished meaning, whether one psychologically resident in the speaker or one made available through his language. It is restricted, however, to verbal speech: the kind of message conveyed by Darwin's pigeons is, for the moment, out of order.

The reason for this is that concentrating on speaking—on the sending of messages by sound rather than vision—highlights the key role played in the speaking of matter by the phenomenon of sympathetic vibration. On the least intellectual and so most material level of the propagation of sound, we find that if you hit an "A" tuning fork, every other "A" fork in the vicinity starts to vibrate. The first fork instigates vibrations in the atmosphere which, when they hit the other forks, cause them to vibrate as well. That, indeed, is what "sound" is: the resonance in one body of vibrations originating in another. Unpropagated sound, we may say, is an oxymoron. When our eardrums reverberate to sudden changes in air pressure, we hear a noise, and hearing itself is an obvious case of sympathetic vibration. But it is not only the eardrums which reverberate; one does not have to inhabit a human body for very long to know that something similar holds for all of its tissues and even its bones: coughs, laughs, sobs, and yawns all spread around rooms without anyone's conscious intervention, and these together constitute one form of what I call the speaking of matter.

Such "speaking" is to be contrasted with sympathy, which has been basic to much of ethical thought since David Hume and Adam Smith and is generally viewed as a psychological phenomenon. Hume and Smith take it to be such, I suggest, because they assimilate it to the intangibility of vision. Thus Hume, in the Treatise of Human Nature, grounds sympathy on resemblance: when I experience a being who resembles me undergoing a strong emotion, I automatically feel a similar emotion. That Hume conceives the resemblance in play as visual is evident from his restriction of it to human beings, for while we do not look much like other animals, we sound like them. We scream, bark, and roar like our simian, canine, feline, and ursine cousins, and the howl of a cat in particular sounds much like that of a baby. Since we do not feel the vibrations of light the way we do vibrations of sound, when Hume assimilates our understanding of what another person is feeling to vision he bestows upon such understanding the obscure status of a psychological or mental process:

When any affection is induced by sympathy, it is at first known only by its effects, and by those external signs in the countenance and conversation which convey an idea of it. This idea is presently converted into an impression, and acquires such a degree of force and vivacity, as to become the very passion itself, and produce an equal emotion, as any original affection.

For Smith, too, what primarily arouses our sympathy—misery—must be either seen or conceived. To see another's misery is not to experience it directly, and sympathy thus, as for Hume, is basically a psychological matter requiring an inference. Smith expresses the inference, and the need for it, as follows:

As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. (Smith 2000, 3)

My claim, by contrast, is that while we have no immediate visual experience of what others feel, we do have an auditory experience of it: when the anguish or the joy in someone else's body sets up vibrations in the atmosphere, the tissues in my body resonate to it. Sympathy is therefore a physical phenomenon, founded on the materiality of sound, and it is one to which we are consigned by our material being. In sympathetic vibration, a message is sent from matter to matter; our bodies can receive and respond to such messages without our knowing even that a message has been sent, still less what that message is. This, to be sure, holds (though more mysteriously) for visual messages as well; Darwin's observation that he was "much struck," on his youthful visit, by the "distribution of the inhabitants" of the Galápagos is testimony (Darwin 2008, 5).

Clear from the case of auditory messages but also generalizable to visual ones is that some bodily vibrations are culturally styled: an American who hits her thumb with a hammer is likely to yell "ouch!" while a French Creole might yell "ai-yo!" Wittgenstein argued that statements such as "I have a headache" are best construed not as reports of a headache but as such pain-behavior, more highly refined (Wittgenstein 1958, § 244, 89). Linguistic habits themselves are, like other habits, corporeal; they are generated as bodies are trained to respond in consistent ways to similar stimuli. Once formed, they can be triggered without the conscious intervention of the speaker, as in pain-behavior. When this happens, we can say that matter itself has sent us a message.

Such messages, originating in the materiality of a living body, may come forth in words, but they can hardly be expected to exhibit the conceptual precision and preestablished logical forms of enlightened discourse; the situation is far too shaky for that. They are more likely to sound, at first, like sighs and groans—the emissions of a body in pain or ecstasy. Then, perhaps, comes an unrelenting and frustrated struggle to give pattern to the groans, to gain articulation for what is provoking them.

In the speaking of matter, then, nature sends us a nonconceptual message through the functioning of a machine or the moaning (etc.) of a body. It is up to us to conceptualize this message: to explain the movements of the machine or to interpret the sounds of the body. It is important here to see that this conceptualizing is not optional: it is something we have to do, because a drive to conceptuality is implicit in the very concept of a nonconceptual message. To see this, we need a philosophical framework for understanding the speaking of matter. Before arguing that Kant's account of reflective judgment provides the basis for such a framework, I will attempt to deprive the notion of the speaking of matter of the strangeness which first attaches to it by looking at examples from a variety of fields.

How Does Matter Speak?

Shakiness occurs in science at that moment in which a scientist, "much struck" like Darwin, discovers a pattern in her data but has as yet no explicit generalization under which to bring it. The only way she can be sure the pattern is there at all is to present her data to another individual and to ask if that other person sees it there as well. If agreement is forthcoming, the perceived pattern can be considered the fruit of more than just idiosyncratic observation—and the scientist is warranted, in view of the general principles of reflective judgment, to go on and attempt to devise an explanation for the pattern in terms of general laws.

When scientists move on from their originally shaky experiences to formulate explanations and theories, they seek to obtain universal validity for them. Whether they ever achieve this is, in the wake of Kuhn if not before, open to doubt. The doubts are not relevant here, however, because the move from shakiness to conceptuality covers far more than science itself and does not always seek scientific universality. It is not only scientists who notice empirical patterns and attempt to devise general categories in terms of which to understand them. We all have bodies that have things to say—indeed, as Nietzsche observed, we spend a lot of time ignoring those messages, for if we attended to even a portion of them we could hardly become conscious of the world outside (GM, 38). But sometimes—in moments of great pain or joy, for example—our body's messages get through.

Such struggles to articulate, in fact, are all around us and may take any of a vast variety of paths in addition to those of science. Often, for example, matter speaks by means of the "loyal and disciplined spokespersons" we call artists. The poems of Sappho have always been held to furnish particularly clear examples:

Let me see thee, but a glimpse—and straightaway Utterance of word Fails me; no voice comes; my tongue is palsied; Thrilling fire through all my flesh hath run; Mine eyes cannot see, mine ears make dinning noises that stun; The sweat streameth down,—my whole frame seized with Shivering—and wan paleness o'er me spreads, Greener than the grass; I seem with faintness Almost as dead. (Sappho 1938)


Excerpted from ON PHILOSOPHY by JOHN McCUMBER Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 From Scientific Revolutions to Boston AA: Philosophy and the Speaking of Matter....................22
2 What Is the History of Philosophy?....................47
3 Matter, Form, and Oppression in Aristotle....................76
4 Modernism in Philosophy: Fulfillment and Subversion in Kant....................97
5 The Malleability of Reason: Hegel and the Return to Heracleitus....................125
6 The Fragility of Reason: Earth, Art, and Politics in Heidegger....................153
7 Dialectics, Thermodynamics, and the End of Critique....................177
8 Critical Practice and Public Language: The Role of Philosophy....................202

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